Sunday, May 31, 2015

Scaring People with False Information

The trend continues.  Organizations committed to ending the use of genetically modified seeds and their associated products continue to fabricate misinformation solely with the intent of misleading consumers.  

Today's example is an inflammatory meme posted by the Cornucopia Institute.  It makes five statements, none that are true, and solely broadcast with an intent to spread fear and misinformation. 

"5 Disgusting Facts" are really five disgusting lies.  Blatant misrepresentation of information purely designed to spread fear and misinformation. Why do people believe such nonsense?

The beauty of this kind of communication is that it does show the clear intentions of the author, in this case the Cornucopia Institute. It shows they are not committed to the truth, but instead are a depot for rhetoric designed to mislead consumers, and frighten them to affect their attitudes toward biotechnology and farming. 

It is amazing to me that people can be so easily fooled. 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Stats Manipulated to Scare

Grandpappy Folta once said, "When someone gives you an opportunity to see what they are about, pay attention." 

He was right. The true measurement of character and someone's real agenda oftentimes are presented at shimmering moments that reveal quite a bit. 

Such is the case of the Huffington Post article by Michael Hansen.  For those that don't know Dr. Hansen, he's a guy with a science background that works for the Consumer's Union, and never has much nice to say about biotech.  I actually got to meet him a few years ago at the Hofstra Pride and Purpose debate, and we had a nice dinner together. I felt bad for him in that he seems to have a stick-to script and a deep self deception that makes him immune to actual scientific discussion of data. Watch the debate. You'll see it oozing everywhere.  He sounds more a politician than a scientist, as you can see by his manipulation of pseudo facts and dodging questions.

Here's the part that anyone on the fence with the GMO issue must read.  When they have to fool you with statistics by misrepresenting them, should you believe anything they say? 

The same kind of bendy word choice and hysterical reasoning is reflected in this passage from his May 29, 2015 article in Huffington Post. 

I've seen this statistic circulating a lot lately, especially the "17-fold increase between 1996 and 2012".   Yes, that certainly is an awfully huge increase!   Scary eh? 

What he forgets to tell you is that prior to 1996 glyphosate use was confined to some farm, residential and municipal use. There were no glyphosate tolerant crops in 1995, so the amount of stuff used on glyphosate-tolerant crops would probably be pretty low, like none.  

Once these crops were introduced and proved helpful for farmers, the technology was rapidly adopted. You might expect a rather dramatic increase.  Of course, he neglects to note how that horrible 17-fold increase led to a concomitant decrease in the use of other herbicides, less fuel use, less labor, less tilling, less soil loss, and more profits for farmers. 

Of course not.  That's inconsistent with his agenda. 

It is sort of like saying that there has been a 17-fold increase in flat screen TV cleaner from 2000 to 2015.  

Here's a little version you can cut and paste in a bathroom stall at your local Chipotle. 

But what should we learn from this?  

In a time where the anti-GMO movement realizes that the science is tight, and that plants are safe for humans and the environment, the new target is the herbicide used in their cultivation. 

Hansen simply augments this fear, playing along with the newest salvo in the flat-earth science that now wants you to think that there is a deadly herbicide in everything you eat, in every glass of water, or every bottle of breastmilk. 

If they have to bend statistics to frighten, why do people believe it? 

Because it reinforces their beliefs. 

Don't fall for it.  Point out the simple reality that what appears to be a dramatic increase is actually a step forward, and that every big change is not so big, if the denominator is close to zero. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Special Science Communication Workshop at ASPB

This year's American Society of Plant Biologists annual conference will feature a kick-off session on science communication, framed around the issue of agricultural biotechnology, or GMO technology.

The session will take place on Sunday, July 26th time TBD, but likely about noon, and will focus on effective content and presentation advice for addressing skeptical and concerned audiences.

So as you plan your trip to Minneapolis, MN, figure in some
 time to attend this special session. 

Here's a Blurb! 

Agricultural biotechnology, oftentimes referred to as “GMO technology”, has been safely and effectively used in agriculture for almost two decades. Many new products await approval and could have profound positive impacts that benefit the environment, the needy, the farmer and the consumer. However, public distrust of the technology slows application and invites prohibitive rules and policy changes. The divide between the scientific reality and the public perception is caused by inadequate communication about the technology. This workshop will feature four talks from experts in biotechnology, its application, and effective communication of the topic. The workshop is recommended for an interest in biotechnology communication to discuss how to connect with a concerned public looking for answers in this area.

 Speakers include:
Anastasia Bodnar- USDA, Director of Biology Fortified Inc. 
Kevin M. Folta - University of Florida
JJ Jones - Center for Food Integrity 
Vance Crowe - Monsanto Corporation

Sunday, May 24, 2015

MAMyths: Standing Up for Science

When I heard about a counter protest for March Against Monsanto, my eyes kind of glazed over and I didn't think it was the best use of time.  After all, providing a counter to something that makes no sense sometimes can lend a hint of legitimacy to a bogus cause. 

