Do You Have the Basics?

I think there needs to be a new rule for casual debate. The rule would be called John’s Razor and it would state that if one doesn’t understand the fundamentals of a subject than nothing one says on that subject can be taken seriously.

If you are at all familiar with formalized styles of argumentation then you know that both parties almost always have a solid grasp of the topic at hand. I’m not talking about the kinds of debates we see between political leaders, rather, I’m discussing the kind we see in universities where, before the date of the contest, teams prep themselves with almost monastic dedication before engaging one another.

Unfortunately, when we consider day to day interactions in what I’ll refer to as ‘casual debate’ this kind of preparation or even concern for the truth is hopelessly lost. In other words, people will aggressively contest assertions without having even the most fundamental knowledge regarding their subject matter. Facebook offers some prime examples of this kind of adolescent argumentation and I want to review one I encountered just this morning regarding GMOs.

A friend of mine had posted a meme about how we need to start focusing on the important things in the world as opposed to say…celebrity gossip. Point taken. But among the listed ‘important things’ was ‘GMO, Monsanto, and the problems caused by toxic farming practices.’

In my usual way I decided to challenge this notion that GMOs are a problem and asked what the issue was. I then posted an article by Forbes which listed thousands of independent studies from various countries showing no ill effects associated with GMOs.

This made ‘Mark’ very angry and he proceeded to mock my point, conflating GMOs with pesticides and calling genetic modification ‘mad science’. Nowhere did he link to a peer reviewed scientific journal refuting the thousands of studies I had referenced, nor did he make a single coherent, scientifically informed point regarding genetics.

The point here is that people like Mark think they are allowed to have an opinion and be taken seriously simply because they have one. While there are numerous topics one need not research to discuss critically there are also numerous others which require at least a fundamental understanding of the basics. We might think of this like language learning. If you don’t know a single Russian word then how can you speak Russian?

Mark’s ignorance of the most basic information regarding genetics has left him believing that genetic modification is the equivalent of a magician morphing one animal into another but stopping halfway. He and many others believe this because they don’t know anything about the subject matter they stand so aggressively against.

If Mark was really interested in educating himself on genetically modified organisms he would have to first research basic genetics. Had he done that he would learn that genetic modification is only possible because all genetic machinery is the same across all organisms. This is why the term ‘universal gene code’ exists. It is also why evolutionary biologists believe all life ramified from a single organism, because it is near impossible that we would all share the same DNA-related molecular structures otherwise.

But instead of actually learning something new, Mark and people like him choose a side and stick with it no matter what. Often, I imagine, this is due to laziness. It is a refusal to admit what one is ignorant of and a refusal to do something about it. In the meantime these people appear intellectually antiestablishment to their ignorant friends while exposing themselves for the asshats they truly are to all those who spent two minutes reading the Wikipedia page on recombinant DNA.

Not knowing anything about genetics wasn’t his only mistake, though it was the biggest. He also betrayed his critical thinking skills when he conflated pesticides, GMOs, and Monsanto; a common misstep among this sort.

These are three different subjects, two of which are opposed to one another. GMOs make pesticides obsolete, in fact, that is their point. Instead of using harmful chemicals to preserve and protect crops we can harmlessly modify their gene code, giving them an innate and non-pesticide defense. This helps both the health conscious developed world and the impoverished developing world by securing safe and hardy crops without exposing ourselves to carcinogens. As for Monsanto, this is a company. If Monsanto is evil that does not mean GMOs are evil. Genetic modification is a scientific process, not a corporate philosophy.

We need to start enacting John’s Razor where relevant and ridiculing opinions that have absolutely no grounding in reality. We’ve all made the mistake of speaking up on a topic we knew too little about, it happens. But some of us are a little too proud of what we clearly don’t know and that needs to change.



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