Open Letter to Bill Nye from a Plant Scientist

By Keith Kloor | November 10, 2014 7:30 am

Below is an open letter from Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida, Gainsville. In recent years, Folta has taken a leading role as an educator on the subject of agricultural biotechnology. He often engages with GMO critics and foes. Folta is a professor in a public institution and his research is sponsored by federal and state agencies.

Dear Bill Nye:

I’ve always appreciated your ability to communicate science to the public.  Your television shows taught us about our biological world and physical universe in an accessible, engaging manner.  In recent years you have become an outstanding ambassador for science. You have helped many people understand  that good science starts with a plausible hypothesis that is tested with careful design and statistical rigor, resulting in data that could be interpreted within the framework of the scholarly literature toward building or augmenting a scientific consensus.

You have applied this approach to teach the scientific evidence for evolution and anthropogenic climate change. You also have publicly and robustly rebutted the pseudoscientific positions underlying creationism and global warming denial.  In doing so, you have shown that evidence-based conclusions trump personal beliefs.

Last week you published a new book, Undeniable, again covering the harm of science denial with regard to evolution. But then in the same text, and in later comments on Reddit, you expressed a belief-based criticism of agricultural biotechnology, or “GMO” technology.  No evidence, just “here’s what I think” coupled to arguments from ignorance, and positions that lay perpendicular to the scientific consensus.  Your logic and reasoning match the fallacies of climate and evolution deniers, the people you correctly criticize.

Over almost two decades agricultural biotechnology has shown to safely and effectively aid farmers, and offers future promise to deliver higher quality food, more sustainably.  Perhaps you were just speaking off the cuff from an uninformed opinion. We all can’t be experts in everything.

However, given your prominent status and huge media platform, you have a special responsibility to accurately communicate the science about this subject. GMO technology is backed by massive data and proof of concept, yet the topic is poorly understood and frequently misrepresented in the public discourse by anti-GMO activists. Agricultural biotechnology is not going away; the public would be well-served by a fact-based discussion, not one that is colored by emotion or ideology.

My hope is that you will consult with experts in the field and rescind your incorrect assertions.  But if you elect to stand by them, they should be challenged, and challenged publicly.

Earlier this year you debated Creationist Ken Hamm in a public forum, where you stood on the shoulders of hypothesis-driven science to illuminate the emptiness of an anti-evolution position. In a recent interview with Smithsonian you justified the value of public debate in the science of evolution as “to draw attention to these people and their pseudoscientific belief systems, so that the next generation is not susceptible to these myths….”  I hope you feel the same when your beliefs are similarly questioned.

As a public scientist immersed in the biotech literature for 30 years, I am disheartened by your statements (so are many of my colleagues) as they do not reflect the current state of our scientific understanding. Let’s use public debate to articulate the science of this issue.  I am happy to arrange a forum at a major university for a civil, evidence-based debate on the benefits and risks of agricultural biotechnology. Consider this an invitation.  Three hours, same format as the Nye vs. Hamm debate.  Let’s talk about the science and make sure we get it straight.  Either I’m missing something you know, or you’re missing something I know, but it can’t work both ways.

Thank you for your consideration of this offer. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Kevin Folta Ph.D.

Professor, Horticultural Sciences and Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology, University of Florida

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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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