When Real Pseudoscience Affects Real People

I often find it difficult to pull my head out of my research.  In focusing so much of my energy on finishing my dissertation, it’s easy to forget why I ever decided to pursue a career in food science and why I became interested in communicating its value.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky to meet someone who reminded me why.

I am part of a student group called Citation Needed at Ohio State that focuses on empowering students and the community to make informed decisions on issues in food and agriculture. We occasionally host coffee hours where we discuss particularly hot topics, and our most recent was about GMOs.

As everyone settled into their seats, a woman I had never seen before entered the room. She grabbed a few pieces of cheese and fruit and sat in the seat next to mine.  We briefly bonded over our mutual dislike of brie before the group conversation began. After only a few minutes, my new friend launched into a lengthy description of every health malady she had experienced in recent years. The cause? GMOs.

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In these types of situations it is so tempting to wield scientific authority and slash through every bit of misinformation someone believes. But if I have learned one thing through my involvement in science communication, it is just as powerful to listen.

By listening, I learned a lot about where her concerns about GMOs stem from. In her furious search for answers about her health problems, she quickly fell prey to internet pseudoscience. She believed that GMOs gave her cancer and caused the rashes that cover her body. What’s more, she’s recently started to land on her feet after a period of homelessness and is struggling to follow a GMO-free diet.

As she was sharing her story with me, she asked in exasperation, “what is a GMO? Has anybody ever seen one?” Unfortunately this question is all too common in this context. There are countless others who don’t understand what GMOs are, yet they use them as a scapegoat for various health problems.  

By the end of our conversation, it was hard to keep my emotions in check. My new friend was so incredibly afraid of food, and it broke my heart. I wanted to triumphantly rescue her from the grips of the pseudoscience that was viciously consuming her life, but in the end, it is entirely her choice what foods she decides to purchase. The best thing I could do for her was listen and help her digest the scientific basis as to why she has other options.

Now as I piece together my dissertation, I am doing so with new resolve. I am even more motivated to do science, read science, share science with everyone, and, most importantly, be compassionate.

Remember, don’t eat (or share) the pseudoscience.


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Matt

Matt is a PhD student at Ohio State, where he also finished his B.S. and M.S. degrees in food science.  His current research aims to understand how berries might impact oral health.  Outside of the lab, Matt enjoys cooking (that’s a given!), outdoorsy activities, and getting his hands on as many sweets as possible! (Follow him on Twitter! @teeinthegarden)

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