In branding critics so emotively as "wicked" and "disgusting", GM advocates like Owen Paterson relinquish any claims to reason.

Owen Paterson, "wickedness" and the fairy dust of science
Andy Stirling
The Guardian, 15 October 2013

*Environment secretary Owen Paterson has hit out at "wicked" opponents of genetically modified crops, but forgets science's greatest assets are scepticism and democracy.

Even the most rational of arguments can understandably sometimes get quite heated. But in branding critics so emotively as "wicked" and "disgusting", GM advocates like Owen Paterson relinquish any claims to reason.

Like other hysterically-unqualified defences of rationality, this carries a worrying whiff of fundamentalism. If sincere, the unnoticed irony makes the pathology all the more concerning. If not sincere, there is an even worse taint of expedient political manipulation. That science is such a direct victim of this rhetoric compounds the irony.

The issues go far beyond GM. What lies at threat more broadly, are both science and democracy – and their crucial interdependencies. There is a duty for all who value these thereby expediently-sundered Enlightenment traditions, to speak out clearly in their defence.

Rationality is not a kind of fairy dust that rubs off simply by invoking "science". And science itself is not a cargo cult, magicking into being single self-evident "solutions" that brook no question. The real issues are about choices – both within and beyond science-based innovations. And as any real respect for science must show, the most important factors to explore will always be uncertainty and ambiguity. Here, the greatest assets are scepticism and democracy.

Choices between technologies are not about "yes" or "no" to whatever the loudest voices assert uncompromisingly as "progress". The realities of progress are branching evolutionary paths. And many well-understood mechanisms of "path dependency", "momentum", and "lock in" will irreversibly foreclose alternative trajectories. Think of why we’re still stuck after more than a century with the QWERTY keyboard.

Moving down the path of transgenic crops may irreversibly foreclose other viable innovation trajectories. What about marker assisted selection; a non-GM application of advanced genetics which has produced some of the most promising results? (pdf) What about highly effective conventional plant breeding – perhaps augmented by open source practices and participatory breeding? (pdf) And beyond this, the devastating afflictions of poverty-induced malnourishment compel a range of wider responses such as support for mixed farming, dietary supplements, land reform and income redistribution. These hold at least equal claims to offer "progress" through "reason". But what they significantly lack are the kinds of attributes valued especially highly by those seeking to control markets, seize intellectual property or command rents on global supply chains. Whatever position one takes on GM, these kinds of worldly ambitions offer better candidates for ethical scrutiny, than the mere act of questioning GM, so vilified by Paterson.

Speaking far more moderately today in support of golden rice, Professor Huw Jones, research group leader at the Centre for Crop Genetic Improvement at Rothamsted, puts the same issues in an unintentionally revealing way. He is reported in the Guardian’s Eco-Audit as saying:

There are three key issues: Is it safe? Is it effective? And will there be informed choice in the grower/consumer communities? If the answer to all is yes, then it is a no-brainer that golden rice should be part of the solution to malnourishment in Asia. The field trials must be done and let’s let the local communities decide.

Despite the more reasonable language, however, this framing of the issues displays a similarly blinkered circumscription of choice to that asserted by Paterson. Who says these are the only questions? By invisible acceptance of a chosen status quo, Professor Jones’s carefully-bounded threesome of queries misses the obvious: "What are the alternatives?"

The corrosive irrationality of many current UK debates about GM – and science more generally – might be illuminated by considering an everyday family example. Take for instance, the question: "what should we do at the weekend?" Whether from enthusiasm or self-interest, an overbearing act of power-play might reduce this to "Whether to go the golf club on Saturday or Sunday?" No matter how gentle the body language, the confinement of choice is brutal. What if we just don’t like golf?

What is happening is that alternatives are being airbrushed out, as if wider choices simply don’t exist. It is a sign of the most insidious forms of power, that they deny the space not only for discussion, but even for imagination.

In any other sphere we would recognise such power-play for what it is. But there is something about debates over science and technology that somehow evaporate many people’s normal critical faculties. To deny choice and reduce scope for questioning merely to "yes" or "no", is totalitarian. To then brand as "wicked" and "disgusting" those reasonable people who are thereby forced to say "no", is an even more dangerous kind of extremism. Whatever views we take of GM, this is a slippery political slope that we slide down at our peril.

Andy Stirling is professor of science and technology policy at the University of Sussex.