Monday, April 2, 2012

More TEDx Credulity, A Sad, Sad Talk

Birke Baehr is undoubtedly a brilliant kid.  At eleven years old he has interests in food and the environment, making him a clear outlier from his peers.  Birke was a speaker at TEDx Asheville. In my parsing of TEDx talks to identify anti-scientific claims, his was clearly a standout for good and sad reasons. 

Again, as pointed out in previous posts, the outstanding reputation of TED talks was being hijacked by fringe interests to promote a non-scientific agenda, tarnishing the reputation of TED's credible brand.  

This YouTube video named "Monsanto Corporation Gets Owned by 11 Year Old Boy" exploits the credulity of youth and the approval of a credulous audience.  Plus, he never says anything about Monsanto, just the usual anti-biotech rhetoric-- all stated as fact, without evidence.

What is wrong with his talk?  Like a few TEDx talks I am currently discussing, they are weak on evidence and their agendas are showing.  As you listen to Birke, please read along the timeline below.  Pay attention to his claims, and measure them against scientific response.

First minute-- good setup using points we all can agree on. Yes, children are vulnerable to advertising and corporations do exploit that.  By starting on ground of clear consensus he can develop an intrapersonal relationship with the listener, even one skeptical at the onset.  Smart. 

At 1:05 he reveals the problem with his presentation.  He reveals the sources for his information.  He looked into modern agriculture on "the internet, in books and documentary films, and in travels with my family."  These are sources notorious for spoon-feeding a persuasive activist agenda that is not supported by the scientific consensus or peer-reviewed literature.  An 11 year old most likely does not have the critical thinking skills to synthesize this material in the context of legitimate science.

1:20  "A seed is manipulated in a laboratory to do something not intended by nature".  Okay.  Did nature intend any of the crops we eat to be grown in North America?  Did nature intend for crops to be cross bred, selected and mutated by chemical agents, acceptable by organic farming?  No on all accounts.  His determination of "natural" is arbitrary to fit the rhetoric.

1:27  "DNA of a fish, into DNA of a tomato, this is just creepy"  Maybe to him it is creepy, but a gene is a gene and such manipulations were thought to help grow tomatoes in cold, as well as give them long shelf life.  No such products are on the market, yet Birke and his supporter will tell you they are, despite no evidence.

1:40  "The food they (transgenic seeds) produce have been proven to cause cancer and other problems in laboratories".  He says this, it is not true.  He is now a puppet, lying for an agenda.  There are no peer-reviewed, published reports showing a causal link to cancer of any kind.

1:55  He talks about rats fed GMO products and liver and kidney problems.  These data come from one lab, one report (Seralini et al., 2007), where a small number of rats were fed the direct gene product doped into food. In this report, differences were observed in a subset of the animals, yet only data from the affected animals were shown. Such problems in meaningfully large studies have not been found, and experiments were not repeated. An expert panel revisited these data and published their conclusion that "analysis conducted by Séralini et al. (2007) provided no evidence to indicate that MON 863 was associated with adverse effects in the 90-day rat study."  Still, Birke makes that claim. 

2:00 "Let me tell you, just about all the corn we eat is genetically modified in some way"... yes, and it has been for over 20,000 years. Only instead of one gene at a time, it was 40,000. 

2:35  "Pesticides and herbicides are sprayed onto plants to kill weeds and bugs".  Yes. That is not just transgenic technology, and organic farmers use Bt too.

2:39  "Poisoning our water too".  I agree.  This is why we need more research into how to farm with less environmental impact.  Transgenics will be part of that conversation.

2:46  "Then they irradiate our food to try to make it last longer".  I could not find any information on this with regard to specific fruits or vegetables. However, it is safe and actually kills dangerous microorganisms.

3:06  The crowd goes wild when he says he wants to be an organic farmer.  That's a ballsy career choice for an eleven year old, and I hope he does it.  The crowd reaction gives you a hint of their likelihood to subscribe to a naturalist fallacy. 

3:54-4:00  "We can pay the farmer or we can pay the hospital"  He makes the claim that organic food is not more expensive when compared to the medical bills you'll incur from eating the products of conventional farming.  That is a real stretch and somewhat dishonest, unless there is evidence of such costs. 

More accurately, conventional diets are part of the lifestyle that allows us to live longer, requiring more health care.  We're not dropping dead from heart attacks at 40 so much these days.

Certainly I agree that food is important and diet and disease are inextricably linked. However, healthy conventional food is just as good as healthy organic food, and that's quite clear. Nothing wrong with organic food.  Nothing wrong with conventional food either. 

4:28  "I believe that kids will make better choices when they know about their food and where it comes from".  Absolutely.  I agree 100% and hope that we can teach that with a fair and even scientific hand.

4:54  The Frosted Flakes box again shows the agenda.  Make good food look like poison with no evidence of it being harmful.  Frosted Flakes are not my first choice for a healthy food, but the hyperbole shown is designed to generate fear, not to educate.

5:00  A swell of applause.  The crowd bought it. 

Once again, the TED name is exploited to provide an evidence-less presentation that appears to have content. Brike is a sharp kid, likable, and the perfect shill to sell an anti-scientific agenda at the expense of TED's reputation.  It is a rant against biotech and a commercial for organic farming.

My recommendation?  I'd love to see Birke keep learning about food and doing his best to be an organic farmer.  He should continue to learn and implement everything he can about low-input agriculture and how to make food more environmentally sustainable. That may include transgenic technologies and he should be open to that. 

