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Intelligent, Educated, and Anti-GMO, Anti-Vax, Anti-Science?

They’re sometimes known as “antis.” People who are anti-vaccination, anti-GM technology, who believe in dangers of high-fructose corn syrup, in amber teething necklaces having analgesic properties, in epidurals being harmful, or in breastmilk being significantly superior to formula…what would most of us think they have in common? For one, those believing any permutation of these are heavily blinded by the “appeal to nature” fallacy. Some would be inclined to think such “antis” are less intelligent and less educated (on average) than their counterparts. After all, reason dictates that we trust scientific consensus, does it not? Even if we whittle these exclusively to items with unquestionable scientific consensus, we still have quite a list: GM technology is inherently safe, vaccines are unquestionably beneficial, corn syrup is not harmful and virtually chemically identical to sugar, and benefits from breastfeeding shown in studies are very minor and almost certainly due to confounding factors. Yet the nagging misconceptions persist, even among seemingly skeptical, learned people.

Perhaps we’d lump these antis together with right-wing climate-change deniers, chem-trail conspiracy theorists, or even those who disbelieve evolution. It just makes sense, right? Science denial is science denial is science denial. Whoa, I just got dizzy.

Remarkably, the notion that antis are just not as smart is false. A few months ago, the doctor and I were chatting at my son’s 12-month well-child visit. I asked how often parents question vaccines. Mind you, this clinic is located in a relatively affluent area. He laughed and said that in his experience, parents who question or refuse vaccines tend to be more educated than those who don’t. We speculated together on the reasons. Maybe it’s because otherwise well-informed people think, “hey, I’m intelligent. I’m a critical thinker. I know how to ‘do my research.’” On my way home with a freshly immunized baby, I pondered further. Perhaps some educated antis suffer from “special-snowflake syndrome,” deeming their children too extraordinary, delicate, and precious to pollute with so-called toxins from GMOs and vaccines. Simultaneously, they might want to out-nature their peers in the parenting wars:  Melissa does Bikram Yoga and drives her kids around in a hybrid with a Darwin ichthys symbol on the bumper. Taylor revels in Melissa being “so 2013.” Taylor one-ups Melissa, basking in her own kids’ all-organic, GMO-free lunches packed in re-usable, sustainable, organic cotton sandwich bags.

Alas, such people may be infected with what I call “Mayim Bialik Disorder,” or “Not Your Field Disease.” To elucidate – Mayim Bialik (well-known today for her role on Big Bang Theory) has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience. She’s also a loud anti-vaccination proponent, among other non-evidence-based medical stances she touts. Bialik also flourishes her Ph.D. when discussing her expertise in completely unrelated fields.

News flash – it doesn’t work that way. I take a pharmacist’s advice on medications, and a lawyer’s advice on legal issues. Why the hell would anyone listen to a non-consensus of non-experts on crucial issues like herd immunity and GMOs? No matter how knowledgeable or analytical one is in any subject, it doesn’t automatically confer proficiency in “doing research” in another subject. You don’t get to be a psychologist and think you’re automatically an expert in immunology. You don’t get to display a Darwin fish on your car, watch Cosmos religiously, and then proudly declare your kids unvaccinated. You don’t get to question the inherent safety of GM technology and also make fun of people who believe that god created the earth in six days and rested on the seventh. You don’t get to LOVE Neil DeGrasse Tyson until he starts getting all scientific about something you disagree with.

Back to the point at hand: Education does not inoculate one from pseudoscience

I know a handful of scientists with Ph.Ds and/or doctorates IN the life science field who are wary about the safety of GMO technology and/or who don’t vaccinate their children. I won’t name names. Yes this is anecdotal, but quite telling. It’s no joke when anti-science views infiltrate the world of actual scientists, let alone other intelligent people.

Let me repeat more emphatically, science denial is science denial. Period.

We would love to hear your anecdotes of otherwise intelligent, pro-science relatives, friends, and acquaintances with unscientific views. Please leave them in the comments!


