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Keeping it Real

On two occasions today I realised that a person’s credibility can so easily be compromised if they take a position they hold too far – even if that position is fundamentally valid. The case first was at a meeting where two of my colleagues revealed conspirational beliefs which I think went beyond what was reasonable. And the second was the result of a podcast with a South African author who has written on the subject.

Now I will be the first to admit that some people might accuse me (with a certain degree of justification) of taking certain arguments too far. Especially when it comes to criticising religion and neoliberal politics I do occasionally launch into a rant which could be seen as diminishing my credibility. In response to that I will say that those should be clearly marked with the tag “rant” on the WordPress versions of this blog and with a red dot (indicating a high degree of controversy involved) on the version on my web site.

I would also add that, as I said in my previous post, in the more considered and serious blog posts I do try to moderate my opinions with “error bar” claims and clarifications on the extent and degree of my assertions. For example, if I say that religion is fundamentally nonsensical I will also admit that there are positive aspects such as providing a social network for its members, etc.

So if my colleagues think that big corporations (such as Monsanto) are evil, and that genetically modified food is unhealthy and dangerous, and that the NSA is capable of breaking any encrypted private communications, then I think they have started with a basic view with some validity but taken it too far, and possibly destroyed any positive impact the initial point might have had.

I agree that big corporations do act almost entirely to maximise their profits and have little regard for the social and environmental effects of their activities, but that doesn’t make them totally evil. They also make products which many of us find useful. And (in the case of Monsanto) the introduction of a “terminator gene” into crops can be seen as a way to stop unwanted propagation of the crop into non-GE farms (a good thing) as much as a way to prevent farmers re-using seeds from their first crop (arguably a bad thing). So that action is both good and bad and using it as proof of evil intent just lacks credibility.

Genetic modification (along with that other perennial favourite: nuclear power) is a common target for criticism for those with extreme green views, as well as those who just identify with the naturalistic fallacy (that “natural” things are good and “artificial” bad). I think GM food should be labelled and new GM crops should be throughly safety tested, but to suggest that GM is somehow inherently bad is just ridiculous.

And having an excessive fear of surveillance by spy agencies like the NSA is somewhat unhealthy. It is very unlikely that any organisation has progressed the state of the art in quantum computing sufficiently to break a really well encrypted message. Again, I think these organisations do exceed their initial remit (preventing terrorism and serious crime) but any criticism of them should be based on reality, not some doubtful exaggeration of their abilities.

And so moving onto the case of the South African author. He pointed out that many people distrust big corporations and governments but are more trustful of environmental organisations. He offered no statistical or empirical evidence of this and I would say roughly the opposite would be true for some sectors of society such as conservatives who distrust environmentalists, are neutral or negative about governments, and tend to trust corporations (again this is anecdotal rather than empirical).

But whatever the facts there is no doubt that different sections of society apply different standards to different organisations. And trust and distrust can be apportioned based on any criteria a person might favour. For example we should distrust governments because politicians often use morally questionable methods to get into power, but conversely we should trust them because in the end we did vote for them. We should trust environmentalists because they get little monetary advantage from their environmental causes, but we should distrust them because they are often ideologically driven. And we should trust corporations because they produce many of the products we use, but we should distrust them because profit is their prime motivation.

I want stronger environmental protection but I’m not going to join Greenpeace because I disagree with some of their policies, and I’m not going to boycott Monsanto because they do produce some good products, and I’m not going to claim right-wing governments don’t care abut the environment because they do occasionally do the right thing. If anyone wants to be credible they should avoid extreme positions and stick to the facts, even if the facts don’t support their beliefs so much.

Hmmm… sounds like good advice… now can I stick to it myself?

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