Sunday, August 28, 2016

Eggplant Podcast Sparks Angry Response

My podcast has been up for over a year, now reaching 50 episodes.  In that time it has been a pleasure to cater to an audience of scholars and science enthusiasts.  I've deliberately kept the content hard with science, minimal with opinion, and sticking to the evidence.  I've avoided Big Ag products and focused on the good things technology can do.  

In general, the anti-GMO world has left me alone.  I don't find much negativity about the podcast online and the site itself is generally unmolested.  I do occasionally receive disparaging comments, but curate most of them out when received. This is an educational forum. 

So imagine my surprise when I posted this week's podcast on the Bt Brinjal (eggplant, aubergine).  The response was angry and vitriolic, both in submitted comments and in social media. 



The podcast comments section has a dozen comments like these, all unapproved. I'm not allowing an educational resource to become their cesspool. 


Some of the response on Twitter was surprising (I asked for permission to use their fully names, the principle dissenter objected, so I edited him out. However, this is all public information on Twitter if you go read those threads and their amazing ignorance in their entirety).  





The Twitter threads are priceless.  This wonderful resource is smeared as another arm of Monsanto's empire.  Even when folks are corrected, they just push back. 




More on Twitter.  Good ol' Rick H never really offers evidence, but sure is quick to throw someone under the bus. 

What is happening here is amazingly obvious.  As "Carl's Spokesman" says, these folks are really angry because the Bt Brinjal let's all of the air out of their balloon.  Free seeds, poor farmers, less insecticides, better products.... where's the downside? 

The downside is that if this story becomes widely told, it represents the end of their war on science.  It is an example of how the technology should be used-- for the betterment of human health and the environment. 

They are having a remarkably hard time arguing with that.

So what happens when ideologically bent opinion can't argue based on evidence?  It becomes an ad hominem effort to trash the messenger.  The personal attacks on my credibility and the continued mantra of "Monsanto, Monsanto, Monsanto," is typical of these folks when they are backed into their corners with simple, kind questions. 

It appears that science has hit a nerve.  Some of the poorest people are growing food and eating, sustainably.  You'd think that critics would be celebrating.  But to an emotional and science-free movement, when the technology they oppose serves others, they are caught between acknowledging that it is doing good and abandoning their sacred belief that this technology can do no good-- ever. 

Maybe that just means that their beliefs need to be re-examined. 



Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Eggplant that is Feeding the Hungry


This week's Talking Biotech Podcast is a beautiful story.  The eggplant (brinjal, aubergine) is an important food staple in Asia.  However, in places like India and Bangladesh it requires large amounts of old-school pesticides to grow, as pest pressure can destroy 100% of a crop. 

Scientists have introduced the Bt Protein into eggplants and have greatly mitigated insect pressures from burrowing insects. It does not solve all insect problems (bt is quite selective) but it has massively cut pesticide applications and provides farmers a better product at lower production costs. 

The two guests are Dr. Tony Shelton from Cornell University and science journalist Dr. Hidde Boersma. Together they tell their accounts of the technology and how it has transformed lives of poor farmers in an extremely poor country. 


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Supporting FOIA Resistance

It would be a wonderful world if we didn't need to lock our doors.  It would be great if we didn't need passwords to protect our personal accounts online.  I would be overjoyed if we could be free, open and fully transparent in all aspect of our lives.  All open book. 

There is one minor problem. We can't trust everyone to do the right thing.  Some people are truly evil, and will hurt others for fun and profit, or sometimes to achieve a political motivation.  Because of this, we're forced to take steps to insulate ourselves from their malevolence.  Whether it is encrypted passwords or taking off your shoes at the airport screening line, we take steps to limit the harm from others acting unethically. 

US-Right to Know (USRTK) is a front group for interests sworn to end modern food production practices, contemporary genetics and safe approved chemicals. While claiming to act angelically in the public interest, they clearly act as a mallet of defamation, seeking to destroy the careers of scientists that teach evidence-based science. 

Their weapon is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and its ability to confiscate personal emails from public employees.  That's not the problem.  Our daily interactions should be transparent and open to public scrutiny.  That's not the problem. 

