GMO facts and myths – your one stop for scientific evidence

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs or GMs) are one of the most well-studied areas of biological and agricultural research. However, one of the tactics of the GMO refusers is that “there’s no proof that GMOs are safe.” It’s time to look at the GMO science facts – examining myth from science.

Typically, in a debate, the side making the assertion (those that say GMOs are unsafe) are responsible for the evidence that supports their contention. But, the anti-GMO gang relies upon the argument from ignorance, trying to force the argument to “if you can’t prove that they’re safe, they must be unsafe.”

The anti-GMO forces also like to invoke the precautionary principle, which attempts to shift the burden of proof to those who are advocating GMOs (or any new technology) until the advocates “prove” that there are absolutely no negative consequences of using GMOs.

The principle is often cited by anti-science and/or environmental activists when there is a perceived lack of evidence showing that this technology is absolutely safe.

I’ve written numerous articles about GMOs, focusing on scientific evidence supported by high-quality research. And more than a few articles debunked myths and bad research from the anti-GMO crowd. To assist those who are doing research on the topic, this article was created to be a one-stop shop for GMO science facts – and fiction.

Continue reading “GMO facts and myths – your one stop for scientific evidence”

GMO corn – safe and more productive according to new meta-review

GMO corn

As I wrote recently, the science is settled on “controversial” topics like vaccines and anthropogenic climate change. The science is also settled on genetically modified organisms (GMO) – real science, not anecdotes, beliefs, misinformation, and lies, tells us that genetically modified agricultural products are safe for the environment, for animals, and for humans. Now, we have a new, powerful study that shows us that GMO corn is not only safe but also increases production of corn.

GMOs are one of those modern technologies that many people avoid, mainly for irrational and unscientific reasons. Of course, many people push fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about GMOs using little or no scientific evidence to support their claims.

But I’m here to provide real, published, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that contradicts that fear about GMOs – well, at least about GMO corn. Continue reading “GMO corn – safe and more productive according to new meta-review”

Settled science of climate change and vaccines – critiquing denialism again

settled science

Many of us on the evidence side of science discussions will often throw out the phrase that XYZ is settled science. Of course, this causes the science deniers, especially the vaccine and climate change deniers, to get all indignant while throwing out there science ignorance wrapped in their usual ad hominem personal attacks. I use it frequently, about 25% of the time to troll the science deniers while about 75% of the time to make a point.

So this article is going to review what we mean by “settled science,” and it doesn’t mean what the pseudoscience loving world thinks it means. In fact, pseudoscience fans think the only “settled science” is their fake evidence and fake conclusions. But that’s not science and it’s not “settled science.”

Now, you might ask about why I chose climate change and vaccines as the two settled science examples. There are good reasons – conservatives who accept vaccines often reject climate change, even though the evidence supporting both are overwhelming. And there are those on the left who get angry about climate change denial, yet accept every pseudoscientific argument, conspiracy theory, and lie about vaccines. It makes my brand new irony meter blow up. Continue reading “Settled science of climate change and vaccines – critiquing denialism again”

The official 2018 top ten list from the Skeptical Raptor

2018 top ten list

Since it’s the end of the year, and all good bloggers do some sort of 2018 top ten list. Of course, I’ve been doing this since 2012, so it’s a tradition. At least for the last seven years.

My 2018 top ten list actually is voted on by you, the loyal reader. I don’t choose this list, it’s just the top 10 (with a couple of bonuses) most read articles published on this website. Sadly, some of my favorite articles didn’t make it to the top, but maybe what interests me doesn’t interest you. I can live with that.

So here we go. I think there’s a drum roll somewhere.

