Modern enemies of reason

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 September, 2005, 12:00am

Proving that genetically modified foods are safe is a bit like proving the existence of the Loch Ness monster: it's hard to prove something is not there when fanatics want to believe. It is embarrassing to see environmentalists being suckered into using dubious European slogans such as the 'precautionary principle' - which the rest of the world realises is sophisticated protectionism for their privileged, subsidised farmers.

This is just another example of Europe losing the plot. What once gave Europe, and cultures of European extraction, the edge? What allowed their societies to flourish and expand, giving their economies the opportunity to explode with creativity and become the dominant global force for the past few centuries? The answers: the separation of church and state, freedom of religion and, more importantly, freedom from religion.

Given freedom, enlightenment was sure to follow, philosophers argued. 'Have the courage to use your own reason,' was the motto of the Enlightenment. People began to refuse to outsource their consciences to clerics, or accept privileges conferred by a sovereign.

So who are the modern enemies of reason, tolerance and freedom? Fundamentalist religious fanatics rage against modernity: their most evil expression of powerlessness is terrorist attacks.

But even in open societies, intolerant forces gather, march, and claim to know a truth that everyone else must live under. These enemies of reason normally align themselves on the political right.

There are, however, enemies of reason who pose as progressives and, like others, claim to be saving the world. The environment is their vehicle of power. Fundamentalists oppose stem-cell research, which offers ways to treat some of mankind's most devastating diseases and injuries. But pharmaceutical research is moving out of Britain due to rabid activists who last year were responsible for over 300 attacks on research facilities and staff.

The FBI, in a recent report to a US Senate committee, warned that eco-militants are the new terrorist threat: fire-bombing SUV dealers in opposition to gas-guzzlers; burning so-called insensitive housing developments, causing US$70 million in damage; and so forth. Yet, it is in the name of animal rights that the most violent exchanges have taken place in many countries. One animal-rights activist recently said that they were not bound by law, and their cause was like the anti-slavery campaign.

Where the fundamentalists and environmental militants join hands against science is in the arguments against GM foods and stem-cell research. Genetically modified foods offer us the opportunity to feed a hungry world. It is hard to see how we will provision the world and lower the use of dangerous insecticides and fertilisers without enlisting the new forces of science.

Of course we must be prudent, cautious and seek high standards, because science can move faster than our moral, ethical or legal capacity to cope. But those who wish to destroy science have as their forefathers those who burned so-called witches, not the heroes who freed the slaves.

These small groups, which exaggerate the dangers to a gullible media, represent pre-Enlightenment thinking. It is, however, a good way to grab the headlines and raise funds.

Mike Moore is a former prime minister of New Zealand and was director-general of the World Trade Organisation