The problem is when sentences are lifted from their native context and reformatted into outrageous narratives with an intent to harm others.  They get what they want through our transparency, and then use it maliciously. 

If you don't believe it has an effect, google my name.  I'm smeared for life though search engines.  The people that want me silent have polluted the first 10 pages with misinformation, and it matters. 

Last week I spoke in Quebec City, and the host said that many called her concerned that I was invited. 

"Didn't you read about him on the web and how bad he is?"

That was a legit conversation, luckily my host had the guts to dig in her heels and say that we would stick with science and evidence. The person they have created is not who I am, but it is a narrative they were able to construct because of free access to my emails. 




Apparently USRTK is going to have to sue UC Davis for the emails for about a dozen faculty, at least according to their website. 

I fully endorse UC-Davis not cooperating.  USRTK is not interested in checking for malfeasance.  If that was the case they would have never made a big deal of my situation. I did my job, well.  They called it "corruption" and inspired tremendous personal and professional harm.  No laws or rules broken, nothing even unethical. 

Because we cannot trust them to do the right thing, it is reasonable to not cooperate.  Why give them the ammunition to forever hurt public faculty at a Land Grant institution?  If they found something unethical or criminal, great.  That's what FOIA is for.  But this is to harm people with their words out of context.  They have demonstrated that well. 

Again, in a perfect world we could be clear as crystal.  However, USRTK showed that they are evil people that will cherry pick those emails for sentences to harm, sentences that in context are completely innocent.  

Congrats to UC-Davis for fighting back.  My institution will turn over 680 more pages on Monday, bringing the total to over 20,000. I feel that when someone acts immorally, we should never provide them more opportunity to continue their behaviors.  

Supporting FOIA Resistance

It would be a wonderful world if we didn't need to lock our doors.  It would be great if we didn't need passwords to protect our personal accounts online.  I would be overjoyed if we could be free, open and fully transparent in all aspect of our lives.  All open book. 

There is one minor problem. We can't trust everyone to do the right thing.  Some people are truly evil, and will hurt others for fun and profit, or sometimes to achieve a political motivation.  Because of this, we're forced to take steps to insulate ourselves from their malevolence.  Whether it is encrypted passwords or taking off your shoes at the airport screening line, we take steps to limit the harm from others acting unethically. 

US-Right to Know (USRTK) is a front group for interests sworn to end modern food production practices, contemporary genetics and safe approved chemicals. While claiming to act angelically in the public interest, they clearly act as a mallet of defamation, seeking to destroy the careers of scientists that teach evidence-based science. 

Their weapon is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and its ability to confiscate personal emails from public employees.  That's not the problem.  Our daily interactions should be transparent and open to public scrutiny.  That's not the problem. 

The problem is when sentences are lifted from their native context and reformatted into outrageous narratives with an intent to harm others.  They get what they want through our transparency, and then use it maliciously. 

If you don't believe it has an effect, google my name.  I'm smeared for life though search engines.  The people that want me silent have polluted the first 10 pages with misinformation, and it matters. 

Last week I spoke in Quebec City, and the host said that many called her concerned that I was invited. 

"Didn't you read about him on the web and how bad he is?"

That was a legit conversation, luckily my host had the guts to dig in her heels and say that we would stick with science and evidence. The person they have created is not who I am, but it is a narrative they were able to construct because of free access to my emails. 




Apparently USRTK is going to have to sue UC Davis for the emails for about a dozen faculty, at least according to their website. 

I fully endorse UC-Davis not cooperating in this case with this organization.  USRTK is not interested in checking for malfeasance, they want to use this resource to harm scientists that did their jobs.  If they just were looking for cases of impropriety they never would have made a big deal of my situation. I did my job, well.  They called it "corruption" and inspired tremendous personal and professional harm.  No laws or rules broken, nothing even unethical. 

Because we cannot trust them to do the right thing, it is reasonable to not cooperate.  Why give them the ammunition to forever hurt public faculty at a Land Grant institution?  If they found something unethical or criminal, great.  That's what FOIA is for.  But this is to harm people with their words out of context.  They have demonstrated that well. 

