How Free Markets Neutralize Junk Science

How Free Markets Neutralize Junk Science
AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu
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Anti-science activists can be very destructive when they get their way. Groups like Greenpeace attack innovations, sometimes literally, in biotechnology and energy production and millions of people suffer as a result, especially in the developing world. This is evident in Uganda, where the government continues to debate a GMO safety bill this week as beatable agricultural diseases ravage crops.

Science literacy is the obvious antidote to policies that disregard evidence, but there’s an important precursor to implementing it: economic freedom. A free society creates an environment where science can flourish. So if we want to spread science literacy around the world, we may first have to encourage poor countries to embrace ideas like individual liberty and free markets.

Wealthy Societies Invest in Science and the Environment
A majority of scientists remain skeptical of capitalism; they don’t trust corporations to act responsibly without government oversight. Looking at the data, however, we can see an interesting relationship between freedom, economic development and science. The freest countries around the world, as measured by metrics like low taxes, property rights, and free trade, tend to be the wealthiest as measured by per-capita income. And it’s primarily wealthy countries like the U.S. that invest in scientific research and thus enjoy a cleaner environment and better public health than poorer countries run by authoritarian governments.

Entire libraries have been written to explain why free markets are so good at generating prosperity, but to briefly sum up the case here, people in free societies pursue whatever line of work they want, and this economic specialization gives rise to ever-increasing amounts of goods and services that we all consume. The evidence for this is nearly incontrovertible.

As their economic fortunes improve and they can meet their basic needs, free countries take a greater interest in public goods like a cleaner environment and improved public health, and they invest more resources in the scientific infrastructure that makes these luxuries possible. Study after study confirms this relationship. Air quality, for instance, is highest in wealthy, democratic countries. Or as the authors of one study put it, “freer trade appears to be good for the environment.”

They also Reject Junk Science

This brief economics lesson is relevant to the fight against activist pseudoscience for an important reason. Countries that benefit from science tend to ignore activist doomsaying. If you want to send your kids to public school in the U.S., for instance, they have to be vaccinated in most cases. Similarly, the federal government maintains a pretty sensible view on transgenic food. These policies are in place because science literacy is relatively high in America and we generally ignore the hysteria coming out of the anti-GMO and anti-vaccine movements.

Moreover, the experts who produce all the scientific innovations we enjoy are also great educators. Led by luminaries like Dr. Kevin Folta, academia is getting pretty good at beating back the army of science deniers who unnecessarily scare people about chemicals, vaccines and GMOs. Despite extensive funding and carefully orchestrated marketing campaigns, anti-science groups are losing their public relations war with the scientific community.

The developing world doesn’t have it as good, unfortunately. Hampered by a history of corrupt, authoritarian governments, they invest far fewer resources in scientific research. As a result, they’re more susceptible to junk science. Only recently has this started to change as governments in these countries begin heeding the advice of experts. 

The anti-science movement is a formidable force, to be sure. They have done a lot of damage by scaring people in poor countries out of eating nutritious food and using safe medicine. But fear mongering tactics will lose their power as countries around the world continue to grow wealthier. We in the West should remember that freedom is essential to this process.

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