Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Guest Blog -- "Will Somebody Find Me a One-Handed Scientist?!"

Guest Blog By: Hank Campbell, American Council on Science and Health

Click here to access the original blog post. 

There is a common complaint I get from the public: scientists who know the most about a topic are often the least able to give people a straight answer.

We know this is true, but we also know science can be complex. We all want the easy narrative, the definitive response, but that is not always realistic.

However, it is almost always necessary because regulations will happen and policymakers won't have PhDs.

When the public read ambiguous answers from experts, they begin to tune them out. If they read an article about Chemical X in which a scientist states that "there is no conclusive research that shows Chemical X is linked to greater adverse outcomes" and then they read an environmental lawyer who states that "scientists agree that Chemical X may be causing these cancers," they side with environmentalists. That is why environmentalists have 1,000X the revenue of pro-science nonprofits, why environmental lawyers are somehow regarded as "ethical" litigators, and why environmental journalists shriek that the pro-science side is "corporate funded" even when corporate funding is a tiny 3% of your budget.

I was at the Department of Health and Human Services this week, and we have been tough on the groups HHS controls on plenty of occasions. But one comment I received was, and I am paraphrasing, "We really appreciate your work. We like that you can give us a straight answer. I have had times where I have been in meetings with our scientists and they wouldn't give me a straight answer, but later that day they forwarded an article from you which got to the point."
It's true, we can provide a straight answer when government-controlled scientists, be they in universities or direct employees of government, cannot. And when biased journalists and editors will not.

That's our mission, and it has been for 40 years.

Anti-science beliefs did not start with vaccines or GMOs or claims that natural gas will cause earth to deflate or that parts per billion trace chemicals will doom us. They have been around for as long as people have been scared of progress. In the early 1970s, environmental activists opposed commercial airlines flying faster than sound--the passenger aviation that would become the Concorde SST. They insisted that it would punch a hole in the ozone layer (ozone was one of the big fundraising causes in that decade) and thus we would be bathing in radiation. They lamented that the eardrums of children would shatter due to the supersonic booms.

The scaremongering was so successful Congress had to hold hearings. The National Academy of Sciences was told to come up with an answer and dutifully spent 6 months compiling one of their tomes, which dutifully presented the entire multiplicity of factors, all scientifically accurate, all leaving officials right back where they started. In the hearing, a scientist began addressing concerns saying environmental claims might be valid, but on the other hand they might not be valid. Finally, Senator Ed Muskie (D-ME), chairman of the committee, said to his equally exasperated colleagues, “Will somebody find me a one-handed scientist?!”

That's still a problem today. The one-handed side often wins because they have an answer, and scientists too often say, "It depends."

In public, anyway. In private, studies have shown, scientists are far more blunt. They are not talking about one hand, and then the other hand, and then fingers A through E on a third hand; they know there is a pretty accurate answer and they express it with each other. But when things are official, it's back to pretending to be Spock on "Star Trek." It's part of the "scientist" brand, but it shouldn't be.

We know mainstream media, including in science, will not "ask the awkward questions" of scientists and institutions they happen to like; they instead want to write "isn't science weird/awesome?" stories or the kinds of chemical scaremongering and miracle vegetable pieces that sell pageviews. Cambridge produces as much nonsense as any corporate trade group but if a goofy claim is from a name school or a journal like PNAS, journalists will uncritically gush that men are sexist about female hurricane names and cheer when Facebook manipulates newsfeeds in a social experiment.

That means it's up to us to stand for reason. If you are in any kind of application-relevant field, be a one-handed scientist. Stop undermining your work with exceptions, qualifications, nuances, and distinctions without a difference. Give the public the answer you would give me or each other in a bar.

