Bill Nye Explains Why he is a GMO Skeptic

By Keith Kloor | November 6, 2014 4:54 am

Bill Nye, stalwart defender of evolution and climate science, has a new book out called, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. Nye, for those unfamiliar with him, is a popular science communicator. He also relishes verbal debate. In recent years, he’s become known for taking on creationists and climate skeptics.

Nye’s reputation as a soldier of science has led some to wonder where he stands on GMOs. Specifically, folks are curious if he’s changed his position since 2005, when his television show featured an episode that has since been criticized for mischaracterizing the science of biotechnology in a way that reinforces unwarranted fears, as one observer writes. Others have been more forgiving of that segment:

Most of the questions and fears he raises are the questions and fears of 2005 and, to a disappointing extent, the same fears we need to address today.

So now it’s nearly a a decade later and GMOs are still saddled with a fear factor that activists have worked hard to promote, much to the dismay of the plant science community. Where is Nye in this battle between scientists and those that frequently contest (and muddy) the science of agricultural biotechnology?

He’s MIA.

You don’t see him stepping into the fray to communicate the known facts about genetically modified crops, much less advising people to “chill out” about GMOs, as Neil deGrasse Tyson did earlier this year. This reluctance appears to stem from Nye’s discomfit with GMO technology, which he expresses in his new book. Appearing on reddit yesterday, Nye had a revealing exchange with one questioner, who poses this question:

Hi! I’ve been a long time fan, and I’d like to ask about something a bit old. I work in plant science, and we have this controversy that is every bit as unscientific, damaging, and irrational as the controversies surrounding evolution, vaccines, and climate change, so I was thrilled to see there was an Eyes of Nye episode on GMOs…right up until I watched it, and saw you talking about fantastical ecological disasters, advocating mandatory fear mongering labels, and spouting loaded platitudes with false implication. You can see my complete response here, if you are interested, and I hope you are, but it was a little disheartening.

When I look up GMOs in the news, I don’t see new innovations or exciting developments being brought to the world. I see hate, and fear, and ignorance, and I’m tired of seeing advances in agricultural science held back, sometimes at the cost of environmental or even human health, over this manufactured controversy. Scientists are called called corporate pawns, accused of poisoning people and the earth, research vandalized or banned, all over complete nonsense. This is science denialism, plain and simple. That Eyes of Nye episode aired 9 years ago, and a lot can change in nearly a decade, so I want to ask, in light of the wealth of evidence demonstrating the safety and utility of agricultural genetic engineering, could you clarify your current stance on the subject, and have you changed the views you expressed then? Because if so, while you work with public education, please don’t forget about us. We could use some help.

Nye’s response:

We clearly disagree.

I stand by my assertions that although you can know what happens to any individual species that you modify, you cannot be certain what will happen to the ecosystem.

Also, we have a strange situation where we have malnourished fat people. It’s not that we need more food. It’s that we need to manage our food system better.

So when corporations seek government funding for genetic modification of food sources, I stroke my chin.

Hmm. It’s interesting that Nye doesn’t bother to express disapproval at the incessant fear-mongering and misinformation that has polluted the public discourse on GMOs–a main point raised by the questioner. Nye could have acknowledged this unfortunate state of affairs and even perhaps mentioned that all the world’s major science bodies and institutions have looked carefully at the technology and not found it harmful to human health or the environment. That alone would have meant a lot coming from someone with his stature.

Instead, he avoids the main thrust of the questioner’s comment, invokes an absolutist version of the precautionary principle (rebutted effectively here in the case of GMOs) and closes with some odd remarks about malnourished fat people and an image of him stroking his chin.

If all this leaves you scratching your head, you probably are not alone.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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