David Deutsch and Jason Silva

The Beginning of Infinity: Untestable Theories & the Power of Explanation

In reading David Deutsch’s brilliant book, The Beginning of Infinity, I finally came across a couple of simple reasons why untestable theories in science are a dead-end and why the explanatory content of a theory matters. It’s very common for me to harp on about empiricism and evidence to friends and folk I debate on subjects like God, heaven, homeopathy, alternative medicine and other realms where science cannot speculate or has to no avail. I’ve never, however, managed to condense such lectures into conversational fragments that didn’t make them hate me by the time I finished. For that reason alone, I’m glad I came across Deutsch’s book; for my argumentative arsenal has increased.

Let me start by asking a few questions:

Q1 – What is the single factor that science, pseudoscience, and non-science have in common? (This is not a trick question).

A1 – The answer is that they started thousands of years ago, with the same base of information, which is relevant to the conclusion at the end of this post.

Q2 – Now, what differentiates science/pseudoscience, and non-science?

A2 – Testability*

Put it that way, A2 is obvious. As Karl Popper wrote: empiricism is the demarcation point between science and non-science (the criterion of demarcation). In other words, the testability of a hypothesis will tell you if it can be improved by experience. And, if it can’t, there is nothing to rely upon except authority, yet the rejection of authority is what allowed the scientific method to come into being, and thereafter flourish!

Deutsch’s 1st Science Nugget: an untestable theory cannot be improved upon by experience

There was nothing new in Deutsch’s nugget of wisdom that I didn’t know before, but its succinctness and comprehensibility are what struck me. No longer will I need to leap off onto fifteen minute tangents on why someone’s pet theory is wrong. It is as simple as this: if it can’t be tested, it can’t be improved by experience, therefore, it is far more likely to be wrong (which, in a Bayesian sense, may as well mean that it’s always wrong—in the sense that a rational person wouldn’t believe something a priori).

Another way to put it is this: when a untestable theory is set forth as part of an argument one has no good reason to believe it, as there are any number of equally untestable theories one could believe in. In such cases, there is nothing to resort to except authorities (which is to say ‘you’ll only have reason to believe this because he/she/I said so’—i.e., the way Natural News works!). Without testability, there are only arbitrary reasons for choosing between competing theories. Religion is the quintessential example of this phenomenon. How many religions are there? Hundreds. Christianity alone has something like 2,000 different sects. Furthermore, in Mankind’s short history, there have existed some 10,000 gods. According to Deutsch, the reason why is because the hypothesis that there exists a God or Gods is inherently untestable, and I can find nothing wrong in such logic. And, in the absence of rigorous empirical results, anybody’s pet reason for why this religion/sect/god is better than that religion/sect/god is as good as any other. (Actually, it is testable as Deutsch eventually avails, but only when the explanatory theory of the theory is bad, which I’ll get to soon).

An untestable theory (that is to say, a theory not able to be falsified) cannot be improved upon by experience, only by authority, which confers no explanatory power other than because I said so, therefore, it offers no real-life implications (other than those implications that it confers as a result of pretending it has real-life implications).

In Q2, I put pseudoscience on the same side as science when differentiating the demarcating factor between science and non-science. The difference between science/pseudoscience and non-science, as I wrote above, is testability. You can test science and find out one way or the other it’s validity, and you cannot do this in non-science. The reason that science and pseudoscience line up together is because you can test the pseudoscience. However, it’s staying power in the realm of its empirical demise is the difference between science and pseudoscience. That difference being their theories respective explanation. That is, whether a theory is a good explanation or bad is what further demarcates science and pseudoscience.

Duetsch defines a bad explanation as a theory that is easily variable while still explaining the same thing. For example, Deutsch uses the Greek myth explaining winter: Persephone was forced into marriage with Hades and had to visit the Underworld to perform her womanly duty for 6 months of every year. Persephone’s mother Demeter would become so sad upon her annual leave to the Underworld that she would blanket the known world in snow. That was the ancient Greek explanation for the winter. However, it is a bad explanation because it did not account for the seasons of the Southern Hemisphere, where it was summer alongside the Greek’s winter. Now, if replication was the sole factor in transforming a hypothesis into a scientific theory, an ancient Greek would need wait only year and after and upon winter’s recurring return, would have proved Demeter’s sadness to be the cause of winter.

