Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Vrain's Talk Underwhelmed; Claims of "Fascism"

The story was a simple one.  A Houston museum's credibility was on the line when an employee booked an anti-GMO activist to come speak about "Poison in your food."  Decades ago Dr. Theirry Vrain used to publish papers on nematology and relationship to DNA restriction-length polymorphisms (good times in the 80's!), among other work. He's been out of hard science for some time now.  Since, he uses that credibility to be one of a handful of credentialed scientists that makes the rounds spreading false information about food, farming and associated technologies. 

In short, I wrote an article about "Pseudoscience Creep," the phenomenon where poor-quality activist claims are weasling their way into our conferences, museums and other reputable forums. The idea is to steal the credibility of the venue and promote activist positions. 

Museum officials and others asked me about Vrain's claims that there is poison in the food. I explained USDA crop-residue values, glyphosate mechanism of action, glyphosate pharamcokinetics, physiological thresholds and stoichiometry with gut bacteria.  I also noted that there are no actual data in published, reproducible experiments that support Vrain's claims. 

Sure, you can find plenty of published opinions in predatory journals written by computer scientists and other charlatans. But there are no data to support the claims.  None.  

I've seen, and debunked, his talks on YouTube. I also described how he is wrong about mechanism of action and he holds up the statistically-bankrupt Seralini rat paper as high evidence, and apparently does not understand relationship between correlation and causality.  

So they asked him for real data.  He didn't produce it, so they asked that the event be moved to another more suitable venue. On his facebook page he claims that this is "Fascism", and that's laughable.  A museum asked for evidence to support claims. That's not fascism, that's scienceMuseums are places of evidence, not beliefs, and Vrain's unsubstantiated claims would grey that line and even harm the museum's reputation. 

Fine with me. Invite the guy, wind him up, let him sell the snake oil.  Just don't do it in a museum. 

I wasn't sure if he was uninformed or dishonest, so I gave him the benefit out the doubt.  But after seeing the response to what happened-- he's misrepresenting what science says, presenting biased, unsubstantiated claims that do not represent the consensus.

So what did the audience get to hear? 

He said that the only successful GE products are roundup ready crops.  Of course, he forgets that his activism has stymied progression of good technology that could cover diverse areas and needs.  

But he also forgets (or doesn't know) about Hawaiian papaya, Bt crops (that cut insecticide use), human insulin, cheese enzymes, and dozens of other minor products. 

He uses Stephanie Seneff's cherry-picked literature reviews in predatory journals as his best evidence!  Like here: 

But that does not mean it is causal.  Patients with genetic forms of celiac disease experience symptoms no matter what.  Also, this is an opinion, not a result from research. That's what Samsell and Seneff do-- they publish opinion pieces that masquerade as science. Vrain knows the difference. Here he scares and misinforms and audience, treating a hypothetical and unsubstantiated link as evidence. 

READ THIS.  "Glyphosate poisoning causes..."  Causes?  Causes?  Where are the data?  There no data to support those claims.   At best, you can induce changes in cells in a petri dish that are consistent with long-term diseases, but there is no evidence to support his claims. 

This is exactly why this talk does not belong in a museum! 

More Samsel and Seneff from opinion papers that have NO ORIGINAL RESEARCH. 

Here it is, the association between glyphosate and autism. The old trick to misinform an audience, confuse correlation with causality. Activists scaring people concerned about their food. 

Super sad.  It is just awful that an audience even had to endure this nonsense. 

And apparently, I'm to blame.  He posted this on his Facebook page:

No Thierry, the museum does not want fear mongers spreading false information to scare people.  That's not what museums do, that's what activists do. 

You're right, I don't discuss glyphosate as an antibiotic, because it is not a very good one.  My lab has tried to even test versions of the resistance genes in bacterial backgrounds and it does not even kill bacteria unless you add something to help it enter the cells. Plus, if it was an antibiotic, we'd use it as one. It is an herbicide.

So another chapter ends.  A simple blog wanting to keep goofy pseudoscience in its place ends up with a bad talk that just keeps fooling credulous listeners.  That really bothers me as a scientist.

If anyone, including Vrain, wants to know how to tell good science from bad science, junk reviews from quality ones, and legitimate experiments from activist rants, I'm glad to help.  Email anytime. 

And thanks to the Houston Museum of Natural Science for standing up for science.  You set a standard and illuminated the need for vigilance in vetting speakers, something that can benefit all places of reputable science. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Why Every Idea Does Not Deserve to be Heard

Tonight a known anti-GMO activist will assume the credible podium as a "Distinguished Lecturer" at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.  Dr. Thierry Vrain has long been recognized by scientists for his outdated rants against genetic technology, leveraging his credentials in science to promote a science-less position that this technology is harmful. Of course, this means he's embraced by the industry and individuals that seek to vilify technology.

