On Shill Accusations and Misogyny

By Dr Alison Bernstein, Dr Anastasia Bodnar, Jenny Splitter, Kavin Senapathy, Dr Layla Katiraee, and Natalie Newell

In 2015, a group of scientists and science communicators penned a letter to a group of celebrity moms, including Sarah Michelle Gellar and Gwyneth Paltrow, to address their support for mandated GMO labeling. In this letter, we implored these celebrities to rethink GMOs using evidence, not fear. With the harm caused by anti-vaccine celebrities still fresh in our memories, we encouraged these celeb moms to learn more about GMOs from the scientists who study them. Hundreds of scientists, farmers, and communicators, many of whom are parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, all signed on to this letter. We called ourselves “Moms4GMOs.”

Thousands of people read this letter, including Natalie Newell (also a co-author of this letter), who decided she wanted to make a movie about the “Science Moms” who penned and signed this letter.

After chatting with her to make sure that her vision was one we shared, we decided to embark on this project, which has opened new avenues for us in science communication, and helped foster a sense of community among parents tired of the confusion and fear so common in the parenting world. Natalie’s movie entitled “Science Moms” was released in October. The response to “Science Moms” has been overwhelmingly positive. We were thrilled to attend the world premiere at QED in Manchester, UK, and the U.S. premiere at CSIcon in Las Vegas.

Thousands have downloaded and continue to download the movie too. We’re proud to be part of this project.

We’ve been pleased with the dialogue around the film, even when people aren’t convinced that genetic engineering is a good thing, or that homeopathy is harmful. We don’t want to tell people what to believe. Rather, we want to start a discussion around how to separate credible information from the ocean of misinformation available at our fingertips. We are aware that convincing people to agree with scientific consensus is a marathon, not a sprint, and that we cannot ignore justified socio-economic anxieties that underlie people’s concerns about these fraught issues.

Not surprisingly, a handful of individuals have begun to lob some familiar, yet false, accusations at us: shill, industry-spokespeople, manipulated moms, and other such insults. Over the years, we’ve seen that these typical yet unfounded accusations go hand-in-hand with the misogynistic view that women are little more than empty-headed corporate pawns incapable of coming to their own conclusions.

We were recently taken aback to discover that former Reuter’s reporter, Carey Gillam, who now works for the U.S. Right to Know, an organization funded by the Organic Consumer Association and other organic companies and advocacy groups, published a book in which our efforts are mentioned. In it, she states, with no evidence at hand and no citation to provide, that we have ties to Monsanto.

The truth is that the movie was crowdfunded and Natalie has generously put in hundreds of hours of her own time. The truth is that while all of us know folks who work in agricultural biotech, none of us are funded by such companies. The truth is that all of us have been critical of agricultural biotech at some point or another, and will continue to be critical (see here, here, here, or here). The truth is that we all believe in the relative safety of vaccines and genetically modified crops, and the looming perils of global warming.

These empty “shillcusations” are built on the idea that under no circumstances could a woman be inspired to take action of her own accord, or be driven by her own passion to see a project come to fruition using her own ingenuity and resourcefulness. Our shillcusers believe it would be impossible for educated women to read the scientific literature and come to our own conclusion, a conclusion supported by dozens of scientific organizations and hundreds of publications. They cannot envision that women of diverse backgrounds could come together and dedicate our time, money, and effort to a cause we believe in, and consequently, they believe that we must be on a corporation’s payroll. We realize that shill accusations are not exclusively aimed at women. However, the accusations against us take a specifically misogynist tone, in particular statements questioning our fitness to be mothers and our parenting choices.

Agricultural biotech companies and farming groups have sought to partner with us, but we have turned down these partnerships because our independent voices and unfiltered opinions are more important. We will always be transparent and, even if our donor list grows, our communication will remain unadulterated. We’ll criticize industry when it’s warranted. This sort of nuance may be difficult to grasp, as it’s easier to believe we’re easily-manipulated peons or useful idiots rather than strong, resourceful, and intelligent women. We may not always agree with one another on all topics, but we all firmly believe that scientific truths deserve our support and that all parents should have access to the most accurate information.

We understand the appeal of simple solutions to scary problems. Corporate control of our food and political systems, health disparities, the destruction of our environment, and the safety of our families are concerns we all share. But blaming a proxy, like vaccines, modern medicine, or GMOs prevents us from ever tackling these concerns in earnest. These problems are complex. The solutions will be equally complex. The case against “GMOs” tends to sideline important justice issues, fosters an atmosphere of fear and anxiety, and hinders the progress of technologies crucial to mitigating climate change and coping with the world’s growing population. We encourage those who disagree with our perspectives to engage with us and criticize our position rather than attack our character. We plan to continue this nuanced dialogue, and to do our part to help create tangible, positive change for the future.