Monday, February 1, 2021

Global News, Rachel Parent, and a Deliberate Hit Piece

 I remember going back to Chicago to visit my father just before Christmas in 2015.  The previous months had been brutal, and I was finally healing after activists deliberately misinterpreted my emails and the New York Times made false accusations that I traded grants for lobbying time. The personal and professional fallout was awful, but subsiding.

It was perfect timing for those seeking my demise to pile-on, to take another shot at a career academic researcher that has dedicated his time to research in indoor agriculture lighting and the genomics of small fruit flavor. His efforts to communicate the science behind biotechnology still were not appreciated by many.  

US Right to Know, a now irrelevant fossil of the anti-science crusade against biotechnology commissioned Allison Vuchnich of Global News Canada to drop the hammer in a carefully coordinated next phase of career assassination.  After all, I survived a their claims of malfeasance, quid-pro-quo payoffs, and colluding with companies to lie to the world about science.  They needed something totally toxic-- and a story from Vuchnich about my relentless attacks on a teenage girl would be just the ticket. 

I remember opening my laptop that snowy morning in Chicago and seeing the article. My heart almost stopped. Not again.  I was sick for three months after being hammered online, destroyed in my community, problems created at my university and home, threats and harassment, and almost quitting science altogether. 

Now the cycle would be re-ignited, skillfully. 

I never wrote about this or even explained it before, mostly because I was paralyzed by fear of more fallout at the time.  Today, Feb 1, 2021, five plus years after the article first presented its dirty smear, it was revived with full intent to harm.

Someone thanked me on Twitter.  She is a chef and would be working with high school students, and was kind enough to offer me thanks for my inspiration.  That's nice. 

Paul Thacker, a dirty player and gutter hitman journalist, responded. 

Tweet from 2/1/21

The awful defamatory article was still being wielded as a way to harm my ability to teach, communicate, and build public trust, now around issues like COVID19, climate, and genetic engineering.  

What did the article actually say, and how much of it was true?  Let's look at it in chunks.

1.  Catchy-Grabby Headline

No teenager was ever the target of a lobby.  A scientist (me) was concerned with the false information being provided by a website aimed at children and young adults. 

2.  Maliciously Taking Words Out of Context

During the Proposition 101 "GMO labeling" campaign in Oregon in 2014, a commercial ran that was a complete misrepresentation of science.  It was deceptive, it lied to the audience and was an anathema to science and reason. 

A friend of mine, who worked with extension in Colorado for the Monsanto company, asked me if I would be willing to write an Op-Ed or sign a petition with hundreds of other scientists, denouncing the disgraceful video.  

I said, "I'm glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like... etc" a quote that is used out of contexts by scoundrels like Vuchnich to harm my reputation with a cherry picked sentence deliberately misinterpreted from my private email correspondence. 

Of course, Gary Ruskin, the guy that collected the emails and parsed out stories to reporters, was happy to celebrate Vuchnic's compliance with his mission. 

3. Allison, That's My Job. 

A big part of the role of scientists in the US Land Grant University system is to communicate science with the public.  I write articles, blog posts, blah blah blah. 

I never "defend GMO technology".  False. 

I teach about the strengths and limitations of technology as given by the peer-reviewed research.  To enemies of progress, I guess that could look like "defending" a technology, but it is simply sharing the science. 

And no, I did not "lobby" Congress.  It is illegal for me to lobby Congress.  I have been asked on multiple occasions to answer questions for Congressional Committees, and it is my obligation as a federally and state-funded scientist to do so. 

4.  Scientific Independence, Damn Right. 

I was objectively answering questions about technology and teaching communication skills to many groups, and I don't have a budget for travel costs.  So BIO picked up the tab on a couple of trips, maybe two. There was nothing hidden. 

I was not given an "unrestricted grant" for "research and outreach projects." The company made a donation to a science communication program I ran, and sadly provided the check with a boilerplate letter that would be gold for folks seeking to defame a scientist by misinterpreting what actually was happen vs. what they wanted to happen. 

I never had any research support from Monsanto. They don't care about my research. 

The threats called into the university and my office were real. We found ourselves communicating with the Domestic Terrorism Task Force and establishing police presence near my office. The online environment was filled with hate and promises of retaliation. 

For my safety, the university moved the funds from the science communication program to a campus food pantry.  The $25,000 was never used for teaching science. 

Science communication is so critical in mitigating problems like COVID19, climate change, vaccination, etc. I teach that. Companies like Monsanto (back when it existed) and others want farmers and scientists to be better communicators about the technologies they use. That's why they made the donation (along with many others). 

