Biography

RWP was born in Manchester, in the north of England, in the late 1950s, so he is very old. He really liked the north of England, which by 1965 was hip and had three TV channels, and where he went to a coed school. His parents, for reasons best known to themselves, then yanked him away, to Belfast and then Dublin, which had one TV channel that started up at 6 pm with the Angelus (Catholic call to prayer). He also had to go to an all boys school, where he realized he really missed girls. This probably let him focus on schoolwork, though, and at age 19, after he had finished college, he set off for America, where he still resides. He has a bachelors degree in biochemistry and a Ph.D. from Harvard in biophysics, and has lived also in Mainz, Germany, Setauket NY, and Richland WA. He currently divides his time between Nebraska, Rosslyn VA, and Florida.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Chuck Hassebrook's War on Biotechnology II: "Biotechnology's Bitter Harvest"

It is hard to believe that a major-party candidate for the governorship, in a rural state like Nebraska, tried to suppress the development and use of the biotechnology that more than 90% of our farmers depend on. It is hard to believe that instead of trying to help sell our ag produce overseas, as our governors have historically done, the candidate told other countries not to buy our produce, and asked the UN to ban their export. Unfortunately, Chuck Hassebrook did both.

Chuck Hassebrook started with the Center for Rural Affairs, a left-leaning non-profit, in the 1970s, while in college. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t ever done paid work anywhere else.

From the beginning, he displayed deeply anti-free-market attitudes, castigating corporate farming and vertical integration of hog operations. CRA was largely responsible for passing the unconstitutional Initiative-300, which banned corporate ownership of farms in Nebraska. His commitment seems to be to a long-gone system of rural development, based on uncompetitive small farms, using obsolete technology, and propped up by government subsidies.

When GM crop development seriously started in the mid-1980s, Chuck saw everything he didn’t like; corporate profits for companies like Monsanto, increased efficiency, and an abandonment of the non-viable ‘sustainable agriculture model’ he had invested so heavily in. So of course he set out to oppose it. His attempt to crush biotech agriculture came in the publication (with three environmentalist coauthors) of Biotechnology’s Bitter Harvest, a document that aimed at stopping the development of genetically modified crops at every stage: research and development, use, and sale. You can still find BBH on line, still being pushed approvingly by groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.

BBH is first of all a profoundly dishonest document. One of its favorite tricks is to lump all herbicides together, sometimes even with other pesticides (insecticides, fungicides, etc.). So, for example, it discussed herbicide dangers by referencing the relatively toxic bromoxynil, even while it provides data that by far and away the most prevalent herbicide used in GM crop development is glyphosate (which, as we’ve seen, has very low toxicity). While the authors were forced to admit

many herbicides are not acutely toxic to humans and wild animals
…they then proceeded to recite a litany of largely speculative or preliminary reports about chronic toxicity of herbicides, (but not glyphosate.)

There is other wildly speculative stuff

It cannot be assumed that the transferred genetic material will produce substances safe for human consumption

…but is there any evidence all it might be unsafe? No, and plenty of reason to believe it incorrect!

And there was plenty more unsubstantiated speculation about what negative effects GM crops might have on farm economics.

It’s clear reading the report that while all the nebulous dangers are cited, Hassebrook and his co-authors’ main problem is that Monsanto and other manufacturers might make money by selling GM seed/herbicide combinations. The authors also complained at length about US and State government funding of GM research.

Their alternatives? Generally tedious and back-breaking, such as mechanical tilling hoeing and intercropping. Mostly ineffective. And sometimes noxious, such as the introduction of alien species to prey on weeds.

The recommendations were draconian. Here they are in full.

