Skeptical Raptor's Blog hunting pseudoscience in the internet jungle

Arguments that GMO opponents should delete from their brains

keep-calm-gmo-safe-1From my perspective as a trained scientist, skeptic and observer of political debates, there are four scientific issues that have wandered into the realm of political debate: evolution, climate change, vaccines and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) generally with regards to food and agriculture.

Evolution and human caused climate change (or sometimes called anthropogenic global warming, AGW) are scientific facts supported by literally mountains of data. The arguments presented by evolution deniers is easily refuted. And the myths pushed by global warming deniers are also quickly debunked. Both of these have become a part of the political conversation, with the evolution and climate change deniers being almost exclusively made up of conservative political groups, including Republicans in the USA. There is no debate about these two facts from a scientific point of view, unless someone cherry picks scientifically weak papers published in bad journals to confirm a bias against these scientific facts.

Vaccines aren’t really a scientific principle per se, but the support for the safety and effectiveness of vaccines is pretty much settled by the vast majority of scientists who actually have experience, research and education in the key fields of science related to vaccines, such as epidemiology, immunology, microbiology, virology, etc. etc. The fact that about 95% of children in developed countries (including the USA and most of Europe) indicates that there isn’t even a “political debate” except some blathering and noise from a tiny lunatic fringe. And the 5% of children who aren’t vaccinated don’t exclusively represent active vaccine deniers–most of these unvaccinated children either cannot be immunized for some health reason, have procrastinating parents, or have parents who may be too poor to get their children vaccinated, even if it’s free to most people in developed countries. The only reason most of us get worked up about the approximately 1-2% of parents who actively resist vaccines is because we think all children should be protected from vaccine-preventable diseases.

On the other hand, GMOs, at some levels, should have some level of public discourse and debate. For example, glyphosate (Monsanto’s RoundUp) resistant crops have raised public concerns, and despite some awful scientific evidence that has been solidly ridiculed in the scientific community, along with solid scientific studies that show no correlation (let alone causation) between human health and glyphosate exposure (see this, this, and this), excessive use of pesticides frighten people.

Personally, I can buy into certain arguments against GMOs. For example, I think that monoculture agriculture is extremely susceptible to an introduced or novel pest, which could be devastating to our food supply. I am also concerned about certain unintended consequences such as evolved pest resistance (but then again this has been a war since the first day genetic modification occurred 10,000 years ago), lower crop productivity, or other issues. So far, science hasn’t uncovered any problems so far, so there’s that.

If the anti-GMO environmentalist community wants to engage in a reasoned conversation about GMOs with those of us who have scientific evidence supporting our discussion points, then they have to quit using five bad arguments, which they seem to pull out of the manual of science deniers everywhere. Because anti-GMO arguments use the same ridiculous “debate” strategies as those who deny vaccines, evolution and climate change. As I’ve joked more times than I care to remember, I feel as all the science deniers attend the same convention to discuss tactics and strategies. It seems ironic to me that those who are anti-GMO make the same exact points as the climate change deniers, yet those two groups have nothing in common except they are both humans.

So what are these five bad arguments? Glad you asked, so here we go.
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Vaccines from GMO corn–science deniers everywhere faint

GMO-vaccinesFor me, the “Big Four” of science denialism are climate change, evolution, vaccines and genetically modified crops or food. There are a few others, and some actually tie into the Big Four, like denying the scientific fact called Germ Theory, which states that some diseases are caused by microorganisms. Antivaccination forces embrace wholeheartedly the denial of Germ Theory.

But rarely can you get a two for one deal, where two key sciences can be denied in one fell swoop. However, I found one.

A small technology venture, called Applied Biotechnology Institute (ABI) in San Luis Obispo, CA, a lovely small city along the Central Coast of California, has developed a method to genetically modify corn to produce medically useful proteins. They are focused on specialized enzymes, sweeteners, and vaccines.

One of their more interesting products, and not really the focus of this article, is a specialized enzyme that cleaves off a part of the pre-insulin molecule to create actual insulin. The enzyme is required in the final production step of human insulin, itself produce from genetically modified crops and bacteria. By the way, genetically engineered human insulin saves millions of lives every year world wide–on the other hand, genetically engineered organisms have harmed no one, as far as science can tell.
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Hey vaccine deniers–it’s just simple math

Updated 19 November 2014.

When dealing with those pushing pseudoscience, like the antivaccination cult, the most frustrating thing is that they tend to ignore and deny the most basic tenets of science. If denying the fact of gravity would further their goals of “proving” vaccines are neither effective nor safe, they would do so. For all I know, they have.

Sam Harris, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA (which is ironic), and is one of leading science philosophers of our generation, says this about those who cling to pseudoscience:

Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. What if someone says, “Well, that’s not how I choose to think about water.”? All we can do is appeal to scientific values. And if he doesn’t share those values, the conversation is over. If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove they should value it? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?

