Sunday, February 16, 2014

Proudly Proclaiming Scientific Ignorance

When I saw this advertisement for a t-shirt to wear in May's March Against Monsanto, I could not believe my eyes.  Here was a shirt being sold to those opposed to transgenic (GMO) technologies that basically says that the wearer has no idea about what they are so upset about.  In a way, sad, but in a way pure rhetorical gold.  I can't make this stuff up.  


Proudly proclaim that you know nothing about technology you are rallying against!  A t-shirt that brazenly screams that the wearer is ignorant about biotechnology.


So what's wrong with this picture?  Let's start at the bottom and work our way up!

1.  Tomato.  There are no commercial GMO tomatoes. Oops.
2.  Syringe.  That's not how trangenics are made, and it is simply an iconic scare tactic of the anti-GM movement.  Again, proudly shows complete ignorance of the process. 
3.  Nobody is a science experiment from GM, any more than they are from eating anything else.  Again, a bold statement that anti-GM is in the business of manufacturing non-existent risk.

I only wish that I had designed the shirts and was making a few shekels off of them (oooh... and entrepreneur is born!).

Along that line, I'm not one to claim a conspiracy here, but I'm going to bet, hands down, that Monsanto actually printed these shirts.  Not only are they making money off of the scientifically illiterate, they make the protesters wearing them look like dolts, and they get a little eff-ewe to laugh about in the break room at work.

A little look at the back of the shirt confirms my suspicions.


Nothing like buying a garment to wear that says you have absolutely no clue. 

Anyone participating in Millions Against Monsanto, or for that matter climate change hoaxers and anti-vaxers, might consider consulting a scientist before buying a shirt that actually shows they know nothing about the science they are rallying against.  Even though I disagree with their message, I'm honest enough to not want them look like complete morons while giving it.

Probably. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

GMOs and Leukemia, Debunkulated

Over the last several months there have been many people claiming this link between transgenic crops and Leukemia.  Let's think about this conclusion and the research it is based on.  The conclusion that Bt is related to leukemia, or any human disorder, is just not shown in those data. 


What do you think would happen if a 200lb human being was force fed, with a tube down the throat into the stomach, pure bacterial spores equivalent to half a roll of nickels, and then tested for effects 24h later?   My guess is that you’d see a screaming immune response, massive response from gut flora, and probably some effects on physiology that would be reflected in the blood.  Agreed?

If you agree, then the results of this hypothetical “experiment” are the same as those performed on mice in the Mezzomo study.

In short, the work by Mezzomo et al., (J. Hematology and Thromboembolic Disease) takes Bt spore crystals (dried downBacillis thruengenesis bacteria) containing the different Bt protein (or Cry proteins) and delivers them by oral gavage into the stomachs of mice.  The authors show that mice exhibit minor changes in the blood 24, 72 and 196 hours after the treatment. The authors claim that these findings indicate that “further studies are needed to clarify the mechanism involved in hemotoxicity…to establish risk in non-target organisms.”

Upon analysis I completely disagree with the authors.  The study does not show this at all.

Here are a few of the study’s significant limitations.   

  1. No experimental control was used (well, just water).  There were no bacterial Cry minus strains tested, so it is impossible to know if the effects come from the bacteria or the cry proteins.  The cry protein is what is used in transgenic (GMO) plants.
  2. The bacterial strains used with the Cry gene (an Bt protein) were originally characterized by Santos et al (2009, Bio Controls) to test for larvacidal activity against various cotton pests.  Larvae were fed the spore crystals, just as they would consume when about 50-60% of organic growers apply Bt to plants.  They do not test transgenic plant materials, yet make clear statements implying that these results are relevant to transgenic contexts.  This statement completely oversteps the data. 
  3. The levels of Bt were at least one million times what humans consume when eating transgenic corn.
  4. The study has a problem that is seen in most GMO studies.  There is no real dose-response relationship.  In other words, if something has an effect you see it more when more when a greater amount of the causal agent is applied.  Here Table 1 shows a number of instances were lower doses produce significantly lower effects.  This is always a red flag to critical scientific reviewers and usually means the sample size is too small and the differences reflect natural variation.

Synthesis.

When you force feed massive numbers of bacterial spores to mice, they will have responses that may be detected in the blood.  The responses can be detected, but likely are not even biologically relevant.   Even seven days after being infused with bacteria the changes are small, just a few percent at best.   So when the websites say “GMOs are linked to leukemia and anemia,” the real answer is that mice fed quite a bit of Bt-containing bacterial spores (like the ones used in organic production) the mice have tiny changes in certain blood biomarkers.

