Monday, October 25, 2021

Hey Goofballs, Science is Not a Popularity Contest

Starting a few weeks ago the European Commission began a public feedback period on the regulation of gene edited crops.  Gene editing is a relatively non-invasive, rapid way to make precise genetic alternations of crops to improve specific traits. Changes made frequently emulate natural variations. 

The EU has had excessively harsh restrictions on transgenic technology, not approving any new genetically engineered crops in decades. Activists wish for the same hyper-rigorous repression of technology to be applied to new plant genetic improvement techniques. 

EU farmers and scientists almost universally feel that the technology could have some benefit, and should be part of the region's technologies. 

So when the European Commission opened a public comment period, it was spammed by an avalanche of identical and near-identical comments that were distributed by anti-biotech groups.  No thinking, just copying and pasting as they were told to.  


The European Commission asked for scientific, thoughtful comments and instead got slammed with spam. 

The part that anti-biotech groups and their lackeys forget is that science is not a popularity contest.  It doesn't matter how many people cut and paste your misguided rant into the form. It still only represents one opinion, zero data or citation, and in any "anti" movement you'll can always find a willing group of parrots willing to repeat exactly what you tell them. 

Cut/paste = LAZY.  The reviewers are not stupid. 

I watched this develop over the last few weeks, and while anti-biotech groups would not persuade anyone at the EC, they'd take a victory lap. After all, there were thousands of comments against the relaxed restrictions on gene editing. 

And true to form it happened. 



Leave it to the followers of Rudolph Steiner to get the science way wrong. During molecular biology class they were busy putting cow poop in a horn to harness cosmic energy.

It is amazing that the anti-biotech folks would claim victory after encouraging a campaign to spam a sincere effort to gather information about a new technology.  Luckily, the folks at the EC will hopefully be persuaded by this overt manipulation.

Those that have lost the argument raise their voices.  When you don't have the science on your side you have to spam the conversation in an attempt to minimize the actual science communicated.

If I was a regulator in the EC and had to weed through cut-and-paste nonsense to get to the nuggets of actual information, I would not be so happy with the anti-biotech folks.  My guess is that this will backfire. Ultimately decisions are made on actual evidence, and your opinion doesn't matter, even if pasted sixty thousand times. That's why the EC even asked for scientific comments. 

This is why I appreciate science and sports.  They are the last meritocracies, the last places where superior performance still ultimately wins.  That's why the EC opened the public comment period.  Change is happening. 

Don't take a victory lap just yet. 

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Seed Sovereignty? Not So Fast Farmers...

 For the last 25 years I've listened to the tired argument that Monsanto controls farmer seed choice.  Over and over again. Even since the hated seed company has ceased to exist, I still hear the same boring trope. 

This is the position of activist groups and their parrots, and others that never actually tried to tell a farmer what they would be allowed to grow on their space. 

Farmers choose what is best for their land, their schedule, their budget, input availability, and dozens of other factors.  Cotton, corn, soybean canola and sugarbeet growers oftentimes choose genetically engineered seeds containing the traits that serve their production system and support their bottom line. 

Farmers control farmer seed choice.

Unless you are a corn farmer in Mexico that wishes to use traited seeds. 


Anti-biotech activists feel that Mexican farmers should have the unrestricted freedom to choose any maize varieties they wish to plant -- from the list of  activist-approved varieties


Activist groups have decided that Mexican farmers should not have access to the elite corn technology, lines that contain engineered traits to aid in limiting weed pressure and cutting insecticide sprays. Despite farmer demand, activists have now pressured the government into not allowing these resources to be utilized. 

They claim that it is to protect native genetics near corn's center of diversification, but that's just not true. 

Farmers will be allowed to use hybrid corn without the GE traits. Those lines are just as likely to outcross with indigenous resources as any GE crop. If you want to preserve indigenous maize genetics, you need to have special programs to do that, and such programs are in place.

This is nothing more than activist groups using pressure to limit the acreage of genetically engineered crops. If that means forcing farmers to choose non-GE hybrids, increasing insecticide use, and returning to aggressive top-soil-sacrificing techniques to manage weeds, that's where they'll be. 

I don't ever want to hear any activists whine about companies limiting seed sovereignty. 

They are the ones restricting farmer choice to use proven, safe, and efficient genetics to suit the needs of their farms.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

REPOST: A civil conversation about the future of food

 The following article was printed April 7, 2015.  It was written by Iowa State student Kelsey Faivre after she attended talks by Vandana Shiva and me, Kevin Folta.  

Shiva was invited to Iowa State University by a student group. Fearing the usual barrage of bad information, another group on campus invited me to provide the scientific counterpoint.  My whole presentation from 3/25/15 can be seen here. 

Ms. Faivre captured the contrast between the two events well.  Reprinted here without permission from Feedstuffs where it was originally printed and no longer available.



A civil conversation about the future of food

By Kelsey Faivre

DR. Kevin Folta, professor and chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, recently came to lecture at Iowa State University.

The subject of his lecture was transgenic crops (also known as genetically modified organisms GMOs) — what they are, what they can do and how to communicate about them. Folta, who uses transgenic crops for research in his lab, has firsthand knowledge.

The main points of Folta's lecture were that transgenic crops have been determined to present no more risk than conventionally bred crops, there is an important place for them in the future of agriculture and that the debate surrounding them is not a scientific one.

With a clear majority of scientists supporting the safety of transgenic crops, the debate surrounding these crops "is a social one fueled by fear and misinformation," he said. Folta used a fungus-resistant strawberry and a citrus tree resistant to citrus greening as examples of future applications of transgenic breeding.   

