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Anti-GMO Bullshit in the NYTimes (Again)

Preface: I’m not a shill (but I aspire to be)

We all depend on farmers and agriculture to survive.

We all want to use the best tools to grow safe, affordable, and environmentally-sustainable food.

Concerns about the type and quantity of poisons that we spray on crops to control pests and weeds are legitimate concerns. We all agree that we need better standards to test for the safety of those chemicals.

But, and it’s a big but, it also means we can’t be reactionary about new technologies that could help us mitigate climate-change and feed the world’s growing population. That includes transgenic crops and better, safer herbicides.

Which leads me to the anti-GMO movement, and the recent NY Times bullshit piece about glyphosate.

In the U.S., GMO safety is the #1 issue about which the public and scientists disagree.

More than climate-change, more than evolution, more than anything else. Science-denial is most pronounced in the anti-GMO movement.

GMO crops are safe to eat. There is no real dispute about this in thousands and thousands of studies. They are safe to eat.

Whether we like it or not, farmers need to control weeds and pests, otherwise crops fail. Organic farming also uses pesticides, and is not significantly more nutritious than non-organic farming. In fact, GMO crops can sometimes reduce herbicide and pesticide use and be good for the environment.

If our goal is to grow enough safe food, sustainably, with limited environmental damage, then GMOs can be part of the solution. They’re no magic bullet, but there isn’t anything wrong with them.

But judging by the articles from the NYT’s Danny Hakim, you’d think GMO crops are the devil.

NY Times and the Art of Bullshit

Danny Hakim recently wrote a piece in the NYT about a supposed conspiracy by the EPA and Monsanto to conceal the fact that glyphosate, the active ingredient in widely-used herbicides, is causing cancer.

At first glance, this is an extremely frightening finding about how regulators and industry are in cahoots to harm the public and deceive millions of people.

If that were true, it wouldn’t be that surprising. Over U.S. history, industry interests have tried to confuse science and regulators to avoid penalties, regulations, or scrutiny. We saw it from tobacco and now we see it in fossil-fuel companies.

Are we seeing a similar tactic by Monsanto about glyphosate?

Nope, this article is bullshit.

This is a fun game: Why is this piece complete bullshit?

Let’s list off the red-flags suggesting this piece is bad reporting (feel free to add to the list in comments):

  1. None of the “bombshell” documents are linked to
  2. There is no context about the history, chemistry, use, efficacy, or regulation of glyphosate
  3. There are ZERO scientific papers linked to in the article
  4. The piece is framed as industry or agencies saying glyphosate is safe, vs. concerned citizens saying it isn’t
  5. Hakim doesn’t even mention the amount or variety of research checking the safety of glyphosate or its supposed link to cancer
  6. There are no independent cancer experts, agricultural/plant scientists, or chemists interviewed (weird in a piece about a herbicide’s supposed link to cancer)

When we actually look at the claims made by Hakim, it becomes even clearer that this is nothing but fear-mongering bullshit:

Look at the source:

Hakim has a history of writing anti-GMO pieces that have all been shown to be thoroughly, and I mean thoroughly, false.

For example, in October he wrote a piece saying GMOs never lived up to their promise of increasing crop-yield (a false premise, since GMO crops on the market aren’t even designed to increase crop-yield), and that countries without GMO crops reduce pesticide and herbicide use.

After looking at his data, multiple people noticed that he didn’t do proper statistics, didn’t bother to control for climate or soil-type, and didn’t even correct for land-area (which would hugely skew the results: obviously the U.S. is much bigger than France, for example, duh). He also cherry-picked the comparison between France and the U.S. and ignored countries without GMOs that did increase pesticide use.

In short, Hakim has a history of ignoring facts, cherry-picking data, and pushing a certain narrative, either because he’s sloppy or because he’s intentionally misleading readers about GMOs to make them think they’re evil or dangerous. This doesn’t automatically mean this current piece is also bullshit, but it means that we should examine his claims very skeptically.