5. I Vehemently Deny False Claims. Still Do.

The ad was in the Global News story.  Sorry. 

I'm a scientist that teaches science. No, I don't care about companies and my first allegiance is to the evidence, my students, the public, and to sharing science. It has always been that way.

6. Distortion, Distortion, Distortion

In 2013 I was contacted by a woman named Mary Beth (something) from some communications/PR company I can't remember, asking me to write an article about the impacts of misplaced activism and I was glad to oblige.  That's my job as a scientist, to bust fake news and show its impacts. 

This was on the heels of the horrible paper by Seralini et al., the paper that was filled with problems and made claims about seed and cancer that have not been reproduced to this day, nine years later. 

That paper shut down seed technology in Kenya and had other wide impacts.  Damn right I was excited to teach the evidence and show the impacts of damaging disinformation. 

Again, Vuchnich frames this as a nefarious conspiracy.  It was actually a scientist stepping into a public discussion to educate others about science. 

7.  The Anatomy of their "Attack Video"

I remember this day.  I left Gainesville, FL at 5 AM and landed in a Washington DC snowstorm, getting in before flight cancellations hit.  I took the metro into the city center to the Biotechnology Industry Organization headquarters for a 9AM meeting (I can't remember what for), but it was cancelled because of the blizzard.  

With cancelled meetings, an evening flight, and a day to kill in front of me, I called the company coordinating GMO Answers and asked if I could swing by to maybe answer a few questions on video, something that we had discussed previously. 

I took a cab ride through the snow over to Ketchum Communications. They had a skeleton crew working that day due to the blizzard, but we put together an impromptu background of someone's cubicle and jammed it with fake plants from around the office. This is the actual stupid anatomy of Vuchnich's implication of a sophisticated well-orchestrated attack on a teenage girl.  

I answered a few of the questions submitted to GMO Answers on video. One of the questions was about tactfully responding to Rachel Parent, at the time maybe 14.  She was framed as a vocal proponent of food labeling and a champion against biotech.  

Many were disturbed that she was so young, so wrong, and had such visibility. Clearly someone was giving her bad information, and they wanted someone with experience in nuanced communication to help address how we'd counter her claims with grace and class. That's what I do. 

I was happy to answer.  Here is the video that was described as "targeting" and "degrading".  What do you think?  A polished biotech stooge attacking a Canadian teenager would at least fix his tie.

8. Facts Don't Matter.

Looking back, it was kind of fun to see that truthiness was alive and well in 2014.  The information on her site was not scientifically sound, it still scientifically isn't.  Kids Right to Know is targeting kids and young adults with false information. I take that very seriously. As a university educator, I get to clean up that mess, and it is unfair to poison young minds with fake science.

It is particularly egregious because Rachel's family runs health food franchises around Canada, a relatively large company called Nutrition House.  The bad scientific information is actually not just lying about science, but it is a marketing campaign, a way to scare customers into purchasing from the family empire and related businesses.  

She considered my video "almost degrading", but apparently not degrading, because absolutely no degrading took place. I was pretty damn nice in recognizing her strengths and talents. But that message was twisted in Vuchnich's article, which makes sense, as I emphasized critical thinking and the importance of young women to be involved in STEM disciplines. That is quite offensive to those that fail to embrace science. 

And of course, with regard to experts like me, if you're Rachel, "... their opinion doesn't matter."  

9. More Distortion of a Non Event. 

I remember this morning.  It was a Sunday and I was at my home computer working.  I took a break and was perusing the web, and I discovered the website Kids (sic) Right to Know. I was deeply disturbed by what I found.  The information was wrong, and it targeted children and young adults. 

Just off the cuff I fired off an email to the folks that ran the GMO Answers website.  I told them that if they were to assemble a website to counter this blather, to provide real scientific information to that age group, I would help.  I deeply care about youth science education. 

This was not a nefarious cabal as portrayed. 

10. Extrapolation from Private Meaningless Private Correspondence.

After floating that original idea in the email, I quickly forgot about the whole thing. It was never mentioned again.  I guess I put it on their radar and was happy to help if it was of interest, but obviously it wasn't so nothing ever happened. 

Frankly, I forgot all about it.  I never even thought about it again until it surfaced in Vuchnic's hit piece a couple of years later. 

And Parent's family purchased the domain name last time I checked. As of today it seems to be available, and I have no interest in it. 

Rachel's family actually owned/owns the domain. 

11. I Have a Duty to Correct Disinformation.   

False claims that misinform children are extremely disturbing.  It is my job, it is all of the educated world's job, to correct that kind of disinformation. Parent should not be disappointed that a professor did that, she should be disappointed if he/she didn't. The false information on the website should be discredited as appropriate. The bogus claims have not aged well. 

12. Evidence, Schmemividence 

Parent disagrees with scientific research and Health Canada. She apparently argued at the time that there were health risks, a claim that is not reflected in over 30 years of research, 25 years of use in the animal/human food supply, and wider international adoption than ever. 

I said the technologies were "very safe and very effective".  Usually I avoid the imprecise weenie word "very" so that is a strange sentence for me. 

But five years after the article one of us is still right, and one of us is still horribly wrong. 

12.  Fallout from the Article.  Notice how much of it is coming from the people that provided my emails and inspired the article, and how Rachel retweets their filth.  It is their strategy. 

13.  Her Website is Still Wrong. 

Years later the website (accessed 2/1/21) still makes claims about bans in most countries, crops "doused" and "saturated' with herbicides, and other false claims. The lower image above is a field of wheat, which is not genetically engineered. 

Kids' Right to Know?   Or sadly, Disinformation for Kids? 

14. Conclusion.

Allison Vuchnich's article used quotations out of context, distortion of information, and disinformation in an attempt to harm my reputation and my career.  Today the attack piece on Global News stands as a forever-accessible defamation, guided by the hand of US Right to Know, and executed by another sucker journalist that saw a juicy story rather than the much more interesting actual truth.

The problem is that I have to ride this slander wave to the grave.  I teach in the classroom, and every semester have to point to articles like Vuchnich's, telling students about the dangers of speaking up for science-- then imploring them to do it.  I have to be preemptive in showing the disinformation to keep their trust as their teacher.

I have stepped into COVID19 discussions, eager to see a pandemic end, and stop the pain of families suffering from preventable loss of loved ones. 

And anti-vaxers will post Vuchnic's article adjacent to my presentations and posts, using her distortion to steal the trust I have earned as a scientist and scholar, showing that I cannot be trusted.  

And  a scientific voice is diminished in a pandemic. Congrats Allison.  

Her article was a gift to thugs like Ruskin and Thacker that will use it forever, especially when I'm educating kids. 

The good news is that this article has not aged well.  The claims I made back then are just as valid today as they were then.  Efforts to frame biotech as a dangerous technology have dissolved with the advent of biotech vaccines and slick cures for insidious human disease. 

And somewhere deep in my heart I somehow think that Parent and Vuchnich might be big enough to apologize. Even if they did, the problems they caused for me personally and professionally can never go away. 

But it is not about me. Their part in the war on science and reason will have long-lasting impacts on many, especially those that rely on biotechnology or wish to adopt it in their operations. Time should not be kind to them. 

This is what happens when you speak about science in a volatile climate where the internet affords easy assassination of those that present science that some find offensive. My hope is that this synopsis shows the anatomy of defamation.  

A Canadian teenager was not the target.  It was an American scientist. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Colchicine and COVID19

 The response from plant biologists was a unified "YIKES!"

Colchicine?  Really?  That's the stuff we use to wreck biology, or at least give its decedents too many chromosomes. 

A recent press release exclaimed the therapeutic effects of this regent in the treatment of COVID19.  A clinical trial of 6000 planned individuals was performed in a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, multi institutional study. The study was piloted by the Montreal Heart Institute. Other international institutions are also examining its effect in separate clinical trials. 

Colchine is derived from the crocus flower, and is best known for its ability to arrest cell division by disrupting the molecular cables that attach to chromosomes. These tiny fibers pull normally pull half of the chromosomes into each new daughter cell. Colchicine disrupts their formation, meaning one cell gets a heavy load of genetic material. 

In plant biology that can be a good thing.  Plants with extra sets of chromosomes oftentimes have bigger fruits and flowers, and other production traits. Modern strawberry has four sets, banana three, sugar cane six. No big deal. 

But in animal biology there are other applications.  Some of the first where in cancer chemotherapy. Clearly colchicine stops cell division in vitro, so perhaps it would hinder growth of rapidly dividing tumor cells. There is some in vivo evidence of this, mostly from animal models. 

There is a lot of literature on colchicine, with mixed results from clinical application. One study showed a significant decrease in "all cancers" in male, Taiwanese patients using colchicine to treat gout (Kuo et al., 2015).

 Why gout?  Gout, arthritis, pericarditis and other inflammatory disorders rely on polymerization of the same microtubules, the tiny intracellular cables that help cells divide. Rearrangements of this cytoskeleton are hallmarks of inflammation. 

Inflammation is also an aspect of COVID19's effects, so testing a therapeutic application was a reasonable hypothesis.

The results were quite positive, suggesting fewer hospitalizations, decreased need for a ventilator, and less chance of dying from the infection.

That's great!  Or is it? 

The information did not come from a peer-reviewed paper or even a preprint.  It was a press release, and now many in the public are poking their health care providers for a dose of the miracle stuff (some hoping to pick some up on the way to the anti-vaccine rally). 

It puts physicians in a bad place.

The problem arises from the rather strong definitive wording from effects that are merely "approaching statistical significance" 

"This major scientific discovery makes colchicine the world’s first oral drug that could be used to treat non-hospitalized patients with COVID19." 

Are press releases writing checks peer-review can't cash? 

The problem comes from the fact that we do not know why the experiments were terminated early, mostly likely because they met a statistical endpoint.   They didn't discuss adverse effects (which are an issue with colchicine, as the digestive epithelium is affected leading to diarrhea, etc.), confidence intervals, and the results from PCR positives versus others.  

In other words, while results may be encouraging, there is not enough here to make an informed clinical recommendation.  

Most physicians understand the side effects and should be hesitant to prescribe based on a press release. 

On the other hand, this is all patients need to know it works. 

And we have now created the conspiracy vortex.  Physicians make a good decision, patients make a bad one, and the inability to get the drug/poison is viewed as the dirty work of Big Pharma and Bill Gates. 

Like hydroxyquinoline and ivermectin before it, there are legitimate applications for the drug, albeit with scant compelling application in treatment of COVID19. 

Unlike those other drugs, colchicine can be a deadly poison at relatively low doses. 

Just like before, a press release that jumps the gun causes more problems for physicians, more confusion for the public, and a fertile ground for conspiratorial claims-- especially if the results fail to reproduce in other trials or deleterious side effects are noted. 

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Anti-Vaxer Wins the Battle

In a recent online event, a graphic was posted to introduce the speakers of a COVID19 vaccine panel.

In the first 30 seconds a remotely-controlled cursor festooned the graphic with swastikas and grade-school-quality penis line art. The audio belched forth misogynist filth and racial epithets. The screen was commandeered with a pornographic video. A thought bubble over one the seminar’s presenters was stating, “I hate n — — rs.”

Red ink is mine. Leaving the words is just so much more visceral, but I can’t do it

Be disgusted. Understand the climate of thoughtful pandemic science communication in the Zoom Era.

The presentation was arranged by Dr. Miriam Fein from the Science Advocacy of Long Island (SALI). I was one of the speakers. All of us volunteered our time in the interest in promoting better public health, and pushing back against copious disinformation around SARS-CoV2 and its impending vaccinations.

The audience was good, over 50 at the start. Dr. Fein moved quickly and attempted to somehow mute the invading channel, but we had a strange glitch where nobody was the host, suggesting that the disruptive idiot somehow had control of the meeting.

Eventually she announced to check the SALI website for more information of where we would reconvene there. Five minutes later we were back online with a secure channel.

But with only 20-some participants.

The audience for free webinar about the current health crisis shrunk by more than half because of an invasion so vile that those interested in the science did not want to risk returning. Some attendees were clearly younger, perhaps in high school. I could understand a parent’s trepidation with the threat of gutter opposition to science communication.

The event was originally advertised far and wide through social media and we fully anticipated that there would likely be disruption. Questions for the panel submitted ahead of time also suggested a conspiratorial, non-scientific sentiment would be present.

That’s fine. I’ll take them on any day. Science ju-jitsu uses the opponent’s momentum against them, and I’m wearing a science black belt. We change hearts and minds best when dissenting opinions are engaged with grace.

That is why the disruption was so offensive. It was not about providing thoughtful opposition. It was about ensuring the event did not happen, that conscientious viewers would not enjoy access to the best scientific information.

It was about separating ideas from those that wanted them. Silencing science.

It was not about thoughtful debate, it was about deliberate disruption to interrupt information flow. Welcome to another reminder of our lives in the current hot climate.

How to fix it? We can lose a battle and win the war. Take this opportunity to forge your disgust into a new commitment to translate the science of the pandemic. Engage. Share information. Help others talk to family, friends, and other dissenters.

I apologize to all of those that had to endure that painful minute.

Don’t think of those moments as a way that a disruptive anti-vax hate monger defeated a science communication event — think of them as a corrupt movement waving a white flag. They are so defeated with logic, reason and evidence that their only tactic is to stop logic, reason and evidence from being disseminated.

Go share science.

A Response to Carey Gillam