A decade ago, Bill Nye, aka The Science Guy, did a segment on GMOs for his TV show. His approach surprised some who saw it years later. “It was weightily anti-GMO, something I wouldn’t have expected from Bill Nye,” one writer has noted.
You can watch it yourself and decide. Others have rendered their judgement: Greenpeace, which campaigns against genetically modified crops (when it is not ripping them up), has given the Nye GMO episode a thumbs up. Rodale, a well known organization also opposed to agricultural biotechnology, heartily endorsed the segment, as well. “Bill Nye knows the truth about GMOs,” Rodale crowed.
Nye has recently published a new book that contains a short chapter on GMOs. I have read the chapter and can tell you that it closely reflects what he said on his TV show in 2005, which can be summed up as: Some people are understandably scared about a new technology that could be harmful to the environment.
Last October, Nye went on reddit and was confronted with this history. An admiring fan told Nye that he was “disheartened” by how GMOs were presented in that 2005 episode. The person went on to rue all the “hate, fear, and ignorance” that biotech scientists had to contend with. Nine years had passed since the GMO episode aired, the commenter said to Nye,
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?
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.
Earlier this week I learned that a dozen public sector scientists working in the field of biotechnology were hit with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from a California-based group opposed to GMO foods. I spoke with many of the targeted scientists and also with the anti-GMO activist who filed the document requests. My story will appear in the next issue of Science, a magazine/journal published weekly on Thursdays.
I have additional reporting on this developing story. So stay tuned. Meanwhile, I’ll post (below) any updates or related media coverage.
UPDATE: Here is a PDF of the freedom of information request sent to Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois. (He gave his permission.) It is *nearly* identical to the requests sent to all the other scientists. [*Nearly* was inserted after this sentence was written.]
On Twitter, Andrew Revkin wonders about the similarity to a previous controversial episode that rocked the climate science community:
— Andy Revkin (@Revkin) February 11, 2015
UPDATE: Kevin Folta, one of the scientists who received a Freedom of Information request, has posted a heartfelt response.
Last year, the late night talk show host and comedian Jimmy Kimmel added some levity to the contentious GMO debate. He went to a Los Angeles farmers market and asked passerby to define GMO. The responses were hilarious and perhaps revealing.
Of course, this was a comedy skit, so make what you will of the ignorance on display. Did the producers cherry pick the most most ridiculous sounding answers? Surely. Were there as many folks who answered correctly that got conveniently edited out? Who knows?
Still, the random responses elicited by Kimmel seem to be in line with recent research. A 2013 paper on American attitudes towards GMOs reported these survey results:
American consumers’ knowledge and awareness of GMO foods are low. More than half (54%) say they know very little or nothing at all about genetically modified foods, and one in four (25%) say they have never heard of them.
Now let’s jump to a new Pew poll that is getting widespread media coverage. Here’s one finding.
— Pew Research Center (@pewresearch) January 29, 2015
Well, that’s interesting. According to Pew, 2/3 of Americans doubt that scientists have enough information to judge the safety of GMOs. And yet previous (aforementioned) research suggests that more than half of Americans know zilch about genetically modified foods and a quarter never even heard of them. How is that so many people are clueless about genetically modified foods and yet–according to the Pew Survey–67% percent of Americans question whether scientists know enough about their health effects?
Indeed, as this article in Nature reports, the Pew poll
seems to reveal large gaps between scientists and the public when it comes to their opinions on a range of hotly debated scientific issues, such as climate change, evolution and the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods.
The gap is widest on the GMO issue. [UPDATE: Read Dan Kahan’s take on this and the whole Pew report]
The Nature piece by Erika Check Hayden includes excellent context on the Pew poll, as does this Atlantic article by Julie Beck and this one at FiveThirtyEight by Christie Aschwanden. Read these before you take the Pew results at face value. Dan Vergano at National Geographic also provides some larger perspective: Read More
Last summer I was at a party where the guests included a bunch of successful heart surgeons. I spoke at length with one of them (I’ll refer to him as Dr. X) who has known and sometimes worked with Dr. Oz at New York-Presbyterian hospital in Manhattan. Dr. X is in his 40s. He told me Oz had been a mentor to him.