Folta's lecture followed one by activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, which happened two weeks prior (Feedstuffs, March 23). Though the topic of Shiva's lecture was similar — she and Folta both discussed the impacts of transgenic crops — the two lectures could not have been more different. Not only did their content differ, but their communication methods and motives clearly were dissimilar.

Folta presented the scientific consensus regarding the safety of transgenic crops, explaining that plant breeding is inherently risky, but transgenic breeding methods present no more risk than conventional breeding.

Shiva rejected this consensus, claiming that there are health risks associated with GMOs despite the fact that no cases of GMO-related illnesses ever have been reported. In fact, Shiva supported her anti-GMO agenda with research that Folta noted was either discredited — like the work of Gilles Seralini — or distorted by the media — as in a study regarding placental cells and glyphosate.

Folta said he wanted to connect with people who are concerned about the safety of their food and are at risk of being swayed by activists who benefit from others' fear and mistrust. It was refreshing to hear from someone who is a primary source of information and is clearly passionate about delivering the facts.

After being in both audiences, I felt that there was a more obvious discontent with Folta's message. One gentleman in the crowd interrupted Folta twice — the second time proclaiming, "I think about 90% of what you've said could be proven false."

Despite this angry, cynical challenge, Folta remained calm and responded with grace and kindness. Folta then used the challenge to illustrate his point that anti-GMO activists sometimes make more noise than scientists and farmers and use fear to cover up facts.

After his lecture, Folta stayed for more than an hour to answer questions on topics ranging from the ethical issues surrounding transgenic crops to the research he is doing in his lab. When difficult questions came up, he agreed to look into things further and follow up with individuals, and in one case, he invited someone to participate in a study with him.

Folta set a great example of how we, in agriculture, can engage non-science audiences in conversation. One of his ideas on scientific communication is that we have to, as he said, "stop beating people over the head with science"; the public wants to hear the facts without needing a Ph.D. to understand them.

He also appealed to the values of every person in the room, acknowledging that "at the end of the day, we are all on the same page and want the same things; we just bring different toolboxes to the table."

Having listened to both Shiva and Folta, the biggest difference I could detect in their messages was the tone behind the messages. I fear that my fellow students left Shiva's lecture feeling scared, mistrustful and conflicted. I hope those who listened to Folta left knowing more about the science behind the technology and feeling more reassured about the future of food.

No matter how you feel about transgenic crops, one thing is certain: Using fear, blame and mistrust is not the way to start or end this conversation.

Folta and an audience member discussed her genuine concerns about transgenic crops for almost a half-hour, and it remained a conversation rather than devolving into a verbal battle. At the end of her questions, Folta asked if there were any type of transgenic crop she would accept. After several minutes of deliberation, she admitted that using a transgenic orange tree to stop citrus greening would be a good application. That is what I call a success.

In my opinion, Folta did an excellent job of delivering facts over fear while maintaining a civil, open and conversational atmosphere. That is something to be commended.

I left Folta's lecture feeling something I haven't felt in a while: hope. We can open up a civil conversation about the future of food. By sharing our agricultural and scientific stories, we have the opportunity to cast light on the facts of modern food production.

*Kelsey Faivre is a sophomore in agricultural communications at Iowa State University. She was raised on a row crop operation in DeKalb, Ill., and raises cattle.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Letter to the EU


 

The European Commission is taking public feedback on gene editing.  I urge you to send your letter here:

USE THIS LINK

If you need an idea of some aspects to emphasize, here are my comments:


Sustainable farming in the EU is critical; economic sustainability for EU farmers, and environmental sustainability for the limited agricultural land in the region. Keeping costs manageable for EU citizens and potentially bolstering agricultural exports or fostering less reliance on imports is important too. To meet these challenges, EU scientists should have full access to all technologies to produce safe and sustainable crops. As a scientist in the USA I have hosted dozens of EU scientists that are frustrated by policy that restricts their research and their ability to produce solutions for their home countries. The current restrictions are arbitrary, not science based, and reflect the whimsy of political/ideological views over a scientific consensus. My terminal degree is in molecular biology and I have followed genetic engineering since human insulin was created in microbes in the early 1980's. Gene editing, the process using sequence-directed nucleases, is a revolutionary technology that has already had tremendous positive impacts in agriculture and medicine. Briefly, in shaping a future EU policy the most important points to consider are: 1. Speed. Gene editing can often install the same genetic changes as plant breeding (making crosses), only it can be done on a scale of months rather than years/decades. 2. Precision. Gene editing can install genetic changes that underlie important traits (e.g. resistance to disease) that are known in plants broadly, but perhaps not present in that species. They would be impossible to incorporate with traditional breeding techniques. 3. Accountable effects. While gene editing is highly precise, it is prone to errors and off-target effects. However, our ability to sequence genomes provides a means to inventory the associated changes and assess them for risk, if they occur. 4. Sovereignty. The technology is simple and can stimulate new industry around regional crops, giving power to smaller EU companies and expanding seed invention/production away from a small, consolidated handful of multinational corporations. 5. Adaptability. Gene-trait associations are known to help plants mitigate the effects of temperature stress, salinity, flooding, etc. Being able to install these traits into established regional crop varieties will likely provide a rapid means to approach issues caused by climate change. 6. Rapid response. The emergence of new pests and pathogens requires a rapid means to adapt to new threats that cannot be achieved by traditional plant breeding. 7. Minimal risk. Gene editing techniques are much more precise than the well-accepted mutagenesis techniques currently allowed by the EU, and it can be done without introduction of foreign DNA, such as in the production of transgenic plants. The EU has unique challenges that demand that all tools be considered in meeting future food security needs. To hamper the hands of the EU's best scientists with arbitrary, emotional, non-evidence-based policy is a travesty, and will affect EU sustainability and seed choice in the near future. It is critical to allow European scientists access to the same tools to genetically improve crops that other countries have available. I'm very happy to answer your questions. Kevin M. Folta Ph.D. Professor University of Florida

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Talking Biotech 308 - The Origins of GMO Disinformation

 Where does bad information begin and how does it propagate?  I speak with University of Connecticut law professor Robert Bird in this week's podcast. 



