Are Western societies losing the capacity for rational debate?


There was an informative but disturbing piece in the NYT today about the irrational reaction to GMO food farming. The piece focused on the debate over a ban-GMO bill (which ultimately was passed) by the county council that runs Hawaii’s big island. But that debate appears to reflect what is happening more broadly in America.

There are some great quotes in the piece, including the following:

Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones.

“These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill. “It hurts.”

This story is presented as a cultural mystery—why would liberals be anti-science on one issue and not another?—but it reminded me of a short essay I wrote on this site a couple years ago, an essay in whose light the anti-GMO hysteria doesn’t seem so mysterious.

In “The Demise of Guythink,” I put forth the heretical notion that the widespread entry of women into public life in the West, particularly in America, has made the culture more feminine (thus more empathetic) and less masculine (thus less rational and systematizing). Less guythink, more femthink; less left-brain, more right-brain; less papa, more mama.

And: less right-wing, more left-wing. At least since FDR and the New Deal in the 1930s, the Democratic party in America has marketed itself as the mommy party, the caring and empathetic party, compared to the cold, cold Republicans with their abstract free-market theories. More and more the Democrats’ policies have been geared specifically to harvest women’s votes, and women now are significantly more likely to identify themselves as Democrats rather than Republicans. The Democrats even claim, nowadays, that the Republicans are so “out of touch” with the needs of the fairer sex that they are in effect waging “an all-out war on women.” It hardly matters if they are not. Such a histrionic allegation shows pretty clearly who wears the pants in the Democratic Party these days.

My point: the Democrat, liberal,” lefty”—whatever you want to call it–side of American politics is now heavily influenced by femthink. That mindset may sometimes agree with the conclusions of science, and sometimes disagree. But it tends (more often than is healthy, I suggest) to reach its conclusions in non-scientific ways: with empathy and impulse, drama and distraction, censorship and even intimidation. The NYT piece depicted this mindset all too clearly:

“Do the right thing,” one Chicago woman wrote, “or no one will want to take a toxic tour of your poisoned paradise.”


Margaret Wille [the author of the anti-GMO bill] majored in cultural anthropology at Bennington College in Vermont and practiced public advocacy law in Maine before moving a decade ago to the island, where her brothers once owned a health food store.


Instructed by the chairman not to applaud, the residents who packed the County Council chamber in Kona on July 3 erupted in frequent silent cheers, signaled by a collective waving of hands and wiggling of fingers.


Mr. Maher’s audience … recently hissed at a commentator who defended genetic modification as merely an extension of traditional breeding.


Rachel Maddow declared the narrow failure of ballot initiatives to require G.M.O. labeling in California and Washington a “big loss for liberal politics.”


In the three minutes allotted to each speaker at the July hearing, some told personal tales of all manner of illness, including children’s allergies, cured after going on a “non-G.M.O.” diet. One woman took the microphone “on behalf of Mother Earth and all sentient beings.” Nomi Carmona encouraged Council members to visit the website of her group, Babes Against Biotech, where analyses of Monsanto’s campaign contributions are intermingled with pictures of bikini-clad women.


… the actress Roseanne Barr, who owns an organic macadamia nut farm here, could have been kinder to the papaya farmers in the room. “Everybody here is very giving,” she had told them. “They will bend over backwards to help you burn those [GMO] papayas and grow something decent.”


At the hearing on Sept. 23 … Council members declined to call several University of Hawaii scientists who had flown from Oahu, instead allotting 45 minutes to Jeffrey Smith, a self-styled expert on G.M.O.s with no scientific credentials.

Now, just so it’s clear, I’m not arguing that only women can think and act in this rather extreme way, let alone that all do—the piece was written by a woman and it was on balance critical of the anti-GMO movement. As I see it, femthink has crept into the culture generally, i.e., into the thinking and writing and behavior of both men and women.

Still, the roots of femthink lie in the traditional, age-old roles of women. Women are more empathetic presumably because their traditional role has been to nurture children. But that traditional role calls for more than just empathy. For example, it seems to require a certain vigilance against threats to (the children’s) food and water and general environment. This all comes out very prominently during pregnancy, for example in food aversions and “nesting” behaviors, which appear to be fundamentally irrational, non-deliberative, and instinctive—and of course, seem absolutely bizarre to male partners.

Men surely have their own specific biases that lead to irrational behaviors—concentrated around women and fighting, I’d guess. That’s a topic for another post (as well as a previous one). But women, I submit, are innately more likely to express fears about “toxins,” genetically modified crops, and other potential disturbances to their environment, and in general are less likely to trust in the efficacy and safety of modern, technologically produced food and medicine. (It has long been noted that women have a greater enthusiasm, vis a vis men, for “organic” foods and “natural” or “alternative” medicines.)

GMOs and technologically induced global warming are both portrayed as grave threats to the environment—and that’s why women tend to oppose them. And where women lead, the Democratic Party—the woman-friendly party, the “liberal” party—follows. (The rest of the culture shifts a bit in that direction too.)

Incidentally, to the extent that femthink underlies anti-GMO and anti-global-warming movements, they are not liberal movements, in the old sense of the word. They are, I would say, deeply conservative, born of eons of evolution.

In any case, femthink has been making its influence felt not just on environmental policy but on welfare, immigration and foreign policy too. Recently it has even been forcing the feminization of combat units in the military—and the associated re-education of male troops. But whether it is about empathizing with the disadvantaged, protecting the environment, or enforcing political correctness, femthink’s ways of reaching its goals seem too often irrational, even anti-rational. Is it worse in this respect than the guythink that still dominated our culture sixty or seventy years ago? That is my definite impression. I hear femthink paying lip service to the old, rational, and—yes—liberal (as in open-minded) institutions of Western society, but I sense that at bottom it just wants what it wants, and isn’t all that interested in being data-driven and deliberative.

To put it another way: there is a powerful force at loose in Western societies today that seems very much at odds with the rational underpinnings of those societies. And it is getting ever stronger.

Now, what brave scientist wants to test this hypothesis–or even to acknowledge it as a possibility?