Again, in a perfect world we could be clear as crystal.  However, USRTK showed that they are evil people that will cherry pick those emails for sentences to harm, sentences that in context are completely innocent.  

In their raids of my records I have been 100% compliant and fully transparent-- and they used it maliciously. 

Congrats to UC-Davis for fighting back.  My institution will turn over 680 more pages on Monday, bringing the total to over 20,000. I feel that when someone acts immorally, we should never provide them more opportunity to continue their behaviors.  

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Extension and Communication about BIotech

Dr. Paul Vincelli was a solid guest on the Talking Biotech Podcast.  This episode covers his experience in communicating topics in genetic engineering and climate change.  He gives some great advice and shares some wonderful experiences.  


Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Fighting Coffee Viruses

Coffee is an extremely valuable plant product, yet plantations are under duress from a variety of pests and pathogens.  Dr. Michael Goodin from the University of Kentucky speaks to Talking Biotech podcast about coffee ringspot virus, its threats and potential solutions.  Co-hosted with University of Missouri graduate student Nat Graham. 



Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Irony in a Political Piece

Those who know me understand that I've never been a big fan of politics.  I've voted both D and R (and L and G too) over the years, depending on the office and issues. I get to know my Representatives in DC and the state. I really like my Representative now (he's an R by the way) and will be glad to vote for him in November. I cannot think of the last time I voted for a presidential candidate. I've voted against one several times, mostly because I worry about the composition of the Supreme Court and federal benches.  I'm registered as N - no party affiliation.  I don't get to vote in primaries. 


In a country of sharply divided political opinions, don't criticize leadership. You'll tick off 50% of people. That's sad, because we should always hold our leaders most accountable. 

Yesterday I posted an article over on Huffington Post that has sent Trump supporters fuming.  I can't believe the angry emails, the screaming tweets-- especially from friends.

In short, the article was a fictitious speech by Trump, stating that his whole campaign was a sham, that he wanted to teach Americans a lesson-- that national leadership is important and must not be taken lightly.  This act of analyzing our leadership was his genius way to make America great again. His continued abrasive nature and poor discretion were part of his ruse, to see how far he could get based on citizens' loyalty to a party over criticism of a candidate.  Period. 

That is a very important message. Over my voting lifetime both Democrats and Republicans have fielded less-than-stellar choices for the highest office in the known universe.  I especially find family dynasties a bit annoying, both George HW Bush as much as Hillary Clinton.  

Americans make a bad mistake.  They look the other way when their candidate or office holder does something wrong.  We make excuses for them, claim conspiracies, and defend the undefendable. 

It is Cubs-Sox, Ford-Chevy, Coke-Pepsi.  Create a dichotomy, pick a time and blindly defend it. No matter what. 

I think it they know what they are doing, that D's and R's create the divide so that we don't notice what is really happening. I've said that for years.  

But more importantly, this failure to criticize leadership is the undoing of our republic, and that is the point of the piece.  It concludes with an important statement-
"The way to make America great again is to demand more from our leaders. Don’t blindly defend those in your party ― be more critical because they represent YOU."

This is the thesis of the piece that so many found so offensive. Some friends found it unthinkable that I'd criticize Donald Trump, or those in the Republican Party that let the guy destroy the perception of the party itself.  

It is not about Trump, not about Clinton, not about Republicans or Democrats.  This is about a fundamental cornerstone of our representative republic.  It is about the need to hold our leaders accountable for their words and actions.  It is not about free speech-- it is about the necessity to exercise free speech.  We must point out where our leadership (or potential leadership) crosses the line. 

So when Trump trashed McCain about "not being a war hero" I found that horribly offensive.  I thought that he was toast at that point. 

But instead, people stood up and defended him. We've seen it over and over again, he does something that contradicts the alleged Christian values that Party officials claim to be their cornerstone. Even the Republican Party platform states, "Americans also deserve a president who will speak for our nation's history and values..."   I'm not feeling that he is representing mine when he disrespects a war hero or mocks a reporter with a disability.  

