2016 was a very good year! In most countries, public health and nutrition levels were improving, cancer survival rates went up, strong agricultural yields continued to meet growing global food demands, life expectancy increased and science and technology were able to address many of the pressing needs of our societies. But you won’t hear many people celebrating this information.
When they said we would have to add an extra second to the clocks at the end of 2016, there seemed to have been a collective groan. The year that started with the death of David Bowie seemed to just keep getting worse. From Brexit to the US presidential campaign, post-truth became a label to excuse the loss of fact-checking and the decline in respect for expertise. No-brainer trade agreements were rejected and those calling for trade barriers and closing borders danced in their new-found populism. There were more attacks on scientists and research institutions – environmental campaigners learnt they can throw out any gibberish on glyphosate, GMOs, endocrine disruption and neonicotinoids and get a microphone (and, apparently, an interview with the New York Times). Anti-vaxxers had movies released, foodies pretended they could take agri-technology to a fake international criminal court. Reasonableness was nowhere to be found.
What happened in 2016 was that Stupid got out of control.
Of course those promoting the ideas and stories that breathe life into such logical contortions will never read this blog. Their Internet tribes have insulated them from other views that might challenge their bias. They attack people for their affiliations (shills), not on the quality of what they say. Any different ideas and any data that contradicts them is part of the “fake news” industry (useful term, I think I’ll use it to ignore things I can’t accept!). Google and Facebook, through some algorithmic tweaks, have cemented the subjective preferences of our prejudices (making it much easier for marketing purposes), so in 2016 information became more emotionally comfortable than intellectually factual. It seems likely that this trend will continue, so we should learn to live with Stupid … and even celebrate it.
Here are the Risk-Monger’s Top 10 Worst Moments of 2016: The Year of Stupid
10: Zika Prevention Protests
The Zika virus had caused public alarm prior to the Rio Olympics, and as predicted, it spread to other countries included the United States. While Zika generally had little impact on more than 80% of those contracting the virus, it had cruel effects on foetuses leading to a high risk of microcephaly and other foetal brain defects.
The research community and civil protection authorities in the US State of Florida developed several solutions to protect the population from Zika, including introducing GM mosquitoes and spraying a mild insecticide, Naled, where mosquitoes were active. This proved to be totally unacceptable to the anti-pesticide, anti-GMO activist community in Florida who tried to block, prevent and raise unfounded fears over the State’s preventative and protective measures. Such fundamentalist zealots had no qualms about raising risks to pregnant women and enforcing their orthodoxy on a population more interested in controlling Zika (as Floridian voters expressed in the November Oxitec ballot).
9: Organic’s Rejection of NBTs
New Plant Breeding Techniques (NBTs) are a series of technologies (at least seven) for accelerated plant breeding, most not involving any genetic modification. There have been a series of remarkable innovations in the past years potentially enabling farmers to produce more with fewer pesticides. The NBT plants are often indistinguishable from conventional plants.
In 2016, IFOAM, the organic food industry lobby, declared that NBTs were to be considered the same as GMOs, condemning organic farmers to lower yields and higher applications of second rate organic pesticides. When an organic food researcher suggested that the lobby should reconsider this position, he was roundly attacked. There is no room for dialogue in the Church of Organic.
8: Brexit and the Decline of Expertise
2016 was a bad year to be an expert. Anyone who gave advice or conducted studies was personally attacked by those threatened by the evidence, dismissed as a shill or ignored by groups that realised that facts were helpless in the face of a good emotional fear campaign.
So from Brexit to glyphosate to vaccines to GMOs to endocrine disruption, in 2016, ignoring expert evidence or dismissing them with ad hominem attacks was the easy way to go. It would take a courageous (and perhaps foolhardy) leader to stand up to an enraged mob with facts and evidence.
7: Transparency as a Virtue
Transparency is part of a decision process, essential for those who do not enjoy public trust. It is not a virtue (I can kill someone and be open about it).
In 2016, some NGO activists (enjoying a public trust surplus) have cleverly pushed lack of transparency (on TTIP negotiations or scientific agency decisions on pesticides) into the poor moral conduct sphere (ie, playing transparency off as a virtue). If you are not trusted you will never win in a world that equates privacy with deceit. Before the US election, I had predicted that an untrusted but experienced politician like Hillary Clinton had no chance against a transparent but inexperienced racist, misogynist and demagogue. In the Age of Stupid where transparency is the only value, a slug could have beaten Hillary.
6: Acrylamide and Cancer Fears
The food industry is trying to give you cancer by selling you cooked starches! Well that is the 2016 version of a highly stupid fear-mongering campaign that found an eager crew of activist opportunists who see acrylamide and cancer as a long-term money spinner in the fundraising arena.
There is a very small increased risk of cancer from eating cooked starches (you would have to consume tonnes of food), but in a hazard-based regulatory environment, this is enough to invoke the precautionary principle. So the NGOs have forced the European Commission to regulate on acrylamide in 2017. Do we ban toasters? Warning labels and age requirements for chips? Pass the popcorn (Ooops!)
5: Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
2016 saw the 25th anniversary of fear-mongering and really poor activist science on endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). EDCs have been used by anti-chemicals campaigners to raise doubts about plastics and pesticides without any evidence or data. Natural chemicals found in soy and coffee and those doing their job in birth control pills have far higher endocrine disrupting properties.
