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.