Sunday, February 8, 2015

Everyone's a Critic

Over at The GMO Smoking Gun, linguistics Professor Emeritus Derek Bickerton has prepared a response to my criticism of Vani Hari's letter to grad students.  The original letter was a note Hari wrote telling the students studying food and science, that they know nothing about food and science.  I sprang to their defense, deconstructing Hari's scientifically-vacant response. 

It was a quick job, a thrown-together effort over a sandwich.  However, the internet spread it quickly, ending up syndicated on Genetic Literacy Project as a "scathing" response to Hari. 

Cool.  It got a zillion hits and was picked up in many places, which is nice. 

It also raised the interest of Dr. Bickerton, who prepared his response to me, responding to Hari.  To his credit, he did notify me that he prepared a response, which is quite nice of him. He also seems like someone I'd love to have a coffee with and discuss his work.  He studied language on several interesting levels, like how children acquire language and how humans likely developed language. These areas are always interesting to me. 

But being a decorated academic does not make him immune from the misgivings of others that have tricked him with shoddy science. He noted that he was disappointed in my response, and I can understand why.  I would be disappointed too if I believed the nonsense, and then some smarty-pants egghead in Florida poked at my ideological bubble. 

Since his tactic was to associate me with Monsanto, discredit me with flimsy evidence and selective goobers from legit reports, I thought I should respond, just so folks understand how to properly think about this. 

So here's a response to Dr. Bickerton and his criticism of me, criticizing Hari, criticizing students. 

Exhibit A. 

The Old Standby:  Discredit the Scientist by Making Fake Link to Monsanto

He refers to me as a "Monsantoite".  Of course the first resort of those that don't have science-- try to discredit a scientist by immediately linking them to a company that has a negative image to many, even though he has no association with them.  It is the old trick.  A scientist speaking science must  be a dupe of a company, as anyone discussing facts is probably crooked. 

HARI:  Standard Font
FOLTA: Italic font
BICKERTON: Bold font

Exhibit B.

TACTICS: Special pleading, Argument ad populum, Confusion of correlation and causality, citing articles no real scientist takes seriously. 

He starts out with agreeing with me, then says that my argument is irrelevant because she's talking about synthetic chemicals.  He's wrong in that "the current system in the United States" ... "considers most chemicals innocent until proven guilty."  That is the biggest lie I've heard all day.  

Anyone that knows anything about clinical trails can think of many instances where trials ended because of evidence of toxicity.  This is why they are tested for tolerance and side effects.  We understand how molecules work, can make predictions, and then carefully test them.  Chemical compounds that are acceptable for use on food must be re-tested and re-registered if they are used for other applications in agriculture!  There is incredibly stringent oversight. 

The special pleading is that the safety argument only applies to synthetics.  Of course, lead, mercury and thousands of plant poisons are perfectly natural and are not examined in any crop.

The "evidence"?  A popular list of 1800 "studies, surveys and analyses" that claim harm from transgenic crops and associated pesticides.  Of course, these include toxicity tests on pesticides that we know are toxic to some organisms. That's why they are chosen.  We know pesticides kill cells in a petri dish. That entire list can be completely dismissed as meaningful data against transgenic crops, as if it is critically read, you find good research that has limited relevance to human health, and other data that are not peer-reviewed studies, and other stuff is junk that made it into low-rent, pay-to-publish journals with no reputation. 

Then the paper by Nancy Swanson!  

The ultimate fishing trip of matching correlations and developing strong, non-existent interpretations.  Any journal worth it's salt would reject this paper in a heartbeat.  But it found a home in the Journal of Organic Systems, a journal with no impact factor, showing that the editors are weak and the reviewers incompetent.  This paper would never be published in a journal I review for or edit.  It is an activist (two authors are known activists) attempt to commandeer the scholarly literature-- and that is disgusting. 

If that is what he considers reliable evidence, do I need to really waste my time on this?    

Exhibit C.

TACTICS:  Not exactly representing what the authors say. 

Vani is exactly right?   The authors of this work note in the Abstract and Introduction that all food additives must be tested and shown to be safe by the FDA and/or manufacturer.  It says it right in the first sentence: 

So no, Vani is not exactly right.  What this paper shows is that while everything is tested, not everything is tested in every possible way.  The paper discusses the current thresholds for needed tests, including plausible harm as determined by competent scientists.  It suggests some remedies and draws some conclusions.  

