You may have heard that Susan Sarandon recently gave an interview attacking Roundup, Monsanto and GMOs. It’s always so disappointing to me when someone I like throws up the conspiracy flag and waves it around. “DO YOUR RESEARCH!!!!!” always seems to be the common plea, which of course means “GOOGLE SOME WORDS AND CLICK ON THE FIRST RESULT!!!!” smh, just smh.
Since the advent of social media it seems these ignorant opinions have gained more acceptance. Social media has made it easier for those with fringe opinions to find each other and roll into a big stinky wad of nonsense. This will probably always be the case.
A bigger challenge is when conspiratorial opinions start getting repeated by public figures. Susan Sarandon, Neil Young, and yes, Bernie Sanders, are some recent examples. People trust faces they have grown up with. “They’re famous, they must know what’s going on!”
Now of course that’s ridiculous. Public figures are people too, full of ignorant opinions and shaky logic. Sometimes otherwise reasonable people believe in Bigfoot.
The underlying problem is not the public figure themselves. It’s that people let their guards down when they trust a source of information. Some people are poor judges and live their entire lives with their guards down, the kind of people who always end up asking “why does this happen to me?” without ever looking inward at what part they are playing in their lives, and what kind of people or ideas they’re letting in.
Because of this, you end up with people who believe things solely because their friends do, or some actor/songwriter/politician does. It’s like they’re missing an aspect of skepticism in their logic and some stuff that doesn’t make sense has leaked in.
So what can be done about it?
I think that as skeptics, we need to work twice as hard to convince people of our position. This means patience in the face of being asked the same frustrating questions. If all we had to do is confirm someones bias, it would be a lot easier. But when we engage with people who think things like “GMOs are EVIL!!” we’re dealing with an entrenched, passionate opinion. It’s not one based on science, or evidence, it’s an opinion based on an irrational fear that has been fed and reinforced multiple times. And untangling that can be a difficult, slow process that requires us to be more gentle.
You might remember that Bill Nye somewhat famously changed his opinion on GMOs recently. Now, Bill Nye may not be a regularly active scientist (though he plays one on TV) but he approached the evidence with a scientific mind and came to a new conclusion.
Looking at other public figures like Susan Sarandon, Neil Young, and Bernie Sanders, we as skeptics have to work harder to communicate our points without being as passionate and angry as the opposition. It’s easy to fall into mob mentality, but when I look at Susan Sarandon’s twitter and see her under attack for her comments, all I can think is “calling this person dumb isn’t going to change their opinion, and that’s a missed opportunity.”
If we’re going to help Monsanto fix their PR problem, we need to do ourselves a favor and remember we’re working against false information that could dwarf Everest: Everything from poor understanding of the situation to India, to health risks, to the amount of testing and work put into GMO, to the history of Monsanto itself and how much money they make.
I take any opportunity presented to me in real life to correct people about GMO. The first reaction is almost always shock, that anyone would dare defend them. But if you approach it slowly, and make sure to ask simple questions about their understanding, you’ll find a cool head will get more of your point across. And then back off. You may only get one chance to plant that seed. People are less inclined to remember what you said to them and more inclined to remember how you made them feel. If you make people feel stupid for being against GMO, you’re never going to convince them otherwise. Ever.
Remember, you’re dealing with someone who may not even be sure why GMOs are bad, as this opinion leaks into the psyche of the social media we’re all consuming. It’s extremely rewarding when you do make that breakthrough, and I encourage you to try it next time it’s in front of you.
The other thing we can do is poke fun. We like to joke a lot at TMR- enjoying yourself is actually genuinely good for your health (more so than organic food versus non-organic). The pro GMO side is a lot more fun than the anti, many of whom seem absolutely miserable in their online persona. How tiring it must be to shout all the time. But hey, they give us a never-ending stream of content at least.
Work on your friends with anti GMO opinions carefully. Hopefully, Sarandon, Sanders and Young’s friends will do the same.