Keeping an open mind at The Amaz!ng Meeting 13.
By Arlo Eisenberg
I couldn’t believe this guy didn’t remember me. Just the day before he was sharing the most personal, most candid, most shocking things I’d ever heard. And now, less than 24 hours later, he was carrying on as if we’d never met.
Steven and I were standing in the skyway that connected the Tropicana Casino to the hotel rooms where we were staying. We were in Vegas attending The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM!), which is an annual gathering of Skeptics featuring talks, workshops and entertainment with Skeptical themes. Steven and I were in the skyway arguing with two other conference attendees about Monsanto.
I recognized one of the attendees instantly. Incredibly, just the day before, in the exact same skyway no less, I had been party to an extremely intimate conversation with him.
Daniel, as we will call him, (both to protect his privacy and because I can’t actually remember his real name – I hope it is not Daniel!!) was a brony.
Bronies came to the attention of the internet a few years ago, albeit mostly via derisive memes, but they managed to penetrate the public’s consciousness nonetheless. Bronies are adult male fans of Hasbro’s My Little Pony franchise. They wear My Little Pony merchandise, they participate in online discussion forums and they attend brony conferences such as BronyCon where they engage in, among other things, My Little Pony cosplay. There have been several documentaries made about the brony subculture, including, Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony.
Meeting Daniel marked my first personal encounter with a brony. I used to work with a guy who was a furry (of some notoriety, I might add) in my last job. He used to stay after work late and use the company computers to patronize furry forums and to draw pictures of anthropomorphic foxes (or dogs?) blowing each other in high school gymnasiums. But, until Daniel, I’d never met a real-life brony.
Daniel used a laptop to share his brony fan art with a group of about six people gathered at the back of one of the conference rooms after a day of TAM! talks. His illustrations, which were mostly created on a tablet, were colored in characteristic My Little Pony hues of pastel pinks, purples and blues. There was no denying Daniel’s talent; the illustrations were all very, very good.
It is easy to imagine that there must be some element of sexual fetishism to the brony subculture. My Little Pony is a bright, shimmering, bedazzled franchise clearly targeted at little girls. When this is juxtaposed with the pot-bellied, somewhat bearded, hairy grown men that make up the brony fandom it creates an uneasy tension, and an uneasy expectation, that something sexual and seedy must be afoot.
While it should be stated that this fetishistic element is not the norm within the brony subculture, it was unmistakably a part of Daniel’s personal brony pathology. All of Daniel’s beautifully illustrated pony characters, for instance, were hyper-sexualized hermaphrodites, adorned with both male and female parts, including, most notably, giant, streamlined, purple horse cocks.
That Daniel was a brony was not his deepest secret, however. In fact, I don’t think he kept that a secret at all. The fact that his art was provocative was not a deep secret either, although he did restrict its viewing to a selective audience.
Daniel’s entourage was down to just two people, a friendly woman from Germany, and me, when Daniel began to reveal his most intimate secrets. The three of us moved from the TAM! conference hall, where the brony discussion began, to one of the lounging areas in the skyway where we continued our conversation.
The German woman and I continued down a path of ever more probing – and more personal – questions, coyly prodded along by Daniel, who reciprocated with increasingly candid and revealing answers.
I was almost certainly the last one to figure it out, but at some point it dawned on me that there was probably more to Daniel’s interest in horses than just My Little Ponies and fan art.
“Are you attracted to horses?” I asked dumbly.
“Yes.” Daniel responded.
“What about Zebras and other equines?” the German woman added.
“Yes, all kinds.” Daniel replied, each answer leading to the next, more personal, question.
“Are you gay?” one of us asked.
“No.” Daniel replied, adjusting the bright bands around his wrist.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Does she know about your fantasies?”
We all stood there, peering perilously over the cliff, when I finally decided to make the leap.
“Is it your desire to consummate your relationship with a horse?” I asked, probably being overly clinical, but trying to be careful not to imply any judgment.
“Yes.” Daniel replied.
“Like, to be penetrated by the horse or to penetrate it?” I continued. And then, just to be clear, “Like, vaginally or anally?”
