Thursday, July 24, 2014

HEINTZ: A bipartisan war on science

by ANDY HEINTZ, For What It's Worth | 6/25/2014

Until recently, I was of the opinion that hostility to science was solely a right-wing phenomenon.

After all, the libertarian and anti-government wing of the GOP has actively and fiercely denied the reality of global warming, while the religious right has led the way in the crusade to get intelligent design (aka creationism) taught in public schools that are supposed to recognize the separation between church and state. So when conservative friends of mine claimed that environmentalism was akin to a religion, I never took the charges seriously.

Until recently, I was of the opinion that hostility to science was solely a right-wing phenomenon.

After all, the libertarian and anti-government wing of the GOP has actively and fiercely denied the reality of global warming, while the religious right has led the way in the crusade to get intelligent design (aka creationism) taught in public schools that are supposed to recognize the separation between church and state. So when conservative friends of mine claimed that environmentalism was akin to a religion, I never took the charges seriously.

But some so-called environmentalists — who, like animal rights activists, don’t deserve the label — have mirrored their right wing opponents with their absolutist opposition to genetically modified foods and vaccines. What’s tragic about this opposition? Like climate change denial, it poisons debate and negatively affects vulnerable people across the globe.

The extreme anti-vaccine movement poses risks not only to the children of parents who won’t get vaccinated, but also to the children of parents who attend the same public schools as the nonvaccinated. In other words, the anti-vaccine movement promoted by charlatans, although perhaps well-intentioned — like celebrity Jenny McCarthy and depressingly, environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — constitute a public health risk to children.

Today, some public schools are allowing children to get exemptions from vaccinations for philosophical and religious reasons. Regrettably, but not surprisingly, rare diseases like measles and whooping cough have been on the rise since the anti-vaccine movement has grown in influence. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 13 measles outbreaks this year — the most since 1996.

While children shouldn’t be forced to have a vaccination if it goes against their religious beliefs, they also shouldn’t be allowed to enroll in public schools because of the health risks they pose to other students.

“Schools are the setting in which children are most consistently exposed to large numbers of their peers in close quarters,” Dr. Russell Saunders writes in an article on Salon.com, “and thus it is of paramount importance that they remain as protected as possible against contagion. Children whose vaccination status would make their children unnecessarily vulnerable should not be allowed to attend.”

The intransigent opposition to genetically modified organisms also is driven more by emotion than science. “There is a broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat,” Pamela Arnold, a University of California-Davis plant geneticist, wrote in Scientific American in 2011.

More importantly, GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) have the potential to really help vulnerable people. For example, Dan Fagin, in a terrific article for the Scientific American, writes how humanitarian-driven GMO projects like drought-tolerant maize and vitamin-fortified cassava, developed by non-profits, should already be in wide use in countries that want them (the article was published in October 2013, so hopefully some progress already has been made in this direction).

Fagin highlights the product “golden rice,” which was engineered to address a critical malnutrition problem, vitamin A deficiency, that blinds hundreds of thousands of children every year in Africa and Southeast Asia. Golden rice was developed by a non-profit organization supported by governments and philanthropies. Disclaimer: Monsanto assisted by giving the rice’s developers royalty-free licenses to use some of its patent-protected processes, and its charitable arm helped supporter several of the independent nonprofits.

I’m no fan of many of Monsanto’s practices, but GMO foods and crops, when used properly, can play a helpful role in alleviating mass suffering. It’s far past time to end the bipartisan war on science.

Andy Heintz is a political commentator. He previously was a Herald staff writer, now a sports reporter at the Ottumwa Courier, Ottumwa, Iowa. Read his blog at http://www.orble.com/just-one-mans-vision/ and follow @heintz23 on Twitter.

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