Imagine then, after our Greek scientist successfully proved his theory that knowledge of the Earth’s sphericity was discovered, and in the northern hemisphere’s winter the southern hemisphere experienced summer. Would they then abandon the theory of Demeter’s winter? No, as Deutsch argues: our Greek scientist would’ve modified his theory to state that in Persephone’s annual absence, Demeter banishes the heat from her vicinity only, thereby explaining the South’s summer. Theory saved and Greek life marches on. Yet, what has changed in the explanatory content of the theory? Nothing! It essentially boils down to the same argument: the gods did it. By Deutsch’s definition, the theory is easily variable (a bad explanation). A good explanation for the winter, on the other hand, looks something like this: the combination of the Earth’s 23.5 degree axial tilt, albedo, atmospheric components, distance from the Sun, along with the Sun’s thermonuclear transmutation of hydrogen into helium which releases photons that, as a result of stellar convection, forces the photons on a 10-million year journey to the Sun’s surface, upon which they break free of the sun’s gravity and dash out on an 8-minute sprint to the Earth all interact in such a way to produce regular annual variations in the average temperature on the surface of the Earth that humans call spring, autumn, winter, and summer. How easy is that theory to vary while still explaining winter? Nigh impossible. Remove the axial tilt component of the Earth, and our weather would be relatively unchanged year round (no explanation). If the strong nuclear force—a key process of stellar transmutation—were 2% stronger, helium would not be produced in the sun’s core; in fact, no stars would exist at all because all the hydrogen in the universe would have transformed into bi-protons within minutes of the big bang resulting in a boring universe devoid of form (no explanation). If any one of a million variables is changed, the end-result is entirely different. That is a good explanation.
There we have the demarcation point between science and pseudoscience. The variability of the theory’s constituents should modify the theory’s explanatory power significantly. If it does not, be wary.

Deutsch’s 2nd Science Nugget: A hard to vary theory is more likely to be a good explanation than an easily-variable theory

Take the real-world example of homeopathy vs. medicine. They both started at ludicrously wrong theories of the human body. The conventional medicine of the time believed the body to consist of four humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm; while homeopathy believed that diseases can be cured by a ‘like cures like’ remedy that increases in a potentiality inversely correlated to the amount of remedy present. Despite medicine believing an equally silly thing (though at least they could see those 4 things in the body), it has today come to the point of organ transplants, chemotherapy, antibiotics, vaccines and a host of other lifesaving devices because it used the criterion of demarcation (testability) to remove the non-science components of then-medicine, and further, regularly tested new explanations for why certain things worked or did not work, and updated the relevant theories with those that had better explanatory content. (I make it sound simple here, but in reality, it happened millions of times, across millions of people, and millions of times with information being lost/rediscovered all the time, and to top it all off, thousands of dead ends, duplicative works, hoaxes and the like. It was, by no means, an easy process, and it will continue for centuries more, so long as the core of science remains intact.)

To demonstrate the issue at hand. Consider when homeopathic practitioners learned of the existence of atoms, their finitude, and pesky facts like Avogadro’s constant. They didn’t stop believing in the explanatory content of homeopathy (that substances which cause similar symptoms in large quantities in healthy people cure that same symptom in dilute quantities in sick people), they instead opted to invent a water memory that cannot be directly tested (just like our ancient Greek would’ve amended his theory of Demeter’s winter). Compare that to the discovery of thalidomide’s effect on pregnant women. It was banned, with no excuses or fake hypothesises present.

In the end, the key difference between the competing theories is that even though they both started at horrible explanations (as Q1 above), one strived not only for testability, but for good explanatory prowess, while the other did not. (Homeopathy has regressed into non-science because it embraced testability until it didn’t work, and can no longer be considered a pseudoscience by Deutsch’s definition.)

To summarize: real science revises its theories in light of new observations to arrive at better explanations, while pseudoscience does not. These are further differentiated from non-science by being testable, which separates theories that can be improved upon by experience from those that cannot.

The Beginning of Infinity is a fascinating escapade into science, philosophy, and epistemology and I heartily recommend to anyone so interested. He rails against scientists for not taking their theories seriously, and ravages pseudoscientists to shortsighted to see past their own bad explanations alike. And this post, by the way, is only material from the first chapter. I look forward to reading the rest of this book, interlocuting my own thoughts on his chapters in written posts like this.

Afterword: I am well-aware that I’ve defeated the purpose of why I like those two tiny tidbits of information by extrapolating them into a 1,800 word post! Some things never change. I’m okay with this.

This Post & Others Like it Should Not Exist

The controversy over vaccines has been popping its head up a little more than usualat least, so it seems from my vantage point. There is the Chili’s controversy; Mike Adam’s lunatic appeal to Neil deGrasse Tyson to denounce the use of mercury (he meant thimerosal) in the flu shot, and the usual spiel of links and articles that keep showing up in my Facebook news feed. That being said, I follow a hilarious page on Facebook: Refutations to Anti-Vaccine Memes. And, perhaps because I’ve recently become a father, I’ve taken a liking to their counterpoints to the horrendous talking points that the anti-vax groups bellow out in every direction to any who dares forfeit their prefrontal cortex. Below, I’ve catalogued my favourite memes that I’ve come across from their Page. Check’em out and go follow the page if so inclined:

anti-vaxxer copy

You’d think the above was obvious…yet, people still think vaccines are about making money…

ethyl vs methyl

Methyl-Mercury is 100% natural…Yet its bad for you; so, why is natural immunity any good?

anti-vax pro-drunk

Statistics 101…

formaldehyde - vaccines

Appealing to Nature helps you none…

mercury hydrogen bomb

vaccine conspiracy theories

More logicz…

maths, vaccines, and profit

2+2 = 4.

vaccine research

If you can’t answer every single question, you’ve no business telling other folks to not vaccinate…

my unvaccinated kid vs yours

Which is very similar to the below meme

sober driving

Mirror-image velociraptor for the win!