Again, we need to hold our leaders accountable.  That was the point of the piece.  It was this spirit that was in the room that laid the foundation of the Constitution. 

So when I criticize Trump, Clinton, Johnson or whoever-- don't send me hate mail.  Tell me why you think my criticism is unwarranted.  Help me see why McCain is not a hero or we should mock the disabled.  I'm open to change, but it will take a lot of convincing in those cases. 

Or better yet, review the words of our Founders. Don't circle the wagons around bad behavior because the letter after their name matches the one on your voter registration card.  They are the ones you should hold most accountable because they represent you.  

That was the point, and I can't believe so many missed it, instead taking this as some sort of political, personal, attack on them and their beliefs.  The guy on the beer bottle got it right. Turns out, I think I'm a patriot.  


"If ever time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin."
Samuel Adams


Friday, August 5, 2016

Silencing Unpopular Thought with Swarm Complaints

This story has been developing.  It started with a popular (70k member) Facebook site called We Love GMOs and Vaccines.  The site is run by Stephan Niedenbach and runs into the burning building of science ignorance.  While many of us find a softer, non-provocative touch as a way to expose the masses to science, WLGMOV pushes buttons, piles on some snark, and also shares information that is consistent with the scientific literature. 

Over the last month there have been coordinated efforts to foment action against the site.  A number of prominent social media sites provided step-by-step instructions on how to register a Facebook complaint so that the page would be withdrawn.  The results look like this:


Gloating about interruption of free speech.  Smooth move, Holly Moses. I'd never do that to you here. 


The WLGMOV site is down permanently, and Stephan is banned for 30 days. 

Here is the problem, and we see it again and again in non-scientific activist movements-- if you don't like the science, attack the scientist.  If you don't like what the science says, find a way to have it expunged. 

And shame on Facebook.   They let pages stand that target public scientists.  They let pages stand that discourage the cancer afflicted from seeking chemotherapy.  They allow borderline hate speech and dangerous ideas to thrive.  Somehow science violates your Community Standards

That's fine.  It is a marketplace of ideas, and in an enlightened society we should be able to suppress unpopular thought simply by making it unpopular through education. That's not how these folks work.  To them, science stands in the way of their beliefs and financial bottom line.

Tearing a page out of the Food Babe Vani Hari's playbook, followers are instructed explicitly on how to get an unappreciated page removed by poking the throngs of willful followers, and then arming them with the cyber pitchforks and torches they need to finish the job. 

*** Importantly ***

This is not to say that I agree with the way that WLGMOV chooses to communicate all ideas.  I too find some of the presentations of low caliber and offensive. One post recently caused me tons of personal grief with people I care about and communities I professionally serve.  That does not mean that they should be silenced. 

***  Most importantly  ***

If you are a fan of WLGMOV, a fan of science, or someone that just treasures open dialogue and free exchange of ideas-- do not ever take part in such actions, especially in retaliation. 

Instead, share the story about how free speech about science is being suppressed, and make an accounting of those that promote it. 

This kind of asymmetric cyber attack strongly sours the people that are unsure of what to believe.  Let's show them that they now lose a viewpoint because of an aggressor that felt they should not have access to that information.  Information is being withheld from them-- because it is factual.

Elevate the dialog. Teach. That's how we fix this.   






Monday, August 1, 2016

Dr. David Gorski for 2016 Maddox Prize

Today is the last day to nominate someone for the Maddox Prize, a recognition that goes to the scientist that continues to operate at the public interface despite adversity.  I have watched the vicious and defamatory attack on Dr. David Gorski, and I submitted a nomination recognizing his contributions, despite the hostility he faces in defending science.

The harsh treatment of Dr. Gorski has littered internet searches with false and defamatory information about him. Front-page recognition of his efforts with this award would bolster his reputation as a scientist and physician, and counter the claims made by those that wish to silence his efforts. 



I submitted my nomination for Dr. David Gorski. Learn his story, the defamation that has happened in the last year, and consider writing a letter of support.  Submit here. 