Sunday, August 29, 2021

Talking Biotech 307 - Glyphosate Residues and Dietary Exposures

While glyphosate is claimed by may to be ubiquitous in food, how much is really there and is it a legitimate risk?  I had the opportunity to ask a panel of the world's experts about a recent review they prepared that summarized the peer-reviewed literature on detection, residues, exposures and risk. 





 

Friday, August 27, 2021

Report on the Problem You Create- The Rise of Cyclical Sensationalism


 A reporter places a banana peel at the top of the staircase in a local mall. A customer walks toward the stairs only to be shoved by the reporter onto the banana peel and down the stairs. The customer dies from traumatic injuries. 

The next day the reporter's headline reads, "Customer Dies on Mall Stairs."

The same reporter repeats the assassination ritual a few more times and shares the story of a negligent staircase widely on social media. he also cites his own article from the previous week, giving the impression of an epidemic of dangerous stairs. From there it spreads among local mall patrons. 

The next week the reporter's headline reads, "Customers Concerned about Staircase Safety at Mall."

*****

A visible trend is emerging in crank journalism and slimy activism-- reporting on the significance of a problem that they themselves created.

For unethical "journalists" it is a way to create "evidence" that their errant or malicious position actually has support. First they produce media or messaging that makes a bogus claim. Next, they cite their own media source to create the perception that their bad claim has wide support. In other words, they strategically place the banana peel and shockingly report when someone slips on it. 

I call this cyclical sensationalism.   It is a case where maliciously motivated can create faux news to fool the reader into believing a false claim is legitimate. This tactic is used for several reasons:

1.  To harm the credibility and trust in legitimate scientists. 

One especially egregious violator of ethical standards uses cyclical sensationalism as a mainstay. Paul Thacker foists the patina of a legitimate journalist, but in my estimate he's a stooge working for the anti-GMO, anti-5G, anti-scientist interests like US-RTK. 

He started writing fallacious stories about me in 2014, and trolls my social media accounts with regularity. Some of his work has been retracted by ethical journals.  Other stories he has written appear in Grist and The Progressive, and all target me unfairly and inaccurately.  Both Grist and The Progressive failed to take action when I notified them.  

The Progressive did offer me a 250 word rebuttal to the 10,000 word hit piece. I declined. 

The point is, he is one of very few writers that seem to scam publication outlets into publishing his filth.  So he writes new hate pieces and then links to his own old work citing the name of the source (e.g. The Progressive) rather than the author (him).  The goal is to trick the reader into believing that there are independent, legitimate voices that agree with his claims, and that he's not a lone goof libeling scientists. 

I complained to Grist about the piece they hosted.  In the article Thacker states without question that my research can't be trusted because it is compromised by corporate influence, which is absolutely not true.  As I stated in my letter: 

"... he (Thacker) does the execution, leaves the shotgun in your closet, and then uses social media to say, “Hey, look who Grist just killed.” 

I'm not the only one. He's done this to other scientists like Dr. David Gorski, and good journalists like Keith Kloor and Tamar Haspel. The list is reasonably long, but he has a special eerie tumescence for me.  


2. Amplification with cyclical self-sharing. 

Retweets and shares come from linked accounts held by the same person, or within a tight network of cronies, provides a false sense of legitimacy or consensus to poor scientific ideas.

A really good example is US-RTK, the science hate group that seeks to harm reputations of scientists on behalf of the industries that pay their bills.  Gary Ruskin and Carrie Gillam retweet Stacy Malkin's posts (both US-RTK employees), then US-RTK retweets their retweets. Usually it does not go much farther than that. 


3. To give the perception of mass interest in a non-problem that they describe as a risk. 

A recent tweet by the Non-GMO Report claims that 49% of US adults...  you can read it! 

Duh!  When an organization endlessly maligns a technology and makes false claims about it, certain elements of the public are influenced. They then report about the phenomenon they helped create! 

This example is a great case of cyclical sensationalism, creating the problem, and then pretending to independently report that there is a problem. The BIOHAZARD sticker is 100% intended for shock value. When the world is trying to figure out who to trust about food and farming, consumers are influenced by this malicious messaging.

Of course, Twitter sets them straight:



These are just three ways that self-citation and near-network amplification spreads misinformation.  It is cyclical sensationalism, and is becoming more common as crank claims and pseudoscience become more prominent through the limited filters of social media. 


Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Dissecting the Dr. Dan Stock Video

One of the saddest parts of the pandemic is the number of trained physicians that have divorced themselves from their training and exploit their credibility to motivate action on an agenda. In my study of the social dynamics of the pandemic I'm finding more and more physicians that promote politically acceptable views of their community over published science. 

As I continue to gently persuade and address concerns in social media I frequently get a video or podcast thrown at me.

"Well what do you say about THIS, plant scientist!" they say. 

The assertion is that just because someone completed medical school (or maybe didn't lots of folks call themselves "doctor" and do not fulfill accredited training) they have some special forcefield of infallibility. 

But they are fallible, and dangerous. The credibility of the title matters, and is being wielded at local events and school board meetings to influence critical public health decisions. 


Indiana sort of health guy Dr. Dan Stock misinforms a school board about COVID19 and it takes a plant molecular biologist to sort it out. 

One video I was sent by FOUR separate people is at the Mt. Vernon, Indiana school board meeting.  A guy dressed like John Boy Walton introduces himself as Dr. Dan Stock, expert in "functional medicine". 

