Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Biotechnology Fear Mongering

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.

Read more of this post

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.

Read more of this post

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.

Read more of this post

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).

Read more of this post

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.

Read more of this post

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.

Read more of this post

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.

Read more of this post

How to Breach Genetic Privacy

Breaching genetic privay

ResearchBlogging.org

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.

Read more of this post

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

%d bloggers like this: