Monday, February 4, 2019

What Am I Missing?

I humbly ask this question.  What am I missing? 

Tonight I read the press release for the AAAS about the 2019 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award, going to two Sri Lankan physicians / researchers that apparently confirmed a deadly causal connection between a kidney disease (Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Origin; CKDu) and the herbicide glyphosate. Congrats, congrats!

Wow, I must have missed this.  Certainly a concrete link would be big news, and if AAAS is awarding someone for this research it must have been a prominent publication.  But I scan the literature almost daily and never saw this. 

The names of the awardees seemed strangely familiar.  Then it hit me... this was the 2014 paper where they looked at hard water consumption in Sri Lanka and then suggested a tie between CKDu, heavy metals and glyphosate. The paper presented a hypothesis.  There were no data.  There were no experiments.  It was a decent hypothesis that could be tested. 

At the time the anti-ag-chemistry world lit up in celebration. Finally they had the smoking gun.  I remember this vividly-- only there was no smoke, there was no gun.  It was a hypothesis to test. These folks don't actually read the papers. 

This paper, presenting a hypothesis only, was sufficient to spark a ban of glyphosate in 2015, a move that drew criticism because the ban occurred in the absence of data. Later, reputable scientists would add that the ban threatened food security as farmers were stripped of a helpful agricultural tool, based on a hunch.

The Sri Lankan National Academy of Science made clear statements on the associations, stating that the "research is not conclusive" and "We are not aware of any scientific evidence form studies in Sri Lanka or abroad showing that CKDu is caused by glyphosate." 

The same organization also notes no association between CKDu and cancer, which we'd expect if the herbicide was causing both diseases as some claim. 



Lethal herbicides?  I'm not aware of evidence that supports this conclusion. What's up AAAS?


The researchers are obviously passionate about identifying the source of the problem in this region.  An examination of their later work shows a dedicated inquiry into heavy metals and pesticides that occur in drinking water in agricultural areas, and their association with CKDu.  They also look at the flip side and how access to clean water improves health outcomes. That alone is deserving of some recognition. I also think they would agree with me that the AAAS website was not accurately representing their conclusions.  

Many researchers, including these authors, have examined the connections to heavy metals, particularly arsenic and cadmium (including this work that shows cadmium dose-response), which are present in high levels in CKDu endemic areas, and arise from application of fertilizers and pesticides.   

Their follow up paper added a correlation to the hypothesis by actually examining heavy metals and glyphosate in the urine of a relatively small number of subjects (10 ill, 10 asymptomatic, 10 from another area).  Their conclusion was, "Although we could not localize a single nephrotoxin as the culprit for SAN (Sri Lankan Agricultural Nephropathy), multiple heavy metals and glyphosate may play a role in pathogenesis." 

A case-control study (self-reported health factors) by the same authors in a CKDu-endemic hospital also found statistical associations with application of several different herbicides and insecticides.  There also was association with exposure to a variety of heavy metals in drinking water, especially from abandoned wells.  The authors note that the majority of those answering questions were farmers who don't use personal protective equipment when spraying pesticides. I'm not surprised that they'd have higher levels in their urine. Again, the authors were correct in noting the limitations of the study.

Across all work, these authors rely on statistical associations between agricultural inputs, heavy metals, and CKDu, and a hypothetical "Compound X" that could bind heavy metals and transport them to the kidneys.  They suggested that glyphosate would fit the bill and build survey data that support that association. Cool. Again, a great hypothesis to test, but we have to be careful with interpretations.


The caption says "deadly herbicide called glyphosate" -- again, what am I missing here?


This where AAAS oversteps the data, referring to the herbicide as lethal and deadly.  C'mon AAAS.  If this was Natural News, Green Med Info, The Food Babe, or any other kooky khemistree website then I might understand.  They've been searching to vilify ag chemistries for decades. 

