Monday, January 30, 2017

We Speak Labanese Here

I'm proud that my laboratory has always welcomed exceptional scientists from all over the world. We have benefited from the expertise of international experts that  brought their time, talents and friendship to make beautiful contributions to our scientific mission. 

Scientists: Strive for Proper Application of Outrage

It is heartwarming to see a little discontent inside scientific community.  To those of us with careers in the discipline, the daily assault on reason is part of the experience, and the scourge of fake news and evidence denial are well known.  We’ve watched it for decades with the frustration that empirical evidence and inconvenient truths were cast aside in policy discourse and public discussion, propagated by a complicit media.  Willful ignorance has spawned a hot planet, expensive ballot initiatives for warning labels on safe food, calls to teach about a 6,000 year old planet in science class, and outbreaks of diseases long believed to be defeated. And that’s the tip of a melting iceberg.

Scientists, nice to see you raise a fist, but think before you fight.

Scientists themselves have even ventured into the public discussion only to be falsely maligned everywhere from crank websites, to conspiracy radio shows, to the Old Gray Lady herself.  The outrage from the broader community is typically gooey and short lived, if it even happens at all.  It is about what we’d expect from non-confrontational nerds engrossed in more important pursuits.

But now a new attack on science appears to be well underway, and some long overdue mental magma is finally pumping in the community’s normally molten core of soft serve.  

Recent Presidential mandates drew quite a reaction from the scientific community, some appropriate, but some overstepped.  That’s a major problem.

USDA Bungle
The big screw up happened upon the notice from the USDA.  The internet exploded with news that the Agricultural Research Service (the USDA research arm) was suspending publication of any “public facing documents”. 

Scientists interpreted this as a broad swipe at suppressing the flow of data.  I did it too.  I retweeted and shared the rage!

I was inundated with tweets and emails, asking about the gagged silencing of USDA employees. As the internet’s network inflamed the story, USDA scientists in the Agricultural Research Service were apparently blindfolded and bound, loaded into unused Amtrak trains (which is most of them), and relocated to Area 51.

Oops. We just royally effed up.  We over-interpreted the message, which ultimately was nothing.

Bad move, scientists.  We are so poised to react, that our outrage was misspent.  Most of all, it made us look bad to those that wish to discredit our normally measured reactions.

March on Washington? 

Everyone from internet science sleuths to Bill Nye are calling for a Science March on Washington, a chance to show solidarity among those that value the scientific method and embrace the truths that science gives us. Good for them. 

Not me. The best way I can support science and scientists it to create durable work and actively create the change I want to see.  This is a long game, not an expensive afternoon in DC. The cure is investment of our non-existent time in public-impact pursuits. 

For me to get to DC, stay a night, and uber around will cost me at least $500, and that’s if I bivouac with other smelly scientists and dine on stale peeps and trail mix.

What if we invested that same money on a microscope for a local classroom and then spent the day showing kids how to use it?  That’s the way we create the change.  Rather than coming off as whining complainers for 20 seconds on CNN, let’s be the proactive teachers we are, and then use social media networks to tell the world about what proactive teachers we are.

The Science March should be a website showing the beautiful things we did specifically in response to the anti-science movement. 

Again, it is nice to see a little rage bubbling from within the lab coat.  The challenge now is to channel the energy properly.  At this point we need to be sure that our efforts are appropriate and consistent with the evidence.  Then let’s avoid knee-jerk reactions and implement effective and visible means to protest, flooding social media with overwhelming acts of good.

We have the cred.  Others might be trying to take it.  Let’s not make it easy for them.

In Conclusion

In research we are taught to challenge evidence presented, even from trusted sources.  We claim to guard against self-deception, and over-interpreting data.  We portray ourselves as responding in measured, calculated ways that maximize impact of our actions.

I’m just suggesting a little self check here and watch out for jerky knees.

Like I said in the opening, we’ve lived in the midst of science denial for a long time and are poised to fight back against coordinated encroachment from a demonstratedly science-soft administration. Let's not jump the gun and look bad doing it. 

