Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety, and the Environment

By Thomas R. Degregori | Go to book overview

6
Technophobia, Pollution, Pesticides,
and DDT

Part of the difficulty of discussing issues of modern technology and science is that public discourse is being driven by emotional language. To some, the words radiation, nuclear energy, pesticides, and chemicals connote something evil and dangerous, while the words natural, organic, and solar connote something true, good, beautiful, clean, pure, and safe. One theology gives rise to its opposite, where nuclear becomes people's energy salvation, and solar implies all that is impractical. The problems of sufficient energy, feeding the world's population, and preserving the environment continue, but our ability to deal with them is hampered by polarization and dispute over symbols rather than over meaningful, substantive ways of solving problems. Not only is the discourse overflowing with code words, but also there are built-in mechanisms for rejecting any scientific conclusions that disturb preconceptions. They include impugning the integrity of the researchers or suggesting that the study is “flawed” or incomplete.

In a sense, all scientific inquiry is incomplete in that it does not completely close out inquiry, but we can reach a level of confidence to serve as a more than sufficient basis for public policy and private action. We have seen that many are advocating the precautionary principle. Namely, even if you can't definitely prove that an event such as global warming will occur or that it will be catastrophic if it does, the very magnitude and possible irreversibility of the outcome renders it prudent to take preventive action. Since few of these projections can be completely proved or disproved, there is some merit to the principle as long as the evidence for the adverse outcome is substantial and clearly leads over alternative explanations, provided there are courses of action that are not prohibitively expensive, do not pose other dangers, or are worthwhile in their own right. Many are advocating precautionary actions for all of their phobias, regardless of the evidence.

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