Look at the framing and narrative:

Hakim starts the piece by focusing solely on Monsanto, and by identifying glyphosate squarely with the corporation. He then frames the unsealed court documents to portray Monsanto as a shadowy evil corporation manipulating scientists and government officials to hide the dangers of its products.

This fails in multiple respects: firstly, while Monsanto developed Roundup, glyphosate has been off-patent for years, and about 40% of glyphosate products are from Chinese firms. Second, Monsanto isn’t as wealthy, influential, or large in the GMO world as Hakim portrays it to be.

Third, the court documents, at first glance damning, show a link between Monsanto officials and scientists about one study that Hakim claims Monsanto “ghost-wrote”. This is only about one study from 2000 (to which Hakim doesn’t link). That is hardly a conspiracy spanning all studies on glyphosate (not to mention that actual evidence of collusion is scant when looking at the actual paper).

Hakim also mentions scientist David Kirkland, hinting at collusion with Monsanto on his 2013 paper which he co-authored with a former Monsanto employee for a 25-company taskforce review of glyphosate safety. Again, Hakim doesn’t link to the actual study so we can’t examine his claim or whether there are methodological problems in Kirkland’s study. Kirkland himself said Monsanto didn’t influence the findings and that he “would not publish a document that had been written by someone else.”

No one denies the importance of independent reviews, independent studies, and the potential negative influence industry money can have on the reliability of research. Yet to claim that simply because something is funded by a group makes it invalid is itself an invalid claim.

Hakim previously wrote a piece about industry’s multi-tentacle stranglehold on science. Yet one of the scientists highlighted by Hakim in the piece has openly stated that pesticides may be harming bee colonies, hardly evidence of successful collusion or manipulation with the agricultural company that funded his research.

The idea that nefarious agricultural companies are controlling science and that all research showing GMOs to be safe is compromised is demonstrably false: half of GMO-related studies are independent and not tied to industry interests. Moreover, this kind of conspiracy relies on believing that scientists who can’t be bought by the much wealthier fossil-fuel industries are bought by biotech companies.

In short, while it’s legitimate to be skeptical of industry-funded research, and it’s important to fight for better funding in science, Hakim’s portrayal is skewed and misleading.

On a side note, it’s worth remembering that this isn’t the first time the NYT has tarnished the reputation of  a public scientist without valid evidence justifying the smear.

So what about the evidence that glyphosate causes cancer?

Going back to the only scientists or papers Hakim alludes to (but doesn’t link to!!), they look solid and show no link to cancer. Yet we wouldn’t trust two industry-related studies. Two studies don’t count as solid scientific consensus that a chemical is safe in practiced doses on farms. We’d need more studies.

Hakim makes it seem like these “colluding” scientists are the only ones claiming glyphosate is safe. He doesn’t even link to the actual studies so you could examine the evidence, he just implies that there is no reliable evidence about glyphosate’s safety and that we should fear it and mistrust anybody who says otherwise.

And yet, those two papers are only two among multiple other studies about glyphosate and cancer. Those studies show no link to cancer. A search in PubMed about glyphosate and safety yields 60 studies. Hakim doesn’t mention a single one of those other studies, only the regulatory agencies that have stated glyphosate is safe (who he implies are unreliable as well).

The link between glyphosate and cancer or adverse health effects only comes from lab cell studies or animal studies, and has not been thoroughly replicated or shown in human epidemiological studies. The other statement used to support the cancer claim comes from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the WHO, which declared glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Keep in mind that it’s incredibly easy to find an association between anything and cancer, and that there are mountains of junk-studies finding correlation between different foods and cancer.

That doesn’t mean that everything causes cancer, it just means that a lot of the science is junk, or tentative at best.

The IARC is playing it safe here, which is legitimate, but we’d be wrong to take its glyphosate statement as meaning all crops sprayed with glyphosate are dangerous. The agency has declared hot water as carcinogenic as well, and, in my opinion, is increasingly flippant with what it considers decent evidence of a real cancer-risk.

