Monday, June 29, 2015

High Roads

Over the last few years you'll find that a substantial number of my twitter posts are followed by the objections of a certain veterinarian from from Long Beach, CA.  I'm not naming her here because I don't want anyone searching for her professional or business information to find this page. This is an appeal to others to take a high road in dealing with her, and if possible, to not engage with her. 

Why is it a problem?  

She comments on my blog posts. She slams me on her blog. She systematically checks all of my tweets and chimes in on a large number of them, using fallacy to negate key points. She has dug for, and has broadcasted personal financial information, obtainable because I am a public scientist, then she claims I'm paid by Monsanto and not a public scientist.  She's endlessly tries to tarnish my reputation as an independent voice of science, as an expert in genomics and someone that can faithfully interpret the literature for the general public.  

I'm comfortable to make these statements because her words are proudly part of her public persona, placed daily into various venues for all to see. She uses her real name and defends her positions, which is admirable. You can scroll backwards through her timelines and bask in the vitriol. I keep a file of several hundred screen shots of angry and defamatory posts she's made about me and other scientists. 



A little sample of the nasty comments I've saved over the years. 
I'd rather keep it all private for now.


One side of me would love to post the whole set of screenshots.  I've been told that her comments cross lines and are legally actionable. I've asked her nicely if she could refrain from commenting on just about every post, and that does nothing. It just keeps coming. 

Still, I sit on my little treasure of anger nuggets. They really should never see the light of day, but it is an ace in the hole in case she ever starts creeping me out with facts about my wife's business again. 

*****

When I visited Long Beach, CA in 2014 I invited her to lunch. It was mega weird, but we ultimately had a nice chat, and it was a positive visit. I toured her clinic and answered all of her questions. My point was a simple one-- to try to build a personal connection with this person that finds it necessary to endlessly chastise me and harm my reputation.  Maybe if she saw a real person, and understood how damaging false claims are to a public scientist's reputation, they might stop.

That's what this discussion needs.  Fewer all-caps, softer tone, evidence-based content... and buying someone a breakfast burrito.


Even if it doesn't work. 

And before you scramble into the bowels of the internet and shove my own words in my face, yes, I know that I have been less-than-cordial on a few occasions.  That's partially why I'm writing this. It hurts me to be like that, and I do tend to apologize when I cross that line. I know how much it hurts, and I understand that it is not how we should treat each other. 

Most of all, as stewards of science and purveyors of evidence, we must follow the truth, and do not need to operate like that.

*****

About six months ago I got an email from someone with an attached screencap.  I don't remember what it was, but it was some dirt about her that someone scrounged from somewhere on the web, and he/she was so excited to blow it up in a public forum in an act of retaliation.  True, false, manufactured, whatever, it was not important.  That's not the way to correct this situation.  I suggested that their quest to smear her end immediately, and it did, as far as I'm aware. 

I'm glad.  I know what it is like to have people trying to damage my reputation, and I don't wish that on anyone. Even cranky people.

I have a list of people that have tried to get me in hot water at my university. I also have false and defamatory statements made by Dr. Don M. Huber in a certified letter to my superiors.  I have a letter from another sorta-academic that reported a simple misunderstanding right to my boss, complete with legal threats. Ultimately it was a simple explanation, something relatively minor, and I was quick to deliver an appropriate apology. 

I know what it is like to have people spread bad information about me and try to harm me professionally. 

That said, I'm disappointed in the fact that her business website has now become the target of those that disagree with her about non-business issues.  Her business facebook page has become a wall for an agriculture debate.  I even posted something there about how she treats me, and when I realized it was her business page, I deleted the comments. 

If you are reading this and you are disappointed in her approach, please take the high road.  Refrain from angry retaliation in social media- especially in ways that would harm her business or her professional reputation. I have no reason to doubt that she's probably good at what she does, and people that care for animals automatically get points in my book. 

The best alternative is to block her from commenting.  I didn't do that because I wanted to monitor what she was saying about me and others.  However, at this point I've blocked her from Twitter, I will not reverse that action. 

