Vote for talking, not fighting

The T-shirt design and manufacturing site Threadless is hosting a T-shirt design contest, sponsored by Jeffrey Smith – to design and vote for an anti-genetic engineering shirt that will eventually be produced to support his organization. However, the theme of this contest is “Food Fight”, and if the contest entries are any indication of what kind of dialog this perspective encourages, this can only harm civil discourse. However, one entry in my mind rises above the rest, and that is this one:

The 1st Rule of GMOs: You Should talk about GMOs. I think this is exactly right no matter what your perspective is on this topic. Please take a moment to register for Threadless, and vote on this entry. I recommend giving it a 5!

The issue of genetic engineering in agriculture needs more people sanely talking about it, not trying to start “food fights.” This entry looks like the only one that really seeks to promote discussion, whereas others promote violence (between food groups to start with), misunderstandings, and extreme views. Take a look at some of the competition:

A familiar concept – one example of how dislike for genetic engineering can get extreme. Not only wound up like dynamite, but also radioactive – I hope it bombs so it doesn’t lead to more explosive dialog.

One of the many half-plant half-animal depictions of GE crops – this time a scorpion-tomato. The entry claims that this exists, however our own reader C Radar points out that this is probably a myth.

Another one of the many literal food fight designs that showed up in the contest.

Now this one deserves its own separate analysis for its implications and motivations. Apparently a project intended for humanitarian purposes is not only an invasion, but also an invasion of slant-eyed yellow-skinned enemies to be fought off by round-eyed white-skinned heroes. As Jon Stewart would say about this kind of crossfire – Stop. You’re hurting us.

If you register to vote in this contest, you can thumb through all the entries and vote down the really objectionable ones. Too bad that 1 is the lowest score you can give! I am genuinely interested to see what exactly gets voted up in this contest, and I hope for the sake of the public discourse that the end result is not too bad.

Makes me think we need to design a T-shirt that provokes thought and dialog, without provoking a fight.

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He currently works as a public research geneticist in Madison, WI. His favorite produce might just be squash.


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25 comments to Vote for talking, not fighting

  • Eric Baumholder

    After +/- 14 years, attitudes like this have brought nothing but misery to the ag biotech community. Conciliation has been offered time and again, with the sole result of retreats and failures in the arena of engaging with the implacable enemy.

    How can you achieve a truce with an enemy which will be de-funded and bankrupt the very moment that reason prevails? Short answer, you can’t.

    Sure, you can show that you’re a nice person and qualified to say what you say, but they’re after the market of uninformed consumers who make donations.

    One definition of insanity is that the patient keeps doing the same thing, over and over, while expecting a different result. Offering the antis an olive branch will gain the accusation that it’s a GMO olive, and then, they will boast of destroying your field trial.

    People of courage need to engage the activists on their own terms, and expose their financial gluttony and scientific illiteracy.

    But there are few with the courage to do that, and a large majority who prefer to languish in the sense that they have shown themselves merciful to those who will never extend the slightest mercy in return.

    In lieu of stronger terms, I will simply say, ‘Balderdash’.

    • Talking is not the same thing as being conciliatory, and I’m all for pointing out when people are wrong. And with all due respect, this is precisely the same argument that the anti’s make about GE. It gets us nowhere.

      • Chris Kelly

        Of course you are right Karlo, civility is to be encouraged in open conversation with those genuinely interested fence sitters and there are many excellent blogs and pages such as this one that cater to those. However I cannot completely agree with you that other tactics get us nowhere as from what I can tell proactive confrontation hasn’t really been attempted. It appears to me that there really has not been a food fight in the greater social media at all. Yes there are blogs that do a good job of explaining the scientific consensus but that does not mean that there is no room for some proactive confrontation in the popular social media such as facebook and twitter. GM advocates have responded calmly and civilly as all comers’ line them up with rotten tomatoes. Too many times advocates follow the Christian notion of turning the other cheek.

        As you have previously stated there are precious few with an anti-GM stance that you can confidently say you have managed to get to a neutral or pro-Gm stance. Perhaps those are unreachable anyway and the focus should be on the open minded fence sitters but I think there is room for some to challenge the ranting of the Natural News etc by using the same tactics and language as they use.

        The loudest voices are often the ones that have already made up their minds and are actively spreading misinformation and they are reaching a greater audience in the popular social media. Facebook is littered with anti-GM pages with thousands of members who are active in visiting other pages to spread misinformation and even harass and threaten businesses promoting natural products if some of their products contain GM product. Meanwhile pages promoting the technology are as rare as hen’s teeth. It is much the same on twitter.

        I think that Eric makes a good argument for taking these on in a different manner as there is a niche in the debate on the “pro”-GM side that needs addressing. It is not prudent to use the “follow the money” mantra but if scientific illiteracy can shown to be “uncool” or if those making completely ridiculous statements are humiliated or shown up for their ignorance in a manner that the greater audience can understand while staying scientifically rigorous, then I’m all for it. It will make others more wary of checking their information before reposting or voicing their opinions.

