Please, don’t kill this idea

This third round of essays contained some doosies—ideas risky enough to make any scientist cringe. A few truly jarring essays overshadowed this section and the subsequent book club discussion. The contentious essays were (in some people’s opinions) weakly argued and dangerous, and definitely deserving of a rebuttal:

Gary Klein boldly claims that Evidence-Based Medicine must die. This is a worrisome idea. Evidence-based medicine came about to rigorously test medical interventions in a standardized method to determine what medicines work, what medicines may be dangerous, and what medicines don’t really do anything. Without evidence guiding medical decisions, we are back to days without antibiotics, vaccines, chemotherapy, and other life-saving inventions. Klein argues that evidence-based medicine is not perfect because not every study can be replicated and, in a few extreme cases, results of clinical trials have been faked. Well, as a fellow book-clubber exclaimed, this essay is “trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Yeah, science is not perfect. Nothing is. That is no reason to kill it, but more a reason to demand increases in rigor and integrity. Asking to kill evidence-based medicine because it isn’t perfect is reckless, and could dismantle trust in a medical system that strives to save lives.

In a similarly questionable essay, Dean Ornish tries to nix the idea of Large Randomized Control Trials. He calls out how some studies are poorly designed, which some studies are. In my opinion, poorly designed trials must die. Ornish takes his opinion to the extreme in stating that all large randomized control trials must die. The loose logic of his essays seems intended to make small studies about behavioral interventions appear stronger. Maybe the studies he mentioned just need a better design.

Tom Griffiths tries to argue that bias can be a good thing in his essay, Bias is Always Bad. Bias is bad. It makes for bad research questions, fraudulent and incorrect data interpretations, and a milieu of societal problems. Griffiths, however, is talking about a different kind of “bias” where it is used as a way to process digital images. Basically, he’s arguing that bias isn’t bad because some people have a different definition of bias. It’s a misleading argument, which may be intended to ruffle feathers with a flashy title. But the substance of the essay is arguing semantics, not thought-provoking ideas.

The last essay to which I will openly dissent is Richard Nisbett’s Multiple regression as a means of discovering causality. He argues that a statistical technique, multiple regression, is limited. And it is. Multiple regression is designed to determine which factors are correlated. Nisbett has a problem with people misusing this statistical technique. Well, that’s pretty obvious…Correlation doesn’t equal causation. All scientists know this. Bad scientists do abuse this. But the misuse of a statistical tool does not mean the tool needs retired (as the content of his essay argues); it means the misuse needs retired.

This reading section did contain some wonderful essays, too! Jamil Zaki’s The Altruism Hierarchy was delightful. Basically, it argues that the back-and-forth surrounding the meaning of altruism is trivial. Not only is figuring out a hierarchy of altruism “logically self-negating,” but it is “morally self-negating.” Zaki expresses frustration about how the science surrounding altruism strips the humanity from it, saying how “it’s profound and downright beautiful to think that our core emotional makeup can be tuned towards others, causing us to feel good when we do.” Honest and emotional human insights coming from a scientist like Zaki can hearten fellow scientists and humans, and I’m glad I read his piece.

Ian McEwan questioned the Edge question in his piece entitled Beware of arrogance! Retire nothing! The short, humorous, and poetic prose elegantly frames how even bad ideas need preserved, because that’s how science progresses. We learn from our mistakes, and it is dangerous to negate old ideas as meaningless.

Lastly, Robot companions by Sherry Turkle challenges us not to fight the developments of Artificial Intelligence, but to truly consider how we want robots to serve us. Do we really want to create a machine intended for companionship or love? Turkle “see[s] us on a voyage of forgetting.” As we embrace technological advancement, we must consider how a genuine, tenuous, and beautiful human experience shapes our relationships with others. Although AI geeks love to argue the seemingly limitless potential of robots to mimic humanity, robots will never truly have humanity.

Once again, this section provided plenty to discuss at our meeting—with equal amounts of frustration and intrigue (although surrounding different essays). It’s interesting, and maybe terrifying, to see the logical shortcomings of supposed scientific thought-experts in our society laid so bare. Discussing blatantly radical ideas does force reflection, both on the ideas and the identity of the authors. At the end of the day, these esteemed thinkers are simply humans, with ideas with which we may refute. Only time will tell whose ideas will die, but I for one really hope that evidence-based medicine and large randomized control trials live.

– Sam Tucci

This Idea Must Die: Intriguing concept, lackluster execution

In This Idea Must Die, John Brockman collected essays from notable thinkers of today to answer the 2014 Edge.org question: “What idea has become a relic blocking human progress?”

