Yesterday evening two of the topics that have repeatedly cropped up in this blog merged in my life: communication issues and GM technology.
Responsible for killing millions of children!
Introduced to what at first seemed to be a pleasant young couple by a mutual friend, I had thought we were getting on well enough. Then suddenly I found myself the target of an enraged rant on the part of the male half, by then a wee bit fou. I was, it seemed, a completely ignorant non-scientist, responsible for killing millions of children (through vitamin deficiency), and unable to present any evidence to refute such allegations.
Well this last part, at least, was true, because his shouted tirade left no opportunity for debate. It turned out that these people were scientists working in GM-related fields (at least that was the impression they gave me) and that a friend of mine had been arguing with them on the issue. Picking up that I was also sceptical of the supposed advantages of GM, I had then become a target.
I realised that I would not be able to get a word in on the topic of GM without changing the way we were communicating. I tried to address this, but again was simply shouted over. I withdrew, several thoughts and feelings competing for space in my head. The following morning, I can now disentangle these, and I lay them out separately below.
Sheer bloody rudeness, and how to handle it
It’s very sad how people seem to find rudeness acceptable. Discourtesy, at its mildest, hinders communication, and at its most extreme blocks it completely and risks making enemies. Discourtesy of the sort I experienced arises from anger. At the root of anger lurks hurt and, consequently, fear (insecurity). I am tempted to speculate that this guy was concerned about the security of his career.
In my previous post I wrote about ways of dealing with discourtesy. When people are simply shouting at you, however, you have three options:
- shout more loudly,
- ride it out, saying nothing, or
- remove yourself from the situation.
The first option is risky and could escalate the confrontation. I opted for the third one, and now I have an opportunity to respond calmly and at satisfactory length.
Stepping back from this specific incident and looking at discourtesy at the societal level, the ability to communicate on a high level is supposedly what distinguishes us from most other species, and satisfactory communication is surely fundamental to health and wellbeing and everything we do. Techniques such as Non-Violent Communication should surely be an integral part of school syllabuses?
Bad PR for GM – hooray!
My first comforting thought (apart from being pleased with my decision to remove myself from the firing line) was that if this quality of ambassadorship were typical of the GM lobby then those of us who are opposed to GM can be reassured that eventually we shall prevail. Not only were this guy’s claims easy to refute (see below) but his obnoxious arrogance (to the extent of making erroneous assumptions about my qualifications and background) would not be likely to win many friends or influence many people.
The dangers of hyper-specialisation
Something that has bothered me for a long time is the way our society seems to value hyper-specialisation and channel us all in that direction. There are several reasons for me disliking this. Here are some:
- Specialists in the thin end of nothing are often simply specialists in the thin end of nothing. They may well be entirely ignorant of the interactions of the thin end of nothing with wider society and the environment. If this is the case, their opinions are no more valid than anyone else’s. GM crops (as discussed at length elsewhere in this blog) have huge socio-economic, health and environmental impacts. (Another way of saying this is that all arguments should be evaluated on their own merits – on their logic and on the evidence – and not primarily on the basis of someone’s status or qualifications. The latter, if genuinely relevant to the topic the person is speaking on, should only be used as rough indicators when you are short of time and cannot analyze the argument itself in depth.)
- We evolved as hunter-gatherers with a limited degree of specialisation. I believe that most of us are happiest when we develop various aspects of ourselves, rather than a single one. I am not ‘a scientist’. I am not ‘an artist’. I am not ‘a musician’… I am all of these to some degree, and you are probably too.
- Hyper-specialisation is, I believe, most likely to result in, at best, incremental developments (of the sort appreciated by many commercial companies and investors). Huge breakthroughs often come from collaborative projects between people in different fields, necessitating excellent communication skills and often requiring, at the heart, a person or people with broad backgrounds.
- We all live on the same planet and are dependent on the same resources for our survival. Awareness of the connectivity of everything should be fundamental to everyone’s education.
Tackling the GM-advocate’s argument: a good Tory!
Apart from his several egregious errors (such as, I seem to remember, confusing Vitamin D with Vitamin A and assuming that I had no scientific background -I have a PhD in ecotoxicology, an MSc in ecology and a veterinary degree), the GM-advocate’s arguments are easy to counter. They were badly parroted from the same Monsanto-prepared song-sheet used by Owen Paterson, ‘Secretary of State for the Environment’ (an Orwellian title if ever there were one, as he is exactly the opposite). Paterson’s propaganda, on behalf of the GM lobby, has been demolished by Zac Goldsmith, who seems to be, of all amazing things, a good Tory! I highly recommend you read his excellent Guardian essay.
It astounds me that a man of the courage, intelligence and integrity of Mr Goldsmith, prepared to publicly challenge the views of a government minister, can remain in the Conservative and Unionist Party. He clearly disagrees with this party’s very obvious raison d’être, serving the interests of the super-wealthy (predominantly the multinationals) at the cost of everyone else.
That leads me nicely to my other hero-of-the-month: Russell Brand. In this wonderful joust with Jeremy Paxman he lays bare the sham of our elite-serving political system:
I hope my GM-supporting acquaintance will examine the wider evidence, which he will find abundantly linked from items in this blog, and that he will find employment in another area. I also hope he learns some manners. The last high school I attended had what at the time seemed a rather uninspiring motto: ‘Manners maketh man.’ It’s taken me more than three decades, and several unpleasant experiences, to fully appreciate how important manners are.
Readers, I hope I have planted a (non-GM) seed or two in your minds. Why not write a polite letter/email of appreciation to Zac Goldsmith? I have.
P.S. Here’s a great article showing why GM-proponents are, in fact, anti-science:
The pro-GM lobby’s seven sins against science