The Human Cost of Anti-Science Activism

By Miller, Henry I. | Policy Review, April-May 2009 | Go to article overview

The Human Cost of Anti-Science Activism

Miller, Henry I., Policy Review

ACTIVISM HAS LONG been part of the fabric of American life. It is often positive, as when it pushes for constraints on undue government intrusion into our lives.

Sometimes, however, activism can be destructive. For instance, activists from nongovernmental organizations (NGOS) and the media, as well as some within the government, have targeted a panoply of products, technologies, and industries that they dislike--pesticides, food additives, chemicals in general, pharmaceuticals, nuclear power, and biotechnology, among others--for opprobrium, over-regulation, and even extinction. And it seems that no stratagem, no misrepresentation, no outright lie is too outrageous for them.

Biotech: A favorite target

BIOTECHNOLOGY HAS BEEN especially victimized by irresponsible activism. A prototypic example is professional activist Jeremy Rifkin's relentless, decades-old antagonism toward recombinant DNA technology, or gene-splicing, applied to the production of innovative new drugs, gene therapy for life-threatening diseases, agriculture, or anything else. Thirty years ago, he and his followers disrupted a public meeting, chanting, "We shall not be cloned," and displaying signs proclaiming, "Don't Xerox Life." That was hardly radical by the standards of the 1970s, but Rifkin's statement that biotechnology threatens "a form of annihilation every bit as deadly as nuclear holocaust" is extreme and baseless, a manifestation of a Big Lie--that biotech is untested, unsafe, unproven, unwanted, and unregulated--which is a mainstay of radical activism.

A broad scientific consensus long has held that the newest techniques of biotechnology are no more than an extension, or refinement, of earlier ones applied for centuries, and that gene transfer or modification by gene splicing techniques does not, per se, confer risk. Rifkin's assertions about biotechnology ignore the seamless continuum that exists between old and new biotechnology and the monumental contributions that both have made to medicine, agriculture, and innumerable scientific disciplines. The late Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, by his own admission, tried to be sympathetic to Rifkin's views but was overwhelmed by his "extremism" and "lack of integrity," and by his showing "no understanding of the norms and procedures of science." Gould characterized Rifkin's anti-biotechnology book, Algeny, as "a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship"; he said he had not "ever read a shoddier work."

And then there is Greenpeace, which may have attained the nadir of anti-biotechnology activism when, in 1995, the organization announced that it had "intercepted a package containing rice seed genetically manipulated to produce a toxic insecticide, as it was being exported ... [and] swapped the genetically manipulated seed with normal rice." The rice seeds stolen by Greenpeace had been genetically improved for insect resistance and were en route to the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The modified seeds were to be tested to confirm that they would grow and produce high yields of rice without requiring lots of chemical pesticide. In the Philippines and many developing countries in Asia where rice is a staple, disease-resistant and insect-resistant rice are of course desperately needed, but this fact has not dissuaded Greenpeace from its opposition. The organization has actually told inhabitants of developing countries concocted tales of gene-spliced crops causing homosexuality, illness, and baldness. In Africa, it has promulgated the myth that improved crops cause impotence and increase the spread of HIV/AIDS. Doreen Stabinsky, a so-called "science advisor" to Greenpeace International, has claimed that cotton fiber, animal feed, and cotton-seed oil from Bt-cotton plants can lead to an increase in the occurrence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including those that cause tuberculosis and gonorrhea. …

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