Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Curious Case of Declining Measles Infections

So I had an interesting conversation recently with Destroyed by Science and The Technical Skeptic on the topic of measles death statistics. We were trying to reconcile the US death rate and those published by the WHO. Eventually it dawned on us what the big differences between the two numbers were, so I thought I'd write up a post to discuss it.

The US death rate is 1-2 deaths out of 1,000 cases (0.1 to 0.2%). This makes the measles seem like it really isn't that bad. However, the worldwide death rate is more troubling. Out of 266,701 reported cases there were 145,700 deaths for a rate of 54.6%; this was the source of our confusion. You don't have to be a mathematical genius to realize that 54.6% is not the same as 0.1%. Digging deeper the reasons for this difference becomes quite clear.

A big reason for the dichotomy is because the WHO data is worldwide and is a total. The number of cases and the number of deaths are much lower in developed nations compared to developing nations.

Number of Reported Measles Cases with onset date from May 2015 to Oct 2015 (6M period). 

Because most of the cases are happening in places where the healthcare systems are not as developed, fatalities from the virus are much higher. A big part of this is pneumonia, which occurs in 1 out of every 20 children who contract measles, either from the measles virus itself or as a secondary infection from other viruses or bacteria. Pneumonia is in fact the leading cause of death with the measles. In developed nations hospital care, and antibiotics for cases of bacterial pneumonia, is available for patients which reduces the impact of pneumonia whereas this is not the case in developing countries.

Another factor that reduces the impact of measles in developed nations is the improved nutrition whereas developing nations suffer from malnutrition and deficiencies. In particular, Vitamin A deficiency increases the fatality rate of measles. One of the areas with high numbers of measles cases, SE Asia, also suffers from Vitamin A deficiency despite the availability of a source for Vitamin A that would help alleviate the deficiency: Golden Rice.  This makes opponents of Golden Rice, like GreenPeace, doubly damned as they are not only allowing blindness from Vitamin A deficiency to languish but risking the lives of millions of children to complications from measles.

The final factor that impacts the death rate is the vaccination rate. In most developed nations, or at least until recently, vaccination rates for measles were above 90% which reduces the severity of the disease and reduces the death rate if at least one vaccination dose has been administered and of course more doses offer a higher degree of protection. This has been changing recently with the WHO, The Gates Foundation and others pushing for measles vaccination in developing nations.

Immunization coverage with first measles vaccine dose in infants, 2014

This push for immunization has resulted in dramatic results that cannot be disputed: measles cases worldwide have dropped dramatically since the vaccination program was initiated.

Trend of measles cases compared to vaccination rates worldwide.

So the take away message here is that you can't use the rates in developed nations as the sole determinant for how bad measles can be. After all, measles has a long and brutal history of killing large numbers of peoples exposed to it for the first time. Measles is highly contagious and those exposed to it without the protective antibodies from a vaccine, for example, are very likely to get infected. I won't rest easy around measles until it has gone the way of smallpox or rinderpest (a relative of measles). We also learned that trying to do math late at night is a recipe for disaster.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

What to do when the norovirus comes to visit

So with the Chipotle norovirus outbreak and the fact that everyone in my family, except for me, are suffering from the effects of norovirus infection (most likely a matter of time for me as you can see by the picture it's hard to say no to that face), I thought I'd share some ways to help limit the spread and some general information about the norovirus.

The source of the TMV family norovirus outbreak

The name norovirus refers to the genus norovirus in the family Caliciviridae which has a single species, the Norwalk virus. Within this species there are numerous strains from five genotypes, including a mouse genotype that is used as a model to study the species. For simplicity, I'll refer to the virus by norovirus as that is what it is called in the media most often. They all cause pretty similar symptoms: vomiting and diarrhea that can vary in severity, stomach pain, fever, headache, and body aches.

