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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Some Thoughts About "Cred" and Don Huber

I'll get back to the Don Huber part, I promise, but first I need to talk about belief.

The term "cred" has become a common slang term.  The origins of the term are far older.  In Latin, "cred" simply means "believe."  Cred is a root in words like credibility ("I believe what you say"), credit ("I believe that you are good for the money") or  credentials (I believe that you have the training/experience to do/know something).

Terminology related to cred has been the news a good deal lately.  The rating agency Standard and Poors downgraded the credit rating of the United States.  That was interesting because the credibility of that very organization is in doubt because it gave high ratings to the mortgage-backed securities that contributed to the recent economic collapse.

Just this week there was an announcement that pop singer Jason Mraz and other celebrities are endorsing a new movie called "Freedom." This film supports the idea that bio-ethanol can be a means by which we can achieve "energy independence" from oil.  Even corn-based ethanol (a much discredited option of late) is portrayed in a positive light in this new campaign.  Many highly qualified economists and scientists have made similar arguments about ethanol.  Even though those experts have far better credentials to make such claims, in modern society, the voice of a famous celebrity has greater, or at least broader credibility.    I happen to agree with what these particular celebrities who have chosen to promote, but there are also many cases where celebrity endorsements are less desirable (at least from my perspective).

Back to Don Huber

However; what really got me thinking about the question of cred (belief in general) was an experience I had this Saturday (8/20). Donald Huber, a retired scientist from the Plant Pathology faculty of Purdue University, was being interviewed on a radio show called Food Chain Radio by commentator Michael Olson.  I decided to call-in to see if I could ask Dr. Huber a few key questions.

Huber has been promoting the idea that there is a completely new-to-science pathogen which is somehow associated with glyphosate tolerant crops.  He says that it not only causes plant disease but also causes spontaneous abortions at the rate of 20-50% in animals fed the "Roundup Ready" crops.  He describes the organism as fungal but with a size in the range of a plant virus.  These are pretty outrageous claims, but Huber has not done the things that would enhance their credibility in the scientific community.  He has not published results in a peer reviewed journal or even made data available to support what he is saying.  When I asked him about this on the talk show, he said that the animal data was by others and they did not want their names mentioned until genetic sequencing was completed.  He claims that a letter he wrote to Agricultural Secretary Vilsack was leaked and that is why all of this has come to public attention.

Anastasia Bodnar has published an excellent critique of Huber's claims on the site Biofortified.  In her post she provides links to various academic departments that have published skeptical assessments of Huber's claims.   Suffice it to say that Dr. Huber has little "cred" among agricultural scientists.  However, because he is saying that something terrible is happening that can be blamed on Monsanto and GMO technology, he has automatic credibility with certain constituencies.

I wish I had a good term for this particular class of cred that comes from telling a particular audience what it wants to believe about some entity that it has elevated to an evil status of mythic proportions.  The best term I could find applies to the audience more than to the speaker:

Credulous: ready to believe, especially on slight or uncertain evidence

Don Huber's allegations about a mysterious new super-bug are being widely repeated even though they lack scientific or even practical confirmation.  There are credulous audiences in many "green" or "food movement" circles that are more than "ready to believe" Huber.  The more extraordinary the claims, the more credibility they seem to carry for those groups.

At the risk of offending my readers, this phenomenon is not limited to those with Monsantophobia.  There are audiences that are credulous when it comes to the statements of a minority of scientists who doubt Climate Change or Evolution.  There are audiences that are credulous when it comes to "revelations" about Obama's birthplace or religion.  There are audiences that are credulous when it comes to "death panels," "great Right Wing Conspiracies," "Dirty Dozen Lists"  or links between vaccines and autism.

Before getting judgmental, perhaps we should all consider whether we might be credulous on certain topics.  If we listen to an argument because it comes from a famous person, that is one thing.  If we accept it uncritically, we are being credulous.  If we suspend our critical thinking skills when we hear things that happen to fit our worldview, we are in danger of being credulous.  

In time, it is likely that Dr. Huber's claims will be fully debunked.  Unfortunately, the credulous audiences who believe him now will probably never accept the findings of more traditionally credible sources.