A war of perceptions on GMOs

Anti-GM demonstrators. Photograph: Paul Hackett/Reuters
Anti-GMO demonstrators. Photograph: Paul Hackett/Reuter

Genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) are at the centre of heated debate as to the potential effects on health and environment.

In the “Seeds of Contention” (by Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Ebbe Schiøler), the authors bring the issue to a point by calling it a war of perceptions. Anti-GMO groups are generally concerned that GMOs might bring lasting destruction to the environment and human health as well as negatively affecting the well being of poor people. Pro-GMO groups says that GMOs have the potential to alleviate hunger and poverty while improving the quality of the environment.

GMO controversies seem to be, largely, a by product of poor science communication. As a result, over-simplified and contentious statements have been able to gain currency while the real issue of GMOs being a part of the solution for world hunger goes largely ignored. The silent stakeholders (populations in developing countries who need the solution) are rarely heard from.

Monarch butterflies (or, how headlines affect support for GMOs)

In 1999, a study found that pollen from GMO Bt maize could harm monarch butterflies. Subsequently, there was widespread reporting on GMO crops decimating the population of monarch butterflies.

Later that year, when several groups studied the phenomenon, a risk assessment concluded that the risk posed by the maize to monarch butterflies was negligible. This was confirmed by a 2002 report and in a 2007 review.

The retraction was never published and today you can still read news stories about GMO crops eliminating monarch butterfly populations even though independent researchers and the US Department of Agriculture suggest that the truth is a little more complicated than that.

The case of the monarch butterflies is typical of the hype around GMOs. Uncertainty and fear of the unknown has created hype and resistance.

Arguments in science

All scientists wear white lab coats, right?
All scientists wear white lab coats, right?

From the outside it might appear that all scientists are the same. After all they have all spent a long time in higher education institutions, they all know quite technical things relevant to their field, and they all wear lab coats (right?).

But ‘the scientist’ is not an identity that any one person or group perfectly personifies.

Biologists and biochemists, astrophysicists and geophysicists. They are all different, and not just because of the fields they study.

Take the recent message written by Steven McKnight, President of American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. In it he humorously (but potentially offensively depending on who you ask) references the falling quality of young researchers. The resulting furor on social media suggests that not all scientists agree with McKnight’s perspective.

So, scientists disagree sometimes?

The answer to that question is, of course, yes.

 Cold fusion: When the majority overcame the minority

A better known instance of visible disagreement among scientists is the case of cold fusion as ‘discovered’ by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann. On that occasion, these two men published a paper that was never necessarily replicated – though that wasn’t the most startling aspect of the controversy. Cold fusion is a case where two scientists, by ignoring standard practice and producing results that no one else could validate, stirred up conflict on a large scale.

Most likely because of the drive of the university to gain publicity, Pons and Fleischmann did not announce their work the traditional way – through a journal first. Rather, on the morning that the paper was due to be published, they held a press conference and invited the attendance of scientists as well as media.

The rather hyped up story took strong hold and for a while cold fusion became the solution to all energy problems.

Eventually, the excitement died down, the theory faded away, and Pons and Fleischmann went on to other studies, which is what happens in a lot of disagreements or controversies in science – later this week, I’ll explain this more through the theory of Leapin’ Lesbian Lizards.



Everyone’s an expert on Ebola

Just a short post today to make mention of an article in the Weekend Australia Inquirer section which dealt with Ebola in a surprisingly tasteful manner (if we by pass the title ‘death and danger on the seething front line of Ebola’).

Jamie Walker, associate editor of the section, reported on developments in Ebola through the eyes of anesthetist Jenny Stedmon who worked with the Red Cross in Kenema, Sierra Leone.

Dr Jenny Stedmon preparing clothing for medical staff - Picture Katherine Mueller
Dr Jenny Stedmon preparing clothing for medical staff – Picture Katherine Mueller

What I’d like to bring your attention to is the way Jamie introduces Jenny as a reliable and relevant expert. He leads with her experience in other crises (“At 55, she has worked in war zones in the sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and treated typhoon victims in the Philippines.”) and talks about her work in west Africa rather than focusing on just the horror of the disease (“In Kenema her advanced medical training counted for little. To begin with, she helped triage patients at the local hospital…her next job was to set up a containment camp in a clearing outside the town.”).

At a time when reporting on Ebola is sensationalist and unfortunately doesn’t shy away from speculation, this story was a welcome break.

Everyone’s an expert (even me?)

Yes, Ebola is scary. We don’t have a vaccine or a cure. But, haven’t you noticed how the panic around these concepts spreads sensationalised stories like wildfire?

