Wednesday, February 17, 2016

#1598: John Fagan

John Fagan is possibly one of the strangest characters to be covered in our Encyclopedia, and that is not really meant as a compliment. Fagan is, apparently, a molecular biologist gone completely snowflake. He made some headlines back in 1994 when he returned a $613,882 grant from NIH rather than proceed with his genetic research at a little-known university in Fairfield, Iowa, because he ostensibly feared that the results of his genetic research could, in the wrong hands, be used to manipulate human DNA. He has later become a, well, character in the anti-science brigade opposing GMOs through his company Genetic ID, which proclaims neutrality in the GMO debate (a public, not a scientific, debate) and tries to appear to be a group of detached scientists. Fagan himself has, however, written a book warning against the alleged perils of genetic engineering, with which he has toured the world.

And here’s an interesting detail: Fagan has since 1984 been on the faculty at Maharishi University of Managementwhere transcendental meditation is part of the core curriculum and students are taught that bouncing on their buttocks is a means to world peace – no really, these people genuinely believe that they can fly! And the full title of Fagan’s anti-GMO book is “Genetic Engineering: The Hazards; Vedic Engineering: The Solution,” and it claims, based on insane New Age musings, that GMO is dangerous but that we can manage our own health through through herbal and meditational treatment, spiritual handwaving and magical wishful thinking, as long as it is sufficiently fluffy. It should be mentioned that Genetic ID’s laboratory manager, Bernd Schoel, has taught biochemistry at Maharishi University. Think about that for a moment.

In fairness, the analyses done at Genetic ID may not always be all that bad, and the company has at least on occasion seemed to come across as reasonably level-headed, but you can’t just ditch the baggage of being associated with someone like John Fagan, even if Fagan has more recently publicly taken a somewhat more moderate stance on GMOs. Besides, Genetic ID is a for-profit entity that stands to benefit from any controversy over GMOs – and it has used ConspiraseaCruise star Jeffery Smith, no less, as a spokesperson (and yes, the connections between the various anti-GMO activists are interesting). The history of the organization is also interesting: After struggling for some years it brought in organic fertilizer entrepreneur Bill Witherspoon in 1998 to reorganize the company. Witherspoon, it seems worth mentioning, was once fined by federal officials for carving geometric designs into an Oregon desert to “enliven human consciousness,” and he joined Genetic ID on the condition that he could continue to work intuitively. Many of the employees are accordingly Maharishi followers.

Fagan has moreover been an informal advisor to the Natural Law Party, and in 1998 he was even a plaintiff in a 1998 lawsuit challenging an FDA. determination that genetically altered foods were safe. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the suit.

Diagnosis: Still, it seems, a particularly fluffy snowflake, and – it seems – a serious contributor to the anti-science and anti-civilization project in the US.

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