Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Protecting Bill Nye from De-nye-al

Yesterday's letter on Keith Kloor's Collide-a-Scape Blog was intended to illuminate inconsistency in Bill Nye's application of science.   While many critics hammered at his credentials and trashed him as a kid's entertainer, I defended him.  I respect Bill Nye and his ability to connect science to people.  It is something I wish I did better and something I am learning by watching experts like Nye.

This is why I challenged him.  I need him to survive.  I need the Bill Nye brand to be successful.  We need him to be the friendly and approachable stuff in the interface between the public and the science.


My letter to Nye was out of respect -- to help sharpen
his impacts and protect his brand. 

Right now there are many not happy with Nye, and they come from positions in climate denial and creationism.  They need Bill Nye to fail.  They seek to erode his credibility.

What better way to harm his reputation as an objective science steward than to show that he has taken a position that is not backed by data or the scientific consensus?  What better way to harm his brand than to show that it is not consistent with the world's leading scientific organizations?


Nye's Next Steps

In a perfect world Bill Nye might seek some experts out in LA to sit down and help him understand why his comments were incorrect, and maybe how they have damaging effects. Maybe he'll come out and clarify his remarks and change his position, or else succumb to exogenous semiotic entropy.

That would be the best move.  He could show the world that scientists are humans that make mistakes, stand up when challenged, and accept evidence to adjust their views.

Let's hope it goes that way.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Women in Science, Revisited

This post is here because earlier today someone asked me to think of a reason to build a scholarship. I thought of Jessie.

Jessica Justice was a dishwasher that became a scientist.  This is what I wrote about her, and it was published on April 7, 2010 on Skepchick.  Make sure you read the next post tomorrow.  If this moves you at all, tomorrow will bring tears.

The topic is important today as it was then, and your note is still priceless Jessie.


Science Needs Women
Kevin M. Folta
In three weeks I will put on the cap-and-gown professor outfit I bought on Ebay and witness something that probably never should have happened: the graduation of a self-described dumb blonde. Jessie came to my laboratory looking to make some extra cash as a dishwasher. Little did she know that she would be remolded, repackaged and refocused by a cadre of women that identified a change that needed to happen, then took the initiative to make it so.
In my laboratory the ratio of X to Y chromosomes is traditionally skewed to about twelve to one. The reason is not clear, but the majority of the technicians, postdocs, grad students and undergraduates in my program are female, and it has always been that way. One residue of the phenomenon has been that I get to observe the powerful influence that strong women have in shaping the career, and sometimes personal, choices of young women entering science.
It happens every semester, but Jessie was the most stunning example. She would take on simple tasks like dishwashing and lab maintenance with a certain care and precision not seen in most twenty year olds. But when I asked her if she’d like to take on a laboratory project all she would say is, “I probably can’t do it, I’m not smart enough.”
That sentiment was echoed every time she was assigned a task. She had self esteem that was so low it defied accurate analogy. Yet every time I would show her a technique, computer program or protocol she would execute it flawlessly after a flurry of “I probably can’t do it” and “I’m not smart enough.” I don’t know why she was so eternally self-deprecating, but it was sad to see her downplay, if not completely discount, her inherent talents and abilities.
The women in my lab took special notice of this situation. At the time there was a technician and three graduate students, all balanced, opinionated and strong. Most of all they were complete, with good relationships overlaid with conspicuous hint of glamour. They were maybe four years older than Jess, making their influence especially strong. They dug one layer deeper into Jessie than I would want to; discovering her dysfunctional relationships with males, her horrendous daily decisions and the penetrance of her miserable self perception that negatively impacted many facets of her life.
Leading by example, they showed her that women could drive science and lead a high-powered research team. They cultured her talents, supported her good decisions and taught her flawless execution of advanced scientific tests. Their influence would escape the walls of the lab, as they’d reprimand her when she’d talk about the dopes she’d date and the poor decisions she’d make at home. Soon, the growth was visible and rapid. The self-described ugly duckling was changing.
After a year in my lab with Dawn, Stef, Denise and Thelma, Jessie left to pursue advanced training within her major. She wrote up her work, turning in a graduate-level synopsis of the literature and her results. She had a visible sense of confidence, a new maturity and poise that contrasted so starkly against that of the “dumb blonde” that started in my lab only a year before.
Last week, years after she left my lab, I received a tiny card in my university mailbox buried amongst the junk mail. Inside was an invitation to a graduation. From Jessie. Adjacent to the time, date and event details was a handwritten note. “Thank you for teaching me how to think critically.”