Red flag #1.  "Functional medicine" is a red flag tagging dubious alternative medical practices like reiki and energy field manipulation. Most of the disciplines used are bogus, unlike I guess non-functional medicine, the stuff that works. 

The evidence presented was a Gish Gallop of false claims, starting with the Indiana Board of Health and the CDC fail to "read the science". Then he says, "everything recommended by the CDC is contrary to science."  

The CDC is operating contrary to science. Riiiiiiiight. 

The first time I watched it to 45 seconds when he claimed masks don't work. After the second person to send it to me wanted an analysis, I went through the whole thing, painfully. 

Here we go: 

Claim 1.  "all respiratory viruses are spread by aerosol particles which are small enough to go through every mask"

Fact- viral particles are highest in the fine particles that come from deep in the lungs.  They are smaller than 5 um and most projected from taking, singing, yelling (Coleman et al., 2021). These are significantly attenuated by an N95 mask and even a basic surgical facial covering (Leung et al., 2020). 

Claim 2.  Respiratory viruses time infection for the "immune system to get sick through the winter"

Fact- This makes zero sense. His contention is that the virus is always there, human immunity drops and then it takes over. There is substantial evidence against that, namely the huge spike we're seeing the USA now. And the huge spike during our winter, but in Brazil, where it is their summer. There are seasonal variations in some respiratory viruses, but they are due to other factors, mostly people concentrating indoors. 

Claim 3.  Vaccines make your immune system "deranged...  cause symptomatic disease"

Fact-- the vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective.  There are rare cases of myocarditis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, and cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (a specific clotting in the brain), along with anaphylaxis reported.  However, the fact that these are identified as a handful of doses in 160,000,000 vaccines shows that the vaccine is safe and that the side effects are being carefully monitored.  


Claim 4.  Vaccines can't work because the virus is in "animal reservoirs" and goes on to name a number of other viruses, like influenza. 

Fact- Flu and SARS-CoV2 are very different viruses. Influenza viruses undergo genomic shuffling to vary their genetics and presentation to the immune system. While SARS-CoV2 variants exist, they are slow to emerge and evade vaccines, which work quite well and were very effective against the original variants. He talks about respiratory scintitial virus (RSV) as being zoonotic, when there is no evidence for that. 

Claim 5.  Vaccines "go wrong" because of antibody dependent enhancement, "worse than it (infection) would be if fully vaccinated".  He mentions the incidence of COVID19 among the highly vaccinated Provincetown outbreak. (Draws applause)

Fact-  The folks in Provincetown were 99% vaccinated, so almost all cases (we know the vaccine isn't 100% effective) will be in vaccinated people.  If everyone is wearing red shoes, the odds are that everyone with COVID19 will be wearing red shoes. 

There is also ZERO evidence of antibody dependent enhancement (ADE) with respect to SARS-CoV2, the phenomenon where vaccination leads to worse symptoms upon actual infection. It is a real problem with some vaccinations, like the early versions of Respiratory Scintitial Virus (RSV) vaccine.  It has never been an issue with others, like measles. Clearly the least vaccinated counties have the highest incidence of symptoms/disease, the exact opposite of if there was ADE. 

Claim 6 - "No vaccine prevents you from getting infection"

Fact - not true. HPV works great. Well established. 

Claim 7 - "vitamin D, ivermectin and zinc, not a single person that has come near the hospital" 

Fact-  he treated 15 people. Odds are that out of 15 infections most are unlikely to need hospitalization. I wonder how many of his untreated control group were hospitalized?  Oh, he didn't have one. What dose did he use?  How did he determine it was safe and effective at that dose? He just took a wild-ass guess.  There are no clinical good clinical data on ivermectin and zinc for COVID19, so he's doing his own experiment on his patients based on beliefs, taking a guess at levels needed to treat a novel virus.  Ethical?  

Claim 8 - "patients that recover from COVID19 have no benefit from vaccination." 

Fact-  the CDC has looked at this (Cavanaugh et al, 2021) and there is significant reductions in reinfection after vaccination following natural infection. 

Claim 9 - "suffer 2-4 x  side effects if vaccinated" 

Fact - There is no evidence to support this. 

He then says that the board is wrong because they aren't scientists and listen to the NIH, CDC and Indiana Board of Health... but then says that he should "listen to the people in the audience" as the average person in rural Indiana is certainly a better source of infectious disease information than our nation's infectious disease brain trust. 

He then offers to be an expert for free if they are sued.  (Applause)

The bottom line is that Dr. Dan Stock is making unfounded assertions that placate the political rejection of science resident in his community.  While a school board has a responsibility to protect the health of children, the community will follow guidance that fits their beliefs, even if it is wrong. 

Dr. Dan Stock just used his authority to affirm their beliefs, beliefs that vaccines don't work, masks don't work, and that the virus is treatable with bogus nostrums. 

First, do no harm Dr. Stock.  First do no harm

This is dangerous, and explains why his community will soon be a twisted little red pixel on the Indiana map, suffering from the spread of a completely preventable pathogen.  When licensed physicians deceive the community they serve, shouldn't there be some repercussion?  

I guess if they want to be deceived he's in the right place. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Massive COVID19 Gain-of-Function Experiment -  Are You Part of It?

Critics of SARS-CoV2 research decry the use of the gain-of-function experiments used to study viruses. Such experiments are designed to test how changes in DNA sequence relate to enhanced activity of a gene product on biology, or in this case, the function of a virus. Mutation of viral DNA may lead to enhanced transmissibility, infectivity, pathogenesis, or lethality, among other effects. 

That is exactly why researchers perform gain-of-function experiments in the safety of a laboratory setting.  By understanding the biology in controlled circumstances scientists can better prepare to address the virus if it naturally becomes problematic in a population. 

