A few months ago, before Monsanto and DuPont realized Proposition 37 may have been started by anti-science crackpots but it was not going away and I was one of the few critical of it, I would have predicted GMO warning labels to win by 66% - because that is the percentage of Democrats in California and while Republicans get attention in science media for being 'anti-science' due to global warming, the actual anti-science positions that are dangerous are bastions of the left.
Global warming skeptics (deniers, whatever) conserve energy as much as true believers, they drive fuel-efficient cars, they shut off lights. But vaccine deniers, overwhelmingly left, do not give their kids vaccines and that is dangerous for the children and at-risk populations that rely on herd immunity. A much bigger problem.
But anti-science progressives also have much better public relations.
I likened demonizing GMOs to the Temperance Movement that got alcohol banned under America's 18th Amendment in 1920. Like GMO labeling, it was a minority of zealots getting a decision made because people only considered it vaguely in a 'well, it sounds like a good idea' way. As a result, we got a whole lot of rich criminals and a nation of 'casual criminals' - people who break the law because it is stupid and think nothing of it.
The Temperance Movement had been brewing throughout the antebellum period but the real catalyst was Carrie Nation, who was convinced alcohol killed her husband. To rational people, that is like blaming a spoon for making Rosie O'Donnell fat but it made sense at the time. Blaming alcohol for wife-beating, child abusers also made the actions of people exculpatory: if you get rid of alcohol you get rid of alcoholic, wife-beating child abusers. They had some science on their side, they thought, in the age of determinism. Dr. Benjamin Rush had written "The Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon Man" in 1805 and argued that while its physical effects were obvious, it had a quantifiable moral impact too.
While now incorrectly regarded as something of a movement by Puritan-esque women, at the time it was carefully crafted science designed to convince the neutral and motivate those with confirmation bias. Their pamphlets cited psychology and neuroscience, medicine and biology. They just wanted you to know "the facts" but in actuality the facts were slanted to make temperance the only logical conclusion.
It succeeded. And so Proposition 37 had a working model that had proved to be successful in the past and in 2012 they also had big money behind it.
Carrie Nation looks pretty severe in 2012, so the anti-science movement went for wholesome. Credits: public domain and Shutterstock.com
Now, compared to the modern anti-science types, the original temperance community was downright scientific in their assessment - alcoholism is real and clearly bad whereas no one has ever been harmed by a GM sugar beet. The anti-science goal was the same: heavy-handed social authoritarianism and letting a minority dictate to the majority.
In 2012, the Food Temperance Movement counted on Californians not being able to read and they counted on the idea that they could spin the effort against them as being funded by evil, greedy out-of-state corporations while hiding the fact that evil, greedy, out-of-state corporations were behind the measure in the first place. Instead, Californians were puzzled as to why GMOs were not banned if they are harmful. And why, if they are so risky they need warning labels, are restaurants excluded? And alcohol?
The idea that organic food has no GMOs and no pesticides (synthetic or natural) has been so well sold by the $29 billion organic industry that it didn't really come up, so no one asked why organic food specifically needed to be exempted from a GMO labeling law, when supposedly organic food has no GMOs.
What people instead saw was that wheat was no longer a 'natural' product, because it was milled. And olive oil that contained nothing but olives was no longer natural because olives have to be pressed to make oil. The only exemption for those two natural products, so they could be considered natural? You guessed it, they had to buy an organic sticker.
The argument that food transparency is important resonates with Californians - this flawed measure still got 47% of the vote, even as badly written and unscientific as it was - and policymakers need to take that into account.
But food transparency should be for all products. And no one is afraid of full disclosure about food like Big Organic. The minute organic food has to disclose its dozens of synthetic ingredients and any genetic modification and any pesticide used, they are out of business.
But the people clearly want disclosure and the USDA and the FDA are going to be considering it. What organic food lobbyists are doing starting today is getting themselves exempted from the same laws they want put on conventional farming. And 53 of 55 members of Congress who agree with the anti-science left are on the left, and they are the same party as the President so the fight for rationality is not over.
We just have to make sure that no food is exempt from full disclosure. That is a fight for later, though. For now, science can enjoy its only victory of the 2012 election season while the anti-science crowd will still claim they won a moral victory. As long as moral victories are all they have over reason, that is okay.
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