What to believe and what not to believe

12 August 2014

Considerable progress has been made in technology. Look at mobile telephones and the Internet. Today, many people enjoy a standard of living much higher than that of their parents.

So what is really happening? Are the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, as one recent analysis suggested? Will the middle class disappear, as many social scientists predict, and if so what will replace it? How will posterity look upon our society? What kind of world will we leave for our children?

How many times have we seen the label “approved by scientists”, “approved by the medical association” on a product? What could be more certain than resorting to the integrity of a professional organization? Marketing at its best? But, despite all this, has the world really become a better place to live? Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”

Take, for instance, genetically modified (GM) crops. The aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally, such as resistance to pests or diseases, adaptation to environmental conditions such as drought, frost or high salinity, or improving the nutrient value of the crop. There is broad scientific consensus that GM crops pose no greater risk to human health than conventional food. On the other hand, there also seems to be widespread concern about them from environmental activists, religious organizations, public interest groups and some professional associations. The agribusiness has been criticized for pursuing profit without concern for potential hazards, and the government for failing to exercise adequate control. It seems that everyone has a strong opinion about GM foods ‒‒ even the Pope and the Prince of Wales. When will we know the truth?

Take, for instance, wind turbines. Governments have encouraged companies to build wind farms in order to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. For many people this is accompanied by the very convincing argument of generating electricity for free without any pollution. Another group pours scorn and contempt on this solution, saying that wind farms change scenic locations into industrial landscapes, kill significant numbers of birds and produce only a fraction of their potential energy because the wind is unpredictable. In fifty years’ time, what will be the situation? Will the whole landscape be covered in wind turbines or will we laugh at such preposterously outdated solutions?

Recently, we heard about DNA kits that can be found on the Internet and apparently have generated a lot of business. People may be interested in discovering their ancestral pasts, or to obtain a genetic roadmap that may predict future personal health conditions. Celebrities have had important parts of their bodies removed due to an ominous genetic heritage.

However, a decade’s worth of analyses of genetic screening services has shown that they almost always promise more than they can deliver. It is true that the genetic variations found in your DNA sample may be “associated” with diseases, but that doesn’t necessary imply “causation”. In other words, just because a genetic test says your genes carry a “higher than normal” chance of developing Alzheimer’s or Type 2 diabetes, it’s not guaranteed you will acquire it.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office conducted a review of online businesses offering genetic testing and lifestyle counselling services. They sent the same samples to a number of companies and found that their predictions ran right across the board. The conclusion? “These tests do not provide meaningful information to consumers.”

So what can we do? Stay alert, and each time we see something “approved by”, do as my old granny used to say: “Take it with a pinch of salt”, meaning that, despite what the experts say, you are still required to use your own common sense.

Marit & John