Plus, my grass is 3 feet tall, and I've slept in my own bed 50% of the nights this year. While a science outreach trip to Chicago would allow me to visit my dad and hang with science friends, I thought this issue was best dealt with from Gainesville, FL with a good internet connection and a pitcher of scotch. 

I'm glad to report, that I made the wrong choice. 

This makes me happy as a scientist, as these folks will squarely land on the right side of history.

The pictures from the scenes across the nation showed small clusters of MAMyths supporters out with signs, standing up for science.  The best part was their apparent softness, the repeated theme, "Ask me about GMOs."  These were scientists, and science fans, out sharing science, and there is some real magic in helping people understand facts instead of fear.

It was outreach in action at ground zero of insanity, a potential to reach those that cannot be reached and hopefully influence the folks in the middle. 

March Against Myths About Modification
Standing up for science.

I'm overwhelmingly proud of Karl, David, Kavin and the hundreds of others that took part in MAMyths.  It was not a stand against a good technology and contrived corporate demon-- it was a stand for science and reason. 

It did not take long for the internets to start screaming "shill".  Twitter erupted with claims that MAMyths participants were actors, paid by Monsanto to impersonate a movement. 

Some of us just had fun playing from home. It didn't take long for the nasty to emerge and the usual "shill" accusations to blossom.

Others criticized the small participation compared to the thousands of fools that spent a Sunday maligning a technology that has proven helpful for farmers and the environment. Chain smoking, tattooed hipsters lying on the ground in bee suits outnumbered MAMyths protesters three to one. 

I would rather stand shoulder to shoulder with one honest person, than march among a throng of the ignorant. 

Good job MAMyths, and thank you for standing up for science. 

Monitor the continuing conversation, and take part on twitter using the hashtag #MAMyths.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Causes and Cures of Autism, at Autism One

The Autism One conference is taking place this weekend in Chicago, IL.  From reading the titles and abstracts, this is best described as an autism conference that caters to practical advice about management, treating and living with the disorder. Many of the talks would probably be very useful to those on, or with loved ones on, the autism spectrum. 

However, there is no question that the majority of the information appears to be non-scientific, emotional quackery. Autism One conference is clearly the exploitation of a disorder to make a buck and/or force an agenda. 

It is a place where you can cherry pick your own causes and cures, with claims coming from self-appointed experts to MDs. 

They forbid photos, video or audio, in the sessions or anywhere in the meeting.  They control who can register, and remove anyone that even begins to raise their suspicions of not being part of the club. 

Looks like fun, cannabis and homeopathy targeted to treat autism. 

In the past they have featured Andrew Wakefield, author of the fabricated autism/vaccine relationship.  He's still a darling of the group.  Jenny McCarthy received standing ovations in front of this group at one time too. 

One of the keynote speakers is Sayer Ji, the guy from GreenMedInfo, the website that publishes stories that make claims that are the opposite of what the authors actually say.  When one of your keynote speakers is a clueless spin master, the medical advice might be questionable. 

But the best part is that there likely will be a battle brewing between those that claim causes and cures.  The schedule shows clearly that there's lots of emphasis on causes, which the scientific literature suggests is genetic in its basis, yet potentially activated by environmental triggers. The literature also states that it is a developmental disorder that cannot be cured. 

But don't tell that to the speakers! 

Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a computer staff scientist at MIT, is presenting and she's done what thousands of medical researchers failed to do-- she's found the cause of autism.

 She has pinpointed the cause of autism!  It is these four things, two of which you never are appreciably exposed to, one that your body makes lots of.

And of course, she's claimed that you can cure autism by feeding kids organic food.  Good times. 

The cause of autism.  And anxiety.  And depression. And celiac disease. Cool that this one computer scientist managed to figure out what tens of medical researchers could not.

There is plenty of blame in the abstracts, plenty of notes about the problems from vaccines, and lots of "environmental chemicals".  Seneff and Zen Honeycutt (author of the blog that puts up manufactured data, that they defend to this day).  


Kerri Rivera.  She's the one that claims to cure autism with bleach enemas.  Kids consume Miracle Mineral Solution, or MMS, a mixture of chlorine dioxide, citric acid and sodium chloride. Apparently they kill some slimy intestinal parasites that cause autism.  She learned the cure from Jim Humble, a former scientologist that left that cult to start the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing.  He claims to be, and probably is, a billion-year-old god from the Andromeda Galaxy, a place where autism is rare and a good Chlorox enema is a daily ritual. 

It also cures malaria and the AIDS. 

I almost want to go. 


The whole event is especially sad because it misdirects our thoughts and energies away from real causes, real solutions, and legitimate remedies for the families affected.  I know a few.  They hate these non-scientific events, as they feast upon the dreams and hopes of family members to help loved ones suffering with the disorder.  They offer non-medical, perhaps harmful solutions, that can't work, and can become financial burdens on families desperate for a hint of improvement.  

That's unacceptable. 

However, in reading their website I found that one of the fun social events will be a karaoke night.  

The best part of the Autism One Karaoke Night is that you can make up your own alternative lyrics, and the crazier they are, the more likely you'll get everyone else to sing along. 