I mentioned Oz’s popular TV show and how Oz, an accomplished, highly respected surgeon, had become increasingly known (and criticized) for promoting unscientific ideas and unproven health remedies. Dr. X nodded his head in lament. He agreed with Oz’s critics but he said that on balance, he thought Oz was a force for good because he got many people to care about their health.
It’s an interesting calculation. The next time I see Dr. X I might ask him if he still believes that Oz is a net plus, given this recent finding. Read More
If you missed the recent Intelligence Squared debate on GMOs, it’s worth watching. Or if you prefer, read the transcript. Like Nathanael Johnson, I was initially dubious about the event, then pleasantly surprised at how it turned out.
I was also a kinda surprised to see Bill Nye (The Science Guy) piggyback on it:
They’re debating genetically modified food- what the GMF? @IQ2US My opinion is in my new book: Undeniable, The Science of Creation
— Bill Nye (@TheScienceGuy) December 3, 2014
His opinion, alas, is not very Science Guy-like, as we learned several weeks ago. Some of you might recall the open letter from Kevin Folta, a University of Florida plant scientist, inviting Nye to participate in “a forum at a major university for a civil, evidence-based debate on the benefits and risks of agricultural biotechnology.”
The Science Guy never responded.
UPDATE: Additional news stories and responses at bottom.
The campaign by Greenpeace and other anti-GMO groups to abolish the position of the European Union’s chief science advisor appears to have succeeded. James Wilsdon, a professor of science and democracy at the UK’s University of Sussex, laments this news in the Guardian, including the odd timing of the announcement:
Borrowing a trick from the Jo Moore school of media management, the European Commission chose the evening before the Rosetta landing to quietly confirm that its most senior scientific role, that of chief scientific adviser (CSA) to its president, is being scrapped.
The following is a guest post from Paul McDivitt, a second-year master’s student studying journalism and mass communication research at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Follow him on twitter @paulmcdivitt.
UPDATE: The GMO labeling initiative in Colorado was soundly rejected. (Breakdown of Boulder vote is at bottom of post.)
Today, Colorado voters will decide if the state should require genetically modified foods to be labeled as such. The ballot measure is called Proposition 105. A Suffolk University poll showed that 49.2 percent in Colorado oppose the proposition, 29.8 percent support it, and 21 percent are undecided. The Democratic Party of Denver endorsed it.
Weeks ago, when I received a voter guide in the mail from the Boulder County Democratic Party, I was surprised to see that it did not take a stand on Proposition 105.
After all, Boulder is known as a liberal bastion. It established itself as a hippie paradise in the ‘60s, and remains a choice destination for free spirits and vagabonds alike, home to countless yoga studios, marijuana dispensaries, and a sprawling farmers’ market. Just the kind of place you would expect to support GMO labeling, right? Read More
Watching Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan and other books, engage on twitter, is like being ringside at a verbal boxing match with the intellectual equivalent of Clubber Lang, the snarling, contemptuous boxer played by Mr. T in Rocky 3. In the movie, Clubber Lang was so mean and nasty the performance was almost a parody.
When you see Taleb go ballistic on Twitter, as he often does, you wonder similarly if the guy is truly an angry asshole of the highest order, or if it’s just some performance schtick by an egghead scholar trying to liven up his day. Then again, he can’t seem to help himself: The guy did get into it one time with a parody Twitter account. As one observer noted:
ABC Carpet & Home, for the uninitiated, is a sumptuous home furnishings mecca with a chic interior and socially conscious ethic. The flagship store in Manhattan’s Flatiron district feels like a plush museum owned by a billionaire with a New Age affectation. Read More
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is embarking on a comprehensive study of genetically engineered (GE) crops. It will examine the historic development of agricultural biotechnology, assess the “purported” benefits and negatives of GE crops, review food and environmental safety issues, and explore where the technology may be headed.
What is prompting such a deep dive into a thorny thicket? This:
Consumers in the United States and abroad get conflicting information about GE crops. Proponents tout the benefits while opponents emphasize the risks. There is a need for an independent, objective study that examines what has been learned about GE crops, assesses whether initial concerns and promises were realized since their introduction, and investigates new concerns and recent claims.
It so happens that the first public meeting for this study will be held today and tomorrow. More on this in a minute.
First, let’s review essential findings on crop biotechnology and related food safety concerns from the past decade. Read More