Other notes

  1. This was the inaugural issue of JHTD.  I could not access its current list of contents (it gave a jpg of the journal¹s cover) but it does claim to be “one of the best open access journals of scholarly publishing.”  Quite a statement for a journal which launched this year and has no impact rating.  In the SCImago Journal Ranking system (scimagojr.com), among 89 journals in “Hematology” JHTD ranks… well…it did not even make the list, and the 89th place journal has not published a paper in the last three years.
  2. The Omics publishing group is widely criticized as a “predatory publisher.” This means that they get paid every time that something is published and actively seek articles to publish (http://www.academia.edu/1151857/Bealls_List_of_Predatory_Open-Access_Publishers) . They are known in scholarly circles for not publishing high-quality work, and few, if any, of their journals are indexed on PubMed, which means they have not met their quality metrics http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/pub/pubinfo/ . 
  3. Biofortified.com author Dr. Anastasia Bodnar notes that the work was originally published in the respected journal Food Chemistry and Toxicology Nov 9, 2012, but was “withdrawn at the request of the author(s) and/or editor.”   As stated in Elsevier¹s withdrawal guidelines, an article may be withdrawn if it contains errors or if it was submitted twice.  If the paper had errors or was submitted twice, those problems could be remedied for resubmission.  The other reason stated in the policy is when “the articles may represent infringements of professional ethical codes, such as multiple submission, bogus claims of authorship, plagiarism, fraudulent use of data or the like.”

In conclusion.

The article is consistent with the low-quality, low-impact, no control, no dose-response, limited biological relevance, poorly designed studies that are held in sterling regard by the anti-GMO community.   It is again a testament to how bad research and claimed effects will forever be integrated into the fabric of a movement and will be used to scare the credulous and even effect public policy. 

The bottom line is that the Bt protein is just that - a protein.  It is digested by humans just like any other protein.  There is no evidence of bioaccumulation. The compound has been well studied for decades and has been a great benefit to organic growers, as well as in a transgenic context. 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Common Disease Spectrum of Crazy


In order to wage an effective war against science and reason, it is important to convince as many people as possible that science and reason are killing them.  This task is difficult because most people realize that science and reason have greatly enhanced life quality and expectancy.  The trick is to misdirect the credulous from the daily examples where science works, and then manufacture risk, connecting an activist target to a familiar disease du jour

Whether you are trying to sell a book on GMOs, get more invites for your anti-glyphosate rants, sell a t-shirt on your chemtrails site, be the president of your hackey-sack club, or convince local moms to stop protecting their children with immunization, there has to be a looming threat of a physical illness connected to your deadly agent of interest. 

Below are cut-n-pastes from various websites or documentaries.  They note the rise in diseases associated with ____________ .  Note that they all are relatively similar lists in terms of specific disease issues. 

The disorders share a few commonalities. First, they are all difficult medical nuts to crack.  These are modern diseases with multiple etiologies and unfound cures.  These are the visible diseases in our society, increasing in frequency since we are not dropping dead from polio, tuberculosis and the flu.  Next, they include highly-visible issues like autism, obesity and cancer, along with long-term dramatic degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. They also include lots of recently visible issues (gluten intolerance) and amorphous disorders (fibromyalgia). 

As time rolls on and we sort out cancers and long-term degenerative disease, the number one cause of death will be accidents.  I suppose they'll have to blame those on GM/vaccination/etc too.

What is the common theme?  To compel the reader to freak out about the issue at hand by claiming physical manifestations-- of course, without ever presenting supporting evidence. 

From Genetic Roulette, by Jeffrey Smith.  This list is fun because it includes cirrhosis and pneumonia. GMO pneumonia?  Huffing corn starch? 



 Don Huber's glyphosate and GMO list is a little more comprehensive. Of course, we'd expect that from an emeritus professor, digging in a little deeper to find more diseases tied to his plant-animal-livestock pathogen.  His list is a lot like Smith's, but it also includes Morgellan's and miscarriage.  Of course, he never has produced any evidence of the pathogen, but he knows exactly what diseases it causes.  Stephanie Seneff also claims a similar suite of disorders from glyphosate. 



Chemtrails!  Chemtrails are blamed for a similar spectrum of diseases to Huber and Smith's list, with the added fun of tinnitis (ear ringing) and high cholesterol.  The "aluminium build up in the pineal gland" might be residues soaking in from the foil hat. 