Yet critics of gain-of-function research say it is dangerous and unnecessary.

And the same critics are also the least likely to be vaccinated. 

The unvaccinated say they don’t want to be part of an experiment. 

By failing to be vaccinated, they have become an experiment.

This is the profound irony. Those that refuse vaccination are the most likely to sequester in small towns, churches and political rallies. They participate in work and social functions as though the virus is not a threat. Few masks, little distance, limited isolation, life as usual. They are a gain-of- function experiment, a spawning ground to test effects of new mutations.


When ignorance goes viral, the virus goes to the ignorant. 


In the lab, prescribed changes may be made in DNA precisely, and the effects can be followed in laboratory animals. 

Outside the lab, the virus replicates furiously in the body.  The body produces hundreds of billions of viral particles. Each round of replication is slightly imprecise, potentially introducing random errors into the newly-produced virus. Most mutations have no effect. Others negatively affect the virus, its transmissibility, infectivity, or pathogenesis.  We don't ever see these viruses in populations because they are a biological dead end.

But occasionally a mutation arises that bestows gain-of-function. When that newly-enabled virus escapes containment in that first breath, it may gain a foothold in a population, and become a new "variant of concern".

We are learning about enhanced viral function by studying the new variants now circulating in populations. 

There is no question that vaccine denial follows political and regional trends. These areas are the breeding grounds for new variants. It is the most extensive viral gain-of-function experiment ever performed.  

And remarkably people are willing to participate. 

Please get vaccinated. 

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Gyphosate, Autism, and Goal Posts

 Dr. Stephanie Seneff has polluted the scientific conversation about the health effects of the herbicide glyphosate for over a decade.  This latest volley is the waving tip of a white flag, as time is not supporting her alarmist claims. 

She does not run a research program on glyphosate or its effects on humans.  What she does do is use the title of "Senior Research Scientist at MIT" as cred to be able to push underpowered hypotheses that are framed as legitimate empirical research. 

The outcome is a slate of less-than-scholarly review articles, almost invariably in low-impact journals, that decry the dangers of herbicides and vaccines. They are give some credibility because of her title, and at least one journal has published a warning label that the work is suspect. 

How are the papers constructed?  In short, they are sculpted narratives of cherry picked data and pushing correlations as causation.  These are crafted into what are best hypotheses not supported by the preponderance of he evidence. 

Like this one in the journal Entropy. The unknowing actually think it is scholarly research. The journal even notes the authors' bias in not presenting the breadth of the research (a.k.a. 'Cherry Picking'). 

One famous one was the claim that due to glyphosate use, half of all children would be autistic by 2025.  This is conclusion is an extrapolation of trends of glyphosate use and autism prevalence, as she described in this logical-fallacy strewn wreck of a paper. 


To some great thinkers correlation and causality are one in the same. 


Apparently now that landmark 50% rate appears to have shifted, apparently to 2032.  We're not using less glyphosate, so I wonder why autism rates now won't hit half of kids until seven years later?


Twitter links to the claims that glyphosate-induced autism is on the rise, just not as fast as predicted. The link takes you to an anti-vaccine site for the documentary Vaxxed II.

The real reason the claim was pushed back was much more practical. 2025 is the year after the year after the year after next year.  If you're going to revise your bogus claim you have to do it early. 

The more realistic answer is that physicians have changed the criteria for autism and surveillance has greatly improved.  Even minor anti-social behaviors can place a child on the autism spectrum, which is excellent because early therapy and intervention can have great effects. 

My point here is to remind you of the predictions that were made and never seem to come true, and remember the people that make them. They are held up as heroes in some conspiracy communities, and their errant opinions affect how some perceive science and technology.  


Friday, June 11, 2021

Coordinated Disinformation Campaigns on Twitter

 Today on twitter I kept seeing the same message coming up, over and over again.  What the heck is going on? 


Mia's mom wants major restaurant chains to know that she's not exactly up on the science.

The link goes to the Center for Food Safety, an organization that really isn't that is much more of an anti-technology club than a food safety concern.  They speak out against any application of biotechnology, such as the release of the disease-suppressing GE mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. 

Somehow when CFS launches a twitter campaign they plaster the Tweet Stream with the exact same message over and over again.  My feeling is that they do this to create the impression of a mass consensus, a movement to essentially bully retailers and restaurants.

In this case it is the AquaAdvantage Salmon, a fish grown in inland tanks in Indiana.  First invented in 1989, the salmon has had a rocky road to market, despite the magic of growing to market size in half the time and on a fraction of the food and other resources. 

It has been shown to be equivalent to regular salmon and safe as can be. It is not a threat to natural populations because the fish are genetically sterile and a long flop to any place where they could cause ecological problems. 

While technophiles argue that this innovation takes pressure off of natural populations and can provide fresh fish at a better price point, those opposed to biotechnology in any form push back.

The Tweet above is just one of hundreds.  Literally, hundreds. All exactly the same, cookie-cutter tweets. The information is false, as they imply risk to public health, oceans, and wild salmon populations. It is total disinformation. 

They spam popular restaurant chains and hotels, folding them in to tweet after tweet.  What gives? 

I've heard of tweet-storms before, campaigns to start hashtags trending around a given topic. When spawned organically this is probably a good way to get an issue noticed. 

But the identical nature of these tweets is highly suspect. They are not retweets, they appear to be original work of real people.  But are they? 

I thought they were bots, and remain to be convinced otherwise.  Are there services out there that create hundreds of bogus accounts that appear real, simply for these applications? 

I reached out to some of the tweeters, asking if there is a message they received or some script they copied.  I received one reply that said, "Go to the (CFS) website". 

I went to the website and there was simply a petition to sign. No twitter script. 