If you’re interested in reading about the perspective of epidemiologists and other infectious disease researchers have a look through this AMA from Reddit on Ebola.

How to prove your point about climate change

So, it’s just an average day and you’re having a debate about climate change. If we assume that the debate is framed in the black and white way used by almost every major news publication then you’re probably arguing for or against anthropogenic (human caused) climate change.

WIRED UK magazine asked Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones to contribute work for ‘The Future As It Happened’ for the magazine’s July 2014 issue. The magazine asked some of their ‘favourite writes, artists and photographers to convey 2024 news in ‘the format we used to love.’ Robert and Didier’s image ‘Parliament Square Water Crisis Centre’ continues their interest in exploring issues of sustainability and the possible effects of man-made climate change. ‘Following seven years of extreme and changeable weather patterns a high pressure system settles over the North Atlantic which results in the southern UK suffering three consecutive years of winter drought. Clean water supplies are affected with millions of households rationed, with millions of households rationed.’
Parliament Square Water Crisis Centre | © Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones

The question is, as a busy person who doesn’t have the time to do the research, what appeal to authority can you make to strengthen your argument?

An appeal to authority is when you use the position of an expert or institution in place of an actual argument.

This might take shape like this, “Bono says that peace is important, so I do too.”

An appeal to authority can sound great, and in some cases (not in the case of Bono) it does strengthen your argument. For instance, “Doctor X has been researching the impact of Y for ten years and has found Z. Therefore I argue that Y causes Z.”

But problems occur when we fail to critically evaluate why we’ve used one expert over another.

Let’s look at an example.

Say I was opposed to human caused climate change and wanted to make the point that alarmist positions with regards to rising temperatures in Australia were spreading a misconception that climate change was happening faster because of human activity.

To find evidence to support my perspective (not that you should technically be finding evidence to support your view, it is technically supposed to happen the other way round – but that’s a topic for another day) I might go to the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change’s archive and look for a report on temperature change in Australia.

Oh, and here’s the report I’m talking about (or, more accurately, here’s a quite biased summary of the report).

So now, armed with my report showing that only alarmists believe that Australia is warming significantly faster than the rest of the globe, I feel comfortable saying the following.

“Because of this report and the NIPCC, I believe that climate change is not anthropogenic.”

Which all seems pretty straight forward, right?

Well… there are some problems with approaching evidence and citing experts in this way.

For one thing, I haven’t constructed a proper argument – I’ve just used two sources of authority that I agree with. And, in selecting my material, I’ve cherry picked evidence by going straight to the NIPCC rather than performing a wider search.

This first level of problems with my argument are simple enough, and they happen often enough when we’re stretched for time – or when we don’t want to admit that opposing arguments exist.

Paolo Massa | Trust us, we're experts | Flickr CC
Paolo Massa | Trust us, we’re experts | Flickr CC

But there’s a second level of issues which are more troubling. These issues relate to my use of ‘experts’. The NIPCC, for those who don’t know, are a group of climate change skeptics who are financially supported by the Heartland Institute. If this weren’t troubling enough (as the Heartland Institute is backed by fossil fuel companies among others), then I should also note that the NIPCC has previously been accused of pseudoscienceAccusations of misrepresentation and, in some cases, data modification have been floating around for quite some time.  

The impact on my argument is that my ‘evidence’ is now weakened because the authority I’ve appealed to can be shown to be flawed and (really really) disreputable.

What are the implications for the way we argue about climate change?

To put it simply, when we talk about any controversial topic it’s important to at least be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the authorities you mean to rely on. Otherwise you might just find yourself a little red faced.

Opinions are always welcome on It must be Wednesday, comment here or find me on Facebook and Twitter

Talking about experts

Paolo Massa | Trust us, we're experts | Flickr CC
Paolo Massa | Trust us, we’re experts | Flickr CC

Experts – we all use them.Whether it’s to cite someone else’s work in an argument, to quote someone in a press release or article, or even to link to more informed perspectives in a blog post.

But do we actually know why we cite them?

It’ s been brought to my attention that the use of experts in communication can be a bit of a gray area. If we just look at It must be Wednesday, you could take, for instance, my entry on the megalodon. It was a bit of a silly piece for Shark Week that discussed whether, with all the hype around megalodon, there was any chance of it actually existing. What I notice know is that I didn’t stop for a second when I needed someone to cite – I went straight to the CSIRO.

What does that mean? Well, it means that I didn’t think through why the CSIRO was the best place to go to for information. I didn’t analyse the reliability of the source, nor did I think about whether any biases might affect their work.