But this is AAAS.  I'm a member.  I'm always in awe at the awardees for their much deserved recognition. 

These authors see a problem in these agricultural regions and are searching for a cause.  Certainly publishing such a hypothesis could bring lots of criticism to the researchers, as well as derision from farmers that rely on agricultural chemistry.  However, I'm not sure how this situation jumps from a statistical association to hard conclusions that rewrite agricultural policy and toxicology-- especially when so many heavy metals levels are also high and associate with the disease (in the same authors' findings).

How does the Sri Lanka situation fit into the wider picture? We  have to remember that Sri Lanka is not the only place that uses glyphosate and there is no reputable mention of CKDu in other populations studied.  There also is the incongruence between this report and other reports on the herbicide's potential as a physiologically relevant heavy metal shuttle at levels found in drinking water. Other analyses of CKDu do not support their hypothesis. 

CKDu sufferers are not reported to also be stricken with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, which a jury of my peers says should be the case. 

Despite all of the questions and shortcomings, we really need to object to the AAAS conclusions of "lethal" and "deadly".  

Or they must have some information I don't have.  

Or does the emperor wear no clothes?  

The bottom line is that the associations are not clear, the experiments to demonstrate strong links are difficult to do, and the multi-factorial nature and genetic/environmental overlays will make such conclusions difficult to discern.  That has been the conclusion of others as well

This will be a very interesting discussion.  I'm glad to stand corrected here.  But I'm afraid that our most esteemed scientific organization just elevated a testable hypothesis to "fact" and I'll spend a lot of time over the next year explaining that the data are just not there (at least at this point) to support that conclusion. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Power of a Conversation

I grew up in Chicago in the 1970's, and even in a massive city we had our choice of just a few major media stations.   WGN was a staple on television and radio.  

I used to get up long before the sun and there was nothing on television except for the Farm Report.  Orion Samuelson and Max Armstrong were familiar figures on radio and TV.  I'd listen to or watch them daily, even though I had no connection to farming.  I was a kid, and it was something live and local. 

Years later I run into Max at national conferences and I always appreciate his stories.  Today at the Independent Professional Seed Association in Indian Wells, CA, he told a great story I have to share.


Max Armstrong shares an amazing story about the power of personal connections in telling the story of agriculture. 


He was uber-ing from the airport to the hotel.  He and the driver carried on a conversation, and the driver mentioned that he had already driven someone to the same hotel earlier in the day.  He told Max that there was a farming conference happening at the hotel. 

"You don't say," Max said, pretending not to know anything about it.  

The driver then went on to talk about farming technology, the importance of farming to the economy, and the challenges faced by farmers to continue providing the safest food supply in human history. 

The punchline?  Someone else at the conference took the time to share the story of agriculture's relevance with an Uber driver.  That story made an impression and then was shared further.  

Max's story shows the power of sharing the stories of agriculture, and informing others about the benefits and challenges.  While ag producers and industry professionals perhaps don't think that their stories are compelling because they see it every day, the public-- from the foodie to the Uber driver-- want to know more, and are willing to propagate our stories.

Share your stories.  Share the excitement of new technology, and how genetics, computers and hard work ensure sustainable access to safe and affordable food, thanks to farmers. 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Mangling Reality and Targeting Scientists

Welcome to 2019, and one thing that remains constant is that scientists engaging the public will continue to be targeted for harassment and attempted reputation harm.  

The good news is that it is not working as well as it used to.  People are disgusted by their tactics, and only a handful of true-believers acknowledge their sites as credible. 

But for those on the fence I thought it might be nice to post how a website like SourceWatch uses a Wikipedia-mimic interface to spread false and/or misleading information about public scientists. 

Don't get me wrong, this is not crying victim.  I'm actually is screaming empowerment.  I spent the time to correct the record, something anyone can check.  Please look into their allegations and mine, and see who has it right. 