He is homeschooled. I'd like him to read "Tomorrow's Table" by Drs. Pamela Ronald and Raul Adamchak. I'm curious what he would think.

Most of all, I hope his home school emphasizes hypothesis-driven science and critical thinking. From the sound of things he's being exposed to a feelgood agenda, promoted by those that subscribe to the naturalist fallacy and/or disdain Big Ag.

It also scares me that an audience is so blinded by Birke, that they stop thinking critically, and actually reinforce what he is telling them- claims against sound science without any good evidence.

Best wishes Birke.


PythagoreanCrank said...


Thank you so much for this! So many time when backed into a corner, antiGMO proponents would finally reveal the source of their sentiment by saying "Well, have you seen X movie?!". And while I have taken the time to seen some of these things I haven't seen every nor do I think I should. I usually try to explain how to evaluate a credible source but it's rarely as sexy as a movie or emotional talk.

Having something like this might help but I fear it's a game of whack-a-mole. I wish we had more mallets like you. :)

Mary said...

Kids are so eager to please. They'll become little religious preachers, little beauty queens, little golf pros, and lots of other precocious reflections of their parents desires.

We can only hope some parents are teaching their kids critical thinking skills. And that the community appreciates that too. They're gonna need it.

Kalen said...

Mary, the statement "they'll become little religious preachers," just brought the documentary "Jesus Camp" to mind.

Frightening thought..

Mary said...

@Kalen: I was watching the new film "God Bless America" last night. It's about the stupidity of American pop culture, and one man's attempt to do something about it. [Note: I am not implying that is Kevin Folta--but I just realized it is sorta related!!]

At one point the lead characters go to a movie. I saw the film posters in the background and thought of your comment:

I don't know what the director's intent was here. But I thought it was interesting.

Kim Smith said...

I'm really interested in your opinion on chemical usage on GMO crops. I'm concerned about the increase of chemicals being used because of resistance, how that may effect people consuming the food, and also the environmental issues it creates.

Thank-you for your time,

Kevin Folta said...

Hi Kim. Remember that these are not issues specific to GM crops. Increased herbicides like glyphosate take the place of other more dangerous compounds (as per National Academy of Sciences reports).

GMO Bt resistant crops actually CUT the insecticides deployed. This is not a trivial amount- millions of TONS of insecticide not used. There are specific numbers, but I don't have them at my fingertips (traveling). The Bt is specific. You don't fly a plane over the field and dump broad spectrum insecticides that kill bees, birds and everything else.

Both these cases frame current usage. The amount of environmental and human chemical contact actually does go down. I'll be happy to give citations at a later time, so please check back or contact me by email. Thanks.

christine said...

Kevin, I appreciate the point you are making here; however, I do have to respond to one of your comments and say that we do in fact have a huge problem with heart disease in our society due to our meat-centric diets. People do still in fact drop dead from heart attacks in their 40s and younger. And many who don't drop dead have stents or coronary bypasses. I know this is off-topic, but just wanted to clear that up. :)

Kevin M. Folta said...

Christine, Since 1960 when heart disease related deaths peaked around 95 per year per 100,000, the rate is about half of that today. I think most of that is attributable to smoking and maybe modest gains from diet and exercise.

However, you are correct that meat-centric diets are contributing. As a guy that was all veg for 16 years, I get that.

So not too off topic, I did make that point about dropping dead in their 40s. My father-in-law had his 3rd major one at 36 back in the 60s!

Trollskog said...

I'm not sure if I understood your 1:55 comment well. I think Seralini et al. (2007) indeed stated that in 90-day period they saw no effect at all, but they saw a serious increase in the death/cancer rate in the longer study. And this is a problem they say, because companies use those 90-day studies to prove the food is safe. What do you think about that ? (Just gathering opinions - I'm not yet conviced by either side, though I'm strongly against food patenting.)

Kevin M. Folta said...

Hi Trollskog,

The 90 day study is not just some number they pulled out of the air. It is an accepted convention for trials in mice and rats. If you google "90-day study" you'll see that zillions of compounds are evaluated in this way. If a problem is there, you will see at least its onset in 90 days in this model system. There is a significant baseline of physiological, developmental and histological data at this 90 day time point.

This same system has been used exhaustively by many groups in assessing the effects of transgenic crops of physiology. No problems have been observed.

Anti-GM types, not happy with this result, decide that they know better and demand a new test. They say that this test is no good, because it didn't give the result they wanted.

So when the other team scores a field goal they pretend they don't see it, then move the goalpost back 70 yards.

The demand for longer studies is arbitrary. My guess is that Seralini's group did a trial long enough to get some potential differences, that while not significantly different and from experiments poorly designed, could be twisted into a story that would vilify the technology.

There has not been one death or illness attributable to transgenic crops. Most of all, there is no mechanism for how harm would occur. There is no plausible way that it can be harmful.

Anonymous said...

@Kevin The reduction in pesticides for the targeted crops doesn't take into account the superbugs and superweeds which become resistant to the pesticide, herbicides, or insectides. More pesticides must be used as a result since they gradually become less effective.

The problems associated with weeds and bugs are not so much from local crops. Rather they are due to invasive foreign species being imported from around the world and taking over local ecosystems. Permaculture practices address some these issues without relying on chemical$ as wildlife which keep pests and weeds in check are incorporated into the system. It also increases the nutritional yield of crops. The tradeoff of course is that the overall yield is reduced.