She has not been blocked from my blogs because I am critical of the blogs that remove my comments.  However, I think a policy change is probably going to happen soon, probably right after she chimes in after this posting about what an asshole I am. 

And I did invent, and she inspired, the hashtag #blockthewhackjob, and have used it on her at least a few times.  I'll own that, but I won't use it again. 

My request is that we take a high road.  No matter how much it hurts, let's do it.  Don't try to harm her business.  Don't argue with her.  

Replace #blockthewhackjob with #highroad 

It is disappointing to see where this has gone and I'm sorry for my lapses.  I have to remember that the folks we need to convince are not the people like her.  They are the folks in the middle that are also repulsed by her message and approach.  Why would we adopt that? 

Let's let the science do the talking, take the high road, and move forward.  Block, ignore, whatever -- but don't get down to that level.  Let's lead by example.  Who knows, she might be our best future convert. 






Saturday, June 27, 2015

Celebrating a Failure, That Really Was a Success

You miss 100% of the shots you don't take. -- Wayne Gretzky



Back in 2012, the activist group Take the Flour Back was settled on destroying a science experiment.  The trial was set on an English hillside near Rothamstead Research Institute, rows of wheat specially genetically engineered to produce a natural plant compound (E-beta-farnesene) that faithfully repelled aphids in lab experiments.  Certainly plants protect themselves with natural compounds from insect pests, and engineering in a compound that repels pests but has no effect on humans would be a great innovation. Such approaches have been tremendous environmental successes in corn and cotton.

After pleading on You Tube, scientists convinced the activists to not destroy the crop, and to let the trial progress to completion. Public pressure was palpable, and the to-be vandals saw the potential backlash of their actions. 

The trial would proceed, and would-be crop crushers went back to hackeysack and glassblowing. 

Turn the clock ahead two years. The data are in, the experiment is over.  The results show that the approach does not produce a significant reduction in aphids in a field setting. 

What does the media say? 


The anti-GMO media empire is dancing in the streets, as a solution to limit insecticides has not provided sufficient data of efficacy. 

In these media outlets the trial is called a "failure" and a "waste".  My Twitter feed also erupted with posts rubbing my biotech friendly nose in the outcome of the trials. True to form, it exhibits that these folks know absolutely nothing about how science works.


Time to celebrate!  A couple of incoherent caveman rants seem to bask in the excitement that a public test of an insecticide alternative did not produce desired results. 


Actually, the experiment was an outstanding success

Why?  It answered the question.  A hypothesis was tested, and the data did not support it.  That is how science works.  It only is a failure if the data were noisy or the experimental design was bad.  Ask Seralini how that works. 

Experimental trails are not failures if the outcomes are reliable.  The only failed experiments are those that are never done, or those that are done poorly so they must be repeated.  A solid answer is a good outcome, even if it does not support the hypothesis. It just means the method needs to improve, or it suffers from insurmountable technical drawbacks.  

It could also mean that the complexity of the problem was under thought. That happens to me all the time. In my lab, a surprise negative outcome is a good thing, as it means there's more thinking to be done.   

The aphid-resistant wheat is a major win for the research group, as it says that they now need to rethink the approach, that the methods were insufficient to translate what was seen in the lab to a field setting.  That's good to know. 

Off to Plan B. 

Notice how scientists and activists interpret a negative result.  The writer at Daily Mail referred to Rothamstead's words glossing over the reality. 


This is how science works.  We take baby steps, demonstrate that a concept works in the lab, then take it to the field.  Field experiments subject even the best experimental system to a new level of noise and variables, real-life inputs that challenge the models obtained from controlled environment studies. 

It was not a failure.  Solid results are solid results, and sadly these did not support a hypothesis that the plant could produce the repellent. 

But wait!  I seem to recall the endless screams that experiments just generate fake data and that scientists can't be trusted.  They get the results they want, and that independent research is just a corporate proxy.  Where are those voices now? 

Congratulations to the scientists at Rothamstead Research Institute. The experiment turned out to be several experiments in one.  Outside of your original proposal we learned:

1.  That scientists can speak to a concerned public and change the discourse.

2.  That the public needs more help in understanding how science works.

3.  That activists are so set against a technology that a negative outcome by a public lab (not a company) is celebrated, even though the purpose was to limit environmental impact of farming. 

I applaud your efforts, and this is one small step for a lab, one giant leap for science. On to Plan B.  Somewhere around Plan F we'll have a solution, but we'll have to go through B, C, D, and E first. Congratulations and thank you for defining the first step. 






Monday, June 22, 2015

Opinion As Fact: When Our Media Loses Its Filter

It is dangerous to scream fire in a crowded theater, when no fire is present.  So why would the Naples Daily News possibly print an inflammatory alarmist story on agricultural biotechnology (in the article referring to “GMOs”) that presented patently false information and opinion, instead of sound science?  The photo below leads the health section of the paper.  It is another familiar attempt to scare a curious public away from perfectly good food. 


From an activist webite?  Nope!  From the front page of the health section of a Florida newspaper.
Again, the line between science and fiction is crossed, and made to look like investigative journalism. 

The words of Kelly Farrell are a veiled advertisement for Jeffrey Smith, a non-scientist that runs a business manufacturing fear around the world’s safest and most highly-regulated food products.  To a public scientist like me, it was a profound disappointment to see such nonsense in a health-associated story.  The information presented is not from journals- it is from websites. There is no inquiry with leading scientists- just opinions from documentarians and others that clearly do not understand science.  The one journal citation presented is based on an opinion article in a low-end journal that espouses an opinion counter to the scientific evidence, the vast scientific consensus and our leading scientific organizations.

"Experts and physicians"?  Authority-heavy claims without legitimacy decorate the pseudo-news.


Our food supply has never been safer, more abundant, or diverse.  Agricultural biotechnology has been a boon to the 300,000 farmers that elect to use it.  The technology has safely decreased insecticide use, limited tilling, and allowed a switch to low-toxicity herbicides with limited environmental impact.  The technology saved the Hawaiian papaya industry, and stands to rescue millions from malnutrition.

There has not been one single illness, not one, related to these technologies in almost two decades of use. I cringe that the physicians interviewed reject evidence-based science.

The shameful fear-based article in the Naples Daily News is an activist rant, not news or good information. Even in the first tables the author claims that milk and salmon are transgenic, when there are no transgenic cows, and a transgenic salmon (that could be of tremendous benefit) has sadly been in testing and deregulation for over 20 years.
Not only is it not news, it is not true.  Naples Daily News fails to filter out an activist rant that does not even get the fundamentals correct.


If Ms. Farrell can’t get even the basic facts straight and relies on guidance from a profiting author rather than impartial scientists, then why present this as health news?  


Worse, how does politically-motivated opinion posing as news affect farmers in our state?  Not far from Naples, orange trees are dying from a disease that recombinant DNA technology may safely fix. Trials are underway now.   Why would we want to limit the farmer's safe toolbox?  This kind of false information is a pathetic excuse for journalism, and it has numerous harms that are easily seen.

I took the time to contact the paper, with a gentle note the editor.  I offered to craft a scientific response and a reflection of the literature as a guest columnist.  I did not even receive a response. 

Naples Daily News made a critical error, and screamed fire in a crowded theater, a theater populated with the world’s poor, American farmers, all consumers, and an environment that needs helpful, safe, scientific solutions. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Folta News, Standing By for Fallout

I have not been writing much because I've been traveling and writing more than usual, and then also fired up a new podcast. The last two weeks have been truly difference makers. However, when you make a difference, you have to start looking over your shoulder.

1.  Biotech Literacy Project Bootcamp 2 - Davis, CA.

This was a closed, invite-only meeting that allowed scientists, journalists and others to meet and discuss how we can be better communicators with the public. Again, I learned a lot, and I'm amazed at how much we are learning about talking to non-scientists about science. 

2.  Podcast with Joe Rogan

Going in I was not sure how this would break, but Joe and I had a nice conversation that really frames how this discussion needs to go.  It needs to depart from the tired, baseless discussions of Indian suicides and terminator genes, and focus on traits and innovations that can't be used.  These have a daily body count. 

I received literally hundreds (I copied every one) of emails, tweets and facebook messages stating that the podcast flipped perceptions by 180 degrees. I received about 20 angry ones.  That is an unprecedented ratio-- just about inverted. 



3.  Podcast with Cara Santa Maria

                                     

Cara and I tied up some loose ends and it was fun. Again, lots of great notes and plenty of positive feedback from social media.  Many notes about how it changed someone's thinking. 




4.  New podcast launched

A new podcast discussing biotechnology in a scientific and even-handed way was posted today.  I posted Talking Biotech (www.talkingbiotechpodcast.com) where I'll have weekly conversations with guests and answer public questions from Twitter. 

BEWARE.

One week of solid gains and good traction was quite fulfilling, as it shows that we are learning how to speak to public audiences. 

However, today the number of angry, evil, and even harassing communications is stepping up.  

Watch for a fresh round of discrediting smear.  I can smell it brewing. 



Friday, June 12, 2015

Glyphosate and Gut Bacteria

I've been wanting to write this blog for a long time, and now I'm glad I didn't until now.

There is a groundswell of outcry against the herbicide glyphosate, the stuff that has the acute toxicity as a sip of your favorite beer.  If you listen to the anti-GM activists, it causes everything from autism to Alzheimers, to allergies, to cancer, to celiac disease, and a dozen other ailments. 

Of course, none of been demonstrated experimentally.  It is easier and more fun to just make up goofy talk. 

I do get a lot of email about this lately and an article published from Natural Society (red flag here) brings one issue to the fore-- It is not toxic to humans, but it is toxic to the bacteria in the gut.

It has even become the basis of a class-action lawsuit, claiming that the manufacturers, well, one manufacturer that these goons especially don't like, did not provide a warning label on the package about toxicity to human gut bacteria.  

Matthew Phillips is an attorney that is suing Monsanto in California over this issue.  He's claiming a conspiratorial media blackout, a coordinated removal of information fromWikipedia, and other claims the unaware commonly make. 

Philips forgets one important fact -- unless you're chugging from the bottle, you're not exposed to much glyphosate. 

Just like Seneff, Smith, Huber and all of the other doomsdayers somehow forget to realize, there is somewhere between zero and next to zero residue in food.  If there's nothing there, then it can't affect you.

Of course, most of these folks are likely subscribers to homeopathy, a belief that the more dilute something becomes, the more powerful it gets, so I see why their knickers are twisted. 

What does the literature say?  There are a number of reports that describe glyphosate residues on crops.  Arregui et al. (2003) show that soybeans treated multiple times a year have between 0.1 to 1.8 mg/kg glyphosate on fresh soybeans. Duke et al., (2003) detect from 0.10 to 3 mg/kg on fresh soybeans, and the higher number is a clear outlier in the dataset. 

At these levels a likely acute lethal dose of soybeans would be more than 100,000 kg of soybeans, or 1000 x my body weight in raw soy.

Gag me with a spoon.

But what about those poor bacteria?  The math just does not work. Shehata et al. (2013) look at the effect on beneficial and pathogenic bacteria from chickens.  The results show that some bacteria are inhibited, but the thresholds for inhibition are 0.150 mg/ml.  That's about what you'd take in if you ate between 100g and 1 kg fresh soy, and concentrated it into a test tube. Imagine that diluted in the body and spread out among the entire intestine... 

At the high end of 1.8 mg/kg, if you ate a 100 g of soybeans (raw, as an processing will dilute out glyphosate even more) you'd take in 0.18 mg. Work has been done to understand the pharmacokinetics of glyphosate metabolism and excretion, and yes, it does accumulate most in the small intestine (Williams et al., 2003).  However, this is about 60% of the dose (the rest goes in urine), and that leaves the body via the feces within 72 hours. 

But are those tiny amounts likely to cause catastrophic changes in bacterial flora?  Not so much.  Of course, Natural Society authors claim, "it could demolish gut health."

To conclude, the authors of these "gut health" papers make a big leap.  Farmers use glyphosate on fields, fields contain food, food goes to the consumer, therefore consumers are eating glyphosate!  They simply lack the sophistication to understand how little is used, how little remains in crops, how little is detected in food, and how much is actually in the intestine.

Oops.

I'll give them credit for one thing-- it is at least a plausible hypothesis.  Now they actually have to find some data to support their claims.  If this was true, you'd be able to find plenty of glyphosate in a dookie, and I can't say that I've seen that evidence. 












Sunday, May 31, 2015

Scaring People with False Information

The trend continues.  Organizations committed to ending the use of genetically modified seeds and their associated products continue to fabricate misinformation solely with the intent of misleading consumers.  

Today's example is an inflammatory meme posted by the Cornucopia Institute.  It makes five statements, none that are true, and solely broadcast with an intent to spread fear and misinformation. 



"5 Disgusting Facts" are really five disgusting lies.  Blatant misrepresentation of information purely designed to spread fear and misinformation. Why do people believe such nonsense?

The beauty of this kind of communication is that it does show the clear intentions of the author, in this case the Cornucopia Institute. It shows they are not committed to the truth, but instead are a depot for rhetoric designed to mislead consumers, and frighten them to affect their attitudes toward biotechnology and farming. 

It is amazing to me that people can be so easily fooled. 



Saturday, May 30, 2015

Stats Manipulated to Scare

Grandpappy Folta once said, "When someone gives you an opportunity to see what they are about, pay attention." 

He was right. The true measurement of character and someone's real agenda oftentimes are presented at shimmering moments that reveal quite a bit. 

Such is the case of the Huffington Post article by Michael Hansen.  For those that don't know Dr. Hansen, he's a guy with a science background that works for the Consumer's Union, and never has much nice to say about biotech.  I actually got to meet him a few years ago at the Hofstra Pride and Purpose debate, and we had a nice dinner together. I felt bad for him in that he seems to have a stick-to script and a deep self deception that makes him immune to actual scientific discussion of data. Watch the debate. You'll see it oozing everywhere.  He sounds more a politician than a scientist, as you can see by his manipulation of pseudo facts and dodging questions.

Here's the part that anyone on the fence with the GMO issue must read.  When they have to fool you with statistics by misrepresenting them, should you believe anything they say? 

The same kind of bendy word choice and hysterical reasoning is reflected in this passage from his May 29, 2015 article in Huffington Post. 



I've seen this statistic circulating a lot lately, especially the "17-fold increase between 1996 and 2012".   Yes, that certainly is an awfully huge increase!   Scary eh? 

What he forgets to tell you is that prior to 1996 glyphosate use was confined to some farm, residential and municipal use. There were no glyphosate tolerant crops in 1995, so the amount of stuff used on glyphosate-tolerant crops would probably be pretty low, like none.  

Once these crops were introduced and proved helpful for farmers, the technology was rapidly adopted. You might expect a rather dramatic increase.  Of course, he neglects to note how that horrible 17-fold increase led to a concomitant decrease in the use of other herbicides, less fuel use, less labor, less tilling, less soil loss, and more profits for farmers. 

Of course not.  That's inconsistent with his agenda. 

It is sort of like saying that there has been a 17-fold increase in flat screen TV cleaner from 2000 to 2015.  


Here's a little version you can cut and paste in a bathroom stall at your local Chipotle. 



But what should we learn from this?  

In a time where the anti-GMO movement realizes that the science is tight, and that plants are safe for humans and the environment, the new target is the herbicide used in their cultivation. 

Hansen simply augments this fear, playing along with the newest salvo in the flat-earth science that now wants you to think that there is a deadly herbicide in everything you eat, in every glass of water, or every bottle of breastmilk. 

If they have to bend statistics to frighten, why do people believe it? 

Because it reinforces their beliefs. 

Don't fall for it.  Point out the simple reality that what appears to be a dramatic increase is actually a step forward, and that every big change is not so big, if the denominator is close to zero.