  1. End federal and state support for developing herbicide-tolerant plants
  2. Increase federal and state funding for non-chemical methods of pest control
  3. Target the federal research and experimentation tax credit for corporate research toward socially and environmentally beneficial research and deny the credit for expenditures to develop herbicide-tolerant crops and trees;
  4. Change federal farm policy to discourage the use of environmentally damaging agricultural practices;
  5. Regulate genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant plants as pesticides;
  6. Prohibit the introduction of trees genetically modified to be herbicide tolerant into our national forests and other government lands; and
  7. Fully inform Third World countries of the potential negative impacts of herbicide-tolerant crops and trees and urge the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to develop restrictions on the export of herbicide-tolerant plants.
1 – 6 are predictably leftist; shut down research they don’t like, fund pet projects they like, and regulate the heck out of everything. But 7 is particularly chilling. Hassebrook wanted the UN to restrict US exports of GM crops, and to tell third world governments not to import our produce. This proposal, if implemented, would have cost our state and our farmers billions.

BBH was popular in extreme environmentalist circles, but fortunately had almost no influence on government policy. As anyone who knows anything about agriculture is aware, GM crops now account for most US production (98% of the soybeans and 70% of the corn in Nebraska, for example). The predicted Armageddon never happened. Herbicide use has declined, especially use of pesiticides of questionable safety, such as atrazine. Farm incomes are way up, and GM has had the major effect of decreasing the workload of farmers. GM also makes more feasible carbon-conserving practices like no-till.

Chuck was dead wrong, but he has never admitted it. As an actual expert, Matin Qaim, wrote in 2009...

Genetically modified (GM) crops have been used commercially for more than 10 years. Available impact studies of insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant crops show that these technologies are beneficial to farmers and consumers, producing large aggregate welfare gains as well as positive effects for the environment and human health. The advantages of future applications could even be much bigger. Given a conducive institutional framework, GM crops can contribute significantly to global food security and poverty reduction.

And Hassebrook's War on Biotech continues. In 2005, as a University of Nebraska Regent, he ineffectually opposed a licensing agreement between UNL and Monsanto to bring to market other GM crops developed by our researchers. In 2010, he was the sole vote against Ronnie Green, the vice-chancellor for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, as a futile and rather childish protest against ‘industrial agriculture’.

Given that Hassebrook abused his position as regent to try to discourange the University of Nebraska from commercial licensing agreements, and to hinder our engagement in biotech agriculture, it is almost certain he will abuse the governorship to try to force our farmers back into last-century’s methods, and to discourage agribusiness. His life so far has had a single, all-consuming mission; why would he abandon it now?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Oh how I love to be lectured on climate change by Leonardo diCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio notoriously rented the superyacht Topaz to bring his pals to the World Cup. Just for fun, I decided to calculate the carbon footprint of the Topaz. At service speed (23 kn) it operates two large diesel engines at a total horsepower of 15980 horsepower. 1 horsepower is 745.7 watts, so the Topaz generates 11.9 MW of power. Since a marine diesel is pretty efficient, sometimes exceeding 50%, let's say this comes from 23.8 MW of heat generation. At 48 MJ/kg, this requires burning about 0.495 kg, or slighly over a pound of diesel fuel a second, to give 1.279 kg of CO2 per second.

A typical American home uses 10837 kWh of electrical energy per year. That corresponds to 1.236 kW of average power usage. Given the average coal plant operates at 33.8% efficiency, that corresponds to 3.662 kW thermal generation. At 24 MJ/kg, this requires burning 0.152 grams of coal per second, generating about 0.447 g of CO2 per second.

Dividing the two, we calculate that the bold ecowarrior Leonardo, on his trip to the World Cup, was generating as much CO2 as required to supply electricity to 2860 American homes, or around 6000 people. A small town, in other words.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Thoughts on Salaita

Let's say you had a colleague at another institution whose public nastiness was legendary. Let's say he had retweeted that one of your articles should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv. Then you learned that your own institution was planning to hire this guy. Would you say "Oh well, his public posting of violent threats is of no concern, because Academic Freedom."

