Friday, April 20, 2018

Denouncing Public Education

When scientists Monday-morning quarterback the lack of public acceptance of any technology, the usual conclusion is that we fumbled the communication. From refrigerators to in vitro fertilization, from antibiotics to biotech, rocky beginnings can be blamed on the fact that nobody bothered to simply talk to concerned people. 

Over the years scientists and science communicators, sociologists and psychologists have kibbutzed about this problem, and clearly we have determined that the right kind of information did not flow through the right channels in the right way.  Communications efforts were confined to big companies talking to farmers, and nobody talking to the public. 

One possible strategy would be to have science students engage in proper, evidence-based discussion.  It would provide solid, publication-backed science-- and do it in social media and newspaper comments sections, the places where these conversations were taking place.

We've discussed this is a dozen different contexts over the years, but there is no way to do it easily (the topics covered are so vast) and who is going to pay for it?  Educators should be compensated for their time. Of course, all funding would be transparent during participation. 

One example of such a spitball session re-emerged online on April 20, 2018.  Gary Ruskin from US Right to Know posted one of my personal communications from 2014 (yes, four years ago) that came from the tens of thousands of emails freely provided to him at significant taxpayer expense. Here's Gary's post and the dud of a smoking gun. 


From his tweet Gary either didn't read the document or is just making up inflammatory information for a cheap political gain.  Read and decide. (full text below)

Gary calls it an initiative to promote GMOs via social media.  If you actually read the document you can see that it is not to "promote GMOs" (a favorite allegation), but rather, it is to help reach out to the public with informed scientific discussion through the conduit they use most-- social media. 

Social media space is dominated with horrible information that does not match the tremendous body of science.  Ruskin, Carey Gilliam, Paul Thacker and the rest of the US-RTK payroll are threatened when real scientific information is disseminated, especially by actual scientists. 

This is why they denounce public education.  An educated public is US-RTK's worst nightmare. 

There are several fun parts about this "initiative"
1.  It was clearly described as not "a promotion or sales pitch" for a specific product.
2.  It emphasized evidence-based information exchange.
3.  It would teach students how to be good teachers.
4.  It never even happened. 

Once again this instance shows:
1.  Activists will cherry pick documents from public officials' documents and distort their meaning.
2.  Taxpayers are financing a war against taxpayer-funded scientists.
3.   Public scientists are attempting to create novel and creative ways to reach the public, and educate students in the process.
4.  It is not about a right to know.  It is about funded front groups like US-RTK controlling information flow to only communicate misleading information, not science-based food/farming information of consumer interest. 

The best part of this tweet is the pathetic number of retweets and likes. It really shows the influence of US-RTK.  Nobody cares.

But maybe it is not too late.  Maybe Gary, Carey and the other one (who's name I can never remember) can start working with scientists and changing expectations of food and farming in a positive way.

Don't hold your breath. The organizations that fund them hate scientists, as our information harms their bottom line.  Time has not been kind to US-RTK or their contributors, and going forward they will continue to realize that fighting science and reason is no way to change hearts and minds. 



Here is the whole email as presented in the tweet.  Click to embiggen.




Saturday, April 14, 2018

Rice Domestication and Breeding Podcast

This week's podcast is on rice domestication. Rice represents a huge amount of calories consumed on the planet, and it has an amazing history. This is worth a listen, with Dr. Susan McCouch from Cornell University. 


Monday, April 9, 2018

How Will Time Judge You?

This week I was stunned by an article in Mother Jones.  Author and Senior Editor Kiera Butler wrote an article about the IARC decision against glyphosate, and how the panel knowingly omitted data from a massive study that did not support the panel's predetermined conclusion that links the herbicide to cancer. 

Scientists and regulatory agencies have long recognized that glyphosate is benign relative to other week killers, and extremely safe at levels used. Activists claim that it is a deadly poison and its immense toxicity is covered up by a deep cabal between companies, regulators and every scientist and farmer in the world. 


Keeping readership trust in the long term requires discussion of of evidence when it is blatant or insurmountable.  The comments section is priceless, including claims that Monsanto paid for this article.


Mother Jones has a history of supporting less-than-scientific positions, including work that they have written about me personally.  

