Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Bill Nye Saves the Silo

Preaching to the choir, the first episode makes a critical scicomm 101 mistake. 

I was pretty psyched to hear that Bill Nye was part of a new series, Bill Nye Saves the World.  The Netflix show promised to bring a science to a popular audience, and would not shy away from hot-button issues.  This kind of science programming is important. We live at a time where the very process of science must be applied more vigorously to analyzing critical issues-- yet politics, belief and popular culture push back to limit its application or the results it brings. 

Last night I watched the climate change episode-- and here is my review. 


First of all, let me state that I appreciate what Nye brings to the table. He is an established, visible personality that clearly has an audience. His brand resonates with many science enthusiasts, and it does with me too. His following is loyal, which is why any criticism of The Science Guy earns you harsh flames from passionate followers, even if you have a legitimate criticism. 

Which is why I'm writing this review.  When I criticized Nye in the past I received dozens of angry emails and tweets. 

I'm getting ready with block/mute. Here goes...

Nye previously touted incorrect positions on genetic engineering, and even produced videos where he got information dead wrong. No scientists consulted, bad data, horrible misdirection of people that trusted him. 

It really made my job difficult. At the same time he was out setting the record straight with Ken Hamm about evolution he was causing nightmares in the scientific community that helps the public sort out genetic engineering.  

Back then I contacted him privately via his website, but received no response. 

So I took it public.  In this spirit of his debates with Hamm, I invited him to defend his (incorrect) position on GE crops, participating in a public debate on the issue. A student at Purdue took the liberty to reserve the space and make it happen. 

Again, not a peep from the Science Guy.

The good news is that later that year he'd reverse his opinion, letting evidence tell the story.  That's a good thing. However, it is a reminder that we all have blind spots, and those in the limelight are also susceptible to producing soft information. 

The limelight also provides a patina of credibility and trust that lets the bad information flow-- even if it is wrong. 

The Climate Episode

My criticism of the BNSTW climate episode is not the central concept of climate change-- it is how Nye delivers content, and ultimately squanders an opportunity to share science more effectively with the people that need to hear it most.

Clearly the earth is getting warmer and human activity is certainly a contributor-- how much is the gray area of computer models and scholarly debate.  However, the effects on biology, geology and weather are clear indicators that change is afoot, and we should be taking steps to adapt to change, if not taking steps to mitigate its acceleration.

BNSTW features beautifully shot, scientifically-correct passages, mostly dwelling on the effects of rising tides in the most vulnerable coastal areas-- like Venice, Italy.  Here a small increase in sea level has profound impacts on this historical coastal treasure.

The show also gets high marks for featuring talented, sharp women scientists to balance out the prototypical stale, pale, male. 

But does the show reflect what we have learned about how to best communicate a scientific topic-- especially one of public controversy?  This is where BNSTW really misses the mark. 

The discussion was much more political and preaching to the choir than scientific. The opening salvo was trite, suggesting that chocolate, fish and coffee are threatened. In all of the scholarly discussion of real threats, these are pretty low on the list. Between the cheerleader-like gestures and the hoots of a condoning crowd, Nye's rah-rah-climate-change message invigorated a political base-- but alienated those that do not accept evidence of climate change.  

This is bad because the deniers are the folks that need to be reached, and need to probably plug into the topics in the whole series.  They were turned off a few minutes into Episode 1, never to dial in again. 

Sadly, the in-your-face nature of the show also turns off the folks  in the middle, those that don't know who to trust, but are seeking answers.  Low blows and cranky criticism turns them off, and probably pushes them away from the whole series.  

The pilot episode makes the mistake of yelling into the echo chamber, prodding those that don't understand/accept the science, and turning off those that want to learn more.  This is a serious tactical error in a science show that has the best of intentions to share science more broadly. 

Revising the Approach

Nye needs to start with acknowledging why policymakers and others deny the evidence of climate change.  He then has to talk about the values he holds dear as a scientist-- environment, food, farming, the needy, etc. All of these are imminently threatened, and when we place our ethos first, ears perk up.  

Yes, we are all on the same team. 

What is the evidence we find compelling?  Is it the three more weeks of farming Canadian farmers enjoy?  The trees in the Pacific Northwest that are dying from the heat?  Ocean corals that are dying?  

And yes, Venice fits this approach well.  Saving our historical treasures. Even though many climate skeptics aren't sure if Venice is in Italy the place they went to Hooters last time they were in Florida. 

We don't change minds with facts, especially around contentious issues. If this is an important issue, and it is, then folks with visibility like Nye should strive to get out of his silo, out of his comfort zone. He should kibbutz with influential leaders in other social tribes that hate his message.  

Nye, a big pizza, and House Science Chair (and climate denier) Lamar Smith could have a wonderful discussion that would change the minds of disagreeing viewers and those tuning in to understand the problem, not push them away. 


As a means to rally the convinced around the reality of climate change BNSTW is good. However, these folks are typically technologically adept and know where to find relevant climate data. 

The show misses a great opportunity to shift the middle, by showing empathy to opposing positions, talking about values, and how science is adapting to the warming trend to protect farmers and the environment.  

It does no good to scream into the echo chamber. Nye has reputation, gravitas, and knowledge that would make him a much more effective spokesman for science if he kindly interfaced with those that look to him for information.  

