Doing “Wrong” Right

Two experts, both alike in views
(So much, you can’t tell whose is whose)
Saw something on the evening news
Which challenged their belief

And something that they’d thought was right,
Believing in with all their might,
They now saw in a different light—
It brought them both to grief

The first said “well, I’ve got to change—
Although, of course, it’s rather strange,
My whole worldview I’ll re-arrange
Cos what I thought, was wrong”

The second, though, without remorse,
Declared, “I’d rather stay the course—
Deny the facts; dispute the source,
I’m sailing straight along.”

And when the first apologized,
Revealing that he’d realized
His former view was compromised,
The second was insistent:

“Your newfound view means naught to me—
Your reputation’s shot, you see—
Untouchable, you ought to be,
Because you’re inconsistent!”

Consistency, you can’t deny,
Is crucial in the public eye
But if your stance is just a lie
Perhaps it’s best to quit

We know, a fool’s consistent stand
When better data are at hand
Is often prized, throughout this land…
But still, it’s full of shit.

I just saw a truly rare and remarkable bit of video. You can see it here. Mark Lynas, formerly an anti-GM food activist (until 2008, when the data persuaded him he had been wrong) is interviewed on the BBC’s HARDtalk; the linked video is an excerpt.

First… this is how you do it. As a leader in the anti-GM food movement, it could not have been pleasant to make this change, but Lynas not only made the change, he publicly renounced his former views, and publicly apologized to those whom his actions had harmed. In the linked clip, host Stephen Sackur (to my thinking, anyway) really tries to rub Lynas’s nose in it, pushing him well beyond what I would have been comfortable with. Lynas sits there and takes it, admits some fairly embarrassing things (for instance, how flimsy the evidence was that led him not merely to protest, but to become a leader in the protest movement), and owns up to his past behavior.

Sackur prods: “So that leaves your personal credibility in shreds.” “So you’re ashamed of the entire approach you took; your complete lack of intellectual rigor.” Again, to me, this is a bit much, but Lynas does not get defensive; he admits that he is on the record apologizing for his actions, personally, to the individuals he has wronged.

This is a brief clip, but it illustrates a few things beautifully. First, what Lynas shows that an intelligent person, in the right surroundings, can easily be caught up in thinking something is right when it is demonstrably not. Second, he demonstrates exactly what we should do, but which can be so difficult to do, when confronted by solid evidence that this thing we thought was true is not. Third, he models how to take responsibility, how to own up to previous mistakes, how not to simply get defensive when called out. Fourth…tangentially, but importantly… the clip makes clear that our culture values consistency. A view that changes when new data are available should not be seen as a weakness, but all too often it is.


  1. Northern Free Thinkers says

    That is one of the most ridiculous pro industry conversions I’ve ever read anywhere. He has now completely dismissed most of the science on the matter and focused his attention principally on stats and communiques done by the transgenics industry.

    Let’s first get clear language here. GMO is a term the environmental movement should never have latched on to. GMOs in their general sense have been in use since the horrible Green Revolution, which killed farming, in favour of agribusiness. What the campaigns of the past two decades have been about is transgenics, the mixing of non-naturally mixing species. In this regard, those running communications and campaigns in the environmental movement shot themselves in the foot by using wrong terminology. What people REALLY want labeled and/or banned is transgenic foods. specifically.

    It is indeed true that the amount of scientific consensus against transgenics is not as overwhelming as that of climate change, but it has been growing, and is now at the state climate issues were around 15 years ago.

    Transgenics have not been in use long enough for there to be complete consensus yet, what we have is preliminary evidence, in health, in nutrition, in economics, in politics, in the ecosystem, etc. Transgenics is not a single issue debate. Within another decade, the accumulation of evidence will leave naysayers looking ridiculous, just as climate deniers started looking ridiculous a decade ago.

    Mark Lynas will go down in history as a nobody. And the environmental movement is certainly better off without him, considering he’s admitted to having NEVER done any homework on the matter. But there are plenty of others out there who ARE doing their homework, and not “recanting”.

    Media so loves it when people jump onto the corporate band wagon, Corporate victory once again. The are efficient.

  2. T. Hunt says

    I was impressed by just how tough that must have been for Lynas. To admit that he got everything he knew from, essentially, the University of Google and that he lived in a bubble. And to publicly sit thru an interview where this is pointed out not gleefully but certainly not sugar coated is something that we seldom see. I would guess that this is what is meant by ‘man up’.

    The first commenter has read everything he needs to read on the subject and knows all the answers. It takes a giant step to even begin to think that there might be another side to the question and information out there that isn’t ALL slanted toward the ‘evil’ corporations.

    Good for Mark Lynas.


