Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Vern Blazek Science Power Hour

I've always been interested in science and communication, and as time went along always wondered how to meld the two in an interesting and entertaining way.  In fact, in my senior year in college I finished third in the nation in a forensics event-- something called After Dinner Speaking. Here you would convey a serious topic using humor as a vehicle.  I was pretty good at that. 

During grad school I was paid to write for stand-up comedians and even wrote greeting cards.  I self-published funny books on pranks and pseudoscience, and wrote a lot of clever work for "fanzines", the pre-internet alternative media. My stuff flew off the racks at a local place called Quimby's Queer Book Store.  Yes, there once were stores that sold books.  

As I moved through academic ranks from grad student to professor, my students' reviews always recognized how my use of humor was appropriate and helpful, and creative analogy and colorful tangents reinforced key scientific points.  

In the last decade with the availability of electronic media, I was always intrigued with delivering science through clever video and other methods. The podcast medium seemed like a good one. 

But I didn't want to be the "talent".  Yuck.  I like my office, my lab bench, and the occasional research talk.  To interview people seemed a little uncomfortable, maybe even arrogant. I didn't want that spotlight, but wanted to participate in a wider discussion on science. 

So I created a character, modeled after the 1990's Art Bell show. When I was a grad student and postdoc I'd work every night well into the late AM, and recall the shows about UFOs, bigfoot, psychics... it was garbage, yet interesting. 

Here I created the Vern Blazek Science Power Hour


Obviously, from the cover art you can tell this is serious. 


The character, radio host Vern Blazek, was modeled after Art Bell, and the thought was simple for the podcast-- instead of a real host entertaining clearly bogus science, what if a clearly bogus host spoke of legitimate science? 

Art Bell's show was from the "high desert outside of Parhump, Nevada, Near Area 51."

Vern Blazek was born, from the "high desert outside of Tillamook, Oregon, near Area 52."

The Science Power Hour is about 30 minutes long, and there is no desert near Tillamook, probably one of the most waterlogged locales on the planet. 

And most of all, it was done from my home, on my time, and paid for with my dollars.  It was what I did on Sunday once a month rather than cutting the grass. 

But one journalist didn't get the joke, in fact, she saw Vern not as a character spawned to explore a new medium to share science and have a laugh-- she saw it as a devious plan. You can read about it over on Buzzfeed. I'm not linking it.

I actually asked her to be a guest on the Science Power Hour.  She had a book on bedbugs and that seemed right up the alley of a kooky and clearly fictitious host, and probably a fun topic to bat around.  I should say, that I always enjoyed her work very much, and followed her for a long time before meeting in person. 

But instead of rolling with the joke, she was weirded out, confused, perhaps even outraged.  Heck, it spawned the Buzzfeed piece.  

When she suggested the work was questionable I honestly evaluated it through her lens. I agreed that it could be considered problematic, and I took down the whole thing. Done. 

In the ensuing months we spoke often.  I was glad to talk to her and try to help her understand why we do experiments, in science and in communication. Why did I push the envelope with communications?  Why did I try something weird, or different?  It didn't make sense to her.  

I told her that I understood her concerns and made the correction. No problem.  But she wanted to do the piece, not just correcting the problem, but now doling out the penalty phase of public shaming. 

So when it became evident that she was going to publish the story I put some of the episodes up, plus some others I had ready to go.  That's what's there today, of course with some obvious transparency. 

Long story short, it still ends up a substantial piece on Buzzfeed, intertwined with the tired story of my emails and a donation from Monsanto to an outreach program that was never used.  


Now I've been branded as a "Monsanto Apologist", even though I've always stood up for science, and don't care one way or the other about Monsanto.  More code for clickbait hit piece on a public scientist.  (They did change the title later. Wow, maybe it is okay to change one's mind later about the appropriateness of what we do, maybe not unlike the re-adjustment of the VB podcast... Hmmm.  Irony everywhere.)


Sadly, when we interviewed together for her piece I was able to clearly answer every one of her allegations, but it didn't matter. Even in the article she makes the claim that my interactions with Monsanto began in April of 2013, which I explained over and over to her was not true. She cites an email from a guy at Monsanto. She's right, he works there. Real discussions of communication and funding outreach didn't happen for a year and three months later. Still, it was important to establish the longest timeline possible. 

It was not a case of a decent scientist, who has made a career doing edgy science and outreach, pushing the edge-- to her, it was a scandal, a nitwit scientist that doesn't get it. 

That's exactly what comes out in the Buzzfeed piece. 

 I do get some positive feedback. Some people enjoy it and think it is a good piece of work with nice guests. It has been said, like "Art Bell and Steven Colbert had a baby, only not as funny or entertaining."

As for the author, I hope that she finds a sense of humor and an appreciation that we're not all schooled journalists that play from a narrow playbook.  I can't help but think some of this is personal, something I said or something she doesn't like about me. I never got a good vibe from her, which is why I invited her to the podcast. I'm uncomfortable with not connecting to others, especially those in science journalism. 