So how does one avoid the norovirus? One of the simplest measures to limit spread is to wash your hands with soap and water frequently. Washing fruits and vegetables can also help as can avoiding certain foods like oysters that serve as a host for the norovirus (the virus sticks to the oyster). Above all, avoid touching strange surfaces or letting toddlers put random things into their mouths (say in the waiting room of a doctors office). So let's say for example, that your toddler caught the norovirus and is sharing with the whole family. How can you limit the spread so that you don't share with other families? Again, the easiest way is to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water. Alcohol rubs don't do much on their own but may (or may not) be used in conjunction with thorough hand washing. All laundry needs to be washed thoroughly as soon as possible on the longest cycle possible and machine dried. Also, all potentially contaminated surfaces need to be disinfected with bleach (bleach is the best) but do not use disinfectant wipes as they won't do much. Lysol spray is effective and can be used on surfaces that cannot be bleached (such as a carpet). Carpets should be steam cleaned at the end of the outbreak to prevent further spread. But one of the most important things that can be done to limit the spread of the norovirus is to not prepare food for others. This is how norovirus outbreaks are happening in restaurant settings, with a sick or recently sick person coming into work and handling food. A person can shed enough norovirus to be contagious for two days after symptoms have disappeared and the virus can be found in the stool for up to two weeks after as well. A vaccine for the norovirus has been elusive so other than taking precautions before and during an outbreak, there isn't much that can be done. However, there might be hope on the horizon for a vaccine due to some recent developments (a vaccine candidate is in Phase I trials). Until then, wash your hands and be mindful of the risks of certain foods, like oysters.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Chipotle needs to clean house (literally)

So Chipotle is back in the news for yet another norovirus outbreak. This is in addition to the E. coli outbreak that occurred in several states back in October. So far, 120 Boston College students have been sicked with the norovirus after eating at a Boston Chipotle and have been tested for E. coli as well (those tests are still being processed).
People stand inside a closed Chipotle restaurant Monday in the Cleveland Circle neighborhood of Boston. Steven Senne / AP
Essentially, Chipotle is in serious trouble here due to a mess of their own making. They created a marketing campaign against genetically modified organisms (only removing a few and keeping the majority of them in their soda and cheese) based entirely upon providing food with integrity. Yet they have had serious issues with food safety since they launched the campaign. Some people are claiming a crazy conspiracy against Chipotle is being orchestrated by Monsanto et al.
An example of the conspiracy theories being used here. Hat tip to A Science Enthusiast and The Credible Hulk
However, it is far more likely that employees are not washing their hands and cross contaminating vegetables with raw meat than a company about the size of Whole Foods is riding dirty. Not to be out done, Chipotle is blaming both the media and the CDC for bad PR they are experiencing. They are upset at the media for reporting on outbreaks originating in their stores and they are mad at the CDC for reporting the outbreak statistics each week (based on the numbers they receive from healthcare officials) rather than wait until the end of the outbreak to report the total number. First of all, that is an insane suggestion and will never happen. The CDC releases these weekly numbers so that healthcare officials know what to look for in the case of a large scale outbreak from say a restaurant chain. Second, the CDC and the media are not to blame for Chipotle having what appears to be substandard policies for enforcing the health codes in their restaurants. Chipotle is in serious trouble unless they make some serious changes here. You cannot have food with integrity when you have routine outbreaks of food-borne pathogens.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Impact factors are not the same thing as reliability

A very common issue that I see among scientists and science lovers (skeptics, enthusiasts, etc.) is this idea that impact factors are useful in determining the quality and reliability of a scientific study. Some take it to the point that anything with an impact factor less than 10 is questionable. Unfortunately, there are issues with this idea that become apparent once what an impact factor really means is defined. An impact factor is the number of times that the articles in a journal are cited the previous two years divided by the number of articles published that year.