No, you wouldn't. And even if you yourself were not directly threatened, I doubt you'd take the position that a faculty member has absolute liberty to post anything he likes that isn't actually illegal (which, in the US, is almost anything), and expect it not to be taken into consideration in a hiring decision. There is a category of expression that, while not criminally prosecutable, will and should be considered a negative in a faculty hire. This is more to do with the manner of the expression than its content. If you express yourself like a thug, don't expect people to ignore that.

(Though, for example, if you've openly expressed overtly racist views,good luck with the job hunt. Some content is strenglich verboten.)

You can read a nice collection of Professor Salaita's tweets here. And, in case you haven't been paying attention, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, at the final stage of the hiring process, refused to employ Salaita in a tenured position in their Department of Native American Studies, because of voluminous complaints about his online nastiness. He had, unwisely, resigned his previous position in the Department of English at Virginia Tech. VT don't seem to be in a hurry to lure him back, by the way.

(It's a nice reflection on the chaotic and decayed state of the Humanities that neither position seems to particularly reflect Salaita's 'scholarly' output as a writer of anti-Israel polemics)

The most norotious tweet, in which he retweeted that "Jeffrey goldberg's story should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv", is not here (it's been deleted) but the original is.

It has been argued that if this tweet relates to his academic work, it is protected by academic freedom; and if it does not, it is not pertinent to his job. I posit that neither contingency is valid. Academic freedom does not protect violent threats to others who write in the same area; and if one's twitter output about one's field includes a series of ill-tempered violent outpourings, that surely needs to be considered along with one's more conventional academic work. On the other hand, if these are academically-unrelated private opinions, they are hardly completely irrelevant. Would we hire a physics professor who very publicly opined that African Americans are genetically inferior, or that pedophilia should be legal? Not in a New York picosecond!

I would happily sign on to the idea that one's expression as a private citizen should not be considered in hiring, tenure, evaluation or retention, but that isn't the world we live in. My friend and colleague, Martin Gaskell, was denied a job as an astronomer at the University of Kentucky based on his evangelical Christianity, reports of some long-past-expressed opinions that evolution might not be the only source of life on earth, and unfounded rumors he might be creationist. He mentored my daughter's undergraduate research. I know he's not a creationist.

(I've heard determinedly atheist physicists say the same thing about evolution, by the way. Physicists are often quite contemptuous of biologists and often suspect they've missed something important.

A feminist law blog publicly debated if I should be fired on Title IX grounds, based on some derisive comments I posted on a 'potty parity' survey in STEM fields, which implied that women's underrepresentation in those fields was partly caused by inadequate provision of women's toilets. And there are plenty of other examples of conservatives being fired for political or other expression. In all these cases, the same crowd loudly proclaiming that Salaita's sacred academic freedom is being violated were completely absent.

I defended Dan Guth at Kansas when he tweeted nastiness about the NRA, but don't sign me up for this crusade (so to speak). Salaita is being treated in a way consistent with standard practice in academia. Whether or not you should be able to, you can't get away with publicly saying anything you feel like, and his is not a hill I feel like dying on. From what I've seen of his public effusions, Salaita's a nasty peice of work, and I wouldn't want him as a colleague.

Chuck Hassebrook's Record: Opposing Biotech, part 1

While our local left-leaning media has been busy trying to pin Pete Ricketts to everything the Platte Institute has ever published, there has been remarkably little analysis of his Democrat opponent's record as an environmental activist and as a member of the Nebraska Board of Regents. Part of this is undoubtedly bias; after all, one of the state's two major newspapers is owned by heavy Hassebrook financial backer Warren Buffett. But I think part of it is a result of the average political reporter's complete ignorance about science. If you have no idea what genetic modification is or how it's done, what it's used for in contemporary agriculture, and the history of its research, development and commercial implementation, how can you write a piece about it? To remedy this, I'm going to be writing a series of posts explaining GM and its enormous economic and other benefits to Nebraska, and then describing the extreme and sustained nature of Hassebrook's opposition to GM agriculture. At the end, I hope at least ask yourself how this fringe anvironmental activist could propose to govern an agricultural state like ours.