Let's not create a stir, let's invest that energy and create change. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Targeting My Conversations with Journalists

The latest email grab by US-RTK asked for all of my email correspondence with a handful of journalists.  As a scientist that appreciates interaction with the public, journalists offer a pipeline to deliever science to those that wish to understand it. I'm grateful to have reputable contacts in the media to help share science.

This organization is funded by borderline hate groups that seek to erode trust in scientists that convey a message counter to their beliefs and agenda. Climategate 101.  

They always claim that this is about unveiling corporate tentacles in shaping science, which they never found after seizing 30,000 of my personal emails. Because it didn't happen. Now they want emails from journalists. Journalists?  That's some conspiracy! 

And as always, in full compliance and ultimate transparency, my university harvested the requested emails from university archival severs and handed them over tout suite

Scientists and journalists work together to disseminate good information to the public. Activists now seek to destroy that relationship, harming trust in science and those that report it. 

So why do well-funded industry front groups want to confiscate my correspondence with the media?  Beats me, but I have several hypotheses:

1.  Smearing Science-Friendly Journalists.  We know that they used my emails to develop damaging false narratives, using complicit reporters and venues like the New York Times.  I fully expect that they'll use these emails to make it look like I share cozy relationships with the journalists in question, and then claim that those associations mean they can't be trusted to report science accurately.  The people targeted report objectively on biotechnology and incorporate my two cents into their independent syntheses, or not.  Activists seek to destroy the perception of their independent credibility and journalistic integrity. 

Of course, I've only met these folks here and there, served on panels with them, participated in conferences, maybe had phone calls. I had a hamburger with one once in Davis, CA, sushi with another in Gainesville, FL.  Nothing terribly exciting, but it will be blown up into wild, evil collusion. 

2.  Dissuade Journalists from Talking to Scientists.  Those that report science are less likely to do it if their questions and sources will end up as part of broad public records searches.  Heck, the same journalists use records requests all the time and appreciate transparency that FOIA provides.  But when private emails turn into the basis of broad fishing trips, looking for "gotchas" and cherry-picked bits that can be pulled from context with intent to permanently harm reputations?  It is the abuse of transparency law that journalists appropriately decry, and likely to turn a reporter away from my university if they have a question or concern in a hot-topic area. 

  3.  Chilling Science Communication.  If scientists are afraid to talk, and nobody is going to report it, it ensures complete suppression of the scientific message. They both gag the voice and cut the wires.  Severing all ties between scientists and the best journalists is their goal, as activist messages fail to find publication outside of their own websites. 


This is the most recent chapter on the expensive, damaging attack on science and reason.  They can violate the privacy of public scientists.  They can twist our words to defame us.  They can damage our reputations and drag us through the mud.  That's not hyperbole.

The abuse of records requests is the fuel in their fake news stream, a strong-armed smear campaign to erode trust in science and now those that strive to report it.  Now not just targeting those that discover and teach-- targeting those that report. 

So the take-home message-- brace for the next false allegations and smear.  The law facilitates the flow of free information for the evil people that wish to harm us, with no regulation on how it is used, and no repercussions for wielding it with malice. 

Note of Irony:  ... oh, and the same group has one of the most prolific anti-biotech reporters on their payroll.  

Saturday, January 21, 2017

TB66 - Adjusting Plant Defenses

Following on last week’s episode, plants contain a family of genes called “R genes” that play important roles in resistance to disease. They are part of an evolutionary arms race between plants and pathogens.  Matt Helm is a graduate student at Indiana University in Roger Innes’ lab. They are working on reworking the networks that sense pathogens, hoping to adapt their sensitivity to threats not innately sensed. In other words, putting different different bait on the mousetrap in the interest of catching a different pest with the same hardware.

Like the podcast?  Please subscribe and write a review!

