Friday, July 16, 2004

The Unfortunate Rise of the Neo-Luddite Movement.
How the unholy trinity of junk-science, sensationalist reporting and eco-reactionary fundamentalism in the modern age is hindering progress and technological advancement across the globe.

The last decade of the 20th century saw an unparalleled global economic expansion driven through the wide dissemination of Information Technology. IT proved to be the heretofore ultimate productivity enhancement, allowing for innovations like Just In Time delivery and real-time inventory management control. These innovations created what may in retrospect be one of the most effective income redistribution mechanisms in history: the use of Venture Capital to found hundreds of IT businesses with little or nor profit plan.

These developments enhanced the dissemination of discovery in several of the ‘hard sciences’ notably in chemistry and biology giving rise to most of the controversies of today. Unfortunately, these advancements come just as what can best be described as a New-Luddite movement has gained traction throughout much of the western world. In many ways this movement is fueled by radical ecological groups that are anti-science, the presses inability to report real science, but delights in sensationalizing junk science, and the rise of reactionary fundamentalist faiths, as best represented by Evangelical Christianity. This alliance of detractors is resulting in absurdity trumping good data, and potentially helpful products and avenues of research being stunted due to potentially unfalseifyable concerns.

Nanotechnology can probably be best described as the new chemistry. In many ways Nanotechnology and biotechnology are going to the most fundamentally important sciences of the new millennium. People heralded the Human Genome Project as one of the most important advances of our time. But that is nothing compared to the ability to either artificially manipulate machines or to create custom peptide sequences to bulk produce novel molecules with a pre-determined goal.

Unfortunately, both of these fields are plagued by speculation of disaster and uncontrolled developments wreaking havoc on our ecosystem. One of the historical problems with any scientific endeavor is the inevitable doom-sayers predicting mass horror at the hands of some abuse of the knowledge, and how we should as a result ban it (Or regulate it to oblivion). We are seeing this in the US currently with Stem Cell research and Nanotechnology.

Another example of all of this is Gene Modified foods. On November 20, 2002, a collection of African nations issued what is called the Lusaka Declaration. In short, it declares GM foods non grata in the signatory nations. This occurred as Zambia was undergoing a famine. Now, I can understand concerns about foods that is programmed to not be fertile in the wild. And I can to a certain extent understand concerns about food that has engineered pesticides. But how does the EU’s GM Food Free zones address extremely beneficial advances like Golden Rice? Vitamine A is one of the fundamental necessities for human existence. Yet though vast swaths of the world people suffer from a deficiency in this material, causing blindness in Africa and Asia.

So what happens? It is derided as ‘not a silver bullet’. It doesn’t do enough. GM food is evil regardless. So instead of adding a new tool in the fight against poverty induced malnutrition, it is barred as an ‘evil GM food’ form those who need it the most.

Another striking example of Neo-Ludditry is the Bush administrations stance on stem cell research. Because of the explicit linking of Embryonic Stems cells with Abortion, we have entered a phase of Federal paralysis on this potentially important avenue. Luckily for biologists interested in this arena, States like New Jersey are providing funding, and other nations like the UK are moving forward rapidly.

The end of patents, and novel drug development.
One of the more recent developments that scares the hell out of me is the current idea that Drug Companies are Big Bad Evil corporations, and they should surrender any hopes of recouping research expenditures by giving discoveries away. As Communism clearly demonstrated, if you remove incentive, people will not do such a thing. Remove the ability for drug companies to turn a profit from novel research by confiscating their Intellectual Property, and you eliminate the drive to do new things. If it becomes more profitable to sell aspirin, then that’s all we will get.

But, not all hope is lost. There are still bright spots in our technological future, and some people most definitely get it, as exemplified in The Tale of the Dragon. I can only hope as a citizen of what is probably the most technology driven nation on the planet that the Neo-Luddites will have their say, and then be swept aside by history. Because personally, I like the fact that we have novel research and advancement in such areas as statin blockers. And that one day we may be taking a multivitamin that not only reduces our Low Density Lippopolysaccharide levels, but may be able to convert it to HDL, thereby increasing bone density, reducing the odds of stroke and heart attack, and on and on and on. Never mind the more stunning implications of other areas of research. But none of this will be possible if the Neo-Ludditry get their way.


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