One of the most important messages I ever received.

Sure, maybe I had a hand in it, but the best thing I did was mentor four stellar women scientists that took the initiative to guide her.
The rare success of a grant funded, a scholarly paper accepted, or putting the hood on a new Ph.D. are all wonderful, memorable moments in the life of an academic scientist. However, this victory was especially sweet. I folded that card inside-out, permanently wedged it into the frame of my office bulletin board, and then sent congratulatory emails to the four women that changed Jess’s thinking, influenced her decisions, and maybe even saved her life.
****  This post was first online in April of 2010.  In January 2012 we would suffer a tremendous loss. The next post details that tragedy ***

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Event Renamed, Maybe Postponed. Needs to be Cancelled.

I was blown away to see that the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium was sponsoring "Science on Tap" an event at a local bar that featured a speaker on a scientific topic. However, the speaker for November 13th was a local dietitian with clear activist leanings, planning what appeared to be a baseless criticism of transgenic crop technology in her talk "GMO's (sic) Exposed". 

My analysis of the speaker and the situation here.

A few emails and notes on social media brought a first wave of responses that suggested bringing in "all views" was the job of science and that her talk was appropriate. 


My head almost exploded.  Since when is a "science center" promoting "teach the controversy"? 




Science Center endorses a local dietitian to speak on the dangers of GMO foods. 
Zero illnesses or deaths in 18 years.  88,000 deaths a year from alcohol.


Finally tonight I received word from their CEO that they'd be "pushing  back the start date of the event until we have secured an appropriate speaker who can represent the other side of the issue."

The other side (head hits desk).  They still don't get it, but we're moving in the right direction. Creationists everywhere got excited that the science center is now accepting talks for scientifically defunct ideas in an effort to hear all sides. 



From their website, a changed title, no notice that the event has been postponed. 


I advised to simply uncouple the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium from the event.  That's the best move.  They'd never bring in a psychic, a UFO expert, or a moon-landing hoaxer, or a Holocaust Denier, and then bring in a real  expert to show "both sides".  It falls directly into the creationist scheme of teach the controversy, when science clearly shows there's no controversy to teach.  

We'll see what happens next.  

It is hard to believe that a Science Center needs to be reminded about how science works.  It is not about presenting opinions of anyone that has one.  It is about hypothesis-driven data, good experiments, solid statistics and hard data.  It is not what a dietitian thinks and how she'll advance an activist agenda. 

That's the stuff for the Whole Foods Community Room. Go there and spew nonsense. However, the endorsement of a Science Center must only be used to endorse science backed by the scholarly literature and the scientific consensus. 

As it is said, you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.  Period. 



Friday, November 7, 2014

You've Been Fooled, Science Center!

If you are planning to visit the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium, you might not see Jesus riding a T. rex,  or a model of the earth with expanding glaciers.  These are the things that crackpot pseudo-science museums might promote.  Nothing like that could happen here... or could it?

An event next week was brought to my attention.  The South Florida Science Center and Aquarium is sponsoring Science on Tap- GMOs Exposed!  

November 13th you can go hear about how GMOs are 'exposed', whatever that means... Maybe we should dig a little deeper...

The presenter is Michelle Parenti Lewis, a local RD.  So what can an apparently trained RD "expose"? 

A quick google search shows that the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium has been duped.  They have scheduled what will likely not be a scientific talk, but an activist parasite posing as science.  This is the most disgusting of all scams. And they fell for it.

A little poking around shows that Ms. Lewis is an anti-GMO advocate.  In a local promotion for the same event on SouthFlorida.com they show the event's true colors: 

Blinded by Science?  But the $3 Irish Car Bombs will "kill any GMO in a radius of 17 feet from the food on your plate."  Science is awesome?  Sounds like something a Science Center might endorse? 

