A Current Example of Frightening Extremism in the Name of Our Beliefs
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
There is a frightening, hateful turn of events taking place right now that anyone involved in the GMO issue, or the vaccine issue, or the climate change issue, or any risk controversy, needs to know about. In fact, it illustrates an even wider phenomenon that explains why advocates deny evidence and distort the facts, why society has become so partisan and polarized, and even why extremists in many places turn to violence. The episode, still developing, illustrates the power of emotion over reason in shaping the views we have, and the dangerous lengths those emotions can carry us to.
Mike Adams is the self-professed Health Ranger and runs a highly successful for-profit empire through his Natural News website. Adams is way more extreme than others who profit by taking advantage of our innate belief that anything natural is less risky and anything human-made is risker, like Dr. Mercola or the FoodBabe or Dr. Oz. But he is widely followed by many because he espouses their general worldview; nature is good, and humans and technology and rich corporations are screwing it up.
Yesterday Adams posted a piece (not his first) suggesting that anyone who says anything uncritical or open minded about Monsanto, or biotechnology/GMOs, is the essentially the same as a Nazi collaborator, using science as a justification for genocide.
which included this generic but quite clear death threat!
“…it is the moral right — and even the obligation — of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.”
Several people, principally Keith Kloor in his blog at Discover Magazine, called Adams out on this extremism.
Adams responded today by posting a site that names names…targets. Really. He posted an update to his screed with a Monsanto Collaborators website http://monsantocollaborators.org/ complete with a swastika next to the headline Monsanto (the banner photo above), and a list of ‘Collaborators’ that includes Kloor, environmentalist and GMO supporter Mark Lynas, Brooke Borel (who writes for Popular Science), Jennifer Ackerman (National Geographic), and others, along with publications that could be targets, including MIT Technology Review, National Geographic, Discover, and Alternet. He is also preparing a list of scientists he will also label collaborators.
The collaborators’ crime? Either supporting, or writing open-mindedly, about biotechnology. Make no mistake. Adams is naming potential targets for what he says is the moral right and obligation “…of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.”
This is no different than Right to Life activists calling for the murder of abortion doctors fueling the hatred that leads some to commit such murders, or people so angry at the government that the bomb government buildings and kill innocent victims. But we can’t write Adams and other extremists off as deranged whackos. We all do the same basic thing. Adams is just taking it to a vicious extreme.
We all shape our views by interpreting the facts through the lenses of our instincts and feelings and life circumstances and experiences. And when it comes to risk issues, we shape them in ways that allow us to feel safe.
We also shape our views so they agree with the views of the groups we associate with, because tribal cohesion and being a member-in-good-standing of our tribe helps keep us safe. One of the ways we do this is by uncritically adopting the views espoused by our tribal thought leaders, like Adams and the other peddlers of the “Natural is automatically Good, Human-made is automatically bad” tribal mantra.
We then reject facts that conflict with our feelings, and accept and facts that reinforce them. And we feel hostile toward people who take opposing views, because their views challenge how we feel, and our feelings help us feel safe…so anyone who challenges our views threatens US, which makes those people a threat.
This is innate and powerful, way more powerful than reason. It’s what triggers the physical Fight or Flight or Freeze threat response when we argue. Blood pressure rises, muscles tense, listening goes down and shouting goes up…and minds get more closed. and sometimes, violent.
This produces advocates who deny scientific evidence in support their view. It explains the ferocity behind polarized societies in which people are overtly hostile to ‘others’. You do this. So do I. We all do. It is an inescapable product of a human cognitive system designed to keep us safe and alive.
Certainly we should all call Adams out for his extremism. But in a way we should thank him, for challenging us all to think a bit more carefully about issues we feel passionately about, and not just blindly adopt as 'fact' the views of overtly biased advocates, especailly those with views we generally agree with. And even as we challenge him, we should thank Adams for revealing to us all the ease and power with which emotions overwhelm reason and open-mindedness…and the danger we face if we blindly let these instincts control how we think and live.
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