Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Biotechnology Fear Mongering

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.

Read more of this post

Half of Americans Believe in Medical Conspiracy Theories

ResearchBlogging.org

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

Scientific American Stands Against Mandatory Labeling of GM Foods

Scientific American on Mandatory Labeling of GM Foods

Genetically modified foods are among the most heavily tested, scrutinized, evaluated and regulated food items in existence. Applications of GM technology reduce the impact of weeds, harmful insects and pathogens. They contain more nutrients like vitamin A precursors, iron, zinc and vitamins. It might even be possible to make edible vaccines. Despite this, there is a lot of anti-GMO sentiment in the public realm, largely based on fear mongering about biotechnology and a dislike for corporations. However, the anti-GMO claims about science tend to turn out to be erroneous and dangerously misguided and the arguments about economics are at best only tangentially relevant. These two facts have not discourages the anti-GMO movement in the slightest.

The editors of Scientific American recently published an article taking a stand against laws requiring mandatory labeling of GM foods. Five major arguments are presented:

Increase misconceptions about the health effects of GM foods: the editors argue that if mandatory labeling of GM foods or foods that contain GM ingredients is required, then this will contribute to the feeding-frenzy about alleged “Frankenfoods” being harmful to human health. In reality, organizations as diverse as the American Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization conclude that genetically modified foods are just as safe for human consumption as conventionally grown food. These conclusions are based on mountains of toxicological and ecological research. Read more of this post

Anti-GMO Activist Roseanne Barr Struggles to Defend Her Claims

Roseanne's twitter page

In Anti-GMO Activist Roseanne Barr: GMOs caused Papaya Ringspot Virus, I explained how the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) almost totally destroyed the papaya industry on Hawaii and that researchers saved it by developing a genetically modified papaya that was resistant to PRSV. I also criticized the claim made by anti-GMO activist Roseanne Barr that the genetically modified papaya caused/created PRSV. I pointed out that the virus was first reported on Oahu in 1945 (although it can be traced back at least 500 years ago to Asia) and it was not until 1998 that the genetically modified papaya was released, making her scenario impossible without a time machine.

I examined her response to my criticism in Anti-GMO Activist Roseanne Barr Goes Off the Deep End and found it deeply unsatisfying. Barr did not reply to the actual arguments I made, instead asserting that I was a Monsanto shill. She tried to spread biotechnology fear-mongering and mistrust of mainstream scientific research as well as performed several logical fallacies, including hasty generalization and the post hoc fallacy.

This post examines some of Roseanne Barr’s reactions since I published my previous posts about her claims about genetically modified papayas and the PRSV.

Roseanne Barr calls for backup

Presumably stumped by the scientific and historical facts I presented about the situation, Roseanne decided to ask her twitter followers for help:

Roseanne calls for backup

Barr is still of the mindset that I have provided her with “false science”. She calls me a “science debunker”, presumably a debunker of what she thinks is “true science” i.e. stuff that would seem to support her contrarian views on genetically modified papaya and the PRSV. It is also fascinating that, despite being criticized for it, she still asserts that I am a Monsanto shill. She has now also blocked me on Twitter.

Unwittingly, tweeting a link to my blog to her followers (over 200k at the time of this writing), she gave both my blog and the scientific facts against her a lot of exposure. Thanks for the help, Roseanne! Read more of this post

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) Read more of this post

Anti-GMO Activist Roseanne Barr: GMOs caused Papaya Ringspot Virus

Roseanne Barr is an American actress perhaps most well-known for her role in the TV-show Roseanne (1988-1997). The show tackled many important issues such as obesity, race, class, feminism, domestic violence and LGBT rights. Since then, Barr has run for President for the Peace and Freedom Party in 2012 and become a prominent social activist.

However, dark clouds started appearing on the horizon. In July of 2012, Barr asserted that people who eat at the fast food restaurant Chick-fil-A chain deserves to get cancer (see the tweet conversation below that tweet). This was in response to public statements made by Dan T. Cathy disapproving of same-sex marriage. While same-sex marriage is an important social issue to defend and opponents will find themselves on the wrong side of history, it is both ethically and scientifically dubious to say that people who get cancer deserves it. It is also ironic that Barr claims to be against racism and classism when things like poverty and discrimination being “obstacles to receiving health care services related to cancer prevention, early detection, and high-quality treatment” (American Cancer Society, 2013, p. 43) for ethnic minorities. Later the same year, she came under fire again for making transphobic remarks, presumably because of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s support for trans rights (Barr lost the Green Party nomination to Stein). Some commentators pointed out the hypocrisy of claiming to take class issues seriously at the same time as discriminating against trans women who cannot afford gender reassignment surgery.

