Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Biotechnology Fear Mongering

Anti-GMO Statistician Nassim N. Taleb Now Defends Homeopathy

Taleb on Twitter

Over a year ago, statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb co-wrote an ignorant paper on the precautionary principle and its supposed lethal application to genetically modified foods. In it, the authors made several errors. They asserted, without evidence, that genetically modified crops are more dangerous than conventional crops and failing to consider the benefits of GM crops in preventing vitamin a deficiency, blindness and death (instead falsely comparing it to letting poor people play Russian roulette to get out of poverty).

Despite critics writing several detailed refutations, Taleb retained the irrational belief that no “intelligent comment” had been made. A person even tweeted Taleb the above article from Debunking Denialism and after spending a total of two minutes on it, Taleb declared that it was “not very intelligent”, “full of flaws” and “even downright stupid”, despite the fact that it had demolished the central claims made by the authors.

As if this was not enough, Taleb has now gone full-blown anti-science. In a couple of recent tweets, he went so far as to defend homeopathy at length. He falsely claimed that homeopathy was harmless and thus totally ignoring documented expectancy side-effects as well as the problem that people with real dangerous medical conditions (such as cancer) might avoid science-based intervention. He also completely misunderstood and mocked the psychiatric condition known as health anxiety, thereby implying that those individuals are better of with homeopathy than psychotherapy. In a final twist of incomprehensible absurdity, Taleb stated that superstitions such as homeopathy can sometimes be rational, particularly if they somehow “prevent you from listening to forecasts by economists”.

Homeopathy is not “harmless placebo”

Taleb starts out by making the common claim that homeopathy is harmless:

Taleb defends homeopathy

Homeopathy is not harmless. It is certainly pharmacologically inert on its own, but this is not the same as harmless. First, promoting homeopathy might make people with dangerous medical conditions forgo science-based treatments. Second, homeopathy can be accompanied by negative expectancy effects called nocebo effects. Third, unscrupulous alternative medicine sellers can mix in pharmacologically active substances that can have potentially dangerous health consequences. In the United States, all of this is unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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Mailbag: Genetically Modified Foods and Immigration Statistics

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

Selective skepticism both amuses and frightens me at the same time. It is the approach whereby you accept the mainstream scientific position on a great many things (such as HIV/AIDS, vaccines, 9/11 etc.), but then have cordoned off a special area where you promote pseudoscientific nonsense and believe in all sorts of unreasonable things (say, you are anti-GMO or anti-psychiatry). To an external observer, it is a trivial lack of consistency, especially since most forms of pseudoscience share the same basic rhetoric: quote scientists out of context, misunderstand basic science, play the martyr card, create fake “controversies” and so on. Selective skepticism is closely related to pseudoskepticism, whereby a person gives a shallow pretense of being a scientific skeptic but shares almost none of the substantive content of scientific skepticism.

In this post, I will examine a couple of emails and comments received about genetically modified foods and immigration statistics. Those topics are not directly related, but they share the basic premise of selective skepticism or pseudoskepticism.

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Does Naomi Oreskes Harbor Anti-GMO Sentiments?

Oreskes and evidence

Naomi Oreskes is a historian of science and currently the Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. In the context of scientific skepticism, she is one of the most important and hard-hitting defenders of climate science against ignorant and misguided attack by climate change denialists. She has written a persuasive essay in the prestigious scientific journal Science detailing the solid scientific consensus that most of the observed warming in the last couple of decades is due to human activities. Together with historian Erik M. Conway, she co-wrote the fantastic book called Merchants of Doubt which exposed the tobacco and climate change denialist industry and their deceptive methods. A recent New York Times portrait of Oreskes called her “a lightning rod in a changing climate”, which could not be a more apt description.

However, dark clouds appear on the horizon. There is a tendency among public intellectuals who are entirely reasonable in some areas to descend into the promotion of pseudoscience is others. The phenomenon is most commonly know among Nobel Prize winners, such as Nikolaas Tinbergen (autism quackery), Kary Mullis (climate change denialism, astrology, HIV/AIDS denialism), Linus Pauling (cancer quackery), but can readily be generalized to the broader community of researchers. This is terribly unfortunate, because they lend their intellectual credibility and academic achievements to pseudoscientific nonsense and causes real harm to science.

For Oreskes, this appears to be genetically modified foods. Fortunately, she has not yet gone so far astray as to be completely shipwrecked in the vicious marshlands of anti-GM pseudoscience so there may still be some hope. This post reviews and comments on three separate cases of anti-GM sentiments expressed by Oreskes. It finishes off by highlighting the intellectual responsibility of public intellectuals.

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Why Rachel Parent is Wrong About Genetically Modified Foods

Rachel Parent

Rachel Parent is a Canadian 15-year-old anti-GM activist who wants GM foods to be labelled. In an independently organized TEDx event at Toronto, she held a talk regurgitating almost all popular anti-GM claims in under 15 minutes. She claims to have been interested in GM crops since she was 12, yet the “research” she did involved reading anti-GM websites, not scientific papers. It is great that young women are getting increasingly interested in science and scientific research, but deceptive misinformation is a poor substitute for scientific integrity. In reality, all of her claims are either wrong or misleading: BT is safe for humans and have been used in organic farming, all plants contain their own “bug killers”, GM technology has been used to save the papaya and make rice prevent vitamin A deficiency, GM crops does increase total yield, is associated with less usage of dangerous pesticides, GM crops do not harm beneficial insects, farmers are not sued by accidental cross-pollination and GM crops are as safe as conventional crops. Even the paper she cites as evidence for GMOs causing allergies does not even mention GM crops. This post goes into detail in explaining why Parent is mistaken.

BT toxin is safe for humans and has been extensively in organic farming

BT toxin is a substance that is produced by bacteria and is only dangerous to a certain group of insect pests. This is because of its high specificity: it requires an alkaline stomach environment (humans and other mammals have acidic), a specific protease that cleaves the inactive precursor into the active toxin, a specific receptor on the gut surface that triggers the rupturing of the stomach lining.

It has been used extensively in both conventional and organic farming for many decades by spraying bacterial spores on the plants surface. However, with the help of recombinant DNA technology, scientists have been able to insert the gene that produces this toxin into the plant itself. It is a method that we know is safe and that we know work.

Plants cannot run, therefore they contain their own bug killers

Although it might seem odd at first that plants contain their own bug killers. However, this is actually very common. Most plants are stationary with roots into the ground and so they are not able to run away from their predators. Instead, they have evolved means of protecting themselves by using poisonous secondary metabolites. Among these are the solanine in conventional potatoes, spinasterol in spinach and coumarin in carrots. These can have neurotoxic effects, interfere with hormonal signaling and cross-links DNA. So far from being weird, plants making their own bug killers is the norm. These substances, like BT, occur in very small concentrations of course, so they are not dangerous to humans.

GM technology as been used to save papaya and to prevent deadly vitamin A deficiency

Parent focus exclusively on the two most common GM applications in agriculture: herbicide resistance and insect resistance. However, she does not bother to discuss other applications, such as virus-resistant papaya or rice that have more vitamin A.

The papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) almost exterminated papaya farming in Hawaii, which represented the vast majority of papaya production in the world. Researchers were able to genetically modify those papayas to make them resistant, and thus prevent the papaya production from collapsing. In other words, one of the reason that we still have papayas today is because of GM technology.

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How to Breach Genetic Privacy

Breaching genetic privay

Massive parallel sequencing technology has opened up endless possibilities in areas such as diagnosing clinical conditions, finding new drug targets, predicting disease risk and fighting crime. A room with twenty modern sequencing machines can sequence around a thousand human genomes per day. Most practical applications require knowledge of only a tiny section of the genome, which means that the rate at which genetic information can be acquired is truly astonishing. With it comes serious ethical considerations. What happens if your genetic information leaks and can be accessed by employers, insurance companies or adversaries with an axe to grind?

