I recently finished reading Robert Greene’s marvellous book, The 33 Strategies of War. The book is essentially a 33 stage journey in destroying your enemies on the battlefield, politics, the office, and other scenarios as explicated in the book and explained via fascinating historical example. As I was reading this delightful compendium of strategy, history, bloodshed, and intrigue I couldn’t help but think that a lot of the strategies seemed strangely familiar. “That’s funny,” I thought to myself, “last time I checked I wasn’t a warmonger.” Yet, with this strange sense of deja vu, and due to the absorbing nature of the material, I continued reading…until, at last, it hit me. About halfway through the book I realised that “I didn’t know these strategies, I had seen these strategies…” From where is a very good question? From the anti-GMO brigade.
At first, that struck me as an odd realisation. Yet the similarities in tactics and strategy were just too uncanny…the pieces just…fit, and continued to fit as I progressed. And I remembered that, often times, the antis proclaim themselves as waging a war so it’s not much of a leap, then, to using the strategies of war. Briefly digressing, it is interesting to note that a study published in the Environmental and Development Economic Journal of Cambridge early in 2014 calculated the lost life years due to opposition to genetically modified golden rice (Wesseler et al, 2014), and, all in all, estimated that 1.4 million human life years have been lost as a direct result of anti-GMO opposition…collateral damage?
From a quick analysis of Greene’s 33 strategies, which have been lifted from thousands of years of history, I surmise that the antis use about half. It is a funny thing, isn’t it, to be writing about environmentalists waging war; however, it should be done. As Greene writes early in the book: “[Judge] people by the results of their actions, the deeds that can be seen and measured, the manoeuvres they have used to gain power,” and not their intentions. (This is known as the philosophical system of consequentialism.)
The 1st strategy, Declare War on your Enemies, is perhaps the most evident in use: It is no surprise that in basically any hit-piece on GMOs, an enemy is named and shamed. This strategy focuses the energy of the group toward a specific end; this, usually, also entails the end of the enemy. (This explains the fervor with which Monsanto is targeted.) This strategy is, as Greene recounts, the most important, as it reduces infighting among one’s camp, and makes it easier to evaluate strategies by asking a simple question: will this hurt my enemy? If the answer is “no,” abandon it to find one that does.
The 4th and 7th strategies: Create a Sense of Urgency; and Transform your War into a Moral Crusade are prevalent, yet are so self-explanatory in my view that I shan’t meander into an explanation — just read anything from online media mogul Mike Adams or renowned academic Vandana Shiva to see them in action (“cancers,” “end of humanity,” “evil corporations,” “seed of death…seeds of renewal” among other hyperbolic statements are littered throughout their work).
The 10th and 20th: Create A Threatening Presence; and Maneuver Them Into Weakness are the MOs of the Food Babe and her #foodbabearmy. They are large and loud enough that corporations have trouble ignoring the Food Babe’s demands. Yet, the corporations have been placed, by design, in a position where they’re ‘damned if they do’ (respond to her simpleton demands) or ‘damned if they don’t‘ (ignore her, which would be used against them). Not coincidentally, both of these outcomes fulfil the fifteenth and twenty-eighth strategies: Control the Dynamic; and Give Your Rivals Enough Rope to Hang Themselves. (As scientifically illiterate as the Food Babe is, you gotta give her props as a general.)
Strategy 23, which involves Weaving a Seamless Blend of Fact and Fiction, is, without a doubt, the most used strategy. There are just enough grains of truth in any article lambasting GMOs that the fictions, when present (read: basically always) are allowed undue cognitive leeway by readers, having had their skeptical defences previously lowered. (Note: Generally those truths are the percentage of crops in the USA that are genetically modified. You can safely ignore just about everything else though occasionally they will accurately describe the process of genetic modification — occasionally.)
There are, of course, many more such strategies — most of them being used liberally among the decentralised anti-GMO movement each, it seems, catering to their strengths. However, the most troubling aspect of this Battle Royale is the candor and manner in which scientists and science journalists are treated when dealing with these scientific subjects. This subject is, after all, one of the very reasons that science journalism exists: to communicate the benefits and risks to the public, yet, as occupations, they’ve been almost universally sidelined, ignored, and sometimes threatened. There are many reports of both scientists and science writers being threatened, mostly online, but sometimes offline (strategy 30: Penetrate their Minds).¹ Also, in a few extreme cases, labs and fields have been destroyed (strategy 33: Sow Uncertainty and Panic Through Acts of Terror).² How — perhaps why is the better question — did it come to this? I’ll get to that shortly, but first, a quick tangent on the marketplace of ideas.
The crux of the issue really comes down to this: why can’t ideas defend themselves?³ The historical purpose of criticism has been to strengthen an idea through argumentation (logical, philosophical, experimental). If an idea cannot survive a routine round of criticism, it is modified (to be criticised again) or, more usually, thrown out due to the simple fact that the majority of ideas are wrong. At this juncture, the idea holder has two options: forget the idea; or, defend it. The latest psychological research leaves very little doubt that people are biased toward the latter (conservatism bias: the failure to revise one’s beliefs in light of new evidence). Further, the next steps are just as predictable as the first: defending a failed idea (in our case: GMOs are unsafe) requires the liberal use of logical fallacies, ignorance of empirical facts, charges of conspiracy, and, often, misleading or false knowledge to give the appearance of scientific standing.
It follows then, that, in the conservatism (bias) of the anti-GMO brigade, they have employed the strategies of war to cleverly give their failed idea/s an unfair advantage in the marketplace of ideas, where even true scientific ideas must compete. (Whether they have done so accidentally or purposefully is a good question, however, it is actions that will leave their mark on history, not intention.) It is clear that their ideas cannot defend themselves on the grounds of their epistemic strength, they need the strategies of war to be taken seriously.
The fact that anti-GMO movement has continually gained political strength and have become the de facto trusted sources of information on the science of biotechnology has puzzled many saddled with the weakness of thinking rationally. “How did it happen?” I imagine many quietly asking themselves and their colleagues and friends? It seems that was no accident either. I shall let strategy 27 speak for itself: Seem to Work for the Interests of Others While Furthering Your Own.
FOOTNOTES:  - Paul Raeburn, Are these science writers and publications facing death threats for covering GMOs, Knight Science Journalism MIT, July 24 2014  (a) - Marcel Kuntz, Destruction of Public and Governmental Experiments of GMO in Europe, Science Daily, Vol 3. Issue 4, 2012 (b) - Leigh Phillips, Nanotechnology: Armed Resistance, Nature, Aug 29 2012  - I believe this meme was spoken by Carl Sagan, though the quote may not be word-for-word. The reason for this footnote is that I can't find an attribution to it, so I am not sure if it is accurate. Still, the point still stands: why can't ideas defend themselves.