Lately, a lot has been going on in the crop biotechnology arena in Hawai’i. There’s Hawai’i Bill 79, and Kaua’i Bill 2491, and, well, Roseanne Barr. Following her showbiz career, she moved to Hawai’i and started up an organic macadamia nut farm. There was even a brief reality TV show about it, called Roseanne’s Nuts. What do you get when you combine a TV personality with an organic farm with a hotbed of political controversy over GMOs in Hawai’i? Oh yeah, lots of fun.
Roseanne testified in favor of Hawai’i Bill 79 last week, stressing her connection to the people pf Hawai’i, and, well, her burning desire to see genetically engineered crops gone. Her words were reprinted in a few news articles, and echoed by anti-genetic engineering groups.
But there was another statement of hers that started getting promoted – that she believed that the papaya variety that was genetically engineered to be resistant to the devastating Papaya Ringspot Virus wiping out farms in Hawai’i was actually the cause of the viral outbreak itself! Jon Entine wrote about it for the Genetic Literacy Project, amidst discussion about whether scientists should engage in debates with people who reject the conclusions of scientific research.
To be absolutely clear, this scenario isn’t even possible. The Papaya Ringspot Virus was first discovered on the Hawai’ian islands in the 1930s, and was a persistent problem for decades, progressively spreading and getting worse. The genetically engineered PRSV-resistant Rainbow papayas were developed in the 1990s and introduced in 1998. It cannot have caused the virus.
I was concerned, because Roseanne Barr is well known, and repeating such an obvious falsehood amplified by celebrity status could do much damage – not only to the public knowledge of this topic, but the dialog itself. When the debate becomes about bizarre time-traveling or sinister Dr. Evil-type conspiracies instead of the real science and its societal implications, then we’re all part of a grand farce.
So Monday I decided to send a tweet to Roseanne. The weird part is, on Tuesday she responded!
Ok, well, that was not what I had hoped. But I persisted, and so did she. The twitter conversation lasted through much of the day, and some people took notice. You can read the whole thing here, on Storify, and see the many different claims that Roseanne made – each more problematic than the last. There was a mix of personal attacks and conspiracy theories, but I kept calm and brought it back to this particular issue at hand. She said that she got her information from someone else who gave testimony at the Hawai’i bill hearing, and I asked her for evidence that the claim was in any way true. She said that if she could not prove her claim, she would retract it.
At the end of the day, we agreed to check our sources, and reconvene later in the week to see what the answer was.
If she cannot provide evidence for her claims, I’ll hold her to her word. Stay tuned!
And no, I’m not a Mormon, or a Mason! Last time I checked, I was mostly German, but the consensus on twitter was that I must be Canadian. If you buy me a beer, I’ll prove I’m not Mormon!