He says what the activists want to hear.  His tired and fact-less statements are counter to what the broad science consensus knows. Just fact-check these statements against the literature!

I've enjoyed private conversations with scientists at the museum, and as anticipated, they are disgusted. However, there are others inside the organization that feel an anti-scientific talk is appropriate, and that the job of a museum is to provide a platform for anyone with an idea.  Creationists, moon landing deniers, climate truthers, and anti-vaxers take note. 

In fact, maybe HMNS can screen Vaxed: From Cover Up to Controversy, now that Tribeca had the guts to pull it. 

The point is a simple one.  Does any idea deserve a reputable venue just because it exists?  After all, it is Texas, a place where teaching the controversy still is recognized as valid practice in many minds.

The answer is no.  A museum is not a marketplace of ideas, it is a house of facts.  It is not a temple of belief, it is a place of evidence. And Vrain's videos and quotations above show a strict reliance on belief, misinformation, and opinions not consistent with reproducible scientific evidence.

Controversy and debate are healthy in science, but it needs to be debating real evidence in a scientific framework.  We should use museums to debate methods, interpretations, and vetted results from different groups. That's good! 

But it is not the place to let activists make up nonsense that harms public understanding.

It is unclear if Vrain just does not understand it or if he's being deceptive.  He seems like a good guy, so I do think it is the former, which is surprising, because he has training as a scientist.  

And yes, I would be delighted to talk to him privately and help him understand. 


Why is it a problem?  People are confused about genetic engineering and its role in food production. They don't understand the science, they don't trust the corporations. Reputable scientists have been publicly smeared by activists, and activists lie through their teeth to scare the public.  Concerned citizens simply want to know facts, so they turn to their trusted institutions, like Houston Museum of Natural Science to provide answers. 

And tonight they will be treated to tales of how poisonous food in their homes causes allergies and illness.  They'll hear how herbicides are oozing out of their food and harms their bodies (just read the abstract).  Vrain's claims are not supported by any data or reproducible research.  They are ideas spawned by charlatans in an anti-scientific movement that seek to obtain political gains at the expense of adopting useful technology. 

The Houston Museum of Natural History has sadly been duped into serving as a conduit of misinformation. Ultimately, their reputation will not suffer, as their greater mission and fine scientists will outlive this moment. 

But a substantial number of people will leave the event misinformed and fearing safe food technology. They will walk out with reinforced notions that public scientists and scholars are liars, hiding lifesaving information from the public while pocketing free money from corporations. 

Nobody should ever walk out of a museum less in touch with reality than they went in. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Pseudoscience to Shine at Houston Museum

Houston, we have a problem.  Well, you have a problem. 

The Houston Museum of Natural Science (Twitter: @HMNS) is sponsoring an event that slams science, denigrates technology, and lends its credibility to a non-scientific movement.

HMNS is now an accessory to a disturbing trend.  Activist-inspired pseudoscientific nonsense is creeping into legitimate scientific forums.  Reputable museums, conferences, and science centers are cleverly co-opted into hosting or sponsoring non-scientific events, typically as part of an otherwise scientific program.  Activists do it for one reason-- to steal the credibility of the event or institution, exploiting its scientific reputation to add a patina of legitimacy to a non-scientific agenda.

The false claims of a crooked movement have now infected the Houston Museum of Natural History. On March 29, 2016 they will host Dr. TheirryVrain, a former molecular biologist that hung up the lab coat for speaking junkets in an intense mission of supporting pseudo-scientific claims.  As you can see from the website above, the lecture is titled “The Poison in Our Food Supply”, and it talks about the “damage done to our bodies” by genetic engineering of crops and associated weed control. 

$18 to hear false information?  Why would a science museum let activists hijack their credibility? 

This is especially disturbing for a science museum, because there is no credible evidence to back these claims.

Vrain is no stranger to pseudoscience. His talks feature the usual fallacies of arguments from ignorance and outdated understanding of biotechnology.  You can find them on YouTube. I even was asked to discuss one and dismantled it with a scientific a play-by-play debunking.  He says exactly what activists want to hear, and does so from the credible platform of a once-published scientist.  He is one of the darlings of the anti-GMO movement because he’s willing to look the other way at evidence to push an activist agenda and/or cash a check.

It is like the museum supporting a talk by Creationist Ken Hamm, allowing him to say that the earth is 6,000 years old, in the center of the universe and flat as a pool table.  It is like the museum sponsoring climate change deniers that say that glacial retreat and rising thermometers are a conspiracy.  

Yes, it is that bad, even worse.  This movement has a body count from denying technology to those that desperately need it. 