Kavin Senapathy

Kavin Senapathy is a mom of two, co-Executive Director of March Against Myths, public speaker, Forbes contributor and author in Madison, WI. She is also co-author of "The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari's Glass House". Follow her on Facebook and twitter @ksenapathy

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  1. I learned the hard way that if you are confident in your ability to sniff out BS you are much, much easier to fool. People who are
    humble tend to triple check things and value other people’s point of view in addition to their own.

    I did always think it was weird that home birth people were anti-vax so much, but I just sorta ignored the cog dis that went with that.

  2. I was anti-GMO for a while. I didn’t consider myself anti-science. In fact, I didn’t really think of the issue scientifically, until I met with some genetic scientists to discuss the issue. Then things changed for me, as I started doing what you said – listening to the experts. So maybe part of the problem is people think of biotech as a food issue, not a science issue, and the “science” part of their brains just doesn’t activate.

    1. Chuck – What an astute self-observation. Many would stick to their guns rather than admit they changed their minds. There is a spectrum from paranoia to naive trust, and it seems like the most rational people fall somewhere in the middle. Trusting a large scientific consensus makes sense. Like you say, people think of it as a food issue (and an autonomy issue, as we discussed on that other thread.) As a side note, I just discovered your blog posts, and am enjoying a couple of the latest, especially on GMOs…

  3. Hi Kavin,
    I think one reason the learned can be achedly skeptical, is that we bother to learn both the history of dishonest companies, and we observe in our first hand life experiences, that corporations don’t have consciences. People do, but they often fail to express their conscience at the risk of losing their job or standing in their career. Have you ever been fired for standing up to your boss on a matter that you knew was wrong and you refused to ignore or stay silent about it? I have, but my coworkers all chose to stay, especially after they witnessed my “layoff”. So I am able to envision GMO executives organizing a rudimentary toxicity study for 90 days with a total of 20 rats to meet the minimum requirement of the FDA specifying that they perform that test. I am also able to envision a whole host of ways that using that as a basis of proving long term safety of a changed food is very likely to miss a fundamental change that could make that food cause long term health problems. Contrary to what GMO engineers have convinced many learned people, to this point all GMOs have been developed with a crude shotgun method of scattered gene insertion that displaces the plant’s original DNA when a new gene manages to seat. They do not choose a gene they know to be unimportant. In fact since genomic mapping was developed after many GMOs were launched or iwere already in their long development cycles, they didn’t have the means to perform a gene map comparison between their original and modified plant, and given you’d have lot of different genes in different areas of the plant, it’s not clear they will take on that responsibility of understanding what they’ve changed in the future. We do know from statement made directly by the FDA on their website that they rely on the company to declare what they changed and that the food is fit for human consumption. This might be acceptable if they knew they’d just upset one single gene in one cell but with a gene gun this shotgun approach means they are likely affecting hundreds of genes, if not more. Knowing this, they have managed to keep the burden of proof to the FDA of fitness of their new food plant down to 1) the company explaining to the FDA what has changed in the plant 2) the company swearing that it is effectivly the same or better nutritional value 3) the company paying for a study NOT conducted nor monitored by the FDA for toxicity. Given that the FDA scientists in charge of approval do none of their own testing on nutrition, toxicity, of for allergy changes, we have a completely unregulated system, built on a fundamental lie by the industry that they selectivly add a gene with full control of keeping all of the plants other genes in tact. So here is a case where someone who is learned would not trust this system to catch a bad GMO that will harm peoples’ health or cause new allergies. A learned person would also be able to see why this shotgun method is very dissimilar from breeding through selection or hybridization between two like organisms. Asking a learned person to accept that the practice is nor more risky than hybridization should be offensive. I don’t have an unfounded fear of all things changed. I do however have a strong concern that this system will not detect a problem when one occurs, as people who ingest these foods aren’t tracked like they are with prescription drugs, which we’ve seen a cavlecade of erroneous FDA approvals of. Epidemilogical tracking of a long term effect of a particular food will never be done and any problem will not be correlated back to it. We don’t even have labels to know we ate it.