Why, yes it would…

vaccine-seatbelt comparison

Funny how replacing the word ‘vaccine’ makes it sound just as stupid.



Considering the centuries of data and evidence we possess, if you are anti-vax…

Science Proves you Wrong

And regarding your opinion’s empowerment in this Age of Misinformation…

MLK Quote There were so many more that I wanted to post, so be sure to check’em out for a good-hearted laugh. Live long and vaccinate…

Guest Post: The Union of Concerned Trolls

On March 27th, the MIT Technology Review—an otherwise great resource on science and technology—published a bizarre diatribe on GMOs: Are GMOs Worth the Trouble by Doug Gurian-Sherman. I encourage you to read it before coming to the meat of this post. I call it bizarre for the many non-sequiturs, misrepresentations, and statements so easily falsifiable that one wonders how it got past the editors; yet it did. As I was considering writing a response to it, Mary Mangan and I exchanged a few puzzled tweets, and I decided the response would be far better received from an actual scientist such as she is, instead of from a two-bit nitwit like myself.

She graciously agreed to my proposal for a reply to the article to be posted here. You’ll find her insightful rebuttal below.

The Union of Concerned Trolls

If you have spent any time around the series of tubes in the last decade, you will have come across many personality types. One of these is the “concern troll.” A definition of this term from Wikitionary offers a glimpse at the behavior of this type of individual:

Someone who posts to an internet forum or newsgroup, claiming to share its goals while deliberately working against those goals, typically, by claiming “concern” about group plans to engage in productive activity, urging members instead to attempt some activity that would damage the group’s credibility, or alternatively to give up on group projects entirely.

In comment threads around the internet, there’s probably not much harm to come from random concern trolls. Unfortunately, though, there is a more insidious variety of concern troll that has wider influence, or a larger megaphone, and these behaviors can then really become barriers to progress. In science and science policy, this can mean undermining support and funding, and for some research areas: losing time on breakthroughs that could provide benefits in many arenas of health and environmental sustainability.

Science and science policy concern trolls in the wild

There have been many examples in recent years of concern trolling that have attempted to re-direct science efforts and funding, and to dismiss the importance of certain lines of research work. Senator Tom Coburn famously mocked the research conducted on shrimp on treadmills. The fact that this research was actually about an important food species and the effect of water quality on the shrimp didn’t seem to be important to the Senator. Sarah Palin took issue with funding for fruit fly research, you may recall. This research was actually aimed at understanding the olive fruit fly—a serious threat to olive farmers. You like olive oil? Would you like farmers to research the best tools to combat this pest and reduce losses? And who can forget Bobby Jindal’s concerns about volcano monitoring as a waste of resources.

I was reminded of all these efforts to diminish the value of the research, and redirect the resources of scientists, by a post at the MIT Technology Review. Not long ago a scientifically sound and excellent piece on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) was published there: Why We Will Need Genetically Modified Foods, by David Rotman. In response, the Union of Concerned Trolls Scientists was recently given the megaphone to provide their thoughts on this topic. Doug Gurian-Sherman asks, “Are GMOs Worth the Trouble?” Using deliberate misrepresentations of the science and the field of work, Gurian-Sherman joins Coburn, Palin, and Jindal in aiming to redirect research priorities to align with ideological preferences rather than the real needs of the field.

Is Doug Gurian-Sherman a concern troll?

Now, I’m not saying he is. I’m just asking the question. You know, like Fox News does:

…Cavuto’s not saying these things. He’s just asking, like, ‘Is your mother a whore?’ What? I’m not saying she’s a whore. I’m just wondering out loud if she is a whore. All I’m saying is that reasonable people who have banged your mother for money can disagree.  ~ Jon Stewart

Let’s explore Doug’s piece and see if it fits the definition. Does he claim to share goals, while raising “concerns”, and attempt to encourage giving up on certain directions? It does appear so.

From reading his piece we see immediately that Doug thinks GMOs are “trouble”. How does he support this case? He begins by citing a paper about plant genetic repositories and resources by Susan McCouch and other attendees of a meeting on crop wild relatives. This work has absolutely nothing to say about disagreeing on technology, or any “trouble” of GMOs. In fact, it heavily supports investments in genomics and other allied technologies to unlock the potential of the wide variety of plants that are available to us. And then do what with them? Among the directions celebrated in this piece:

Thus, useful genetic traits are moved across the breeding barrier, expanding the genetic diversity of domesticated plants and opening up new opportunities for environmental resilience and future gains in quality and yield.

“Moved across the breeding barrier.” I wonder how that might be done…. Well, anyway. Let’s continue to examine Doug’s concerns.

Next he goes on to celebrate a rice variety that was developed for flood tolerance. Using the techniques of biotechnology, he notes this was developed “in about 5 years, rather than the typical 10 to 15.” He doesn’t cite any work here, so we don’t know where this typical number comes from. However, in the McCouch piece we learn:

Plant breeders often worry that using wild species or landrace varieties is too risky, scientifically and economically. It took 20 years and 34,000 attempts to cross a domesticated rice variety with a distantly related, highly salt-tolerant wild relative from India before fertile offspring were obtained. It will now take at least 4-5 years of breeding to eliminate unwanted wild characters to generate a new high-yielding, salt-tolerant rice variety (see go.nature.com/knztl5). That is too long for most plant-breeding programmes, especially in the private sector.