“So, orally,” I deduced, as if participating in some kind of Cards Against Humanity version of twenty questions, “you would like to perform oral on a horse?”
Daniel elaborated and this sparked a somewhat long and interesting discussion about social mores and ethics, highlighted by ruminations on what a “meaningful” relationship with a horse might look like (or if such a thing was even possible) and what would constitute rape—or consent—between species.
This was of particular concern to Daniel because he was adamant that he did not want to rape a horse. He was uncomfortable with the idea of trespassing onto someone else’s property, for instance, to perform oral sex on a stranger’s horse.
In Daniel’s ideal fantasy he would have a horse or horses of his own and he would establish affectionate, trusting relationships with them. In Daniel’s mind this would facilitate genuine, consensual, intimate interaction between him and his horses.
Needless to say, it was a fascinating talk. Certainly unique among the conversations I have ever been a part of, and not something that I will likely ever forget. I was completely surprised and impressed by how open and unflinching Daniel was about everything—confiding in two strangers the way he did about his deepest, most intimate secrets and fantasies.
In fact, the only thing more surprising than Daniel’s revelations that day, was the fact that less than 24 hours later, when we ran into each other again in the Tropicana skyway, Daniel seemed to have no idea who I was.
It was evening and most people were heading down to the hotel bars to socialize with other TAM! conference attendees. Steven and I had been down to one of the bars already, but decided to run up to the room to get something. As we crossed the skyway back toward the hotel rooms we found ourselves going against the grain as most other guests were headed back toward the bars.
Two young guys in their mid-to-late twenties passed us. They were wearing conference badges and carrying frozen souvenir cocktails that looked like giant plastic bongs filled with alcoholic neon Slurpees. One of the guys, the younger looking of the two, took a long look at Steven’s shirt as we passed and then after getting about twenty paces away, and I presume, taking some time to get his thoughts together, shouted “If you knew what that company was you wouldn’t be wearing that shirt!”
Steven and I knew this moment would come. Honestly we were a little surprised (and perhaps a little disappointed) that it hadn’t come sooner. But, we were ready for it.
Steven was wearing a black T-shirt with a white Monsanto logo emblazoned across the chest. I’d spent the weekend before, on a hot Texas summer day, sweating in a friend’s garage, printing the T-shirts.
Monsanto, if you don’t know, is an agricultural biotechnology company. They are one of the leading producers of genetically engineered seeds and they make and market the herbicide, Roundup.
And they are the most hated company in the world.
The original idea was simply to purchase and wear Monsanto T-shirts – it seemed like the most punk rock thing we could do. Steven and I knew that the shirts would challenge credulity and piss people off, but we also realized that wearing Monsanto shirts would be taking a stand—for evidence-based reasoning—and against hysteria. The shirts, we thought, would be a funny little piece of Skeptical activism.
It is hard to overstate just how much people HATE Monsanto. There is a persistent notion, call it the “Whole Foods Ethos,” that anything “natural” is good for you and that “chemicals” are bad – especially when it comes to the things that we put into our bodies (this is also known as the appeal to nature fallacy). It is the reason we pay more for produce labeled “organic” even though there is no significant difference in taste, toxicity or nutritional content. We are simply paying for the good feeling that comes with believing that something is “natural.”
Combine this attitude with a general mistrust of science and overall poor scientific literacy and what you end up with, not surprisingly, is an environment that is extremely hostile to agritech in general and to Monsanto in particular, as evidenced by the number of anti-Monsanto demonstrations staged all over the world.
When Steven and I came up with the idea of wearing Monsanto T-shirts, we knew that they would be somewhat incendiary (and that we would kind of be trolling the public). It would not be too much of an overstatement to say that wearing a Monsanto logo in public would be like wearing a swastika. People hate Monsanto that much.
Unfortunately, from a purely aesthetic point of view, Monsanto’s current logo is terrible. Clearly self-conscious about the perception that they are a cold, corporate, blood-sucking corporation, Monsanto overcompensated and adopted a new, excessively toothless corporate logo that makes it look like they make gluten-free dog treats or scented holistic candles. Not very punk rock.
