This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.
Every person and organization needs a reality check. It is healthy and vital to seriously consider the opinions of those with whom we disagree. For individuals, this prevents arrogance and promotes humility; for organizations, it prevents corruption and groupthink and promotes transparency. Unsurprisingly, when a viable and intellectually robust “loyal opposition” is absent, bad things can happen.
Take my city, Seattle, for example. Here, politics comes in two flavors: The left and the far left. There are few, if any, moderates or conservatives in positions of authority. Any person with even a hint of moderation or conservatism in their background is labeled a Republican (which, in this city, takes on the connotation of an ethnic slur) and purged from public office. There is effectively no loyal opposition in Seattle to keep the left in check.
Within this toxic milieu, and as a direct result of this ideological imbalance, no left-wing politician or political cause is considered too extreme to be socially acceptable. That explains why, on the first day of May each year, left-wing anarchists feel free to attack police officers and destroy property. It explains how nearly 51% of the electorate put a self-described socialist (actually a Trotskyite communist), Kshama Sawant, on the city council. And it explains why the cultish Lyndon LaRouche movement has a contingent of followers.
Sadly, such left-wing extremism is not confined to the political arena; it has contaminated science, as well. Though Seattle is one of the world’s leading cities for biomedical and biotechnological research, a substantial proportion of the population is anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, and pro-alternative medicine. Organic, gluten-free food and herbal supplements are the norm here, even though this pricey lifestyle runs contrary to modern science. Dedication to environmentalism trumps human safety, even during “Snowpocalypse” 2008, when then-Mayor Greg Nickels refused to salt the roads in order to protect Puget Sound (a salt body of water).
Such extreme thinking has reared its ugly head yet again. On Friday of last week, an animal rights group called “No New Animal Lab” protested near my alma mater, the University of Washington. When I was there working on my PhD in microbiology, occasionally we would receive notices from the administration warning that activists were in the neighborhood. We were told to avoid them.
That was good advice. Animal rights activists and their environmentalist allies have a bad track record in Seattle. In 2001, the Earth Liberation Front, an ecoterrorist group, firebombed a facility at the University of Washington. The same group was also responsible for burning people’s homes.
Thankfully, No New Animal Lab has not resorted to those tactics. At least not yet. Instead, they have chosen to behave like creepy stalker ex-boyfriends, screaming over the phone at the executives of Skanska (the firm contracted to build a new animal lab at the University of Washington) and protesting outside their homes. Similar tactics with the intention to intimidate and harass were used against University of Washington faculty. According to the Seattle Times, Skanska successfully obtained a protection order against the group, preventing some of its members from protesting outside their executives’ homes.
The court’s decision was wise. Other similar incidents in California turned violent. It may be only a matter of time before like-minded groups in Seattle once again resort to violence.
The irony, of course, in the animal rights movement is that every single person on the planet has benefited from animal research. If you have ever been to a hospital, clinic, or Walgreens, then you have directly reaped the benefits of animal research. If you have ever taken medication, you have benefited from animal research. Scientists do their best to minimize animal suffering and, when possible, to replace animal studies with in vitro or in silico research.
Frustratingly, in Seattle — a city that prides itself on being one of the most educated in America — such nuance and logic falls on deaf ears. This is not simply a result of its left-wing ideology (because right-wing ideologies produce their own noxious messes), but more a result of the siloed thinking inherent in ideologically pure organizations. The penalty of political polarization is that each side is controlled by its more extreme elements.
One wonders if things might be different if more places had a loyal opposition willing to bring the fringes back from the edge.