  4. Also regarding consensus, that term is used very loosly. Experimental studies looking for problems are done on mice and rats that live only 2-4 years. But toxicology studies are done for 90 days on as few as 20 animals. Epidemiological studies are usually performed using statistics gathered originally for a different purpose. Our chemical and pharmacutical industries have unleashed plenty of dangerous products on consumers in the past, often covering up their own knowledge of the problem for years before some else or a whistleblower speaks up. In my opinion have broken that trust enough in the past that I am no longer willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  5. karlInSanDiego,
    Sorry, but the safety debate is over. It was over long ago actually, but recently the closing case was hammered in with this study: “Prevalence and impacts of genetically engineered feedstuffs on livestock populations”. This study looked at 19 years of data covering over 100 billion animals. There were no adverse effects of GM feeds. Nothing. Anywhere. Ever. You can’t keep moving the goal posts and expect people to take you seriously. All the hype from the Seralini’s, Smith’s, Mercolas, etc, etc, ad naseum are wrong. None of the dire consequences they continually rant about were observed. Ever.
    I realize you may one of the people who believe that studies like this are biased or controlled by the evil “corporations”, and therefore will ignore this over whelming mountain of evidence. So be it, I guess. You’ll also have to ignore all the data collected from virtually every laboratory animal study conducted across the globe, by innumerable researchers, in every medical field imaginable, where highly monitored and precisely controlled animals have never shown any trend or tendency towards adverse anomalies in their health. Their feed contains GMO’S. No one has ever noted trends of unexplained, abnormal adverse health in these studies. Not one. Ever. You’ll also have to ignore all human related diet related health parameters over the last two decades indicating no increases in organ failures, cancer rates, or epidemics of dietary based diseases. In fact, many of those problems are actually decreasing in the US. Whether or not you trust corporations, scientists, or government agencies is irrelevant. The data is what speaks and it is starkly clear. There are no health or safety concerns. Period.
    You may indeed have objections to GM technology due to environmental concerns, intellectual property rights, costs, etc and you could potentially argue some of these topics for specific GM uses, but the safety and health issue is over. It is done, gone, completed. So move on. Please stop spreading FUD in this area.

  6. karlInSanDiego,

    I hear you saying that you fear that a problem will not be detected by the current system. The government doesn’t monitor genetic changes due to mutations and selection occurring in nature. Would genetic modification by specific gene editing (in the pipeline) appease your feelings about this?

    As pdiff said, it seems like you may be concerned that studies are biased and/or conducted by corporations with conflicting interests. I would highly recommend you check out GENERA, Biofortified’s GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas (GENERA) website. This is a public, searchable database of peer-reviewed studies on the risks of genetically modified crops. It demonstrates that about half of peer-reviewed studies are conducted by independent, unbiased parties.

  7. pdiff, your willingness to accept all transgenic foods, current and future, as healthy is a poor scientific attitude. The animal study you link to is interesting, but it does not read like a scientific assessment as much as an op-ed with science to support its thesis. It starts with food safety and ends with supporting the need for transgenic feed. That this study was undertaken with a goal in mind is clear, but every study needs a goal. It doesn’t actually have any of its own science, but like many studies is one where other results are chosen to support the views. The one bit of new science that is there is weak, discounting the general poor heath and dearth of antibiotics being used progressively more each year. It acknowledges that measurable differences have been detected in many studies but is quick to dismiss those as biologically irrelevant. So there is no difference, “Not One Ever” according to you, only there is (page 7), and it is not explained or further studied. It is excused as biologically insignificant. It does show that we’re growing livestock faster and fatter than ever, but if you think this is proof that transgenic food is undeniably safe, your’re guilty of taking too much editorial away from a paper that proves little more than overall mortality hasn’t become a problem that screams of a transgenic feed catastrophe. We can agree on that. I believe you and I disagree not on the toxicity of all GMOs but the fact that they will not all be created equally, and trying to classify them as categorically safe, ignores haphazard genetics responsible for their origins. I can’t find the passage, but even the paper you referenced, was clear that selective gene manipulation is NOT what GMO engineers do today, instead relying on retroviral mediation and ballistic gene insertion. In the case of a gene gun, they bombard cells with genes on gold particles, unitl a sample shows gene expression through a marker protein, that their gene made it. That’s why I distrust the infallibility of this science. It is tantamount to bonesaws and leeches, as we’re in the infancy of true genetic understanding and careful manipulation, yet in the name of shutting up the distrusting, you are ready to go to war over something you won’t admit is a dull science at best in its precision. Notice, I’m not telling you all is bad, but you insist on stating (you can never do this in science) all is good.
    Kavin, I agree, any mutation introduces a change that may or may not be significant. As noted in the paper pdiff referenced (page 4), even simple selection of a natural mutation or more so hybridization has created food that is no longer suitable for consumption, so yes we are at risk as we breed new plant strains, but we should all agree that the degree of change is less predictable with GE method used in transgenics with gene guns or virus mutation than with selective breeding or hybridization. In the former cases, you aren’t at risk of radical genetic dysfunction of existing genes (genes rely on each other for expression, do they not?) To answer your question, I believe gene editing promises the ability for the selection they have been purporting so far, but have not been using. I can’t say whether it will make me a believer, as you still have to understand which gene you’re bumping and what it did, but certainly this would be a tool they need to use to be successful at minimizing the change within the plant. I will read GENERA. Thank you for the tip!

