March for Science…and a plea for an understanding of the scientific process

I did not March for Science today, I was away on a short kind-of-vacation for two days visiting some dear friends (and working, I gave a talk at a fruit growers’ twilight meeting in Rhode Island). Literally, while all the marches were happening, I was discovering candlepin bowling south of Boston. It’s great, like open wheel or go-kart racing is to NASCAR, by the way.

But I’m glad that the Marches happened, and from everything I can see, they were well-attended and have received good media coverage. It’s great to see scientists and non-scientists alike banding together to remind society that science is important.
Now, here are a few of my takes on the matter:

1. We need to remember that science is a process, not an absolute answer or consensus in itself. Science is the systematic acquisition, cataloguing, and application of knowledge attained through observation and reflection. That’s my definition, anyway. Each of those words means something: in science, we strive to carefully collect unbiased data using established methods to isolate factors and to evaluate the knowledge gained from that observation in the light of previous, related, and conflicting work.
2. Again, science isn’t absolute, except for a handful of laws (gravity, thermodynamics, conservation of energy, etc.) and even they go wonky when subjected to extremes. However, scientific consensus is a real thing, and means that the majority of experts in a particular field have come to a similar conclusion based on substantiated evidence. Scientific consensus isn’t something to dismiss lightly, especially when those dismissing are not experts in that field, have not evaluated the evidence in the same manner, and/or have generated data that comes to an opposite conclusion than consensus without adequately explaining itself. Exceptional claims require exceptional evidence.
3. Unless you’re one of those true experts in a field- that is, among the most-published, cited, and consulted persons on a specific subject matter- there’s almost always someone who knows more than you do about a subject. Trust those people first. They are certainly not infallible, and reading the debates that happen in the letters sections of scientific journals will tell you far more than an activist website that tears down an expert from afar without engaging in a constructive discussion.
4. Social science is as valid as ‘hard’ science. But when people begin to believe ideas that are contrary to those that are backed by scientific consensus, it is in society’s best interests to promote the ideas that are based on measurable fact rather than belief. That said, social science can help to inform the questions that ‘hard’ scientists ask to ensure that all angles are covered.
5. Conspiracy theories very, very rarely have any foundation to stand on. If an idea is promoted through the popular press (or, of course, social media) that is contrary to scientific consensus, it’s probably a quack idea. It’s just too easy for conspiracies to crumble, based on the number of people who would need to keep their mouth shut for them to work. Also, remember Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation to a situation is most likely the correct one, as long as it solves for all of the variables.
6. Scientists add to the body of knowledge and debate ideas in the realm of the literature: peer-reviewed journals that are a living library of the data, conclusions, and debates surrounding them in a particular field. Sound ideas can happen outside of ‘the literature’, but if ideas are to enter the canon of knowledge (factually correct information that is sufficiently compared against and catalogued with other information in a particular field to become useful), then they will eventually become codified in the literature.
7. A single study means almost nothing in the greater realm of a scientific subject- it must be compared to other studies in the same field, the methods and analyses debated, and followed up on in order to be useful in the context of other information within that field.
8. Unfortunately, there is a whole dark field of non-reviewed literature out there that masquerades as valid but does not undergo peer-review and may accept completely garbage work as real science for a payment. Those journals can be hard for the uninitiated scientist to tease out and good scientists sometimes publish in them, even unknowingly. But when a scientist, especially a mid-career or senior scientist, is caught publishing shoddy work in these predatory or junk journals, then their other work deserves extreme scrutiny and is best viewed with skepticism. Some scientists have developed substantial components of their careers using these journals, their literature forming the backbone for some scientifically shaky but pervasive conspiracy theories.
9. Industry scientists are just as valid as academic scientists, and often more so in their particular fields since they have the specialized knowledge, facilities, and funding to perform experiments specific to their needs. As long as private sector science follows the same rules for quality and transparency as university trials, it is valuable and valid. There may certainly be conflicts of interest in any science (industry, activist, or university), but good, reputable labs will transparently follow standards of practice that manage their influence on the scientific process.
10. Art, religion/spiritiuality, love/emotion, and science are not mutually exclusive, but should inform one another.