Other recent examples of plant breeding timelines include the development of a cherry with an altered maturation time—something that might be helpful in times of climate change. How did the breeders describe their work?

It took 45 years of sorting through the junk offspring to find the seedlings that took us where we wanted to go,” she says. “Ninety-nine percent of them didn’t have the qualities we were looking for.

The development of virus-resistant papaya is another example of a crop that needed strategies to combat a pathogen that was wreaking havoc on the fruits. Dennis Gonsalves began testing virus-resistant GMO papayas in 1992, and they were released to farmers in 1998. How long had it taken to do this with breeding?

We report the first successful production of PRSV-P resistant backcross (BC) papaya plants following intergeneric hybridisation between C. papaya and a Vasconcellea species after 50 years of reports on unsuccessful attempts.

Hmm. The evidence seems to be at odds with Doug’s claims, doesn’t it?

Breeding is important, and will remain important. There’s not a single scientist anywhere trying to withhold the techniques and strategies of breeding. Nobody is lobbying to interfere with breeding, or to keep it out of researchers’ and farmers’ hands. Nobody is burning down labs or fields to delay or destroy breeding efforts. In fact, last week I jealously watched from afar as plant scientists from around the world celebrated the career of Norman Borlaug and his huge successes in plant breeding, as they talked about their plans for the future to improve the qualities of crop species.

However, Doug’s main point seems to be that breeding is all we need (despite what breeders are actually saying). Overcoming the time and species barriers is crucial, though, as we saw in McCouch’s piece. Another respected plant breeder recently commented on access to tools of biotechnology:

De Jong enjoys dabbing pollen from plant-to-plant the old-fashioned way, but he knows that selective breeding can only do so much.…To him, genetic engineering represents a far more exact way to produce new varieties, rather than simply scrambling the potato genome’s 39,000 genes the way traditional breeding does.

There are other examples of situations where there simply is no breeding option to obtain the necessary traits. Virus-resistant cassava is being developed where there are no resistant varieties. Bananas, which suffer from numerous challenges, also lack resistant varieties and grow as clones—that is, they cannot be bred with traditional means. No source of natural resistance to the citrus greening (HLB) threatening oranges around the world has been identified, and saving them may require insertion of novel genes from other species.

Unlike Doug, breeders are not troubled by GMOs. They want—and sometimes need—to have this tool available.

Doug claims there are other “challenges” that he blames on GMOs. However, none of the things he cites are actually unique to GMOs. Monocultures, herbicides, and patents—the bogeyman trifecta—neither require GMOs nor would vanish if GMOs disappeared. It is entirely disingenuous to conflate these. He also says there are other strategies to affect water use, pests, and fertilizer needs. Fine—none of these are in conflict with GMOs in any manner—there is no trouble there. Pretending these are mutually exclusive at all is entirely bogus.

Sadly, he also raises the canard that’s becoming popular among his allies, and among climate contrarians—that “consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough” as Earth Open Source claims. This is a despicable misrepresentation of the facts, as legitimate scientific organizations support the consensus on the safety of GMOs.

Is Doug Gurian-Sherman worth the trouble?

Perhaps not. Although he manages to grab a megaphone sometimes, increasingly the scientific community and journalists are becoming aware of the rhetorical two-steps and destructive strategies employed by organizations that are hostile to GMOs, while pretending that they cling to science. Becoming the designated science support mechanism for GGFC, a group that is stalking public scientists and proponents of GMO technology, which is steered by one member who claims vaccines are “cannibalism” and “subverting evolution“, puts them in very unfortunate company and may make the UCS embarrassingly irrelevant anyway without further assistance.

He is actively trying to influence the support for the options of tools be available for researchers, however. And we have to be wary of that. Folks who misrepresent science, and attempt to undermine the public support, are not helping us to solve challenges we face.


~ Mary Mangan, PhD in Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology

  President and co-founder of OpenHelix LLC



Steve Savage

The Lowdown on Pesticides with a Plant Pathologist

As I delve further into the depths of agriculture, particularly in respect to GMOs which has become my pet project, I am consistently astounded by how much I don’t know. Granted, that hasn’t stopped me from forming, having, and propagating opinions, but always, in the recesses of my mind, preparing myself for the possibility that what I take for granted and believe in may be wrong.

I was once wrong about GMOs, and then I was wrong again on pesticides. Continuing on in the same vein as my Lowdown on GMOs series, I’ve reached out to plant pathologist Steve Savage to pick his brain on pesticides as it is perhaps just as big an issue as the use of GMOs today. Enjoy.


0 - Lots of folks are increasingly having concerns over pesticides. In that regard, before we begin, I think it will pay dividends to define a few things

i - Could you give a brief bio of yourself, your experiences, competencies, and why people should trust your judgment?

