Debate is a critical part of our cultural heritage in the United States. The right, even the responsibility, to debate ideas is something that is engraved onto our spirits so deeply that it often defines us. Our right to not only debate, but to protest peacefully is, after all, guaranteed by the Constitution. It is a pillar on which our country was founded.
Vigorous but polite disagreement is critical to the formation of new ideas. When our views are challenged, we have to either support our ideas with evidence or find new ways of thinking. In a civilized society, this give-and-take leads us to better ways of conducting ourselves personally, professionally, and politically.
However, when you attack your opponent ad hominem the debate shuts down and the opportunity to develop new ideas is lost.
When it comes to debate in the past, we were reasonably good at it, with some notable exceptions. It’s hard to descend too deeply into name calling and personal attacks when you are looking your opponent in the eye, or, as in the case of pen and paper debates, when you must sign your own name (and possibly include a return address!).
The information age and the rise of the internet has stripped away much of the humanity of debate opponents. Direct and personal interaction has been replaced by words on a screen. Facebook posts, tweets, and comments between strangers feel more and more anonymous and the temptation to descend into name-calling and personal attacks becomes more and more difficult to resist. Instead of listening and responding to someone with whom we disagree with reason and evidence, we often fall into fallacies and lose our ability to come to reasonable and rational conclusions. We become locked into our views, caught in an echo chamber where the noise of agreement becomes so loud that it drowns out questions, concerns, and evidence.
For biotech detractors and supporters, the debate takes on an additional emotional dimension. Food is an intensely personal and deeply cultural thing. For many of us, feeding people is a way to say, “I love you.” Our social lives center around mealtimes and breaking fast. We have entire television channels devoted to food and cooking. Is it any wonder that people, when faced by the sound and the fury of the biotech debate, become frightened and concerned?
The marching, the shouting, the threats, all mixed up with science, pseudoscience, and advocacy science is confusing. Who should folks believe? The people that shout the loudest? In the information age, people with no scientific background or training in interpreting statistics find themselves trying to read and interpret studies in scholarly publications to form their conclusions. How are we as laypeople to determine which study has merit and which does not? Simply reading the newspaper isn’t enough anymore to understand an issue from an objective standpoint. With the explosion of the blogosphere, the lines between opinion and journalism have blurred.
Where do we go from here? With all the doom and gloom, the fighting and the dissent, is civil debate even possible? I believe it is, but we must make a concerted effort. We must read things that make us uncomfortable and that challenge our views, and we must do so with a critical eye. We must ask ourselves at every turn, “Does this make sense? Does this meet the criteria for robust scientific inquiry?”
Most of all, we need to talk. Without insults, without appealing to logical fallacies, and without resorting to name-calling and yelling. The end goal is the same for all of us: A sustainable, abundant, healthful food supply. It’s how we get there that is different. We don’t have to agree. In fact, disagreement, open discourse, and the sharing of ideas is the best way to find new ways to address the problems we face.
But without talking, what do we have left? Noise, fear, confusion. No one benefits from that. This isn’t about winning or losing The Great GMO Debate. This is about building a sustainable future for our children and our planet.
So let’s talk. We know you feel genuinely concerned about issues. We do, too. We’re people with families just like you, and we are also concerned for the future of agriculture. All we ask is that you apply the same skepticism to the various internet memes and stories that you do to us. You don’t have to form the same opinions. In fact, it would be frightening if you did. We are all unique individuals after all. But let’s step out of our respective echo chambers to talk civilly and politely together, and maybe we can find solutions together to make the world a better place.