This is the calculation used:
Figure 1: Calculation for journal impact factor.
A= total cites in 1992
B= 1992 cites to articles published in 1990-91 (this is a subset of A)
C= number of articles published in 1990-91
D= B/C = 1992 impact factor

All this means is that the impact factor is telling you how popular the previous year's articles were in the community (as measured by number of citations). Because of how simple this calculation is, it is prone to manipulations that artificially inflate it. There have been quite a few articles and papers detailing the issues with the impact factor including a recent one that talks about some of the damage that impact factor mania leads to. It has gotten to the point where some just accept science in high impact factor journals like Science, Nature and Cell without examining the science despite the dangers of this. Even worse, the impact factor has become part and parcel of the process of getting grants, positions, and tenure despite some people decrying this practice.

How did we get to the point where the impact factor is the end all be all of academic progress and the sole measure of reliability? Part of the problem is that some institutions, grant panels, and science communicators have used the impact factor as a quick measure of reliability. Take what this blogger has said about the impact factor:

"One of the better ways to ascertain scientific research quality to examine the quality of the journal where the research was published. Articles in high quality journals are cited more often, because those journals attract the best scientific articles (which are cited more). Yes, it’s a self-fulfilling system, but that’s not all bad. Some of the most prestigious journals have been around for a century or more, and their reputation is deserved.

Obviously, the best articles are sent to these journals partially because of the prestige of the journal, but also because the peer review is so thorough. Journals use a metric called “impact factor” that essentially states how many times an average article is cited by other articles in an index (in this case for all medical journals).

Not only is this an incorrect explanation of what an impact factor is (remember it is a measure of the number of citations the previous year divided by the number of articles published the previous two years (not the average number of citations per article as stated), but it sets the impact factor on the same level as quality of peer review and reliability. Although it might be true that journals like Cell, Nature and Science are harder to publish in, they also are very specific in what they are interested in publishing (known in academia as scope) and tend to publish flashier pieces. For example, 30 years ago it would be common to publish either the complete or partial genome of a virus in Science or Nature. These days you are more likely to publish such a paper in Genome Announcements or Archives of Virology. Does this mean that the peer review in GA of AoV is not rigorous or that the research published there is lesser quality than those published previously in Science or Nature? It is not likely to be the case due to the advancements in technology that eliminated the novelty (a big draw for journals like Science and Nature) in fact it is likely that the genome coverage is higher and the sequences are more reliable in recent papers than the days when a researcher called the bases on a long polyacrylamide sequencing gel. Does this mean that one journal is better than the other? No, they just have different scopes and therefore foci.

The aforementioned blogger does mention that impact factors aren't the sole determinant of reliability; however, they then come back to impact factors as a shortcut for determining reliability.

"As an independent, objective method to judge the quality of published research, Impact Factor is one of the best available."

Sadly nothing could be further from reality. This makes the assumption that journals with high impact factors never have to retract articles due to fraud. This is not the case as high impact factor journals have more retractions on average than lower impact factor journals. One possible explanation is that journals with a high impact factor have more concrete plans to deal with retractions; however, this has thus far only been studied in high impact factor journals with similar editorial practices regarding retractions and does not account for the increase in retractions as the impact factor increases.

Photo caption: Correlation between impact factor and retraction index. The 2010 journal impact factor s plotted against the retraction index as a measure of the frequency of retracted articles from 2001 to 2010 (see text for details). Journals analyzed were Cell, EMBO Journal, FEMS Microbiology Letters, Infection and Immunity, Journal of Bacteriology, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Journal of Experimental Medicine, Journal of Immunology, Journal of Infectious Diseases, Journal of Virology, Lancet, Microbial Pathogenesis, Molecular Microbiology, Nature, New England Journal of Medicine, PNAS, and Science. Credit: Fang et al., 2011, Figure 1.

