Chat with Jeffrey Smith, Monday

On August 20th, our friends at the Non-GMO Project hosted a Facebook ‘book club’ with Robyn O’Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth. I read the brief conversation after the fact, and not too much happened. There was a bit of self-congratulation of being ‘in the know’ along with some suggestions from the head of Mothers Are Demystifying Genetic Engineering (MADGE Australia inc.), Madeline, that cutting GE foods out of her diet had a noticeable effect on her gastrointestinal health – not just because it was processed food. If you are wondering what I think about personal gastrointestinal experiences related to genetic engineering, check out my post titled, The Inadequacy of Anecdotes. There were some good comments and questions about the difficulties that allergy-sensitive individuals have when it comes to making food choices, but on the real reason for the conversation – raising doubts about genetic engineering, there was no voice to show people any of the evidence of safety, or poke holes in logic.  Well I (and now that you know about it – you) will have an opportunity to participate in their next book club with none other than Jeffrey Smith, on Monday the 20th of September. That’s tomorrow!
I was one of the first to mark my attendance on the facebook event page, and I only recognize a few other participants. It would be great to see half a dozen Biofortified readers taking part, providing links to papers, debunking arguments, and above all, politely and respectfully asking tough questions of Mr. Smith. Where to start? You could look up a few of the things we have written about him on this site, or perhaps check out the extensive fisking of Smith’s recent book, Genetic Roulette, by David Tribe and Bruce Chassy at Academics Review. Pick your favorite page or claim and ask a question about it. Smith already knows about Academics Review and has written it off, however, it provides powerful critiques of his 65 claims. But don’t limit yourself to that! Maybe you could ask about why he considers genetic engineering to be a dangerous “genetic roulette” when mutagenesis is far less predictable and far more disruptive? Or how about all the independent papers on the safety of GE foods? Or you could ask him for his favorite recipe for pasta salad, all up to you.
The Non-GMO Project is trying to generate discussion about genetic engineering, and they need our help to enrich it. My hope is that people have fun chatting, learn something, and that maybe we could pick up a few more readers and open a few more minds to verifiable sources of information. My hope is that individual people will be judged by their comments alone, but if anyone is mean and nasty it might come back to us even if they do not write for this blog or comment here. So think, What Would Frank Type, and go forth and give science a voice!
The book club discussion will be held on Monday the 20th of September, at 11:00 Pacific Time. Comments and questions can be submitted beforehand, you could write one tonight!


  1. I’ll lurk at least. I’m nervous, though. I read a lot of the other discussions on their FB page and science is definitely not a friend of many of these people. I just don’t even know how to respond to people like Smith who keep pulling out the same debunked claims and then stick their fingers in their ears and yell “la la la” when anyone shows them evidence that disproves their claims again. 🙁

  2. Another thing that might happen is that he could completely ignore critical comments, which is easy to do in a chat-based format. There will be plenty of people who will not change their minds, but for those who have not made up their minds, giving a few pointers could be enough to start a cascade of thoughts!

  3. This could be an excellent opportunity to test the effectiveness of Frank N. Foode™’s recommendation to ‘Take it down a notch’. [1] I will gladly take money from anyone who wants to bet that the approach will lead Smith to a Damascene revelation.
    Also, there’s something inherently bizarre about conducting a scientific debate with a dance instructor who arguably knows more about levitation than about genetic engineering. I can’t quite put my finger on it.
    This much is certain: the event is expected to generate sales of Smith’s ‘best-selling’ books on GE, and sales would suffer badly if Smith were to allow himself to be persuaded.

  4. I suppose it could generate a book sale or two for Smith, but I think the real purpose is Brand Identity for the Non-GMO Project. By having O’Brien, Smith, etc speak about what they see as health dangers, people can associate the organization with a sense of being ‘protected’ by the brand from these ‘risks.’
    An appropriate test for Frank’s proposition would be for those readers who are not already convinced, or are at least open to discussion if a conducive opportunity is presented.
    Smith would of course not change his mind in a one-hour discussion, and I feel similarly about the long-term likelihood.

  5. Well, that was interesting. Was Jeff meant to appear for only half an hour or did he just bail out?

  6. No, he was there for the full hour. A lot of time was spent trying to follow the comments, or find them for that matter. Facebook was not very conducive to discussion and it seemed to go quickly. I think he didn’t have any interest in sticking around at the end.

  7. I don’t know if a live chat is very conducive to such a complex topic. Actually, I’m starting to think Twitter isn’t very conducive to such a complex topic either. I don’t know how Frank does it, although it helps that he’s more willing to use internet shorthand than I am. The problem is that it’s really easy to say “GMOs kill rats!” or whatever without providing proof and then we’re forced to say “nuh uh, here’s a lengthy description about how that study was flawed that you’re not going to read anyway”. How to get around that, I do not know.

  8. Aw, I missed it. I would’ve liked to have asked what it would take to convince him he is wrong; what manner and degree of falsification of his claims he would consider satisfactory enough to convince him that he is wrong. I know what would convince me that the claim of ‘GE crops are safe’ is wrong. Oh well, I don’t do that Facebook thing anyway.

  9. I think this would be a good question. It may get an interesting response, and it may not at all. Since he describes himself with a quote in his biography as “the leading world expert in the understanding and communication of the health issues surrounding genetically modified foods” it stands to reason that he should know enough to design a study sufficient to satisfy his objections to GE crops.
    In other news, I have just discovered that Jeffrey Smith has started a wordpress blog on his site! I wonder how he will moderate his comments? This could be an opportunity to ask polite questions directly and publicly. Hopefully there will be no need for screenshots.

  10. Wow, complete with a quote from & link to the site of anti-vaxxer, homeopath, and all around quack, Joe Mercola. If I were in that position, promoting a view not accepted by science and wanting to be taken seriously by the scientific community (unless, of course, that is not his true goal), I think I’d avoid any association with that crowd, because from where I’m standing, I have to say, that looks awfully like crank magnetism.

  11. It is one of the general failings of this particular way of promoting their cause. Like Sarah Palin appealing to her base, they do not reach out to the opposite site (or even the moderates) with reasoned arguments. Instead, they continue to advertise to people who are already inclined to their position, or converted. Would anyone who follows Mercola eat GE foods anyway? A lot of effort and very little ground gained.

  12. It’s not a failing for him.  He is a professional PR man and all he is promoting is himself (just look at the quote you give above!).  The “cause” is ancillary.  Preaching to the choir is how he get his grins.

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