It was clear that if Steven and I were going to wear Monsanto T-shirts we would have to make them ourselves. I searched through the archives looking at old Monsanto logos (thanks, Google!) and eventually settled on a simple, non-offensive logotype that appeared on an old Monsanto stock certificate. I ran the design by Steven (who was in California) and he approved, so I enlisted a friend of mine from work who could do silk screens in his garage and we spent a day printing up half-a-dozen custom Monsanto T-shirts that I could take with me to Vegas.
Steven and I took turns wearing our Monsanto T-shirts at the TAM! conference, wearing them on different days. I didn’t plan it this way, but my shirt ended up in several of the photos I took with celebrities from the Skeptical community, including Ray Hymen and Dr. Steven Novella. As Steven Novella posed for the photo he even commented, “oh great, now people are really going to think I am a shill.”
On the night that Steven and I were making our way through the Tropicana skyway, it was Steven’s Monsanto shirt that got the attention of the two twenty-something Skeptics carrying their souvenir beer bongs in tow.
“If you knew what that company was you wouldn’t be wearing that shirt!” one of them shouted.
“Wait! What do you mean?” We shouted back, inviting the confrontation. “What about the company??”
The two young men came back.
“What about this company?” we asked, “What do we need to know?”
Enthusiastically taking our bait, one of the young men, whom I now recognized as Daniel, the brony from the day before, started in. “That company,” he said as he pointed to the Monsanto logo on Steven’s shirt, “that is a very bad company. They do very bad things. You would NOT be wearing that shirt,” Daniel insisted, “if you knew what they did.”
I kind of hesitated as I waited to see how Daniel and I were going to acknowledge each other. Perhaps Daniel wouldn’t be so keen to faceoff if he realized who I was (and what I knew). I waited for some sign of recognition from Daniel, but none ever came.
“So, what do they do?” I asked, pressing on. “What does Monsanto do?”
“They have some very shady practices, man. Do you know what GMOs are, genetically modified organisms? Monsanto is against labeling GMOs even though tests have shown that GMOs are hazardous and can cause tumors. Monsanto makes the seeds that produce GMO crops. They pay for all of the funding against labeling GMOs so they can keep selling GMO seeds!”
I couldn’t believe how perfectly Daniel was setting us up.
But, I really couldn’t believe that Daniel didn’t recognize me. What Daniel shared – LESS THAN TWENTY FOUR HOURS BEFORE – was so honest and so personal!
I mean, at least it seemed really personal at the time. But, maybe it wasn’t personal at all. Maybe it wasn’t nearly as private as I thought. Maybe Daniel shares his fantasies with anyone that will listen. Perhaps he talks like that all the time. Maybe I was just another guy—one of many—that Daniel had opened up to about his fetish for horses. Maybe in Daniel’s world bestiality is just not that big of a deal.
“Really? GMOs are dangerous?” I asked, keeping up the façade, “How interesting. How do you know this?”
“They’ve done studies.” Daniel offered. “In one study they fed rats GMOs and the rats developed cancer at alarming rates. They got giant tumors. You can look it up.”
This was insane! Not just what Daniel was saying, which was pretty nuts, but that he was carrying on as if we were complete strangers. It was clear that Daniel didn’t know who I was, but was it possible that Daniel didn’t even know that Steven and I were there for the TAM! conference? That we were Skeptics also?
It was true that Steven and I weren’t wearing our conference badges. We retired them to our hotel room earlier, before going to the bar. But, unless I was like some kind of Clark Kent, able to render myself completely unrecognizable simply by manipulating the tiniest of details—like putting on a pair of glasses—I am not sure that the removal of my conference badge should be considered a very adequate explanation for Daniel’s behavior.
Unlike Steven and me, Daniel and his companion were still wearing their TAM! conference badges.
I sensed an opportunity.
“So, what are you guys here for?” I asked, knowing good and well the answer. “What brings you to Vegas?”
“We’re here for a conference,” one of them replied as they dutifully held up their badges.
I was a little surprised, but they still weren’t giving any indication that they had any idea who we were or why we were in Vegas, so I kept going.