And you can't be silent. Silence means that in the postmodern world of "science is just a world view," you are going to wonder why no one trusts your work. You must object to shoddy claims that a pesticide is causing hermaphrodite frogs, bees are dying, coffee and cell phones are causing cancer, and someone's child didn't get into Yale because they didn't shop at Whole Foods. Stand up for science even if your political allies are against it, or no one will be left to stand up for you.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Past CAST Publications Continue to Resonate with Recent Research

Serving as a resource for credible, science-based information can be challenging in this day and age. Scientists all over the world are busy working to find the latest scientific breakthrough in hopes of improving the productivity and sustainability of the agricultural industry. CAST staff is constantly overwhelmed with an abundance of content to sort through in order to provide you with the most well-rounded and relevant information week after week. One thing we find very exciting is that content often aligns perfectly with previously published CAST publications. To browse a list of past CAST publications, click here.

Process Labeling

We live in a world of labels, and even though information is crucial, some labeling leads to confusion, negative views, and misunderstanding. In October 2015, CAST released an issue paper--Process Labeling of Food: Consumer Behavior, the Agricultural Sector, and Policy Recommendations--that looks at the impact labeling has on the food industry in relation to the choices consumers make, the way labeling affects the adoption of technology, and the influences labeling might have on the amount of money spent for research and product development. Here are some recent articles that support the research provided in our paper:

Bee Research

Sunday, March 20, was the celebration of #WorldBeeDay to help raise awareness and attention to the importance of protecting and preserving bees and other pollinators all over the world. Pollinators are responsible for one-third of our human diets by volume and are extremely important to the success of the agricultural industry. In June 2017, CAST released a paper--Why Does Bee Health Matter? The Science Surrounding Honey Bee Health and What We Can Do About It--that summarized the scientific issue, current research, and recommendations related to bee health. Here are some recent articles that support the research provided in our paper:

Animal Welfare

Many conflicting values and norms in our society related to the use of animals lead to increasing disagreements about what constitutes a "good life" for the animals in our care. Last month CAST released a task force report--Scientific, Ethical, and Economic Aspects of Farm Animal Welfare--that addressed the issue by examining these key topics: the current issues facing agricultural animal production; insights into the origins of current welfare concerns; major scientific advances that have occurred since the 1997 CAST Task Force Report; and outstanding challenges and priority areas for future research, collaboration, and outreach relative to agricultural animal welfare. Here are some recent articles that support the research provided in our paper:

By: Kylie Peterson

Thursday, May 17, 2018

May: The Month of Planting and Protein

"A wet May brings a big load of hay. A cold May is kindly and fills the barn finely. Mist in May and heat in June makes harvest come right soon." - Author Unknown

It's hard to believe we are already halfway through the month of May. As farmers get closer to wrapping up this year's planting season, it seems like an appropriate time to mention just how important this month is to the agricultural industry. Not only are farmers planting seeds in hopes of a bountiful harvest later this fall--but we also pay tribute to several commodity groups and the individuals who work tirelessly to provide a healthy, nutritious product for our dinner plates.

May is National Beef Month
Beef cattle production is one of the strongest agricultural industries within the United States and throughout the world. From the farmers and ranchers to the processors, thousands of people play an integral role in the journey of beef from farm to fork. We celebrate those who help provide and prepare this wholesome product during the month of May with National #BeefMonth.

A new report released earlier this month highlights the commitment to animal welfare, beef quality, sustainability, and community involvement by America's cattlemen and women, resulting in responsibly raised beef. You can visit this link for further resources and news concerning the beef industry.

May is National Egg Month
While eggs are commonly associated with breakfast and protein, many aren't aware of the nutrient package the incredible, edible egg provides. From hard-boiled and scrambled to perfectly poached, eggs can be enjoyed in countless ways. This protein-packed food source is an affordable way to keep you full and energized throughout the day. We celebrate "nature's miracle food" during the month of May with National #EggMonth.

Within the last few months, recent egg research has been hitting the newsstands:

As you can see, May is an exciting time for agriculture. For the remainder of the month, I encourage you to find ways to get involved and celebrate these delicious and nutritious sources of protein. Fire up the grill to cook yourself a juicy steak, add eggs to your diet, share your story from the farm to help educate others, or schedule a visit for some hands-on learning. Whatever you choose, let's celebrate the power of protein!   

