I wrote about the problem of arrogance a little bit on my old blog, but lately I’ve found myself having problems with it again.
Rachel Parent is a fourteen-year-old self-described anti-GMO activist.
I knew a lot of kids like her growing up. Like, a lot. And I know many at Rice, too. After all, intelligence isn’t limited by age. There is no cutoff age below which one cannot learn calculus/chemistry/vocabulary. And I will concede that Rachel Parent is very well-spoken and very, very smart. But does that make her someone I should listen to?
I would argue no. When I watched her popular debate video, I couldn’t help but think of the invisible power play going on. Rachel Parent is pretty, thin, white, and young. If she had lost that debate, or even come off badly in it, the Internet would abound with cries of bullying and misogyny. I suspect she knows this and is using it to her advantage. Refuting Parent’s ludicrous claim that one would have to eat 27 bowls of golden rice a day to get the full RDA of Vitamin A – Vitamin A deficiency, which is what golden rice was developed to combat, kills hundreds of thousands of children a year and is a leading cause of preventable blindness – would be easy if she were anyone but aforementioned pretty little white girl with dreams of saving the world.
“But Amber,” some of you are saying, “what about you? Haven’t you fought tooth and nail for your opinions to be recognized as equal and valid? How would you feel if someone held your gender, white(passing)ness, or age against you?”
Ah, this is where my old problems with arrogance/condescension come back full swing.
See, I have several very powerful, very entrenched, very controversial (particularly in this part of the country) opinions. I believe, full stop, in a woman’s right to choose abortion. I believe in marriage equality. I especially support GMOs and VERY especially (this is my berserk button if anyone tries to disagree with me) support vaccinations. When I say I intend to work for Big Pharma one day, I’m only half kidding.
In the past two years at Rice, having chewed my way through many natsci courses, I haven’t come across a shred of evidence to detract from those last two opinions. Occasionally, while trowling the Internets, I will come across someone with an opposing point of view who has reasonably good arguing points and is reasonably respectful towards me, and in that case I am not above a friendly, relaxed discussion. But that happens more and more rarely to the point where I actively avoid any conversations about politics. If I spot an anti-GMO/anti-vax post on Facebook (for instance), I do my patented bomb-and-run technique – I limit myself to one post and then exit the page.
There have been several situations in the past couple of years where I’ve had my age/ethnicity/gender used against me – like when an ex-friend of mine told me that “women have it easy,” or when I became an oppressor, a constructed person, skin white as snow, for a whole group of minorities on Tumblr to direct their ill-contained rage at. And of course, there’s always those who say “Oh, you’ll know better when you’re older,” “You’ll know when you have kids,” “You’ll know when you get sick from vaccines/GMOs,” etc., etc. etc.
And that just sticks in the deepest part of my craw (wait, that sounded dirty) because deep down, I know some of those ad hominem attacks have validity. Compared to the majority of women on this earth, I do have it easy (maybe not as easy as men, but that is a different story); thanks to some quirk of genetics, I was born with Caucasian features and pale skin (bleached even whiter by long nights blogging) and a French-Canadian sounding last name; and finally, I am young. I am 20 years old. I have no kids, nor have I ever been pregnant. I hold the equivalent of an associate’s degree in biochemistry. The amount of significant life events I have tucked under my belt is woefully low.
Is that my fault? No, of course not. But it does significantly impact my opinions and knowledge. And the fact that I am fairly intelligent (relatively speaking) really does me no favors.
Let’s talk about GMOs and vaccines for a minute. The worst side effect any drug has ever given me was stained teeth. I do not have ASD. I do not have a chronic illness that doctors are unable to diagnose. I cannot fathom the pain that such individuals and their families may suffer, or their relief when they are presented with vaccines/GMOs as a possible cause. And when I show these people studies from the NIH and WHO, and start talking about ACh, and different strains of E. coli, and proper laboratory methods for lysing bacteria, I usually get a blank face and/or a plea to “stop being so condescending!”
Which I am. I act like my ability to understand just a little more science than the average person is a superpower or a blessing when really it is neither. And really, compared to actual scientists in the field, or professors at Rice, or even the rest of my class, I am pitiably undereducated.
I’m at that age where I’m old enough to want to save the world and young enough to think I know how. And that’s the source of this strange feeling I get when I watch or read Rachel Parent – although I would never accuse her of being arrogant (that would be like the pot calling the kettle black) she explains GMOs and golden rice like they are the easiest things in the world to understand, when really biotech is an incredibly complex and ever-changing field. I sympathize with her. I was her, six years ago – although on the other side of the aisle – and I still am, a little bit.
Knowledge is only a part of the puzzle. Experience is only a part of the puzzle. The biggest piece of all is understanding … understanding the other side(s), their fears, concerns, what drives them, and maybe even more importantly, understanding oneself. I think that’s the only way to move past pointless, circular Internet arguing and on to real life solutions that will make most of us happy and all of us healthy and safe.