The recent adoption of the Internet-fuelled social media, Twitter, Facebook, etc, by large swathes of humanity has been an interesting phenomena. It has exposed many a person to an ease of ‘information spread’ unknown before in society, and in a sense it is democratising information flow, definitely a good thing. But there are issues.

By Scott Wilkie

Through what one can only describe as a popularity contest, that information flow is stacked in favour of what garners individual attention – the sensational, the entertaining, the controversial. While this is what people want to see, should it be allowed to dominate public perception of what the world is about when much of it is simply false, or far too complicated to be compressed into a sensational ‘bite’ to be represented correctly?

One can see the issue clearly in relation to the sciences. The technical sciences are highly complex fields that require a depth of prior learning to understand, and their methodologies are reliant on all in the respective fields being able to readily refer to prior learnings.

In the land of the instant bite, dominated by those without any scientific base, conclusions are being made that appeal to the lowest common denominator, not actual prior learnings.. We can thank the likes of Google and Yahoo for this, with the commercial imperative driving their search algorithms, indeed their entire business. When we do an ‘information search’ we are being subject to what has provoked the greatest number of searches – not what may be actual information. Trouble is, that distinction is not always clear. Many profit from misinformation and misinterpretation. The Internet and social media are not the base of a new order in morals and ethics.

A few science-based issues, in this realm of misinformation, come to mind. Probably not unpredictably they surround health and the environment, the former pretty much a universal consideration and the latter similar.

The Anti-Vaccination Movement is one of the more dangerous and regressive distortions arising from the above scenario. People are taking on false conclusions because they do not have an understanding of the science and results generated over 150 years. There are even people directly profiting from this misinformation, arguably resulting in needless deaths.

Less insidious, but none the less as prominent is the Anti-Monsanto Movement. It attempts to challenge the field of genetic science, for both environmental and personal health reasons. The perfect monster to hate. Problem is that people cannot separate the science of GM from the commercial imperative intuitively, so both the science and the corporate imperative are bundled together as pariahs, when really only the latter needs incriminating of any maleficence.

GM cropping has become one of the most heavily studied agricultural developments of the past 20 years due to the obvious risks involved in introducing man-made modifications to the food chain, primarily driven by legal responsibility. It is undoubtedly safe as it stands, but some jurisdictions remain cautious, partially due to popular demand (read popular fear), but more often due to the fact that a particular crop is new to a region with its own risk assessment and management systems in place. We see many a ‘moratorium’ of introduction to facilitate this. This is fine – further data becomes available in field trials contributing to the knowledge base.

Some question the profit motive of Monsanto and how it effects the science and consequent decisions made. Strong businesses aren’t made entirely of short sighted business people, ones with a bullish attitude. They may be ethically compromised, but that is what Government Regulation is about, or supposed to be about.

Businesses are paranoid to an extent and utilise risk management readily. They want to know about long term consequences to their bank balances if issues arise. The hard nosed business side is therefore forced into a situation of trust in ‘real world’ results generated by correct science.

The US regulations under which Monsanto operates is stringent and well informed. Those authorities have no reason to compromise their decisions with financial imperatives that could endanger people.

Incorrect business decisions have been made. The ‘terminator seed’ was a notable case in point – ready for large-scale field trials that never went ahead due to ethical issues, not science-based ones, ones that translate into problematic market potential. In the same tone, developments have been made that present no ethical issue, but are rejected socially due to misinformation based on fear, such as the introduction of Vitamin-A rich Golden Rice.

Both are a result of their multinational business structure and consequent scale of operations, a true negative in the social relations sense (especially in India where smaller agricultural plots dominate and ‘big biz’ can be rightfully seen as an enemy), but possibly a plus in the safety sense, in that we are certain of the supply chain, i.e. the source.

Monsanto as a corporation? As unethical as any other major multinational in its business procedures – but its science unethical? Not by a long shot. It has great potential to benefit humanity and is indeed doing so. No need to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Scott Wilkie is an Australian humanist engaged in science.

For a previous article devoted to this topic see: