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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Fact Checking, SSkeptic Style!

Part 1 - Kevin Saves The World From The 'Activist Flyer'

Back in November, Food Democracy Now! and The Detox Project put out a report on lab results of glyphosate testing on popular food items. Vani Hari, aka Food Babe shared it on her website with the headline:

"Monsanto Is Scrambling To Bury This Breaking Story - Don't Let This Go Unshared!"

This prompted an article at Snopes by science writer Alex Kasprak. At first, the verdict was 'mixture', but that didn't last long. The Skeptics rode in on their science horses to correct Mr. Kasprak's miscarriage of justice. Kevin Folta in particular was very broken up over this particular Snopes piece and the FDN commissioned testing.

It seems that in Folta's mind, Kasprak's article had lent 'credence to the crazy claim' and so began a series of back and forth between them on social media and behind the scenes. As he had written in his blog, Folta was so sure that the tests were just a series of false positives, and the lab results are not peer reviewed because they could never survive peer review. 

Background noise! Methods incomplete! No evidence of replication! If it is not peer-reviewed, it does not count!

So, to recap - FDN and The Detox project released a report based on lab tests for glyphosate and AMPA (its major metabolite) in food samples. Food Babe shares it with dramatic headline. Folta cries that it's just fear-mongering and the results are meaningless. Snopes does a write up on it. Folta cries again. Folta sets the Snopes author straight. 

This all leads to the Snopes writer, Alex Kasparak changing the article to reflect Kevin's opinions

Still with me? There's more:

Folta then thanks Snopes for listening to 'science and reason' aka him

Pseudoskeptic Pseudoscience: dismiss what you dislike, then call it science and reason. Huzzah!

In his next blog post on the subject, he steels himself for retaliation (because martyr) from the FDN 'cult' and the 'wicked people in their defamation team', accuses a twitter account of 'an obvious call for illegal hacking of my personal accounts' (they tagged @wikileaks in a tweet about Kevin - omg!) and awaits said retaliation, for he knew that commenting on 'the glyphosate brochure' 'would put me in the cross hairs of evil people with a mission to scare people about food.' After all these histrionics, something very interesting happens...

Background noise! Methods incomplete! No evidence of replication! ... oops.

Science is most certainly not about entrenching into a position based on ideology, and it would have served Kevin a lot better had he, oh, I don't know, contacted the laboratory himself for more info before passing judgement on the validity of their tests. Because indeed, there is no way he could have known that information, but he proclaimed his judgement regardless. So much so, they took the initiative to contact him. It seems as though they asked him to withdraw his unfounded criticism which we can probably assume is the reason for his above post. Despite this new revelation about the competency of the lab and their testing, Kevin comes to the conclusion that this whole exercise 'tells us two things'. One, that peer-review and complete disclosure is important, and two, that the levels are of absolutely no biological consequence. 

First, no one is going to argue that peer-review and complete disclosure are important, however, might I remind Kevin that the industry studies that glyphosate and other pesticide approval is based on are neither peer-reviewed, nor are they available for public viewing. So if he really believes that then he needs to begin a crusade to change that part of the risk-assessment process. As far as this type of testing is concerned, meaning testing of food for pesticide residues, when you look to the USDA Pesticide Data Program, their test results are also not peer-reviewed, and you must request information on testing for individual commodities - much like the FDA approved lab that performed the analysis for FDN. So, if it's good enough for the USDA, why hold FDN to a higher standard?

Second, Kevin seems very self-assured that these levels are of 'absolutely no biological consequence' and yet, all one needs to do is look at the scientific literature to realize that this is an issue still being researched and debated within the scientific community. There are numerous independent studies showing hormone-mimicking effects at very low levels, and that issue alone needs to be thoroughly researched before anyone can conclude such absolutes. After all, as Kevin said, science is not about entrenching into a position based on ideology...

Part 2 - Fact Checking The Fact Checkers 

Snopes is often touted as the final word by many people and there's no exception to that within the Social Skeptic club.

Note how she qualifies it with 'regularly' - but let's be honest, you know are going to be mocked and derided as a conspiracy theorist should you disagree regularly or not. 

Snopes can be very useful if you want to know the legitimacy of the viral video of Cee Lo Green having a phone explode in his face, or say, if giving your dog ice water will really harm him like that blog post your Aunt Martha shared on Facebook says. These are simple straightforward questions with simple straightforward answers. 

Of course there are other questions that do not have simple, straightforward answers, and for these things is where it gets hairy. It's important to remember that Snopes is made of of just regular people who don't possess any special powers. The information they share as true or false or mixture, is only as good as their source. If that source is a SSkeptic, you can be pretty much assured you will get the janky ass fake skepticism method demonstrated in part one of this post

Another issue that's quite noticeable with Snopes' fact checking methods is their tendency to form a question in a way that they can get a desired answer. 

H/t The Ethical Skeptic
We have an example of this here, with the ConfoundUp article, originally titled 'Monsanto Suppressing Cancerous Herbicide In Food?' before Folta raised a stink. Primary focus is on Food Babe and her headline, which to me, isn't even worth arguing over. Monsanto is not shouting these test results from the rooftop to be sure, but the real issue is the test results - and whether or not they are valid. The issue of impacts on human health is still in the stage of being investigated, and this is not time or place to pass judgement on that. Regardless, this gets buried under an avalanche of 'conspiracy' and Ermagherd Ferd Berb said(!), with a big scoop of Folta's 'facts' on top. 
What is most important to note here is that even after being contacted by the laboratory (presumably because if someone just trashed your business with accusations of incompetence, malfeasance and fakery, wouldn't you contact them and tell them to cut the libelous shit?) and subsequently recanting publicly; 'I am comfortable they did the detection 100% correctly' (because wouldn't you cover your ass?) the Snopes article update remains exactly the same:

Note the contradiction here? Folta's statement is from Nov. 24





  1. Have dealt many times with Snopes.

    They will not fix their own errors. It's a site for ideologues.

  2. Alex Kasprack sucumbed to pressure from Folta. We watched it unfold on twitter. Neither can admit they're wrong. Arrogance is a vile trait. I hope the lab sues the shit out of both of them for intentially misleading the public by providing false info. GO ANESCO!