Just Say KNOW!

Apr 1, 2013

I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty

to know what occurs but not recognize the fact

— William Stafford (from “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”)

I am a knowledge worker. The chances are good that you are too. My area of expert knowledge is much more obscure than most (if you need the tail feather of a Red-breasted Nuthatch identified, I’m your guy), but all of us 21st century Americans wield a mass of information that would be been inconceivable a few short decades ago. In fact, if I was asked to name the compensating benefit for all the ills of modern life, I would say: knowledge.

Surely it is not necessary to belabor this point, but we can use the epigraph above as one small example. Copy and paste that quote into Google, and it will instantly return a link to the whole profound and moving poem. A few more clicks will lead you to a detailed biography of the author, Oregon’s most beloved poet. From there, a link may lead you to explore the concept of being a conscientious objector (Stafford was one), and thence to the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And so on. It is easy to believe that the breadth of our knowledge is limited only by the expansiveness of our curiosity.

We all swim in a stream of information these days, like salmon following elusive, irresistible tastes toward places we do not quite know, but are somehow compelled to reach. And so we experience a deep sense of injustice when we bump our noses against a barrier blocking that flow, denying us even the right to ask a question.

Those barriers are all too real, and maintaining them is the constant care of a powerful and well-funded enterprise: the ignorance lobby. Consisting of special interests and their prize politicians, its mission it is to prevent the spread of information that could compromise their narrow economic and partisan priorities.

Let’s begin with the example that’s most in the news as I write this: the suppression of research on gun violence. Data gleaned from various sources indicate are that there were over 31,000 firearms-related deaths in the U.S. in 2009 (the latest information available). Of these, more than 18,000 were suicides, a matter of great public health concern. And yet, the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s public heath institute, contains not one entry for “firearms” or “guns” in its exhaustive index – unless you count reports on hearing loss at firing ranges and helpful tips on nail gun safety.

How can this be? In 1996, a Congressional provision pushed by the National Rifle Association banned use of federal money to “advocate or promote gun control,” bringing federal research on gun violence as a public health issue to a grinding halt. This is not an isolated example: even the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) contains a provision explicitly stating that physicians are not authorized to ask patients for any information relating to the possession, use, or storage of firearms or ammunition in the home.

As a result of these ignorance mandates, we as a people do not have the basic facts we need to understand the consequences of gun ownership in America. Perhaps by the time you read this, that will have begun to change as a result of a presidential executive order allowing this kind of data collection. But really, how unbelievable that such suppression of basic public health research was ever permitted in the first place!

Unfortunately, the work of the ignorance lobby is not limited to the issue of guns. Of the many possible examples, there is space here for only two: the composition of fracking fluids and the labeling of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).

In hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, huge quantities of water laced with chemicals are injected into deep geological formations containing natural gas, creating cracks and releasing the gas. The potential environmental problems associated with fracking are now receiving much media attention (and even a Hollywood movie, “Promised Land”). However, we lack critical data on exactly what chemicals are contained in the billions of gallons of fracking fluids used each year, thanks to industry-backed rules protecting this information as “trade secrets.”

In the words of a 2011 report by staffers of the Congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce, “The absence of a minimum national baseline for disclosure of fluids injected during the hydraulic fracturing process … has left an informational void … As a result, regulators and the public are unable effectively to assess any impact the use of these fluids may have on the environment or public health.” Once again, ignorance has been mandated by the powerful, to the detriment of everyone else.

On the issue of GMOs, agribusiness interests have successfully blocked labeling requirements that would allow consumers to know what’s in the food they’re buying. The U.S. is almost alone among developed countries in lacking such requirements, which are in place throughout the European Union, as well as in Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. In the 2012 election, a California ballot measure to mandate GMO labeling was defeated after opponents outspent supporters by more than 5 to 1. The largest donor in opposition,

Monsanto, gave over $8 million, almost as much as the entire amount raised in support of the measure.

Meanwhile, the first genetically modified animal to be offered for commercialization, known as the “AquaAdvantage” salmon to its supporters and “Frankenfish” to its opponents, is nearing FDA approval. The modified fish grow much faster than wild-type Atlantic salmon, thanks to genes from Pacific chinook salmon and another fish, the eelpout. The FDA concluded that despite these unprecedented genetic modifications, the GMO fish were not “materially different” from wild fish, and so revealing their GMO status would only confuse consumers. Sorry, but that doesn’t pass the sniff test.

In each of these underlying issues, there is plenty of room for debate. Reasonable people can reach different conclusions about the costs and benefits of fracking, or GMO foods, or gun ownership. But legitimate analysis and decision-making can only occur when knowledge is promoted, not suppressed. Information is power, it has often been said, and denying us information renders us powerless to make our own choices. That is precisely the goal of the ignorance lobby. So to those forces, powerful though they may be, let’s all join together and Just Say KNOW!