Another variable in this discussion of impact factors is that it is very dependent on the field and the focus of the journal. A perfect example of this is the impact factor of journals focusing on entomology. Even the best of these journals only reaches an impact factor of 1-2. Does this mean the research in these journals are not reliable and therefore suspect? Of course not, and here is why. The researchers that will read and cite articles from entomology journals are either entomologists or work in a closely related field. A biomedical researcher is not likely to cite from an entomology journal unless they work with arthropods. It quickly becomes apparent that this is a numbers game. If a field has more people working in it, there will be more citations for journals in that field. Likewise, if a journal has a broader audience base, then they will have more people reading it and citing it.

So how do the virology journals make out in this impact factor game? I've put together a list of the 2014 impact factors for the virology-specific journals I could find. Note: I did not include general focus journals that include papers on virology in this list to help illustrate how field-specific journals suffer from this system.

*Journal publisher is on Beall's List of Predatory Publishers

If you notice, none of these journals, even the review journals, has an impact factor above 10, which people often use as their minimum for trustworthiness. So does this mean that these journals are automatically suspect? What are we to make of a journal published by a publisher on Beall's List having as high of an impact factor as other highly respected virology journals? The answer to both of these questions is simple: there must be something else going on here. In order to determine exactly what is going on, we need to dig deeper into what the impact factor was meant to convey and how it originated.  

The idea of the impact factor dates back to the 1920's with the proposal to produce an index for university librarians to determine which journals were worth purchasing. In 1955, it was mentioned by Dr. Eugene Garfield with the intention of building an index for scientific papers so that outdated or fraudulent work could be put to rest. This original index had the idea of individual papers being cataloged and the number of citations that they had being recorded. This idea lives on in google scholar citations, ResearchGate, Web of Science and several others. Take my google scholar page for example. One can easily see which papers I have published and how many times they have been cited.The original idea for the impact factor was to make citing work easier for researchers. Over time, the idea of the impact factor evolved from comparing individual papers to journals. Dr. Garfield originally intended the journal impact factor to be used to evaluate an author when their most recent papers had not had time to be cited. Dr. Garfield also had this to say about comparing journals across disciplines: "In any case, comparisons should not be made across disciplines unless the data are normalized in to take into account the various parameters that affect impact." This is something that is not done as the raw impact factors are used for the comparisons. 

The usefulness of the impact factor is hotly debated among bibliometricians, with some pointing out rather large flaws in the system. Among the flaws are the ease of impact factor manipulation, the evolution from the journal impact factor from being used as a selective criteria for purchasing to the end all, be all of academia, negative citations carry the same weight as positive citations, that the importance of papers may be noticed after the impact factor, and that some papers that are not cited actually have an impact on the field. A recurring theme among the bibliometricians is that the impact factor is being misused to judge quality of a journal and not the influence. Some are quite blunt in their disapproval of this practice. Take what Dr. Anthony van Raan, director of the Center for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands has said about this habit: "If there is one thing every bibliometrician agrees, it is that you should never use the journal impact factor to evaluate research performance for an article or for an individual — that is a mortal sin." Several other alternatives have been proposed, but they would suffer the same fate as the impact factor in that they would be misappropriated as a way to judge quality.  
So what can we do? There is no easy answer or shortcut in determining the quality of a particular paper. The only surefire way to judge an article's quality is to examine its methods, results and conclusions. Another option is to look for a meta analysis or a review covering the article in question as these are often written by experts who have an intimate knowledge of the topic and can determine the impact of the article. However, this runs into the issue that scientists are human with jealousies and grudges that can color their views on work by those they dislike. There really isn't an easy way around it. Sometimes, you just have to go to the data to see the quality of a paper.