Some of us are obsessed with sharing ideas, teaching, and inspiring. And if a golden-throated parody of a UFO radio show shares a story or captivates a few minds... that's a good thing.  

It will be very interesting to see how this story plays out.  I think the story in Buzzfeed will long be viewed as a personal takedown, an attempt to harm a scientist that does not share views on modern ag or some other issue.  Who knows?  I don't understand why this was necessary.

And someone on Twitter saw this flap and hit the nail on the head about innovative science communication. She said, "Everyone keeps saying that we aren't reaching beyond the choir. Somebody tries, and it's nothing but pearl clutching."


Science will tell its story, and will do it with many means, including innovative, perhaps weird, use of many types of media. That's how we'll reach more hearts and minds that didn't find the original dry science particularly compelling. 











Monday, September 21, 2015

Cherry Picking and "Return on Investment"

In a textbook case of cherry picking, one sentence keeps emerging in the activist trial-by-internet concerning the Monsanto donation to my science communication program.  The backstory is that my university received a donation from the company toward my outreach program, which covered the costs for me to travel and teach scientists how to talk about science. 

That was very nice of them, wonderful.  Having funds to rent a facility, travel to the location, buy coffee/doughnuts or subs for the workshop is a real help. Previously this was all funded personally buy taking monies offered to me as speaker fees and deferring them to the Talking Biotech program. 

I remain extremely grateful for their support, even after those funds have been allocated elsewhere by the university. 

I was so grateful, that I noted this in an email to the Monsanto Company.  That became a huge deal when 4600 pages of emails were seized by activists back in June. 

Out of the tens of thousands of sentences they focused on this single one, finally irrefutable proof of high collusion between a professor speaking facts and a company that makes products. 


Select graphics from Natural News, GMO News and Food Babe.com tout my kind appreciation as dangerous collusion.


I was raised in a home that emphasized gratitude and appreciation for the gestures of others.  I was raised in a home that taught me to take opportunities and maximize them, to work hard, to over-deliver.  

So when I promise the donor "a solid return on investment" that's not a evidence of a conspiracy.  That's evidence of a good upbringing. 

The company recognized my program of science education as an effective and powerful way to help train scientists how to interact better with a concerned public, and their funds enabled me to do it once a month for a year.  Ironically, I fell far short of expectations, and then lost the funds after activist uproar.

It is amazing that folks like Mike Adams and Vani Hari, along with the rest of the GMO-Truthers, see gratitude and appreciation as a negative thing.  It tells us a lot about them and their characters.

When anyone trusts me with financial support for my research or my outreach, I will do my best to maximize the return on the investment.  That is a promise.  That is a quality instilled deep in my by loving parents and grandparents, that emphasized the value of hard word and always going above and beyond for others. 



Friday, April 17, 2015

Lazy or Plagiarism?

Did you ever read something and swear you have read it somewhere else before?  It happens to me now and then, particularly when something is so memorably awful that it burns a special place in my brain.

Here is one such instance.  A 2015 paper published by Hilbeck et al, co-authored by luminaries including Shiva, Hansen, Heinemann, Antoniou and others, is substantially lifted word for word from a 2013 website. 

Since its publication in January 2015, anti biotech activists have reminded us again and again, of the peer-reviewed journal that soundly declares no consensus on GMO crops. The paper, published in Environmental Sciences Europe, is a 'Discussion' paper, which means it is a non-peer reviewed opinion piece.

As a scientist, reviewer and editor I have a lot of problems with such work.  I do appreciate clearly marked Letters and Correspondence, and certainly welcome Opinions.  These can spark discussion and speculation, but are obviously distinguished as ideas representing a viewpoint that may not be supported by evidence.  After all, if they were actually supported by data, then such articles would constitute research reports. 

The part that bothers me is, that aside from an abstract, reference numbers and concluding paragraph, it is virtually word-for-word cut-n-paste from a website constructed in 2013.  Use of online plagiarism check tools indicate that there is 0% chance of the published work being original. 

However, the original statement on the ENSSER website was credited to the 2015 paper's lead author, so the journal-resident work is not a group of authors borrowing someone else's text.  Sort of. 

The pages below use yellow highlight to show how much of the 2015 ESE paper matches the website. 





The yellow highlight shows the direct matches between the 2015 published work and a 2013 website.  Such efforts would be considered an ethical breach in most universities, and certainly students have been reprimanded or excused for less.


Is it plagiarism?  That's tough call.  Certainly it falls under the definition of plagiarism in that it is a direct reprinting of text from an original published source.  The gray area comes because the lead author is the author of both pieces, and it remains to be debated if the ENSSER website is an "original source". 


"Verbatim copying of significant portions of text from a single source" is one of Springer, the publisher's, own criteria for plagiarism.


At the very least, it is supreme laziness, the desire to produce a political document that could be published in a journal, producing an air of scientific legitimacy on a position refuted by the broad scientific community. The fact that the author of the original work didn't take the time to simply re-write their own work is rather telling too. 