The official 2018 top ten list of articles

  1. Nick Catone son dies tragically – blaming vaccines with no evidence. An article by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss describing a sad story where parents try to blame vaccines, yet there is little evidence supporting such a belief.
  2. Gardasil facts – debunking myths about HPV vaccine safety and efficacy. This article is a list of everything the feathered dinosaur has written about the HPV vaccine or Gardasil. Let’s summarize – the vaccine is safe and it prevents cancer.
  3. MTHFR gene and vaccines – what are the facts and myths – the MTHFR gene is one of the canards of the anti-vaccine religion – they believe it’s got something to do with vaccines. It doesn’t.
  4.  The Medical Medium – junk medicine with psychic reading – The Medical Medium is one of the most creepy individuals pushing pseudo-medicine. He thinks he can use psychic reading to diagnose and treat serious medical conditions. I’m glad people are reading this article to find out facts about this charlatan.
  5. Colon detoxification – myth versus science. People think that detoxing is useful. It isn’t.
  6. MSG myth – debunked with real science. MSG is just a simple amino acid that is part of the structure of nearly every protein that one consumes. It has no effect on human physiology unless we throw in observation bias and a dash of racism.
  7. Tetyana Obukhanych – another anti-vaccine appeal to false authority. Obukhanych is someone who has what appears to be sterling credentials but denies science to push false claims about vaccines. This is why we should always ignore all credentials.
  8. Marijuana medical benefits – large review finds very few. Marijuana advocates try to push a narrative that cannabis has medical benefits, usually to create some level of credibility for marijuana legalization. However, real science shows us that marijuana only has a few medical uses. And it has no effect on cancer.
  9. Japan banned Gardasil – another ridiculous anti-vaccine myth. This trope, based on really no good information, is one of the favorites of the anti-vaccine world. Gardasil is still available in Japan.
  10. Bananas prevent cancer – debunking another myth about food. This article was first written during the early Cretaceous, yet it is still the most popular article ever written here. It has been read over 120,000 times, which is amazing as blog articles go. The basic facts are that pseudoscience-loving foodies misread an article thinking that bananas contain a protein called tumor necrosis factor. Bananas don’t. Even if they did, you cannot absorb tumor necrosis factor, since it will be broken down in the digestive tract into amino acids. And even if you could absorb it, the factor does not kill cancer. In fact TNF increases inflammation which increases risk of cancer. But it’s not in bananas, so this is all irrelevant.

2018 top ten list – bonus #11

Argument by Vaccine Package Inserts – they’re not infallible – anti-vaxxers constantly misread and misrepresent what is written in package inserts. Why do they do this? Because all of the clinical and epidemiological evidence contradicts their claims, so they resort to cherry picking information out of the insert to support their claims. If only they read this article, they’d understand what a package insert is or isn’t.

2018 top ten list – bonus #12

Gardasil killed Colton Berrett? The evidence does not support this claim. This is another tragic story of a child’s life taken too early. But the parents, manipulated by the Vaxxed fraudumentary team, want to blame the HPV vaccine. But the vast mountain of evidence tells us that it wasn’t the vaccine. We should tire of this fake new pushed by the anti-vaccine religion, but they persist, because, once again, they lack evidence for their claims so they move to blatant emotional manipulation. They’re vile people.

And that’s it for 2018

It’s been a very successful year for the old feathered dinosaur’s blog. We’ve had almost 2.5 million views of articles, and over 10 million hits. It remains one of the most popular websites on the internet, ranking in the top 300,000 websites – I know what you’re thinking, that the old Skeptical Raptor isn’t Facebook or Twitter. And it isn’t. However, since there are over 1.8 billion websites on the internet, it means that this website ranks in the 0.00167% of all of the websites in the world. As I joke frequently to friends, I remember cheering when I hit 100 visitors…for a whole freaking month.

I’m planning to do a few things a bit different in 2019. I’m going to do a weekly article on an interesting clinical or epidemiological study that crosses my desk. These articles will be outside of my normal articles on pseudoscience – they may be on psychiatric or cardiovascular drugs. They may look at new medical technologies.