Oh Joy.  This baby has more syringes sticking in it than a Monsanto tomato. "Up to 60% of the immune system destroyed."  The list here is similar to GMO and chemtrails, but also includes "death", which is quite a symptom. 



Fluoride causes many of the same problems, but I'll give them credit for forging out and finding some new disorders to give them an air of credibility over simply just naming the disease du jour.  I particularly like "Brain Damage in the Unborn Fetus", which must rectify in the born fetus, because just about anyone reading this in the USA was a fetus in the presence of fluoride.  I also like how fluoride "Makes you docile and obeisant", which I think means fat and willing to carry out orders. 

If you go on the internets and root around you can find similar lists for aspartame, radio waves, cell phone towers, and if you live in Kauai-- "smart meters", the internet-reporting electrical meters. 

Why attach a gnarly disease to your controversy?  Because it can be used to frighten people, especially when concerning their unborn fetus, and their born fetus.  When you look at the lists they never actually cite evidence of linkage to the disease, not evidence of true cause and effect.  It is a common tactic of someone trying to scare you with a bowl of Cheerios or an electric meter- manufacture the perception of risk.  

Don't fall for it.  Those chemtrails just may be condensation and not the reason you can't get out of bed in the morning. 




Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Massive Data Do Not Support Huber's Claims

Dr. Don Huber is traveling North America warning audiences of a mysterious organism that causes diseases in plants, humans and livestock.  He talks to famers and concerned food-oriented audiences.  He does NOT present to scientific conferences, as scientists and their professional organizations do not recognize his claims, and confront him with questions that cannot be answered without invoking hand-waving explanations and elaborate conspiracies.

I have a problem with anyone manipulating the gullible for personal or political gain, especially when they use fear to motivate action.  After seeing Huber scare the pants off an audience in Gainesville, FL, I have taken up the mantle of holding him accountable for his bad science and manipulating people for his twisted motivations.

Today it occurred to me how we know, conclusively, that there is no mystery organism.  No doubt. Evidence of absence in this case is tantamount to absence of evidence.  It is just that massive. 


Today's technologies have uncovered massive DNA/RNA sequence data from humans, plants and livestock, the organisms Huber claims are infected.  In all of the petabytes of public information, there has been no identification of any mystery microfungus.  If anyone were to discover a new organism by accident-- it would be a huge story.

Huber's mystery pathogen is fiction.  Here's why.

Since the mid-2000s we've seen the price of DNA sequencing drop incredibly.  The technology allows scientists to obtain massive genetic information from any organism.  Animal, plant, whatever.

When we sequence a plant or animal we routinely find sequence that does not fit into the genetic blueprint of the organism.  These sequences can be assembled separately and compared to databases.  They are the bacteria, viruses, fungi and other critters that represent the ecology of the sequenced organism.  In other words, when we take apart the airplane we find all the hijackers.

My lab did this on accident.  In our 2010 paper in Plant Genome we surprisingly identified a list of organisms resident to a greenhouse strawberry plant.  We found evidence of snails, probably from eggs on the plant!  We’re talking sensitive technology.  Most of all, we found evidence of bacteria and fungi that are not even problems, or thought event to be present, in Florida. They are all here, just not an issue for whatever reason.  That’s a great find.

Back to Huber.  Soybean, especially production soybean, has been massively studied and intensely sequenced.  Commercial corn, cotton, etc have been analyzed ad nauseum and there is more data in public databases than can be imagined.  In all of the data, in all of the reports, in all of the understanding of gene function and gene detection—

There has not been one report of a mystery organism.

There is no sequence that has been found that is assembled into a creature representing a new kingdom of virus-fungus or whatever the hell he’s talking about.

This absence of evidence cannot be ignored.  While typically absence of evidence is not compelling, in this case it can be clearly stated that in the massive accountings of DNA and transcriptome (RNA) data, there has been no reported evidence of a mystery organism.  If it was there, it would have been detected, the research would have been published and the scientists would be fighting about who would get to sniff the cork.

Huber has provided no organism (despite requests), no culture protocols, and no evidence that it exists.  There are no scientists confirming his allegations and after nine years the only suspect is a fuzzy electromicrograph of a cellular Bigfoot that is likely an artifact or familiar structure.

On the other hand, the massive sequencing of agronomic genomes shows no evidence that it exists, which by default says it does not. 


This simple fact provides question number eleven to the HuberWatch list. 

"If this mystery pathogen is such a prevalent problem leading to crop failures and human disease, why has it never been detected in the massive public collections of sequence data?"

If you get a chance to ask him about that one, please do.  Of course, there probably will be a computer conspiracy that cleansed all evidence from public servers.  You know the drill. 