I’ve been involved in agriculture for more than 35 years.  I got interested in a field called Plant Pathology steve savagewhen I was an undergraduate in biology at Stanford.  I ended up working in the lab at UC Davis that studied diseases of grapes and that was my first experience with farmers or with pesticides.  At the time there were several new fungicides that we were testing that were much safer for us and for the environment. That is where I began to understand that things were rapidly changing from the “bad old days” of pesticides.

When I finished my PhD, I worked briefly for Colorado State University with the grape and fruit industry in far western Colorado.  Again, I worked on many things, but also on some new chemical options for grape disease control.  I then spent seven years working in fungicide discovery at DuPont in Delaware and learned how much effort goes into looking for and evaluating new pesticide products.  My one frustration there was that I didn’t feel that our industry was doing a very good job of telling our story. Then I got the chance to return to California to work for Mycogen – a start-up that was focused on biological control of pests and on natural product-based pesticide options.  In the seven years I worked there we did some very interesting work, but it became clear that there were many pests, which we would never be able to effectively control with our “soft” products.  Since 1996 I have been an independent consultant doing projects for a wide range of ag-related companies.  I have probably worked equal amounts of time on projects related to synthetic pesticides, biological pesticides and crop genetics.  I’ve also spent a good deal of time on questions of sustainability – how to measure it, and what sorts of farming practices are most suitable for pursuing that goal.  For the last 5 years I’ve also been blogging and speaking on ag issues in general.

ii - What is a pesticide, what do they do, what types of pesticides exist, and why do we need them?

There are lots of organisms that eat, infect, or otherwise damage plants. This is true for plants in natural settings and for plants grown as crops.  These include insects, mites, nematodes, fungi, bacteria, and viruses.  Plants also compete with one another for light, water and nutrients and in an agricultural setting we call those weeds.  In agricultural production, we call these pests, and they are managed by a range of practices, one of which is the use of pesticides. In terms of the pesticides used by farmers there are insecticides, miticides, nematicides, herbicides, fungicides and bacteriacides.  The reason that we need these materials is that without them the quantity, quality and/or safety of the crop can be compromised.  If a farmer tolerates say a 30% loss to pest damage, than means his/her use of other resources is only 70% of what it could have been – resources such as land, water, fertilizer, fuel, labor…  A pest-damaged crop might decay during storage or on the way to the consumer.  A pest-damaged crop might be colonized by fungi which produce seriously toxic mycotoxins.  There are also invasive pests like weeds and insects that can damage sensitive natural environments if not controlled.

iii - Does it make any sense to refer to pesticides with a catch-all phrase? To give an analogy, the word cancer is quite misleading as there are 200 types of cancers. Yet the elasticity of the word has allowed conspiracy theorists to claim, with relative ease, that there is a cure for cancer that is being suppressed. If that were true, there would need to be 200 different cures. Does not the same situation apply to pesticides: that it damages their perception by squeezing them into one-size fits all category that can then be strawman’ed, mischaracterized, and misdefined? In short, is the elasticity of the word a detriment to public perception?

No.  Pesticides encompass a huge range of things.  Plants are actually the biggest producer of pesticides as most of them make defensive and/or repellent chemicals whose purpose is to ward-off pests.  These can be chemicals that are seriously toxic to mammals (e.g. nicotine or rotenone) or relatively non-toxic (e.g. azidirachtin, from neem trees). Sometimes we humans take a liking to the chemicals plants have made to defend themselves (e.g. caffeine in coffee or capsaicin in hot peppers).  Sometimes we have to be careful of the pesticides made by our foods – e.g. you shouldn’t eat the sprouts that can develop from potatoes in your pantry because they have some glyco-alkyloids that are rather toxic.  Some pests have evolved to get around those defenses and those are the ones that cause the problems in farming.

Technically the definition of a “pesticide” is legal – not chemical.  If any product is sold using “pesticidal claims,” then it must be regulated by the EPA as a pesticide.  Thus pesticides differ dramatically from one another.  Most modern pesticides are selective meaning that they basically only effect the target organism – e.g. only insects, or only diseases, or only weeds.  In most of these cases, the chemicals are inhibitors of specific enzymes in pathways that are not found in the non-target species. Some have “non-target” toxicity to things like fish or aquatic invertebrates, and those have to be used very carefully around water.  Others are extremely safe in those settings. Pesticides also differ dramatically in terms of toxicity to mammals (rats and mice are used to measure this as surrogates for humans – more about that later).   Some pesticides are things like plant extracts or chemicals produced through fermentation of things like bacteria or fungi.  Some pesticides are live biological organisms. Some pesticides are synthetic compounds and some are synthetic versions of naturally occurring chemicals.  Some (mostly old) pesticides are inorganic compounds like copper sulfate.  Many synthetic pesticides are structural variations of naturally occurring chemicals, which acted as the starting idea for a family of compounds with a similar mode of action.

1 - How are pesticides regulated? Is there, for example, any industry say-so in the standards; who performs the tests, analysis and what are the penalties for failing safety regulations?