Finally, I want to thank all of the readers who have made my articles here and the cross posts at the Daily Kos so popular. I really appreciate the support, kind words, and vibrant discussions. Time to watch my undergrad and graduate schools play football games – hopefully, they win. And to cheer against Notre Dame and Alabama. Well, Notre Dame lost badly, so that made me smile.

Everyone, please have a safe and fun New Year’s celebration. And have a Happy 2019. May Trump please be indicted – that will make my year the best.

Recognizing good and bad science in vaccine research

bad science

Figuring out the quality of sources, that would separate good from bad science, took me a long time. I was sleep-deprived, had postpartum anxiety, and was scared of something I had not previously thought that much about before having kids.

The woman who had been a mentor to me in my career, with whom I had entrusted my life and that of my child through my pregnancy and birth, whispered in my ear a few minutes after my son was born to not let the hospital give him the hepatitis B vaccine. This was the first and last communication we had about vaccination, but filtered through my trust for her it planted a seed of doubt and convinced me at the time there was a good reason to avoid it. Her suggestion that I followed could have cost my son his life, but it took me almost two years to figure out why.

I set out on a path of sleepless nights to figure out what those reasons might be, and the internet can certainly deliver on that front. The problem was, most of what I was reading was misinformation designed to exploit my fears. I wasn’t yet familiar with the idea of confirmation bias or that search engines had a lot of first page hits for poor sources because of the way the search algorithms work. 

It took me some time to figure out that Google is the confessional of our anxieties, the most commonly typed in fears get boosted, and higher quality links with more technical language tend to lag behind as we often don’t know what keywords will give us the answers we are looking for. If we think of the internet as a library, it would be like if register adjacent tabloids and flyers handed to you on the street by conspiracy theorists were filed in the most prominent shelf spaces amongst the reference books.

Quality information is available, but it can take some digging to get to it. As a result, I got a lot more scared before I learned how to better interpret the quality of what I was finding. I eventually learned to type whatever scared me alongside “+criticism” or “+debunked” if I wanted to find a different perspective on a topic. Doing that is how I stumbled upon Skeptical Raptor’s well-cited breakdowns of things I had been reading that had me all twisted up in knots. Learning to use Google Scholar for searches also helped to cut through the noise when I was looking for actual research.

I feel a lot of regret for the time I left my child vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases because of fear, and hopefully some tools I found along the way to help me evaluate sources might be helpful for other parents who find themselves facing the same stress. Continue reading “Recognizing good and bad science in vaccine research”

Courts and science – talc and glyphosate probably do not cause cancer

courts and science

I’ve written about this many times before – courts do not get to decide what is good or bad science. Although courts and science may not necessarily be incompatible, attorneys, juries, and judges are generally not trained in scientific research, scientific methods, scientific publications, and/or scientific reasoning.

Two relatively recent cases are strong evidence that courts and science can be quite incompatible. In the first case, a jury ordered pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson (JNJ) to pay US$4.69 billion in damages to 22 women who claimed that the company’s talcum powder products caused ovarian cancer. In the second case, a jury ordered chemical manufacturer Monsanto to pay US$289 million to a janitor who claimed that Round-Up (glyphosate) caused his terminal cancer.

The problem with both of these cases is that there is, at best, some weak, unrepeated scientific evidence that supports their claims. However, if you refrain from cherry-picking articles on PubMed, you’ll find that the vast majority of research either doesn’t support their claims or even shows that there are no links between talc or glyphosate and cancer.

Let’s take a look at the science in both of these cases, and then, let’s find out why courts and science are not necessarily compatible. And remember, this isn’t a recent problem – an American court once rejected evolution during the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. So science has been skeptical of the involvement of courts and science for a very long time. Continue reading “Courts and science – talc and glyphosate probably do not cause cancer”

Ten thousand years of GMO foods – making inedible edible

Ten thousand years of GMO foods

One of the tropes of the anti-GMO movement is that nature does it better for food, a logical fallacy. In other words, they believe that our ancestors’ foods are somehow better than our GMO foods. Of course, this belies the fact that there are over ten thousand years of GMO foods – it’s really not something that showed up during the last century or so.