Erlich and Narayanan (2014) describe some of the techniques that can be used to breach the genetic privacy of individuals (with real-world examples of exploits) and discuss some of the methods that can be used to safeguard it from intruders.

How adversaries can breach genetic privacy

There are three larger categories of attacks: based on identity tracing, attribute disclosure using DNA, and completion attacks. Identity tracing is based on meta-data from scientific research, such as genotypic sex, date of birth, zip code and surname. Attribute disclosure attacks are based on accessing the genetic information of a person and then matching it against an anonymous sample linked to sensitive information. Finally, completion attacks allows the inference of target genotypic information based on other areas of the target genome or the genomes of relatives.

Identity tracing attacks

Identity tracing attacks starts with genomic information from an unknown individual. However, this is usually associated with metadata in the form of quasi-identifiers, such as genotypic sex, age, date of birth, zip code, surname and so on. Armed with this information, the adversary can drastically narrow down the range of possible targets to a small group, and then pin-point the individual with the help of information found social media websites such as Facebook. This is done with a wide range of techniques, such as surname inference, DNA phenotypic, demographic identifiers, pedigree structure and side-channel leaks.

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Anti-GMO Statistician Nassim N. Taleb ‏Responds to Criticism (Sort of)

A while back, statistician Nassim N. Taleb co-wrote an ignorant screed against genetically modified crops, which was refuted in detail here on Debunking Denialism. It was essentially based on elementary misunderstanding of the biology behind it when he simply asserted that genetic modification was “categorically and statistically different” from traditional plant breeding without any evidence despite the fact that it is just a logical extension. In addition, he presented a deeply flawed risk analysis, where he compared the prevention of famine with having poor people play Russian roulette.

Now, Taleb has posted a response on Twitter. Was it thoughtful? Was it based on scientific evidence? Did it interact with the arguments that were provided in the refutation? Not exactly.

Taleb responds..not

The refutation was “not intelligent”, “full of flaws”, and “downright stupid”, yet Taleb could not produce a single argument against it? Also note the time stamps: the link was posted on 12:05 AM on 6 Aug and his response came 12:08 AM on the same day. That means that Taleb spent at most three minutes evaluating the refutation in question. So this is the intellectual summit of the most prominent opponents of genetically modified crops acts when someone criticizes him?

In the end, it does not matter how much statistical sophistry Taleb uses to dress up his erroneous assertions about GM crops since it is based on false premises about the biology. Garbage in, garbage out.

Choking the Black Swan: GM Crops and Flawed Safety Concerns

Failure of precuationary principle

Despite the fact that the technology behind genetically modified crops has been around as long as Commodore 64 and been shown to be safe in hundreds of studies, anti-GM activists continue to spread misinformation.

Recently, a paper on the precautionary principle in relation to genetically modified foods has been making rounds in the anti-GM social media circles. One of the authors is statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has previously written books such as The Black Swan on the impact of low-probability events. The other two authors are physicist Yaneer Bar-Yam, and politician-philosopher Rupert Read. They attempt to develop an improved version of the precautionary principle in an effort to undermine the usage of GM crops.

What can a thinly veiled anti-GM paper written by a physicist, a politician and a statistician teach us about the risks of genetically modified foods? Unfortunately, it is just more of the same illusionary sophistry common among anti-GM activists.

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Half of Americans Believe in Medical Conspiracy Theories

Medical conspiracy theories

An interesting study was recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine by Oliver and Wood (2014). They report the results of a YouGov survey that looked at the acceptance of medical conspiracy theories in the United States and what, if any, effect the belief in medical conspiracy theories had on health-related behavior, such as taking herbal supplements, getting a flu shot and preference for organic foods. The results were chilling as almost half of the U. S. population believed in at least one medical conspiracy. Those who held three or more were less likely to go to the doctor or dentist and fewer got vaccinated against seasonal influenza. They were also more likely to take herbal supplements.

