Californians Shoot Down The Food Temperance Movement
    By Hank Campbell | November 7th 2012 10:54 AM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    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

    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.

    Science 1 - 0 Food Temperance Movement 


    Well put Hank. The temperance analogy is really on. The fact that 47% did vote for it bothers me, but it also bothers me that the "no on 37" campaign "won" by conjuring fear. Saturating the airwaves with concepts breeding fear of lawsuits, increased costs, etc are based in reality, but it sure would be nice if we could win hearts and minds with science.

    Yes, there was a lot of uncomfortable 'ends justify the means' rationalizing on my part as I watched them fight fire with fire on my TV set. But people can't be scientifically literate on all things so we have to rely on good policy and sometimes that means uncomfortable alliances.
    I personally thing this is why not everything should be fair game for a public reforendum. I'm sure you could get a law passed legalizing slavery in certain small areas if you really tried, or you could get islam outlawed if you wanted to. Or you could pose as the Humane Society, and push anti puppy mill laws that really seek to end all animal husbandry and ownership because you're really a vegan activist organization...I'm still bitter about that.

    We have policy makers and we have regulators for a reaon. A direct democracy is not functional on issues that cannot be well understood and analyzed by the general public. And for that reason, we don't have a pure direct democracy.

    Anyway, I thought all along that I would almost rather see this thing win so the FDA, USDA and courts could slam the door on it ala rBST labeling. They could have invoked preeminence, interstate commerce and probably a handful of other regulatory and legal issues it would have created. Would have been more of a gamble, but at least it would have been a dead issue.

    I certainly do not like people voting on science or on lots of other things.  But that is what policy i and this measure was created because they wanted to go around policy makers by using a direct vote and some scare tactics.  
    To me, a label is no big deal. I didn't much care one way or the other whether GE foods got a sticker. (I'm a farmer and happen to grow most of my own food.)

    But the dishonesty, quackery, and fear-mongering of the pro prop 37 side--wow. That really got my goat.

    Good riddance!

    Now, if we could only get GE plants democratized....I'd be very happy never to have to spray another potato plant again.


    You will like “The Sin of Prohibition” by G.K.Chesterton.

    However, as regards your comment elsewhere — somewhat inappropriate, may I add, in that particular context:
    Chesterton could endorse Hitler and vampire babies and I would probably still agree with him. He is that convincing.  
    the simple fact #1 is that he didn’t.  In About Loving Germans (1936), he wrote:
    But the point is not that you and I could never believe it in a thousand years. The point is that the Germans themselves did not believe it until within about two years. There is no evidence that the average German, for the first five or six years after his defeat, had even the faintest doubt that he had been defeated. He might think he was unjustly defeated, or unjustly treated after defeat; and he would have a right to his opinion, though there are others whose opinion I think more sound. But most of such men would have thought it sheer madness to deny the very calamity from which they suffered. These people are not the only people among whom a theorist may throw out a theory that might well appear mad. But they are the only people among whom that theory can be instantly and universally believed. To make up history after it has happened, and to make it up all different, may seem to some to have something even wildly poetical and attractive about it. But in practical politics these immense international illusions are very dangerous; and the clouds in which these people live have broken before now about us, not only in rain, but in lightning and falling fire.
    And alas, simple fact #2, people weren’t convinced by him when it mattered.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England