“What kind of a conference?” I asked, feigning ignorance.
“It’s kind of like a science conference,” Daniel offered.
His friend added, “It is a conference for Skeptics.”
“Oh. And what is a Skeptic?” I asked.
“Like, we doubt things,” said Daniel, “we don’t believe things.”
His friend corrected him, “No, that sounds too cynical. We investigate things.”
“Ah, I see, so you won’t believe just anything,” I said.
“No!” exclaimed Daniel, “We need evidence!”
“Aha. Evidence,” I repeated back, “so, you wouldn’t make a claim without thoroughly investigating it first.”
“Right!” exclaimed Daniel.
“You would make sure that your claims were backed by evidence,” I said.
“Well, yes.” Answered Daniel’s friend, now showing some signs of wariness.
“Would you say that you have thoroughly investigated the claims you are making about Monsanto?”
Daniel’s friend remained silent. Daniel replied, “Well, yeah.”
“Do you feel confident that the evidence supports these extraordinary claims you are making about Monsanto?”
Daniel hardly had a chance to respond before I continued, ending the charade, “I find this very interesting,” I began, before stating something that I thought should have been pretty obvious, “because Steven and I are Skeptics also,” (Duh!) “and we are here attending The Amaz!ng Meeting as well.”
Daniel and his friend looked a little surprised and perhaps, a little embarrassed, as if Chris Hansen had just appeared from off-camera on To Catch a Brony.
“We have also looked into these claims” I continued, “and have found the evidence actually does NOT support the claims you are making and in fact, in most cases it contradicts it.”
I was still self-conscious about the fact that I was the only one among us aware of the full ridiculousness of the scenario unfolding, like I was the one now harboring some kind of a secret. Steven hadn’t been there for Daniel’s intimate confessions the day before and Daniel clearly didn’t recall that I’d been there. As Steven and I prepared to take the two young men to the woodshed for their clumsy miscarriage of Skepticism I was the only one doing so with full knowledge—and full accompanying mental imagery—of Daniel’s secret (or perhaps not so secret?) longing to suck-off a giant, throbbing horse’s cock.
“In fact,” I added, pressing on, “many of the people speaking at the conference here this weekend, people that we all respect and whom we know value evidence based reasoning, people like Steven Novella, Harriet Hall and Michael Shermer have also looked into this issue and have also found that most of the claims made against Monsanto fall apart under scrutiny; the claims you have made are simply not supported by the facts. Most people who have reviewed the evidence do not share your view that Monsanto is a ‘bad’ company or that GMOs are dangerous.”
Steven added, “Every major scientific organization in the world that has reviewed the independent research agrees that GMOs are safe and provide at least as much nutritional content as their non-GMO counterparts. This includes The American Association for the Advancement of Science, The American Medical Association, The National Academy of Sciences, The European Commission, The World Health Organization, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and many others.”
Daniel countered, “But there are studies out there that that show GMOs are dangerous and that they cause tumors in rats.”
To which Steven replied, “The study you are referring to, the Séralini study, was retracted by the journal that originally published it and has been widely panned by the scientific community. Séralini’s long term study was conducted over two years, but the breed of rats used in the study, Sprague Dawley, are notorious for developing health problems after only 18 months and they are particularly susceptible to the spontaneous generation of tumors. Not surprisingly, by the end of the study, many of Séralini’s rats developed tumors, but with such a small sample size—only 20 rats in the control group—and such a poorly designed experiment, it would be impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions from the data. It didn’t help that Séralini refused to release the raw data. Séralini’s study has been completely discredited and the results have never been replicated.”
“Okay,” Daniel conceded, “let’s set aside the science for now, maybe there is nothing wrong with GMOs. You still can’t deny that Monsanto is an evil corporation guilty of some pretty deplorable business practices. They created a ‘terminator’ seed that is incapable of reproducing, so that farmers have to buy new seeds from them every year—farmers don’t even own their own seeds anymore! And even when farmers have refused to use Monsanto’s GMO seeds, they have been sued by Monsanto just for having GMO seeds blow onto their property by accident! There are documented cases of this. How can you defend that?”