Meanwhile they accumulate by the hundreds. 


If you search tweets using the hashtag #GMO you'll find over 100 identical messages implying harm from AquaAdvantage Salmon.

I'm very interested in how these kinds of coordinated disinformation campaigns are being used to influence corporate decisions.   Social media can be a powerful influence, and those not understanding the technology might find this mass movement against a new product quite compelling.  How can so many people be wrong?

The real question is, are there really so many people, or is this just some devious scam to present the façade of widespread concern, when it really is just the Center for Food Safety pushing their typical anti-biotech agenda?  

(To be continued)

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Are You Harming Your Best Advocate?

 Be careful when you take action to eliminate an informed voice from a conversation. In the days of the internet such cancellation can be permanent, and if you remove someone that has a clue, it might just come back to work against your best interests later on. 

Throughout the 2000's and most of all in 2015 and to this day, there have been activist groups and unhinged individuals that wanted me silent.  Whether it is weird professional jealousy, the fact that I run a highly-rated biotech podcast, or the fact that I am a trusted source of scientific information, I attract vicious critics. 

But I'm consistent about two things:

1. Speaking from the evidence and the data.

2. Admitting when I'm incorrect and adjusting.  

When critics use sharp and defamatory means to destroy trust and remove their target from a scientific conversation, they run the risk of removing them from all scientific conversations. 

In 2015 I was targeted by USRTK, Paul Thacker, Charles Seife, Organic Consumers Association and dozens of other anti-biotech activists.  Food Babe Vani Hari joined in. Journalists like Eric Lipton at the New York Times and freelance writer Brooke Borel took hard and visible shots that today clearly stand as well-orchestrated hit pieces. 

Other folks added their interpretations of emails, professional actions and even crept eerily into my personal life. Gross. 

 The defamation for teaching science remains permanent on the internet to this day. 

Why does it matter? 

Because it forever serves as a touchstone for those that reject the science I teach, it is a get-out-of-science-jail-free card to those that want to debate climate change, vaccination, genetic engineering or evolution, but rely on bad evidence and conspiracy to fortify their bankrupt positions.  

Case in point.  Last night I had a pleasant conversation on Twitter with someone (now going by "Fauci is Mengele" that was certain he was correct.  He was not.  He drew a chorus of supporters that chimed in about the COVID19 vaccine that was untested, experimental, dangerous, and blah, blah, blah. 

Painted into a corner with evidence to counter his anti-vax claims, he "did research" on me and posted this:

Fauci is Mengele "did a bit of research" to eliminate my knowledgeable voice from an important conversation.  A tip of the hat to those that work to slander scientists.

And the fact that I've not "lined my pockets" and am hardly an insider doesn't matter. I've been a academic scientist my entire career and have a strong record of public service.  The fact that the New York Times used out of context quotations (at times eliminating words to reverse their meaning) and false interpretations to harm my reputation is something I'll carry to the grave. 

From the New York Times, 9/5/2015 regarding me: 
I reject the notion that teaching science is a "corporate public relations campaign"


Also from the New York Times, 9/5/2015 
When I first read this in print I spit my coffee all over the screen. Inner circle?  I'm a freakin' piss-ant public servant that begs federal agencies for funding to do great science and train tomorrow's scientists. I WISH I was some kind of inner circle lobbyist or consultant!  


This kind of rhetoric provides an easy disqualification for those that cannot discuss the evidence.  If they can't address your arguments with conspiracy and websites, they eliminate you from the conversation.  This is especially true towards me because I treat everyone with profound kindness and do influence those watching the conversation. 

So be careful of trashing academic, public scientists in big, public, visible ways.  At the end of the day they do work for you, and the reputation you are harming may be that of one of your best advocates. 

 


Monday, May 24, 2021

Creating False Consensus with Bots

 The discussion around Twitter bans is hot, mostly with regard to specific accounts that provide dangerous false information. 

But what about accounts that appear to be legitimate users, but somehow are coordinated accounts posting false or misleading information?  One false-information source alone is not much influence, and one can be singled out, reported or appropriately banned without consequence.  

But does the mass posting of a common false claim from dozens of accounts provide a false sense of consensus where none really exists? 

It's right from the Goebbels playbook-- tell a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.  It works because repetition and the perception of broad support from a number of supposedly independent accounts provides the illusion of truth. 

This barrage occurred following news that Oxitec mosquitoes were being released in the Florida Keys. 


Repetition of a common message from multiple accounts that appear to be independent provides the illusion of consensus about a common theme where none really exists. 

This deceptive spamming appears to happen through legitimate accounts. So either these are well-crafted fake online personas, or a careful coordination between individuals in a "phone tree" type of distribution of an identical message.  Either way it is deceptive, and the second one is highly unlikely. 

I'm going to look at this more closely.  My guess is that this all boils down to a common organization that is trying to manipulate public opinion around biotechnology.  Stay tuned....

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Allegations of Threats

 Over the last week the trolls are back, and polluting social media with more anti-Folta nonsense. 

I won't even touch on it.  Nobody has looked at it, nobody really cares.  It gets few likes, retweets, etc., and those that do show some love to the filth are in the defamation network.  It's dead.

But sadly I need to always play defense.  Now that these allegations are forever placed in findable space, I must reluctantly respond. I teach students, I work with kids, I lead community initiatives, and when someone claims that I'm issuing "threats" I unfortunately have to provide my perspective.

First, Carey Gillam.  She tweeted this, this week:


Carey is one of very few people on my "do not Heimlich" list.  She is one person that I believe is truly evil, and takes pleasure in harming others.  When I begged her to leave my family out of some online slander, she doubled down and went after someone very close to me.  I appealed to her as a mother and a human being to please just stop-- but she dialed it up.  She is a monster. 

