Someone sent me a link to some YouTube videos of Jeffrey Smith promoting one of his books. I’m not sure what this person expected to accomplish, but it gives me a great opportunity to discuss the important issues of credibility and bias. I just started reading Lies, Damned Lies, and Science, about these and other issues surrounding science communication, and the book has really made me start to examine the source of information more carefully.
I’m frustrated by Smith’s star status among anti-GMO activists for quite a few reasons, but the main one is: who the heck is he? His official bio is incredibly vague. I found snippets of information in comments on various sites that all seem to source back to an article by Alex Avery. The article, Jeffrey Smith – A Highest Flying Activist’s Hidden Scientific Beliefs?, says that Smith is a poor source for science information because of his belief in yogic flying, a type of transcendental meditation.
Unfortunately, I’m wary of taking Avery at face value as well because he presumes to speak on topics he doesn’t have training in, but at least Avery has a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology. Smith apparently has an MBA, but I can’t find where his degree was from or what his undergrad degree was in. I also can’t find what Smith did before mysteriously becoming an anti-GMO guru, other than his being an aide for one James E. Davis, who ran for US Senate in 1996 in Illinois for the Natural Law party, earning 0.3% of the vote.
According to some sites, like Smith’s bio at the Penrhos Trust, he ran for US Senate in 1998 in Iowa, but he isn’t listed in the relevant Wikipedia article (or in the Des Moines Register). He might have connections to Maharishi University of Management (is this where he got that MBA?) but doesn’t come up in a search on their site either. According to the Penrhos bio and others, Smith was VP of Marketing for a GMO detection lab, but I can’t find any details about that. In interviews with anti-GMO publications, Smith claims to have worked for various non-profits “do gooder type of things” but provides no details.
Am I just really bad at Googling? Let me know if you can find anything, I’m curious. Regardless of what he has done, it sounds like exactly zero of it prepared him to be a communicator of science. On this blog, I discuss things I know I don’t have expertise in, but I don’t claim to be an expert in them. I also have my credentials, at least my job and school history, posted clearly. What are these people hiding that they can’t do the same? I hope that people will start to be more transparent about these things, because the context of the person making a claim is often very important in interpreting the claim. How does this matter? Here’s what I replied to the email:
I have a scenario for you. Let’s say someone sends you a press release of the CEO of Monsanto making all sorts of claims that GMOs are the best, totally safe, going to save the world, blah blah blah. Do you believe him? Probably not, because you know he’s got a lot to gain from making exaggerations and even from telling complete untruths. You might not realize it, but Jeffery Smith makes a lot of money from his website, books, and speaking engagements. Do you really trust a guy that makes his living on what he says to be 100% truthful? I don’t. Let’s extend this idea to subjects other than GMOs… Would you believe a door to door salesman of Product X to be 100% truthful about the product? Would you believe a chiropractor who told you that there were no other options for back pain besides chiropracty? Would you trust a pro-life activist to give good advice on birth control? How about asking an oil executive about global warming? Of course not, because we know all of these people have something to gain by getting you to believe what they say. It’s not that everything that they say is 100% a lie. If that was the case, you’d see through them in a minute. No, they’ll tell 90% truth, as much as they need to so that they can slip in a few exaggerations or falsehoods and have them sound like truth. Not that anyone is necessarily doing this on purpose, it can be subconscious. We all carry biases on a variety of topics – those proverbial rose colored glasses can color what we say as well as what we see. We just have to be careful to take things with a little bit of caution (or a lot of caution as the case may be) and to get information from multiple sources, including sources we know are biased the other way. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. It also helps if the source actually has at least a little bit of professional training or credentials in the subject they purport to be an expert in.