Bad Science? How can we tell?

06.01.2015 - Pressenza London

Bad Science? How can we tell?
(Image by http://bit.ly/142HZXA)

We recently published in Pressenza, and in good faith, an article about Monsanto’s production of yet another horrible, horrible substance, with the scary potential to inflict ‘autism in half of our children’. The ‘expert’ raising the alarm in this case, Senior Research Scientist at MIT, Stephanie Seneff, PhD, appeared to be serious enough. However, an email from a Canadian science documentary producer pointed out to us an article in the Huffington Post blog by Tamar Haspel titled ‘Condemning Monsanto With Bad Science Is Dumb’. According to this ‘the “peer-reviewed” paper in the journal Entropy, co-authored by Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Seneff, blaming glyphosate, the compound in the herbicide Roundup, for virtually all the ills that can befall us was just made up. Or, all but. They say, “We explain the documented effects of glyphosate and its ability to induce disease, and we show that glyphosate is a ‘textbook example’ of exogenous semiotic entropy: the disruption of homeostasis by environmental toxins.” Exogenous semiotic entropy! That sounds serious. Google it, though, and you find that those three words occur together in only one place. This paper. They made it up. At first, I thought the whole thing was one of those jargon-laden academic hoaxes but, alas, it isn’t.

‘Slog through their argument (and, please, if you take this seriously, read the paper!), and you find it boils down to two things. Glyphosate, they claim, 1) inhibits CYP enzymes, which are active in lots of metabolic processes, and 2) disrupts gut bacteria, which are susceptible to its mechanism (disrupting the shikimate pathway), even though humans are not. Therefore, any condition that involves metabolic processes or gut bacteria must be affected by glyphosate exposure. QED!

‘Here’s the list of ills they blame, at least in part, on Roundup: inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s, autism, anorexia, dementia, depression, Parkinson’s, reproductive issues, liver diseases and cancer.

‘The evidence for these mechanisms, and their impact on human health, is all but nonexistent. The authors base their claim about CYP enzymes on two studies, one of liver cells and one of placental cells, which report endocrine disruptions when those cells are exposed to glyphosate. Neither study is CYP-specific (The effect of pesticides on CYP enzymes, by contrast, has been studied specifically.) As for the gut bacteria, there appears to be no research at all on glyphosate’s effect on them.’

Furthermore, the article warns, ‘Seneff is a Senior Research Scientist in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. Her advanced degrees are in electrical engineering.’ No experiments were conducted, expertise in the field at hand was doubtful.

This is a good opportunity to review the way that the so called “experts” quoted in contentious issues, e.g. by climate change deniers are never climate scientists, or those supporting creationism are never biologists — or how the “peer reviewed” journals they publish in are only their partisan journals. These are a few of the notable red flags — not that they prove anything wrong, but they are characteristic of a certain kind of argument.

One could argue that this kind of problem — where the so-called expert opposition we find weighing in on problems like GM food or the need for vaccinations etc, lack qualifications — arises precisely because, science as practiced is corrupted by powerful economic interests. The “official experts” are official because they are brainwashed or blackmailed into holding specific positions (no grants, or promotions for those whose findings oppose the line). The same is true of their “peer-review” and their journals. No doubt there is truth in these critiques. But they are not the whole picture (nor do I think they even represent the big problems with who the science industry works).

We may be able to agree that corporate science is contaminated by the highest value of our society: Money, but its harshest critics very often suffer from the same malady. We must try to humanise the discussion by strengthening the links between those of us who report on these subjects to improve our knowledge and understanding.

 

Categories: Culture and Media, Ecology and Environment, Health, Science and Technology
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