A nice feature of this book is that there is a lot about which we book-clubbers can opine: the essay selection, the ordering of the essays, the content of the essays, the writing style of the essays, the originality of the essays, the authors of the essays, etc. And opine we have!

The first few essays all pretty much said the same thing: there is no “Theory of Everything.” After reading the first essay, the following essays fell flat– the point had already been made. Although we read arguments dismantling the case for a theory that unified the mathematics describing the universe, it was hard for non-theoretical physicists to truly understand the point. Not necessarily because the writing was overly technical, although sometimes it was, but because the authors frequently failed to frame their arguments within a context relevant for an outsider to their specific field of research. Stereotypes of aloof physicists, out-of-touch with the real world, were thus reinforced. Bashing string theory while making the assumption that all humans follow and understand this debate is doubly condescending. And the redundancy of essay topics truly blunted the edginess of any attempt at a novel argument.

I will spare you my frustration about the jargon-filled and ego-laden, pseudo-arguments made in most of the essays—at least for now.

On a positive note, a few of the essays did teach us something new, and made us think deeper, drawing us to lines of thought far-removed from our typical work and interests. Like Infinity by Max Tegmark! Who knew there is more than one type of infinity?!

The essay on Entropy by Bruce Parker was similarly notable. It tackled a complex problem and was able to put in words the typical confusion many have when grappling with the concept of entropy, which measures the amount of disorder in a system. The idea also actually seems radical, and it is one of which I have never before heard. It was the type of intriguing essay I expected for a book teasing about retiring outdated scientific ideas.

Other favorite essays include “The Rocket Scientist” by Victorie Wyatt (my personal favorite thus far) and Indivi-duality by Nigel Goldenfeld (resonated with a few book club goers). Notice that you don’t need to own the book to read the essays, they are all freely available on edge.org.

Lastly, I must comment, the demographics of this book are pitiful.

timd authors

So far, of the 32 authors we have read 29 are male. Based on a crude googling of every author in this first section, the average age (where published online) is ~65 +/- 10 years. And, there are virtually no people of color. If we are looking to radically change the direction of science, asking a bunch of old, white dudes will not accomplish this goal. Regardless of the quality of any individual’s response, the scope of this book is blatantly narrow and we are certainly missing out on voices that are ready to argue an idea that must die.

Sam Tucci 

Attacks on science come from multiple angles

Attacks on science come from multiple angles

The War on Science is fought on multiple fronts. This week, Otto guided us through an exploration of the ideological war on science and the industrial war on science.

The Ideological War on Science

Scientists could learn a thing or two from evangelical Christians. Celebrity preachers and popular religious figures relate to their audience personally and emotionally, a feat at which scientists often fail. Scientists must welcome people into their awe-inspiring, life-changing, profound, and, yes, emotional world if we hope to be relatable.

Comparing how religious leaders and scientists communicate is one thing; comparing the merits of religion and science is another. Science and religion exists in a false dichotomy, a theme discussed in prior book club meetings and underlined in this section:

“The desire to create knowledge that motivates science ultimately shares some of the sames drives as that of its progenitor, religion. Playing to these drives is one way science can reach the masses, by helping them to understand the mystery and wonder of the world and our place in it, to find meaning and hope, and to make life better.”

Science does not exist to oust religion. Science exists to explain and understand our natural world. Indeed, many religious people (including scientists) find the discovery process deeply spiritual and enlightening. Scientific wonder can deepen the appreciation for our natural world, which in turn, can deepen a person’s faith in the existence of a higher power.

As science reveals the beauties and intricacies of the natural world, it never challenges the existence of God. Science tests hypotheses using the scientific method. For a hypothesis to be evaluated, it must be testable and capable of being disproved. The existence of God is an idea taken on faith. No physical method exists to test for the presence of God. Thus, science can never disprove God, and real science will never claim to do so.

Big-picture religious ideals are very different than adherence to a fundamentalist belief system. Science can, and has, disproved notions set forth by certain religious groups about the timeline of Earth’s formation, for example. This is because a hypothesis such as “the Earth was created 10,000 years ago” is testable. So we tested it.

The ideological war on science is coming from a group of fundamentalists who fail to see the beauty in science and deny the facts of the natural world as they are revealed to us through experimentation and thoughtful observation. Fighting an ideological war seems impossible, and it truly may be impossible to open the minds of a group of people deeply and emotionally invested in clinging to fundamentalist stories.