Pesticides are highly regulated.  The main changes in that regard started with the establishment of the EPA in 1970, but there have been several iterations of increasingly stringent standards since then.  As with pharmaceuticals, the company that wishes to register a chemical, or keep it registered during a later review, must pay for the cost of safety testing.  Those tests have to be conducted under rigorous rules and the data and process are subject to government audit.  Many of these tests are conducted by contract labs, which would risk losing all their business if they were found to have falsified any data.  There are many categories of tests required which are nicely described in this post.  In general there are several categories of acute and chronic mammalian toxicity, tests for effects on various non-target organisms, and requirements to fully document the environmental fate and rates of breakdown of the chemical and its metabolites.  It costs a company over 200 million dollars to develop a new chemical, and a substantial part of that cost is for toxicity and other safety testing.  The EPA conducts an elaborate risk assessment based on this data and uses that to set very specific limitations on how the product can be used (maximum rates, protective equipment required, interval before workers can re-enter the field, time required before the treated field can be harvested…).  The labels are designed to ensure that any chemical residues on the harvested crop are below a very conservative “tolerance” that the EPA sets based on the risk analysis. Those that use pesticides professionally must be licensed to do so and must keep up with additional training.  There are substantial penalties if, for instance, a batch of a product does not been the standards for purity that have been set to determine what material was used for testing.  Companies are not allowed to make claims about the relative safety of their products, even when such differences occur.  The federal government and some states conduct pesticide residue monitoring on random samples from the food supply.  The farms from which samples are found with above-tolerance detections or detections of pesticides not registered for that crop are liable for those issues.

2 - Diving into toxicology

i - How well do the tests, such as the LD50 performed on rats (readers: the LD50 is the lethal dose of a pesticide required to kill 50% of a group of rats), translate to humans?

Tests for toxicity have not been allowed using human subjects for some time; however, several decades ago some chemicals were tested on volunteers.  In general, higher levels of exposure are allowed for those compounds with human data because the safety margins applied to those with only rodent data are quite large. The EPA also factors in the toxicity of metabolites. Every year the USDA (and Canada and several states) conduct extensive sampling from commercial food channels and test for residues of pesticides or their metabolites (typically of >300 compounds per commodity, >10,000 total samples so more than 2 million rows of data).  Year after year, almost all the residues found are below the tolerance (e.g. 99.5% of the 2012 samples) and many far below.

ii - And, if you could enumerate a few examples, how much produce would an ordinary person need to ingest to exhibit symptoms of pesticide poisoning?

One would have typically have to eat hundreds to tens of thousands of times their body weight to get a toxic dose (a calculator can be found here).  For fresh tomatoes in 2008, I calculated that for 99.8% of the samples one would have to eat over 100 times one’s body weight and for 73% it would have to be over 10,000 times your body weight.  I calculated that for the most potent residue detected on any strawberry in 2008, someone would have to consume 18 times their body weight over a very short time and all from that particular sample. For reference, with caffeine in strong coffee, it would only require consuming 0.6 times your body weight to get to a toxic dose.

There are websites where you can look at how the detected residues compare to tolerances (e.g. CropAudit).  Incidentally, residues are often detected on organic crop samples as well.  More than 40% of organic samples had detectable residues in this recent Canadian study.  Some of the residues detected in Canada were consistent with intentional use of the synthetic pesticide on the organic crop.  Also the typical testing only looks for synthetic pesticides and would not detect something like the use of copper fungicides on organic.

3 - There is a set of standards (“Certified Organic”) that differentiates pesticides from those more commonly applied. Could you explain the difference between the two groups of pesticides: conventional and organic. Is, for example, one safer than the other in relation to human health?

The criterion for what can be used as a pesticide on organic is that the material is considered “natural” by the committee that advises the USDA on this issue (NOSB).  Being natural does not in any way guarantee low toxicity.  Many of the most toxic substances known (e.g. alflatoxin, botulinatoxin, nicotine) are natural.  Organic pesticides have to go through the EPA as well.  If compounds are naturally occurring and found in common foods, the most expensive chronic tests are not required.  For instance a new potato spout inhibitor has just been registered through that path, but it is made synthetically because it would not be practical to get it from natural sources.  Typically, it could not then be considered ok for organic.  Organic growers use clove oil for sprout inhibition, but it has to be re-applied many times while this new material does not.  Some of the products that can be used on organic, like copper-based fungicides, are more toxic than many synthetic alternatives which are also more effective and used at much lower rates.  The bottom line; however, is that because all of these things are well-regulated, there are not any reasons for consumers to hesitate to eat either conventional or organic food, at least as long as it is produced in places like the US, Canada or Central or South America.  Some organic non-perishable ingredients are being sourced from places like China and India, and between general environmental pollution issues and the continued use of old pesticides, this is not a desirable thing.

4 - Many people still reference Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring published from 1962 in their deliberations against pesticide use, but have pesticides changed since then?

Dramatically.  I think that if Carson could come back and see the changes she would take great satisfaction.  She might well be annoyed about the people who are effectively implying that her efforts failed to produce a positive legacy.

i - If so: for the better or worse?

