Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Category Archives: Biotechnology Fear Mongering

Mailbag: Ban All Agricultural Pesticides?

Mailbag

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 info on the about page.

There is a culture of fear and hate around agricultural pesticides. This is to some degree understandable, because pesticides have some risks. Large, chronic exposure can cause severe harm, thousands of people die from acute exposure to high doses and pesticides can kill non-target organisms and pollute groundwater.

However, there are also beneficial aspects with pesticides. If we let pests run amok, we would lose 50%-80% of the crop harvest and pesticides play a partial role in preventing such devastating crop loss. They can also reduce labor required to manage weeds and contribute to suppressing insect vectors for diseases (at least for a certain time until resistance develops). Extreme anti-pesticide activists also actively oppose replacing more dangerous pesticides with safer pesticides and using genetic modification to reduce pesticide use. Read more of this post

Six Hilarious Pseudoscience Contradictions

Sheep

Pseudosciences are the imposters of real science. They attempt to mimic the activities and language used by scientists, but have no intellectual substance beneath their shallow surface. This is likely because science has such a strong cultural authority and has been responsible for many beneficial and exciting discoveries during the past few centuries. Anything that attempts to parasitize on science can potentially steal some of this authority from science.

Yet, because pseudosciences are not based on credible arguments or evidence, they contain a combination of wishful thinking and stuff that is plainly made up. Because critical thinking and scientific evidence plays very little role (in any), it is not surprising that inconsistencies and contradictions have crept into many forms of pseudoscience. These contradictions do not just occur between different kinds of pseudosciences, such as chiropractors claiming that giving birth is a massive trauma and that newborns must get spinal adjustments while natural birth activists think that giving birth in the wilderness is completely safe. They can also be found within a specific pseudoscience and that produces many great ironies that many quacks and cranks seem completely oblivious to. Let us look at six such hilarious pseudoscience contradictions. Read more of this post

The Perils of Anti-Pesticide Hysteria

Pests and pesticides

Pesticides have brought humans breathtaking benefits. They help to protect plants from the adverse impact of weeds, parasites and microscopic pathogens that is a constant threat to their existence. Pesticides were vital for the Green Revolution (occurring between the 1930s to 1960s). This was a powerful transformation that doubled to tripled agricultural output and is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of millions of people from starvation. If pests were allowed to reign free, an estimated 50% to 80% of all crops (ranging from wheat to cotton) would be lost (Oerke, 2006), although pesticides are not the only form of crop protection available. Pesticides can also suppress insect vectors for important human diseases and reduce the amount of exhausting manual labor used to clear weeds.

Yet, there is a much darker side to pesticides that cannot be ignored. Large, chronic occupational exposure to pesticides can make people sick or even kill them. Pesticides are typically very broad in their specificity, so they do not just harm the target pest, but many non-target organisms that benefit both the crops and the environment. They can also contaminate surface water, ground water and soil and thus have much more far-reaching effects on organisms outside the field. Excessive agricultural use can also make pests resistant to the pesticides, which can substantially reduce their effectiveness in managing insect vectors for human diseases. Many pesticide apologists ignore or downplay many of these problems.

Developing newer and safer pesticides, replacing older and more harmful pesticides, and deploying biotechnology to help plants resist pests should be a global agricultural priority. Yet in a cruel twist, these crucial solutions are often opposed by many anti-pesticide activists and other extreme environmentalists who push fear and misinformation about “chemicals” and genetically modified crops. This apparent paradoxical situation might be called the perils of anti-pesticide hysteria.

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New Medium Primer: Five Ways GMOs Benefit The Environment

Five Ways GMOs Benefit The Environment

Debunking Denialism has recently expanded onto the social journalism platform Medium where magazines, professional writers and any really any user can write posts about topics that matter to them. It is part of an effort of Debunking Denialism to reach more people outside of the skeptical movement and encourage people to accept mainstream scientific facts about things like vaccines, GMOs, climate change and so on. It might also help to reach people who are stuck in a social media filter bubble, since Medium is a platform that is very open and accessible.

In particular, Medium is optimized for brief and condensed post with a hard-hitting and persuasive message. It is thus suitable for reaching new people with information about science and skepticism. The first Medium article published by Debunking Denialism is called Five Ways GMOs Benefit The Environment. At first glance, it appears to be a clickbait listicle like any other, but it delivers in terms of content and also uses crucial scientific references to back up all major claims. Read more of this post

Mailbag: GMOs and Corporations?

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 info on the about page.

Science is hard. That is why we need dedicated research to explore, discover and untangle the nature of reality and how the world works. When a scientific issue also becomes socially controversial with powerful forces trying to persuade us to hold positions that run counter to evidence and mainstream science, it can get very complicated. One such area is genetically modified crops and genetically modified foods. It is an area where many different issues, from details of molecular biology and field trials to patent law and corporations get mixed together in a confusing mess. Read more of this post

Climate Science Hero Naomi Oreskes Promotes Anti-GMO Myths

Naomi Oreskes Harvard Bio

Naomi Oreskes is a hero of climate science. She completed one of the earliest database surveys of climate consensus among publishing climate scientists and contributed to the largest ever survey of consensus studies. She has taken on misinformants who think that smoking does not cause cancer, who think that acid rain was not an issue and those who deny that humans are the main contributor behind climate change. If there was a team of climate science superheros, she would be a core member.

However, dark clouds has appeared on the horizon. During the past few years, she has been slowly getting closer and closer to the anti-GMO movement. She downplayed the Green revolution and the scientific consensus on GMOs and even linked to conspiracy websites. This might be innocent mistakes since she did admit that she has not researched the area enough. However, recently Oreskes actively and intentionally promoted the harmful anti-GMO myth that GM crops caused an epidemic of suicides among Indian farmers. In reality, empirical data shows that the introduction of GM crops in India has had no impact on suicide rates. As a public intellectual, Oreskes has an intellectual responsibility to avoid spreading anti-science misinformation.

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Coop Sued For Misleading “The Organic Effect” Marketing Campaign

The Organic Effect Marketing Campaign

Coop is a large national grocery retail company that runs close to 660 grocery stores of different brands all across Sweden. They are owned by The Swedish Co-operative Union and The Consumer Association Stockholm. In 2015, their grocery stores sold items to a value of almost 17.3 billion Swedish Crowns (about 2.1 billion USD).

In 2015, Coop launched a fear-based and misleading pro-organic attack ad called “The Organic Effect” against conventional agriculture. They selected a single family with two adults and three children and had them eat organic food for two weeks. They measured conventional pesticides in their urine before and after those two weeks. Before they started eating organic food, researchers at IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute (represented by Jörgen Magnér) found insecticides, fungicides and straw-shortening agents (~5 nanograms/milliliter). Afterwards, these conventional pesticides had allegedly disappeared.

The family in the video thought it was really disgusting to eat insecticides and felt very happy afterwards. Magnér claims that scientists know very little about the long-term effects of eating foods that have been exposed to pesticides and points out that combinations of chemicals can sometimes be worse than either of them on their own. The video finishes with the mother saying that her first reaction to the results from the urine tests is that she thinks of the children and that she never wants those chemicals that now have left their bodies back.

During 2015, Coop increased organic food sales by almost 20%. It is of course difficult to attribute all of this to the advertisement campaign, but it is reasonable to suppose it was not a complete failure. The Youtube video (see references and further reading section) of the advertisement has been seen almost 5.5 million times on Youtube.

Why is the “The Organic Effect” Marketing Campaign Scientifically Misleading?

This commercial is highly scientifically misleading for a number of reasons:

1. It only tested pesticides used in conventional agriculture and completely ignored pesticides used in organic agriculture (such as copper and iron sulfate, pyrethrines, sulfur, azadirachtin, spinosad etc.). Had they also tested organic pesticides, they probably would have found that those would increase when the conventional pesticides declined. They also never tested e. g. fungal toxins and other toxins that pesticides protect against.

2. The residual amounts detected are extremely low, only about 5 nanogram per milliliter from their charts.

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Are There Any Risks With GM Crops Not Found With Conventional Crops?

Corn

One of the best strategies used by scientific skeptics against anti-GMO activists on the Internet is to ask them to cite one risk that exists with genetically modified crops, but does not occur with any conventional breeding method. This is best done after presenting evidence of the safety and efficacy of GM crops and other GM applications. That way, the anti-GMO activist has to both respond to the published evidence, but also figure out unique risks with GM crops. Because it is very hard to find these supposed unique risks, the anti-GMO activists finds themselves in a very difficult position.

Far from being stumped, anti-GMO activists often try to come up with alleged unique risks, but they are often mistaken: the same risks occur with traditional breeding methods such as cross-breeding, marker-assisted breeding, radiation breeding or breeding that uses mutagenic substances such as EMS. This post repels many of the most common retorts given by anti-GMO activists when asked to cite a unique risk with genetic modification compared with conventional breeding methods.

What about allergens?

GM crops are required to go through stringent toxicological and ecological testing by regulatory authorities. This includes testing for the presence of allergens. If GM crops are found to contain allergens, they are not approved. In contrast, there is nothing that prevents a farmer from developing a new form of food item that we know contain allergens, such as peanuts, or crossing plants that cause the mixing of thousands of genes that could potentially cause an allergen.

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