As a scientist and a Catholic (me, not the book club), it is disheartening to see this ideological war on science conflated to a war between religion and science in many media representations. This ideological war may never end, but that doesn’t mean that all religious people (most of the world) are at odds with science. To keep it this way, the process of science– the process of discovering the natural wonders of the world– must be discussed openly, with emotion, and with reverence.

The Industrial War on Science

Unlike the ideological war on science, I don’t have much sympathy or hope around the industrial war on science. The industrial war on science is a dirty game played by powerful people designed to sow doubt, fear, and uncertainty in our already complicated society.

Basically, whenever science uncovers information about our world that may cut into the profits of certain industries, the industries launch strategic public relations campaigns to discredit the scientific claims so they can keep making money. This is what happened with Big Tobacco in response to scientists uncovering the link between smoking and cancer. This is what is happening with Big Oil in response to science uncovering the relationship between man and climate change.

Otto mapped out the PR tactics in detail. The responses from big companies are predictable: underline the uncertainties in the studies, bash the scientists, play games with statistics, prey on fears, etc. But no matter how predictable big industry’s response to science is, their tactics are scarily effective.

Our book club struggles to understand one particular part of this industrial war: Who, as a person, is so devoid of a moral compass that she/he is willing to intentionally mislead the general public? Who would willfully commit themselves, along with the rest of the world, to a fate stemming from a disrupted global climate? Denying the truth of such a far-reaching issue like man-made climate change hurts all of us–including the willful deniers–in the end.

Money (therefore power) is the only practical reason someone would devise these deceptive PR campaigns. The book club realizes that everyone must pay the bills, but we wonder if there is not an alternative in which a person could financially support herself/himself and keep their integrity?

So what are we to do?

Can science fight the blaze of misinformation with the flame of knowledge? Can we sow the seeds of scientific literacy as effectively as those who sow fear and doubt?

Otto reminds us, “knowledge is power, so it follows that suppression of knowledge to protect vested interests ultimately weakens government.” Spreading scientific literacy empowers others to think for themselves. When people can think for themselves and reject the propaganda of vested interests, our democracy is protected.

But who can distinguish a single flame amidst a wildfire? Science has evidence and knowledge, but it seems knowledge just doesn’t spread as quickly as fear.

 

Written by Sam Tucci 

Edited by Destiny Davis

Science and democracy

If someone were to ask me on what the United States was founded, “science” would not be my first answer. Or even my second. But in chapter three, “Religion, Meet Science,” Otto argues that science is a core, founding principle of the US and democracy itself.

Religion and science are inherently intertwined: science is the “vehicle to religious understanding.” The Puritans, the first American settlers, believed both faith and the exploration of nature—God’s creation—grants access to the divine.  Through “observation and reason” of and about the natural world, God’s will is knowable.

But this idea was not unique to just our founding fathers. Otto traces this thinking back to the very birth of science in the Islamic Empire. Subsequently, within each community in which science advances, there is the same story arc: a clash between the church and scientists (or philosophers). When the church loses its status as the sole arbiter of knowledge, nature and its laws– as the creation of God– becomes the highest authority.

It was this power shift, from the church to nature, that gave rise to democracy. Science, as a system of observation and reason, is accessible to us all–one just needs the right tools.

My favorite summarizing tidbit was:

“If we can discover the truth by using reason and observation—i.e. by using science—then anyone can discover the truth, and therefore no one is naturally better able or more entitled to discover the truth than anyone else.” (p73)

This is the heart of democracy and an idea to which our founding fathers closely adhered to in the writing of our founding documents. There was an understanding that a nation founded on science is intellectually wealthy, economically wealthy, and innovative. Knowledge follows the thinkers, and thinkers tend to gravitate towards open, democratic and supportive societies.

But what happens when society is so divorced from the scientific process that they fail to recognize the value of curiosity-driven science? Or when society limits the types of questions science asks? This is at the heart of the perceived, but false, dichotomy between basic and applied science, or curiosity-driven science and problem-solving science.

Given the current debate over the value of basic science among those with the power to defund it, Otto lays particular emphasis to the import of basic science. Science for the sake of understanding is the foundation applied science is built upon. One is process. The other is form.

