Friday, July 6, 2018

The Damage of "Both Sides"- When Academics Push Agenda

I was very fortunate to be able to speak at the Manna Center for Global Food Security conference in Tel Aviv, July 4, 2018.  The Manna Center at Tel Aviv University (TAU) understands that the concept of global food security requires a comprehensive analysis of this complicated problem, and integrates input from social scientists, biologists, economists and other experts.  It was clear that solutions would require careful nuance and sophisticated approaches. The conference was well attended, mostly by students and faculty from TAU, but also with a significant attendance of international delegates.

I absolutely loved the conference and associated events, and that is why this blog post is hard to write. I must be critical of one facet of the otherwise stellar event.

This blog post is necessary because the room was full of students.  While most of the talks were outstanding, students were actively deceived by a professor that blatantly presented a skewed information and presented incomplete story rife with logical fallacy.  She is admittedly not an expert in the area, yet presented a highly motivated misinformation campaign that was simply reprehensible scholarship.  It was shameful.  In fact, she single-handedly may have undone the hours of critical scientific analysis and presentation that was provided to the students in associated classes prior to the event.

In the days leading up to the conference I had a great time with the TAU and international students. We spoke primarily of plant genetic improvement, the ways we do it, and the strengths and weaknesses, risks and benefits of all techniques.  We spoke of the Green Revolution—the things it did amazingly well as well as the environmental impacts of intensified agriculture and inequities that came with new breakthroughs.  We spoke of genetic engineering (GMO) and discussed the risks and benefits as described in the peer-reviewed literature, including environmental impacts.  We also spoke of science communication, the methods to build trust, integrating what we have learned by listening carefully to social scientists and psychologists, and understanding how scientists get it wrong when we communicate with the public.  I delivered six presentations over two days, for a total of about seven hours of speaking and Q&A.

And in one 20 minute talk Prof. Tamar Dayan, a zoologist from TAU, torpedoed those efforts as a Merchant of Doubt- introducing a non-scientific unraveling of the previous scientific discourse.  Using cherry-picked data, unsubstantiated claims and information long debunked, she was able to pollute the minds of these young scholars, undo my progress, and erode the trust that I had earned as a credible conduit of consensus scientific information.

This is the danger of the modern communications environment in science.  There is a sense that we need to provide “all sides” of a topic.  For every scientist saying vaccination is a public health benefit, we need to have someone that thinks it causes autism.  For every scientist that says we live on a warming planet, we need to have someone that claims it is just a Chinese conspiracy.  For every scientist that shares the current synthesis of modern biotechnology as told by the literature and the world’s most astute scientific bodies, there has to be someone that says it is a bad idea.

And that is exactly what the audience of about 150 was treated to. 

Prof Dayan started out by stating that she was not an expert in the area but she reviewed the literature and prepared the presentation.  I didn’t take comprehensive notes because I was busy picking my jaw up off the floor.  To her credit, she didn’t show the Seralini rats, but instead shared long debunked claims, and criticisms that were applicable to agricutlure in general, not specifically genetically engineered crops. 

She made a very strong argument from ignorance, stating that “we just don’t  know” early in the lecture.

She made claims about monarch butterflies.  The actual data are pretty good on this, and there is no direct link between genetically engineered crop traits and monarch decline. The closest thing I’ve read is the expanded acres of GE crops that remove milkweed populations (this link as well).  However, that happens with conventional agriculture as well, so it is not a GE specific issue.  In fact, higher yields from GE crops mean fewer acres have to be cultivated, which could be a net positive for native plants and their pollinators. 

These findings fit well with the general consensus that declines are due to, at least in part, conversion of native pasture and habitat to farmland, which make sense, as monarchs don’t feed or lay eggs on the dominant agronomic crops grown. That is not a GE crop problem, it is a habitat destruction issue.

She talked about glyphosate.  This academic scientist actually used the term “superweeds”.  In my presentations leading up to the event I spoke of herbicide resistance, the evolution of the nine mechanisms of resistance to glyphosate and the substantial problems presented around use of a single strategy to combat weeds.

In her presentation she also showed the USGS graph of glyphosate use, which has increased substantially since the introduction of GE crops since 1996.  There is no question that it increased. There were no glyphosate resistant crops before that. The number of flat screen TVs and iPhones has increased since then too.  Good technology has a funny way of doing that. 

Of course, she neglected to show that this increase was directly negatively correlated with the use of other herbicides (as shown in Duke et al, 2012; below) that have significantly more environmental impact, human toxicity and environmental persistence. She again failed to note that this is not a glyphosate-specific problem, but a problem with all herbicides—evolution happens and plants develop resistance.

It's not so scary when you get the whole story. Glyphosate replaces higher-impact herbicides.  Image from Duke et al, 2012 
Strategic omission of evidence can damage all of our ability to communicate science.

She then said, “And they told us glyphosate was so safe, and now many places are banning it.”

Agenda shows. Some places are banning it or re-evaluating its use.  However, that is not because of data indicating a human health issue.  It is not a science-based decision. It is because of activist groups and a handful of politically motivated scientists that scare politicians with barely significant, irreproducible data points, and omitting the higher power studies that do not support their conclusions. The European Food Safety Administration recently assessed effects in animals and found no significant results of glyphosate residues on health. 

