"Weird event" condemned for quelling debate about GMOs and pesticides
The Alliance for Science is a campaign of Cornell University that claims to want to "depolarise the charged debate" around GMOs. Supported by a $5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and with the GMO industry as its partners, the real aim of the campaign appears to be to promote GMOs and silence critical voices.
This became crystal clear on 10 September, when the Alliance hosted a panel discussion titled, "Ask Me Anything About GMOs", at the Unitarian Church in Ithaca, New York. Ithaca is also home to Cornell.
The Bioscience Resource Project has posted a video recording of the event, which appears to have been most memorable for being extraordinarily boring, thanks to all critical voices having been excluded from the panel. The Bioscience Resource Project has also chronicled some of the background to the Ithaca event.
Two highlights particularly stand out. At 29 minutes into the video, the pro-GMO scientist Kevin Folta, who was recently exposed as having received a $25,000 grant from Monsanto despite repeated claims of never having had a dime from the company, says, "I am one of the most fiercely independent people you will ever meet". Interestingly, emails between Folta and Monsanto, released by the New York Times, discuss setting up “Ask Me Anything" events at US universities with Folta on their panel, i.e. they set out the PR formula followed in Ithaca.
Then at 38 minutes, the director of the Bioscience Resource Project, Dr Jonathan Latham questions the claims being made by the panel on pesticide use due to GMO crop adoption. Just as Dr Latham is getting into his stride, supporters of the Alliance for Science start banging a gong to drown him out!
Perhaps the event should have been titled, "Ask Me Anything About GMOs, As Long As It Doesn't Successfully Challenge Our Pro-GMO Claims".
This bizarre episode helped prompt a letter to the editor of the Ithaca Times from Trevor Pinch, reproduced below. Prof Pinch is not only a musician and author of The Golem: What You Should Know About Science; he is also the Goldwin Smith Professor of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell.
Letter: For whom the bell tolls
The Ithaca Times, 16 Sept 2015
I have attended some wonderful concerts at the Unitarian Church of Ithaca. Last night I attended a weird event there organized "to answer your GMO questions." It was promoted by a well-endowed group, the Cornell Alliance for Science. Things started well enough with some rousing songs by the local group Vitamin L. But the concert segued into something rather strange with sinister overtones. I never thought the day would come when I would hear musical instruments, such as the sacred gong - normally a call for prayer - used in our churches to repress debate. But that is exactly what happened when the Cornell Alliance for Science felt a speaker from the community was talking too long or asking awkward questions about GMOs.
The question or comment was drowned out by the use of a gong. Yes, it was done as a supposedly amusing way to move on - a triangle served as a warning before the big-hitting gong came in. But is this the way to generate rational debate over the pros and cons of GMOs? Certainly there is misinformation out there. But no real debate was allowed at the meeting.
Questions could be asked from the floor, but the only people who could speak more than once were the designated speakers, and even when someone in the audience thought the comment from the platform was outrageously false - yes, scientists can make false statements - no one was allowed to question it.
The French scholar Jacques Attali famously pointed out that social power is often exercised through sound. When noise is heard in a new way, something is up. Gongs silencing debate? Some powerful alliance somewhere is creaking.
Philosopher Karl Popper pointed out years ago that science ought to be about criticism and the growth of knowledge. We know it isn't always that way, but if the Cornell Alliance for Science wants to teach the community of Ithaca about science or wants to learn from this diverse community and its experience of agriculture, they could start off by being a little less arrogant. Perhaps they could feel confident enough to dare to have a critic of GMOs on the panel. Perhaps they could include social scientists or actual farmers. We are Ithaca. We know about science. We know how to make sacred music, too. We know plenty about farming. We know about good food. We know arrogance when we hear it, and it doesn't resonate well with
- Trevor Pinch, Ithaca
Pinch is a local musician and author of The Golem: What You Should Know About Science.