August 21, 2011
Yesterday morning, Michael Olson (host of Food Chain Radio) interviewed Dr. Don Huber. If you are not familiar with who Dr.Huber is, I will give you a little background.
Dr. Don Huber is Professor Emeritus from Purdue University. He is (was) a soil pathologist by training and appears to have had a fairly unremarkable career affiliated with a remarkable department at a world reknowned university (a quick search of ISI Web of Knowledge this morning netted Dr. Don M. Huber only a couple of dozen peer-reviewed co-authored articles published between the 1960s and 2010 most, of which, had relatively low citation rates) [UPDATE: ISI WoK is probably not the best source for searching scientific publications, hence low numbers of reported pubs by Huber. A quick search of PubMed returned a larger number of articles]. Earlier this year, Dr. Huber scripted a letter to Secretary Vilsack warning him (and the USDA) of a pathogen that appeared to have profound implications for animal fertility and plant mortality. He linked this pathogen to a synthetic herbicide.
In theory, sounding this kind of alarm should be a good thing. However, Dr. Huber has absolutely NO peer-reviewed science backing his allegations of the connection between the so-called pathogen and synthetic herbicide. This is where the danger lies. I have followed this story for quite some time so I listened intently to Olson’s interview and Huber’s responses.
The most telling part of the interview was what Huber DIDN’T say. When asked about who pays/backs him, he responded by reviewing his history of research (academic life at Purdue). When asked about the scientific processes that purportedly support his allegations, Huber reverts back to why he sent Vilsack the letter in the first place. He never responds to Olson’s questions directly. In fact, he subverts them. Also, there are no references to peer-reviewed research/science to support Huber’s claims. This link that Huber alleges exists between this ‘pathogen’ and synthetic herbicides is extremely weak and based primarily on conjecture. Again, this is dangerous.
Why is this dangerous? Science is a process or method that has been established over the past few centuries. Science brings to bear with it certain key protocols. One of these is the ‘peer review’ process that demands science be replicable and reviewed by a body of peers prior to publication. Peer-review is a ‘checks and balances’ system that is intended to bring good science and its ‘value-add’ to society in a responsible manner with accountability measures built in (search “peer review” on my blog). If these science-based protocols are ignored or poorly executed, then non-peer reviewed science – even “bad” science – can make it into mainstream spaces. Circulating unchecked, through the use of technology and social media tools, ‘bad’ science can become a social ‘pathogen’ in and of itself; infecting through misinformation.
In light of the Huber interview, I took it upon myself to do a bit more sleuthing. The thing that was nagging at me was: Who is behind Huber’s efforts here? I mean, there must be some kind of (other) agenda pushing him along? Right?
My investigation lead me to this. One potential backer is likely to be the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. They sport Huber’s cv on their site. This organization is closely aligned with the Weston A. Price Foundation and several other organizations that are “anti-GMO” in terms of their mandates/philosophies. Another key collaborator for Huber appears to be Jeffrey Smith (anti-GMO advocate, author of “Seeds of Deception” and part-time yogic-flyer). Huber’s allegations were formally endorsed and circulated by Jeffrey Smith as early as January this year, long before Huber’s letter ever made it into Vilsack’s hands (see: http://pollyheilmealey.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/monsanto-is-at-it-again-jeffrey-smith-used-by-permission/). According to this aforementioned posting (and others), it would appear that Jeffrey and Don (Huber) are on a first name basis. In his blog post on the Institute for Responsible Technology, it appears that Smith also had access to Huber’s photos: http://www.responsibletechnology.org/blog/664. This suggests that a very close relationship has and is being cultivated between Smith and Huber.
Here’s my two cents on all this. Assuming that Huber is funded through an NGO or the like, I think that they should re-think him as their poster-boy. Based upon what I heard in this morning’s interview, Huber lacks the PR saavy to carry out the ‘sell’ of bad science or ‘allegations without evidence’. Also, if a funding agent is trying to leverage reputational value out of Huber in his role/career as a scientist, they should re-think their strategy. One comment on the Food Chain Radio Show’s forum was:
“I’ve spoken with people in Huber’s previous department and they are really quite embarrassed about this individual. He does not provide data or anything you would normally use to validate claims. He hasn’t really worked in the lab for years. No one is quite sure of his agenda, but he has no credibility in scientific or ag circles.”
In closing, I think that Michael Olson handled the interview with Huber very well (I admit it, I was skeptical at first). He obviously prepared ahead of time and asked good, relevant, relatively non-sensationalized questions. Adding to that, I think that the call-in speakers on the show brought to light the problems with the lack of ‘science’ or science-based protocols in this über-(dare I say “Huber”)mess. This, combined with Huber’s clear lack of charisma (J.Smith is way better at this (note: this is not an endorsement)) and his inability to communicate science in ‘lay’ terms (forget all the inaccuracies), will ensure that this ‘science-communication pathogen’ will not infect the public and its perceptions.
For more excellent ‘sleuthiness’ on the science of the whole ‘Huber’ deal, check out Anastasia Bodnar’s posting on the Biofortified site: “Extraordinary claims…require extraordinary evidence.” http://www.biofortified.org/2011/02/extraordinary-claims/
Note: thanks to my colleagues for their input/insights on this entry.
Responses to Huber’s allegations: http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/huber-pathogen-roundup-ready-crops.aspx
– – –
POSTSCRIPT #1: September 10, 2011
Postscript to this… see blog entry on “cred” and Huber by S.D. Savage on his blog Applied Mythology (August 21, 2011 http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/2011/08/some-thoughts-about-cred-and-don-huber.html) were he states:
“…because he [Huber] 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.”
POST SCRIPT #2: January 1, 2012
And yet another postscript… A study just came out in the December issue of the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health by Williams et a:
According to the authors, “the available literature shows no solid evidence linking glyphosate exposure to adverse developmental or reproductive effects at environmentally realistic exposure concentrations.”