In the case of megalodon, I think I’m safe (the CSIRO certainly isn’t the only organisation that says megalodon simply doesn’t exist), but it does make me think about what we mean by ‘expert’ and who to go to when I talk about ‘big issues’ like cold fusion, stem cell research and vaccinations.

To my mind, an expert is someone with deeper knowledge of a specific field because of specialisation. Their expertise is the result of interest in a subject which has lead to in depth participation in whatever field it may be.

An expert is qualified to give opinions based on their in depth involvement, but it doesn’t make them the last word on a subject. It just gives their opinion more weight than someone without their specific knowledge.

Alan Cleaver | How to be an expert| Flickr CC
Alan Cleaver | How to be an expert| Flickr CC

In this sense, a expert in art can be an artist, an art critic and a gallery owner – three figures with consistent and in depth involvement in the field of art. But it’s also more specific than that. For instance, an expert in science might be a botanist, a veterinarian and a doctor but, if you’re talking about how best to deal with asthma, you’re going to preference the expertise of the doctor over the expertise of the botanist and veterinarian even thought they are all scientists.

With this in mind, over the next week I’ll be taking a look at the issues we’ve already looked at with the intention of critically engaging with the experts of each issue – and where gaps in using them over another person occur.

Until next time, let me know your thoughts here, or on Facebook and Twitter

A gap in science journalism: communicating about Ebola

With all the hype around online (and with misinformed people like Donald Trump tweeting about how Ebola victims should have stayed in Africa to prevent spreading the virus), it’s time to talk about how Ebola has exposed a gap in science communication.


While organisations like the CDC created a resource for people in the US in the form of a forum on Twitter, there is still a gap in communication efforts. In fact, just a few days ago, the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) put out a statement laying out the need for science journalists who can communicate the facts of the Ebola outbreak.

This statement wasn’t just addressing the dearth of science journalism in the United States (as Faye Flam of Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT addressed here). The WFSJ was also concerned by the lack of science journalism happening on the ground.

Too often we assume that online public health campaigns and social media can spread information to people who need it. Forgetting that the best way to reach people is to tap into channels that they know and trust – which may be social media, or perhaps their morning TV/radio show, the local newspaper or the community bulletin board.

In a crisis, communication is aid. Communication reassures people, provides vital information, and (when done well) puts communities on the road to recovery a lot faster.

In the case of Ebola, this need has not yet been met.

Interested in the concept of communication as aid? Take a look at this video.

Until next time, let me know your thoughts here, or on Facebook and Twitter

Science art: Picturing the future with climate change just got easier

With the UN Climate Summit approaching, there’s going to be a lot of talk about climate change. So this seems like a good moment to let images speak for themselves. Below, you will find a small gallery of images from UK artists Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones depicting the potential impact of climate change on major world cities.

Their confronting series Postcards from the Future depicts possible scenarios based on scientific forecasts for a world in which climate change continues, unimpeded.

Opinions are always welcome on It must be Wednesday, comment here or find me on Facebook and Twitter

Cold fusion continued | Of John Bockris and paradigms

The dream of cold fusion is that it brings cheap, unlimited energy from devices that can be built in a garageA few days ago, I posted this entry on cold fusion in relation to Stanley Pons and Martin Flesichmann. I received quick responses from a few readers and it made me wonder what it is about cold fusion that generates such prompt responses. 

Cold fusion is an electric topic that draws attention due to the possible applications of the theory. As wired.co.uk journalist David Hambling noted, the idea of cold fusion is an attractive one – he says “the dream of cold fusion is that it brings cheap, unlimited energy from devices that can be built in a garage.”

This is a dream that John Bockris, professor in the physical sciences whose claims about cold fusion caused controversy and secured the 1997 Ig Nobel Prize, probably pursued.

John Bockris

Dr. Eugene Mallove wrote that Bockris was “one of the top two or three electrochemists of the 20th century. . .Bockris and his student protégés pioneered many of the current directions in electrochemistry.”

Bockris studied cold fusion and nuclear transmutation. In 1992, he published his work under the title “Cold Fusion” or “Condensed Matter Nuclear Reactions”. This work drew criticism from the scientific population. This instance was not so much a case of hype in science as it was part of a continuing paradigm shift in terms of what areas of study were considered acceptable in science at that time. 

A lack of consensus within the scientific community, can alter the trajectory of research. In the case of cold fusion, the attempt to shift the paradigm to support for the theory, for the most part, failed. It continues through a small groups (like the Martin Flesichmann Memorial Project) and individual researchers. 

It’s ability to enter normative science, or not, is determined by the strength of the consensus. I doubt that support or agreement on cold fusion is going to happen, at least not anytime soon.

