All this adds up to a depressing picture for those of us who aren’t ready to live in a post-truth world. Facts, it seems, are toothless. Trying to refute a bold, memorable lie with a fiddly set of facts can often serve to reinforce the myth. Important truths are often stale and dull, and it is easy to manufacture new, more engaging claims. And giving people more facts can backfire, as those facts provoke a defensive reaction in someone who badly wants to stick to their existing world view. “This is dark stuff,” says Reifler. “We’re in a pretty scary and dark time.” Is there an answer? Perhaps there is. We know that scientific literacy can actually widen the gap between different political tribes on issues such as climate change — that is, well-informed liberals and well-informed conservatives are further apart in their views than liberals and conservatives who know little about the science. But a new research paper from Dan Kahan, Asheley Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft and Kathleen Hall Jamieson explores the role not of scientific literacy but of scientific curiosity. The researchers measured scientific curiosity by asking their experimental subjects a variety of questions about their hobbies and interests. The subjects were offered a choice of websites to read for a comprehension test. Some went for ESPN, some for Yahoo Finance, but those who chose Science were demonstrating scientific curiosity. Scientifically curious people were also happier to watch science documentaries than celebrity gossip TV shows. As one might expect, there’s a correlation between scientific knowledge and scientific curiosity, but the two measures are distinct. What Kahan and his colleagues found, to their surprise, was that while politically motivated reasoning trumps scientific knowledge, “politically motivated reasoning . . . appears to be negated by science curiosity”. Scientifically literate people, remember, were more likely to be polarised in their answers to politically charged scientific questions. But scientifically curious people were not. Curiosity brought people together in a way that mere facts did not. The researchers muse that curious people have an extra reason to seek out the facts: “To experience the pleasure of contemplating surprising insights into how the world works.” So how can we encourage curiosity? It’s hard to make banking reform or the reversibility of Article 50 more engaging than football, Game of Thrones or baking cakes. But it does seem to be what’s called for. “We need to bring people into the story, into the human narratives of science, to show people how science works,” says Christensen. We journalists and policy wonks can’t force anyone to pay attention to the facts. We have to find a way to make people want to seek them out. Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning but it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing. What we need is a Carl Sagan or David Attenborough of social science — somebody who can create a sense of wonder and fascination not just at the structure of the solar system or struggles of life in a tropical rainforest, but at the workings of our own civilisation: health, migration, finance, education and diplomacy. One candidate would have been Swedish doctor and statistician Hans Rosling, who died in February. He reached an astonishingly wide audience with what were, at their heart, simply presentations of official data from the likes of the World Bank. He characterised his task as telling people the facts — “to describe the world”. But the facts need a champion. Facts rarely stand up for themselves — they need someone to make us care about them, to make us curious. That’s what Rosling did. And faced with the apocalyptic possibility of a world where the facts don’t matter, that is the example we must follow.
Monsanto isn’t evil. It’s run by a boring old bald guy named Hugh Grant, for Christ’s sake. Hugh Grant is not trying to starve or enslave the world. But, intentionally or not, he and the rest of biotech are making it easier for us to give up our food sovereignty in a broader environment where doing so seems to be the easiest option.
We’re all so “busy.” We have to feed 9 billion people. We’re running out of land and water. The climate is changing. The world demands cheap meat. We want quick solutions to these problems, within our lifetimes, with minimal impact on our lifestyles. We suck. We want technology to save us from ourselves. Maybe it’s this country’s founding Christian ethos: someone paid for our sins before; won’t someone do it again? Sorry, Hugh Grant ain’t Jesus. Here’s more news: engineered food isn’t going anywhere. Not only because it’s profitable, but because it’s promising. Cultured meat really could be part of the solution to feeding valuable protein to the developing world while reducing herd sizes in the interest of the environment.
Hydroponics/aquaponics could be a clutch player in urban agriculture, shortening supply chains and helping make Local a pervasive concept. GMOs do have some environmental benefits that warrant exploring even by dyed-in-the-wool permaculturalists.
The answer here is not fighting engineering and innovation under the misguided notion that these things can (or should) be stopped. The answer is in refusing to surrender time-honored growing methods to the relentless march of technology — and that’s not nearly as exciting as it sounds. It’s not picketing, protesting, and writing witty essays about the evils of biotech to the adulation of the echo chamber. The answer is being for, not against, something. And it’s in the decisions each of us has control over.
It’s the decision to plant gardens; open farms and homesteads; save, share and sell seeds; raise and breed a little livestock; learn to can, salt, smoke, and butcher. It’s in the decision to travel less and plant more. To patronize your nearby farmers even if it’s inconvenient, and find ways to make it less inconvenient. To say no to cheap and processed food whenever, wherever, and if ever your budget allows. To reorient your social capital around how many plants you’ve grown, how much soil you’ve built, how many seeds you’ve saved, and how many people you’ve fed — instead of where you’ve traveled, what your job title is, who you’ve met, and how jelly everyone is of your IG feed. Recognize the miracle that nature is, and exercise your birthright to participate in that miracle. Breathe life into it by putting your hands in the ground as often as you can. Leave Monsanto alone and lead by example. It’s just that easy, and it’s just that hard.
Google’s 20 self-driving car crashers over 20 million miles record doesn’t translate into a prediction for the safety of self-driving trucks. A fast, hard turn of the steering wheel at high speed would set a truck to fishtailing and possibly jackknifing. From the moment the brakes are applied in a truck going 55 miles per hour, it takes well over the length of a football field for the vehicle to stop. Many avoidance algorithms for self-driving cars just don’t apply to trucks.