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Follow Matt at @Mattdhelm

Follow Kevin Folta at @kevinfolta

Saturday, January 14, 2017

R Genes and Plant Disease -- This week's podcast.

Plants contain a family of genes called “R genes” that play important roles in resistance to disease.  Plants and pathogens exist in an evolutionary arms race, each developing new means to attack or defend against the other.  Professor Jonathan Jones has been at the forefront of R gene biology for decades.  How to plants use these specialized molecules to detect a pathogen?  How do pathogens evade detection?  How can these genes be mixed and matched between plants to create new varieties resistant to disease?  Hosted by Dr. Paul Vincelli.

Follow Dr. Jones at @jonathandgjones

Follow Dr. Paul Vincelli  @pvincell

Listen to the podcast here or download from iTunes, Stitcher, etc. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Science Family is Doing Well

One of the unintended joys of my job is that over time I have developed an international club of collaborators, former postdocs and students. It is hard to travel anywhere and not have someone to meet for coffee or dinner, and this situation only amplifies when I visit a major college town. 

This week I spoke at the North Carolina Commodities Conference in Raleigh NC.  Turns out that two of the undergrads that worked in my lab used that experience to find great positions in Research Triangle Park.  Both are doing very well and I'm super proud of them.  I had a chance to grab a beer(s) and catch up with them. 

Visiting with two former students, now in great careers.  Those are the papers we co-authored while they were in my program.

As strange coincidence would have it, Dr. Qinghua Gao was also at NC State.  Qinghua is one of my best friends in the world.  We had such a wonderful time working together for a year back in 2007, and I've visited his lab in Shanghai several times since.  His wife is  a scientist and is working on a project at NC State.  He's here for a month or so, and it was great to get together.  His son has gone from a baby to a second grader in a very short time. 

With my friends from Shanghai. 

When I signed up to work as a university professor I never realized the lives that would accidentally change, especially my own.  The relationships we build in the laboratory are durable and deep, stemming from a common intense pursuit of answers to a common question.  There's a great respect and admiration that grows from revisiting the lives of the people that stopped under our lab's tree a bit before pushing on to the next (more exciting) steps of their journey. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Cleveland Clinic Quackery?

You don't have to be in medicine to understand that the Cleveland Clinic has a tremendous reputation for research and clinical care. They were the reason I always hoped that if I were to blow a bio-gasket or have "The Grabber" I'd do it in in front of the Frank Zappa display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-- a stone's throw from this esteemed institution.   

But their social media presence does not reflect excellence in medicine.  To the contrary, it reflects an acceptance of alternative medicine quackery and wacky medical advice.  I figured that they hired the Food Babe's sister to run their Twitter feed. 

Today they seriously crossed the line.  Their Twitter feed promoted an article in the local Cleveland paper. Both Dr. Clay Jones and Johnathan Jarry noticed and discussed in tweet-space.  I had to check it out. 

I thought it was satire.  

It wasn't.  It's a medical Cleveland Steamer. 

Enter Dr. Daniel Niedes.  

This is the year to avoid toxins! Neides is a physician at the Cleveland Clinic that shuns the scientific consensus, has a minimal grasp on fundamental metabolism, and promotes a dangerous agenda. (I like Soylent)

Neides makes the claim that the "burden" of "toxic compounds" in vaccines is linked to neurological disorders, including autism. No kidding.  No, I'm not kidding.  Cleveland Clinic.  

He writes, "Why would any of us want to be injected with mercury if it can potentially cause harm? However, what I did not realize is that the preservative-free vaccine contains formaldehyde. WHAT? How can you call it preservative-free, yet still put a preservative in it? And worse yet, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen."

I'm not even sure where to start. First, thimerisol is metabolized to ethyl mercury, a compound with a limited half-life in the body.  It is excreted quickly and eliminated from the body.  An injection containing thimerisol carries much less risk than eating a piece of sushi (which some fish can contain methyl mercury, which is a very different compound toxicologically). 

A physician does not know this? 