Over the last decade she has trashed my work, made false claims about me and my motivations, and has been generally horrible.  She is paid by USRTK, the organization sponsored by industry to  endlessly harass me, so she gets a paycheck to post defamation like the above.  That's her job. 

If she had "bizarre and oddly threatening emails" from me she would have posted them, or paraded them around the internet. 

And if I would have made threats, they would have been very much deserved. 

Threat Capacity

I'm not one to make threats.  I'm a diplomat.  We work things out. However, I am one to describe the constellation of outcomes if a given path is taken.  Big difference. By talking about "here's what happens if..." is an important point for me to present to others. 

I make no threats, and nothing I say could ever be remotely construed as a personal threat-- like physical harm or unfair retribution.  I don't have that gear.  Frankly, I wish the trolls would leave me alone, and I ignore them for the most part. 

Where It Started

This week a story emerged online about how Karl Haro Von Mogel claimed that I threatened him in a 39-page psycho complaint to my University's Dean for Teaching.  

Think about this.  If someone were to threaten you in a non-work related context, legitimately, would you run crying to their employer?  

Karl does this because he knows that there are no legitimate threats from an ethical or legal perspective, and people that know me, and know him, understand that I don't operate that way.  They see what he has done to cause me personal and professional harm, along with stark personal betrayal, and understand that I probably am justified in feeling a little prickly towards him. I just ignored him until his wild complaint package surfaced.

But universities are extremely risk averse and must take all claims very seriously.  That means universities can be exploited to do your dirty work, and trash the reputation of your target academic from within their institution. 

At the same time my University Administration knows me better than anyone, and also knows the praise I receive for good work in teaching, service, research and outreach. They know a troll when they smell one. 

The other major problem here is that the alleged threats were not communicated through a university email account or in my role as a professor at the university.  I was a private citizen protecting my privacy and reputation, and discussions with Karl were personal and through non-work channels. Now von Mogel took it upon himself to drag in my employer and make his claims public, making my personal, private emails public without my knowledge or permission, or the courtesy a carbon copy.  Shame.

He produced an email from me that contained this excerpt, interpreting it as a threat: 



At the time, my personal property and files were being distributed to the internet, including the ever-hostile GM Watch for malicious and incorrect re-interpretation. I wanted to know how that material was getting out of my home and file cabinet, and I suspected he may be part of that pipeline. I already knew that he broke my confidentiality on some highly-sensitive work I was doing with a law firm and was meddling in my divorce by providing false statements to my ex-wife's attorney. 

I simply told him, we can discuss this privately, or make it public, you pick.  That's not a threat. This is me kindly offering to work it out together privately, rather than having it blow up publicly and have to explain it, like is happening here.  I don't want to wreck the guy's future like he wants to wreck mine.  

Keep in mind that this was several years ago. I just learned of this complaint last week (5/2021) when it went public, and if it didn't go internet-wide I would never have said anything publicly. They guy has enough problems and could still sort it out and be a good contributor. 

But to accuse me of threats is something I must directly address. 

He continues: 


  If it is false, then we can talk about it and sort it out.  It was his refusal to discuss this important issue, and my need to get to the bottom of it that prompted my response.  It was not "social blackmail", as proven by the fact that he did not discuss it with me and I kept quiet-- I never made it public until now, when his complaint became public. 

The next "double down" on "threats" was:



This was after Karl reported me to a professional conference for violating the Code of Conduct, simply because I requested a meeting with him on how we were going to complete a project that was crowdfunded with >$13,000 of public money, where he dropped the ball and my name was attached to it.  I had every right to be angry, and I wasn't.  I just wanted to formulate a plan out of the mess, together. 

My reputation was on the line and I wanted a resolution. I either wanted a plan forward or was going to disconnect from the work very publicly in an act of self-preservation. 

Luckily he kicked me off of the project, along with lots of other people that did the analysis on my end, and did so very publicly, so I didn't have to do anything. 

Is it a Threat? 

The point is simple. These are not threats-- these are IF/THEN statements where I spelled out our options to completing a project or resolving a difference. I always was gracious in offering to do things the easy way first, and avoiding escalation that does nobody any good. 

That statement is shown to be true with time, as I did not receive a satisfactory solution that I asked for, and still never took the situation public.  I didn't want to affect his career and possibilities like he wanted to do to me.  I just let it disappear. 

Until now.  If the 39-page complaint didn't surface, then I would not have to state my explanation of the  situation.  He knows about FOIA and public records requests, he used that system anonymously to gather confidential documents of mine and distribute them.  He absolutely knew that he was planting a seed that would be discovered later and play a critical role in his malicious targeting. 

Again

If you have questions, ask me.  The situation is super unfortunate and my guess is that the other parties involved wish they had a do-over.  It makes them look amazingly sad and petty.  Rather than accepting an invitation in a private email (these were from my personal account, not subject to FOIA, and had nothing to do with university business) to resolve a difference with me personally, they run to conferences and my university administration and claim "threats". 

And now this long-forgotten annoyance has become very public, not by me, I'm busy working and teaching science. 

And I want to keep doing that.  These kinds of accusations do nothing to help me teach others as they are designed to harm my reputation.  

Which means I now need to work even harder at producing good media and better outreach. Good.  I needed a little fire to refocus my efforts in positive ways. 

I hope he finds his. 





Friday, May 21, 2021

Hang It Up Stacy

 In 2015 the anti-science, scientist slander machine called US-RTK provided my emails and a story to New York Times reporter Eric Lipton.  As stated by Lipton on the 9/17/2015 Kojo Nnamdi Show on NPR, (USRTK leader) "Gary Ruskin handed me a story and wanted me to publish it."

