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:
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.