Just because scientists who know a lot about food chemistry suggest something does not need tests on reproduction (perhaps the compound is known to be metabolized by a mouth enzyme into fundamental biological molecules like sugars or amino acids) then they don't necessarily need testing. 

The authors conclude that there are ways to identify and fill gaps in testing and that many older compounds may be good candidates for evaluation.
Onward to Exhibit D.


As an undergraduate student I knew the word "teratogenic".  It was on a bottle of formaldehyde in Room 317 of Montgomery Hall at Northern Illinois University I was adding to a nucleic acid hybridization.  It was a chemical I was using, so I wanted to know the risks. 

That was in 1987.  I'm reasonably confident that many others, including these students, understand.  I interpreted Hari's comment as an explanation from on-high, which is probably correct, as she refers to Ph.D. graduate students as "Future Science Students in Training".  It is a reminder of her arrogance. 

Onward we go to Exhibit E. 

There is no evidence that the EPSPS enzyme, the gene that encodes it, or the Bt protein have consequences outside their targets at levels encountered.  Zero.  I'm guessing she's referring to "synthetic chemicals" and the thresholds for toxicity are well understood, especially for pesticides.  Plants are tested for residues and we know a lot about what is there and what is dangerous.  Nobody wants to harm people. The margin for impact is pretty huge. There has not been one single case linking transgenic crops to any human illness, death or allergy. Not one in eighteen years. 

Next. This is really boring.  Exhibit F. 

No, this statement is exactly correct.  The Bt protein comes from Bacillus thuringensis, a natural soil bacterium. The EPSPS enzyme is in plants and bacteria, and existed millions of years, maybe a billion years, before humans.  Man did not make "novel proteins that never before existed".  The two central proteins introduced to GM crops are well understood and come from nature. Period. 

Okay, I have to do something else tonight. Here's a two-fer.

No, Dr. Bickerton.  We did not evolve with the array of plants we eat- not even close.  Centers of domestication for all major crops are distributed throughout the globe (except almost none in present day USA) and there is no human evolution that has the exposure to different plant proteins and secondary metabolites that we have today.  Processed foods are a phenomenon of the last tick of human evolution and I'm not sure what "pre-chemical" agriculture is.  Plants are made of chemicals. 

The second point is a simple one that requires only minor illumination. There is no way to prove something is safe.  However you can perform safety testing to identify instances of harm.  Furthermore, there is a difference in the way a scientists uses "safe".  Science cannot prove anything safe, but we can say that something is safe, meaning to a lay audience that there is indeed no evidence of harm.  Sometimes we haves to speaks to the peeples. 

Next.... Exhibit... ah forget it. 

Yes, Vani did jump the gun, because she's clueless.  She travels the country telling that there are animal genes in plants.  

Now let's go back to the beginning (THIS IS IMPORTANT).  She claims that GMO foods are dangerous-- but she does not even know what they are!  She says proteins are unnatural-- she does not even know what is in a transgenic plant!!

Dr. B, how can you defend her!  Yes, there are many animal genes that have been studied in plants.  It really is no big deal.  We do much more radical things, like produce human proteins in bacteria.  Insulin.  How about fungus making chymosin, an animal enzyme used in cheese making?  Now we're crossing kingdoms with recombinant DNA, and nobody really seems to care. 


Hari, as usual, steps to the "biotech PR line" to discredit legit science.  Bickerton is correct to delineate the difference between science and technology.  Science is a process used to test how the physical world works.  That has been done.  The science has been conducted and the conclusions to date support the falsifiable hypothesis that transgenic crops are no more risky that conventionally bred crops. The technology has strengths and limitations, like any technology.

Again, my blog is for the layman, it is fun and edgy, and now that I'm getting wider coverage I need to be a little more careful in my word selection. Thanks for pointing that out. 


It is good that at least Dr. Bickerton takes a stab at this and gets the numbers right.  The reason Hari and Bickerton combine insecticides and herbicides as "pesticides" is so they don't have to admit that insecticide use is decreasing. That's kinda deceptive, but common. Of course, there is a little selective omission of three important points: 

First, insecticide use has decreased massively, and that's a good thing  

Second. Between 1992 (where  there were no GM crops) and 2011 (where 90% of soy, corn, cotton, sugar beets and canola are resistant to herbicide) there OF COURSE will be an increase in glyphosate use!  

