Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Need For And Futility Of SME.

Science is facing a huge paradox in the media... perhaps even a goose.  Ok, bad joke...sorry.  The paradox is that we simultaneously need more Subject Matter Experts speaking out on behalf of their area of expertise, while it seems more and more evident that these efforts to educate will fall on deaf ears.  I submit to you one such example.

I joined the group answer site, Quora a while ago and didn't really do anything with it.  Well, I decided to search for food and jump in on a question I felt I could answer and hopefully enlighten someone.  Instead of passing my knowledge on to others, I ran into the mental brick wall that calls itself Kent Fung.

Kent is sort of a compilation of many other online encounters I have had, and more than any other, embodies the conspiracy theory mindset that I have been complaining about that comes from the hysterics and activists.  I will now post the quest that I answered, plus all of the replies...

Here is the main question:

Here is the answer that I responded to:
'I would say any non-organic meat that you buy from most of the grocery stores. One of the best documentary about food that we eat is called "Food Inc." you should watch it.'

Here is my response:
'You are much better off checking out a few food science text books or checking out some food or animal science courses at the local university than you are by learning from Food Inc.'

Kent Fung:
'I'm all for education, but to be honest, when it comes to issues affecting public health -- such as agriculture, medicine, and nutrition, what's taught at many -- perhaps even most -- U.S. universities has been compromised by the corporate sponsorships and grants on which they rely. So yes, by all means, take college courses -- but also be aware of who's paying your professor's salary.'

'No, it hasn't.  There are no corporate overseers telling professors what to say and what to teach.  That is pure non-sense.  When a corp gives money, it's usually towards facilities and not to a specific individual.  The university has say over the staff, not a donor.  You may find a highly publicized scandal here or there, but 99% or more are teaching legit science.'

Kent Fung:
'Sam, the only people who tout this line are either already bought and paid for -- or charmingly naive. Money corrupts, and professors aren't immune to this effect -- particularly when in many cases, professors aren't paid by the universities in which they teach -- but by corporate grants. (Government grants are no better, as many government officials who decide on grants have multiple vested interests in promoting the agenda of big pharma and agribusiness as well.) Very, very few people are going to bite the hand that feeds them. Professors aren't any more ethical than anyone else, and even those who might have resisted will find themselves unable to when, for say, $10 million -- chump change to a major corporation -- a company can endow an entire department. What professor is going to risk not just his own funding, but the funding of all of his colleagues?

The pharmaceutical industry was notorious for exactly this behavior, getting influential medical school professors to not only advocate on behalf of their drugs to other doctors, but to toe the corporate message in their lessons to students. The problem was so prevalent that many universities ultimately had to establish clear policies regarding the matter. Alas, in the real world, crafting policies doesn't solve ethical problems -- it just makes people find creative ways to be unethical.

The food business isn't any different. Like their big pharma cousins, they make huge grants to university agricultural departments, and to professors who profit enormously from their largesse. There are few -- even in academia -- who won't slant their research in exchange for millions of dollars in their personal bank accounts. Take Monsanto for example:

Note that the ethical problem is particularly worrisome at public universities because state governments have increasingly slashed support for them, forcing schools to turn to corporations for money to fund operations. I see that you're at OSU. Sorry, Sam, but your education has already been compromised.

'Corps make donations because they need the highly trained graduates that come out of them.  The professors have varied backgrounds as far as food science goes.  Some are life long academics, who just do research in the lab, some came from industry, and some were strictly Chemists or biologists before teaching food/ag science.  I was there and saw with my own two eyes how all this works.  The professors spend all their time wrapped up in helping answer student's questions about their research or grading, or conducting their own research.  Your argument is sounding very conspiratorial.  Really, you sound no different to  me than someone making wild claims about 9/11.  The two links you chose to use to backup your conspiracy theory are from environmental and organic activists, and can hardly be taken seriously.'