This was a familiar tactic that Daniel was employing. When confronted with the overwhelming evidence that supports the safety of GMOs, opponents of agri-tech will often retreat to the position that the business practices of prominent agri-tech companies like Monsanto are indefensible, even if the science is sound.
Steven responded to Daniel’s claims, starting with the “terminator” seeds, “So called ‘terminator’ seeds do exist,” Steven began, “and Monsanto acquired the company that holds the patent on them in 2007, but they have never been put on the market and Monsanto is adamant that they never will be.”
“As for the farmer being sued by Monsanto,” Steven continued, “the case you are referring to is the Percy Schmeiser case. Percy Schmeiser is a canola farmer in Canada. He claimed that Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola seeds accidentally got onto his property from neighboring farms. Upon discovering this Schmeiser could have simply contacted Monsanto and either paid a licensing fee or had the seeds removed. Instead what Schmeiser chose to do was to harvest the Roundup Ready seeds and then the following season he replanted his entire crop (95-98%) with the glyphosate-resistant seeds. This is what Schmeiser was sued for, patent infringement, not for having seeds blown onto his property. Percy Schmeiser knowingly used Monsanto’s patented glysophate-resistant seeds and refused to pay the royalty for them. Percy Schmeiser appealed his case all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court and lost at every level. He was never able to provide a reasonable explanation for how his entire crop came to be made up of the glysophate-resistant seeds.”
Daniel thought a moment before responding. “I was not aware of that,” he conceded, “it sounds like we need to look into this some more.” His friend nodded.
“There is an important lesson to be learned here,” I added. “As Skeptics we must be extra vigilant in vetting our claims. Especially when concerning controversial topics. The more something disagrees with our personal beliefs the more care we have to take in checking our own personal biases.”
“I need to read more about this,” Daniel said, “I definitely don’t think that I’ve looked into this thoroughly enough. I have a lot more research to do.”
And then, remarkably, Daniel apologized for not being more familiar with the facts and he thanked us for broadening his understanding of the subject.
Confrontations over Monsanto are not uncommon. Especially not when you solicit them by wearing a Monsanto T-shirt. Steven and I could have been arguing with anyone (and Daniel was certainly not the only—nor the last—person to get a rise out of the shirts). But there was something unique about the engagement with Daniel.
He fell for all the same sensational headlines and trotted out all the familiar anti-Monsanto tropes that are floating around the internet, and in anti-GMO circles, yet by the end of the discussion, despite his leanings going into the discussion, Daniel was open to the possibility that he could have been wrong. Daniel was willing to reevaluate his position in light of new evidence.
This almost never happens. People are usually so entrenched in their positions and so ideologically invested in their ideas that they are almost completely impervious to new evidence, or even to any evidence that conflicts with their worldview (there will probably be a few examples of this in the comments). It is a credit to Daniel and to the power of Skepticism that he was able to overcome the strong emotional ties he had to his anti-GMO position and remain open to conflicting information.
I don’t believe that Daniel changed his position right there on the spot after the confrontation with Steven and me. That really wasn’t the point. But, I do believe that Daniel went back and investigated the claims for himself and now probably has a more balanced and well-informed opinion on the subject.
An open mind is a powerful thing, but it also has to be a deliberate thing—and a practiced thing. Part of the burden of being open to new ideas lies in also knowing how to discriminate between competing ideas. It is easy to accept the things we want to believe. Don’t leave your mind so open that your brain falls out, as the saying goes.
Having an open mind doesn’t mean simply accepting every idea that suits your sensibilities. A truly open mind must also be prepared to accept ideas that might not seem immediately pleasant. Like the idea that a multibillion dollar, multinational, agricultural biotechnology company might not be the boogeyman everyone has made it out to be or the idea that an intelligent, thoughtful young man might secretly desire nothing more than to take a giant, throbbing horse’s cock down his throat.
For further reading:
Discover Monsanto - You can address any question to Monsanto and browse through questions and answers that have already been posted. It seems like almost any question you can think of is already on there.