If the antivaccination movement didn’t lead to epidemics of long-gone diseases, which can harm and kill children, the conversation would be over. I would just put the vaccine deniers in the same group as evolution deniers (creationists) or gravity deniers (there has to be some, somewhere). I would mock their pseudoscience, and move on. Of course, their denialism does lead to deaths of children, so we have to do what is right, and stop their lies, misinformation and ignorance in every forum we can.

We have to appeal to scientific values, and despite the fact that antivaccination pushers don’t share those values, we must continue to try. I have gotten enough emails and comments from people that they have started to vaccinate because of what I have written, so maybe some child’s life is better because all of us who support vaccines are heard.

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What does science say about GMO’s–they’re safe

scaremongering-WordleUpdated 19 November 2014.

The science deniers of the world, whether they deny evolution, global warming, vaccines, or GMO safety, spend their time inventing pseudoscience to support their beliefs and claims. As I have written previously, “Pseudoscience is easy. It doesn’t take work. It’s the lazy man’s (or woman’s) “science.” But it has no value, and because it lacks high quality evidence in support of it, it should be dismissed, and it should not be a part of the conversation.”

Alternatively, real science is really hard. And it takes time. And it’s based on high quality evidence. And it is repeated. And it is almost always published in high quality journals. As I’ve said a thousand times, real science takes hard work and is intellectually challenging. You just don’t wake up one day and say “I’m a scientist.” No, it requires college, graduate school, teaching, working in world class laboratories, publishing, defending your ideas to your peers, and one day, if you don’t stop, you will be an authority in your little field of science.

The anti-GMO crowd is mostly lazy. They have this luddite belief that all technology is bad, but have absolutely no evidence to support it. Sure, they pick out one or two poorly done articles and then shout for all the world to hear “GMO’s are dangerous to…bees, humans, babies, whales, trees” over and over and over again.  Yet what do the GMO refusers really bring to the table? 
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How to evaluate the quality of scientific research

einstein-science-false-balance

Revised 18 November 2014.

One of the most tiresome discussions that a scientific skeptic has when debunking and refuting pseudoscience or junk science (slightly different variations of the same theme) is what constitutes real evidence. You’d think that would be easy, “scientific evidence” should be the gold standard, but really, there is a range of evidence from garbage to convincing. So this is my guide to amateur (and if I do a good job, professional) scientific evidence. This is a major update of my original article on this topic, with less emphasis on Wikipedia, and more detail about scientific authority and hierarchy of evidence.

In today’s world of instant news, with memes and 140 character analyses flying across social media pretending to present knowledge in a manner that makes it appear authoritative. Even detailed, 2000 word articles that I write are often considered to be too long, and people only read the title or the concluding paragraph. This happens all the time in the amateur science circles specifically. For example, many people only read the abstract and, even there, only the conclusion of the abstract for scientific articles.

THE most popular article I ever wrote on this blog was one that thoroughly refuted a crazy meme that bananas kill cancer (which is an update of the original banana article). Hysterically, it was based on a complete misunderstanding of a study by “Japanese scientists” (the lead author was, in fact, an American, but whenever you see something that tries to claim authority by using unnamed, but smart sounding, scientists, be wary). Moreover, the conclusion made by the meme-author was based on ignorance about why a growth factor called “tumor necrosis factor” (TNF) that doesn’t do what it sounds like it does, about how a banana would never produce TNF, about how TNF would be broken down in the digestive system, about how it couldn’t be transported from the digestive system to the blood, and about how if you could eat enough bananas, if they did contain TNF, to have a biological effect, it would have to be more bananas than you could possibly eat, and the TNF effects would make you really sick. The banana meme did not have one single accurate assumption. None.

But still, it’s a popular belief. Just go to Facebook, and you’ll find someone promoting it. Like all anti-science memes, it’s a zombie, it reanimates from the dead and spreads its pseudoscience every few months, and I get thousands of hits from people trying to confirm the meme. Well, that’s actually good. I did the hard work of digging into the article and trying to figure out if this whole TNF thing was real.

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How to prevent cancer in 12 easy steps–OK, not that easy

stop-cancer-symbolI have railed against charlatans who claim that they have the easy way to prevent or cure cancer. Generally, these snake oil salesmen try to convince you that they have some miraculous food, supplement, spiritual energy, and on and on, that can either kill cancer in its tracks. Or keep them from even growing in your body. But their claims are nearly always absent real compelling scientific evidence.

Like supplements preventing cancer. They don’t. And that’s been shown in study after study after study after study (yeah, I could go on for awhile). Or like avoiding GMO containing foods prevents cancer. Again, studies show that GMO foods have no effect on cancers. Oh, one more thing–bananas don’t have tumor necrosis factor, and the yellow fruit can’t prevent or cure cancer (but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t delicious).

Despite the absolute lack of evidence that supplements, kale, bananas, or drinking the pure waters of a glacial fed stream (which may not be an option with climate change), there are some things that can be done to reduce your risk (see what I did there–no absolutes, just management of risks) of cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) has codified these 12 steps (no, not that debunked one) into European Code Against Cancer
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Artificial sweeteners linked to obesity–poor evidence

artificial-sweetenersThis article was written by Linda Tock, an American living in Denmark, who has an extensive research background in the biomedical sciences. She has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Chemistry and Health, and will be pursuing a Ph.D. Ms. Tock has a fascination for Daphnia, an interesting planktonic crustacean, that is an important organism in studying pollution and environmental stresses. She’s also a passionate Boston Red Sox fan, so she had to endure a difficult year.

So I received a message from a friend of mine, wanting my opinion on this news article, which loudly proclaims that artificial sweeteners are linked to obesity. Because it was a genuine question regarding the science behind the study, and not a ‘concern troll’ about my preference for diet cola, I went and looked at the study itself to see what the fuss was about.

According to the abstract in the article published in the journal Nature,

Non-caloric artificial sweeteners (NAS) are among the most widely used food additives worldwide, regularly consumed by lean and obese individuals alike. NAS consumption is considered safe and beneficial owing to their low caloric content, yet supporting scientific data remain sparse and controversial. Here we demonstrate that consumption of commonly used NAS formulations drives the development of glucose intolerance through induction of compositional and functional alterations to the intestinal microbiota. These NAS-mediated deleterious metabolic effects are abrogated by antibiotic treatment, and are fully transferrable to germ-free mice upon faecal transplantation of microbiota configurations from NAS-consuming mice, or of microbiota anaerobically incubated in the presence of NAS. We identify NAS-altered microbial metabolic pathways that are linked to host susceptibility to metabolic disease, and demonstrate similar NAS-induced dysbiosis and glucose intolerance in healthy human subjects. Collectively, our results link NAS consumption, dysbiosis and metabolic abnormalities, thereby calling for a reassessment of massive NAS usage.

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The anti-GMO bad science checklist

gmo-grenadeThis article is a substantial update of the original one published last year. 

One of my favorite science websites is at Science or Not, the author of which, Graham Coghill, claims that “this website will help you separate real science from nonsense that’s masquerading as science.” Most real scientific skeptics have that goal, but Coghill does a great job in formalizing science into a readable, logical format. If I had to only read one science blog, it would be his, since his logical methodology to critically evaluate scientific claims would help me evaluate anything I read.

Coghill has two ongoing series of articles, one, the “Hallmarks of Science,” which endeavors to describe what makes good science, and it’s evil twin, the “Red Flags of Science,” which establishes the key indicators of bad science, pseudoscience or plain nonsense. With these two powerful tools, one could, through an openminded analysis, determine the the strength of evidence supporting a claim.

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No more “debates” about GMO safety–thanks to trillions of data points

GMO-protestAs I’ve written a few hundred times before, there’s really no such thing as a “debate” in science, at least in the sense that two sides argue in front of the public, and then there is vote on who is “right” or “wrong.” All that matters in science is the quantity and quality of evidence, that’s it. Yes, sometimes scientists do argue about evidence, but that’s usually done in peer reviewed articles, notes, and other forms of communication. It is mostly civil. And eventually, the evidence drives to a consensus.

Only to the public is there a delusion that there are debates on science. You might think there are debates about anthropogenic global warming, evolution, vaccines, HIV/AIDS, and GMO/biotechnology, but there really isn’t. Scientists aren’t sitting in bars across the world throwing bottles of beer at each other because everyone is divided between pro and anti-GMO. Because that’s just plainly not happening.

When I read that 97% of climate scientists support the fact of global warming or that 99.4% of natural scientists agree with the fact of evolution, it implies that there’s some sort of vote. But if there were, it would be, what we call in US elections, a landslide. But in reality, scientists come to a consensus about broad principles over time, and that is based on published evidence, not logical fallacies or bad data.

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Update to the LeRoy (NY) teenagers’ mystery neurological illnesses

oatka-creek-leroy-nyOver the past couple of years, I had written a few articles about a mystery neurological ailment that had struck about 20 teenagers, most of whom were students in high school at that time in LeRoy, NY, a small town about 30 minutes from the city of Rochester. The teens suffered tics and other neurological symptoms that seemed to mimick Tourette syndrome, but was never diagnosed as such.

None of the teens had ever exhibited other symptoms of a neurological deficit, and most of them have subsequently recovered. Two new cases appeared in 2013, but none since.

Numerous individuals, including officials of the Monroe County and New York State Departments of Health, attorneys, antivaccination cultists, and others whose speculation ran from useful to outright delusional.  Many individuals who “diagnosed” the teens without actually ever meeting them (proper diagnosis of neurodevelopment disorders requires one on one assessment, not the famous “let’s diagnose medicine over the internet).
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