Fear Mongering: Bad Science/Pseudo Science

As the debate over biotechnology and safety continues, pseudo science will continue to play a large role in the fear mongering used by activists. I can’t phrase anything better than what is done in the following video and article.  The video is a little Saturday Morning special for adults, it is a cartoon, it has adult language. Be warned.

In the confines of a London dinner party, comedian Tim Minchin argues with a hippy named Storm. While Storm herself may not be converted, audiences from London to LA have been won over by Tim’s wordplay and the timely message of the film in a society where science and reason are portrayed as the enemy of belief.

From Monsanto, Beyond the Rows:


A study is published in the Journal of Organic Systems. It claims to find a connection between genetically modified feed (corn piggiesand soybeans) for pigs and the pigs developing an increase in uterine weight and severe stomach inflammation.

The first thing to be noted is that the study is announced by simultaneous press releases – by GM Watch and Sustainable Pulse, two advocacy organizations opposed to GM food.

The second thing to be noted is that the lead author’s web site is devoted to anti-GM food reports, and happens to have a link on the home page to Sustainable Pulse, with a convenient email subscription box.

We are not dealing with “disinterested and objective science” here.

Even before reading the study, those facts alone should suggest to reporters that they should proceed with caution. This is likely more advocacy science, with the emphasis on the advocacy and not on the science. Something smells, and it’s not the pigs.

So, did any reporters overlook this and report the story as straight news?

Yes. Reuters, for one. Again. And the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Advocacy “science” meets advocacy “journalism.”

Science experts smelled the studies from the outset.

Mark Lynas looked at the study and then dissected it, concluding that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence …No conclusions can be drawn from this study, except for one – that there should be tighter controls on experiments performed on animals by anti-biotech campaigners, for the sake of animal welfare.”

Andrew KnissAssistant Professor, Weed Biology & Ecology at the University of Wyoming, breaks apart the statistic methods the authors used to come to their conclusions: “If I were to have analyzed these data, using the statistical techniques that I was taught were appropriate for the type of data, I would have concluded there was no statistical difference in stomach inflammation between the pigs fed the two different diets. To analyze these data the way the authors did makes it seem like they’re trying to find a difference, where none really exist.”

David Tribe (@gmopundit) said this: “It’s what some call a fishing expedition in search of a finding, and a known pitfall of animal feeding trials on whole foods.” Then he looked at what commonly causes enlarged uterusesin swine; and noted that the authors may have inadvertently confirmed the safety of GM feed for swine. (You can see all of his posts on the study atGMOPundit.)

Fourat Janabi, author of the blog Random Rationality, provides “pseudoscience indicators” as signposts for debunking the studies claims. His post outlines six “warning signs” regarding the study’s integrity; dismisses the low-impact journal the study was published in; and exposes the true interests and motives of both those conducting and funding the study. (Note that he doesn’t mince words in the headline of his article.)

Dr. Cami Ryan summarizes various expert critiques and also provides her own assessment of the authors’ recipe for shoddy science: “This is just another exercise to “prove” that GMOs are dangerous rather than to objectively investigate them. …The science, however, doesn’t pass the sniff-test. It’s a case of faulty methodology and poorly interpreted data magically making it through the peer review process.  Throw in some colorful (scary) pictures of pig uteri for good measure, add to that a bit of bias and credibility issues and you have the makings for some really ‘shoddy science’.”

Mark Hoofnagle, MD, PhD provides a really straight forward explanationof how the scientific process should work and how this study fall short. He also includes an illustration – literally a stick figure cartoon (XKCD knows stats) – of how shoddy science not only gets published but also inaccurately covered in the media, often by non-scientists.

The findings of one study must be evaluated on the quality of the data in that study and in the context of body of evidence. Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have been performed on biotech crops to date, including more than a hundred feeding studies. All confirmed their safety. This is reflected in the respective safety assessments by government regulatory authorities around the world.

In 2012, a comprehensive literature review (Snell et al., 2012) assessed the health impact of a GM plant diet containing GM maize, potato, soybean, rice, or triticale on animal health. The review concluded “that GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non‐GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.” Other recent studies where GM corn was fed to weanling pigs (Walsh et al, 2012) and growing and finishing pigs (Buzoianu et al., 2012) have generated similar results; GM corn was reported to be as safe and nutritious as the non‐GM counterpart. You can see a list of peer-reviewed feeding studies here.

These products are more rigorously tested than any other food product available today. It is estimated that three trillion meals containing ingredients from biotech crops have been consumed without a single reliable documentation of any food safety issues for people or animals.

And yet advocacy “science” will still find a friendly welcome in the arms of advocacy “journalism.”

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