        Anti-GM is a movement that is proactive and they have managed to position those defending the technology in a reactive position. It is my view that it is time and there is room for a more proactive approach and that there is a large anti-GM demographic (the lowest common denominators) who are not challenged in ways that they actually understand.

        It may seem a little strange and it may sit uncomfortably with many to position themselves as a Pro-GM activists but it is an attitudinal proactive mindset that has some power and it just may win over more hearts and minds.

        Talking is great but the audience has to understand the language.

        • Chris, I’m one of those who changed sides, so this post really speaks to me. Unfortunately, I can’t offer any insights into how to change people’s minds because a) I was never that passionately against GMOs–I simply absorbed it as part of the pro-”organics” platform; b) I’m a lay observer with no expertise in the area; and c) I’ve always been a natural skeptic and have readily changed my mind about many issues.

          The anti-GMO side wins for several reasons, I suppose:

          1. There’s a sort of intellectual entropy that favors the anti- side: Ignorance is easy; knowledge is difficult. This is partly why I have to shy away from piping up in discussions when they get technical: I don’t have the expertise to refute many of the anti- arguments. This is not a field that is easy for a lay person to master. Lay people can master ignorance very readily, however.

          2. The antis have fear and loathing on their side. Something about the human brain becomes very stimulated by apocalyptic narratives, which the antis have in spades, but which the pros have not got. Bad news, even false bad news, spreads like wildfire; the refutation of the bad news spreads like molasses. As the saying goes, “Shout the lie, whisper the retraction.”

          3. Politics. This whole argument is bound up with Liberal/Conservative, anti-corporate/pro-corporate politics, and I haven’t the foggiest idea how to separate the politics from the science at times, especially as the science is sometimes so esoteric (to me).

          I wish there was a common, well-known-to-be-genetically-modified fruit, because I would eat it in public every day as a protest against the irrational anti-GM types.

  • Those designs are terribly frustrating. Apparently all scientists working on genetic engineering are evil and insane, and genetically engineered produce can be characterized by being misshapen and having scary mouths.

    Did you catch the one that said “plants + DNA = death” in pictograms?

  • Well, it’s clear they read more comic books than science. How sad for them to have been manipulated by the fearmongers to that extent. That kind of unrealistic fear can’t be good for them….Alas.

    I have to say the violent imagery is disturbing, especially in light of the physical destruction we’ve seen of late. Combined with the death threats to climate scientists–you have to wonder where this will end up.

    But I voted for your recommendation. Painful as the whole thing was to witness.

  • Have you ever seen that shirt for sale at the Bad Science store, the one that says ‘MMR is safe, telly our friends’. I’ve always thought a shirt like that would be pretty cool. Short, simple, to the point, easy to read & understand. ‘Genetically modified food is safe’ says it pretty good, for a shirt anyway. I’ve thought of a few other ideas, but they’re probably not as good. Something like ‘GMO preventable vitamin A deficiency kills 6000 people a day and all I got was this stupid (organic) shirt’ (something of a parody of an anti-communism shirt I saw once). But perhaps that one is a bit snarky & emotional and a bit too wordy (I’d probably wear it though). It’d be pretty neat to see one that had a picture of teosinte and corn and perhaps some other wild crop ancestors saying ‘Not genetically altered? Not true!’ or something to that effect. But I doubt many people would get it, and there’d be cries of ‘Transgenics and collecting a thousand years of mutations are totally different!’ I’d wear that one too though. Maybe one saying ‘GM crops, deforestation, population crash: pick one.’ Or one (like that strawberry one) with a cute smiling corn that says ‘Eat me, I’m GMO’ saying below something like ‘Modified of your health & the environment’s’. I’ve looked through Cafepress and the like for a good shirt about GMOs but have never found anything worth the cotton they’re printed on.

    As for those shirts, I like that one that says ‘I am not a genetically modified organism.’ Say, anyone know what the last count of percent of the human genome is though to have been inserted by viruses? I took a class on that sort of stuff last semester and the professor said something like 30%. Who’s not a GMO again? That’s be another cool shirt – one that says ’30% virus.’ Doubt many people would get that either. Anyway, that one that says ‘No alliance with seeds of science.’ Heaven forbid we actually use science and not some blind superstitious approach to seeds. ‘Help mother nature bring real food back into our lives’ Yes, us humans sure are bad for creating Agrobacterium. ‘Ban GMOs’ Ugh, I’d hate to imagine the crapstorm if someone suggested banning organic food, but banning GMOs if fine cause it’s all about choice. ‘Demand food from farms not labs’ Do these people even know where GM crops come from?