It’s impossible to read this section and not think about the oft-used economic argument for shifting funds away from basic science and towards applied science. Science is expensive. Very expensive. Scientists must justify every expense, and rightfully so. But a problem arises when funders do not understand the scope of basic science questions and therefore fail to recognize the value of research without a obvious problem to solve. The questions basic science asks are abstract and far-reaching. While the results of applied science are perhaps more tangible, the potential rewards from understanding how something works are vast and often unexpected. Increasingly, people do not see basic science as the foundation for the other and are therefore dangerously unaware of the potential damage limiting basic research could cause.

But, economics is not the only ax people wield against science. Otto also ties societies’ feelings about science to the social context in which it is done. By outlining several major scientific controversies, from the theory of relativity to vaccines to evolution to the big bang, we begin to see how powerful arrogance, self-interest, and fear are in motivating people. Reading this section put knots in my stomach as I saw parallels in what is happening in the United States today. Tribalism has taken hold and reason has no bearing on people’s opinions. It’s painful to think of what becomes of a world without reason.

However, Otto gives us hope at the end of chapter four with a beautiful example of how science can build bridges between ideas and people: When Pope Pius XII cited Edwin Hubble’s work in astronomy as proving the existence of God, science and religion were once again entwined. While the journey to this moment was tumultuous and long, I think it shows us that societies only move forward with science.

 

Anti-vaxxers and the Sagan effect: A grim read for science communication hopefuls

It was hard not to be depressed after finishing the chapter entitled “Science, Drugs, and Rock’n’Roll.” The chapter was a litany of all the ways the public can misperceive science, detailing how these misperceptions can take hold and the ramifications that come from denying science. Otto’s most striking example chronicled the saga of the anti-vaccine movement– a movement that has diminished vaccination rates and caused thousands of preventable deaths.

The book club knows that Otto will eventually get to the “What We Can Do About It” part of the War on Science subtitle. But Shawn, if you’re reading, next time you write a book please include nuggets of hope throughout the book and don’t just save them for the grand finale? We can’t read fast enough to quell our worries about science, our beloved.

In these last two chapters, our book club found a clear theme: intergenerational resentment is nothing new. The anger many millennials feel towards their parents’ generation lies parallel to the anger their parents’ generation felt towards the generation before them*. This meeting was attended solely by millennials, but we hope we get some older folks engaged in our discussions, soon. Reading about generational disputes underlines the need for calm, rational intergenerational conversations.

*There is a major difference between our generation’s anger and the baby boomer generation’s anger: they still have a much larger, more powerful voting block. They were boomers.

Scientists earned the distrust of the baby boomer generation through a series of shadowy events where the promises of scientists were rarely kept and the aftermath of scientific breakthroughs often overshadowed the intended benefits (DDT, asbestos, cigarettes, leaded gas, etc). Public perception is everything, and science has not yet earned back the public’s trust.

We, in Science Says, fully understand that scientists need the public’s trust to help science succeed in their lofty goal of bettering humanity (and the Earth and the universe). That is why we work so hard to create a two-way conversation between science and the public. Our bright-eyed ideals of communicating science to advance science were a major reason this section was so tough to read: we learned about the “Sagan effect.”

Otto defines the Sagan effect as when “one’s popularity with the general public [is] considered inversely proportional to the quantity and quality of one’s scientific work.” Sagan was a stellar scientist who published hundreds of peer-reviewed research papers. His success as a science-celebrity hurt his academic reputation because fellow academics could not see the value of an engaged public. And because they were flat-out jealous.

Although partaking in science communication DOES NOT mean you are a bad scientist (data backs this up!), there is a perceived professional trade-off (linked paper claims no actual professional trade-off). However, graduate students often struggle to convince their advisors that community engagement and science communication is an effective use of their time. The Sagan effect gives a name our fears about pursuing science communication. Perceived or real, the Sagan effect still plays a role in a scientist’s decision to engage with the public.

Our meeting ended with a hopeful idea: hold scientists accountable to their broader impact statements on grant applications AND provide funding to scientists to complete their broader impacts. We think this will encourage scientists to engage more with the public and eventually lead to more public trust in science. Not every broader impact statement is about public engagement and not every scientist is willing/capable of effectively communicating with the public– but many scientists are! And these scientists need the financial support and encouragement to dedicate the time it takes to build a strong community.

#HoldBroaderImpactStatementsAccountable will soon be trending.

 

P.S.

Other topics touched up by the meeting-goers include (but are not limited to): Nuclear threat v. global warming, public perception of GMOs, millennial’s comfort with social media, the challenge of information overload when informing the public, scientists’ discomfort with black-and-white answers, the public’s discomfort with gray areas, the future’s opinion of CRISPR, the overspecialization of our world, the language/jargon barriers within science itself, and the absolute wonder of chemists’ creativity in the lab.