So what's the take away from this? From my research on the history and intended use of the impact factor I found that:
  1. The impact factor does not measure reliability, just journal popularity
  2. Higher impact factor journals have higher retraction rates that cannot be explained away as differences in editorial practices as only high impact factor journals have been studied for this
  3. Just because a journal has a high impact factor it does not mean that the articles published there are of high quality
  4. The impact factor of journals in different disciplines and scopes cannot be directly compared without further mathematical adjustment 
  5. There is no real shortcut for determining the quality of a research paper other than examining it critically 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Reflections on HIV

In my undergraduate education, one of my classes required me to watch "And the Band Played On" which was based on a book of the same name and details the early days of the HIV epidemic. The movie had a profound effect on me and inspired me to study viruses in order to help humanity. I've included a link to the movie here as it highlights several interesting aspects including the intersection of science and politics, which is often not good for scientists. In those early days, the disease was dismissed as just a problem for the gay community and was therefore of no consequence. Of course viruses ignore the idea that they should limit themselves to a single group and soon rich, white hemophiliacs were found to have contracted the virus after receiving blood transfusions. The resulting epidemic was devastating and had a huge impact on my childhood as I grew up in the 1980s.  People were scared of HIV and it permeated the sex education classes that I took.

HIV has taken a heavy toll on people worldwide; however, it has also impacted the lives of several high profile celebrities including Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury, Liberace, Easy-E, and Magic Johnson. Rock Hudson was the first widely known celebrity to die as a result of AIDS due to HIV and although tragic, his death was a turning point in the struggle against the virus. Prior to his death, funding, both public and private, was almost non-existent. After his death, hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into HIV/AIDS research. Rock Hudson gave HIV/AIDS a face that people could recognize and not just brush off. Although these celebrities are some of the more visible faces of those that have died or are currently living with HIV, millions of others have died from AIDS as a result of HIV infection. The epidemic has been particularly severe in Sub-Saharan Africa. At one time, being diagnosed with HIV was a death sentence as the immune system would be severely compromised and secondary infections would take advantage of that. Times have changed though. Much more is known about the biology of HIV and with anti-retroviral therapy (ART), HIV titer can be very low and the rate of transmission significantly reduced. People can live a normal life and have a family who are free of HIV (provided they have access to ART which can be quite expensive).

Despite all of the progress the stigma remains. Some claim that HIV is divine punishment for moral transgressions whereas others claim a vast conspiracy surrounds HIV with it being fabricated despite the evidence. These people attack those who they see as promoting the idea of HIV being real. Even today, some celebrities still hide their HIV status to try and save face, often paying blackmailers to keep their secret. I had hoped that we were past this as a society and that we realized that we are talking about a virus that doesn't check a list to see if it is going to infect someone deserving or if they are innocent. Unfortunately it seems that the stigma and judgement still remains. So to be clear: HIV is a virus and lacks higher reasoning (or any neural activity) that would allow for it to be selective in who it infects and only target those who "deserve" it due to their morality. HIV will infect anyone it can regardless of race, gender, orientation, age, religion, or socio-economic standing.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

“What can [we] do against such reckless hate?”

I’d like to address a common issue that I see on social media with regard to scientists. Scientists are often portrayed as being easily corruptible and swayed with monetary enticements by those who stand to gain from silencing them. This is a very common claim against scientists working for pharmaceutical or agricultural biotechnology companies. This attitude and hatred truly makes me sad as scientists are people too. We often care deeply for the topics we research, not only out of a scientific curiosity, but also out of a genuine concern for our fellow humans and a desire to make the world a better place. This has been on my mind a lot recently as the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa has continued and public scientists are being smeared in social media. In Africa, many researchers and healthcare workers have died as a result of infection with Ebola. With the recent anniversary of the 2014 death of one of the world experts in hemorrhagic fevers, I thought it prudent to remind everyone of his sacrifice, as well as others, in an attempt to dispel the notion that scientists are in it for the money.
Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan was a world expert in Lassa fever (caused by the Lassa virus) and led Sierra Leone’s effort against Lassa fever. When Ebola was found there, he was asked by his country’s government to lead the effort against it. He eventually contracted the virus and passed away. His work, along with the efforts of several co-authors, on the genetic diversity of the Ebola virus was eventually published in Science and shed light on the epidemiology of the virus. These scientists and healthcare workers gave their lives to try and stop a devastating disease. To properly frame why they would do this, it helps to understand their motivations. When Dr. Khan was 15, a German scientist contracted Lassa fever and died during an outbreak. This had a profound effect on the young man and led to pursuit of virus research as a career. Dr. Kahn went on to become one of the leading virologists in Africa and was selected to lead the Kenema Government Hospital’s Lassa Fever Program. When an unprecedented Ebola virus outbreak occurred in several West African nations, including his home country, Sierra Leone, he was asked to lead the government’s efforts against the virus. In July 2014, he contracted ebola and passed away on July 29th, 2014. After his death, he was declared a national hero and a new viral hemorrhagic fever center will be named in his honor once it is completed. Although Dr. Khan was not the only researcher to pass away from ebola, he is certainly the most prominent. The obituaries for Dr. Khan and his co-authors can be found on this site and this site. Dr. Khan and others fought ebola despite the dangers because they had a genuine love for their fellow humans and sought to make the world a better place. I doubt anyone would go into a situation where they could catch a deadly virus with no known cure if they were only interested in money.

