Saturday, June 16, 2012

Unthinking Activism

I just walked past a flyer calling for students to join in some kind of political activism to support the doctors imprisoned in Bahrain. I thought: I know very little about these doctors and about the situation in Bahrain, so it would surely be wrong to start demanding changes I don't understand. Doing nothing, or at least learning more first, would be better.

It reminded me of the first time I looked at the online activist petition website on the recommendation of a friend, and saw this petition to ban a type of pesticide that it said was driving honeybees to extinction:
We call on you to immediately ban the use of neonicotinoid pesticides until and unless new independent scientific studies prove they are safe. The catastrophic demise of bee colonies could put our whole food chain in danger. If you act urgently with precaution now, we could save bees from extinction.
 I was surprised because earlier I had read this Freakonomics Blog article:
As recently as March 2010, media reports have continued to stress the pesticide connection as the leading causative factor behind the nation’s declining bee population. To date, no scientific evidence directly supporting this conclusion has emerged. Of course, this could change. The problem here is not that pesticides are a suggested cause of CCD-this seems perfectly reasonable to assume. Rather, it’s that they have been routinely favored-and sometimes politicized-as the singular or most likely cause when, as it turns out, there are a number of supplementary explanations that bear on the phenomenon. These explanations are neither as simple nor as damning of our behavior as the pesticide explanation.
I don't know what has killed so many honeybees, and that uncertainty is my point. It would seem foolish to noisily demand changes I don't understand. I wondered if online petition sites like that might trick naive people into supporting spurious causes.

One might argue that we should ban those pesticides temporarily, to be on the safe side, but there are costs to this too. I like very much a comment by economist Russ Roberts that 'there are no solutions, only tradeoffs'. If the government bans a pesticide, what does this do to food output? Farmers' incomes? Food prices? Will they substitute some more harmful pesticide instead? I didn't sign the petition and I suspect a lot of activists demanding change one way or another are more attracted to the simple narratives ('save the bees') than have a reasonable understanding of that which they want to change. 

Back in 2005 I eagerly signed the Live 8 petition to increase aid and cut debt to many very poor countries. I ask myself now if I was duped: I've no real idea if aid and debt relief does help to reduce poverty or not, and what the hidden costs were. Activism without understanding might be a bad idea.

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