The problem is that when you espouse positions based on feelings over fact, time has a way of calling you out on it.  Mother Jones, like most left-leaning publications, made the mistake of posting many articles inappropriately critical of good seed technology.  These articles don't hold up well through the lens of time, and they remain permanently archived on the internet. 

In other words, your assault on science and reason can come back to haunt you, you lose credibility, and people tune out.

I started to think about this a lot when I met Gary Ruskin in person recently.  I was kind and soft to the man that posts harmful, defamatory bullshit about me on his website and costs my university millions of dollars. 

He said that he had to hustle home to California to spend time with his relatively new child. That's good. 

But as that child grows, how will they see their father?  Will he be a crusader for truth as he claims to be, or will time unveil his scheme as an agent of corporations sworn to harm public scientists and advance a science-free agenda? 

History will show-- these people are reprehensible opponents of reason and evidence, that slowed acceptance of good technology, hurting innocent people maliciously along the way. 

What will you look like through the lens of time?

Mother Jones wants to keep it real, for their own survival. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Off Target CRISPR Report Retracted

The world is poised to hate gene editing technologies, much like they hated refrigerators, cars, open heart surgery and in vitro fertilization.  There has not be a revolutionary technology yet that consumers haven't rejected first, and asked questions later.  Except stuff Apple sells. 

So when a paper came out last year claiming massive off-target effects of CRISPR-based gene editing, the critics went ballistic. 



The scientific brain trust at Mercola.com jumped on the news story, as to the biotechophobe the genetic sky was falling. 


But to the rest of us we looked carefully at the paper and had a lot of questions.  Mostly, it appeared that what the researchers were calling "off target changes" were not changes from gene editing at all, but instead were just natural sequence variations found between mice.  Bee. Eff. Dee. 

One year later, the paper has been retracted.  But the damage has been done.  This revolutionary technology now gets a sideways look when mentioned.  This one paper, and subsequent media explosion, truly harmed public perception. 

The detractors also fail to point out that the therapy rendered allowed blind mice to see, so they may argue that even with a bit of collateral DNA damage the ability to see cheese and mousetraps was a fair tradeoff. 

The point is simple.  This toothpaste is out of the tube and nobody needed to brush their teeth in the first place.  The reputation of this stellar technology has been effectively sullied by activists, the media, and even scientists that failed to look critically at the work before caving into group hysteria. 

The answer?  Be skeptical.  When you hear claims about the dangers of new technology, be aware that there are plenty of people out there that would love to see it fail. 





Sunday, March 25, 2018

Science Denial, Glyphosate, and Democrats

The discussions around agricultural technologies, especially herbicides, are nuanced and complex.  So if someone gets the basic information completely wrong, why would you trust them? 

Such is the case of a Minority Staff Report prepared for congressional members of the Committee for Science, Space and Technology.  That's right, these are the same folks that extol the realities of anthropogenic climate change, now "preparing" a document that has activist fingerprints all over it. 

It is a lot of the same-old same-old conspiracy nonsense-- that herbicide science is a corporate scam where regulators are paid dupes and all of the scientists in the world are corporate liars.  The scientists that make D.O.A. claims that are not supported by ggood science are not described as inept or soft, instead they are heroes, slienced by a well-organized corporate machine. 

The whole thing is embarassing, and a reason why I'll never write a check to the Democratic Party again (I've written off the Republicans long ago). 

You don't need to go further than the cover to see the blatant misinformation.  It shows some dude in a respirator and rubber overalls spraying something on strawberries.  The report photoshops in a bottle of Roundup, the commercial formulation of glyphosate. 

What is wrong with this picture? 

Glyphosate kills strawberries. Dead.*  

The picture does not show someone using glyphosate. It is a lie for shock value, smack dab on the cover. 




The staff of Congressional Democrats presented a document to the Science, Space and Technology Committee that reads like it was written by attorneys and activists. The cover image shows the deception and ignorance.  

Ironically the whole document is activist spin, and the only scientists silenced are the ones they never bothered to interview-- actual scientists that know stuff. 

The whole thing is embarassing, and shows how anti-farming activists attempt to influence policy with fabrications and distortions-- the exact tactics they claim of others.  It also shows that science denial runs on both sides of the aisle. 


* Years ago we lost an important population of strawberry plants when someone used a sprayer to water them, containing a residual amount of glyphosate. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Texas Postdoctoral Mentoring Conference


This week I had the honor of speaking at the Annual Postdoctoral Career Symposium at the Texas Medical Center.  I'm not sure if that's what it is actually called, but this place in Houston features medical schools associated with Baylor College of Medicine, Texas A&M Medical, Rice University, University of Texas Medical School, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston Methodist Research Hospital, and University of Houston.   Such concentrations of research also are anointed with a concentration of postdoctoral researchers. 

Postdocs can easily become a lost class in any university.  They don't get the attention  of undergraduate and graduate students and don't enjoy the same access as faculty. Pay is typically awful, and postdocs are running out of time to start families before they transition into a career or old age-- whatever happens first!

My mission was an extension of what I do at the University of Florida, give some love and guidance to this under-represented and under-appreciated class of professional scientists.  

We spoke about the importance of branding, and how some simple outreach can be the difference between a successful application and one that is looked over.  We discussed the need to exceed expectations, the need to write, and the need to develop a brand.  All of this can leverage the tools of social media networks to build the brand. 




Transitioning from postdoc time to an academic career can be challenging, but some simple steps can improve your chances. 

In a later talk I discussed the philosophy of the academic interview.  Too many times it is a postdoc out of time and money, desperate for a position.  That is a ticket to failure.  

Instead we talked about how to position yourself as an exception scientist with a beautiful story.  I emphasized the need to come off as an interested collaborator, a good friend, someone excited to fit into a department's mission, and someone that just would be a trusted colleague.  After all, we're stuck with you until we retire, so we have to have someone on board we like!

Carolyn Dietz and Angie Vidal were the Co-Chairs of an outstanding organizing committee.  The arrangements, food, travel and schedule were impeccably prepared, and the whole conference was amazingly tight and well organized.  Kudos to them for such a great effort in addition to their normally busy research lives. Their efforts are the kind of leadership that all postdocs should seek to propel themselves into their next careers. 




Sunday, January 28, 2018

Stonyfield Actively Censors Scientific Information- Your Right to Know?

The videos released by Stonyfield Organic are patently offensive.  They use children to produce false statements about well-understood scientific topics, which misleads the consumer, but also has potential to harm children.  

This has drawn the ire of an increasingly large scientifically adept food and farming community, and many have taken to the Stonyfield Facebook page to voice their discontent. 

Ten years ago you would have seen Rob Wager, Prakash, Anastasia, Karl, @mem_somerville and a few others weighing in.  The scientific comments would be buried in a sea of shill accusations from a series of facade accounts (and Ena Valikov).

It makes my heart happy to see scientific traction catching on. The comments come from hundreds of people -- farmers, moms, students -- all presenting reasoned rebuttals to Stonyfield's bad science campaign. 


And it is changing minds. How do we know?

Because the soft, accurate and kind comments are being systematically scrubbed from the website.  Here's just a taste of the venom that Stonyfield flagged as inappropriate:


A pox on your home Michelle Jones, you monster!  Banned! 


And my comment was pretty outrageous. 

Wow, that crosses a line. I can understand why I was banished.


Why would Stonyfield ban people from its website and censor scientific information?  Because science literacy is affecting their bottom line.  If you can't scare people into your products, you have to remove the scientific information that is influencing buying decisions. 

Furthermore you must discredit anyone speaking about science, which is why they claim the the scientifically precise comments all come from bots, trolls and fake accounts.  

Join the Party

I think it is critical to keep illustrating Stonyfield's disregard for a legitimate scientific conversation and ethical marketing practices.  Go to their Facebook page and leave a comment, an honest, kind and genuine one, if (and only if) you feel their campaigns are unethical. Don't do it to harass them. Do it to share science. 

Take a screenshot, watch your post disappear, and then join the group Banned by Stonyfield over on Facebook. Share your screenshot there. 

Stonyfield is Losing Trust

Consumers make food decisions based on trust, and Stonyfield has exploited that for a long time.  They have appealing edges about supporting local co-ops, etc, and that would be a great platform for marketing.  But their main thrust is vilifying their conventional competition.  When their social media erupts with scientific comments in a kind vein, it makes their loyal customer base wonder if they are doing the right thing by paying more for equivalent products and/or supporting a company that lies to consumers. 

That's why the comments are expunged.  Accurate information is making a difference, and scientific information is changing buying patterns. That's something to celebrate.