This is published by the Center for Media and Democracy.  Sadly, such pages actually threaten democracy by providing a forum for false information that makes evidence-based decisions in policy issues more challenging.  It also is a gross distortion of freedom of speech, using words maliciously with intent to harm. 

Click on the panels below to enlarge them and read my comments. 







This clearly shows how some information is just made up and other information is bent wildly out of reality to fit a sick agenda.  

At first blush I find it bothersome to have this kind of stuff on the web where anyone can find it and develop opinions about me and my work.  But the good news is that I'm just going to have to dial it up, do more good work, and bury this kind of trash under a pile of good science and public outreach. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Dances with Trolls

Social media can be quite a pox, but for the most part it is a great way to share good information, have a laugh, or connect with others.  The problem is that it also can be used by folks with unsavory interests as a tool for personal tear down. 

The unfortunately hostile nature of social media is what turns many away from participation in important conversations. This is especially true about conversations about vaccines, climate or genetic engineering. 

So how to fight back? 

I used to ignore, block or delete hostile trolls.  About two years ago I realized that I could take screenshots of their hate and actually use it to curry favor with those I sought to influence. In other words, by exposing their filth, I earned trust. 

It comes from a position of power. It shows that you are not going to succumb to being a victim, especially from anonymous troublemakers and slander bots.  It also suggests that the reason you are targeted is because you have something important to communicate. 

Example

Yesterday posts started showing up on Twitter.  I wrote a note to CNN and the anchor Ana Cabrerra. The featured The Food Babe Vani Hari as an expert in food safety, when she is untrained in the discipline and has a self-serving non-scientific agenda. 

The tweets specifically cited the highly-visible articles from Brooke Borel (Buzzfeed) and Eric Lipton (New York Times).  Both of these were articles written specifically to target me, harm my reputation, and potentially stir physical harm by igniting the anti-science zealots that swarm to a journalistic road kill. 




Citing articles that purposely targeted me in an effort to erode the trust I garner as an independent, academic public scientist.  These folks want me out of research, out of the classroom and out of your kids' schools. That's the price of being an agent of change.


No Block/Ignore-- Retweet! 

While the convention is to block or ignore, the power move is retweet, along with a positive message. 


Beat trolls with their own words. Retweet hateful messages with positive messaging.  Show who they are. It worked. They deleted their tweet (or blocked me from seeing it) right after I shared it.


This is why you need to save images of all hostile social media interactions.  Because @KarmaSJustice didn't want to stand by his/her words, I took the liberty of re-posting them. 

And of course, tag them in the response!

This is the contemporary method of how you deal with trolls.  Expose who they are. Use their words. Show their hate.  

Most of all, show that their hate does not hurt your interest in teaching and communicating science. 

Remember, most people are unsure of who to trust.  Keep a high road and point out the low road. This is how you gain influence and build more trust with those that need to hear a scientific message. 




Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Another Dose of Chemophobia -- This Time Orange Juice!

Is your orange juice full of weed killer? No. Who is making that claim, and should you be concerned?
Five years ago we all were treated to data claiming that corn was not corn. More precisely, genetically engineered corn was actually a concoction of chemistry that it could not be remotely biological. According to the source, it was lacking carbon, but was packed full of glyphosate and formaldehyde (which are carbon based). It also had a substantially lower “cation exchange capacity” than its non-GMO equivalent, which is odd, because that’s a soil test, and not one done on corn. But it sure had it. Whatever it was.
The data seemed weird because they were. They were fake. Manufactured. Pure bullshit.


From the people that make up data or don’t publish in real journals, more chemophobia.

The table was a soil test template festooned with made-up values by Moms Across America, a twisted group of food fearmongers that used the falsified data to stoke alarm among consumers. I debunked it here.
The bogus data come from the quaint era of manufactured fear when formaldehyde was the key chemical culprit, and about two years before glyphosate would hang as food activists’ favorite pinata.
Glyphosate “Detected” in Everything
Since 2013 the science communication community and wacky food activists learned something important — you can fill a table with creepy numbers, ignite a great media scare, and the facts simply don’t matter.
Over the next few years we’d be treated to reports of glyphosate showing up everywhere from beer, to pretzels to organic wine, to breakfast cereal. According to these results, the stuff is everywhere, including in places it could not possibly be. The reports receive wide media visibility, tainting public perception and convincing the average consumer that their food is killing them.
It is brilliantly devious. Most of these claims have been made by Moms Across America, an organization that knows that people will pay attention to numbers in a chart, and don’t really care where they came from. Charts look quite official and sciencey.
Orange Juice?
Now the Moms Across America claims that orange juice is full of high levels of glyphosate, which is odd, because oranges are not genetically engineered to withstand it. Glyphosate is used in some citrus operations to control weeds, but it is not applied to trees. If it was, it would kill them. The glyphosate applied to row middles degrades in the soil and is not taken up well by roots.
So where did the probably not a probable carcinogen come from?
The lab that did the detection is not an independent operation. It is run by John Fagan, a guy connected with the Maharishi cult and a staunch opponent of biotechnology. He apparently runs a lab in Fairfield, IA, the buckle in the corn belt, surrounded by fields sprayed with glyphosate. If there’s a guy that would want to find it, it would be Fagan. And guess what? He reports to find it.
Shortcomings in Analysis
First, let’s start with the positives. The measurement was performed using LC-MS/MS, a technique that very well could detect glyposate and accurately quantify it. The tested for glyphosate and its breakdown product AMPA .
What’s not to like?
No negative control. The compound is detected in everything, so there’s no way to discriminate between a signal caused from glyphosate and a signal caused by some other compound that behaves in the same way during the chemical separation.
No specific extraction method for orange juiceDetecting these compounds using these techniques first means developing a “method” to extract the compound. Every starting material behaves differently and chemistries break down depending on the solvents used and timing. The data provided were obtained from treating orange juice with a protocol developed for breast milk (where legitimate expert scientists failed to detect the compound when Moms Across America claimed to find it). This is important because the detection method looks for a signal with certain chemical properties, those of glyphosate. It is possible that orange juice contains something else that could mimic that signal. There is no way to know that without a negative control.
Single replicates. While the numbers are well within the range of quantitation for LC-MS/MS, there is no way to tell if these were double blinded and randomized, or if there were multiple tests for each sample. There’s no way to know what kind of variation there is within the test or between samples.
Work not published. All of these factors explain why the work appeared on a website and not in a peer-reviewed journal. It is not reliable, rigorous work.
Claimed Levels are Low — Really Low! Even if the detection was real, which it likely isn’t, the alleged amounts are remarkably irrelevant to human physiology. The claim is parts per billion. That’s seconds in 32 years. These levels would have zero effect on human physiology.
Conclusion
Enjoy OJ. Orange juice, not the ex-NFL great. The fact that glyphosate is not used on the trees, coupled to no evidence of reliable detection, coupled to the fact that the organization that commissioned it is known for promoting false information, makes this report destined for the dumpster like the rest of them.
It is curious that they did the same report last year at this time. It didn’t get much traction.
But 2018 is a great time to generate chemophobia around glyphosate. You don’t need sound methods, you don’t need good science, you just need a chart from a cronie’s lab that can be pumped through willing media networks.
It all is part of the elaborate plan where ideology trumps science, and a scary chart is more influential than the entire scientific consensus.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Dr. Don Huber - Time to Recant

Huber's Mystery Organism

In January of 2011 Dr. Don M. Huber, formerly of Purdue University, wrote a warning letter to US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.  He wrote of a dangerous organism, new to science, that had invaded U.S. agriculture.  It destroyed crops, killed livestock, and caused tremendous harm to human health. It was directly linked to genetically engineered crops and the herbicide Roundup.

In November of 2013 I watched him speak to an audience of concerned people that audibly gasped when he showed pictures of the organism's devastating effects. People shook their heads in disgust. 

At the same meeting I offered to sequence the DNA of the new organism he had isolated, only to have him say that it was already being done by collaborators in China and that it would be published shortly.  Then he said that it had no genetic material. 

He was not counting on someone to be in the audience that could call him on his bullshit. 




Almost eight years after his warning letter and claims of a mystery organism with zero evidence, Dr. Huber is still held up as an authority because he has (had) credibility and tells the credulous exactly what they want to hear. Once again, it proves that you can fool some of the people all of the time. 


Eight Years Later

As of today there is no evidence of the mystery organism.  That's because there is no mystery organism.  

Still he is trusted by the anti-biotech movement, and travels the nation giving talks about the dangers of genetically engineered crops and associated products. 

He also wrote a nasty letter, filled with false allegations about me, to my boss. He lied there too, and I proved it with a recording. 

Why does the anti-GMO movement trust someone that lied to them, wrote warning letters to the US Ag Secretary, and never produced any evidence backing his claims?   

The websites still hold tight to Huber's claims.  He's still a darling of a scientifically bankrupt movement because he has credentials says what they want to hear. 


He Can Be a Hero

The sad part of this is that he'll be remembered as a crazy old loon that had a beef with a biotech industry and decided to fabricate a story to torpedo technology.  He was a decorated veteran, a recognized professor, and an expert in his field.  Why he'd trade that for a grudge and some plane tickets to talk to folks hostile to science and farming is beyond me. 

All he needs to do is recant.  He can say he made it all up, he was angry, and now he realizes the damage he's done.  

He'd be a hero again.  We forgive those that realize the errors of their ways. 

I truly hope that Dr. Huber recants his bogus assertions, publicly and loudly.  Even though he wrote a letter to my boss seeking public censure and punishment, I'd be the first to congratulate him. 

It has been five years since I kindly asked to help him and almost eight since he sent the letter to Vilsack.  

It is time to come clean. 


  

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

3 Must-Do Tips for an Effective Doodle Poll

Misuse of scheduling tools leads to profound inefficiencies
The first time I told a female co-worker that I needed her to respond to my Doodle Poll I was reported for harassment. Time would reveal that this hazardous homophone was simply an attempt at efficient time management.
If I had a dollar for every Doodle Poll that I receive I’d probably get about six bucks a week. The email arrives inquiring about my availability, and then I click the link and hold my breath — will it be an efficient way of synchronizing a group meeting, or will I spend the next 30 minutes gazing at calendars and clicking on boxes?

For those of us that want to do our jobs, meetings can be a chore. Don’t use scheduling tools to make it a chore to schedule a chore.

The following are my tips for constructing an efficient Doodle Poll:
  1. Provide Just a Few Options. It is a nightmare to have to stare at a jillion poll options, scrolling from day to day, cross referencing against my calendar, and clicking the appropriate box. Eventually I just click the ones where others have indicated availability rather than waste my time, which skews results. Don’t list fifty open time slots. Give me five. My formula is five, plus one for every person in the meeting over three, but no more than ten.
  2. Block Realistic Time Slots. Busy people rarely have half a day free. Pick a time that’s realistic and make it happen.
  3. Close the Poll Quickly. Nobody is waiting for your poll to close before other business is scheduled. The information I put into a Doodle Poll is immediately expiring with a half-life of hours. Many times I have scheduled an open time slot only to have it close a few days later, and then a few days later received Doodle Poll notice of the final meeting time for something I could not possibly attend. Don’t publish a poll to populate and then close it two weeks later. Close it in 24 hours, and let participants know about that in the email. Tell them to “DO IT NOW!” Follow up and get it closed fast.
Adherence to these three simple rules makes for efficient scheduling. It shows respect for participants’ time and ensures that the meeting will likely be scheduled without conflicts.