David Gorski is a Professor of Surgery at Wayne State University School of Medicine, and a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Kamanos Cancer Institute.  He is a prolific author in the medical literature, present as an author on over thirty peer-reviewed journal articles and his work cited 1230 times in the last five years. His work centers on the genetics and biochemical mechanisms in breast cancer, along with elements of patient care. He also publishes frequent reviews and opinion pieces targeting physicians and medical researchers, in the same medical journals. These topics are strong scholarly criticisms of homeopathy, acupuncture, and alternative/complementary medicine. His career and impacts would be notable simply from his university-level efforts.

But Dr. Gorski is known best to most of us for his work at the public interface. He is also a prolific blogger, placing meaningful, complete, and scientifically dense-but-approachable information online about topics of social interest. In particular, he does a lot of mythbusting, a lot of discussion of fraudulent medical claims and the people that promote them. He is the Managing Editor at Science Based Medicine, a popular blog that examines medical claims. He also writes for the blog. In addition, his work appears in Science Blogs where he publishes the blog Respectful Insolence under the nom de plume “Orac”.  On this latter blog he publishes articles almost daily.  These are not trivial reads. He publishes well-researched and deep articles that are well written and thought provoking.

Provoking is the operative term. Because of his effective advocacy and outreach Dr. Gorski has been targeted by non-scientists with agendas.  Gorski has always been appropriately critical of “complementary and alternative” medical approaches, and has been an outspoken critic of vaccine denialism.

This raises the ire of the folks in the alternative medicine communities, along with all of the others that see an indictment of alternative medicine as a threat to their medical or lifestyle beliefs.  He has been the target of Generation Rescue, Age of Autism, and others that have created false controversies to try to get him fired from his job.  He has been a target for almost two decades, but the onslaught has certainly ramped up since 2010, only to massively explode in the last several months.

Most recently Gorski criticized the anti-vaccine movie Vaxxed, a movie supported by Hollywood heavyweights like Robert DeNiro.  The website Natural News embarked on a massive smear campaign that would post defamatory messages almost daily (go there and search for his name!). The articles imply associations between him and pharmaceutical companies, as well as associations with an oncologist that committed Medicare fraud. They have posted fake patient reviews on associated websites and reported him to the FBI and state medical board.  This is the tip of the iceberg.  The incredible online defamation is unbelievably dense. As happens, those that follow these credulous sources are ignited by the fury, leading to personal, hateful attack and threats.

The effects of such relentless and horrifying personal and professional attacks are real.  While Gorski’s regular readers and colleagues undoubtedly brush off such nonsense, the potential damage is real.  The internet has a long memory.  A cancer patient referred to an oncologist will immediately investigate their credentials, and dig on the web for complaints.  Cancer care is serious business, and vetting your health care provider is the first step.


But a Google search of his name brings well optimized smear in conjunction with his blogs, credentials and other credible work.  Again, to those that understand how these hateful organizations work, it is easy for us to ignore such claims-- but to a potential patient looking for health care?  If there is any controversy, even the word “fraud” mentioned in association with the physician’s name, a potential patient is likely to seek medical advice elsewhere, which is bad for Gorski, but is really bad for the patient, who might miss exceptional treatment by a top teaching hospital physician and scholar.

Also appearing on the front page is the “Truth Wiki” a search-engine-optimized slanderous hellhole of defamatory information.  On this page Gorski is picked apart and branded as a “vaccine industry frontman”, a “shill for pharma” and deep commitment to “fraud”.  He is constantly barraged by claims of conflicts of interest, even though just about all of his funding comes from federal sources or foundations. Despite all of the allegations, no evidence of misconduct has ever been alleged. He has stated clearly that he has never received personal compensation from any medical or pharmaceutical company.


The baseless indictment of a physician and scholar is difficult to watch, and the reverberations through the internet are intolerable. For these reasons I prepared my nomination, and urge you to do the same. 

While he has undergone this brutal public beating I have watched him only respond with tact and class. My hope is that our nominations will resonate with the committee and he will be recognized for his outstanding work, even in the face of bitter adversity that seeks to tarnish his fine reputation as a science communicator and potentially threaten his career as a leading surgical oncologist.