People seem to endow “nature” with a special status that is ridiculous. Evolution proceeds along a random process where environmental changes select for certain mutations over time (and yes, I’m oversimplifying the process), which is called natural selection. Moreover, there are random mutations that just occur that provide no benefit to the organism, although they might in the future because of some environmental change.

Nature has no goal. It has no guidance. It has no underlying value of good or evil. Unless you believe that some higher being controls it, and at that point, you’re a creationist, claiming that “nature” is better than the alternative is basically ridiculous.

So, we’re going to talk about how genetic modification has moved from the early days of waiting for a random, beneficial mutation to the modern world of genetic modification.

Continue reading “Ten thousand years of GMO foods – making inedible edible”

Solid GMO scientific consensus – based on real science

solid gmo scientific consensus

Over and over, I’ve read comments on the internet (obviously, my first mistake) that there is no GMO scientific consensus regarding whether genetically modified organisms (generally crops or food) are safe for humans, animals, and the environment. Well, that’s simply not the case.

Furthermore, there are even claims that GMOs are not necessarily productive or provide higher yields, and so-called organic foods are healthier (they aren’t) and are better for the environment. Again, that’s not necessarily the case.

Let’s look at anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change since it also has this huge controversy over whether there’s a scientific consensus. Over 97% of published articles that expressed a conclusion about anthropogenic climate change endorsed human-caused global warming. If that were a vote, it would be a landslide that would make dictators jealous.

According to Skeptical Science, it’s even more than that:

We should also consider official scientific bodies and what they think about climate change. There are no national or major scientific institutions anywhere in the world that dispute the theory of anthropogenic climate change. Not one.

The consensus is so clear, outside of vocal, loud and junk science pushing individuals and organizations, that many scientists call it the “Theory of anthropogenic climate change,” which would mean it’s at the pinnacle of scientific principles, essentially an unassailable fact.

Continue reading “Solid GMO scientific consensus – based on real science”

MSG myth – debunked with real science

msg myth

Food additives are one of the most passionate issues amongst people who eat (which would be everyone). AspartameHigh fructose corn syrup. GMO‘s. Salt. Sugar. Trans fats. Polysorbate 80. But the MSG myth is one of the most pervasive in the food pseudoscience world (yes, I’m going to make that a thing).

Of course, these additives cause angst in people because of their scary chemical names. Or nonsense on the internet. Or random neurons firing.

Obviously, there is stuff, created by the beauty of natural sunlight and goddess blessed sweet waters from the Alps, that is better than these man-made evil chemicals. Well, no. Everything in nature is made up of “chemistry” –  25-hydroxyergocalciferol is a scary chemical name, right? Except it’s the metabolic product of the conversion of vitamin D in the human liver. It’s natural!

But let’s get back to MSG – how many times have you seen “No MSG” in a sign Chinese restaurant? Is it because China, who has been using MSG in their cuisine for centuries, has been conspiring against Americans since the first Chinese restaurant starting serving up kung pao chicken to unaware Americans?

It’s time to look at the MSG myth – is it real, or does it need a good debunking?

Continue reading “MSG myth – debunked with real science”

“Bad Advice” by Paul Offit – a book review by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

Bad Advice

A new book, “Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Informationby Dr. Paul Offit, is different from his previous writings in two ways – much of it is autobiographical, with a lot of personal anecdotes, and it is about science communication rather than the actual science.

“Bad Advice” opens with a story of a 1997 TV interview Dr. Offit has, and how he bungled – by his account – a question about which vaccines children get, how many, and when. The story sets the tone for the book – it’s funny, it’s candid about what Dr. Offit did, in his view, wrong, and it offers sound advice for other science communicators.

