Nine days ago I wrote about a discussion between a reddit questioner and Bill “The Science Guy” Nye about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The questioner asked Nye if he still expressed his doubts about GMOs that he’d previously aired in an “Eyes on Nye” television episode. Here’s that episode if you want to see it:
The video’s not a debacle, but I don’t think Nye presents the issue fairly, and, in a few acted-out scenarios, he raises the issue of sneaky companies passing off environmentally dangerous products for their profit. He also raises fears that “modifying organisms is a way of modifying the world,” i.e., endangering ecosystems (in the last two minutes Nye paints one harrowing but overblown scenario). Finally, Nye says “we have enough food.” But as we know with cases such as golden rice, that’s not the only question at issue.
I agree with Pam Ronald’s assessment in this video that the benefits of GMOs far outweigh the risks. Throwing around names like “Monsanto” and “Big Agro” to demonize GMOs, as was done by some people in my earlier post, only serves to muddy this issue.
Ramez Naam has put together a page summarizing scientific organizations’ views on GMO, all of which attest to its safety of the process to date. Yes, of course one needs to think about the perils of such interventions, but right now there’s nothing obvious to worry about, and certainly nothing to justify the environmental “activist’s” trashing of fields and overheated demonstrations.
Nye responded to the reddit questioner by expressing his continuing doubt about GMOs, as well as some goal-post moving about “malnourished fat people” who “don’t need more food”. Nye:
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.
But enough of that. Over at his Discover Magazine website Collide-A-Scape, Keith Kloor publishes an open letter to Nye by Kevin Folta, a professor of horticultural science and plant molecular biology at the University of Florida—a letter challenging Nye to a public debate about GMOs. (Folta is an advocate for GMO foods.) Part of Folta’s letter is below:
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.
And here’s where Folta really has Nye on the spot, for since Nye has decided (vis-à-vis Ken Ham) that public debate is an appropriate way to air scientific disputes, how can he turn down this request?:
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 [sic] 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.
Now I don’t think Nye will take him up on this, for I don’t think The Science Guy has done his homework, and Folta appears to know his stuff. There’s no gain in Nye looking like a fool by losing this debate. But if he really thinks that these kinds of issues should be debated verbally on stage (I don’t agree), he really should engage.
Ten to one he won’t. I’m not a fan of the new Science Guy, and see him as a self-aggrandizing person trying to capture his lost limelight more eagerly than he wants to promulgate science. But if he favors the debate route, and sees it as a way to educate the public, this is his chance.