By: Kylie Peterson (photos from: and

Thursday, May 10, 2018

When Summer Jobs Were Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

Many things about the approach of summer on the farm have stayed the same during the past five decades--brilliant sunsets cut through the hovering dust clouds farmers raise in the fields; lilac bushes send out short-lived, intoxicating scents; and varmints dig, crawl, and climb into newly planted gardens. But many aspects of rural life have changed, and one of the most obvious is teenage summer employment. Youngsters today have ways of staying busy, but their work routines are vastly different from the ones we had 50 years ago.

During the 60s, even Top 40 radio stations were pointing us toward the treadmill. From the Silhouette's oldie hit "Get a Job" to Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang," we farm kids knew we'd either be puttin' in the hours on our home place or working for neighbors. The latter was a better option, because we might earn a whopping $1.50 an hour--and that kept our cars running when gas was 35 cents a gallon and our social lives buzzing when a drive-in movie ticket cost under two dollars.

Gainful employment might also mean we could work with friends and maybe even meet some interesting characters. Whenever we'd weed fields or bale hay for old Clare down in Illinois Grove, we could count on stories about bootleg liquor and rum runners in Prohibition Days, or how he'd trap muskrats on a lake as a kid--skinning one he'd just caught while skating to the next trap site.

An old farmer we called "Dutch" lived several miles east of us, and for lunch on a 90-degree day, he'd bring out lukewarm lemonade and sandwiches that had so much mayonnaise on them, I couldn't tell if they contained thin, juicy meat slices or beets and cucumbers. But he had stories too, and we knew that by the end of the day, we'd be swimming with friends at the Hubbard pool or jumping off the rope swing at the St. Anthony Gravel Pit.

If you hired on to shell corn, some of the old boys might clue you in on their days of hopping freight trains or tippin' outhouses, but most of the time, we were either with friends or working solo. One of the easiest tasks was driving a tractor, usually to cultivate weeds out of corn and soybean fields. No luxury cabs back then, and certain hassles did arise--you'd need to unplug the weeds tangled in the cultivator shields, red-winged blackbirds might dive bomb your head if you came near their nests on the end rows, and if you drove along in a "Daydream Believer" trance as you thought about the upcoming school dance, you might look back to see that 30 feet of innocent, young corn stalks had been ripped up. That led to a mad scramble to replant them before the farmer drove out with some iced tea and cookies.

Most of the jobs we did have faded away as technology and precision farming take hold. Driverless tractors and drones are starting to invade the fields, and most of our old weed work is now done with chemicals. Roundup and other herbicides replaced soybean walkers, but for a few of our rebels-without-a-cause years, we had gangs that fought with cockleburs, buttonweeds, and bull thistles. Armed with gloves--and occasionally machetes--we trudged up and down the rows, pulling and cutting, sweating and swearing--but by the end of the day, we had a few bucks and a good tan.

Hay baling was a bit classier than weed work, especially if you hired on with the custom balers. This was back when hay bales were rectangular--not like the massive round bales that angular machines now belch out. If you were strong enough to stack bales on the field rack, you might land a gig with Clarence. The Wisconsin engine on his machine could bale through swamp grass, and when he shifted into cruisin' speed, we lads on the rack saw little but the back of his safari hat bouncing on his head as the baler sent a stream of 70-pound, wire-bound bales back at us. We were paid a penny a bale, so as far as we were concerned, keep 'em comin'.

I have nothing against livestock farmers, but jobs that involved animals often left a mark--a kick from a cranky milk cow, scratches from hooves as you held baby pigs to be vaccinated, or a hair ball lodged in your sinus cavity from the smell and dust you breathed in while cleaning the chicken coop. Seems to me we'd still be coughing out a feather or two the next day.

Some farm kids today still get stuck into "gritty jobs," but during this digital age, most would not relish performing the "dirty deeds done dirt cheap" that we did. But many of us look fondly back on an era when we were out in the elements, and none of our jobs involved a keyboard or monitor--and we never had to learn how to say, "You want fries with that?"  

by dan gogerty (top pic from, middle pic from, and bottom pic from

Monday, May 7, 2018

The CRISPR Quake Shaking Us All

Discoveries affect medicine, ag, and just about everything 

In this week's Friday Notes, we featured the gene-editing tool that is taking over news media headlines as our lead story--CRISPR. A university student visiting our office summed up the gene editing buzz quite well: "At first I thought CRISPR referred to a drawer in the refrigerator used to keep lettuce fresh. Now I realize it is a widespread scientific phenomenon." 