Recently, I replied to a tweet by an anti-GMO activist calling for the ban on genetically modified foods on Hawaii by pointing out that biotechnology saved the Hawaiian papaya industry in the 1990s from almost complete collapse by engineering the papaya to be resistant to the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV). The anti-GMO activist was apparently not aware of this, so she retweeted me @TheRealRoseanne. Barr, who had apparently become an anti-GMO activist herself, tweeted this (webcite) in reply:

Barr thinks GMOs created PRSV

There is one big problem with that claim: the papaya ringspot virus was first reported on the Hawaiian island of Oahu in 1945. Transgenic papaya was not released in Hawaii until 1998.

In fact, phylogenetic analysis puts the origin of the PRSV version that infects papayas at 500 years ago (concurrent with the arrival of the papaya in the region including Indian and China). Unless multinational corporations traveled 500 years back in time, there is no way that GMOs or GM corporations caused or created PRSV.

It is very important to understand how badly the PRSV virus damaged the Hawaii papaya industry. Read more of this post

Unraveling Five Popular Anti-GMO Claims

Corn

The mainstream scientific community, specific science organizations and the scientific literature converge on the conclusion that genetically modified foods are safe for human consumption (European Commission, 2010; National Research Council, 2004; AAAS Board of Directors, 2012; WHO, 2013; Ronald, 2011). However, anti-GMO zealots oppose genetically modified foods for a variety of ideological reasons. They attempt to prop up their pseudoscientific beliefs by dressing up their assertions and make them appear scientifically credible. However, most of these anti-GMO arguments are either based on flawed research or relate to things that are not specifically related to GMOs. Sometimes the assertions consists of little more than fear-mongering based on myths.

There is a popular anti-GMO message that is making its way across the Internet in various forms. It contains five claims that allegedly support the notion that GMOs are “a recipe for global famine”. This post critically investigates these five claims.

As we shall see, they turn out to not be scientifically accurate. Farmers do not have to use seeds from GM crops, they can buy seeds from companies that deal in traditional plant breeding, they can save their own seeds and they can trade seeds between themselves. GM crops require less harmful chemicals than conventional agriculture and is therefore safer for humans and the environment. Monoculture originated on a large-scale in the Green Revolution and is not specific for GM crops. Scientists are currently developing plants that are more resistant to pathogens and there are large seeds banks with hundreds of thousands of different seed samples that ensures that we maintain biodiversity. Terminator technology was originally used for self-fertilizing plants (thus make it impossible to “spread sterility”), was abandoned in the late 1990s and replaced by legal contracts. GM crops does not entail the dependence on a centralized food system (golden rice is going to be distributed to individual farmers) and centralized food system helps to avoid harmful effects of crop failure. In the end, GM agriculture is probably necessary for future food security and environmental Read more of this post

The Scientific Ignorance of Stasia Bliss – Part II: GMOs

Note: This is the second installment in an article series debunking the massive amount of pseudoscientific claims made by Stasia Bliss. It destroys her demonstrably false assertions about genetically modified foods. For more posts in this series, see the introduction post here.

Stasia Bliss' falsehoods about GMOs

In this second installment of the article series highlighting the scientific ignorance of Stasia Bliss, we will take a closer look at her claims regarding genetically modified foods. As we saw with cystic fibrosis in the first installment, this alleged master alchemist and high priestess of Qi Vesta does not grasp even the basics of the scientific background, which makes her discussion of the more complex aspects of the area laughable in its absurdity.

In her post about GMOs, Bliss ignores the fact that the microRNA observed in human serum was from non-GMO rice and that microRNAs are often conserved across species so any plant food we eat (GMOs or non-GMOs) will contain these microRNAs. She is also ignorant about the scientific background to two well-understood applications (BT and herbicide resistance) when she claims that these involve the genetic modification of microRNAs. In reality, they involve the addition of single non-microRNA genes. Additionally, she does not seem to understand that the basic structure of DNA is the same in all species, that humans have been genetically modifying foods for around 10000 years and that DNA is in everything we eat.