To a large extent, this book was written for those engaged in science communication, and it is full of tips that can help every current or would-be science communicator.

What gives the book its charms are the anecdotes and the humor sprinkled throughout it, and its accessible and conversational tone, but I don’t think I can mirror that here without spoiling the effect – I think these are best enjoyed in context. So this review describes the content but does not capture what makes “Bad Advice” so much fun.

For full disclosure, I highly admire Dr. Offit, have sought his advice and help on many issues in my writing on and advocacy related to vaccines, and consider him a personal friend. I have also read a draft of the book and provided comments. 

Why Science Communication?

The first three chapters of “Bad Advice” provide important background by explaining why science communication is needed, and some of the obstacles to it. 

The first two chapters of the book set out what science is and what scientists do, and why their training and background make it difficult for them to be effective science communicators. Among the things covered – again, with a lot of humor, humility, and personal anecdotes – are that much of the scientific work is done alone, and much of what it requires makes people less, rather than more, suited to work with people. 

Dr. Offit discusses the fact that the scientific method trains scientists away from using absolute statements, but qualified statements can backfire when communicating about science; the challenge of reducing complex, nuanced reality into sound bites that work in a digital age; and more.

The next chapter analyzes why we need science communication, why people – however smart – may fall for misinformation. It looks at several natural, human features that make us easily wrong on scientific issues. “Bad Advice” also examines our difficulty identifying and assessing risks, the pull of celebrities as authority figures, even though they may not have the background to provide good information, and may, in fact, promote bad information (for example, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.  – revisited later in the book – constantly provides bad information about vaccines  ). The chapter also talks about other limits on the ability of humans to think rationally and the ways we acquire knowledge.

After thus setting the stage for why it’s important to engage in science communication and some of the challenges, Dr. Offit is ready for the next stage.

Good advice vs bad advice

Chapters 4 through 7 offer direct advice on communications through personal anecdotes of things that worked and things that didn’t in Dr. Offit’s over 20 years of doing it.

In chapter 4, Dr. Offit offers “some painful, hard-earned, and occasionally humorous lessons gleaned from personal experience” on communicating with the public. These range from the deeply practical (“be comfortable”) to the content based (“be sympathetic,” in the context of an eleven-year-old diagnosed with AIDS at the time when HIV was a death sentence, and “Don’t panic.

The facts are your safety net.”). But they’re invariably written as amusing anecdotes leading to a useful punchline. In one of the stories, Dr. Offit describes how he arrived at the famous “10,000 vaccines” quote that anti-vaccine activists like to misuse. The punchline? “You are going to say things that, although scientifically accurate, you will regret. It’s unavoidable.”

Chapter five addresses whether it’s appropriate for scientists to debate science deniers, using several examples. Dr. Offit’s recommendation is to avoid it, but he does provide three successful examples of such debates. His conclusion is that he, personally, is too angry and passionate on vaccine issues to successfully participate – because he annually sees children die from preventable diseases, “invariably, .. because parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children. And the reason they had made that choice was that they had read or heard bad information..”

Bad Advice ends with a recommendation that “debating the undebatable is worthwhile,” if, and only if, scientists can see the discussion as a teachable moment, and not focus on the people they are debating or the others in the room.

I’m not sure I agree, at least in terms of a televised debate. I think Dr. David Gorski said it well when he wrote:

…debating cranks doesn’t sway anyone, sharing the stage with a real scientist does unduly elevate the crank in the eyes of the public. Besides, whatever the seeming outcome of the debate, you can count on the crank to declare victory and his believers to agree. In any event, science isn’t decided by the metrics used to judge who “wins” a public debate, which rely more on rhetoric and cleverness rather than science to decide the outcome. Finally, such debates are not without risks. Although Julian Whitaker, for example, was terrible at it, other cranks are adept at the Gish Gallop, and an unprepared skeptic or scientist can be made to appear clueless in front of a crowd that is almost always packed with supporters of the crank, not the skeptic.