 

Written by Sam Tucci

Edited by Destiny Davis

Is knowledge still power?

The first book club meeting was a success! Grad students studying plant science, biomedical engineering, and public health each contributed to the discussion through their unique scientific base of knowledge and diverse personal experiences.

From the beginning, it was clear why the people in the room were interested in reading this The War on Science: science is a major part of their life and they are gravely concerned with how our current culture is handling science. This book offers hope to deepen our knowledge of why there is a war on science, how it started, and what we can do about it.

In our discussion, the concept of “power” was a major theme. Knowledge is power. Power is money. Yet, this downturn of trust in science and evidence-based policy makes it seem like knowledge is now a nuisance at best and an enemy at worst. Additionally, powerful people (i.e. politicians) do not seem concerned with rooting out facts and evidence to support their claims, or at least not as much as they seem concerned about attaining more power. Knowledge may be power, but the denial of facts to preserve something– exactly what we don’t know– is now more powerful, and thus more lucrative. Is knowledge as power a threat?

We agreed, as I hope all of us can, that real facts and hard science are not debatable, political ideologies. They are more legitimate than political wind. But, facts are currently denied their legitimacy by political ideology and emotional debate. As young scientists, we imagined the reasons for this shifting knowledge-power dynamic, but nothing truly resonated. After a few minutes of collective venting about the various ways science denialism is harming society, we agreed that the issue is more complex than we alone can figure out. We need a sociologist in the book club.

Acknowledging that we might be too young or too hopeful (or both) to understand the full scope of the issue, some of us still refused to fully admit that the people in power are knowingly harming people through truth-denial in favor of their self-interests. This led us to talking about ignorance, tribalism, and the elitism surrounding education. Each of these topics could be their own blog post and discussion on their own. That’s the problem with a societal level problem like fact-denial– the distrust of science and institutions of knowledge are multifaceted, involving social and economic components.

Politicians know this. Politicians exploit this. Some of us suspect that those in power do, in fact, know and understand scientific truths (about vaccines, GMOs, climate change, etc.), but have too much to gain financially and politically by ignoring them. Which lead to the admittedly cynical notion that the people in power in the US—on both sides of the aisle—are just not good people. Integrity, truth, and reason have no real political value outside of public relations’ catch-phrases. Whatever the motivations of our government leaders are, the twenty-somethings at the first book club meeting were all a bit unsettled about the future of America. But we read on.

Inevitably, this discussion of knowledge, power, and politicians led us down the rabbit-hole of critiquing the media. The media can decide which conversations are to be had and which voices will be heard. Otto makes a great point: science isn’t a debate. When a scientist discovers that her/his hypothesis is wrong, they don’t debate the failed theorem. Somehow “unbiased journalism” now means that every opinion deserves a voice– not that opinion is irrelevant in the face of truth. Opinion invites bias; truth does not. In this way, the media gives power to false-facts and to anyone trying to profit from them.

But the media isn’t wholly to blame. Although we recognize that the media has a lot of power, we also recognize that this power can only be checked by an educated readership– something that the United States does not have.

Science education needs a make-over. Right now, science is taught as a collection of facts, like how history is taught as a long list of dates. Students learn the definitions of atoms, how to draw the cell cycle, and what various organ systems in our bodies do. Knowing these facts are important, but knowing these facts is not knowing science. Science is the process that uncovered these facts. Teaching science means teaching how to inquire; how to handle uncertainty; how to critically think (even about topics that make you uncomfortable); how to solve problems; and how to make decisions based on multiple theories, facts, and probabilities.

But this isn’t how science is taught. Fighting a war on science when the faceless enemy fails to grasp what science even is can seem futile. For many, it’s frustrating. Hopefully, the rest of the book can give us reasons for hope in winning this war on science.

P.S.

For those who are reading the book and may be curious about our discussion, the above blog post is not all encompassing. Other topics touched upon by the meeting-goers include (but are not limited to): Roger Stone and how to get power vs. how to use power, how politicians compare to cult leaders, how the media slants our views of risks, the PR of Monsanto, the dawn of PR with Big Tobacco in the 1930s, the false dichotomy of science v. religion, the Scopes Trials, how union growth may or may not relate to wage stagnation, the dwindling number of science journalism positions, good podcasts, and more.

 

Written by Sam Tucci

Edited by Destiny Davis

Battle cry, not a playbook

I’m behind! We just wrapped up our first book club reading Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel. Instead of writing individual posts I opted to write one final summary of my take on our discussions guided by the author’s main points.

