Do voters know enough to make good decisions about scientific issues?

In November, California voters need to decide whether or not GM foods should be labeled as such. They are making this decision even though a recent study shows that 49% of the people surveyed think that GM foods have genes whereas regular foods do not. Is this any way to run a democracy?

Imagine that 49% of people thought that the heart and not the brain runs the body. Now imagine that voters get to decide whether a new brain surgery to treat a mental illness is used or not. How would you vote if you thought the heart was where mental illness came from?

Now this is probably too dramatic an example. After all, at least here in the U.S., GM foods aren’t a matter of life and death for anyone. They have pretty much been shown to be safe and they help farmers improve yield, but if they were eliminated, there’d be no immediate problem.

But this may not always be true. And in fact, it isn’t really true in other parts of the world either.

Between 250,000 and 500,000 kids go blind in the world each year because they don’t get enough vitamin A in their diet. I have seen statistics that suggest that half these kids die within a year.

These kids suffer because they eat mostly rice and rice has no vitamin A. So a kind hearted scientist (not an “evil” corporation) set out to create a rice that makes enough vitamin A to maybe help these kids from going blind and so keep them alive. Thus was golden rice born.

Unfortunately for kids in the developing world, roadblocks have been put up that prevent this crop from being planted. A few determined people have finally managed to push aside these barriers so that golden rice will be planted soon. It is too late for the millions of blind and dead kids, but at least many more might be saved in the future.

Could keep hundreds of thousands of kids from going blind each year.

A GM labeling law might hold back important advances like this. Again, so far we haven’t needed it here but imagine that global warming combined with irrigation creates saltier, drier valleys in California. A plant that has been modified to do well in such conditions may be just what the doctor ordered. Too bad people won’t eat it because of all those genes it has…

Like I keep saying, this law probably isn’t a big deal here in the U.S. Our food will cost more without them but we can afford it. What worries me more is some other future initiative based on questionable internet-based science.

I can imagine an initiative getting on the ballot that makes it easier for parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids. After all, depending on the survey, somewhere between 25% and 50% of parents believe or are unsure if vaccines contribute to autism.

A vote that made it easier to opt out might have devastating consequences (sort of like denying golden rice to kids in the developing world). Once too few people are vaccinated, previously dormant diseases may erupt back onto the scene killing thousands. These unfortunate souls would die to keep kids from getting autism from something that doesn’t cause autism.

I am not sure what we can do about this. A better-informed public might help but that is a long-term goal and we have short-term problems that need to be solved now.

Maybe something like a consumer protection agency for science might do the trick. It would need to be completely financially independent and the scientists on the board paid well enough that lobbying groups couldn’t bribe them into giving bad information. A tall and probably impossible order.

Maybe something equivalent to factcheck.org except it is sciencechecker.com. It would have useful tutorials on how to tell good science from bad, put scientific jargon into terms everyone can understand, and maybe grade science down in key areas based on their quality and/or quantity.

Or maybe something even more grandiose. A “science Supreme Court” that hands down decisions on science based on facts and not ideologies. Of course, given how “successful” the real Supreme Court is at being non-ideological, I’m not sure this has much of a chance of working. And we couldn’t have Congress decide who goes on this court. Remember, Representative Akin (he of the “women’s bodies have ways of preventing pregnancy if they were legitimately raped”) is on the House Science Committee.

I’m fresh out of ideas. Any of these ideas any good? Any other suggestions?

Additional Stories:

Handy Guide to California’s Propositions

Debate Over Prop. 37′s GMO Labeling

More about golden rice

Who is Qualified to Decide Scientific Matters? 24 April,2013Dr. Barry Starr

Author

Dr. Barry Starr

Dr. Barry Starr (@geneticsboy) is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition.

You can also see additional posts by Barry at KQED Science, and read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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