Choosy-moms-choose-science
At the recent conference of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSICON) in Las Vegas, on October 28, 2017, I had the great privilege and pleasure of being in the audience for the American premiere of a new documentary, Science Moms, as well as for the following live panel discussion by the women featured in the movie. In the documentary, a group of scientists and science communicators who are also moms address misperceptions created by misinformation in the media about GMOs, vaccines, and other issues important to parents. They point out that “moms whose opinions are formed by fear and hype are so loud. But they’re the only people talking about it, the only resource people have.” With this documentary, people now have another resource based on science, a resource that is easily digestible and compelling.

The film starts with a beautiful sunrise and a Gwyneth Paltrow quote: “The sun is the sun – how can it be bad for you? I don’t think anything that’s natural can be bad for you.” The Moms answer:

“Wow! I could make a list for her.”

“The sun causes cancer.”

“Nature will kill you, really quickly.”

“Sometimes I think she’s trolling us.”

Next, the Science Moms are introduced and talk about how they got interested in science. They are:

  • Anastasia Bodnar, PhD, Plant Geneticist
  • Alison Bernstein, PhD, Neuroscientist
  • Layla Katiraee, PhD, Molecular Geneticist
  • Jenny Splitter, Science Communicator and Storyteller
  • Kavin Senapathy, Science Communicator

These women shatter the stereotypes of scientists as commonly portrayed in the media. They are normal, friendly, personable, attractive, well-groomed, non-geeky, everyday people, just like other working moms except that their jobs happen to involve science. Moms viewing the film ought to be able to relate to them and listen to what they have to say just as they would listen to their friends.

Two of Science Moms were fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and were appalled to learn that the actress who played Buffy, Sarah Michelle Gellar, was speaking out against GMOs. They joined a group of 15 women scientists, bloggers, and educators to send a letter to Paltrow, Gellar, and other celebrities asking them not to co-opt motherhood and wield their fame to oppose beneficial technologies, but to use their influence responsibly and ensure that their advocacy is supported by facts, not fear.

The letter caught the attention of Natalie Newell, the host of “The Science Enthusiast” podcast. She contacted one of the letter’s authors. One thing led to another, and the result was this documentary.

The Moms acknowledge that being a parent is scary. Parents desperately want to protect their children from any possible harm, and often they aren’t sure how to best do that. Even they admit to having acted irrationally based on unrealistic fears for the welfare of their children. It’s a great marketing technique: “If you can scare a parent, of course they’re going to shell out for the alternative.”

GMOs

People who don’t know anything about GMOS may choose organic because they vaguely remember hearing that it was better for their kids. GMOs are presented in the media as inserting genes of one species into another species. But that’s only one meaning. Genetic modification also means selective breeding, cross breeding, mutagenesis, genome editing, and other techniques.

When plants are cross-pollinated, a gene for disease resistance can spread to another species, but that’s random. Why not use technology to put the desired gene into the plant? In reality, almost everything we eat was genetically engineered centuries ago by our ancestors’ selective farming and breeding practices.

The Moms point out these benefits of genetic modification:

  • Drought resistance
  • Pest resistance
  • Disease resistance
  • Increased crop yield
  • Increased nutritional content
  • Economic benefits
  • Reduced pesticide usage
  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions

Vitamin A deficiency causes untold cases of blindness and death in developing countries. Golden rice was genetically modified to supply vitamin A, but thanks to anti-GMO ideology it hasn’t reached those who need it most.

Some people fear that eating something genetically engineered will genetically engineer THEM. Not hardly! Despite widespread fears, GMOs have never harmed a single person’s health in any way.

Fear of chemicals

The idea that “There is no safe amount of chemicals” is false. Everything is made of chemicals. They show a long list of all the scary-sounding chemicals in an all-natural blueberry. Pears naturally make formaldehyde.

The “most brilliant marketing move of the last ten years” was to convince everyone that organic is pesticide free. Copper sulfate is really bad for the environment, and it’s allowed in organic farming.

Data doesn’t support claims that organic is pesticide free, better for environment, or healthier.

There are no health benefits to be gained from organic. It’s just more expensive.

Vaccines

We hear:

  • Too many too soon
  • Dangerous chemicals in vaccines
  • I prefer to fight off disease naturally
  • It’s a Big Pharma conspiracy
  • “These diseases aren’t really that dangerous”

None of these are based on evidence or science. Unrealistic fears of vaccines have led to decreased herd immunity and disease outbreaks. Our grandparents aren’t likely to fear vaccines, because they knew people who died of polio and other preventable diseases. It’s ironic that people are afraid of harmless GMOs but don’t fear the very real risks of vaccine preventable diseases.

Homeopathy

One Science Mom says, “I’m embarrassed to say I tried it. When I found out what it was, I thought ‘Oh, that’s why it didn’t work.’ I could have given the kids sugar water I made at home and saved a few bucks.”

I can’t imagine parents reaching for something that is untested, unregulated, and has no active ingredients in it. It baffles me.

Perhaps it’s because people want to do things on their own – homeopathy, homemade baby formula, anything that gives them the illusion of being in control.

Who’s paying you??!!

The answer to this oft-repeated question is an emphatic “Nobody!” Kavin Senapathy says she has been called a fake mom, has gotten death threats, and has been told her name is made up (as if Monsanto would invent a name like Kavin Senapathy!) She doesn’t understand where the shill accusation comes from. The assumption seems to be that anyone who doesn’t have the same world view as you, must be paid to have that view. It’s hard to have your world view challenged, so it’s easier to think they must be paid to disagree with you than to think your world view might be incorrect.

More

They explain that scientific consensus is not like a vote, it’s the confluence of all the evidence coming together around a hypothesis.

When people ask if something is safe for their child, the best advice is to go to a real doctor (not a naturopath); and to buy real medicine (homeopathy is not real medicine).

Healthy diet? Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, buy whatever’s cheaper, wash produce.

Some organizations are trying to scare people away from buying certain fruits and vegetables. That’s CRAZY!

You might as well enjoy being a parent. “Basic safety stuff fits on half a page.” Don’t worry about minor details with no solid evidence, like when to introduce solid foods.

“When kids are 10-12, no one’s talking about whether they were breast fed.” The effects of stress on us and our kids are way worse than anything we’re worrying about.

What’s the real issue? If it’s corporate control of our political system, that’s a valid concern that many of us share. But GMOs aren’t the cause of that. Focus on the real source of the anger rather than blaming a proxy.

Fear-based communities bring people together. The Science Moms are trying to create a new community based on science and reason; based on facts, not fear.

Conclusion: A lot of people really need to watch this documentary

Science Moms is short and to the point. The 30-minute film is scientifically accurate, persuasive, and well-designed, with good production values. It’s available online for purchase at $4.99. I hope it will be more widely disseminated, because it offers important information that the general public needs to hear. People who have been exposed to anti-GMO or anti-vaccine propaganda are not likely to seek out, read, and understand the scientific evidence. But perhaps they will be willing to listen to moms who are just like them but who have the advantage of understanding the science.

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly.