Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Anti-GMO Activist Roseanne Barr Goes Off the Deep End

In a previous post entitled Anti-GMO Activist Roseanne Barr: GMOs caused Papaya Ringspot Virus, I showed that the papaya ringspot virus nearly destroyed the entire papaya industry on Hawaii in the 1990s and that researchers who genetically engineered the papaya to become resistant saved the day. I also demonstrated, contrary to the beliefs of celebrity and farmer Roseanne Barr, that the papaya ringspot virus was first reported in Hawaii in 1945 and that the genetically engineered resistant papaya was released in 1998. Thus, the GMO papaya did not cause or create the virus since the virus was present decades earlier on Oahu.

I tweeted the link to the previous post to Barr and she replied. Did she respond by writing a densely referenced blog post of her own? No. Did she link to scientific research contradicting what I had said? No. Did she even bother to write a short rebuttal? No.

Instead, she posted the following three tweets:

Roseanne has a meltdown

There are a couple of things that are worth noting:

Inability to respond to criticism: Barr showed a remarkable inability to make a coherent and thoughtful response to criticism. Nowhere in her tweets does she even begin to make an argument and there are no references to the primary scientific literature. Instead, she just asserted that she was not wrong. This point is further supported by the fact that she often wrote in all caps and used multiple exclamation marks.

Hasty generalization: Barr is unable to separate the large corporations she dislikes from single individuals (unrelated to those corporations) that criticizes her claims online. She just lumps those two together, which is clear when she uses phrases like “your false science”, “that you pay for”, “you invented it” etc.

Using pseudoscientific debating rhetorics: Barr used a classic debating tactic common to proponents of pseudoscience: the shill gambit. This consists of claiming, directly or indirectly, that the arguments provided by your opponent can be dismissed because he or she is allegedly bought by large corporations ad is only making those arguments because he or she is being paid to do so (i.e. a shill).

Mistrust of mainstream scientific research: Barr attempts to undermine the conclusions of mainstream scientific research by asserting that the funding of the research that developed the transgenic papaya came from a suspect source (presumably large corporations) and labeling it as “fake science”. However, if she had read some of the papers that I cited in my previous post, such as the review by Gonsalves (1998), she would have known that the development of the transgenic papaya was not funded by large corporations, but by the USDA (U. S. Department of Agriculture) Section 406 grant program (i.e. taxpayer funded research). It is instructive to look at what Smith and Novella (2007) has to say about this particular tactic (the paper focuses on HIV/AIDS denialists but also points out that the tactics are common in other forms of pseudoscience as well):

Deniers argue that because scientists receive grant money, fame, and prestige as a result of their research, it is in their best interest to maintain the status quo. This type of thinking is convenient for deniers as it allows them to choose which authorities to believe and which ones to dismiss as part of a grand conspiracy. In addition to being selective, their logic is also internally inconsistent. For example, they dismiss studies that support the HIV hypothesis as being biased by “drug money,” while they accept uncritically the testimony of HIV deniers who have a heavy financial stake in their alternative treatment modalities

Demonization Barr embraces another common denialist approach known as demonization of the opposition. This is a cognitive simplification to handle the cognitive dissonance that arises from the observation that highly intelligent people are staunch opponents to the denialist. It is just easier to view opponents as evil than to entertain the thought that they might have a point. This enables the denialist to make personalizations of these “evil opponents” without having to worry about not providing evidence. Demonization is also evident when Barr calls genetic engineering “screwing with nature” or calls me a liar twice.

Post hoc and correlation fallacies Barr claims that the virus started next to were the genetically engineered papaya was planted. This is of course wrong. As we saw earlier, PRSV was first reported on Hawaii in 1945 and the transgenic papaya was not released until 1998. In addition, Barr commits two logical fallacies:

(1) post hoc, ergo proper hoc: the claim that since B follows A, therefore A caused B. However just because B happens after A does not mean that A caused B. The rooster crows and then sunrise occurs, but that does not mean that roosters cause the sunrise

(2) correlation fallacy: the assertion that since A and B correlate (i.e. location was allegedly the same), this means that A caused B. Not only do transgenic papaya and PRSV not correlate, even if they did it would not mean that the transgenic papaya caused PRSV.

Biotechnology fear-mongering Barr labels the seeds of genetically engineered papaya as “frankenseeds”. This is a common way for anti-GMO activists to attempt to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt with respect to GMOs by conjuring up images of evil scientists harming living organisms for their own deranged goals. In reality, the transgenic papaya is the same as conventional varieties except that it is resistant to the papaya ringspot virus.


Roseanne Barr use to be a shining star in the sky of reason and she made many important contributions to fighting discrimination based on gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. However, after becoming an anti-GMO activist, she is more like a meteorite burning up in the atmosphere. A very unfortunate development. As a public intellectual, Barr has a responsibility to not let herself be undermined by that kind of anti-scientific thinking.


Gonsalves, Dennis. (1998). Control of Papaya Ringspot Virus in Papaya: A Case Study. Annual Review of Phytopathology, 36(1), 415-437.

Smith, Tara C., & Novella, Steven P. (2007). HIV Denial in the Internet Era. PLoS Med, 4(8), e256.

7 responses to “Anti-GMO Activist Roseanne Barr Goes Off the Deep End

  1. Tom July 7, 2013 at 19:27

    I find myself constantly being disappointed by artists, actors, writers and journalists I once used to admire because they just seem stop thinking rationally when it comes to GMOs. I used to subscribe to Mother Jones magazine during the Bush years, now I can’t bring myself to check their site anymore. I’m perilously close to stop listening to the band Cake, who persistently post anti-GMO misinformation on their Facebook page. (Trevlig blog förresten! Du kanske vill lägga till bland dina länkar till höger. Jag tycker det är den bästa mötesplatsen om GMOs som finns på nätet.)

  2. badger3k July 7, 2013 at 19:36

    Well, to see her intellectual chops, look at the post from July 1 on her blog, by someone named “Becky”. It includes these nuggets of wisdom:

    “Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs are in our food supply even though they are banned in more than thirty countries due to health and environmental biohazards. The consumption of GMO food has been linked to cancer, reproductive failure, kidney and liver damage in animal studies. With more than 85% of processed food containing engineered GMOs, we are the human lab rats! I like my food to be real, organic, without other species’ DNA and toxins engineered into it, thank you very much.
    Genetic modification involves a group of technologies being used to change the genetic makeup of cells and force different species across natural boundaries in laboratories. Open air GMO crops contaminate the DNA of natural agriculture and already other countries have begun rejecting US imports because of GMO contamination. If we want to preserve the real seeds, pure agriculture and endangered species of Hawaii, we need to stop GMOs.
    I came here to grow organic macadamia nuts because I love Hawaii and the pristine nature we live aloha for every day and I believe in respecting the land and taking care of it. These GMOs are mostly engineered to sell more chemicals, they are made by CHEMICAL COMPANIES not FARMERS, hello!
    Who wants to eat chemically soaked, toxic food engineered in a lab and made by the same companies that make bleach? Is that how ancient Hawaii sustained itself, with chemicals linked to birth defects and gene guns? Did you consent to be experimented on and have Hawaii Island become a toxic playground for the same chemical companies who made Agent Orange, DDT and Dioxin?”

    We can play “spot the logical fallacies” all day. If this is indicative of Barr’s ideals, then she is far from an intellectual and straight into ideologue. Unfortunately, the use and abuse of power and fame gained by actors and actresses pushing their ideologically driven agendas is old news and all to common (look at Bill Maher’s anti-vax lunacy as well).

  3. grapedoc July 8, 2013 at 17:50

    One additional aspect of the Papaya story. The virus resistant line was developed at Cornell, but they used the common promoter, 35S, which was covered by a patent owned by Monsanto. As with all universities, they were free to do experiments with patented things, but for commercialization a license was required. Monsanto voluntarily provided that license for free. That does not fit the sort of conspiratorial narrative spun by Barr and so many others.

    Oh, by the way, the basic approach that Gonsalves used to get virus resistance was pioneered back in the 1980s by Roger Beachy who is also the founding president of the Danforth Plant Science center which uses biotechnology and other tools to develop crop solutions for the developing world. Beachy and Gonsalves will never have the fame that Barr had, but they and people like them make a far bigger contribution to humanity.

  4. Peter Wolf July 9, 2013 at 19:47

    I have read both of these articles so while i am not going to go into the details already covered i wish to comment on the underlying slant within the articles + the comments.Here we have the usual polarisation of the issue and the article and comments that are pro – GM in the instance that is being covered here.What i have noticed though is the comments and article seem to generalise anti-GMO articles/info dismissed as disinformation.So am i correct in reading from this that any anti-GMO material is anti-science and that anti-GMO is a position that in order to qualify you have to be ignorant and a denialist etc etc or do you have any concerns over the use of GMOs/Pesticides yourself and do you see these concerns as legitimate rather than just simply being a case of not understanding the science re “irrational fears” etc etc ?

    Do you think that anti-GMO activists/commentators/opposition like myself being one of them and Roseanne being another have cause for concern over the uninhibited spread of GMOs and the uninhibited use of the various pesticides etc that are used alongside GMO in large scale industrialised agri in what amounts to the takeover and corporatisation of the food chain ?

    Is anyone who opposes GMO simply being irrational ?

    Personally i find the attitude that defines someone as irrational to be very condescending and its a subtle way to diminish/dismiss the concerns of others that are legitimate that also deserve an intelligent response rather than ridicule/condescension.

    In the previous article you comment that GMO/Pesticides are well tested.They are tested and they are tested in open field trials and judging by the record of the EPA in the US its clear to anyone who cares to acknowledge it that the EPA are failing in their remit as an enviromental protection agency as they are subject to the demands of Monsanto so food safety is sacrificed on the alter of corporatisation/commercialisation.

    As a side note i usually avoid debunking sites due to the poor quality of the articles and general slant within the debunking in question.While yours is better than that you let yourself down when you muck raking regarding Roseanne regarding previous issues that are unrelated/irrelevent to your article and the dispute that makes up an entire paragraph.

    Too often pro-science lacks objectivity and is simply looking to find fault in others views when and where it can at the expense of finding fault in itself and its this lack of objectivity/self criticism that i see time and time again especially when i see pejorative terms used like “anti-vaxers”/”climate deniers”/”denialist” etc/The pro-science/Science community are just as guilty of the same thing as those who oppose it which you focus on here at length.

    • Emil Karlsson July 9, 2013 at 23:42

      First, you seem to be arguing for something that we scientific skeptics call “false balance”. I have discussed this approach in Common Denialist Tactics Defined and Destroyed:

      Tactic: False Balance.
      Description: Tries to exploit fairness by pretending that there are two different positions, yet equally valid of attention. Teach the controversy, hear both sides and equal time are common manifestations of this tactic.
      Countermeasure: Explain that just because two positions are expressed with the same level of confidence does not mean that the truth lies in between. Sometimes one side is just wrong, especially if it is not supported by the evidence. Point out that it would be unfair to listeners if it was pretended that ignorant and dangerous pseudoscience was presented as fact.

      Compare with climate change. Something like 97% of climate scientists agree that humans contribute to the current warning trend. If you produce a show about climate change, do you give the scientists who accept AGW 50% of the time and 50% to those that reject it? That would not be fair since you would be portraying an almost unanimous scientific community as internally conflicted. Clearly, a better idea would be to give the climate scientists that accept AGW 97% of the time and the others 3% (or to omit them entirely if they cause too much confusion).

      Further, as we saw in Unraveling Five Popular Anti-GMO Claims, data from a 2010 report from the National Research Council, GM crops actually require less pesticides, not more.

      Is anyone who opposes GMO simply being irrational ?

      Anyone who categorically oppose everything related to GMOs without caring about the evidence is indeed being irrational.

      There are real concerns about any product produced for human consumption, whether this is genetically engineered by scientists or the result of conventional crossings. Yes, GMOs should be (and is) subjected to toxicological and environmental testing. However, such regulations should also include conventional crops and be based on what is being modified, not the technology used to make those modifications.

      You claim that the EPA is failing to properly regulate GM crops, but you provide no evidence for this. You also do not discuss the actual field trial data and how exactly they are insufficient.

      While you are correct that her statements on trans issues and cancer are not directly relevant to the question of GMOs, the same is true for her Presidential campaign or the issues tackled on Roseanne. However, these four issues serve as a short and reasonably balanced introduction to who she is for readers who did not know of her.

      As for your claim that pro-science often lacks objectivity and self-criticism, you should know that I have written several posts examining the skeptical movement and other skeptics. Here are some examples: Why Jerry Coyne is Still Wrong about Antidepressants, How Skepchick Rebecca Watson Misuses Statistics, PZ Myers is not an Oblate Spheroid (p < 0.05), How to Limit Groupthink in the Skeptical Community, How to Become a Better Scientific Skeptic, Overcoming Selective Rationality etc.

      On the other hand, I rarely see self-criticism or intra-movement criticism among anti-GMO activists. Why do you think that is?

  5. Pingback: Anti-GMO Activist Roseanne Barr Struggles to Defend Her Claims | Debunking Denialism

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