I would refer you to a recent post in which I use the historical data for one crop to document the change over time (an example of how much pesticides have changed).  More and more of the pesticides which are being used fall into the EPA’s “category IV” which is called “essentially non-toxic.”

ii - Many activist organisations point to the increased use of glyphosate (Roundup) usage since the introduction of GMOs. Is this true? If so, what does it mean for the environment? Has glyphosate replaced other pesticides products, or is it new product being applied increasing overall use? 

Glyphosate was probably already the biggest single pesticide product even before biotech crops.  This is because it is particularly effective as a herbicide, but has very low toxicity to everything else, does not move into water, and leaves treated sites available for immediate planting.  When glyphosate tolerant crops were introduced, glyphosate did replace other herbicides that had been in common use on soy etc.  It also replaced mechanical tillage in some cases, so that increase in pesticide use is a substantial positive for the environment because of reduced erosion and retention of soil carbon.  There is a widely cited study by Chuck Benbrook of the Organic Center which came up with a large estimate for increased use of glyphosate for biotech.  That work has been criticized for various assumptions and extrapolations that are disputable.  Others have calculated the opposite trend.  However, even if Benbrook’s numbers were accurate, what few point out is that it is a number for a total of 1.4 billion acres grown over a long time frame.  The amount comes to 6 ounces/farmed acre which is not at all dramatic. In his study, Benbrook also acknowledged that: “In light of its generally favorable environmental and toxicological properties, especially compared to some of the herbicides displaced by glyphosate, the dramatic increase in glyphosate use has likely not markedly increased human health risks.”

5 - From an environmental perspective, would we be better off with conventional pesticides, organic pesticides, both, or none at all?

We would be best off with whatever kind of pesticide option is both effective for pest control and has minimal environmental impact.  Sometimes that will mean a product that can be used in both organic and conventional (e.g. Spinosad – a very effective natural product insecticide produced by Dow that can be used in both).  Sometimes, the best environmental choice would be a synthetic.  To not control pests to a reasonable degree is problematic for the environment.  If say 20 or 30% of the potential production is not being achieved because of pest damage, that means that the use of all the other resources for that crop (land, water, energy, fertilizer, labor…) are only being used at 70 to 80% of their potential efficiency.  Farming more land to meet global demand is the worst possible alternative from an environmental point of view.  That is why it is a good thing for the environment that organic remains a small niche – otherwise a great deal of new farmland would be needed.

6 - How does international law affect national regulations? The EU and the US differ in their approach to pesticides, yet a significant amount of cross-food trade occurs. Are you aware of any effects this has in regard to the individual policies that the FDA, EPA, and DoA use and vice-versa for their European counterpoints? 

Different parts of the world have different specific regulations, but those mostly affect trade with regard to the maximum residue levels (MRLs) that are allowed by the importing country.  Some European MRLs are lower than in the US, but not all.  Pesticide use in Europe is actually quite high – particularly for fungicides because of the wetter climate.  If the EU were to shift to regulation based on hazard rather than risk (something they consider from time to time), it could become much more problematic for US and other North and South American exporters.  Europe is a major net importer of food and feed.  In the US, our regulatory agencies have consistently used risk-based regulation.

7 - Are you able to shed some light on the future direction that pesticides and pesticide usage might evolve?

In general I believe that the trend will continue towards more and more selective pesticides with lower mammalian and other non-target toxicities.  Herbicide use will become more diversified particularly in areas once dominated by glyphosate tolerant crops.  The use of Biological controls will continue to expand slowly, and will fill some important niches.  The lower cost option for the registration of certain naturally occurring chemicals will help with finding products for niche uses like the sprout inhibition described above.  The overall need for pesticides will continue; however, and may well intensify in some regions because of climate change.  Hopefully, pesticide regulation in the developing world will catch up and eliminate the known bad-actor materials that are still used all too often in those settings.  Plant genetic engineering could be used to dramatically reduce the need for certain pesticides on some crops (particularly coffee, grapes, potatoes, tomatoes, brindal…), but between activist influence in poor countries and brand protectionism in the rich world, those potential benefits will probably never be realized.

Thank you Steve, it was a pleasure picking your brain.

I’m sure you’ve had a few misconceptions shattered. If you enjoyed that, be sure to check out Steve’s blog, Applied Mythology, where, always coolly and calmly, he tackles the biggest issues of the day in agriculture in his friendly voice, and with evidence and science to back up his claims. As always, where one gets their information is very important. I hope you’ve learned something new today, most especially that pesticide fears are overblown. Please share this post if you value the opinion of experts above unsubstantiated banter; we can all learn to deal with a little humility.