The promotion claims that Lewis will describe "their potentially harmful effects", which is code for "these have no documented health effects over 17 years, but that's not scary so we'll talk about potential effects". This sure looks like an activist rant posing as a scientific presentation. 

*** and alcohol kills 88,000 in the USA every year. That's exactly 88,000 more than GMOs in 17 years ***

There still is no hard evidence that this is a credulous activist talk posing as science.  It could be a typo, or the work of some intern that has been since fired for besmirching science. Or not.

It does not take too long to see that Ms. Lewis is steeped in naturalistic fallacy, and uses that platform to raise activist issues.  The website dietbalance.net  cites the November 13th event and provides a brief dossier.  It seems reasonable at first, but then gets to "She is an advocate for locally sourced organic food production and the labeling of genetically engineered foods and cloned foods".  

Cloned foods?  I guess those organic bananas, strawberries, citrus, and dozens of other crops are off the table. 

A little more digging and it's clear that she's in cahoots with Food and Water Watch, an activist hive that spends a lot of time trashing sound transgenic technology.  She has spoken at several events in support of food labeling.  Read this and weep, science lovers:

Wow, same old junk.


And if you poke around more you can find even more evidence that the proposed speaker adheres to the naturalist fallacy, and therefore has to deny, and fight, the science of biotechnology. 

So congratulations South Florida Science Center and Aquarium, you've been bamboozled by activists posing as scientists.  You've been tricked by someone with a lot of letters after her name that chooses to ignore the scientific literature, and that should be frightening.  

I would strongly recommend canceling the event, or at least taking away your endorsement and leave that to the crystal rubbers and ear candlers. This is not science and you are being used. 

Of course, if you like this kind of thing I can get a Jesus on a T. rex stature for your foyer... 


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

This is No Victory.

Hearts fluttered and hearts sank.  Election returns brought some to ballrooms and others to bathrooms. Others remained too close to call.

It appears that the ballot initiatives mandating labels on foods containing ingredients derived from transgenic crops did not pass. But it is no victory.

Many will disagree.  Grocery manufacturers, seed companies and farmers will claim victory because voters will not mandate what seed they use, or force unneeded hassles of separating products depending on if they contain a single gene or not.

However, the anti-farmer, anti-scientific voters that use a ballot box to vote on if science is true will return to the drawing board for two more years.  That's a temporary victory to those that spent (wasted) millions to push them back.  It should never have gotten that far.


Once again a comma defines the sentiment. 

Worse in watching the persuasive ads for YES and NO, both camps manipulated fear and emotion to influence voters.  There was no education, no reason.  Voting decisions were driven by an appeal to the lesser of two non-existent evils.

No matter how these results fall, it is not a victory for science and reason.  It reminds us that those of us that work in education have a long way to go.

It also deteriorates my faith in the wisdom of our nation's citizens. When they fall for the lies of activists over the evidence of science, it says we don't deserve a democracy. These votes should have been 100% NO, 0% YES, if we were listening to science.

The fact that it is 50-50 is tremendously disheartening.

How can we trust our fellow citizens to make good choices on complex issues like healthcare, taxes, foreign policy and other intricate issues when we half of people think their food is poison and that farmers are killing them-- and there's not a shred of science to support that claim?

And I'm not letting the other 50% off of the hook, as a large portion of that group voted based on a commercial that scared them about what would happen if "YES" passed.

Can we please have a national science-based dialog?  Can politicians have the backbone to bring science and scientists into this conversation in a big bold way?  Can we make some hard federal law that just puts this nonsense to bed?

The amount spent on defeating these measures would pay for a lot of research.  It is a shame it is spent on television ads to scare someone into voting a certain way.  This needs to change, and change now.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Right to Know Begins with Learning

I just get sick when I hear proponents of Oregon 92 and Colorado 105 claim that they demand food labeling because they deserve a right to know.

In reality, there is no need for a right to know, at least as imparted by a clunky, expensive, and scientifically invalid law or amendment.  The right to know begins with a desire to learn.  A right to know begins with a willingness to listen to, and understand science.