Tuesday, January 7, 2014

These Ideas are the Thoughts of Folta and May Not Represent...


Illumination is here to help you separate the science from the junk.


The blog Illumination was originally prepared to present my personal thoughts of science and its interface with society.  Carl Sagan said it best; we live in a world filled with science and technology, where nobody knows anything about science and technology.  We live in a world filled with charlatans and scam artists, malevolent activists and dangerous pseudoscientists.  There is a place for scientists to help buffer the public, especially those most vulnerable, from these harmful forces.

I’m a scientist and I love to read, learn and then share science.  It is what I do. Full time. I don’t have a family, I don’t have hobbies and have yet to hit a mid-life crisis.  The world is filled with fascination and I’m so fortunate to contribute to it.

I like to use the current topics of public scientific discussion to teach about logical fallacy, critical thinking, evaluation of science, and skepticism in general.

The problem is that many people do not agree with science.  When public figures speak of the science of climate change, GMOs, vaccination or other topics, some take offense, as scientific ideas collide with their worldviews.  There is retaliation against science and scientists that dare to present an evidence-based perspective.

Over the last several years I have found myself discussing transgenic crops and biotechnology, familiarly referred to as GMOs.  I’m glad to use this blog as a platform for information dissemination and discussion. I also occasionally write for Biofortified and Science 2.0. 

In 2013 I made a lot of people angry.  From activists to Hawaii to fans of Dr. Don M. Huber, many are not happy with my role in science communication, and more appropriately, scientific illumination of suspect concepts held dear by those with limited scientific acumen.  I have been effective in changing minds and sharing science.

Over the last few months, those who scream accusations of being unfairly attacked and silenced, are now attacking and trying to silence those of us that attempt to distill and communicate science.  Oh sweet irony.

In a world of aggressive science denial and internet-fueled self-empowerment, effective communicators can’t be tolerated.  The flying monkeys are out.  I've been hassled in many ways, some personally, some professionally.  There is a new push to hush me by contacting my university’s administration and complaining.   
So I’ll state it clearly here, again.  The thoughts presented here are my own, these are my personal statements and I stand by them.  They are not necessarily the viewpoints of the University of Florida or the Horticultural Sciences Department, so please don’t make that assumption.

If you have a problem with something I’ve said, let me know.  I’ve been wrong before and would love to discuss the issue or make a correction.  I learn something new every day.

The wrong way to handle this is to bother my boss and my boss’ boss, the governor or anyone else in an attempt to silence my level-headed, evidence-based discussion of biotechnology.

Sure, it might just work, as someone someday might ask me not to participate in hot-button discussions with lay audiences.  Universities are just like any other place and they don’t want hassles, unfounded bad press or anything to taint perception.  It takes a lot of time and resources to unravel a false accusation.

However, my university has stood by me solidly.  It is part of our mission as a Land Grant University to share science with the public. 

Let’s consider the irony.  The people that claim disdain for strong arm tactics by companies against farmers, silencing of critics and stifling of scientific information, are now using strong-arm tactics in an attempt to silence a public, independent scientist.

We live in challenging times where we need science to solve our most pressing problems. In order to maximize and hasten scientific impact we need the public to understand science, especially in hot-button areas.  We need everyone to learn the difference between real science and internet rants. 

2014 will be a great year for science and a great year for Illumination. I'm glad to have this little forum to provide a creative analysis of the current situation in biotech.  It is also wonderful to read the feedback, get the emails, both supportive and antagonistic. I learn a lot from the process. 


Friday, December 27, 2013

Demanding a Right to Know

In discussions around biotechnology and food labeling there have been three recent cases where people have demanded a right to know what's in their food, but then declined a kind offer to learn when I actually offered to help them.  The right to know is an empty mantra, three words that sound like they are pursuing freedom and information.  However, at their root there is no desire to know-- just a desire to believe.

*NOTE 1/4/2014 UPDATE BELOW*

Here I'll present Case 1.  Hofstra Debate Follow Up- The debate at Hofstra was quite one sided from my perspective. One side was about fear, Gish gallops and bad activist information, the other side was tethered with science. You can guess the side I was on.  One of the debaters was Bhavani Jaroff, a local chef, radio personality and food activist.  Her debate style was to discuss the most shocking activist statements, parroting garbage science and bad conclusions, following the party line with great precision. She stood firmly on Seralini's rat paper being retracted because of Monsanto, stood by the veracity of the data, and also used the widely debunked Aris and Leblanc "Bt in the umbilical cords and pregnant women" shock language.

I do appreciate Bhavani. While I found her critical evaluation of the literature as empty as the rest of the anti-GM movement's, I do like what she's all about at the core-- teaching people to eat better food and educating them about where food comes from.  That's something we agree on 100%.  The problem is that she's sold out to the vilification of biotechnology and is convinced that it is evil poison.

Plus, I had a great time talking to her before the event and at dinner afterwards.  She's obviously bright, but simply is a victim of cultural cognition-- in this case, if I'm going to believe that eating healthy is important, then I have to be opposed to biotechnology, no matter what the scientific evidence says.

During the debate there was a point where one side gets to ask questions to the other.  She held up Seralini and Aris and Leblanc as evidence to support her position. I asked her two questions, both about the papers, their data, methods and interpretations.  She had no clue, and obviously had not read the papers she presented as evidence, or at least did not evaluate the statistics and controls with any scientific resolution.

I felt pretty bad making her feel like a deer in the headlights with hard science questions, but if you're going to use that trash as evidence, then you have to be able to defend your position.  I would never have been so pointy about it at a dinner conversation, but this was a debate where hearts and minds could be swayed, so I was compelled to expose the empty analysis of an ardent anti-GM local hero.

Afterwards I did follow up with her with a kind email.  Certainly I respected so much about what she (here it comes) brought to the table. Is she just missing key information and want to know, or is she subscribing to and ideology with all of its scientifically bankrupt claims?

She certainly is intelligent enough to confront science if it is offered, and I do think she'll flip like Lynas in a heartbeat once brought to learn the evidence. But it is not going to be that simple.

I post the offer letter here, sorry for the small type, but I summarize below.

 A kind offer to explain the science, and a reminder that Ms. Jaroff and I were really on the same side of a very important issue- food and nutrition.


I offered to explain the science and walk her through the papers that were the foundation of the evidence in her presentation.  My offer was sincere.  From the little bit I knew about Bhavani I completely anticipated resounding cooperation, that she'd be thrilled to have time to discuss how a scientist reviews literature and determines that it is flawed. 

The email I got blew me away.  It started with how we'd have to "agree to disagree because I love the work of Jeffrey Smith and Vandana Shiva".  She then noted how science is not always right and cited margarine and DDT. She also reminded me that she can't understand why someone would want to block another's right to know. 

There you have it.  It frames my argument perfectly. I'm all for people having a right to know.  But if you want to know, you have to want to know facts.  You have to demand to know reality.  You have to desire to learn science.

I do not want people to have a right to know, if they opt to be deceived.  To know something wrong and promote it, is worse than knowing nothing at all.

As a scientist and humanitarian, I'll do my best to stop someone from sticking their head into a wood chipper, no matter how much it is their right to do it.

A right to know must go hand in hand with a desire to learn.  If you choose to only know the bad information, the lies and the distortions presented by Smith and Shiva, then a science-based right to know is meaningless.  If you don't want to know the science, if you want to 'agree to disagree' that science is better than activists belief, then what good is a right to know?

In other words, why do you want a right to know, when you already know everything?


** Update **

In fairness, I did receive an email from Bhavani on Dec 31 or so asking about the Gene IV issue.  I was glad to explain.  It is a good point that runs contrary to her original position and certainly says that my blog here may have overstepped the situation.  I'll always be happy to explain the science going forward, and hopefully this one question will be the basis of many more.







Saturday, December 7, 2013

Someone Forgot to Tell Me...

When does the crazy misinformation machine stop?

According to this thread over on AgTalk, I'm in the process of being censured, that is, that I'm in the process of receiving a strong formal criticism and reprimand for information stated.  So far, nobody bothered to tell me!


Censured? I think they have it backwards. I'm being heavily supported to moving up in our institution. 


As the caption above states, I've been interviewing for the Chairman position of the Horticultural Sciences Department, 50-some faculty over locations all over our state, the #2 hort crops state in the country. I've had support throughout my department and upper administration.  In fact, I had to be convinced to do it.  I've actually been in the job for a year, but only as an interim appointment. 

The post also claims that I interrupted and badgered Huber, that ultimately he told me off and the audience applauded.

Just wait. Let's let this continue to stew for a bit.  I just listened to the audio, it is amazing how I didn't interrupt.  All you hear are the unabated ramblings of Huber. Video does too, and soon we'll see what actually happened.

The take-home message is that here's a post again meant to harm reputations and draw suspicion, as well as support the claims of Huber's mystery pathogen. 

Let's revisit this one in a year.  Shall we?