I could go on, but those are some good basics to consider as we celebrate science today. Why does this matter?

Because we cannot pick and choose among the science beliefs we choose to support based on our preconceived beliefs.

Because we owe it to everyone to become informed beyond the viral post or pop-media article. Not everyone needs to read scientific literature, but more people should develop that skill and practice it. And valid, pop-science literature (e.g. Scientific American; Discover; Smithsonian; etc.) should be read widely, and if you’re going to share a post that’s not from the original literature, it should be shared from those sources.

Because science has overwhelmingly benefited human society, and will continue to help us address critical issues that will affect our sustainability as a species, and the sustainability of the world we live on.

Because we need to respect science and use it to better understand the wonders that make us and the world around us awesome.

 

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Academic freedom, conflicts of interest, and…Monsanto.

My initial impetus for starting this blog came from some interactions on social media I had when I expressed my support for biotechnology in agriculture. I’ll describe that support more clearly at a later time, but a key component of it is that I trust science, the scientific process, and the work conducted by public-sector scientists especially to acquire knowledge and utilize it to make our world better. I find it extremely frustrating when good public scientist’s credibility is called into question over perceived conflicts of interest often stemming from grant funding or collaboration with private industry on projects. Many don’t realize that university scientists are encouraged, and often expected, to involve the private sector in research projects, and there is a very good oversight process though Sponsored Programs Administrations, Institutional Review Boards,  Research Protections Offices and the like to ensure that ethical guidelines are followed in the course of research. Of course, the peer-review process itself serves as another layer to ensure that scientists are doing their jobs professionally and objectively.
A recently popular tactic among the anti-GMO movement has been to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to harass scientists and conduct fishing expeditions through their emails to shake out any detail they can grab onto to further their narrative. In many cases, this behavior has resulted in dragging good people’s reputations through the dirt without cause. This has been written about in several articles that I won’t elaborate on but will present here , here, here, and here. Sometimes these requests turn up real conflicts of interest among the anti-GMO crowd though, so it’s a tricky sword to wield.
I don’t typically do the kind of controversial work that might trigger a FOIA request, but I have found that in my very few instances of coming out in public in favor of biotechnology, almost every time my independence is questioned, and I am soon accused of working for Monsanto. However, unlike activists, bloggers, and private citizens, it is actually customary for people in my profession to post every tidbit of their professional life in an online Curriculum vitae. Mine can easily be found on my faculty profile page, and while it may not always be immediately up-to-date (I update it several times per month to reflect my latest work), it always pretty close and should give folks a picture of the work I do and how I fund it.
So with that said and everyone having had a look at what I do for work, let me throw out my one and only explanation to the “do I work for Monsanto” question, taken directly from the social media post that raised it:

…The closest thing I have to Monsanto funding is matching support for a grant I received to study organic management practices to mitigate apple replant disease. The manufacturer of one of the fungal isolates I am testing has provided matching funds to conduct soil nematode assessments which were too expensive to include in my grant. That company, Novozymes, Inc., entered into a distribution partnership with Monsanto BioAg in January of the year after I submitted the grant (November 2013). Never have I been contacted by Monsanto in regards of this work or any other work I am involved with. That hardly makes me a shill. Rather, as a plant scientist, I’d suggest that I’m fairly well-informed of the issues around crop breeding and production…

Anyone who views my CV will also see that I have never conducted research with any GM crop, that the majority of my scientific career has included research on organic production systems (including my M.S. thesis and Ph.D. dissertation), and that I work on applied projects to solve real problems identified by Vermont farmers. I would never risk my integrity as a researcher for a $9,000 grant (out of over $400,000 attained at that time) that doesn’t go into my pocket, but pays for technicians and research costs. That’s just not the way that anyone who works in an academic research environment conducts business, in fact, the culture is very much against it. Here‘s a great blog piece that illustrates the difference between disclosed conflicts of interest and scientific misconduct that explains why we need to worry less about the former and more about the latter.

So now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk.

TB

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