Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Massive Data Do Not Support Huber's Claims

Dr. Don Huber is traveling North America warning audiences of a mysterious organism that causes diseases in plants, humans and livestock.  He talks to famers and concerned food-oriented audiences.  He does NOT present to scientific conferences, as scientists and their professional organizations do not recognize his claims, and confront him with questions that cannot be answered without invoking hand-waving explanations and elaborate conspiracies.

I have a problem with anyone manipulating the gullible for personal or political gain, especially when they use fear to motivate action.  After seeing Huber scare the pants off an audience in Gainesville, FL, I have taken up the mantle of holding him accountable for his bad science and manipulating people for his twisted motivations.

Today it occurred to me how we know, conclusively, that there is no mystery organism.  No doubt. Evidence of absence in this case is tantamount to absence of evidence.  It is just that massive. 


Today's technologies have uncovered massive DNA/RNA sequence data from humans, plants and livestock, the organisms Huber claims are infected.  In all of the petabytes of public information, there has been no identification of any mystery microfungus.  If anyone were to discover a new organism by accident-- it would be a huge story.

Huber's mystery pathogen is fiction.  Here's why.

Since the mid-2000s we've seen the price of DNA sequencing drop incredibly.  The technology allows scientists to obtain massive genetic information from any organism.  Animal, plant, whatever.

When we sequence a plant or animal we routinely find sequence that does not fit into the genetic blueprint of the organism.  These sequences can be assembled separately and compared to databases.  They are the bacteria, viruses, fungi and other critters that represent the ecology of the sequenced organism.  In other words, when we take apart the airplane we find all the hijackers.

My lab did this on accident.  In our 2010 paper in Plant Genome we surprisingly identified a list of organisms resident to a greenhouse strawberry plant.  We found evidence of snails, probably from eggs on the plant!  We’re talking sensitive technology.  Most of all, we found evidence of bacteria and fungi that are not even problems, or thought event to be present, in Florida. They are all here, just not an issue for whatever reason.  That’s a great find.

Back to Huber.  Soybean, especially production soybean, has been massively studied and intensely sequenced.  Commercial corn, cotton, etc have been analyzed ad nauseum and there is more data in public databases than can be imagined.  In all of the data, in all of the reports, in all of the understanding of gene function and gene detection—

There has not been one report of a mystery organism.

There is no sequence that has been found that is assembled into a creature representing a new kingdom of virus-fungus or whatever the hell he’s talking about.

This absence of evidence cannot be ignored.  While typically absence of evidence is not compelling, in this case it can be clearly stated that in the massive accountings of DNA and transcriptome (RNA) data, there has been no reported evidence of a mystery organism.  If it was there, it would have been detected, the research would have been published and the scientists would be fighting about who would get to sniff the cork.

Huber has provided no organism (despite requests), no culture protocols, and no evidence that it exists.  There are no scientists confirming his allegations and after nine years the only suspect is a fuzzy electromicrograph of a cellular Bigfoot that is likely an artifact or familiar structure.

On the other hand, the massive sequencing of agronomic genomes shows no evidence that it exists, which by default says it does not. 


This simple fact provides question number eleven to the HuberWatch list. 

"If this mystery pathogen is such a prevalent problem leading to crop failures and human disease, why has it never been detected in the massive public collections of sequence data?"

If you get a chance to ask him about that one, please do.  Of course, there probably will be a computer conspiracy that cleansed all evidence from public servers.  You know the drill. 



Tuesday, January 7, 2014

These Ideas are the Thoughts of Folta and May Not Represent...


Illumination is here to help you separate the science from the junk.


The blog Illumination was originally prepared to present my personal thoughts of science and its interface with society.  Carl Sagan said it best; we live in a world filled with science and technology, where nobody knows anything about science and technology.  We live in a world filled with charlatans and scam artists, malevolent activists and dangerous pseudoscientists.  There is a place for scientists to help buffer the public, especially those most vulnerable, from these harmful forces.

I’m a scientist and I love to read, learn and then share science.  It is what I do. Full time. I don’t have a family, I don’t have hobbies and have yet to hit a mid-life crisis.  The world is filled with fascination and I’m so fortunate to contribute to it.

I like to use the current topics of public scientific discussion to teach about logical fallacy, critical thinking, evaluation of science, and skepticism in general.

The problem is that many people do not agree with science.  When public figures speak of the science of climate change, GMOs, vaccination or other topics, some take offense, as scientific ideas collide with their worldviews.  There is retaliation against science and scientists that dare to present an evidence-based perspective.

Over the last several years I have found myself discussing transgenic crops and biotechnology, familiarly referred to as GMOs.  I’m glad to use this blog as a platform for information dissemination and discussion. I also occasionally write for Biofortified and Science 2.0. 

In 2013 I made a lot of people angry.  From activists to Hawaii to fans of Dr. Don M. Huber, many are not happy with my role in science communication, and more appropriately, scientific illumination of suspect concepts held dear by those with limited scientific acumen.  I have been effective in changing minds and sharing science.

Over the last few months, those who scream accusations of being unfairly attacked and silenced, are now attacking and trying to silence those of us that attempt to distill and communicate science.  Oh sweet irony.

In a world of aggressive science denial and internet-fueled self-empowerment, effective communicators can’t be tolerated.  The flying monkeys are out.  I've been hassled in many ways, some personally, some professionally.  There is a new push to hush me by contacting my university’s administration and complaining.   
So I’ll state it clearly here, again.  The thoughts presented here are my own, these are my personal statements and I stand by them.  They are not necessarily the viewpoints of the University of Florida or the Horticultural Sciences Department, so please don’t make that assumption.

If you have a problem with something I’ve said, let me know.  I’ve been wrong before and would love to discuss the issue or make a correction.  I learn something new every day.

The wrong way to handle this is to bother my boss and my boss’ boss, the governor or anyone else in an attempt to silence my level-headed, evidence-based discussion of biotechnology.

Sure, it might just work, as someone someday might ask me not to participate in hot-button discussions with lay audiences.  Universities are just like any other place and they don’t want hassles, unfounded bad press or anything to taint perception.  It takes a lot of time and resources to unravel a false accusation.

However, my university has stood by me solidly.  It is part of our mission as a Land Grant University to share science with the public. 

Let’s consider the irony.  The people that claim disdain for strong arm tactics by companies against farmers, silencing of critics and stifling of scientific information, are now using strong-arm tactics in an attempt to silence a public, independent scientist.

We live in challenging times where we need science to solve our most pressing problems. In order to maximize and hasten scientific impact we need the public to understand science, especially in hot-button areas.  We need everyone to learn the difference between real science and internet rants. 

2014 will be a great year for science and a great year for Illumination. I'm glad to have this little forum to provide a creative analysis of the current situation in biotech.  It is also wonderful to read the feedback, get the emails, both supportive and antagonistic. I learn a lot from the process.