Modelling controversies: Pons and Fleischmann’s cold fusion

Fleischmann and Pons holding 'cold fusion' experiment
Fleischmann and Pons holding ‘cold fusion’ experiment

In 1989, two chemists claimed that they had produced cold fusion (fusion that would occur at room temperate) through a simple experiment. The chemists, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann became overnight sensations.

Pons and Fleischmann had been collaborating with a research team headed by Steven E Jones from Brigham Young University. The two teams, having shared research and techniques, had agreed to submit their research papers to the journal Nature simultaneously.

However, Fleischmann and Pons were supposedly pressured into submitting their paper to the Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry and issuing a press release by the University of Utah as the institution wanted ownership of the discovery.

Unfortunately, the announcement of their findings were premature and the cold fusion story has become a case study for sensational scientific controversy. 

Modelling the cold fusion controversy with Turner’s four stages

To briefly explain the cold fusion controversy, I’ll use a controversial framework from an anthropologist called Victor Turner. Turner asserted that social dramas (or controversies) have four main phases of observable public action.

  1. Breach: a public and obvious breach in a norm that regulated behaviour
  2. Crisis: the breach increases and separates the groups of people concerned
  3. Redressive action: an action occurs which limits the crisis by adjusting and addressing the issue
  4. Reintegration: the crisis is resolved and the initiator of the crisis is reintegrated into society along with any changes that occurred during the redressive stage

During the cold fusion controversy:

  1. A breach occurred when Pons and Fleischmann prematurely announced that they had successfully achieved cold fusion. They acted against standard procedure by holding a press conference before the paper had been peer reviewed and replicated by their peers in the science community.
  2. During the following months, a crisis occurred in which claims of similarly achieving cold fusion were rare and often retracted. Meanwhile, Pons and Fleischmann stuck to their aims that their discovery would address problems of fuel scarcity and anthropogenic global warming. The majority of hype in the media occurred at this time.
  3. Redressive action during the cold fusion controversy was a matter of the America Physical Society holding a session to discuss Pons and Fleischmann’s cold fusion claims. Of the nine people who voted on the matter, eight elected to dismiss their claims.
  4. Pons and Fleischmann resumed working. Fleischmann eventually began to teach at London University, Durhma University and, in 1967, was appointed professor of electrochemistry at Southhampton University. Fleichmann and Pons did meet again and worked on their cold fusion theory from 1992 to 1995.

Though the case of Pons and Fleischmann is the most notable, other controversy around cold fusion has occurred throughout the years. Next time, we’ll look at the case of John Bockris. A professor in the physical sciences whose claims about cold fusion caused controversy and secured the 1997 Ig Nobel Prize. For now, if you’d like to see some of the Pons and Fleischmann press conference unfold, have a look at this video.

Science with a bang: Making explosive claims about Mt. Fuji

Mt Fuji from Mt Kami | Wikipedia Commons
Mt Fuji from Mt Kami | Wikipedia Commons

A month ago, international headlines said that Japan’s iconic volcano – Mt Fuji – was in a critical state.

The headlines originated with this a press release and interviews with the lead author from a study on seismic activities in Japan’s crust, Doctor Frolent Brenguier.

Dr. Brenguier made some very interesting statements about Mt. Fuji.

He speculated that the changes in seismic pressure that the researchers had noticed after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake could cause eruptions in volcanos, like Mt. Fuji. In an interview with The Guardian, Dr. Brenguier said that “our work does not say that the volcano will start erupting, but it does show that it’s in a critical state” while in the press release it was noted that “these findings lend support to theories that the last eruption of Mount Fuji in 1707 was probably triggered by the giant 8.7-magnitude Hoei earthquake, which took place 49 days before the eruption”.

Now the problem is that the scientific report didn’t support the statements made to the media. The report seems to be ‘good science’ yet the statements made to the media contradict this impression.

If you remember back to my last post, I suggested that motivation for this type if behaviour can be traced to a drive for publicity from different parties (including individuals, research institutions and journals). In this case, the study was published in Science which might just indicate that the journal’s preference for big sensational science can lead scientists to go to media with highly speculative claims rather than peer-reviewed results.

Does this example demonstrate a typical situation in which hyped up science is trumpeted by scientist, journal, or journalist (or all of the above)? What kind of long term effect will it have? Is this a problem which scientists need to consider when publishing and publicising their work?

In this case, it appears likely that nothing further will happen. A few articles were published online and any other dissent was minimal. But next time, we’ll look at an instance  in which the impact of the sensational claims made were far-reaching and which still influence scientific research today.

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