A few years ago when the South Florida Science Center sponsored such an event I lost all respect for them.  Members from their Executive Board spoke with me and said, “It is important to teach the controversy.” 

I could not believe what I was hearing.  Science museum?  We should not teach the controversy, we should teach the evidence, then debate that.   It should not be a loud and credible megaphone for activists that want to spew nonsense.  

My hope is that the museum just was snookered into sponsoring an event without due diligence.  If they have any scientific integrity they should cancel the event, or at the very least write a strong condemnation of the event along with a scientific statement that indicates the event is not based on science, that it is an activist event and should not be mistaken for credible science.  They must withdraw any financial sponsorship, or at least be subject to some donor shaming.   

Pseudoscience is creeping into our reputable venues.  It is imperative that we monitor those that attempt to weave denial of science, whether it is climate change denial, anti-vaccination, ant-GMO, or any one of a dozen topics activists seek to legitimize. 

Don’t  give them your credibility.

Originally posted on Science 2.0

Friday, March 25, 2016

Thoughts on My TEDx Talk

Tonight I'll deliver a TEDx talk at the University of Florida.  I've never taken part in this forum, and in fact I've been critical of the crackpot topics that TEDx accepts.  Like this one.  And this one. 

However, I see my contribution to a durable time capsule.  I see this effort as a chance to push back against the credulous information that haunts the internet.  It is a chance to speak about science and truth, evidence and reason.  It is a time to put information out there that appeals to the many people that are simply concerned about genetic engineering.  

I'm grateful for this platform, to help people understand the technology that they don't like, even though it could do wonderful things for issues we all care about.  

The public has been misinformed.  They have been lied to.  They need to understand the science and stop listening to activists with foul messages.  That's why I'm so excited.  

And somewhere 5, 10, 20 years from now we'll look back and say, "Wow, that is where we were in the dark ages."

I hope it is five. 

You can watch the event live here. 

But this talk is also for science communicators. I want to do a presentation that shows those at the public interface how to stop preaching to the choir and start talking to people. It comes from what I've learned from talking to Tamar Haspel.  She is critical of other efforts to communicate in this space because speakers tend to alienate the very audiences they wish to influence. 

This is my sincere attempt to help people think about the cool things we can do with the tools science gives us.  

I have not felt more certain about something for a long time.  I think I finally understand. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Campbell's Label- Brilliant Strategy

Many of the folks excited about food labels that indicate ingredients produced by a genetically engineered plants are taking a victory lap. 

We've seen the tweets about Campbell's decision, and it makes me genuinely curious.  Why are they so excited?  This is not a mandatory label.  This is a voluntary label, something I've always supported, and think is the best solution. 

"Partially produced with genetic engineering." I can live with that, which is why I don't think the activists will. 

Campbell's is rather brilliant.  They did this for one reason, and that's to do the experiment.  

  •  Now that Campbell's has satisfied the "right to know" will that be sufficient? 
  • Will there now be calls to ban or boycott Campbell's products?

Essentially they must have drawn the short straw at the Grocery Manufacturers of America Secret Conspiracy Meeting and they get to take the first step.  If nothing changes, then the activists were correct, nobody will care, information flows, everyone is happy. 

But could this be even something bigger?  I think so. 

If HR1599 does not pass (and I don't care either way, it is lots of -negatives if it does) the Senate, then we'll be back to state-by-state labeling initiatives. 

But if products are voluntarily labeled, then why do we need state laws? 

It forces the hand of the activists.  Once companies are providing that information voluntarily, the consumer has the "right to know" they claim is at the heart of the issue, so there's no need for new regulations!

So then the fight for labels is over.  Solved. 

Or is it? 


This rather clever move will unveil the true motivations. Activists will continue to call for labels using state ballot initiatives. It will show, clearly, that this is not about a choice, but it is about banning a technology by causing hardship to producers, and driving them to source non-GE ingredients. 

Will we see a call for avoiding Campbell's products?  By labeling their products they painted activists into the corner.  They can't complain about GE ingredients in Campbell's products, but at the same time are against them! 

It is a curious problem.  How do you get people to boycott something that has been fully compliant in your demands? 

We will be watching this situation closely. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Talking Biotech #27 - Cherry Breeding and Herbicide Brews!

This week's Talking Biotech Podcast with Kevin Folta discusses tart- and sweet-cherry breeding and domestication.  Dr. Iezzoni is a professor at Michigan State University specializing in cherry breeding and biology, and leads major research initiatives withing the Rosaceae family, the plants like cherry, apple, strawberry, rose, raspberry and almond, among many others.

In part two, Kevin discusses the recent claims of glyphosate being detected in everything from beer to breastmilk to Germans.  What do the data really say? 

Glyphosate and School Lunches