My Experience Giving a ProGMO Talk at Skeptics Events

For decades now, organisations like Greenpeace, GM-Freeze, and Friends of the Earth have done a fantastic job convincing the population that GM-food is harmful to humans. To do this, they have quoted scientific literature that claims GMOs have been shown, among other things, to cause cancer, leukaemia, and stomach inflammation; but is there really any truth to these claims? What do the papers these organisations are promoting really say, and do they have any flaws? Or, in actual fact, are GMOs going to kill us all?

Over the past year, I have been giving a talk to various skeptical and humanist groups across the country trying to answer these questions. To do this, I critiqued several highly referenced anti-GM papers, looking past their veneer of good science and discovering what they really say about GMOs and the organisations who promote them. My talk, essentially, was an amalgamation of my work here online fighting pseudoscience and scaremongering, and was heavily based on the following blog posts…

The talk was not, as I am sure most of you would think, designed to convince people that GMOs are safe.  Instead, it was designed to hammer home the fact that the ability to genetically modifying an organism is simply a tool and that every GMO must be evaluated on its merits. The talk itself was split up into four sections, with the first being an introduction to myself, and what exactly is and is not a GMO. The second section was a quick crash course on how to perform an animal study, followed by the third section where I pointed out glaring errors in these highly referenced anti-GMO papers. In the final section, I discussed the dangers of painting each GMO with the same brush and how this can lead to people suffering and even dying.

I made a big deal about how my presentation was only about the anti-GMO literature which I consider to be the cornerstone of the anti-GMO movement, and not about the ethics or economics of GMOs and nor was it going to be about any particular company. I often started my presentation by saying how ridiculous it would sound if someone told you not to go and buy a Nintendo Wii because they disagree with the business practices of Sony (who make the PlayStation), yet how many times do you hear people saying “I’m against GMOs because of Monsanto”.

A picture of me giving a cut-down version of my talk at QED taken by Al Johnston

Overall, my talk received a lukewarm response and was poorly attended compared to my previous lectures on AIDS Denialism. This really took me by surprise, as I presumed a talk focusing around the science of a technology that is so very often deliberately made out to be the boogieman, as well as an in-depth explanation on how some papers quoted by large organisations who oppose GMOs were flat-out fraudulent, would be perfect for skeptics in the pub.

I was also shocked by the number of people in attendance who held dogmatic, almost conspiratorial, views on GMOs, yet still called themselves a skeptic, with no irony. It truly was fascinating seeing the same people who scoff at those who don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change shoot me evil looks when I said in my talk that “anyone who tells you that there is something inherently dangerous about the act of genetically modifying an organism either doesn’t know what they are talking about, or are lying to you”.

I was also confronted by a fair number of people who were clearly vehemently opposed to GMOs and were, therefore, quite hostile towards me. One such person approached me as I was having a conversation with a fellow attendee and handed me a page from a newspaper. He then said something along the lines of, “There ARE people who think GMOs are dangerous” before waiting for my response. I quickly read the article, which was nothing more than an opinion piece and had very little to say on the subject before ending with the cliché line which I now almost instinctively roll my eyes at, about how some scientists are worried about the technology. I handed it back to him and said how the views of this one reporter are not the same as those shared by the scientific community, and that it brings nothing new to the table. You could tell by his expression that this old man was obviously taken aback by what I said, and truly thought he had a trump card. He then began to murmur something that I could not quite hear before looking me square in the eyes and saying, “You are spreading propaganda”.  He then left before the question and answer section started.

This would not be the last accusation of spreading propaganda, as a few months later the same thing happened again. This time, a man approached me literally seconds after my talk had ended and, before I had a chance to finish the first sip of my drink, asked (in an irate tone) why I had neglected to mention the fact that Monsanto were paying me to give these talks. Before I had the chance to answer him, he suggested that I should put a disclaimer on my website letting people know who I work for. When I was eventually able to get a word in edgeways, I told him that I didn’t get paid to give these talks and I don’t, nor have I ever, worked for Monsanto. You would think that would make him pause for thought, but he was still pushing for me to essentially publish my curriculum vitae on the front cover of my website, as if my employers have anything to do with my out of work activities. For the record, my employer is aware of my online activity and they have told me (not that they had to) that in no circumstances am I allowed to link my work online to them. Next, the man (who was showing no signs of becoming less irate) began to repetitively tell me that my presentation was biased and, you guessed it, that I was spreading propaganda.

One thing that I noticed happened repeatedly in the Q&A sessions was that I was asked many questions that had nothing to do with GMOs. Looking back, I think this really speaks volumes about the lack of basic knowledge on the subject, but at the time I found myself irritated by people who were unable to separate the technology from a specific company or from industrial farming in general. This made for some really boring Q&A sessions because there are only so many ways you can say “that is not a specific GMO problem”. One particular Q&A session was excruciating when, for about fifteen minutes, I gave the same guy the same response, followed by a brief explanation as to how his concern with GMOs are not really about GMOs. It got so bad towards the end that the compere actually jumped in and tried his hardest to explain, before abruptly calling the Q&A to an end.