Duh!  That's like saying between 1899 and 1930 there was a massive increase in gasoline consumption. 

The third thing neglected is that while glyphosate use increased, the use of other herbicides decreased, as did tilling and topsoil loss.  Glyphosate has low impact in the environment.  This again is a good thing, made out to be a bad thing. 

This is nuanced language.  It is the convenient conflation of statistics to get the desired result.  That's just deception, and you see it again and again in the anti-GM denial of science (and technology). 

And then this old trick... 

How about something completely unrelated.  Chemicals are leaching into food?  The question, I ask for a citation, and Bickerton provides links to two citations that have nothing to do with herbicide or pesticide on food. These are two in-vitro studies where researchers used cells in a dish to show that chemicals can cause changes in the cells at specific levels.  That's great, sometimes a good start, but no relation to what happens in the human body. One reference is Seralini ('nuff said).  The final reference does specifically discuss pesticides where evidence of endochrine-disruption potential as been documented in the literature. Again, a good starting point, but hardly a condemnation of transgenic technology. 

and forward.

Hari does not know that Roundup is not a "chemical" it is a brand name mixture of a rather innocuous herbicide, surfactants and water.  There is limited evidence of endochrine disruption from in vitro studies, no evidence of links to toxicity at levels present on food (which are usually zero-20 ppm), and only effects seen at doses thousands of times higher than are ever discovered.

Those afraid of good technology can choose alternatives. "GMO corporations" fight non-scientific labeling because we should not make policy on emotion without evidence, especially when policy is only wanted to destroy American farmers.  If you ban GMO today the companies will be just fine. They'll sell hybrid seed without transgenes.  The farmers, and then consumers, will be hardest hit.  

I can't believe I've wasted 2 hours writing this blog. 

The "precautionary principle" assumes that the rest of the world share your fears.  "Precaution" is an emotional term.  It is not based on science, it is not based on data.  It is a personal threshold.  Hari, as a wealthy westerner, wants to impose her choices on others.  

I think there are many people on this planet that would love to eat vitamin-enriched food from transgenic technology.  Too bad Hari and Bickerton are glad to invoke their precaution, as their precaution should be everyone's precaution.

And nobody wants to ingest toxic substances*. What a stupid, stupid, comment.  It shows where his whole argument is based. 

And to conclude... 

Ugh. The literature in these searches can be easily discredited, or there are good papers that provide limited interpretations from the good data gathered, but have been twisted into some sort of danger conclusion the authors' never intended. I know, because I talk to them. Many are not happy about their work being distorted by activists and airheads to achieve a political motivation. 

And yes, if you give animals high doses of glyphosate they will have symptoms.  Why not be honest Dr. Bickerton?  What are the levels from that same EPA Fact Sheet that cause the problems?  

You'd have to consume hundreds of kilograms of soybeans etc in order to achieve a physiologically-relevant amount of glyphosate from residues on food.  The fact sheet he gives is for water, which says at 20 ppm, a 22 lb kid can drink a liter a day.  These are guidelines and 100x over actual thresholds.  Plus, where do you find 20 ppm water?  Maybe drinking it out of a pond on a field? 

And he concludes:

Head hits desk.

Again, I had a little fun writing a blog and didn't intend to provide a scholarly review of Hari, so no citations. She's frankly not worth it. It was a pointy reminder that she's clueless and untrained in this area, and that her opinions should be considered with a grain of salt and do not represent science.

As for Dr. Bickerton, he seems like a nice guy with a great history of contributions, but just is guided by a construct he finds attractive, rather than actual science and data.

The  Smoking GMO Gun blog seems more like a broken water pistol.  To the unknowing it looks threatening, it actually is a cheap facsimile of the real thing, and when you pull the trigger as best you can, nothing happens anyway. The retort to my criticism is list of old arguments, overstepped data, logical fallacy and neglecting to notice important, actual data.  Quite typical these days.  They are going after those of us that speak the science they do not want to hear. 

And more to come.  There is quite a storm brewing on the horizon...

*NOTE ADDED AT 5pm after posted... I do willingly pour a glass of wine, beer or whiskey on purpose, because it is toxic, so I grant the intoxicating substances waiver here to the desire to consumer toxic substances. 

Glyphosate and School Lunches