The journal is known for publishing scientifically flimsy political pieces. Here one is cut-n-pasted from a website, and that speaks very badly about the journal and the publisher. 

Sad.  I like Springer.  They've published lots of my work. 

It also is kind of unfortunate that it took a team of 15 authors to lift text from a website, then craft an Abstract and concluding paragraph.  Did all fifteen participate?  Sure did, according to the postscript on the article:


 "All authors contributed equally to the writing of the document" which I guess means that each one of them copied and pasted some text from the website? 

And you read it right--- the authors, some the most established activists in the field profiting directly from positions espoused in the manuscript, declare no competing interests.  Of course, the Springer website addresses that too, but nobody seems to care. 

Financial or other personal considerations from authors that could bias professional judgment and objectivity?  I guess when someone makes a living opposing accepted science, a paper they'd write saying that accepted science is junk might be a little conflicty.

I'm not the journal police.  I let the publisher know that this work pushed, if not crossed,  quite a few ethical lines. They've elected to not take action. That's fine. 

I think it makes a better point if it is left exactly where it is.  

It shows that there is an activist movement masquerading as a scientifically-vetted enterprise.  It shows their laziness, and a certain kind of irresponsible bravado, as authors hijack a journal and then don't even bother to populate that published opinion space with original work. 

But what do we expect?  Integrity?  Accuracy?  Sound science? 

Nah. 

This is just another great reminder that the movement comes first, facts, evidence and science are a remote consideration.  It also gives me a teaching tool and will be incorporated into our classes, as we train our scientists on how not to prepare a scientific work.






Saturday, March 28, 2015

Let's Drink Weed Killer, Not!

This week controversy ignited when Patrick Moore, a prominent advocate for Golden Rice, was interviewed on the French TV channel Canal+.  He correctly claimed that glyphosate was safe enough to drink and not likely causing alleged cancer outbreaks in Argentina.  When the host offered him a glass of Roundup herbicide he did not drink it and walked off the set.


From the interwebs.


Of course, twitter and other opinion outlets of the world's pseudoexperts exploded with the fact that Moore was forced to eat his words rather than drink weed killer.  

And then the Big M felt compelled to remind everyone that weed killer is not a beverage and that Moore is not representing the company. 




Once upon a time I did the demo, not hammering a glass of the stuff, but mixing a tablespoon of the working solution into diet Mountain Dew.  No big deal.

Of course when you do a stunt like this everyone goes completely unhinged, screaming that a scientist endorses drinking weed killer. As usual, it is not about thinking-- it is about harming a scientist's credibility. My demo is not about drinking weed killer-- it is about demonstrating empirically-derived biological thresholds, physiological fates of well-characterized chemicals, and understanding a herbicide's mechanisms of action.


But that's nuance and science, so don't expect them to understand that. 

So for the record, don't drink weed killer.  There is absolutely no evidence that glyphosate is going to kill you or even make you sick in working concentrations.  However, the formulation used on plants contains surfactants, detergent-like compounds that help the chemical penetrate a leaf.  

Anyone who has ever consumed soap (long story) knows that it gives you a royal case of crazy colon, and that would likely be the effect of drinking a full glass of the commercial herbicide preparation. 

Moore might have been planning a long flight or a marathon run, places where a case of the urgent flaming schmootzies would be most unwelcome. 

My official words- don't drink weed killers or any ag chemicals. Instead, take the time to learn how to use them safely, and always do so within the labeling guidance. 


  

Friday, March 27, 2015

Link to Site Where Vandana Shiva Endorses Murder

This week I spoke at Iowa State University, a place where Dr. Vandana Shvia spoke earlier this month.  The audience included some of her supporters, and they were not terribly happy when I uploaded a photo of her along with Oz, Smith, Adams and Babe. 

I also included a screen shot of her website Seed Freedom where she posted the article about the justification of murder for biotech supporters because they are "Monsanto Collaborators", including "scientists, journalists, politicians, (and) food companies". 

The words on her site read, "(someone should) document all the Monsanto collaborators and make sure they are held accountable for their actions... to hunt down and arrest Monsanto collaborators: the scientists, journalists, politicians, food companies and other enablers... teams of “Monsanto collaborator hunters” will likely be offered financial rewards for bringing these individuals to justice."




A screenshot of Dr. Shiva's website on 7/25/14 at 12:37:39 EST. 


The audience had a number of people that reacted, stating that it was not true.  

It is true, this is authentic, I screen-capped it myself.  The entire website was also saved as HTML and re-assembled for your viewing pleasure here. 

The website only lasted a few days before being removed from her website.  My guess is that an endorsement of the murder of journalists and scientists was not supporting her image in a manner that keeps those big-bucks speaking engagements on the calendar. 

I promised to post the link, there it is.  You can crawl into the code and find that it matches that from her website, it is all forensically solid. 

You can judge a book by its cover.  The author knows that too.  That's why a cover might just be torn off if it reveals too much about the actual content and you are no longer interested in purchasing it.