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02 June 2003

Diabolical thinking: Genetically modified foods

I have a philosophical theory that has been in development for about three decades. It's nothing new, really, the only added value I can claim is, perhaps, emphasis, and a few original applications or examples. The nugget of the theory is : ignorance causes more suffering than malice. Yeah, that's not very original, it sounds sort of Buddhist, but I came to this belief by a route entirely independent of Eastern systems (in fact, within the context of pious but humanist Christianity.) There is a corollary : the main cause of ignorance is the learned tendency towards binary thought patterns. That sounds a bit more technical. Other names for binary thought patterns : black-and-white, either-or, (false or not) dichotomy or "diabolical reasoning." This last one is courtesy M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Travelled, etc.) and stems from a day-long lecture of his that I attended in the mid-1980s, posing as the wife of my Methodist pastor. (Yes, it is an interesting story but I don't have time to go into it here.)

I was reminded of this line of thought when I read this very good commentary about the GM food controversy by Nick Cohen. Not necessarily conscious of following my philosophy but essentially guided by its spirit, I find myself without a side to be on in the GM controversy, just as I have been in the US abortion-rights controversy for many years before.

I like to think of myself as a believer in reason, of a sort of 17th or 18th century type, to be sure. Because it appears to me that sometime in the 20th century, reason, in the popular sense, became irreversibly polluted by diabolical thinking. Now, I happen to believe that genetic modification, after appropriate testing, might be OK in the case of golden rice. I would even eat it myself, not that I need it, being in no danger of nutritional deficiency. But I believe that no amount of testing (not that there has ever been any) will make Monsanto's Round-up Ready soybean, or a terminator gene in any food crop, ethical. By the same token, as a pro-choice partisan in 1970s and 1980s America, I was not allowed to say that late-term abortions do have harmful psychological effects on many who have them. And in the matter of training doctors to perform abortions, there were only two allowable positions: pro-choice - all doctors should be forced to be trained, regardless of their beliefs (and of course training means performing abortions as a student); or pro-life - student doctors will be discouraged from taking the optional training in abortion by the handy and effective means of death threats (which is just one of the many ironies implicit in these people calling themselves "pro-life").

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