Kent Fung:
'Environmental and organic activists "can hardly be taken seriously." I can see who you expect to pay your bills. Incidentally, I suppose now you're going to tell me what's wrong with the articles by researchers at Santa Clara University and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In fact, given the decrepit state of American's general health, I'd say it's mainstream food producers who can't be taken seriously.

Your logic doesn't work. Corporations don't need to make donations to get "highly trained graduates." All they need to do is offer decent salaries and they'll get all the "highly trained" graduates they need. There isn't a labor shortage in this country.

You also clearly don't understand how modern universities are funded.

Lifelong academics who "just do research in the lab" cost lots of money. That money doesn't come from the university, it comes from grants made by external donors. A typical university's budget is focused on maintaining and building more gee whiz facilities to recruit new students. Teacher and researcher salaries are taken care of by government and corporate grants.

What about those who came from industry? Most still have ties to their old employers -- and I don't mean that they go have drinks with their old boss -- I mean that they've started joint ventures on the side with them, or their old employers are actually funding their academic work.

And then you write about people "who were strictly chemists or biologists" before becoming teachers. Unless you're implying that they were independently wealthy and dabbled in chemistry and biology as a hobby, preserving their amateur status for the Olympics, then they were paid by someone, You know who that someone was? A major corporation, because that's where the money is.

"You were there and saw with your own two eyes how all this works," eh? You audited professors' tax returns, looked through their stock portfolio and bank accounts to see where their money came from? What about the departmental budget -- did you examine it, and where the money that funds the department comes from? No? Then you didn't see "how this all works."

You further claim that your professors "spend all their time wrapped up in helping answer student's questions about their research or grading or conducting their own research." 1) Who funds their research? 2) "All their time, huh?" You know this because you lived with your professors and can account for their time every day of the week, including who they speak with?

Let's be clear that this problem isn't limited to the fields of food science, public health, or medicine. All academic research, particularly in the sciences, has proven susceptible to this vulnerability.

Conspiracy? It's enough of a problem that the NIH is looking into it. Do a Google on conflicts of interest in scientific research -- I'm hardly the only one who's noticed there's a problem.

Here's a nice little presentation at the University of Chicago for the Global Health Initiative: http://globalhealthinitiative.uc...

Now yes, this deal primarily with corruption by the pharmaceutical industry. But: Worldwide revenues for pharmaceutical industry are estimated at $2.3 trillion a year. Worldwide annual revenues from the sales of processed foods? Nearly $5 billion, and that's in 2006 numbers. Are you really going to tell me that with that much money involved, the food industry is LESS willing to be underhanded than big pharma?'

'There are no corp overseers watching over the research.  Classes are all textbook and lab based science, not from one specific corporation.  Corporations do have an interest in seeing that universities have the tools necessary to train students.  It's the universities that supply brain power to the corps, not the other way around.  Go to John Coupland, who is on Quora, and ask him how many corporate overseers he comes across in his food science dept at PSU.  You've made up your mind and bought into the crazy conspiracy theory, which is unfortunate, because you really don't know what you're talking about.'

Kent Fung:
'They don't have to "watch over" research. My boss and his boss don't watch my every move either, but you can bet that I don't do anything to piss them off.

Why don't you go to John Coupland and ask him if he's in the habit of encouraging or publicizing research by his staff that shows (or might show)  that the products made by the corporations who fund his department will kill you? [edit: quick Google of John Coupland shows that his research is of interest only to manufacturers of processed foods. There's no way his opinion will be unbiased. His department, incidentally, has so many ties to industry groups within the food manufacturing industry that you've basically made my point.]

You've made up your mind to enslave yourself to corporate america, which is unfortunate, because you're contributing to the decline in U.S. civilization.'

'This is all about being anti-corporate for you.  It certainly isn't anything about science and you aren't interested in any sort of truth.  Research often falls in line with Corporate interests because corporate interests tend to follow the science and use scientific research to develop new products and improve existing products.  It isn't some biased atmosphere that exists only to serve corporate America.  You have such a sad and twisted view of science, education, and business in general.  Nothing I will ever show or tell you will convince you otherwise, because you have bought into a conspiracy theory.'

