Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dr. Oz's take on GMO = terrible science communication

Browsing other blogs, I found one called Tomorrow's Table by Dr. Pamela Ronald, a respected plant pathologist.  In December 2010, she appeared on a panel of experts to discuss GMO food safety on the Dr. Oz show.  I'll give a summary, but the segment can be found here

First, I just want to say how frustrating it was watching this.  Frustrating not for the fact that I'm pro GMO food (I'm not necessarily), but rather because the science was presented so poorly by Oz and his producers.  Dr. Ronald was also frustrated, if you check out her blog.  The show starts out with a video overview of GMOs.  The background music is dramatic and fearful, and he uses words like "franken foods."  This is followed by Oz questioning the three experts about GMOs, and the general conclusion (among Oz and two of them) is that they are unsafe.  The whole segment they team up on Dr. Ronald, and it seems the only reason she is there is so they can claim they represented both sides.  The segment is framed very well for someone trying to scare viewers of GMOs, focusing on human health and children's health.  Both sides were not represented properly, and Oz's communication used the deficit model.

Through the last few weeks I've research these crops, and human health is the least of our worries for the current GM crops out there.  They've been in the food supply about 15 years with no health concerns to show for it.  The companies engineering these plants check that the new protein is safe, and they check if the new crop is otherwise identical to the original.  Then, the plant still has to meet FDA standards for a normal crop, there are not yet special guidelines for GM crops.  There are other risks, if you view my earlier posts.

Oz also tries to make the argument that 6 European countries have banned GMOs, therefore they should be considered unsafe.  Ronald counters that the scientific community in Europe is generally in favor of GMOs, but the reason they are banned is a political and social one.  Based on how politics work, I'm going to have to side with Dr. Ronald on that one.  Media, religious, and political leaders can get people to believe anything.  For example, a NPR report recently showed that over half of Republican primary voters still believe Obama was not born in the United States.  One that I find particularly offensive as a geologist is that many still think the Earth is 6000 years old, despite the overwhelming amount of scientific knowledge that shows it is over 4 billion years old. 

I'd like to conclude by saying that it is unfortunate that someone with a TV show can potentially influence millions in a 15 minute segment through misleading and improper science communication.  The truth is though, most people receive all of their knowledge about current issues through television media (often times very biased).  Dr. Ronald pressed the audience to visit specific science websites that would show peer-reviewed work supporting that GM crops are not harmful to human health.  But c'mon, you know 99% of the viewing audience would never do that.  Why did Oz and his producers present GM crops this way? Because they wanted the shock effect and wanted the fantastic and frightful news that would boost their ratings.


  1. A FASCINATING post. You might also check out last Friday's discussion on NPR's Science Friday--a very similar roundtable went down, with one pro-GMO scientist on the defensive. It was much more balanced than this one, I think, but still interesting. I think there's a lot of public concern about this stuff, and not a lot of good opportunities for meaningful dialogue. I love your thoughtfulness here.

  2. New thoughts are scary for many people . Sadly as stated 15 minutes by someone the public trusts and out the window goes years of scientific proof.
    Ten years ago there was still an active "Flat earth society". Their president died and the new one was in Lancaster, California.