Furthermore, she concocts her private nightmare scenario were a gene for the BT toxin is taken up by endogenous human flora and transcribed, making us somehow “less human” despite the fact that DNA is degraded in the gastrointestinal tract and endogenous flora has no evolutionary benefit by producing a substance that harms certain insects. She finishes off with some conspiracy mongering, suggesting that eating genetically modified foods will brainwash humans to be more accepting of large corporations.

This article will take on her irrational and fear-mongering claims about genetically modified foods. Read more of this post

The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Eugenics

For the purpose of this article, eugenics is defined as “the belief that certain individuals should be killed, be forced to undergo sterilization or other be exposed to other coercive measures to prevented them from reproducing in order to protect the population from harm and to ensure the genetic quality of future generations”. I will occasionally attribute other beliefs to eugenics, such as beliefs in “racial purity” or that evolutionary beneficial implies moral, so let’s consider this a working definition for now. Yes, I am aware that there are people who support other forms of eugenics based on voluntarism etc. but those groups are not the target here.

As we shall see, there are many problems with eugenics. It is based on a multitude of scientific falsehoods, has huge practical problems, it is arguably not cost-effective and wildly unethical. Some of these points are somewhat overlapping, but they emphasize specific problems.

1. Eugenics is based on artificial selection, but this is in practice mainly useful for selecting genes with additive effects. However, most genes have interacting effects, making eugenics less efficient, although not impossible.

2. Eugenics is based on a naive view of development. There is hardly never a direct 1:1 relationship between one gene and one phenotypic trait. In general, most traits are polygenic (influenced by many genes) and most genes are pleiotropic (affect many different traits). It is more accurate to think of the situation as a huge, complex network of genes and gene products influencing each other. The heritability of personality traits and certain complex hereditary diseases tend to be moderate (calculated from twin and adoption studies). Using Genome-wide association studies to analyze hundreds of thousands of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), scientists have found that candidate SNPs can only account for a fraction of his heritability (“missing heritability problem”). This may be accounted for by rare gene variants that are unique for different populations, variation in copy number or genetic interactions.

3. Eugenics is based on a naive view of the power of genes. Genes tend to be risk factors for certain conditions, where environment can act as the trigger. A classical example is the condition know as phenylketonuria (PKU). The genetic risk factor is a mutated version of a gene coding for the enzyme known as phenylalanine hydroxylase that catalyze the hydroxylation of the amino acid phenylalanine to tyrosine. When this is non-functional, phenylalanine accumulates and is converted to phenylketones. This in turn causes mental retardation, brain damage and seizures. An incredibly successful treatment is a diet free of phenylalanine and monitoring of the blood levels of this amino acid. In this case, environmental interventions are more beneficial, cheaper and less unethical than eugenics.

4. If you imagine the general problem outlined in point 3, but instead think of it being hundreds of different genetic and environmental risk factors, then you have an approximate view of most complex human diseases.

5. Even for so called single gene disorders, an individual with one copy of the defect allele and one copy of the healthy allele may have a selective advantage. The classic example is that a person heterozygous for the allele that in the homozygous condition causes sickle-cell anemia has a higher resistance to malaria. The allele, although detrimental in the homozygous condition, is retained in the population by balancing selection. Eliminating gene variants that cause disease in the homozygous condition may lead to less prevalence of individuals with heterozygous advantage. Read more of this post

GMOs and the Monarch Butterfly Issue

The vast majority of the opposition against genetically modified foods and biotechnology in general is rife with scientific inaccuracies, fear mongering and outright falsehoods, as Chassy and Tribe so amply demonstrates in their criticisms of many of the standard anti-GMO claims and canards. The main problems is that the anti-GMO denialists makes claims that either contradicts research published in serious scientific journals, is based on journals no serious scientist would even wipe the dirt of their shoes with, based on elementary misunderstandings of the science or just plain made up.

To be sure, there are real issues concerning food safety that needs to be addressed, such as the enormous amount of chemical pesticides being sprayed around the world that is harmful to both humans and the environment, shortage of vitamins and minerals (as well as calories), drought and pathogenic organisms like viruses or fungi. Genetically modified foods must be a partial solution to these issues in the future as we will need to grow more food on less arable land. Sadly, few opponents of genetically modified foods seem to care about it.

While it is true that genetically modified products should be examined on a case-by-case basis, most anti-GMO groups reject all not only genetically modified products, but the technology itself, out of hand. There is, however, one interesting exception to the analysis of anti-GMO arguments outlined above. One of them are actually based on a research article published in one of the most renowned peer-reviewed scientific journals in existence. Read more of this post

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