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Beware of Knee-jerk Responses

It seems to me that, today, when we have opposing political/cultural camps that are widely different in how they view society and its needs, there is little tolerance for positions between the extremes. One group in our society views capitalism and corporate greed as the source of most of our problems and the other views government regulation and takeover of private sector functions by government as the biggest problems. If one is on the right, among other things, one cannot be critical of Israel, must oppose Obamacare, must oppose any programs that would benefit illegal immigrants, and must disbelieve in man-made climate change. If one is on the left one, among other things, one must be uniformly critical of Israel, never question the idea of man-made climate change, always oppose the introduction of GMOs and uniformly oppose public funding of charter schools. These are only small and partial lists of the approved positions of people on both sides of the political spectrum.

Everyone in the country criticizes our politicians for being unable to agree on anything and therefore getting very little accomplished in Washington. But our electorate appears to be equally polarized and opposed to any compromise, in fact to any consideration of opposite points of view.

I regard myself on the political left, but I am frustrated by the intransigence of my colleagues on the left when it comes to many issues. Let me give you two examples: GMOs and Charter Schools.

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are associated in people's minds with the gene manipulation of crops to make them resistant to pests and diseases. Particularly, people associate such modification with large agribusinesses, such as Monsanto, which has developed and marketed such products as genetically modified crops that are resistant to Roundup, their weed killer so that it may be used to kill weeds without harming the crop itself. In addition to making enormous campaign contributions and funding very active lobbying efforts to prevent any legislation that might limit their business, Monsanto has tried to suppress and/or deny research that has shown that their genetic modifications have deleterious unintended (and sometimes intended) consequences.

But the new science of biofortification, which increases the nutritional value of some plants, mainly by increasing their amounts of certain vitamins, also uses genetic modification. Biofortification may be accomplished through selective breeding or through genetic modification, depending upon the level of nutrient already present in a variety of plant. It is designed to replace low nutrient crops, such as rice, which are grown and consumed by much of the world’s poor, with similar, if not indistinguishable higher nutrient substitutes. It’s most well-known example is so-called “Golden Rice,” which contains added vitamin A, which has been increased via genetic engineering, rather than through selective breeding.

Biofortification is one method of addressing worldwide malnutrition caused not so much by a lack of food, but by growing and eating nutritionally deficient foods. This problem occurs overwhelmingly in underdeveloped countries because in more highly developed countries nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, are added, often because laws require it, to foods. Opponents of biofortification often only oppose artificial genetic modification and not selective breeding, but their arguments are often based on the model of pesticide or disease resistance genetic modification, not on an appreciation of the difference presented by biofortification. In fact arguments are often made, such as that it will spread pesticide immunity to other crops, that have nothing to do with biofortified plants. The choice between genetic modification and selective breeding is one based mostly upon the plant. Sweet potatoes, for instance already include genes for vitamin A, so selective breeding can enrich this vitamin. Rice, on the other hand, does not and selective breeding would not work. “Golden Rice” as it is called, is a genetically engineered rice that provides the necessary dietary intake of vitamin A for a growing child. Opponents of GMOs point out that the patent for the genetic modification of Golden Rice is held by Syngenta, a Swiss company with worldwide applications in biotechnology and agriculture. However, Syngenta gave all the patent rights for humanitarian use of Golden Rice to its inventors with a provision that Syngenta financially support such humanitarian uses, whether or not there are any commercial applications of the technology. Interestingly, this arrangement led to the awarding of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Patents for Humanity Award for 2015 for the inventors of Golden Rice.

Some groups, such as Greenpeace oppose biofortification in general because it does not solve the underlying problem of poverty, nor does it encourage poor populations to diversify their crops as a method of acquiring more nutrient rich foods. The counter to this argument is that solving the problem of world poverty or changing cultural habits of planting and eating are nearly insurmountable challenges compared to using a fortified version of the same crop they are already growing and consuming.