You would think after more than two decades of a well-contrived hoax (there, I said it!), policy-makers would move on. Instead, 2016 saw the European Commission dragged kicking and screaming to set conditions on how to regulate EDCs. The scientific community, on several occasions this year, begged the Commission to show common sense, but to no avail (they are all shills – see Point 8 above). In 2017, the EU will be forced to start removing useful chemicals from the market according to a randomly contrived activist hate-list on no other basis than that we cannot prove with certainty that they do not have some endocrine disrupting properties. Pure madness.
4: Argumentum ad hominem
Last July, when more than 100 Nobel laureates condemned Greenpeace’s position on GMOs as unscientific and potentially a crime against humanity, their response was textbook – these scientists are all a bunch of industry-paid shills.
In 2016, activists did not have to respond to facts, evidence or logical argument; they just had to do a Google search to find evidence of a link in the last 50 years to an industry project. (A note of clarification: when the organic industry or an NGO funds the research, that is OK.) The FAO and WHO contradicted IARC on glyphosate? Shills! The American National Academy of Sciences gave a positive assessment of GMOs? Shills! The abuse of credible scientists got so bad during one week in 2016, I had to write a blog called: How to win without science!
3: Glyphosate and Activist Cunning
The good news in 2016 is that after more than a year of my trying to raise alarm-bells, people woke up to the abuse of activist science in the attempts to ban the herbicide, glyphosate. OK, I also lost my blog site and had some legal issues, but I had never expected to win peacefully (and frankly am in a better place far away from EurActiv’s censors!).
But even with the conflicts of interest, bad science, bullying behaviour at IARC and a total disregard for moral decency, the anti-glyphosate alliance has been fairly successful in blocking the glyphosate regulatory renewal in the EU, having it on the agenda at the EPA (despite the scientists) and creating all sorts of completely ridiculous fears (from cancer to autism, from trace levels in wine to beer to oatmeal to honey, from endocrine disruption to “fill in irrational fear **here**”. In 2016, glyphosate was a living case study in Stupid.
2: The Fake Monsanto Tribunal
Imagine 300 of the leading pro-organic gurus, zealots and activists, with a budget of half a million USD from the organic industry lobby, coming to The Hague to conduct a show trial to declare Monsanto guilty of ecocide. That was an opportunity the Risk-Monger could not bear to miss.
As the only pro-GMO person having bought a ticket to the “People’s Assembly”, the Risk-Monger was hoping to have a candid, frank discussion on GM technologies and the importance of agri-tech for farmers (he had just had his own event next door with farmers and the March Against Myths NL). But in the Age of Stupid, dialogue is not welcome, so before the Risk-Monger had a chance to ask a question, they manhandled him and threw him out. The point was to show how the organisers, funded by the organic industry, were manufacturing Stupid for wide-scale consumption. There was no plan for dialogue or evidence among these compulsive zealots!
And Stupid it was. The event was a colossal waste of half a million dollars, generated little publicity, had a jury which failed to deliver the predetermined verdict as planned in December … all to be able to indict a company that will no longer exist by the end of 2017.
And the winner for the worst moment in 2016: The Year of Stupid is …
1: The Anti-Free-Trade Protectionistas
While the other Stupid moments in 2016 could be down to lack of dialogue, activist cunning or low intelligence, the campaigns in 2016 against trade agreements like CETA and TTIP, and the rise of protectionist populists could have serious negative consequences on the environment, human health, global food security and general prosperity. If these anti-trade activists succeed in imposing their neo-Marxist, anti-industry fundamentalist dogma on regulators (as they likely will), the decline in jobs and prosperity, the rise of conflicts and the general increase in a public perception of defeatism and inferiority will have lasting effects.
Everything these anti-trade activists from Corporate Europe Observatory or their mother-ship, the Transnational Institute, want to protect will be lost in a poorer economy with less resources for public services or environmental conservation projects. And as jobs decline, public xenophobia and insecurity will increase. That, to be direct, is very Stupid!
I would like to thank those that follow the Risk-Monger on Facebook and twitter. During two weeks in December I did this Top 10 countdown and received over 50,000 shares, views, likes, retweets and comments. The frank and often critical reactions helped me to finalise this blog.
How I would love to close this blog with a happy ending. I wish I could predict that there will be no 2017 version and that dialogue and engagement will break through the activist dogma, baseless fear-mongering, tribal barriers of bias and ad hominem attacks. But I don’t see that happening – rather the rise of Stupid we have witnessed in the eco-fundamentalist religion looks set to expand with the political polarisations across Europe, the rise of nationalism and a further bifurcation of our societal fabric. There is more money supporting these activists and less public support for scientists and innovators. This bad news is probably good news for a character like the Risk-Monger, but I would love to wind this persona down, and not have to keep ramping it up with every display of Stupid marching to the fore. I’m getting too old for this shit!
In 2017, I will be promoting a concept I will call “reasonableness”. I’ll get into it in a separate blog, but for any case of fear-mongering, emotional bias, opportunistic zealots, the rejection of dialogue and activist science, rather than trying to get into an argument with someone who is closed to other views, we should just mark him or her with a #LetsBeReasonable hashtag. Most people recognise reasonableness and it is the one antidote to fear. Stupid can’t be disarmed (and trying to fight with it is pointless), but the majority can be inoculated with reasonableness.
More to come.