  3. StevoR, fallible human being says

    I take it that’s this is the same Mark Lynas who wrote the excellent book Six Degrees : Our Future on A Hotter Planet?’ (Harper perennial,2008) on the issue of Human Induced Rapid Global Overheating and how each degree of rising average global temperatures will affect the world?

    If so, I’m not surprised – seemed a good person as well as a great writer to me.

  4. says

    @Northern Free thinkers This is not about GMOs. This is about how one comes to change one’s mind after being persuaded and doing so with integrity and hubris.

  5. says

    Northern @1 I find it really interesting that you should say that. In all the arguments I’ve had on the topic, not one has ever used the word transgenic and they have only rarely mentioned cross species modifications. They often mention how terrible GMOs supposedly are for your health and then, when challenged, they then always move over to how it’s really just an ethical stance against the evils of Monsanto, as though that is the only place GMOs come from. It looks like the goalposts may be shifting here. And perhaps the average person needs to be better educated about the “real” issues involved.

  6. Northern Free Thinkers says

    Deanna, the science that is out there is about how transgenics are a wagom-load of problems, not just health. People like this fellow, as are many environmentalists, but not all, who are not educated in the science of biology, made the mistake of calling their campaign about GMOs, when what they were really aiming at was transgenics, which is where the scientific evidence is. I won’t repeat my post that started this, but suffice it to say, I often suspected through the years that the industry had infiltrated the environmental movement at the upper levels (which is ridiculously easy) and started the mediatisation on GMOs in order to veer the attention away from the negative (in desirability) scientific results coming from the field (pardon the pun) of transgenics. Most everything that”s ever been said about GMOs is in fact the science of trasngenics, which is only a fraction of genetic modification, but by having used the wrong language, it discredited the entirety of the discussion. Which is an error, he “recanted” about GMOs, but had he correctly focused his energies on transgenics, he would not be recanting today, and throughout his discourse barely a few words would have changed.
    It’s the same with California’s prop.37, it should have requested labeling of transgenics, instead of GMO, but it’s semantics. I’ve been trying for years to correct the linguistic mistake of using GMOs in lieu of transgenics, but the campaigns had already spent so much money that they were impossible to reverse.

    So Mark’s recantation is not a poof ball suddenly displaying intelligence, it’s the case of a linguistically challenged person missing the boat twice, because he was too lazy to understand science, yes twice, cuz he’s still not understanding it. He’s simply now cherry picking for the other side.

  7. Northern Free Thinkers says

    Sorry Jennifer, no.
    With 11 years spent in the sciences in university, I do not keep a running list of all the articles I read in order to facilitate your too lazy behind. You want to read about the negative effects and potential of transgenics? a lot of it’s on the internet but most of it is in university libraries, through journal access. Go educate yourself in biology, genetics, population biology, etc.

  8. Cuttlefish says

    A quick look in Cuttlefish University’s library, in the Agricola database, keyword “transgenic”, gives 35071 articles. This should be fun.

  9. Cuttlefish says

    So far, a few articles giving vague warnings. These tend to be from a decade ago at least. A large number of articles not explicitly pro or anti, but simply taking transgenics as a given and reporting on this rice, that corn, this mouse, that salmon, this mosquito, that tobacco. A large handful of recent articles on the promise of transgenics in solving this pollution problem, that pest problem, the other drought problem.

    Limiting to “transgenic AND problem” finds a lot of problems being solved. “Transgenic AND danger” leads to 15 articles, only one of which could be taken as a warning–that one being from 1991, and warning of potential.

    Northern Free Thinkers, I am well aware that I could be looking in the wrong place. My own field is a subfield within a larger field that tends to dismiss it, so I am accustomed to knowing that a first search can be problematic. But… after a quarter century of dealing with that sort of search, when my students, colleagues, or some reporter wants to glean my accumulated experience… when I send them to the literature, I send them with a handful of keywords, one or more key author’s name, or a recent review article. It is, in my field, entirely too easy for someone to find a whole lot of nonsense before they find something worthwhile (hell, try looking in the more popular searches for information about vaccines!), even when the worthwhile stuff is there to be found.

    I am no geneticist. I don’t work with GMOs or transgenics or DNA of any sort other than my own. But I am perfectly comfortable finding my way around a database, a university library, and/or a search engine. I am better than the average bear at understanding the vocabulary of genetics. I’ve grown up with agriculture. And so far (again, perfectly willing to be shown that my search terms are the wrong ones), the articles I have looked at have shown far more promise than problem.

    Clearly, you have no obligation to educate us; I agree completely. I’m just saying, in the time it took for you to write comment #11, you could have mentioned a name or two, a keyword or two, and sent us off to do our own homework, and we’d have (more likely, anyway) found the studies that have convinced you. To the extent that you are invested in such things (not financially), this would be in your interest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *