Given all the brouhaha happening around the March for Science yesterday, I was a bit hesitant to see what would unfold. There was a lot of talk on the social media to be present at the march to protest my presence and the group I represented, the Alliance for Science.
As people started to gather for the rally, I started to see the protesters’ signs out in the crowd from anti-corporate accusations and about the Papahanaumokuakea Monument. There was 4 gathered right in the front of the media folks with their anti-alliance signs to make it clear that I was not welcomed at this march. Oddly, organizers were told that any hot topic signs or gear would not be allowed at the march, however, these people were allowed openly. I even saw multiple people wearing anti-TMT shirts also.
As the rally opened, more and more people gathered around. I didn’t see more anti folks though. I was expecting to be heckled and yelled at but surprisingly, none of that happened. It might be because my 2 year old wanted to be held and my 6 year old wanted to show off her “Science feeds the world” sign she had drawn. It was a relief after I spoke, my children did not have to face rude adults.
After speaking, I headed towards the table I had set up to spark conversations and talk about science. I brought my beautiful red Indian corn cob, cotton bolls, photos of GM papaya and virus infected ones, diseased plants, Norman Borlaug stickers, some Alliance pens and stickers. Our table was filled with things to look at and touch to help bring curious people in.
It was really funny when people would lean in close and whisper quietly if we were about GMOs. People were afraid to ask us what we stood for. Between several of us volunteers there, we worked on educating people about evidence based policies and access to technology on a global scale. When they realized what the Alliance stood for, there were so many sighs of relief and so many shared their thoughts about how cool genetic engineering was looking out to be. Many great conversations happened.
My other Alliance member, James Green, was quite clever in his approach to manning the table. He stood with a cardboard sign with a graph of the Dunning-Kruger effect on one side and the other side explaining what it meant. He started out by explaining to curious people why there was such strong opinions about the technology but in reality, the true knowledge and expertise was not there. I’d have to say that many people learned about why GMOs sounded bad but in reality wasn’t when you delved further.
As the day went on, one of the protesters decided to stand in front of our table with his sign raised over his head to show his stance against us. He stood there for several minutes and I realized that he’d probably stay there for a long time. I thought to myself, “What a rude guy to do this kind of shenanigan?” I assessed the situation make sure that if it got ugly, my kids were not around. I decided to talk to this guy and see what his deal was. I figured that if he’d do something ugly, there were lots of witnesses around.
I came in front of him and read his sign and said, “Why are you standing in front of our table and not coming to talk story? That is so not local style.” He proceed to tell me that he heard that the Alliance for Science was being funded by Monsanto. In my own head I was like, oh, geez, again. I might have a crazy one ranting about all the horrible accusations. What have I gotten myself into now?
I continued to talk to him and said, “You think that I’m working for Monsanto because I’m supporting GMO technology?” He said that only Monsanto would put on a booth like this with all the information and stuff. I said no way. I told him that I was up until 2:30 in the morning getting prepared for today. I had set up the photos, stickers, and stuff and even paid for it myself. He was in disbelief and said that it couldn’t be true. I replied that if he wanted to see my receipts, I’d be happy to show him. I continued to tell him my story about my dad and brother’s farm being saved by technology.
As that story came out, he started to realize that I wasn’t Monsanto and that GMOs like that were good. He said that he was a marine biologist with some training in molecular biology so he understood that. Then he said that GMOs are bad because of pesticides. I wanted to bang my head but instead, smiled and took his hand and brought him to my table. “Come here and let me show you what I’m talking about,” I told him.
I pulled out one of the lectures I had heard at Cornell on GMOs. I showed him photos of the Bt eggplant damage from the shoot borer and how small farmers had to spray many times to prevent damage. Then I showed him a photo of the Bt eggplant and how it had no damage and needed little spraying if anything. I also talked to him about witchweed and how it destroyed people’s crops but if the seed was coated in herbicides, a crop could grow and yield something. He told me that he was a scientist and agreed that this applications were a good thing.
Despite this he kept going on about how the pesticides was the issue. I responded that if he wanted less pesticides, then how could it be done? I waited for his answer and he realized that GM technology could be utilized to change the plant to need less spraying. I could see a light go on in his head when he realized that.
I pushed back on him a bit and asked why was he hanging out with anti-GMO people who were sitting across the way, refusing to interact. I told him that if he was a scientist and knows the benefit of GMOs, why isn’t he educating his friends on it? He said that he knew the benefits of biotech being from Costa Rica but that some people don’t understand it. I reiterated to him that if he wants less pesticides and better farming, we need research and science leading the charge. He agreed but then went back to Monsanto. I was losing my patience and said, “Would you please think about what we just talked about that it’s not about Monsanto.” He laughed and our conversation didn’t divert but luckily, my attention went to someone else who wanted to talk to me, a cousin who found me on 23andme.
After I had a great talk with Jason, I went back to help at the table and my protester was still hanging out. We continued talking and eventually got on to the subject of vaccinations which he surprisingly supported. He was upset at babies dying around the world because of the anti-vaccination movement. I pointed out to him that supporting the anti-GMO stance he had contributes the anti-vax movement by promoting science denial. I asked him if he wanted more babies dying because of this rejection of the evidence, to which he stated no. He was appalled at the anti-vaccination movement and the spread of preventable diseases like measles, whooping cough, and mumps.
My protester friend was still standing in front of our table but he had dropped his sign. We continued talking about the amazing things happening in the world of science and agriculture and decided to take a photo together. He said that he would try to educate his fellow anti friends that not all GMOs mean pesticides or corporations. I hope he follows through with his word.
A day that started out with a bit of apprehension actually turned out to be terrific as another person came to talk to me too. I had first encountered this student in a group on Facebook when she had posted some buffer zone links to gather testimony for it. I countered her on it to get her to look at the facts. I also encouraged her to dig deeper and find the actual evidence to her claims. She decided to stop by our table and talk story with me wanting to learn why I held the stances I did against the buffer zone laws.
I pulled out a photo of the papaya tree kicked down by my dad’s fearful neighbor. I explained to her that this issue about buffer zones isn’t based in science if people are taking those kinds of actions. She was a bit surprised because she had believed that children had been sickened which necessitated it. I asked her if she had looked up the evidence for the claim to which she couldn’t answer. I told her that I’d be happy to show her the evidence so that she doesn’t contribute to the attacks against farmers. She seemed more than willing to learn and gave me her card, which I’ll be contacting her in the future.
As I spoke with many children and parents, it was clear to me that few understood the story of agriculture when they picked up my stickers. I asked them if they knew who was pictured on it. Very few were able to identify Norman Borlaug. I explained to the children that he believed that all people should have food, which they agreed upon was a very good thing.
A lot of learning took place at this March for Science event despite me being censored from talking about GMOs, the Thirty Meter Telescope, and vaccines. The mood of the marchers was so different than the marches against the TMT and GMOs. Those marches were full of angry people whose only bond was being against something. Anger bonded these people together and it made for some ugly after effects. This same anger fueled more anger and hate that spewed out into the social media for years to come. This group of people armed with emotion is what led to the breakdown of communities across our state because logic and rational thinking was lost in the equation.
However, at the March for Science, the atmosphere was very friendly and people were curious and willing to talk story with each other. We were all for something, with the exception of those protesters. The censoring didn’t stop the truth from being discussed or heard. In fact there were lots of signs about science saving lives and astronomy.
When the march was done, the lawn wasn’t full of garbage or signs thrown the ground like so many other marches. I saw many people taking home their signs instead of dumping it in the trash cans. Everyone cooperated and helped to fold up tables and chairs and put it back in it’s place. The march for science brought out a different crowd indeed and it was pretty amazing to see the civility and cooperation come out in people from all walks of life. My daughters made many friends from various marchers and even took some photos with their signs.
What I learned from participating in this march is that those who support science and the scientists themselves must be willing to take the brave step in leading our communities in the right direction. When we are focused on a common goal that helps the greater good, we can put our energies towards the pressing problems ahead of us. Standing aside and being unwilling to even acknowledge another person isn’t going to create a movement for a better world.
I learned the name of my protester that day. His name was Javier and despite starting the day feeling apprehensive about him, he is just another person and by taking the first step to talk to him, he was able to have a civil, factual, and rational conversation about a “hot topic.” The rest of his friends who protested didn’t even come near the information that was available to see and learn from. Even the environmentalist guy who showed up to protest me refused to even show an interest in our table, despite me sharing his post encouraging him to learn. Javier thanked me for coming up to him and talking with him and I said thank you for talking with me!
We need learners in this world who are willing to be curious about what is happening. Those who are capable of talking story so that we all can work together to make it better. The more we focus on collaboration, the better we can sustain our communities for all of humanity.