She then spoke of the contamination of Mexican corn land races, citing the work from Quist and Chapella (2001), where the authors claim that they found evidence of GE maize "contamination" in native land races, based on weak PCR amplification in 5 of 7 accessions tested, using a PCR method prone to false positives.  A number of clear rebuttals were promptly published (this one too, and this one).  Maize researchers in CYMMIT checked their resources and did not find evidence of GE traits. Later, a much more rigorous analysis based on over 153,436 samples shows that these claims were likely based on PCR errors, because sophisticated sampling could not reproduce their results.   But contrary criticisms and rigorous follow up reports were also omitted from the presentation, as they didn’t reinforce Dr. Dyan’s thesis that the technologies are ecologically problematic.

She spoke about canola volunteers, the agricultural crop plants that escaped containment in Canada and the Northern USA States. This is true, as you can find GE canola along roadsides and other places where it was not directly planted, and populations are persistent.  But again, this is not a GE-specific issue. Crops escape the farm all the time, and ‘volunteers’ grow readily in most agricultural areas. The fact that the transgene breaks containment is irrelevant, as there is no selection.  In some cases where GE escapees intermix with non-GE canola off site, there is evidence of selection when there is off-target drift of glyphosate, but this is a rare exception and not a rule.  However, these “superweeds” remain highly susceptible to mowing, which is the way roadside weeds are managed.

She mentioned a report about the negative ecological effects of Bt crops.  Certainly negative off-target effects have been identified, but they are generally minor.  But at the same time many reports that show the implementation of Bt crops causes no effect or even leads to more insect diversity (reviewed here), in both GE fields and adjacent non-GE fields. The use of Bt crop up to 2009 led to a reduction in broad spectrum insecticide use over 136 million kg which is a ecological step in the right direction.  Bt should be part of an integrated pest management plan, because the realistic downside is evolution of resistance to the technology, which we do observe. It can be a great tool for sustainable farming, just like Bt that is applied externally. 

She talked about “GMO wheat” and how Monsanto (which is part of any good anti-biotech lecture) is “pushing it” on farmers and policy makers. Many farmers want herbicide tolerant wheat, as it would allow them to save fuel and labor costs.  Of course, we all know that no GE wheat has ever been commercialized, and there's no such company as Monsanto anymore. 

I am excited about technology, but I also am concerned about health and environmental impacts. I believe most scientists are. 
While there are clearly examples of environmental issues associated with GE crops (like weed and pest resistance) they are no different than problems in conventional agriculture.

Dr. Dayan’s presentation was a textbook example of creating FUD—Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.  It is a classic strategy of those with motivated reasoning, selective use of the literature, and dated sources that died as one-off studies after more comprehensive analysis. Sadly, this was a scientist pushing an agenda rather than presenting even-handed evidence.

In the Q&A session that followed I pointed out some of these discrepancies.  I was able to at least illuminate the fallacies a bit, perhaps neutralizing some of the damage. 

One quite bright student asked how GE crop plants are any different in breaking containment from conventional crops.  He was right.  She made some rather demeaning comment to the student and failed to realize the validity of his point.

But of course, she then went after me personally, saying that “This is why nobody trusts you” and “I’ve never heard a plant biotechnologist say that there was something they didn’t know.”

Pure arrogance.  Anyone that knows me can tell you that I always approach a topic with an open but critical mind.  Her assertion was quite unfair.

Afterwards, during the break, I had a conversation with her, or at least tried.  She lectured me, going from topic to topic, from terminator seeds to Monsanto suing farmers for a “few seeds blown in to a field.”  She was defensive and dug in her heels. I listened, wanted to interject, but patiently took in every claim.

The most offensive assertions came when she told me what I was guilty of selective analysis of the literature and experts.  Hubris.  
She has no idea what I read.

I asked her for a reference for the lawsuits against farmers for a few seeds blown into a field.  She didn’t have it, but said, “I read it somewhere in the peer-reviewed literature.” 

When I told her that I’ve examined the court records and that what she was saying had no basis in evidence, she disagreed, and reiterated that it was from the peer-reviewed literature that she could not cite.

Facts don’t matter anymore.

The good news is that about a half dozen students gathered around afterwards and they witnessed the interaction.  They saw me kindly ask for evidence and in return got a lecture about how I was a biased idiot.  This was perhaps the biggest disappointment.  She was not interested in discussing evidence.  As a self proclaimed “non-expert” she was not ready to hear cited evidence presented by someone that has studied the associated literature since he was ten years old. 

The good news is that the session was recorded.  My hope is that it will be released and I will be able to do a comprehensive line-by-line debunking.  It will be a useful teaching tool of how university professors, published scholars, fail to critically evaluate their own claims, letting political motivations and biases drive their synthesis. 

This incident frames the battle we face in food security.  Innovations fail to reach application, not because of bad science, but because of a smoke screen of uncertainty and doubt presented by NGOs, bogus documentaries, endless junk websites, and even university professors. 

And it pains me to be harshly critical of another academic scientist.  However, it is appropriate in this case because she has abandoned good scholarship and collegiality—two central tenets of academic scientific discourse.

Technology can help address specific problems in food insecurity, and my point is that all tools need to be available for safe use.

It is sad that some in the academic community leverage their credibility to ensure that technology never reaches those it was intended to serve.

In respect of civil dialog I have provided a URL to this post to Dr. Dayan.  I welcome her response and will publish and promote her rebuttal if it is provided.