The selection of medical conspiracy theories

Oliver and Wood selected six different medical conspiracy theories to include in their research. Although the researchers did not justify their selection, it seems representative and wide as it spanned from FDA and alternative medicine to discredited beliefs about the origin of HIV Read more of this post

Neil deGrasse Tyson Invites Anti-Science Activist Mayim Bialik

Holistic Moms Network

Many scientific skeptics may recognize Mayim Bialik from hit TV-shows such as Blossom and The Big Bang Theory. In the latter, she plays the neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler who becomes the girlfriend of the physicist Sheldon Cooper. In real life, she has a PhD in a very similar field as Amy, namely neuroscience. One would think that this provides some protection against being subverted by irrational pseudoscience. However, Bialik is a notorious promoter of a wide range of different pseudosciences, including anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, alternative medicine, Waldorf schools and homebirth quacktivism.

In 2009, Bialik became a celebrity spokesperson for the Holistic Moms Network (here is their description of holistic parenting). On their website, they promote the American anti-vaccine activist Barbara Loe Fischer and recommend homeopathy as an alternative treatment to post-partum depression. In a 2011 interview, Bialik explained that she is homeschooling her children and in a 2012 interview, she confessed to using the Waldorf “philosophy” to attain this goal (which includes not letting her children watch TV or see movies). In a 2009 interview, she admitted to being “a non-vaccinating family” and claimed that she based her decision on “research and discussions with our pediatrician”. In a 2012 post on her blog, she says that she does not want to discuss her beliefs about vaccines, but deploys the classic “too many, too soon” trope. David Gorski discusses her ideas about vaccines in additional details here. In a 2012 article on homebirth, she promoted a number of classic quacktivist beliefs despite the fact that homebirth causes considerable more deaths compared with giving birth in a hospital. She calls these facts “hysteria-inducing” stories and that it is “insulting to any woman’s intuition and intelligence”. In late 2012, she posted the following on her official Facebook page: “California voters: the condoms you approved for sex workers to have to wear (which I voted for too)… maybe I’ll wear them when I eat my unlabeled genetically modified food. Sound good?”

In other words, being a neuroscientist does not, no pun intended, make you immune to pseudoscience.

Recently, American astrophysicist and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson decided to invite Bialik to his talk show StarTalk.

Tyson's screw-up?

He claims that they will be discussing neuroscience. But why is Tyson inviting an anti-science activist such as Bialik? Why is he giving her a platform to spread her pseudoscientific quackery? Is Tyson unaware about her beliefs or does not care as long as he can sell tickets to the show? Clarification is badly needed at this point.

Decimating the Flawed Beliefs of Anti-GMO Activists

Related: Scientific American Stands Against Mandatory Labeling of GM Foods, Unraveling Five Popular Anti-GMO Claims.

Anti-GMO Activists of Facebook

Recently, the editors of Scientific American took a stand against the mandatory labeling of food products containing ingredients that have been genetically modified using biotech tools.

Their main arguments was that it would only increase the already widespread misconceptions about GM foods, lead to less consumer choice as companies want to avoid labels on their products that may decrease sales, increase food costs for the consumer, give farmers and manufacturers additional administrative work and further stigmatize beneficial technologies that have increased yields and profits for individual farmers and promises to combat deficiency diseases that blinds and kills hundreds of thousands of children. I wrote a blog post about the backlash in the comment section to the Scientific American article, finding the arguments provided by anti-GMO activists to be misguided and inaccurate.

As predicted, the anti-GMO activists were not discouraged one bit by the Scientific American article and tried to drown out the science-based arguments showing that GM foods are stringently tested, heavily regulated and safe, both for human consumption and the environment. This occurred, among other places, on the facebook page Skeptics; Atheists; Realists; Agnostics; Humanists when they shared the Scientific American article. Several anti-GMO activists and misguided bystanders swarmed down on in the comment section and started spreading what, at the time of this writing, added up to least twenty-four anti-GMO falsehoods. This article refutes most of them Read more of this post


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