Five researchers and nurses who co-authored a paper on the genetics of the Ebola virus and passed away from contracting it prior to publication. From left to right: Mohamed Fullah, Alice Kovoma, Sheik Humarr Khan, Alex Moigboi, and Mbalu Fonnie. Photo credits: Mambu Momoh; Simirie Jalloh; Pardis Sabeti (2); Mike Dubose.
This sacrifice by scientists and healthcare workers fighting ebola is not a unique story. During World War II, a group of Soviet plant scientists slowly starved to death during a siege rather than eat the seeds they were guarding. This seed collection had been collected by the eminent botanist and scientist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov over decades of work. As the German army approached Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), valuable art and treasures were evacuated, but the seed collection was forgotten. At that time in the USSR, the science of genetics was outlawed and many scientists were executed for daring to practice genetics. Vavilov himself was spared execution but thrown in the Gulag where he died in 1943. These scientists were regarded as pariahs due to their devotion to science. Yet when the Germans approached, they took all the seeds and tubers down into the vaults and guarded them with their lives. As the siege approached 900 days, one by one they succumbed to starvation when they might have survived by eating a few of the seeds. I don’t know if the thought to eat the seeds crossed their mind or not, but they clearly did not act on it as nine of the scientists perished rather than betray what they saw as their duty. These seeds eventually served as the basis of Soviet agriculture. In 1979, it was estimated that 80% of the cultivars grown in the USSR were derived from Vavilov’s collection. Even today this trend of seed scientists closely guarding collections continues with Syrian plant scientists risking their lives to save a seed collection that is irreplaceable. So far 80% of the seedbank has been duplicated at other locations despite constant fighting and threats of kidnapping. Would scientists slowly starve to death or risk capture and torture if they were just out to make money?

However, some people still believe that scientists only support positions that they are paid for. An excellent example of this is what is happening today; we have a perfect example of history repeating itself. To return to the Russian botanist story, in the 1930s a biologist named Trofim Denisovich Lysenko gained prominence as his pseudoscience beliefs matched Soviet ideology at the time. He believed that Mendel and other geneticists were liars and that the field of genetics was wrong; plants, he claimed, obtained traits from response to environmental conditions and not through Mendelian genetics. Those who opposed his hypothesis were jailed and many were executed. It wasn’t until after Stalin’s death that other scientists started speaking out against him. He was finally removed from power and died in disgrace. However, 25 years that could have been spent on scientific advancement was lost. The former soviet nations would be very different today if Vavilov and not Lysenko was favored by Stalin.