I think I agree with Dr. Offit’s initial position that agreeing to a debate is a bad idea.

Chapter six looks at the role of comedians in combating misinformation about science, focusing on vaccines – covering the Penn and Teller episode, Jimmy Kimmel, the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. And I’m really going to let you read that by yourselves. It’s fun.

Chapter seven looks at the ways the cinema helps or harms science communication. It opens by comparing two films about outbreaks – “Contagion,” that got the science right, and “Outbreak,” that did not. To give a flavor, when talking about “Outbreak,” Dr. Offit describes how a monkey carrying the harmful virus was caught, and the movie scientists had to “determine which antibodies are neutralizing the mutant virus, synthesize those antibodies, and make several liters of life-saving antisera. Assuming everything goes well, Hoffman’s task should take about a year. Cuba Gooding Jr. does it in a little less than a minute. (Now I understand why people are angry that we still don’t have an AIDS vaccine.).”

Nonetheless, Dr. Offit sees an important role for movies in science communications, and urge scientists to work with filmmakers to get it right.

Science communication in action – confronting the anti-vaccine movement:

The last part of the book uses the anti-vaccine movement as a story of the pitfalls and successes of science communication.

Chapter 8 of “Bad Advice” looks at how charismatic figures can promote anti-science misinformation. Although it covers several examples, the heart of the chapter is the case of Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who promoted misinformation about MMR. Dr. Offit tells the dramatic story of Wakefield’s rise, the scientific literature that showed him wrong, and the discovery of his misdeeds, that led to his fall. He describes Wakefield’s situation today – thoroughly discredited, on par with other conspiracy theorists – through his participation in the infamous Conspirasea Cruise.  The end of the chapter examines different explanations for why Wakefield sticks to his original claims, years after they’ve been thoroughly disproven. I’ll let you find out yourselves. It’s not exactly flattering to Wakefield, though. 

Chapter 9 looks at the role of politicians in promoting anti-science misinformation, focusing on Dan Burton’s hearings that tried to make a case that vaccines cause autism (YouTube snippets of the hearings, out of context, are still used by anti-vaccine activists. Dr. Offit will give you a more comprehensive view). Dr. Offit also tells of his own experience in the hearing, and what he sees as errors committed because of his naiveté and inexperience. It’s half sad and half comical to read through both his preparation for the hearing, and the actual experience of Mr. Burton, who came into the hearing with a set conclusion and a set role he wanted Dr. Offit to play, trying to delegitimize him. 

Chapter 10 warns science communicators to expect a campaign of personal delegitimization and attacks, drawing on Dr. Offit’s own extensive experiences with anti-vaccine efforts to attack him. It goes from hateful emails, through lawsuits, to death threats. It’s painful but incredibly important for people who go into these areas to be prepared for the ugly reaction from misguided but passionate people on the other side, in all its extreme forms. 

Chapter 11 goes more deeply into Dr. Offit’s own reasons for entering the fray. It is very autobiographical (some of the events in it were described in some of Dr. Offit’s other books, but many will be new to readers), telling his career story – again, with lots of humor, more than a few lumps. This is to explain what motivates him to speak up, and to some degree, to counter the claims accusing him of having a conflict of interests because of his involvement in the creation of the rotavirus vaccine. It’s a powerful chapter.

Chapter 12 ends on an optimistic note, pointing out things that have improved in the war for science – the rise of science bloggers, the better attitude of the media. And in the epilogue, Dr. Offit ends with the March of Science, as an embodiment of the willingness of science supporters to fight back.

Takeaway

In this very autobiographical, often humorous, extremely candid and full of good advice book, Dr. Offit does a service to science communicators by telling them what worked, what didn’t, and some thoughts on what comes next. You may not always agree with his advice, but you are very likely to agree with large parts of it, think about much of it, and enjoy the way it’s delivered. It’s a very fast read, and worth reading and probably rereading. And rereading.





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