I have attended some wonderful concerts at the Unitarian Church of Ithaca. Last night I attended a weird event there organized “to answer your GMO questions.” It was promoted by a well-endowed group, the Cornell Alliance for Science. Things started well enough with some rousing songs by the local group Vitamin L. But the concert segued into something rather strange with sinister overtones. I never thought the day would come when I would hear musical instruments, such as the sacred gong—normally a call for prayer—used in our churches to repress debate. But that is exactly what happened when the Cornell Alliance for Science felt a speaker from the community was talking too long or asking awkward questions about GMOs. The question or comment was drowned out by the use of a gong. Yes, it was done as a supposedly amusing way to move on—a triangle served as a warning before the big-hitting gong came in. But is this the way to generate rational debate over the pros and cons of GMOs? Certainly there is misinformation out there. But no real debate was allowed at the meeting. Questions could be asked from the floor, but the only people who could speak more than once were the designated speakers, and even when someone in the audience thought the comment from the platform was outrageously false—yes, scientists can make false statements—no one was allowed to question it.

The French scholar Jacques Attali famously pointed out that social power is often exercised through sound. When noise is heard in a new way, something is up.  Gongs silencing debate? Some powerful alliance somewhere is creaking. 

Philosopher Karl Popper pointed out years ago that science ought to be about criticism and the growth of knowledge. We know it isn’t always that way, but if the Cornell Alliance for Science wants to teach the community of Ithaca about science or wants to learn from this diverse community and its experience of agriculture, they could start off by being a little less arrogant.  Perhaps they could feel confident enough to dare to have a critic of GMOs on the panel. Perhaps they could include social scientists or actual farmers. We are Ithaca. We know about science. We know how to make sacred music, too. We know plenty about farming. We know about good food. We know arrogance when we hear it, and it doesn’t resonate well with our community.

– Trevor Pinch, Ithaca

Pinch is a local musician and author of The Golem: What You Should Know About Science.

(2) comments


Watching the entire proceedings on youtube, its clear the gong was necessary to moderate the evening.

Those who experienced the gong, were clearly not interested in dialog, but rather attempting to impose long personal diatribes on an unconsenting audience.

Hijacking a microphone to spew out long debunked arguments is not rational debate.


I agree with the previous comment about the rather bizarre accusation that the gong was used to silence debate.

Simple equation: You have an hour-long event, and, let's say, 20 people who want to ask questions. That leaves 3-minutes per question, including the answer to the question. (And the last part is KEY!) So just because the organizers had to enforce time limits on the few individuals who wanted to get up on their soap box and monopolize the time, does not mean the organizers were repressing debate.

Then the writer goes on to say:

"We are Ithaca. We know about science. We know how to make sacred music, too. We know plenty about farming. We know about good food."

I don't think anyone at the Alliance for Science has ever once questioned that the Ithaca community is generally speaking highly educated and intelligent. But clearly, at least a few members of the audience knew little about the relevant science. The lady who talked about "GMO Corn in breast milk" comes to mind. She is an example of a member of our community who has formed an opinion not based on science. So, speak for yourself, Trevor—perhaps you "know about science," but clearly that lady could brush up on her scientific knowledge.

And let me leave it at this:

"We know arrogance when we hear it, and it doesn’t resonate well with our community."

Here I agree wholeheartedly with the author. I know arrogance when I hear it, and it doesn't resonate well with me either.

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