Today we have a similar situation developing; some opponents of genetic engineering have been fighting against the technology since the first GE crop went on the market. Much like Lysenkoism, they have a fundamental misunderstanding of the science of genetics. In their minds, adding a gene or two into a plant irreparably alters it from something wholesome into something deadly. Although this view has no basis in reality, and is not supported by evidence, anyone who dares point out this error is called shill for big agriculture. To try to prove they are correct, they have gone on a fishing expedition, led by US Right To Know, using the Freedom of Information Act (and similar transparency laws) as a weapon to find anything they can use to discredit their opponents. Who are these terrible people that deserve to be reviled for their heinous crimes against humanity? They are scientists and educators like Dr. Kevin Folta. After obtaining thousands of his emails, these activists have been vindicated. All it took for Monsanto to “buy” Dr. Folta were some sandwiches, so they must have been amazing sandwiches. In all seriousness, all the FOIA turned up was a $25,000 grant from Monsanto to the outreach program that Dr. Folta runs and some reimbursement for travel (along with a sandwich or two). In the research world, $25,000 is a small amount and it goes fast, especially after the indirect costs are taken out to pay for the overhead and infrastructure at the university. The money will stretch a bit more in the outreach program covering by covering expenses such as food, travel and renting out a venue. But the bottom line is that getting a small grant like this is not out of the ordinary and this is not nearly the victory that it is being touted as.
Is this the sandwich that enticed a scientist to abandon all morals and ethics? Alas we shall never know as the evidence has been consumed. Credit: Steve Buchanan. 
Recently, this story has taken a turn for the worse. A blog published by PLoS has misrepresented one of the emails turned over by Dr. Folta. They claimed that Dr. Folta had been spoon feeding Monsanto the perfect advice to defeat the California labeling bill. This was something they long suspected and now they had caught him red-handed. This misrepresentation was then magnified by Inside Higher Ed as quotes from Dr. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, someone who is not known to be civil in their discourse with others, were included in the piece. So what was the email about? It turns out that the email was forwarded to Dr. Folta by a Monsanto employee from a group that was opposed to the labeling law in Colorado. He had been asked to speak at an event and help educate a group of growers and the Monsanto employee was giving him background information about the meeting. This is not what the authors of the PLoS blog post claimed, nor is it what anti-GE opponents are celebrating as a victory. Eventually PLoS retracted the blog but the damage was done as the same piece was printed in the LA Times. From there the fiasco snowballed into Vani Hari suing Dr. Folta for any emails where he mentions her name or any derivative of if. Not the be outdone, the FOIA requests have expanded to 40 scientists including one whose only crime was to do science and accurately report the results. To make matters worse, the University of Florida has taken the $25,000 from Monsanto and transferred it to the UF food bank to try and stem the onslaught of some of the more vile attacks on Dr. Folta. That has not stopped the attacks even though all that is left is some travel reimbursement and a sandwich or two. Despite an effort to be more transparent than anyone ever before, Dr. Folta is still reviled by those suffering from confirmation bias (one has only to venture into the comments sections of articles related to Dr. Folta to see this in action). The truth is being dealt with in a loose and underhanded manner. To paraphrase Philip Snowden, “In war the first casualty is the truth.” Make no mistake, anti-science activists have declared war on science and those who cherish it.

Despite the constant attacks against scientists, more are eagerly seeking to join the profession. Why would someone willingly go into an area with a deadly virus and try and help those infected? Is there money enough to purchase loyalty that can override the instinct of self-preservation? Can money buy a sense of duty strong enough that people will slowly starve to death rather than betray their charge? How much money would it take to strengthen someone against being reviled and despised by complete strangers? A common logic tool is Occam’s Razor; the simplest explanation is the most likely. Is it more likely that $25,000 and a sandwich is enough to win over a highly trained, critical thinker or that they have a true desire to teach others science based on the latest research? Scientists are people with families that they love and care for. Why would they risk their loved one for a few bucks? Have we really become so cynical as a society that we just assume the worst of people? I’m not saying that some scientists aren’t just out to get rich, but it’s not nearly as common as suggested by some. So what can we do against such reckless hate? We meet it head on.

Title quote: King Théoden, The Lord of the Rings- The Two Towers, New Line Cinema