After finishing the book we were left with one overarching thought: There is more to the food system than meets the eye. And it’s not all about feeding people. For better or worse, the food system is a market just like any other and is, therefore, vulnerable to economic shifts, politics and even social upheaval. Mr. Patel argues that food and the way it is produced, distributed and marketed to consumers underpins all of those things and is, in fact, used as a social and economic tool.

In the book, Mr. Patel tells a story about greed, power, money and the role the food system has played throughout history in setting up and perpetuating inequality. This is a story dating back to the days of European colonization of lands around the world, bringing foreign agriculture and social systems with them. In this context, settler colonies are something to be abhorred. Patel purports that exploring new worlds was more about expanding influence both economically and socially around the world by pre-emptively removing any possibility of commercial competition. What they found was land well suited for farming and people to farm it. Through slave labor, the colonists “extracted food resources” from these lands to feed the working class of Britain. Because a fed lower class is a passive one, the power hierarchy remains intact. And if there’s anything those in power want, it’s to remain in power. And consumers, without seeing the human toll in producing cheap food and faced with economic realities of their own, keep consuming along market trends. It is easy to see how this system is perpetuated. This is a theme Mr. Patel continues to weave throughout the book with example after example of how the food system fails us and our humanity.

And I’m not in a position to disagree entirely. It’s impossible to read these heartbreaking narratives and not feel anger and deep frustration that this is what the food system is, guilt for my role in it, and incredibly small in trying to fix it. This was the intended result. Stuffed and Starved is a battle cry, not a playbook. It reads like a call to action rather than a full, unbiased autopsy of what went wrong. Perhaps I shouldn’t expect it to be. I imagine that a report of the problems would be rather boring in comparison. Storytelling is powerful. We’re also told in science communication to tell stories complete with characters and plot. And it’s our job as scientists sharing our work to put those elements to work for truth with the hope that they emphasize not embellish. Reading Patel’s book as a student of science, there were many times I saw embellishment rather than emphasis.

Specifically, I have issue with the motivations he ascribes to the agents of food inequality. He paints a picture of the food executive or the produce distributor knowingly raping the soil of resources over here where labor is oppressively cheap, in order to feed, but mostly pacify, an affluent society over there. Images of hand wringing and the sound of evil cackling come to mind. While in some cases that may be more true than not I, perhaps idealistically, don’t think a person can knowingly doom an entire population to starvation and poverty. He makes it clear that there are bad and good people in his examples when in reality I think the situation is much more nuanced. You might argue that nuance doesn’t matter when the effect is people dying from starvation and obesity. You might be right but I think that if we want to really understand what is going on in the food system and more importantly, how to fix it, we need to see it for what it is. All the gray areas included. If it were really as simple as rooting out the bad guys then let’s get to it…but my gut tells me it isn’t.

Additionally, while I am certainly not equipped to argue the finer economic points of Mr. Patel’s assertions and illustrations, I can say something about the science. Most of this discussion happens in Chapter 6, “Better Living Through Chemistry.”

If you’ve followed the talk around biotech (and GMOs) for any amount of time you already know what Mr. Patel is going to say about it. The whole thing is another scam designed to hold agricultural technology over the heads of the poorest populations on Earth in an attempt to keep them under the thumbs of the powerful (the global North, as Patel calls it). He brings up the suicide rate amongst farmers in India, a widely debunked cause and one that distracts from the real underlying causes; terminator seeds, an uncommercialized piece of technology created to protect intellectual property; and even touts golden rice as nothing but a useless ploy so biotech executives could feel good about themselves while solving nothing…or ya know, maybe not. Perhaps biotech executives, not having any expertise in solving the economic structure that prevents the poor from being able to afford a balanced diet, decided to try to alleviate the immediate crisis of children going blind and dying by doing something they do know how to do: engineer an essential vitamin into the food they have access to. And of course the most irritating and incorrect assertion of them all: that GM crops are not tested for environmental and health safety. They most definitely are.

(For a more detailed analysis of the inaccuracies in chapter 6 read this letter to the campus book project committee written by two UC Davis Biotechnology experts.)