Genetic modification, succinctly, is the introduction of genes from foreign organisms into the genome of one's organism of choice. This has been happening slowly and quietly for billions of years; when a virus infects a cell, it occasionally incorporates some of the cell's DNA into its own genome. The virus's descendents can then go on to infect and transform other cells, sometimes modifying their genomes. In the early 1980s, we learned to do this much faster and in a directed way. Agrobacterium, a genus of plant bacteria, naturally transfers DNA between it and its hosts, via small extra 'chromosome-like' piece of DNA called plasmids. So a scientist can choose a gene from one organism, synthesize a plasmid containing the gene, infect Agrobacterium with it, infect a plant with the Agrobacterium, and screen the cells or offspring of the plant for ones that have successfully incorporated the gene. You can now buy kits to do this; it's so easy I've done it myself (I genetically engineered a bacterium to overproduce a plant protein called azurin). If Agrobacterium won't infect the plant (it doesn't infect corn) we can use something called a gene-gun to fire bits of DNA through the plant cell wall, again screening for descendants that have incorporated the gene into their own genomes.

Aside from a commercially unsuccessful attempt to genetically engineer frost-resistant tomatoes, the earliest atttempts to genetically engineer crops involved trying to introduce herbicide resistance (remember that term). The most successful of these GM-crops have been 'Roundup-resistant'. These are based on a very simple but elegant strategy of introducing a gene, already native to Agrobacterium, for the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (or EPSP synthase). EPSP synthase is vital to all plants, because it's used in the pathway to make the essential aromatic amino acids phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan. Animals, however, don't need it, because we can't make aromatic amino acids, and have to get them in our diet. So if we can block, EPSP synthase, we can kill plants, but leave animals unharmed. And this is what Roundup, technically known as glyphosate and even more technically as N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine) does. It diffuses into the active site of the EPSP synthase enzyme, and sits there, tightly bound, preventing the enzyme from doing its job. Glyphosate is an extremely simple molecule, and is almost completely nontoxic to humans and other animals (naturally enough, since we don't have its target enzyme).

So where does genetic engineering come in? Well, Agrobacterium also makes its own aromatic amino acids, and so also has EPSP synthase. But Agrobacterium EPSP-synthase is structurally different from the plant enzyme, and is not blocked by glyphosate. So all you have to do is replace the plant enzyme with the bacterial enzyme, or even more easily, just give the plant the bacterial enzyme naturally, with a promoter that will cause it to overexpress, and the plant will still be able to make its essential amino-acids and will be resistant to the herbicide.

So now a farmer can plant his corn and soybeans on a field already cleared by glyphosate. He can even spray glyphosate on the field while his crops are growing, killing weeds but not his crops. The result is higher yield, and no need to use selective herbicides like atrazine, which are far more toxic to humans.

How could anyone oppose that? Well, as we'll see in the next post, Chuck Hassebrook did.

Rape and statistics

Consider this: under Bayesian statistics, the prior proability that an accusation of rape is true is 50%, and that it is false is also 50%.

Now introduce one piece of information; fewer than half of all rape accusations are false. This is a very modest assumption; while Kanin put the rate of false accusations at 41%, most sources put it lower. Feminists, unsurprisingly but in the absence of any real backing, claim false accusations are virtually non-existent. In any case, let's just say, statistically, more accusations are true than false.

With this one piece of extra evidence, we change the probabilities. A man accused of rape is more likely to be guilty than innocent.

But with the 'preponderance of evidence' standard now enforced by Obama's Department of Education, a better than 50% probability of guilt is sufficient to convict. That means, going into a campus sexual assault hearing, if no evidence at all is presented against him, the man should (according to the rules) be convicted.

Facing nothing but an accusation, therefore, he bears the burden of proving himself innocent, turning the entire common law tradition of Anglo-American jurisprudence on its head.