The general public is quickly learning about CRISPR--CAST has been reporting about this "genetic earthquake" for years. Several items this week provide a solid overview and some new insights into this scientific game changer: 

This Sixty Minutes video focuses on the medical angles, and this "overtime segment" looks at some of the controversies. These researchers hope this tool can be key to treating genetic diseases--believing "this just might be the most consequential discovery in biomedicine this century". 

In a different Sixty Minutes segment, these researcher explain how they have been using this tool to construct a simplified testing method that could be used to detect infections or viruses such as Zika and Dengue. 

This article provides an overview with a look at why "every industry is throwing mad money at CRISPR". It covers everything we need to know about how scientists can repurpose a bacterial immune systems to alter DNA--making everything from cheap insulin to extra starchy corn. 

This Iowa State University student-produced video includes interviews with experts--including Alison Van Eenennaam and Mark Lynas--as it looks at techniques, regulations, and acceptance. You can learn even more about Van Eenennaam in this article as she explains why she isn't going to let fear-mongers dominate the CRISPR conversation.  

Note: A new CAST Issue Paper, Genome Editing in Agriculture--Methods, Applications, and Governance, will roll out this summer.

By: Dan Gogerty and Kylie Peterson (graphic at top from

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Publish or Perish: How Social Media Helps Scientists Share Research

"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes." 

- Mark Twain

It's no surprise the internet is an excellent resource for connecting people and providing easy access to information. Social media serves as an ideal platform for dialogue with its fast-paced interactivity. The black cloud over this useful tool is the fact that fake news is running rampant online. It's discouraging to think the information most people rapidly consume isn't always as factual and reliable as they might have originally thought. But how serious is this epidemic and is it even worth the hassle to use social media as a platform to communicate scientific information?

In a recent study, researchers analyzed more than 4.5 million tweets and retweets posted between 2006 and 2017. Their disturbing findings showed fake news spreads faster and farther on Twitter than true stories do. Overall, this data showed fake news was about 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than real news was. The second part of the study analyzed the impact web robots and computer programs had on the spread of information on various social media platforms. They were pleased to find that bots spread false and true news equally--making humans the main culprit for distributing false information. 

Why exactly might people be more likely to spread tall tales? Some researchers believe that fake news is much more interesting. During my days at Iowa State University, I took a class dedicated to addressing issues in animal agriculture where we explored our perspectives of the most pressing moral and scientific issues facing animal agriculture and developed skills that may come in handy when communicating with those who may have different views. One day during class, my professor said something that really spoke to me--"Fake news will always be more exciting, dramatic, and dynamic than the truth. You need to find unique and creative ways to make the truth about agriculture sexy, exciting, and appealing to those who do not understand. This is the secret weapon to getting people to listen to you." This same advice can be applied to the communication of science.

So if statistics show that false information is taking over the world of social media and we struggle to make the truth exciting enough for the majority of the population to read and believe it, is the use of social media even worth our time and energy? Clayton Lamb, a University of Alberta Ph.D. student, conducted a research study that found a compelling signal that citation rates are positively associated with science communication through social media. In this era of alternative facts and some mixed messages surrounding science, Lamb believes data-driven scientific information is important because it "offers a light of truth." He encourages scientists and science communicators to continue to be a part of the conversation. "Twitter is one of the many ways we can help share science with policymakers, other scientists, and the public."  

If you are currently active on Twitter and advocating for your research or cause, wonderful. Keep up the good work. I challenge you to think of new and innovative ways to combat the encroaching effect fake news has on the communication of credible science. Also, don't forget to follow CAST on social media and interact with us when the opportunity arises. If you aren't a tweeter but are intrigued and yearn to know more--reach out to me, CAST's Communication and Social Media Specialist. I would be happy to provide you with some tips and tricks. 

By: Kylie Peterson