Next, formaldehyde is not a vaccine preservative.  It is present in vaccines in detectable yet biologically irrelevant levels.  It is used to ensure that viruses and bacteria used to create the vaccines are eliminated from the final preparation, and trace amounts to carry over.  He calls it a "known carcinogen". 

Of course, those of us that understand risk realize that carcinogenicity is a function of risk and exposure. The trace amounts in a vaccine are no match to what the body naturally produces as part of one-carbon metabolism. 

This dude is seriously a Mistake by the Lake. 

Jonathan Jarry used the comments section to clarify the topic, at which time Dr. Neides took a stand.  

Neides thinks that because something is in the NEJM or comes from Harvard that it is legit and supports his case. 

Unfortunately he didn't read either of the pieces he cited. Neither is a research paper. The first is an opinion (and a crappy one) the second is a conference summary that has nothing to do with his claim.

The first link is an article about Glyphosate by ag economist Chuck Benbrook and some other guy.  It reiterates Benbrook's claims from when he used to have a position affiliated with Washington State U, paid for by the organic industry, salary and research.  He published a few things that made scientists roll their eyes.  The article was based on the IARC's findings on glyphosate. It has nothing to do with vaccines, mercury, or formaldehyde, and actually is a pretty lame article for NEJM. 

The second is a  non-peer-reviewed conference proceedings where they mention vaccines once.  Stay hot Neides.

He tries to throw around the names of credible institutions to misdirect from the major cow pie he stepped in here. 

But then it keeps on going.  Later he blames it on.... epigenetics! 

Neides fails to realize that science-based medicine requires evidence linking toxins to chronic disease. There is no evidence that exposure levels are relevant, let alone cause disease. 

Whenever someone brings in quantum physics or epigenetics, you see them picking up the goalpost and moving it to wackyland. 

But that does not work for those of us that actually understand epigenetics. There is no scholarly paper that links vaccines or ethyl mercury to epigenetic phenomena and chronic disease. 

Why would a physician make these claims? 

And to claim that "medical genetics is in its infancy" is a horrible statement to make.  Medical genetics is an amazing field, deep and rich.  If you think it is in its infancy, it means you haven't been studying it. 

For what it's worth, I've been hurt badly professionally and personally by those that disagree with science and the stances I've taken in public fora. I really hate to be nettlesome with Dr. Neides.  I have offered constructive advice and a willingness to help him understand the concepts he misses. 

But here a physician, at a prestigious institution, is supporting a dangerous position that threatens public health.  It caters to the conspiratorial claims of fringe movements, and helps Jenny McCarthy fall asleep at night.  That's not good. I want to do that with science pillow talk.  

I'm really disappointed that the Cleveland Clinic would let's its name and reputation ride along with such claims. 

However, it is good to see a community of scientists and physicians stand up and refute his claims.  The comments section is pure gold, a mixture of those with a clue discussing clues with those that never will have one. 

It is another clear reminder that dangerous advocates of pseudoscience can infiltrate our most trusted institutions. Now more than ever, those interested in the public understanding of science need to step up, and rebuke this nonsense. Hopefully, the Cleveland Clinic will do the same. 

**** UPDATE ****

There is a public response to this situation:

Their response is like a restaurant supports following food safety rules, but doesn't care if the chef washes his hands after using the washroom.  

Physicians that work there don't have to abide by science. It's okay to believe what you want to believe. After all, those affected are just kids, old people, and the immunocompromised. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

This Week's Podcast - Effective Communication with Critics

When we discuss new technology with the public, there is inevitable fear and push back with at least a fraction of those we are trying to reach. How we address this is critical in our own credibility.  Jay Baer is an author and consultant in customer service and marketing.  He has written the book Hug Your Haters, a book that outlines the value of criticism and the proper ways to address it.  These concepts are especially important in the days of social media. These tips from marketing translate well to science communication, as we attempt to share science with an oftentimes skeptical audience.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Journalistic Merchants of Doubt Seek to Destroy Trust in Science

In last week's New York Times, reporter Danny Hakim once again provides a political cherry picking that strives to harm public perception of science.  Hakim is part of a cadre of journalists that clearly have personal disdain for conventional farming, particularly if it is supported by technologies from biotech seed companies.  