What if much that you think you know about agriculture, farming and food isn’t actually true? What if there are “myths” that have been intentionally and mostly unintentionally spread about these issues? What if the truth about these issues matters for the future of humanity? ~ Steve Savage

Featured Image sourced from EPA. Profile of Steve sourced from his Google+

Holistic Health and Wikipedia

I just came across a Change.org petition directed at Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, to more favourably feature holistic (read: alternative) health and medicine. The statement claims that Wikipedia’s current entries on many alternative practices are biased and misleading. The petition was stupid; Jimmy Wales answer, however, is brilliant. Check it out below:


Wikipedia is widely used and trusted. Unfortunately, much of the information related to holistic approaches to healing is biased, misleading, out-of-date, or just plain wrong. For five years, repeated efforts to correct this misinformation have been blocked and the Wikipedia organization has not addressed these issues. As a result, people who are interested in the benefits of Energy Medicine, Energy Psychology, and specific approaches such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques, Thought Field Therapy and the Tapas Acupressure Technique, turn to your pages, trust what they read, and do not pursue getting help from these approaches which research has, in fact, proven to be of great benefit to many. This has serious implications, as people continue to suffer with physical and emotional problems that might well be alleviated by these approaches.

Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, left the organization due to concerns about its integrity. He stated: “In some fields and some topics, there are groups who ‘squat’ on articles and insist on making them reflect their own specific biases. There is no credible mechanism to approve versions of articles.”

This is exactly the case with the Wikipedia pages for Energy Psychology, Energy Medicine, acupuncture, etcetera, which are currently skewed to a negative, unscientific view of these approaches despite numerous rigorous studies in recent years demonstrating their effectiveness. These pages are controlled by a few self-appointed “skeptics” who serve as de facto censors for Wikipedia. They clothe their objections in the language of the narrowest possible understanding of science in order to inhibit open discussion of innovation in health care. As gatekeepers for the status quo, they refuse discourse with leading edge research scientists and clinicians or, for that matter, anyone with a different point of view. Fair-minded referees should be given the responsibility of monitoring these important areas.

I pledge not to donate to your fundraising efforts until these changes have been made.


No, you have to be kidding me. Every single person who signed this petition needs to go back to check their premises and think harder about what it means to be honest, factual, truthful.

Wikipedia’s policies around this kind of thing are exactly spot-on and correct. If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals – that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiments, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately.

What we won’t do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of “true scientific discourse”. It isn’t.


Many a red-herring in the activist question. I’ll be delving further into activism and their weasel phrases, biases, and entrapments in the next few posts. In the meantime, I’m sure you can spot a few from above: “narrowest possible understanding of science,” “gatekeepers for the status quo,” and “numerous rigorous studies in recent years demonstrating their effectiveness.”

From the readings of activists, you’d think that science was some unchanging four-hundred year old institution instead of the method that took us from the heliocentric model to the inflationary; from the humor model of bio-physiology to organ transplants, chemotherapy, surgery, antibiotics, and vaccines.

As is usual for this kind of unintentional comedy, the accuser accuses him or herself unwittingly.

A Simple Comparison

Several huge things have happened in the last 2 week in respect to science. Cosmos, the re-imagining of Carl Sagan’s science vehicle to jumpstart the public’s imagination debuted; gravity radiation (often called gravity waves) has been detected with a 5-sigma threshold from the Big Bang, which, if true, empirically extends our understanding of creation from one second to one billion-billion-billion-millionth of a second after the Big Bang; and, finally, not to mention rather depressingly, Mike Adams the Health Douche issued a public call to the host of Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson to admit that mercury in vaccines is poisoning the population.

One of the above three things made me laugh: can you guess which? I implore you to read Mike Adams full screed on the mercury in vaccines that is making the population cognitively deficient, even though there is no mercury in vaccines, and keep a straight face. Seriously, I’ll wait here—and this post will make more sense if you’ve read it.


Further Ruminations on the Appeal to Nature

Sometime back, I wrote a post about the Appeal to Nature fallacy. It is a fallacy that bothers me quite significantly; the main reason is because its assumptions and consequences are unspoken or, in most cases, never addressed.

For those who don’t know the Appeal to Nature (ATN) usually involves a dietary and medicinal claim that natural products are, directly or otherwise, better than artificial (read: man-made) products. Anytime you read the words “Natural”, “All Natural,” “Organic,” you are reading an Appeal to Nature; specifically, to nature’s goodness–I’ve never seen arsenic used in an ATN. Notably, it tends to rear its head in relation to conditions and diseases that our current medical knowledge is unable to address—Alzheimer’s and cancer being two examples among many. (In that light, the ATN might be considered the exploitation of severe emotional distress among those at the least rational stage of their life as they face daunting, perhaps hopeless, odds to make money, but that’s just the pessimist in me talking.) The selling of natural supplements is often marked as a way to give back power and certainty that psychological wellbeing demands; subsequently relieving cognitive discomfort, albeit at exorbitant costs (in relation to their benefit that is—except for a few, genuinely exorbitant price tags such as Stanley Burzynski’s supposed cancer cure which rings in at several hundred thousand dollars). From multivitamins to gingko bilboa, the ATN is a powerful train of thought.

However, despite its popularity, it is so full of holes, contradictions and—what really gets me—unspoken assumptions and conclusions. I’m not going to bother debunking it; that has been done many times; once here on this blog, and many other—far better—denunciations on the Internet (my favourite being Kyle Hill’s Does Mother Nature Always Know What’s Best). Rather, I plan on taking the ATN through to its logical conclusion.