Overall the Q&A sessions were a little hit and miss with some like the one above being painfully boring, whereas others where thoroughly enjoyable. People were asking me thought provoking questions that encouraged debate among everyone in the room; however, there were two separate instances where I came face to face with the kind of crazy you only see in the YouTube comments section. The first was by a woman who interrupted me whilst I was answering her question on the safety of GM-crops on the market with “all the scientists are bought”. I froze for a few seconds, not knowing how to react to something so absurdly stupid. I told her that what she has said was ridiculous and moved on to the next question, as I felt replying to such a moronic statement would be a waste of my time and everyone else’s in that room.

The second time I came face to face with crazy was at the end of my final talk down in Winchester. Although we did have a few technical difficulties, I believed it was well received.  However, I could not help noticing a small group of women at the front of the auditorium who were constantly writing things down and giving me disapproving looks during my talk. I thought nothing of it at the time, but at the Q&A session, you could tell that they thought of me as the antichrist who wanted nothing more than to release a dangerous monster into the wild. Most of their questions were classic “gotchas” and statements easy to dismiss, but right at the end, one of them decided to throw in her two cents and explain her reason for being against GMOs. She said that genetically modifying something and “forcing it” (her words, not mine) to take in foreign DNA is rape! She kept repeating herself, saying that this is nothing more than rape because the plant does not have a choice in the procedure. This monologue she delivered must have lasted for 5 minutes – the whole time she repeatedly accused scientists of raping nature. As she was doing this, the disapproving murmurs from the rest of the audience were getting gradually louder. When she finally finished her tirade and looked at me for a response, I calmly said, “I think you are wrong” which got an applause from the audience!

Looking back, I don’t think I was quite prepared to meet the raw vitriol that some people have towards GMOs, and I was genuinely shocked at how prevalent it was within the skeptical community. Now, I know it sounds as if I am being overly critical of the people who attended my talk, and perhaps I am. The truth is that the people who I believe hold outdated anti-science views on GMOs were in the minority, as the majority of the people I met seemed to be open to the possibilities that GMOs have to offer, and were fascinated to find out just how low the bar had been set for organisations pushing the narrative that GMOs are dangerous.

Overall, it was an enjoyable experience, but I did finish thinking that a fear and distrust of GMOs is so ingrained into our society that it’s going to be a long time before we look back and think “what the hell were we playing at” and use this technology to its full potential.

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About Myles Power (564 Articles)
My name is Myles Power, and I run the educational YouTube channel, powerm1985. I spend what little free time I have sharing my love of SCIENCE! through home experiments, visiting sites of scientific interest, and angrily ranting at pseudoscience proponents. I am also one of the founding members of the podcast 'The League of Nerds' - which I co-host with James from 'The History of Infection'.

9 Comments on My Experience Giving a ProGMO Talk at Skeptics Events

  1. Thank you for having the strength to keep doing this.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. When you spoke at Winchester, did Jonathan mention to you that previously we had Prof Jim Dunwell of Reading University speak about GMOs? I didn’t know much about the subject and was surprised to learn that “public pressure” had led to the withdrawal of all GM foods from UK sale.

    https://flic.kr/s/aHskhyxdXt

    Like

  3. Robert Wager // April 18, 2017 at 11:48 pm // Reply

    Good on ya mate

    Like

  4. Robert Victor // April 19, 2017 at 2:17 am // Reply

    Ageist!

    Like

  5. Instead of just telling someone “you’re wrong”, better to tell them WHY. For example, on the “rape of plants” thing, ask if killing plants for food is murder, if taking fruit from a plant is theft, if growing a plant on a farm is slavery.

    Similarly, in reaction to “all scientists are bought”, don’t just say “ridiculous”, say something like “scientists are not a monolith, often they vehemently disagree with each other, have all the scientists in Cuba, India, China etc also been bought in the same way, you personally could learn the science yourself and verify it”.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fantastic article. I’m fascinated by the dogma of tribalism in intellectual thought, and just how strange it all is. Essentially, if a GMO product could demonstrably save the world, they still would be anti it, for no reason other than ideology.

    Like

  7. Really interesting article, Myles – thank you. I really like your published work on GMOs and have learned a lot from them. One question – are you sure the critics you mention at your GMO talks were part of those particular skeptic groups? They come across more as anti-GM activists who perhaps saw the talk publicised and attended with the sole intention of challenging you. Not that every skeptic is totally rational on every subject, of course!

    Like

  8. Brian Eggo // April 19, 2017 at 4:04 pm // Reply

    Don’t want to commit the ‘No True Skeptic’ fallacy here, but I’ve got a feeling that the people that you encountered at those talks may not have been really representative of the ‘Skeptic Community’. At Glasgow Skeptics we’ve had creationists turn up at a talk on evolution, truthers turn up at our 911 event, and on Monday night we had a super-ranty climate change denier rabble rousing during a talk from the CCL.
    We didn’t have any anti-GMOers when you spoke for us because it was part of a ticketed all day event … but we had a few when Vance Crowe from Monsanto came to speak for us.
    Of course, there are definitely regulars who have their ‘blind spots’ … but I think it’s unavoidable when you’re tackling any subject which is deemed as controversial that you’re going to have people in the audience who may be less rational than the rest.
    The best you can hope for on such occasions is that they don’t disrupt too much. If they paint a bad picture of the mentality of those on the other side of the fence, then that could even be deemed as a positive

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m amused to see the pushback on this among the skeptic community. I’ve seen all these same things, in both pub talks I participated it, attended, and even at skeptic conferences.

    Like

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