    But my favorite two: The one with the peach that’s like a tangerine inside and says ‘Peacherine not created by mother nature’ The irony of using citrus and stonefruit to talk about what’s natural is simply mind boggling. Jeepers, I’ve seen some bad stuff, but that one is so unbearably ignorant I almost want to buy it as a conversation piece. But the one that gets my goat the most is the one that looks like a comic book, with the fit athletic ‘Captain Organic’ punching ‘GMO-man’ in the gut, and naturally, GMO-man is overweight. IIRC that’s not the first time I’ve seen that weightist crap coming from such people. They should be ashamed. It’s one thing the be scientifically illiterate, but it’s another to be a total jerk. I eat better than you and darn it I am better than you, is that it? Maybe I’m just reading too much into it but I know I’ve seen that ‘lol dumb fat sheeple GMO eater’ sentiment before. That one I will remember.

    Here’s another suggestion: some Greenpeace ‘activists’ burning a test field emblazoned with what should be their new slogan: ‘Might makes right.’ Certainty fits the theme of so many other entries.

    I’d like to see how many votes a shirt saying ‘Ban homologous recombination’ would get. On second thought, I’d be happier not knowing.

    • Looks like you are brainstorming ahead of schedule! We are thinking about a t-shirt design contest or brainstorming project – something like that. We couldn’t offer $1000 plus electronic toys and all that – volunteer blogging is not as lucrative as advertising non-GE products. Ironic. But we can probably put something together to get wheels rolling.

  • Jonathan

    As I always say, the more extreme and ridiculous the entries (and hopefully the final winner) are the better. The worst thing that could happen would be that a fairly sensible, questioning quote or logo was to win.

    You might not believe it from online GM discussions but most people in the street will see these people for what they are if the lies they perpetuate become more and more bizarre.

    Jonathan

  • Jonathan

    I notice the intro text repeats Jeffrey Smith’s favourite line about rats refusing GM feed in preference for non-GM. Where does that story originate from? It’s clearly a load of nonsense but I guess there’s an anecdote out there somewhere that he has cherrypicked as a good soundbite.

    Jonathan

    • Jeffrey Smith is well aware that this story as an anecdote is not reliable as evidence – I heard it from his own mouth. He tells it because he says that people come up to him and cite it as the closing argument that convinced them. That is his goal.

      • Jonathan

        So Jeffrey Smith is happy to tell what he knows are lies because of the success it has in convincing people against GM? And he admits that openly? Then what is his rationale behind wanting them to be anti-GM? It’s like me telling people not to eat cheese because it gives their children head lice? If they were stupid enough to believe me they’d have good reason to avoid cheese. It wouldn’t explain what I’ve got against cheese though.

        If you see him again tell him that almost all lab rodents have been happily eating a GM diet for years with no apparent health problems and see what his response is.

        Also maybe one of your colleagues could bend down behind him and you could push him over. It wouldn’t be a very nice thing to do but it would make me laugh ;)

        Jonathan

        • I could hardly believe it, as all this time I thought he was unaware of these problems. But when comfortable, he admits the things that don’t get said during advocacy mode, and is trying to teach these essentially deceptive strategies to hundreds of other people.

          I will be talking to him again soon. We have a phone date that I need to schedule, to follow up on previous conversations, and I have a few lingering questions about his speaking strategy.

  • AM

    I feel many here are falling into the trap of characterizing this as anti-GM and pro-GM…the whole basis of such a debate is meaningless, oversimplistic and discriminatory. It is the trait that matters…GM or non-GM!

  • Jill K.

    Thanks for writing about this, fascinating! On the one hand, t-shirts are not going to make or break public opinion about GM technology. But the images and language that are used does have a a real impact. Those against GM do a much better job at equating technology that is complex and can be difficult to understand with words and images that are simple and frightening. And they do it in t-shirt- or bumper sticker- or poster-sized slogans with dramatic metaphorical drawings about fights, mutants and bombs. Because we’re familiar with actual science, our best efforts are truthful and perhaps witty but they rarely catch on because they’re rarely understood (as noted above). If we keep making it about the science, I’m afraid we’re going to keep losing attention because the average person just doesn’t get it. Maybe the best way to support GM is actually *not* to talk about it, but instead focus on the benefits of agriculture research and technology more generally and in a people-focused way. Sign me up for the contest of yours to see what else we can come up with!

  • You guys are gonna LOVE these shirts–trust me–go look:

    RT @stevesilberman: These “teach the controversy” t-shirts are hilarious and brilliant. [via @twiliterary @C4Chaos] http://bit.ly/15qNpW

    • I love those shirts!
      Problem with them is that some people probably take them literally.

      • Eric Baumholder

        Another excellent theme might be t-shirts with advice on what to do ‘When Green Zombies Attack’. There seems to be near-universal acceptance of the nature of the zombie personality, such as the single-minded pursuit of normal people who prefer to live their lives unmolested by an insatiable horde.

  • Eric Baumholder

    MaryM,

    The t-shirts at that link are totally excellent! What’s more, the approach is refreshingly novel — which means it’s potentially highly effective.

    I notice that there’s only one shirt per issue, though. A dozen on GMOs would be totally excellent.

    Any entrepreneurs in the house?

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