Mark White’s 500 Words | The Space Between GMOs and Belief

Mark White’s 500 Words | The Space Between GMOs and Belief

Sometimes we need more that 500 words to say our 500 words. Mark White’s rich account of how his mother’s religious beliefs affected his own learning experiences demonstrates how contradictions often lead to important breakthroughs.

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In 1971, when I was ten, my mother got cancer. She was a Christian Scientist, a religion that doesn’t believe in doctors. Christian Scientists rely on an intense form of prayer for healing. While my mother prayed through the initial months of her sickness, refusing medical help, the cancer spread. When she finally succumbed to medical treatment, it was too late.

Forty years later, as I turned to Twitter and the GMO hashtag for my first look into the politics and technology of genetic engineering, I had no idea that the views of the science that I would adopt would be informed by my mother’s death. Let me explain.

After my mother died, I grew apart from the church but retained bits and pieces of it. I saw connections between the “science” of prayer and Eastern thought; where Christian Scientists see prayer as a direct communication with God, I took a more “Eastern” view and saw it as a form of “mind over matter,” of the mind’s great healing power.

Advances in neuroscience have given us evidence of the mind’s influence over the body. I don’t believe that Christian Scientists or other spiritual healers are necessarily all “wrong.” Their ability to direct their thinking can be used as part of the healing process.

What would have happened if my mother brought her “irrational” faith, her ability to direct her mind to fight her sickness, into the hospital and let the “rationality” of science help heal her? Could she have been an early cancer survivor? Hers was an absolute faith, the doctors’ an absolute science. With no common ground, we’ll never know.

This is where my mother’s death has helped to inform my thoughts on GMOs. I’m most interested in that space that separates the empirical science of the technology – the reams of studies that prove the benefits of GMOs – from the “faith-based” opponents – the activists who fear “frankenfoods,” corporate conspiracies, man playing god, and so forth.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has spent a lifetime studying the so-called “irrational” behavior of humans. Each of us – liberals and conservatives, scientists and snake healers – are hard-wired to act and believe “irrationally,” to be guided by world views that make little “rational” sense. We are also hard-wired to employ a slower, more rational thought process to counter those biases, but the game is stacked against our rationality. We are fundamentally irrational creatures who must dig deep to act rationally. But ultimately we need a balance between both systems to survive.

The science clearly favors GMOs – reduced pesticide use, increased yields, lower carbon footprints, improved nutritional values. Yet the political gap between the GMO scientists and the “non-believers” seems inseparable, and mere “facts” won’t sway the activists. The problem is that, like my mother’s cancer, climate change and population growth are not waiting for us to close this gap.

Are the non-believers wrong? Is it “wrong” to fear the monopolization of our food sources? Is it “wrong” to want to know what enters our bodies? Shouldn’t “playing God” always be a concern for us?

I can imagine that most GMOers reading this see in my mother an example of the lunatic, religious fringe. But it was her faith that defined her. Activists are similarly defined by their beliefs.

If the brilliant minds behind GMOs can’t figure out a way to work with this reality — that the beliefs of opposition are as real as the benefits of Golden Rice — forty years from now we’ll be looking back at these days asking ourselves, like I did with my mother, “What if?” What if we could have brought the science and beliefs together before the cancer of climate change and population growth finally did us in?

Mark’s bio:

I am a partner in an online marketing company in Seattle. I love experimenting with heirloom seed varieties with my family in my small suburban plot. I’m a “GMO newbie,” still trying to unravel the complexities and vast potential of the science, but with a fair share of agro-corporate skepticism.

If you would like us at Skepti-Forum to share your story, please see our previous post: Callout for Your Stories! In 500 Words, What is Your Stance on GMOs in Society?

Photo credit: BASF - The Chemical Company | CC