The cult of anti-GMO: A lot like the cult of antivaccine

Over the years I’ve been studying science versus pseudoscience, medicine vs. quackery, reason versus crankery, I’ve noticed one thing. The cranks, pseudoscientists, and quacks of the world have a hard time dealing with legitimate criticism. Now, I know I sometimes get a bit—shall we say?—frisky with my criticisms. OK, obnoxious. I have, however, mellowed considerably since the dawn of this blog, as any reading of posts from the early days (or even not-so-early days) will confirm. Sure, I do occasionally still reach back into that reservoir of the “Insolence” that got me started, but I’d never have lasted so long as a blogger if snark and sarcasm were all I had. Over time, the snark and sarcasm remain, but at a much lower level than before. I don’t need them as much any more, but I do still find them to be useful tools.

Oddly enough, though—although it could be a bit of confirmation bias—it’s my less “colorful” posts, my more sober, straightforward analyses of quackery that tend to provoke the nastiest reactions. I could be wrong, but I think it’s because they can’t handle sober, science-based criticism. Indeed, although, sadly, it’s not a trait that’s limited to cranks, if there’s one characteristic that nearly all cranks share it’s an intolerance of criticism and a tendency to want to shut it out. I just saw a story the other day that illustrates this principle:

The event began innocently enough. A small group of Centre For Inquiry members and UBC Okanagan professors were in the Okanagan College theatre lobby handing out information sheets on the science of genetically modified organisms.

The speaker for the evening was Jeffrey Smith, a well-known anti-GMO activist who has zero scientific credentials, though you might recognize him as a practitioner of yogic flying and member of the Natural Law Party.

We talked to people as they came in and were energetic but polite. After a few minutes, the organizers approached and accused us of being disruptive, disrespectful and of having removed one of their posters.

Their rather scary leader raised her voice, told us we were trespassing and threatened to call security, causing quite a commotion. Since we were there to attend the event and it was a public space, she was unable to remove us and the poster in question was found on the floor, where it had fallen before our arrival.

As the showdown became a standoff, a fellow who had already been seated came out, complaining the organizers had forced him to leave. He said they had asked everyone in the theatre to stand if they believed in the anti-GMO movement. Those left sitting were told to leave, and he had to fight to get his money back.

No dissenters allowed.

Exactly. Where have we seen this before? Oh, yes, I remember. Antivaccinationists do the same thing. Remember the antivaccine conference Autism One a few years ago? For those of you not familiar with Autism One, it’s a yearly antivaccine autism quackfest where the quackiest of autism quack treatments are featured, treatments like homeopathy and bleach enemas. Ken Reibel and Jamie Bernstein tried to attend the quackfest back in 2011. They weren’t doing anything illegal. They weren’t disrupting things. Certainly, they weren’t going as far as this CFI group and handing out leaflets.

So what happened? Of course, someone recognized Ken, and Jamie and Ken were kicked out. It was the second time Ken had been expelled from this particular quackfest. Both times, he was escorted out, the first time by hotel security, the second time by police.

Now, at an anti-GMO rally, we see an anti-GMO activist trying to do the same sort of thing and doing his best to make sure that no one asked any “inconvenient” questions that he couldn’t answer. In case you doubt the level of Smith’s crankery, it’s worth taking a look at this post about the wild theories of Jeffrey Smith. It turns out that not only is Smith into wild anti-GMO conspiracy theories, but he is into transcendental meditation. That in and of itself isn’t necessarily cranky; lots of people are into TM. However, he’s into more than just TM. He’s into yogic flying technique, all in order to reduce crime and increase “purity and harmony” in the “collective consciousness.” In addition, he went on a major rant over Michael Taylor’s being appointed as a senior advisor to the commissioner of the FDA because he had been Monsanto’s attorney before becoming policy chief at the FDA in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, apparently his talk was full of the usual tropes. One particularly amusing one was his warning to the audience not to confuse correlation with causation. So far, so good. Then, according to Blythe Nilson, he proceeded to do exactly that by showing many graphs correlating the increase in use of GMOs with increases in all sorts of diseases, and apparently he did it rather sloppily at that. Even more amusingly:

As soon as the talk was over, before Smith even asked for questions, a woman in the front row leapt up and launched into a passionate discourse on chemtrails, another topic of one of my previous columns. She rightly pointed out the graphs Smith used were merely correlational and declared it could just as easily have been chemtrails rather than GMOs on the X axis.

A few in the audience applauded, and I clapped with them. Me – applauding a woman who is convinced jet contrails are a secret government plot! Strange bedfellows, indeed.

Ultimately, a lone skeptic asking a question was shouted down, so much so that one of the skeptics was frightened about returning to the cars. As was the case with Autism One, the behavior of the organizers of Jeffery Smith’s talk was, above all else, indicative of fear, fear of criticism, fear of science that he can’t answer. Scientific meetings are not like this. Skeptical meetings are not like this either; indeed, at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in 2010, a moon hoax believer managed to get to the front of the line to challenge Adam Savage about the Mythbusters episode on moon hoaxers. He was not expelled; in fact, Savage respectfully answered him and he was later seen at various other events at TAM. At the Lorne Trottier Symposium later that year, a believer in Royal Rife quackery asked about it. The panel (and I) only started to ask him to leave after the man had worn out his welcome by dominating and monopolizing the question and answer session to the point where people waiting in line behind him were denied an opportunity to ask their questions due to time constraints. In other words, he got his say and was not asked to leave until he had reached the point of showing an extreme lack of consideration for his fellow audience members waiting to ask questions of the panel. Nothing I see in this account suggests that this is what was going on here.

Blythe Nilson compares the anti-GMO movement to a “cult,” but the same could be said about just about any crank movement. Such a description is especially appropriate for the antivaccine movement, as I’ve described many times. Another example that comes to mind are defenders of Stanislaw Burzynski, who go out of their way to shut out disconfirming information and arguments, while attacking enemies of the Great Man. Perusing the comments of Nilson’s post is an exercise that reminds me very much of when Anne Dachel sends her flying monkeys to a post about vaccines to dive bomb the comments with the poo of their arguments, except in this case it’s mainly one person doing it with anti-GMO rhetoric.

The more I see events like this, the more obvious the traits shared by antivaccine activists and anti-GMO activists become.