I’m certainly not expert enough, in fact not expert at all, to carry on a debate on this topic. But neither are most of those with opinions about it. Both I and they should be intelligent enough to realize that there are two sides to the issue  of GMOs in biofortification, and to listen to arguments on both sides and to have a conversation that weighs the pros and cons. However, such a conversation rarely happens. It is considered taboo by many on the left or many environmentalists to even listen to or discuss both sides any issue involving GMOs. I don’t think this is a healthy situation.


There are all sorts of reasons to oppose charter schools, not the least of which is that they take money away from the public school system, thus causing further hardship in a system that is already stressed to the breaking point. This may be a sufficient reason to oppose charter schools, unless there is evidence that they are providing an educational experience that is not duplicated by the public schools.

The gold standard on research comparing charter schools to public schools is the Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) research, conducted first in 2009 and again in 2013. The outcomes were fairly different in the two different years in which the study was conducted. In 2009, children enrolled in charter schools did less well in both reading and math than those in public schools (students were matched across a number of variables). In 2013, charter school students did better in reading and equal in math compared to public school children.

The CREDO results have been attacked, mostly not on the grounds of their methodology, which is impeccable, but because the differences between charter school students and public school students were either nonexistent or so small as to make no substantive difference, even though they were statistically significant. But this criticism, as it has been expressed by powerful groups, such as the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) , has failed to address the most significant findings from the study. Overall, the superiority of charter schools over public schools was slim in reading and nonexistent in math. However, when children in poverty were compared the differences were much greater in both subjects in favor of charter schools. This was also true of Black and Hispanic children in poverty compared to Black and Hispanic children who were not in poverty. A similar substantial superiority of charter schools over public schools was seen when children who are classified as English Language Learners were compared. In contrast, White  and Asian students tended not to do as well in charter schools, compared to public schools.

These results, ignored by most charter school critics are crucial, because charter schools students are more likely to live in poverty, and higher percentages of Black and Hispanic students attend charter schools than do either Whites or Asians. The CREDO results suggest that, for those students who differentially choose to attend charter schools, i.e. poor Black and Hispanic students, such schools produce greater achievement.

The CREDO study is not the only study, although it is the largest, and it is not without flaws, and the fact that its findings were inconsistent from 2009 to 2013, suggest that we should not consider its results the end of the discussion on the effectiveness of charter schools versus public schools. But neither should we conclude that it should prevent discussion and neither can the significance of its results be denied.

I am  a proponent of neither GMOs nor charter schools. I am a strong proponent of meeting the nutritional needs of the world’s population, especially of the those whose brains and bodies are still growing in developing countries, and I am a strong proponent of providing the best education possible to American school children. These issues are far too important to be approached with knee-jerk, doctrinaire biases associated with either the political left or right, or even pro-environmentalism in the case of GMOs or pro-unionism in the case of charter schools. Doing so is not enlightened problem solving. It is an example of the calcified positioning of people, groups and opinions, which we see everyday in our politicians in congress.

There are many issues such as those discussed above: climate change, fuel choices, international trade agreements, globalization, which deserve extended, open discussion. I have focused upon what might be called liberal recalcitrance in terms of such discussion, but it might even have been easier to identify conservative positions that are considered by conservatives to be not only non-negotiable, but not open for discussion. I chose liberal issues because I am a liberal and I recognize my own biases and reluctance to discuss some issues I think are so settled that there is no point. But such an attitude is a symptom of a closed mind. And when people brand a person a defector for raising a question about one of these issues, that is an example of prejudice. Neither a closed mind nor prejudice is a helpful attitude for solving important problems.

Reader Comments (1)

Well, well, well...Casey we seem to agree on TWO things! But I think you make a point that you touched upon. Just because you are to the left, and I am to the right, does NOT make us opponents on EVERYTHING. I, like you, try to be informed and make decisions that are best...not what is supported by my political label. We would all be better off if we could be so logical. When I argue with someone who is on the opposite side, I am very aware that what we want is usually the same thing. It is how we go about it that varies. If we can keep in mind that our "sides" are just that...sides. But that doesn't mean we can't move our seats a little closer, especially when we can agree on something.

June 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Torphy

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