As it stands, proponents of the ballot initiatives hope the right to know is a punitive tool.  It does not teach, it does not inform. It simply provides a means to distinguish food produced from certain farmers that chose specific seeds. It will be a way for them to conjure fear around perfectly safe foods, based on no real information. That's some powerful right to know.  What good is a right to know, if you know nothing, or worse, know false information?

What good is a right to know if you use it to harm farmers, consumers and the environment, let alone the needy that could benefit from advances in biotechnology?



Is it was really about a right to know?  
It if was, one could simply pick up a book and learn. 


The problem with demanding a right to know is that there is no "know".  There's no knowledge. There's no education.  It is plunging into idocracy where loud mobs of the uninformed shun independent, reproducible science, clinging tightly to the flimsy claims of one-off reports and activist fear tactics. But the TV doctor and the guy selling the book say these foods are dangerous.  Why are they dangerous?   Doesn't matter. It fits the construct they want to believe, so that's good enough.

Nobody really wants to know. They want to hear what reinforces their beliefs. 

So it is not about a right to know.  It is about a right to not know, to retain ignorance, to continue in darkness of fear and distrust. It is about a desire to shield from science, a hard choice to shun facts and trust beliefs of charlatans that profit from manufactured fear.

The beauty of the internet is that these reports should be rather durable and history will write itself around these events.  My hope is that we'll use these corny social demands for non-scientific changes as benchmarks of our primitive ineptitude.  We'll remember that we had many among us that voted if science was true or not.  We can see who is behind the stigmatization of good science as evil, and maybe quantify the body count and suffering they caused by fighting science.

It is not about a right to know.  It is about a want    to     not    know.  It is about sticking fingers in the ears and shutting out science.  The well fed and the affluent want a right to know, which is ironic, because they think they know everything already.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Manipulating Malleable Minds

One big difference between scientists and activists is that the latter have no problem using manipulating language to scare the public.  The former uses information to help the public make sound decisions.

Here's a stellar example from GMO Awareness.com.  It features fossil biotechnologist Dr. Theirry Vrain, a guy that used to work on the genetics of nematodes and used some molecular biology tools in the process.  Since his retirement, he's enjoyed the stage as one of the handful of sort-of-scientist darlings of the anti-scientific, anti-GM movement.

It bothers me when guys like Vrain and Huber use their former credentials to perpetuate bad science today.  Maybe I'm a little pointy because I was asked to analyze his YouTube video and it cost me an hour of my life I'll never get back.

However, it did help me understand who he is and why the anti-GMs love him so.




The sure love Thierry.  He tells them what they want to hear, and aside from a good 1980's understanding of molecular biology, almost all of it is wrong, and packaged to be cleverly deceptive. 


At least he starts out by saying "I refute" rather than making statements that claim to represent broader science.  Of course, the data show that yields are often better (despite no genes added to increase yield) require fewer insecticides and safer herbicides, which are of positive impact for the environment.

No evidence has ever shown them to be unsafe to eat. 

The last line is the winner-- Yes, they have been shown to contain allergens, the same allergens as in non-transgenic corn and soy!  Plants make allergens!  
In this little blurb it is cleverly stated to induce the freak-out factor, to manipulate the malleable mommy middle that will make decisions on fear over logic. 



So why does the anti-GMO movement love Vrain?   Simple. He has some technical knowledge of the techniques, that's quite clear.   He's the closest thing they have to a scientist with a clue, and he tells them exactly what they want to hear. 

So where did he go goofy?   According to web-based sources, about 10 years ago he retired and "reinvented" himself.  He now lives with his herbalist partner, and they teach workshops on organic farming.  So there you go.  Cultural Cognition 101.  If you are into curing your problems with herbs and organic farming, then you have to hate transgenic technology. 

Here's an excerpt from a radio interview that 'splains it-

An online bio gives some sense of where this nonsense all comes from.


The good news is that the dollars of the credulous will finance his appearances well into the next decade, as they line up to hear him slam good technology.  The bad news is that carefully crafted deception as seen above, will continue to plague scientific decision making, clouding the atmosphere on this important issue.