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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.



10 comments:

  1. You do not address the issue at all. Instead of attacking food and green "groups" perhaps u should focus on glyphosate.

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  2. Forever Flavor,
    As I said in the post, Anastasia posted an excellent critique of what Huber has claimed. There isn't a lot more anyone can do as long as he isn't actually providing data that can be reviewed or experimental protocols that could be repeated to see if his results are replicable. The point is that Huber has not provided information that can allow a scientific response and until he does his allegations are unproven and unprovable.

    Glyphosate has been around since the 1970s and is extremely well studied. The Nature Conservancy has long used it to control invasive weeds in their locations because it is so environmentally benign. There is nothing in the pattern of crop yields or animal production to fit with any of the "sky is falling" claims that Dr. Huber is making. All we have are unsupported claims from Huber about work on animals that the other scientists don't consider ready for print.

    The one thing that Huber actually documented years ago when he was in the lab was a transient manganese deficiency because of chelation by glyphosate. It is a minor issue that presents no real problem to growers.

    The "issue" in this post is to think about what all of us choose to believe and why. If you will notice I suggested that many other groups other than "greens" are subject to being credulous.

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    Replies
    1. I really think you should reconsider your position on how well studied glyphosate really is. Here is a study funded in part (and then ignored by) the USDA.

      http://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/35795/PDF

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    2. Interesting, but hard to know what it actually means. I may contact the authors to see what further work they have done.

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  3. Forever Flavor is obviously credulous.

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  4. One could also be incredulous.

    unwilling to admit or accept what is offered as true : not credulous

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  5. good argument... BUT Huber does not have access to this info and if it was released for sure someone would loose their job.He is, as far as I know a respectable and eminent scientist with no axe to grind against the establishment, he's an ex colonel in the US marines, I think. Why would he come up with this info if he didn't have grounds for it? Back to the 'cred' of it all- Monsanto have fought many lawsuits over claims of health damage caused by their products over the years - hardly great 'cred'!

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  6. Because he used to work for Monsanto...and some would say he DOES have an axe to grind.

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  7. He has worked as a military scientist on such technology as biological warfare, with half a century of scientific research under his belt!!!
    The trouble is, anybody who speaks out against the agribusiness "machine" is likely to be targeted by smear campaigns. Companies like Monsanto have an almost endless supply of money to throw at these operations. You might like to check out the ecologist, there are a number of articles about GM and the problems that accompany these technologies.
    Here is a link to an article by Paul Craig Roberts which mentions his credentials with links to further reading at the bottom of the page:-

    http://www.paulcraigroberts.org/2013/02/24/polluted-america-paul-craig-roberts/

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  8. Just happened on your blog looking for info on this Don Huber guy. I'm starting to think some of these anti- GMO people are cranks. Thanks for this.

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