  8. “pdiff, your willingness to accept all transgenic foods, current and future, as healthy is a poor scientific attitude.”
    Where did she do that? This is common anti-GMO strawman tactics. GMO is a tool that can be used or misused. No one intelligent would argue that we should “accept all transgenic foods current and future”.
    “we should all agree that the degree of change is less predictable with GE method used in transgenics with gene guns or virus mutation than with selective breeding or hybridization”
    Why should we all agree to that? Your post is full of these type of misguided statements and is a prime example of what her article was about. Just because it’s a mystery to you doesn’t mean it’s a mystery to scientists.

  9. I guess I’m one of those stupid antis, and you’ve done an incredible job of characterizing my positions. And you by no means overstate the “scientific consensus”. I admit I always thought it was silly to think eating GM food will hurt us, but the WHO mentions the risk of “gene transfer” and “outcrossing” on their website, so maybe there is something there. What do I know, I’m not a scientist. They also say “Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.” But if you feel comfortable where the World Health Organization doesn’t, who am I to say anything. And yeah, I avoid HFCs, mostly because they’re an easy way to tell if what I’m about to eat and drink is junk. But then I also avoid 100% juice drinks that are 90+% apple or white grape juice (i.e., liquid sugar). I laugh when I see something called “evaporated cane juice”. Oh wait, I keep forgetting I’m a mindless “anti.” I mean I only distrust HFCs – because they’re cooked up in a lab? Is that why? I got nothing for the vaccines thing. I actually grew up in a country where people still get some of the illnesses we vaccinate for and I think it’s nuts not to vaccinate. But since I’m an anti, that’s just based on a gut feeling and not any actual science. I hate science.

    But then so, apparently, do you. When it comes to breastfeeding even the page you link to says this: “This study does not alter the current body of research, which has shown the beneficial effects of breastfeeding. There were statistically significant differences in health, behaviour and academic outcomes in the full cohort, although there was an association between breastfeeding and asthma.”

    If this is your version of “unquestionable scientific consensus,” you need to do better.

  10. Here is an interesting paper about the ‘self sealing’ traits of conspiracy theorists.

    In essence the author believes conspiracists get their information from ‘the man,’ decide they are being lied to and become resistant to the usual approach to misconceptions: Better information. In fact that info becomes part of the conspiracy, ‘sealing’ the theorist from self correcting. Conspiracy entrepreneurs also create and reinforce the misconceptions while profiting handsomely. Alex Jones comes to mind.

    I’m a pilot. As such it is frustrating how misinformed and manipulative the media is. A few retired pilot talking heads get edited down to something ridiculous that sells more advertising. The recent Airbus crash in the alps is such a case. As was Air France 447. In both cases, the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorders quickly ruined the careers of conspiracy theorists who published books on what they thought happened. None of it true.

    Then there is that relative risk thing: People speak of the badness of a Measles vaccine, cigarette in one hand, reloading with the other; beer between the legs while steering with the knees.