These are the quintessential examples often cherry-picked from the debate and then used to paint a terrifying and terrible view of biotechnology. And something that should be particularly enlightening is the fact that this is not the story you hear from those who directly interact with and are impacted by biotechnology–farmers,

But it goes even further. Biotechnology, according to Patel, doesn’t just stop at the marketplace. Biotechnology is out to control the most precious of tools–knowledge. The section where he claims that biotechnology has changed the way science is conducted in academia is short but frightening. It’s a story accusation I’ve heard several times being a graduate student studying plants at a big research focused university. Sometimes it seems that you’re not really a plant scientist until you’ve been asked who pays you to say positive things about genetic engineering.

Patel asserts that industry influence (money) has changed the very questions we ask in the academic lab. I’ve been at UC Davis for 5 and a half years and I don’t see it. Yes, there is industry money funding projects on campus (including one in my lab) but it would be a disservice to science, the university, and to the biotech industry if that money came with intellectual strings. That’s why it doesn’t. The assertion that academic scientists are bought by industry is upsetting for several reasons, the main two being that it erodes public trust in academic science at a time when it is needed most and that scientific results change depending on funding sources. If I thought this were true and saw evidence of this embedded in university research systematically, I would not be at UC Davis training to become a scientist myself.

Mr. Patel visited UC Davis a couple weeks ago to give a public lecture. I asked him if he thought he was undermining trust in academic science with these assertions in his book. He didn’t exactly back down on the point but instead explained that disclosure of funding sources and peer-review is how scientists can be transparent and their results held accountable. Besides not really answering my question, he must have forgotten that these two things already happen. Funding sources are listed at the end of every research article and peer-review is the foundation of any reputable scientific study. Without it and your results amount to not much more than jargon-filled gossip.

Then it got weirder. As I was listening to his response I got frustrated at how obvious his statements were (see my above point about peer-review). My body language illustrated my frustration. And with a wave of my hand, which from the stage I can only guess must have looked dismissive, he jumped to the conclusion that I have a disregard for peer-review (I don’t) and that I probably shouldn’t be in science or at UC Davis if I held such views. …That escalated quickly. I’ve had my fair share of imposter syndrome in grad school but all in all, I think I’m where I’m supposed to be. So I got angry.

But I had a chance to explain myself in the lobby. He penned an apology in the front cover of my copy of his book while lightly questioning me about whether or not I see evidence of industry influencing academic research. I rebutted. He smiled and shook my hand while the next person in line handed him a book to sign. I’m sure I didn’t change his mind but I was glad I got to explain myself. I’m sure it won’t be the last time I have to defend my chosen career.

In summary, there is no question that the food system is flawed. Deeply. It’s not working for everyone. And there must be reasons for this. Some of which are probably in Stuffed and Starved, but I will caution anyone who picks it up to not get lost in the imagery and pathos of Patel’s argument. The effects of a broken food system are devastating to be sure, certainly meriting the feelings of anger and frustration and sadness evoked in reading Patel’s words. But I think that if we are to ever reach and accomplish the solutions Patel lays out in his final chapter, we must first stop demonizing entire sectors of modern life. In my view, we all want the same things: Equal access to nutritious foods produced sustainably and humanely. This is the common ground and I am happy to share it with Patel even if I disagree with some of his points. It’s clear that with as many people as there are to feed, it will take many people from many different areas and disciplines to fix the food system.

I will say that after finishing the book I am more aware of my role in the food system as a student of plant science but also as a consumer. And as frustrating as reading parts of the book were, I think I’m a more conscientious consumer having read how food can be much more than just food. His point that the way to create positive change in the food system is through examining the economic and political structures that underpin it is a valid one, but I think science has a major role to play in solving these problems too. Don’t write me and my career out of the fray. Let me use my abilities to help.

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Thanks for reading along with us. Stay tuned for future book club meetings! Email me (Destiny Davis, desdavis@ucdavis.edu) if you’re interested in leading a book discussion or to get on the email list for updates.

Meeting #2: Chapters 2 and 3

In chapters 2 and 3 we continue working our way through the food chain from farmer to consumer.  We start by examining the farmer. In these chapters, Patel walks us through different scenarios involving farmers in countries Patel calls the “global south”. We are introduced to the plight of the rural farmer in India, Mexico and Korea as examples of the widespread failure to protect and uplift our growers around the world. Particular emphasis (and criticism) is placed on the trade and economic connections between these countries and the economic powers-that-be like the World Bank.

We began the discussion with farmers, the vice of globalization and government inattentiveness that squeezes them.  While capitalism and the pursuit of profit can send many into poverty traps, Patel notes how governments often share the blame in creating them.  Particularly, when governments manipulate statistics (which the Indian government did and does to, as Utsa Patinik says, abolish the poor when convenient) to give the illusion of prosperity or fails to shield losers in the game of international trade, the government becomes complicit in the plight of its most helpless people. This is a point that Patel drives home repeatedly with examples from all over the globe.