Kent Fung:
'Curiously enough, I'm not anti corporate at all, and I happily work for one of the largest corporations in the world. But the truth of the matter is that the agribusiness corporations are the source of much of the world's ills, and part of the way they are able to get away with it is by corrupting what is taught to students -- from primary school through university -- as "conventional wisdom." Look how good a job they did with you.

I'd love for you to show me evidence that "convinces me otherwise," but all you've put forth in your argument is your dubious claim that you know how the system works because you've "been there." Well, you don't, because you were never more than a cog in the machine.'

'That's the whole beautiful point, I can't show you evidence.  You are convinced of your view of the world and put me in the position of proving a negative, which is impossible.  Any evidence I show you will NEVER be good enough to get you to change your mind.  You have quite stubbornly painted yourself into a corner after picking your version of reality.'

Kent Fung:
'No, the reason you can't show me any evidence is because you're merely a foot soldier, and no one trusts foot soldiers with the truth or the battle strategy. It's going to be tough for you when, decades from now, you finally figure it out. Have a nice life until then ... and if you;re determined to be a tool, at least make sure you're a well-paid tool.'

'I'm not a foot soldier for anyone.  Hell, I just paid my rent 3 weeks late and I'm in between jobs.  My employment has had no influence over my views. Facts have.'

Kent Fung:
'Wow. So you're an unpaid shill. Dude, that's sad. Most people ask for money before they sell their soul. Ah well.'

So you see that nothing I said or could say would ever convince Kent that maybe he was wrong.  This is how the conspiracy theorist thinks.  Have you ever tried talking to someone who is convinced that we never landed on the moon or that 9/11 was an inside job or that fluoride is being introduced into the water supply as part of some evil government plot?  It's maddening and every point where you think, 'Ok, he can't possibly have anything to say about that', the person takes it to another amazing, cynical, convoluted level.

I asked John Coupland to respond and, being the English gentleman he is, he politely declined.  As a professor and food scientist, he plays things pretty even handed, keeping an open mind and never saying never.  He mentioned to me that the issue may be slightly more complicated than either of us indicated in our back and forth on Quora.

We need more Subject Matter Experts talking about their specific area of expertise, but it's pointless to talk to people like Kent, whose mind is made up.


  1. Wow Sam, have you even read that exchange? If you had. you would see that nothing Kent could say would ever convince you that maybe you are wrong.

  2. It should be obvious that I read the exchange since I posted it. Why would I listen to him? He's wrong. I know this sounds a bit conceited, but hear me out...

    Let's say you're a post-doc mathematician(perhaps you are. I have no way of knowing since you failed to identify yourself) and someone without an education in math tells you that not only is the answer to your math problem on the board wrong, but you are using the wrong methods to solve it...not only are you using the wrong methods to solve the problem, but everyone who taught you conspired to teach yourself and all of your contemporaries the wrong method on purpose.

    A. How likely is this to be true? and
    B. Why would you ever consider such an outlandish theory?

    Even if such a grand conspiracy could be pulled off, it could only last 1 generation because once the next generation becomes professors, they wouldn't know to deceive people.

    The more likely explanation is as follows: The tobacco industry poisoned the well for any other ag/industrial science. No matter what, people will always think that there is some huge secret being held from them by Big [fill in the blank] and that Big [fill in the blank] has infiltrated various institutions so they could manipulate the information. Once that idea is suggested, it can never be withdrawn.

    The other part of the explanation is that the misinformation is already out there in the ether and buoyed by our society's scientific illiteracy. Half our population believes in angels for fuck's sake, so it's pretty easy to dismiss someone telling you how something is made.


Put your comment here, kind sir/madame. Try to cite sources when stating facts and refrain from off topic comments or hateful/nasty rhetoric.