I tweeted that last line earlier today, and they were happy to retweet it... 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Analysis of Ronnie Cummin's Conspiratorial Rant

It has been exciting watching the media place a blazing spotlight on Chipotle's decision to cash in on fear and ignorance.  The company claiming its foundation of "integrity" makes a move to seize profit while ignoring facts, capitalizing on misinformation to capture market share.  Heck, if you can't get them to eat your food because it is good, maybe you can get them to eat it because you can scare them away from everything else. 

The media has been stellar in pointing out this most salient scientific FAIL

However, USA Today published two opposing opinions, one critical of Chipotle, and the other... well it is Ronnie Cummins, Director of the Organic Consumers Association.  You know the activist organization that wouldn't know science if it hit it in its ear candle. 

So let's look at Cummin's claims, and add my science-based commentary (in red).  Click to enbiggen.

The defenders of bad science use tired arguments and baseless rhetoric to bolster their claims.  When these blown-out arguments don't have traction-- it must be a conspiracy! 

Whenever someone is trying to motivate you with fear, pay close attention. The only fear here is that Cummins posts another set of broken claims, as the media is wising up to fear-mongering messages. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Why Is MIT Hiding This Breakthrough?

Universities are quick to shout discoveries and breakthroughs from the highest mountaintops. When big news comes from the lab, a communications department springs to action, broadcasting the breakthrough throughout the public media.

Autism is a series of disorders affecting many children and adults. Over the years the numbers of those diagnosed with autism have increased.  Many feel that this is due to increased surveillance and inclusion of additional sympomology under the title of "autism".

Precise causes of autism spectral disorders remain elusive, and there is no cure. 

Unless you are Stephanie Seneff, described as a "Research scientist" "of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a widely published author on topics ranging from Azlheimer’s Disease to autism and cardiovascular disease."   

Why the silence from MIT? 

Seneff not only knows the cause of autism, she knows the cure. 

So why is this expert on autism and cardiovascular disease being squelched by MIT? 

A Note From Up Top

This is an except from the UF Senior Vice President's (my boss) newsletter.  Glad I work for a place that gets it.  My answers to the last questions are "yes-yes" and "That's what I'm trying to figure out."

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Dorito Effect -- Book Review

My lab is interested in fruit flavors, mostly strawberry.  Traditional breeding has made fruits and vegetables bigger, helped them ship better and last longer.  Those are the priorities of the modern food-to-market chain.  

In the process, flavors have been relegated to a genetic afterthought.  Acceptable flavor is all that's required if a piece of fruit looks nice and is cheap to produce, and this is why fruits and veggies lack sensory attributes. Today my lab is using genomics approaches to aid marker-assisted breeding to reverse that trend. 

My lab's efforts are just one little offshoot of research endeavors in the Plant Innovation Center at UF.  There are many faculty interested in how to improve sensory content of fruits and vegetables, so a book on the role of flavor and aroma is always of prime interest. 

So when I received a copy of The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker, I was excited to dig in.  The Dorito Effect uses the disappearance of flavor as a central hypothesis  as to why Americans suffer from food-related health disorders.  The book is well written, with each chapter serving as a separate story under a united, important theme.

We've wrecked good food and made the bad stuff taste good.  The Dorito Effect explores where food flavors went, how it might explain human health issues, and how science is working to get flavors back.  

In short, good-for-you foods have lost flavor.  Meats, veggies and fruits have been bred for production characteristics at the expense of flavors and aromas.  Therefore, these foods are less attractive to the palate.  This is why we cover everything in ranch dressing and A-1 steak sauce.

At the same time, flavor chemistry has been able to tantalize the taste buds with analogs of flavors lost. The essence of fruits and vegetables now coats everything from corn chips to sports drinks.

Why is it tied to health?   Schatzker describes several biological examples where aromas have meaning, and serve as indicators of nutrition.  Could it be that the flavors that once directed us to good food now steer our brains and bodies to less healthy choices?  That is the hypothesis Schatzker dissects.

The central players in the story are goats, chickens and tomatoes.  Studies on goat eating habits revealed that they use aromas as a proxy signaling needed nutrients.  Additional trials on humans, and observations of wasps, reinforce the concepts presented.

Schatzker then details the interesting history of the corporate chicken, moving from tasty farm creature to fast-growing McNugget piƱata on two little pencil legs.  Today's genetics and feeding regimens are designed to make big chickens fast, and do not support optimal flavors.

Similarly, the way we grow tomatoes lends to their less-desirable flavors. Schatzker details the demise of the tomato and then follows with a discussion of new varieties (I wrote about them here) that marry production qualities and sensory superiority. 

The book concludes with forward-thinking advice that is simple and implementable.  It also reminds us that much of the Dorito Effect is a human-derived problem that can be fixed by reading labels and making different food choices.  The future also appears to be a good place for flavor and nutrition, as scientists are finding ways to bring the flavors long lost back into our most healthy food products.

The writing was clever, the science was portrayed in a compelling manner, and the work was an outstanding treatment of an interesting, relevant topic in health and nutrition. I never get to read something I want to read, and The Dorito Effect was a great read relevant to my interests.