His series in the New York Times is called Uncertain Harvest, an ironic term seeing as though food security in this country and around the world has never been better.  Thanks to improvements in genetics and production techniques, the harvest has never been more certain. 

There absolutely still is a lot of work to do. Food insecure regions of the world will benefit from new technologies. Our inner cities feature food deserts, areas of poverty devoid of healthy fresh food. Ag producers in the industrialized world will rely on new technology to help them  remain profitable and competitive.  There is no question of this in the scientific community. 

Yet journalists like Hakim attain a visible venue in a place like the New York Times that grants them presumptive authority to report news that isn't news at all, but instead are veiled political statements.  The goal is not to illuminate the success of science, but instead to erode, as best as possible, the public's trust in technology and the scientists that create it. They also provide red meat to the anti-agriculture, anti-science movements that I'm guessing are probably pretty tight with Hakim. 

In the past, activist organizations like US-RTK, financed by aggressive anti-biotech NGOs and corporations, provided cherry-picked stories to reporters like Eric Lipton.  Lipton subsequently prepared false narratives targeting scientists (myself included), tarnishing our reputations as trusted public servants and instead categorizing us as an "inner circle of industry consultants, lobbyists and executives" that do the bidding of corporations in return for research grants. Quid pro quo. 

This is about one thing-- destroying trust

We as public, independent scientists have that trust.  Farmers and ranchers have that trust.  This is why we are targets. 

Hakim continues this attack on science and reason, implying that scientists are malleable agents of companies. That's great news to those paid by the anti-biotech industry, as clearly the whole system is corrupt. 

USRTK (funded by aggressive anti-biotech interests) writer Carey Gillam uses Hakim's analysis of two researchers interactions with industry to paint the entire research community as untrustworthy. 

Since Hakim, Gillam and Lipton point out that scientists are just corporate lackeys that can't be trusted, I thought it might be fun to see how much research was sponsored by companies at my university.  None of mine is, and you can look at my lifetime funding record here

How many corporate dollars are corrupting the University of Florida's ag research enterprise?  Take a look at our 2015 numbers.

Shills!  A whopping 3.5% of funding comes from corporations and companies, and very little from the Big Six (Five? Four?).  Most comes from companies like Tupperware, local interests, small ma  pa's, fertilizer companies, and irrigation firms.  It is a really diverse set of companies sponsoring that  $4.9 million to UF/IFAS.  The median award is probably $20,000, and that is used wisely to conduct specific research.  Read more here.

In short, a tiny fraction of research funds come from companies.  Frankly, they should be paying more.  They are frequently the beneficiaries of increased knowledge in agriculture, as well as the training and education we provide to the next generation of scientists. 

If anything, this shows how our support comes from non-company sources, and should be central in building public trust.  The taxpayer pays the bills, and we are a public institution that does work that benefits our State, citizens and stakeholders.

But that does not make for flashy headlines, and few reporters will cash a check on "Public Scientists Working for You!"  

It is more about advancing a political agenda, and that means telling narratives based on cherry-picked quotations and wild exceptions to the rules, rather than on reporting reality.  

This is the job of a new flavor of yellow journalism. It is to portray public servants as dupes of corporate interests and convince the public that science can't be trusted.  Find a way to land narratives in visible papers like the New York Times, posing as some sort of groundbreaking expose'. Their messages are then amplified by journalists paid by NGO's supported by industry, or by industries/NGO's/activist groups that target farming and agricultural technology. 

They hate the fact that we have earned the public trust and are changing the perceptions of food and farming.  They want to tarnish our halo.  Share the facts. 

Even if corporations funded the science 100%, does that matter? - that's the topic of my next blog.   


Glyphosate and School Lunches