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Are scientists right and non-scientists wrong? Reflections on discussions of GM

By J. Deckers

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This paper furthers the understanding of the view that genetic modification (GM) is unnatural, and of the critical response to this view. While many people have been reported to hold the view that GM is unnatural, many policy-makers and their advisors have suggested that the view must be ignored or rejected, and that there are scientific reasons for doing so. Three "typical" examples of ways in which the "GM is unnatural" view has been treated by UK policy-makers and their advisors are explored. These are: the government's position (DEFRA Report); the account of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics; and the position of Nigel Halford, a scientist with an advisory role to the government. It is shown that their accounts fail to mount a convincing critique. The paper then draws on an empirical research project held during 2003-04 at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north east of England. Scientists met with non-scientists in a range of facilitated one-to-one conversations ("exchanges") on various environmental issues, one of which was on GM. The findings show that some scientists who rejected the "GM is unnatural" view struggled to do so consistently. Their struggle is interpreted in terms of a conflict between a so-called "scientific" worldview, and a different worldview that underlies the concerns of those who held the "GM is unnatural" view. This worldview is explored further by an examination of their concerns. What distinguishes this worldview from the "scientific" worldview is that the instrumentalization of the nonhuman world is questioned to a larger extent. It is concluded that, because the underlying concerns of those who held the "GM is unnatural" view were not with GM as such, yet with a worldview that was considered to be problematic, and of which many GM applications were held to be expressions, policy-makers and their advisors should reflect on the critical worldview of those who claim that GM is unnatural if they want to engage seriously with their concerns.

Date 2005
Publication Title Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Ethics
Volume 18
Issue 5
Pages 451-478
ISBN/ISSN 1187-7863
DOI 10.1007/s10806-005-0902-1
Language English
Author Address School of Population and Health Sciences, University of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE2 444, UK.
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Agriculture
  2. Attitudes
  3. Bioethics
  4. Biotechnology
  5. British Isles
  6. Commonwealth of Nations
  7. Developed countries
  8. Europe
  9. Genetic engineering
  10. Genetic manipulation
  11. Government
  12. Great Britain
  13. OECD countries
  14. peer-reviewed
  15. Policy and Planning
  16. Public opinion
  17. scientists
  18. Social psychology and social anthropology
  19. transgenics
  20. United Kingdom
  1. peer-reviewed