Again, the robust, well-designed studies DO NOT find a link between real-field doses of glyphosate and health-risks in humans. Does that mean we should spray herbicides willy-nilly? Of course not. But it doesn’t mean we should succumb to baseless fear-mongering.

And lastly, what is entirely missing from Hakim’s discussion of glyphosate is context. Glyphosate has replaced much more toxic herbicides. In fact, looking closely at the herbicides that have gone off market after EPA investigations or other findings of health-risks blows a huge hole in the idea that these companies have a tight grip on the approval process, or on suppressing negative results.

The anti-science fear-peddling of popular science journalism:

The thing that pisses me off most about Hakim’s piece, and general coverage of biotech, other than the bullshit, is the continued lying about “chemicals” and the intentional scaring about “unnatural” things.

Every molecule is a chemical, including water (check out this satire about the dangers of dihodrygen monoxide).

In toxicology, the dose makes the poison. When we talk about pesticides and herbicides, we need to think about proper dosage based on scientific studies, not that anything that is a chemical is dangerous. The especially important mistake to avoid is to think anything produced in a lab is inherently more dangerous than “natural” chemicals.

Hakim once compared pesticides to the Nazis’ use of sarin-gas. I mean, holy shit.

Your body naturally produces formaldehyde, a carcinogen. Apples also produce formaldehyde. Arsenic is natural. Does that mean we should be afraid of apples and our own bodies? Of course not. It means you’d need to eat mountains of apples to ingest enough formaldehyde for it to be dangerous.

But the glyphosate bogeyman myth just won’t die.

Last year, after the IARC issued its glyphosate designation, NPR reported the finding in a Hakim-like way, in a piece titled, A Top Weedkiller Could Cause Cancer. Should We Be Scared?

The title and beginning of the piece are pretty frightening and leave the reader worried about consuming any U.S. produce. While NPR did a better job than Hakim in terms of providing context, it tucked all the caveats into the final third of the piece, which most readers don’t get to. And what is the final sentence? “Those crops, if they even reach human consumers at all, are heavily processed first, destroying any glyphosate residues.”

So there isn’t even glyphosate residue in foods we eat!

Notably, Hakim doesn’t even touch the question of how much glyphosate reaches the shelves. That piece of information would be inconvenient to the narrative that there is a massive conspiracy to hurt all of us with unnatural “frankenfoods.”

Conclusion

Is glyphosate potentially dangerous at high, unregulated levels and concentrations? Yes. Is it the best and safest herbicide we can come up with? Not even close. We have to find continuously safer, more efficient solutions to weed and pest control that don’t damage local ecosystems as much as our current technologies. We also have to be vigilant about potential health risks of the agri-tech we use.

Yet there isn’t any convincing evidence that glyphosate is dangerous at the levels we consumers get on the shelves. It isn’t the horrible bogeyman it’s made out to be.

Science reporting in the U.S., especially when it comes to health and agriculture, is horribly inept. Supposedly respectable news-sources like NPR and the NYT feed off of legitimate fears about food-safety and regulation and write click-baity pieces with false narratives. They pin industry interests (often in cahoots with regulators) against concerned citizens. They portray cover-ups of health-risks in products in order to protect companies’ pockets.

It is certainly worth investigating corporate misconduct, especially as it pertains to public health.

What these pieces fail to do, however, is actually investigate claims, interview multiple sources, and check the veracity of our fears. Instead of providing context about how herbicides work, instead of interviewing independent scientists familiar with toxicology, agriculture, and cancer, instead of examining multiple angles of a story, they give us an easy, digestible, “good guy vs. bad guy” narrative.

This kind of journalism sells well, and it makes for an interesting read. But it’s false. And dangerous.

It’s complete bullshit.

What to do to check this kind of bullshit:

On science-journalism pieces, ask yourself:

  1. Are scientists interviewed?
  2. Are the sources linked to?
  3. Are scientific studies linked to? How many?
  4. Is there proper historical context?

Search PubMed for research on the topic at hand, in this case something like “glyphosate and cancer.”

Look for reviews of these pieces by scientists on sites like Science, Scientific American, and others to see what scientists’ take on the pieces are.

Youtube a cat-video to unwind:)

-Roi

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How to Detect Bullshit in the Scientific Literature – Spin edition

Scientific papers are not immune to bullshit.

If we’re looking for an answer to a question, we can never trust just one paper. We have to see if the findings have been replicated (ideally many times and by different people with different biases) and that the methods were sound before we can conclude anything.

That makes the process of science slow and tedious, but that’s why we love it. Mostly we don’t have answers, but when we do, they come after decades (sometimes centuries or millennia) of scrutiny.

Therefore, when reading a single paper, or even a review of many papers, we gotta be critical of what we’re reading. This is especially true in an environment where many authors try to make their findings seem novel in order to get published.

It’s also especially important if the findings seem to confirm our preexisting beliefs.

For this edition of bullshit-detecting, I’m going to talk about “spin” in a science paper. We always have to watch for a discrepancy between what the evidence says and how the authors try to spin results to make it look like they’ve found something new and exciting.

We all know this from politicians, but it’s prevalent in every field, and it’s a big problem in the primary-research literature.


 

Let’s look at one paper as an emblematic example of this issue.
Our question is, “what are the best and safest treatments for lower-back pain?”
To tackle this problem, the American College of Physicians recently released new guidelines for treating lower back-pain.
In the U.S., lower-back pain afflicts millions of people every year, can be really expensive (estimated to rack up billions of dollars annually), and can seriously disrupt people’s lives.
These guidelines purport to be evidence-driven, which is great, because we need solutions to dealing with pain conditions (I’m especially excited as someone with chronic stomach problems).

Basically, the authors based the guidelines on recent systematic reviews and a few controlled trials looking at pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments for lower-back pain. They amassed the evidence to paint a bigger picture for what works and what doesn’t. It’s a good idea and we need guidelines like these to help physicians give patients the best evidence-based treatments.

BUT, watch for spin.

 

 Let’s start with the narrative of the paper, and what the authors recommend for treatments:

  1. For acute or sub-acute pain, the authors strongly recommend: superficial heat, massage, acupuncture, spinal manipulation (an umbrella term for a variety of treatments), and if desired, NSAIDs (like ibuprofen) or muscle relaxants.
  2. For people suffering with chronic pain, the authors strongly recommend: exercise, multi-disciplinary rehab (which is another umbrella term for a variety of treatments combining physical exercise with psychological and social interventions) , acupuncture, mindfulness-based stress reduction, tai-chi, yoga, relaxation, laser therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and spinal manipulation.
  3. Only for patients with chronic pain who did not benefit from noninvasive treatments, the authors (weakly this time) recommend: prescribing anti-inflammatory drugs, antidepressants, and opioids as a last resort.

First of all, I am happy to see opioids being taken down a peg. The authors sensibly write,

“Clinicians should only consider opioids as an option in patients who have failed the aforementioned treatments and only if the potential benefits outweigh the risks for individual patients and after a discussion of known risks and realistic benefits with patients.”

This is a much-needed change. Over-prescribed opioids continue to contribute to the epidemic currently claiming tens of thousands of lives every year. So, using them only when absolutely necessary seems not only reasonable, but long-overdue.

But what about the other treatments?

Before we even look at the data, let’s start with some obvious spin. The first thing that should pop out at you is the lack of clear definitions for each treatment.

For example, the authors differentiate between tai-chi, yoga, and exercise. Why? They also differentiate between mindfulness-based stress reduction and relaxation. Why are the two different? Why these separations without a clear reasoning for the definitions?

This is spin when you see that distinguishing between modalities here actually makes no sense. The authors, and most of the papers they cite, do not do a proper job of isolating yoga or mindfulness as distinct therapies from exercise and relaxation.