Unfortunately, BNSTW gives a big sad "Eff-Ewe" to the folks that most need to be reached, and only exacerbates the tension around a sadly contentious topic. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Renewed Attacks on Science Communication

Today I posted some rather positive news. Students from my lab visited a school and taught six kindergarten classes how seeds grow, and we provided a seedling to over 150 students.  Each plant was in a test tube and could be planted in the garden later. 

The idea is to get kids to connect to science and grow healthy food in their homes.  The materials were paid for from my science outreach program. 

A tweet about planting seeds with grade school kids ignites a hate storm. 

But on the eve of the Science March, the idea of kids participating in STEM is apparently a threat to many.  This, along with a comment from a Purdue faculty member about my talk yesterday ignited the hate. 

Undisclosed kickbacks? 

So I posted a link to my funding history, which includes no funding from Monsanto.  Zero. 

Then Gary Ruskin, from the industry-sponsored front group US-Right To Know, posts a letter from Monsanto to me obtained freely from my FOIA'd emails. The company agreed to sponsor my outreach program (including the school stuff shown above) back in 2014. It was a really good thing. 

This was not for research, not for teaching. The donation to the university was to help rent space, buy doughnuts, put out coffee, buy flash drives, etc for an existing science communication program.  My workshops teach scientists, farmers, etc how to talk to the public about hot-button issues like vaccines, climate and genetic engineering.  It is much more about psychology and communication than discussion of scientific evidence.   

Before their donation (and since) I funded the workshops with honoraria and speaker fees (that could go to me personally), along with donations from the public.  Those are all listed on the associated websites

Because of the hysteria and hate that Ruskin and others fomented, there were threats against me, my lab, and my family.  It was so bad that the Domestic Terrorism Task Force was involved. I still am not to open packages that come to my house or work unless I know who the sender is. Their goal was to stop me from teaching science.

Ruskin works for an NGO dedicated to eroding trust in scientists. To keep his hundreds of thousands of industry dollars coming in, he must stop scientists from communicating. He knows that he can post the letter and re-invigorate the hate. He has a "gotcha", he knows it's slimy, and will continue to use it. That's the kind of ethics he has. Plus, it is best they can do to try to hurt me. 

It brings hate from folks like Joe Norman (@normonics), a computational scientist at the New England Complex Systems Institute. He spews unbridled abuse that is a symptom of someone truly unhinged. 

This is just a sample of Joe Norman's recent abuse that I've had to endure.  He eventually deleted the whole thread, and there's lots more that I'm glad to share. I'm glad to block/mute etc, but is this the kind of behavior we should expect from someone claiming to be a scholar?  If I was his academic advisor or if he worked in my department I would get him some professional counseling. 

And many others. I could post them here, but just go read Twitter. Here are a few gems. 
Just a couple of sweet people that hate before taking the time to actually learn what a situation is all about. 

The point is simple.  Ruskin took a boilerplate letter where a company donated to an outreach program and used that to fabricate a story of grand collusion.  

Ultimately, the money was never used, and the university donated it to a campus food charity.  The outreach program lives on, and pays for things like the test tubes and seeds to bring to schools above

And not once has anyone shown anything I've said in a blog, speech or presentation that is inconsistent with science. Nobody has ever questioned my research

As people convene to March for Science, it is important to remember what we endure as we stand up to communicate research, evidence and the methods of science. There are many out there that still insist on harming the reputations of those that teach, as they are a legitimate threat to their ideologies. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

What Is a Specialty Crop?

You need to be eating more Specialty Crops. What's a "specialty crop"? This week's podcast is a wonderful conversation with Politico Senior Food and Ag Reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

When GMO Plants Escape

This week's Talking Biotech Podcast is an interview with Dr. Paul Vincelli and Dr. Carol Mallory-Smith from Oregon State University.  Dr. Mallory-Smith has studied gene flow in grasses, and has charted the movement of transgenic creeping bentgrass genes in wild populations. 

This is an important story to know, as it frames an important risk in the cultivation of transgenic crops. 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Wild Turkey and Misplaced Risk

* (Asterisk up front)  I like whiskey.  This is not a rant against booze, it is a rant against misplaced risk and consumer deception. 

I saw this tonight in the Twitterverse and it just about blew me away. There is a potential that this is a POE or April Fool's Prank.

There is no comparison between the risk associated with biotech-plant-derived ingredients and the alcohol in beverages. Bad marketing angle to get people critically evaluating the risks of what they are consuming when you sell a known carcinogen. 

Bourbon is made from fermenting corn, rye and barley, so I guess some genetically engineered corn could make its way into the mix. But over the last twenty years there is not one case of GE corn being a health risk-- and no clear way that it could be and not be realized pretty quickly.  We're talking a perfect safety record. 

On the other hand, Wild Turkey proudly touts plenty of ethanol.  Ethanol is the alcohol that deliciously underlies the psychoactive impairment we all know and love. 

But ethanol is a known carcinogen. Even the IARC calls it a known carcinogen, in the same group as formaldehyde and benzene.  For the folks that flip out that glyphosate is a "probable carcinogen" in the IARC's view based on tenuous data, this ranking for ethanol should make them fear sitting next to someone with an open beer.

Wild Turkey proudly claims No GMO Grains- products that have caused zero risk to human health in two decades. 

On the other hand, ethyl alcohol, 40% of their product's volume, is known to cause 88,000 deaths every year from related diseases. 

A product with substantial risk factors misdirects the consumer by implying a crop technology carries risk. 

It is truly deceptive, and if I was a company that essentially sold a poison* for profit, I would not draw the consumer's attention to actual risks. 

Glyphosate and School Lunches