    Or zero risk from helicopter parents always yelling that things aren’t safe enough for little Johnny. Thirty years ago Little Johnny boasted of the ponies under the hood. Now it’s airbags in the cabin: Better protection while texting.

    Then there is fear of the unknown. In today’s education system there seem to be a lot of demons to run from. James Burke made a wonderful ten-part series for BBC on the subject called ‘connections.’ where he addressed those who thought we need to ‘stop technology because it’s too dangerous.’ Burke demonstrated that no technology develops in a straight-line fashion, so what do you stop, and who decides? In that series he identified the first modern conspiracy theorist – millers grinding grain with water wheels, who didn’t understand the steam engine, so ‘it was the devil’s work.’ It boils down to a lack of understanding, or worse yet, a reluctance to learn.

    Which brings me to the Mayim Bialik Disorder. Isn’t this hero worship? That great climate scientist Al Gore got a Nobel prize for his propaganda film and millions more on boards of directors for green corp. Leonardo DiCaprio made millions with his film on the topic. People just gravitate to certain public figures, and all they offer is bad data and opinions. Real experts like John Christie and Roy Spencer – skeptics with real training and data – get death threats.

    Dr. Dixie Lee Ray pointed out in her book Trashing the Planet’ that scientists are generally poor communicators. The role of data collection and analysis is done in the finest cellars universities forgot they had, by people they forgot about, and that suits scientists just fine. Put them before a camera, slice it down to a 20 second sound bite and few scientists make the cut, and if they do, they are misquoted, vowing to never do it again. Bring on the voodoo-science dog-and-pony show to fill the gap and boost the Nielson ratings. The network is happy, and the public had been misinformed. More sand in the transmission of life. There were a few who flourished: Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich are my favorite shills for big government, promising the end of life by ’78. That’s 1978. The faithful ignore the minor error and keep buying their books. Some just don’t see the disconnect.

    With the new and modern intertubes we can create, reinforce and perpetuate conspiracies with wild abandon and it’s hard to get people to share brag sheets so that I know what I’m dealing with. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. There are so many ‘911 truther’ sites now I doubt anyone has a handle on the theories and opinions. All but one ignore Newton’s laws, which explain the building collapses and disintegrating airliners quite nicely. One self proclaimed architect tried using newton’s laws to disprove the collapses were the result of collisions with airplanes by using bad algebra. We tried to help with the algebra – but it was over his head and called us liars wrt how to solve for ‘X.’

    That was a defining moment for us, a point in time where there is a narrow range of right answers, and Mr. Elite Architect got it wrong. Not only that but stood by it as gospel. That, in my opinion, explains most of the problem. We converted everything to metric, fed him the numbers: Mass and speed of the planes; Mass and speed of the buildings, Mass and speed of the building segments above the zones of penetration in WTC 1 and 2, mass and speed above the gash in WTC7. We gave him the web sites that crunched the numbers, all he had to do was plug them in and share the results.

    He disappeared. If only GE, vaccines, nuclear fears and biology could be reduced to a set of formulae that the hoi poloi could understand.

    BUT: Lurkers plugged the numbers in and started a rather intelligent discussion. Physics works! So it was worthwhile. Curing ignorance, one ignoramus at a time.

  11. I, too, used to be a science denier. I was anti vaccines and anti gmos, and I still think the total package of breast feeding is more beneficial (but i acknowledge my bias). I am not religious, in face I am an atheist. I jumped feet first into the crunchy movement when pregnant with my son 7 years ago, and I think now that it was a combination of first time mom jitters, leaving religion, and finding a welcoming community online who professed things I could get behind. I let myself accept sources (dr. Momma, I’m looking at you) that i would never accept in regards to things like car seat science or evolution science. It was when I got deeper into my atheism, and started looking critically at evolution deniers that I realized I was no different. How could I fault someone for falling for Ken Hamm when I was letting myself overlook all the bad sources i took for gold? So, I worked through the cognitive dissonance (which was hard hard hard) and now I try to look at the scientific consensus when in doubt.

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