NAFTA proved a particularly good example of a government failing its people in the eyes of Patel. Patel (and perhaps more notably prominent members of the current political climate…ahem, Trump) harshly criticizes NAFTA, saying that it pits “the livelihood of Mexico’s poorest against the most productive and highly subsidized agricultural sectors in the world” (that of its northern neighbor). Because of the heavy corn subsidies in the US, Mexican corn farmers are unable to compete in the now shared market. This is a problem that was exacerbated by Mexico’s decision to devalue the peso soon after NAFTA took effect. The combination tore through Mexican society and sent a surge of Mexicans from a now bankrupt countryside into cities and into the United States.

In this mode of trade agreements, the consumer benefits while the producer suffers as the price of goods fall. Patel argues that this is particularly problematic in agriculture where most of the producers are poorer than their customers. The overall effect of these trade agreements and without any protection of poor, rural farmers against shifting markets, is increased inequality around the world.

In addition to economic perils, Patel addresses the shifting diets of populations in the global south stemming from globalization and trade. In particular, he discussed the effect of Walmart spreading south of the border into Mexico and the bulging waistbands that came with the move. Patel argues that with Walmart came more processed food, which in turn altered the diet of Mexicans for the worse causing a surge in obesity and other health issues, especially for those living near the US border.

Our main take-away from these two chapters is mostly how little we all know about economics and the intricacies within. Every “fix” seems to create new issues with unforeseen consequences (exactly how unforeseen they are is something about which Patel might argue with us). It helps to take a broad view of the roles things like trade has in agriculture. Patel also urges us to recognize that social issues play an important role in economics and trade at the same time that they are shaped by economics.

In the next two chapters we will explore more deeply how international trade in agriculture has shaped cultures around the world and how food was (and is, Patel would argue) used as a tool by those in political power.

Bookclub Meeting #1: Introductions

As we went around the table introducing ourselves we noted a major theme arising in our motivation to join the bookclub. We all joined to learn more about the entire food system, and how our college major or thesis work or personal background fits in. We are all students at UC Davis. Some of us are in graduate school, a couple of us are undergraduate students. We are studying things like global disease, animal science, cell biology, biochemistry, plant biology and plant breeding (with a minor in Spanish!). All subjects pertinent to the conversation of food on some level.

Following introductions and after establishing expectations of our discussions of Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved, we went to chapter 1: Introduction.

Chapter one lays the framework for the main issue Patel aims to breakdown in the remainder of the book: Why in a world where so many people (entire populations in fact) are overfed to the point of obesity are there people in other areas dying from starvation? Clearly there is a something wrong with the food system causing this discrepancy, right? At the very least something (or most likely, several things) is not working like it should. And how do we fix it?

Patel lays out the situation in terms that will bring you to tears, anger and frustrate you and, for me at least, make you feel tiny and insignificant in solving the apparent myriad of problems in our food system. You cannot read the first chapter without feeling something. Whether or not you agree with his verdicts and accusations against the causes of such food inequality, the first chapter reminds you that feeding people involves an intricate web of many industries, resources and people. But understanding is the first step in forming a solid game plan to solve a problem, even one as complicated and expansive as making sure everyone on Earth can get a nutritious meal.

It’s no coincidence that Patel chooses the coffee grower as his first example of a failing food system. Coffee is one of the most consumed beverages in the world. I was drinking a corporate cup as I read this chapter (gasp). He chooses an evocative example of a food system issue, to which many of us can connect, in order to give us pause in examining how our role as consumer might be contributing to the problem. He wants this to be personal. And it is. We all need nutritious food to survive and lead long, healthy lives. And with scary statistics about farmer suicide rates, correlations between marketing strategies and increasing health concerns, rising undernourished populations in developing countries with climbing obesity percentages in developed nations, it’s difficult to ignore the possibility that the way in which we get our food might be causing harm to those who grow it.

With the stage set, Patel aims to explore and dissect the forces that shape the food system in order to get at the causes behind its major failings and offer potential ways out. He will take us from the farm to the distributor to the processing plant to the market and eventually to our plates.

As a bookclub, we will follow Patel through his logic, criticize his points, discuss our thoughts on his conclusions and report back here.

Next up, chapters 2 and 3…farmer suicides, NAFTA and California. It wouldn’t hurt to brush up on your knowledge of economics…