The result was a gross misrepresentation of me and my motivations to teach science. To them, it was all part of a corporate cabal to misinform the public in exchange for grant money. 

Time has shown that none of it was true.  Still the story lives on the internet, forever attached to me in a Google search. 

And folks from USRTK keep it alive and well.  Last week Stacy Malkan, a USRTK henchtwit, continued to post links to the Lipton story, at least to the documents that supported it, plucked from their context for easy re-interpretation.


Yes, that's what I do.  I talk to folks about communication, which has a significant component of psychology.  How do people process information?  What mistakes do they make?  How can we earn trust?  These are the things I teach. 

And as the article states,  "A Florida Professor Works With the Biotech Industry" they neglect to note that this is our job.  We are to be public liaisons with industry. That's part of the Morrill Act of 1862 that established the Land Grant University System. It is to take the knowledge generated and apply it to agriculture, which includes the ag-associated industries. 

Lipton and USRTK neglect to note that 95% of my research funding comes from federal and state sources. The industry funding for research came from the Florida Strawberry and vertical farm industries. In 2017 I hired a postdoc for one year on Bayer funds ($57,000 to hire a Ph.D. scientist for one year with benefits) to work on novel molecule discovery, which is one thing my lab does. 

Here's the Point

Over the last several years it is no secret that USRTK has lost relevance.  You can't slander scientists and attack science for years and not expect folk to catch on eventually. 

Their recent attacks on Dr. Peter Dadzyk brought them sharp rebuke by social media, and their website visits plummeted. 


Traffic ain't so hot over at USRTK. While the world tolerated their hate directed at scientists for years, the anti-COVID19 science work has flattened their curve.  Source.


At the Same Time... 

While I'm not speaking at conferences as much and have been living through the other hassles of hard defamation, things are going generally very well.  Research is fun, teaching is going great, and I'm investing time in other community leadership efforts. All good. 

The Talking Biotech Podcast is entering its 7th year, approaching 1.5 million downloads and 300 episodes. 


The Point.

When you are a hate group that targets scientists the world will catch up, and you will lose relevance.  When you do good work that grows with time, you gain relevance. 

Why do they beat a tired old story from 2015 that they created?  It got them what they wanted at the time, but in the rear view mirror of time it is clear that it was a targeted hit piece that ultimately proved to be bullshit. 

And their defamation page on me is alive and well.  My students visit it and laugh.  They know me, and that's not me.

In a world of important problems, why not focus energy and time on solving them?  What dig the heels into defamation of public scientists working for the good of others?  

It is a failed formula.  Stacy doesn't get that. Maybe she will when USRTK is out of business.  Coming soon. 



Thursday, April 15, 2021

Consumer Advocates or Anti-Biotech in Disguise?

 Wolves in sheep's clothing?  It is an interesting question because I've never seen a sheep wearing clothes.  I guess what it really means is that if  a wolf could skin a sheep and wear the wool to basically be a trojan horse. Something like Silence of the Lambs.

I've always suspected that a number of apparent "good guys" of consumer advocacy are really just anti-biotechnology interests. Their recent activities have confirmed my suspicions. 

Over the years I have watch the Organic Consumers Association and the Center for Food Safety rail against biotechnology as it applied to crops. They falsify evidence, bend the truth, and vilify scientists. You can go to their pages and read that I'm a booze-swillin', wife-beatin', child harassin', drunk-drivin' a-hole that is paid by Monsanto to lie about science.

Because I teach science. 

Now that their nemesis Monsanto is no longer a thing, these groups must be falling on hard times.  Their most recent targets?  Biotech mosquitoes. 

The genetically engineered mosquitoes by Oxitec are a modern version of sterile insect technique, a method to rapidly suppress mosquito numbers that has been used for over half a century.  Its modern form is much more precise. Briefly, male mosquitoes contain a larvae-lethal gene. The gene is turned off in the lab, but then it is activated upon release. The males mate with local female pests, and the next generation of larvae are inviable. Mosquito populations crash. The target is a non-native invasive mosquito so it poses no threat to natural ecosystems. 

These disease-transmitting mosquitoes are clearly the most lethal animal on the planet. With Zika, Dengue, chikungunya, malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases on the rise, these tools could have great human health implications.  They are to be released in the Florida Keys shortly. 

Now technically birds eat mosquitoes, so the Center for (Bird) Food Safety might have a point.  But the Organic Consumers Association?  I haven't been to Whole Foods in a long time, but maybe they are selling mosquito larvae for $40 a pound. 


Cool if you are an organic consumer, but does OCA really represent your interests when it promotes fighting a proven technology that can aid public health?

Not to be outdone, the Center for Food Safety also is in the anti-biotech mosquito game. Recently they were bragging about their new billboard on Twitter. Yes, the Center for Food Safety spends their budget on expensive billboards that oppose human health initiatives.


The Center for Food Safety is "SO excited" about their first-ever billboard in the Florida Keys, an effort to manufacture risk against all evidence, impact tourism, and essentially harm a local economy to push their agenda. 

In social media, OCA has bots that spam the interwebs, blasting a common, repeated message over and over again.  The goal?  To make it look like there is widespread concern about a safe and effective strategy to limit numbers of disease-causing mosquitoes. 



The wolves in sheep clothing use façade accounts and bots to swamp Twitter with identical messages to make it look like mass rejection of a good technology.  

Here we have organizations that present as food advocacy groups that really are anti-biotechnology groups.  I can't wait for the day that these insect-limiting strategies are widely lauded for their success in curbing transmissible disease.  Maybe they will finally be held accountable.

Probably not. They have been lying about technology for three decades and the dollars keep rolling in.  

Maybe if we all share these kids of stories we can clue people in to their deception. 




A Response to Carey Gillam