The few papers that do compare between modalities actually find no difference. For example, a paper they cite to support the recommendation for yoga actually finds no difference between yoga and stretching. This makes sense: how is stretching in yoga different than stretching without yoga? As for relaxation, some of the papers they themselves cite find that different but similar therapies like mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy have the exact same effect on alleviating pain.

This is not about dismissing mindfulness or yoga as effective (we haven’t looked at the data yet). It’s about spin. If, for all medical intents and purposes, yoga is a form of exercise, and if meditation is a form of relaxation, then why differentiate?

This is the kind of spin that tries to dress up findings in a trendy or sexy way. It’s problematic mostly because it’s sloppy science: if we were comparing two forms of stretching and found no difference, why call one Y and the other X? This kind of spin might also be an issue since it may inadvertently insert faith-based or magical practices into medicine.


Now let’s look at the actual data.

The biggest tool for detecting bullshit in a research paper is to see whether the evidence actually supports the conclusions of the authors.

In Table 1 and Table 2 in the appendix, you’ll find how a treatment is graded as compared to placebo or no treatment (no effect, small, moderate, or inconsistent results). You’ll also find how the evidence is graded and how many studies it’s based on (low quality or moderate quality evidence, based on a number of studies, usually randomized-controlled studies)
The basic rule of reading the table is this: a treatment should only be considered effective IF you have enough high quality studies with enough people studied, accounting for bias in methods, that suggest the treatment is effective at alleviating or getting rid of lower-back pain.

It’s also crucial that the treatments be compared to placebo and not simply to nothing. For example, if an opioid did better than no treatment, but a sugar-pill performed as well as the opioid, we would say the opioid is NOT an effective treatment.

Then we have to look at the effect of the treatment and compare to the quality of the evidence:

A small effect from moderate evidence in a placebo-controlled trial is good.

A moderate effect from a low-quality trial or one without placebo control is bullshit.

And no effect is, obviously, no effect.

So, what works?

  • Pain-relievers like ibuprofen, muscle-relaxants, opioids, and steroids are all pharmacological treatments with a small effect for pain and function (with tramadol having a bigger effect)
  • Exercise, massage, multidisciplinary therapy, and heat-wraps are all non-pharmacological treatments with a small effect (with heat-wraps having a bigger effect)
  • Mindfulness therapy has a vague “improved” effect

 

That’s it. That’s what works.

Notice that yoga, tai-chi, spinal manipulation, laser-therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, relaxation, and the other modalities either show no effect or are not supported by good enough evidence.

Acupuncture is an even more interesting case. The acupuncture vs. sham (placebo) studies either don’t show an effect or are based on very low-quality evidence. It’s only when acupuncture is compared to nothing that it has an effect. In other words, it’s placebo, just like a sugar-pill.

Now, I don’t want to be unfair. The authors do point out where treatments are backed by low-quality or moderate-quality evidence, and they do discuss some of the shortcomings of the data:

“The evidence is also insufficient for most physical modalities. Evidence is insufficient on which patients are likely to benefit from which specific therapy.”

Most importantly, their first recommendation clearly points out that:

“most patients with acute or subacute low back pain improve over time regardless of treatment”

And lastly, their emphasis on not taking pharmacological drugs unless absolutely necessary is refreshing, and we should see more of that.

Basically this is how I’d sum up the findings: most patients will improve with time no matter what they do, and for most of the treatments examined there is no clear evidence of benefit. The best advice is to stay active with exercise, relaxation, occasionally put heat on the area, and drugs but only if the pain really persists.

The authors do state those things.

And yet, the authors DO also recommend (strongly recommend) a whole host of unfounded treatments (like yoga, acupuncture, and spinal manipulation).

This is incredible. Their abstract and recommendations directly contradict the data and their own words. 

This would be fine for a company marketing these treatments. It is not OK in an evidence-based recommendation of guidelines for physicians across the country.

It’s spin. It’s misleading. It’s bullshit.