Original post by Connor McKoy can be found here.
Like many mothers, Alison Bernstein was overwhelmed with the information about what makes food safe. So overwhelmed, in fact, she thought “everything was killing us, and everything was destroying her.”
However, that all changed when she started working at a toxicology lab, where the science around biotechnology cannot be misconstrued by the internet or the organic industry.
In a recent piece for the Lansing State Journal, reporter RJ Wolcott profiles Bernstein’s journey from science skeptic, influenced by misinformation perpetuated by the organic industry, to science advocate, engaging in healthy debate and providing education on biotechnology and GMOs through her blog Mommy, Ph.D.
Even in the wake of threats against her and her family, Bernstein continues to be a vocal critic of unscientific practices.
Alison Bernstein used to be a “fear-based mom.”
In the documentary “Science Moms,” she described feeling overwhelmed with dread that the food she brought from the store could have life-long impacts on her daughter.
Then, Bernstein got a job in a toxicology lab at Emory University in Atlanta.
“I thought I was going to go there and find out that everything was killing us and everything was destroying her.”
Instead, the experience helped her put exposure to various chemicals into the larger context of everyday life. For instance, she said, the same chemical that prompted outrage over its use as an artificial coloring in pumpkin spice lattes — 4-MEI — is naturally present in coffee, soy sauce, beer and bread.
Bernstein, who now works as an assistant professor of translational science and molecular medicine at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids, didn’t find that level of nuance and understanding online.
She found bloggers relying on their experience as mothers to make unscientific claims about the dangers of genetically engineered crops and vaccines.
“Pseudoscience and anti-science stuff provides really simple, easy answers,” Bernstein said. “It gives a clear boogeyman, like GMOs or vaccines, and a clear solution, and that is much easier to deal with.”
She decided to reserve a tongue-in-cheek name on Facebook for her own blog — Mommy, PhD. — in 2011, though she didn’t start writing it in earnest until a few years later.
“I welcome discussion,” Bernstein wrote under her rules section. “In fact, I love a good discussion about science. But I do not tolerate trolls.”
Challenging unscientific views online comes at a cost.
When Bernstein started blogging about GMOs and vaccines, she got messages wishing cancer upon her and her children. She asked her family to restrict their social media visibility out of fear that they would get harassed, too.
It hasn’t stopped her from being a vocal critic of unscientific practices. She sees real value in being both a mother with relatable interests who also can speak with authority on these topics.
“I think most people don’t have time to spend time reading the scientific literature, but it helps to know someone who is like them, someone they can trust, someone who is an expert also, has formed an opinion about something and can back it up if asked.”
Bernstein was asked by her Pilates instructor last fall about a poster hung inside the studio that highlighted produce with purportedly high levels of pesticides. Her instructor asked whether she trusted it. Bernstein said no, and after a two-minute conversation about why not, the instructor took the poster down.
“She didn’t want piles of data,” Bernstein said. “She just wanted to know that someone she knows and trusts, who is a scientist and has some knowledge of this, doesn’t trust it.”
Bernstein joined her fellow Science Moms last week for the first Michigan screening of the film at MSU.
Wearing a blue Science Moms necklace, she sat in front of a classroom of two dozen people and talked about her experiences bringing scientific understanding into online debates.
“She brings that science background and expertise but also communicates it so well,” said Natalie Newell, the filmmaker behind “Science Moms”. “I’m not an expert in science at all, but I can listen to her and understand what she’s saying and she’s a person I wanted in front of parents who might have fears.”
Bernstein also gets her daughters involved with her work. She uses her oldest’s Legos for comics, most recently introducing the villain Sue Doe Syence.
Her daughter even drew her a picture of a troll that she could use whenever someone attempted to subvert the comment section of the blog.
“Don’t feed the trolls” is one of Bernstein’s favorite adages.
One incident from 2015 was particularly upsetting for Bernstein and fellow science mom Kavin Senapathy, an author and co-executive director of March Against Myths, an organization that fights against misinformation.
Both of them are “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fans. Sarah Michelle Gellar, who played Buffy on the television show, was among several celebrities who came out in favor of labeling GMOs out of concern for their potential impact on consumers.
Bernstein and Senapathy were among several scientists, farmers and science writers who put out an open letter in response. It read, in part, “Please, don’t co-opt motherhood and wield your fame to oppose beneficial technologies like genetic engineering.”
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a far-reaching report the following year that reaffirmed, in part, “no substantiated evidence that foods from (genetically engineered) crops were less safe than foods from non-GE crops.”
Still, the labeling GMOs movement persists, and labels saying that no GMOs were used in a given product can be found on products ranging from Cheerios to Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
Worse than the anti-GMO advocates are the anti-vaccine proponents, Bernstein said. It was the measles outbreak in California in 2015 that pushed her to be more vocal as a mother and scientist.
She remembers being a graduate student at Washington University when Jenny McCarthy first started propagating the idea that vaccines were dangerous and linked to autism in the mid-to-late 2000s. The research underpinning McCarthy’s view has long since been discredited, but anti-vax beliefs continue to persist online.
Had scientists come out strongly against those claims earlier, maybe it wouldn’t have gotten so popular, Bernstein said.
Kristina Kamensky, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at MSU who came to the film screening, knows that challenge first-hand. Her father frequently uses cayenne pepper mixes rather than prescribed blood thinners. He doesn’t trust conventional medicine, which is concerning to Kamensky. Seeing Bernstein and her fellow Science Moms tackle misinformation is heartening, she said.
“It’s encouraging that success can happen after brief conversations with people.”
You can watch the full video below: