I've always been interested in science and communication, and as time went along always wondered how to meld the two in an interesting and entertaining way. In fact, in my senior year in college I finished third in the nation in a forensics event-- something called After Dinner Speaking. Here you would convey a serious topic using humor as a vehicle. I was pretty good at that.
During grad school I was paid to write for stand-up comedians and even wrote greeting cards. I self-published funny books on pranks and pseudoscience, and wrote a lot of clever work for "fanzines", the pre-internet alternative media. My stuff flew off the racks at a local place called Quimby's Queer Book Store. Yes, there once were stores that sold books. As I moved through academic ranks from grad student to professor, my students' reviews always recognized how my use of humor was appropriate and helpful, and creative analogy and colorful tangents reinforced key scientific points.
But I didn't want to be the "talent". Yuck. I like my office, my lab bench, and the occasional research talk. To interview people seemed a little uncomfortable, maybe even arrogant. I didn't want that spotlight, but wanted to participate in a wider discussion on science.
So I created a character, modeled after the 1990's Art Bell show. When I was a grad student and postdoc I'd work every night well into the late AM, and recall the shows about UFOs, bigfoot, psychics... it was garbage, yet interesting.
Here I created the Vern Blazek Science Power Hour.
Obviously, from the cover art you can tell this is serious.
The character, radio host Vern Blazek, was modeled after Art Bell, and the thought was simple for the podcast-- instead of a real host entertaining clearly bogus science, what if a clearly bogus host spoke of legitimate science?
Art Bell's show was from the "high desert outside of Parhump, Nevada, Near Area 51." Vern Blazek was born, from the "high desert outside of Tillamook, Oregon, near Area 52."
The Science Power Hour is about 30 minutes long, and there is no desert near Tillamook, probably one of the most waterlogged locales on the planet.
And most of all, it was done from my home, on my time, and paid for with my dollars. It was what I did on Sunday once a month rather than cutting the grass.
But one journalist didn't get the joke, in fact, she saw Vern not as a character spawned to explore a new medium to share science and have a laugh-- she saw it as a devious plan. You can read about it over on Buzzfeed. I'm not linking it.
I actually asked her to be a guest on the Science Power Hour. She had a book on bedbugs and that seemed right up the alley of a kooky and clearly fictitious host, and probably a fun topic to bat around. I should say, that I always enjoyed her work very much, and followed her for a long time before meeting in person.
But instead of rolling with the joke, she was weirded out, confused, perhaps even outraged. Heck, it spawned the Buzzfeed piece. When she suggested the work was questionable I honestly evaluated it through her lens. I agreed that it could be considered problematic, and I took down the whole thing. Done.
In the ensuing months we spoke often. I was glad to talk to her and try to help her understand why we do experiments, in science and in communication. Why did I push the envelope with communications? Why did I try something weird, or different? It didn't make sense to her. I told her that I understood her concerns and made the correction. No problem. But she wanted to do the piece, not just correcting the problem, but now doling out the penalty phase of public shaming. So when it became evident that she was going to publish the story I put some of the episodes up, plus some others I had ready to go. That's what's there today, of course with some obvious transparency.
Long story short, it still ends up a substantial piece on Buzzfeed, intertwined with the tired story of my emails and a donation from Monsanto to an outreach program that was never used.
Now I've been branded as a "Monsanto Apologist", even though I've always stood up for science, and don't care one way or the other about Monsanto. More code for clickbait hit piece on a public scientist. (They did change the title later. Wow, maybe it is okay to change one's mind later about the appropriateness of what we do, maybe not unlike the re-adjustment of the VB podcast... Hmmm. Irony everywhere.)
Sadly, when we interviewed together for her piece I was able to clearly answer every one of her allegations, but it didn't matter. Even in the article she makes the claim that my interactions with Monsanto began in April of 2013, which I explained over and over to her was not true. She cites an email from a guy at Monsanto. She's right, he works there. Real discussions of communication and funding outreach didn't happen for a year and three months later. Still, it was important to establish the longest timeline possible. It was not a case of a decent scientist, who has made a career doing edgy science and outreach, pushing the edge-- to her, it was a scandal, a nitwit scientist that doesn't get it.
That's exactly what comes out in the Buzzfeed piece.
As for the author, I hope that she finds a sense of humor and an appreciation that we're not all schooled journalists that play from a narrow playbook. I can't help but think some of this is personal, something I said or something she doesn't like about me. I never got a good vibe from her, which is why I invited her to the podcast. I'm uncomfortable with not connecting to others, especially those in science journalism.
Some of us are obsessed with sharing ideas, teaching, and inspiring. And if a golden-throated parody of a UFO radio show shares a story or captivates a few minds... that's a good thing.
It will be very interesting to see how this story plays out. I think the story in Buzzfeed will long be viewed as a personal takedown, an attempt to harm a scientist that does not share views on modern ag or some other issue. Who knows? I don't understand why this was necessary.
And someone on Twitter saw this flap and hit the nail on the head about innovative science communication. She said, "Everyone keeps saying that we aren't reaching beyond the choir. Somebody tries, and it's nothing but pearl clutching."
Science will tell its story, and will do it with many means, including innovative, perhaps weird, use of many types of media. That's how we'll reach more hearts and minds that didn't find the original dry science particularly compelling.
7/12/2019 EDIT -- This was a good idea and was executed well. Unfortunately the other organizers took umbrage to my repeated demands to complete the work and dismissed me from the project. I did initiate drafts of the manuscript back in 2016. It is part of a much bigger falling out. These folks also decided to use FOIA to obtain internal university documents about confidential professional witness work I was doing for a law firm on my vacation time. They broke my confidentiality, revealing information that was not supposed to be public. It jeopardized my involvement in a private dispute between two parties, as well as the progression of the arbitration. They have certainly taken every opportunity to impugn my integrity and harm my career, in this and other ways. Please understand that if I had any pull in this situation I would do everything I could to complete the work as promised. It pains me to not deliver, but I have been dismissed from this project and have zero influence in its progression. ORIGINAL POST: We want YOU to help us answer the question!
The internet is filled with claims that wild animals will not consume genetically engineered crops. Even alleged experts like Dr. Don M. Huber claim with absolute certainty that animals "will not eat it at all" . These kinds of claims are reinforced by rather dubious one-off demonstrations on the internet. Like this one:
Demonstrations like this one are common on the internet, and suggest we need to do the real experiment.
Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel and I have been planning the actual test for years. We have finally obtained 2000 lbs of corn and it will be distributed as kits at $25 each. The fee covers the shipping costs, kit components, and cost to hire people to do the assembly.
Hypothesis: When given a choice, wild animals will not consume genetically engineered corn. You can hear the whole story on the Talking Biotech Podcast. We'll test this hypothesis with the help of 250 volunteers who will perform the test using our blinded, coded corn. The GM corn plants were glyphosate treated and have many "stacked" traits. Get your kit today, and any extra funding obtained will go to fund extra kits that will be distributed to schools for free.
100% of funds obtained will be used in this experiment.
All data will be available to the public
We'll publish the results in a peer-reviewed journal
Here's your chance to take part in a science experiment that will provide the independent replicates that will provide a definitive answer on this question.
In a textbook case of cherry picking, one sentence keeps emerging in the activist trial-by-internet concerning the Monsanto donation to my science communication program. The backstory is that my university received a donation from the company toward my outreach program, which covered the costs for me to travel and teach scientists how to talk about science. That was very nice of them, wonderful. Having funds to rent a facility, travel to the location, buy coffee/doughnuts or subs for the workshop is a real help. Previously this was all funded personally buy taking monies offered to me as speaker fees and deferring them to the Talking Biotech program. I remain extremely grateful for their support, even after those funds have been allocated elsewhere by the university. I was so grateful, that I noted this in an email to the Monsanto Company. That became a huge deal when 4600 pages of emails were seized by activists back in June. Out of the tens of thousands of sentences they focused on this single one, finally irrefutable proof of high collusion between a professor speaking facts and a company that makes products.
Select graphics from Natural News, GMO News and Food Babe.com tout my kind appreciation as dangerous collusion.
I was raised in a home that emphasized gratitude and appreciation for the gestures of others. I was raised in a home that taught me to take opportunities and maximize them, to work hard, to over-deliver.
So when I promise the donor "a solid return on investment" that's not a evidence of a conspiracy. That's evidence of a good upbringing.
The company recognized my program of science education as an effective and powerful way to help train scientists how to interact better with a concerned public, and their funds enabled me to do it once a month for a year. Ironically, I fell far short of expectations, and then lost the funds after activist uproar.
It is amazing that folks like Mike Adams and Vani Hari, along with the rest of the GMO-Truthers, see gratitude and appreciation as a negative thing. It tells us a lot about them and their characters.
When anyone trusts me with financial support for my research or my outreach, I will do my best to maximize the return on the investment. That is a promise. That is a quality instilled deep in my by loving parents and grandparents, that emphasized the value of hard word and always going above and beyond for others.
This week we’re joined by Richard Levine, communications director for the Entomological Society of America. We discuss bees, butterflies, insecticides and some of the current issues in crop protection from an entomological perspective. We then turn to the idea of promoting artwork using a science podcast, and the important effort to get Dr. Barbara McClintock on the ten dollar bill, replacing some guy. We discuss the barriers to her participation in science, and describe why she would be such a fitting presence on our currency– not just because she was a woman, not just because she was a scientist, but because she broken down barriers.