The event began innocently enough. A small group of Centre For Inquiry members and UBC Okanagan professors were in the Okanagan College theatre lobby handing out information sheets on the science of genetically modified organisms.

The speaker for the evening was Jeffrey Smith, a well-known anti-GMO activist who has zero scientific credentials, though you might recognize him as a practitioner of yogic flying and member of the Natural Law Party.

We talked to people as they came in and were energetic but polite. After a few minutes, the organizers approached and accused us of being disruptive, disrespectful and of having removed one of their posters.

Their rather scary leader raised her voice, told us we were trespassing and threatened to call security, causing quite a commotion. Since we were there to attend the event and it was a public space, she was unable to remove us and the poster in question was found on the floor, where it had fallen before our arrival.

As the showdown became a standoff, a fellow who had already been seated came out, complaining the organizers had forced him to leave. He said they had asked everyone in the theatre to stand if they believed in the anti-GMO movement. Those left sitting were told to leave, and he had to fight to get his money back.

No dissenters allowed.

Somehow, we were able to buy tickets when the scary lady wasn’t looking, and we took our seats. Fifteen minutes after the scheduled start time, she came on stage to apologize for being late because she had been “clearing out the negative energy” due to “a few people from the dark side of the farm.”

That’s new for me, as I always choose the Jedi knight class while gaming. In fact, one of the organizers told us the event was late because Smith got lost on the way.

Smith’s thesis had two prongs. First, he presented “evidence” that GMOs are dangerous, even though his arguments have been fully refuted and his claims have no scientific merit. Second, he used the “what they don’t want you to know” gambit, claiming government and other institutions are hiding secrets from you, which was the ploy used by convict Kevin Trudeau, as I reported in my last column.

Smith is a charismatic and engaging speaker, so I understand how those with no science background are convinced by him and his pseudoscience, but there were few facts in his presentation and much of what he said was misleading or simply wrong.

He warned the audience against assuming causation from correlation, then spent the next 20 minutes doing just that. There were many graphs illustrating how the use of GMOs has increased along with the incidence of (insert disease here). However, since he used absolute numbers of people on the Y axis, those graphs are meaningless.

First, the number of people has increased over time, so of course the numbers of cases of any disease will have increased, even if the rate stayed constant. A more honest approach would be to use percentage rates instead.

A second, more subtle, point is that millions of useless graphs like this are possible since a number of quite unrelated things have increased over the past few decades, and plotting one against the other will show a relationship, even though there is no underlying cause.

For example, the incidence of obesity in the U.S. is strongly correlated with the consumption of organic food, and the number of flat-screen TVs has increased along with the number of reality shows.

In university statistics courses, one of the first things students learn is to avoid making such spurious correlations.

Interestingly, some of the attendees told me they “didn’t believe in science,” yet they applauded his many references to scientists and scientific studies, warped though they were. Science, it seems, is trustable only when it bolsters your previously held beliefs.

One person announced she “had already decided what to believe” and “didn’t want to hear” about evidence that contradicted her choice.

As soon as the talk was over, before Smith even asked for questions, a woman in the front row leapt up and launched into a passionate discourse on chemtrails, another topic of one of my previous columns. She rightly pointed out the graphs Smith used were merely correlational and declared it could just as easily have been chemtrails rather than GMOs on the X axis.

A few in the audience applauded, and I clapped with them. Me – applauding a woman who is convinced jet contrails are a secret government plot! Strange bedfellows, indeed.

To start the talk, Smith had cannily asked for a show of hands to indicate our level of comfort with GMOs, an old trick for identifying “problem” audience members so as to avoid them during question period. Even so, he was unable to ignore one of the more persistent members of our group in the front row and, after a condescending remark, called on him.

About 30 seconds into his preamble (I timed it) people started yelling “your minute is up,” “sit down and shut up” and other rude comments. To be fair, two saner voices called for restraint, and one gentleman exclaimed “we are all the same, show some respect for other people’s opinions,” which impressed me.

It degenerated into a shouting match, and the mob was so unruly and frightening that one of us was actually a little concerned about walking to our cars afterward.

I have never witnessed such a public display of incivility in my life. The atmosphere was cult-like in that anything but the party line was absolutely not tolerated, and the leaders made every effort to keep us and our contradictory point of view suppressed.

Comments made by us on their online forums are deleted immediately, as if their members are not able to think for themselves. Many people are uncomfortable with doubt about their convictions and prefer to make a choice and then stick with it.

Smith takes advantage of that, telling people what they want to hear and charging for it, in the form of lectures, activist training sessions, as well as books and DVDs – conveniently on sale in the lobby afterwards.

Only confirmation is allowed.

FURTHER READING

Smith obviously just bouncing: http://academicsreview.org/reviewed-individuals/jeffrey-smith/

Chassy (food scientist) and Miller (physician) debunk Smith’s book: http://www.forbes.com/sites/henrymiller/2012/02/22/the-science-of-things-that-arent-so/

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is against GMO labeling: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/33057/title/AAAS--Don-t-Label-GM-Foods/

A book about cognitive dissonance and different personality types, The Republican Brain:

http://www.powells.com/biblio/9781118094518

Blythe Nilson is an associate professor of biology at UBC Okanagan and advisory fellow of the Centre For Inquiry Okanagan.

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