If you spend any amount of time on the internet researching science and pseudoscience, you’ll find alarming claims about toxic or poisonous substances in our foods, vaccines, air, water, and so much else. And then you’ll find a lot of people (myself included) who try to present science-based evidence that these substances are neither toxic nor poisonous.
Paracelsus, a 16th century Swiss German physician, alchemist, astrologer, is traditionally thought to have founded the discipline of toxicology, an important branch of medicine, physiology, and pharmacology. Paracelsus wrote one of the most important principles of toxicology:
All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing poison.
In other words, if you’re speaking about substances in foods or vaccines or anything, the most important principle is that the dose makes the poison (or toxin). Everything that we can consume or breathe is potentially toxic, but what is the most overriding principle must be the dose. Continue reading “Simple math – the dose makes the poison”
Scientific American blared a headline that “Genetically Modified Crops Pass Benefits to Weeds,” which claimed that the results of a study of GMO rice indicated that the rice might pass certain genetic information to “weeds,” which will then get an unintended biological fitness increase. They stated that the GMO rice could pass bioengineered genes from the GMO rice to the weeds.
The underlying peer-reviewed article, trumpeted by Scientific American, may not say what they think it says. In fact, in my review (below), I’m not sure it was very well done.
From my perspective as a trained scientist, skeptic and observer of political debates, there are four scientific issues that have wandered into the realm of political debate: evolution, climate change, vaccines and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) generally with regards to food and agriculture.
Evolution and human caused climate change (or sometimes called anthropogenic global warming, AGW) are scientific facts supported by literally mountains of data. The arguments presented by evolution deniers is easily refuted. And the myths pushed by global warming deniers are also quickly debunked. Both of these have become a part of the political conversation, with the evolution and climate change deniers being almost exclusively made up of conservative political groups, including Republicans in the USA. There is no debate about these two facts from a scientific point of view, unless someone cherry picks scientifically weak papers published in bad journals to confirm a bias against these scientific facts.
Vaccines aren’t really a scientific principle per se, but the support for the safety and effectiveness of vaccines is pretty much settled by the vast majority of scientists who actually have experience, research and education in the key fields of science related to vaccines, such as epidemiology, immunology, microbiology, virology, etc. etc. The fact that about 95% of children in developed countries (including the USA and most of Europe) indicates that there isn’t even a “political debate” except some blathering and noise from a tiny lunatic fringe. And the 5% of children who aren’t vaccinated don’t exclusively represent active vaccine deniers–most of these unvaccinated children either cannot be immunized for some health reason, have procrastinating parents, or have parents who may be too poor to get their children vaccinated, even if it’s free to most people in developed countries. The only reason most of us get worked up about the approximately 1-2% of parents who actively resist vaccines is because we think all children should be protected from vaccine-preventable diseases.
Personally, I can buy into certain arguments against GMOs. For example, I think that monoculture agriculture is extremely susceptible to an introduced or novel pest, which could be devastating to our food supply. I am also concerned about certain unintended consequences such as evolved pest resistance (but then again this has been a war since the first day genetic modification occurred 10,000 years ago), lower crop productivity, or other issues. So far, science hasn’t uncovered any problems so far, so there’s that.
If the anti-GMO environmentalist community wants to engage in a reasoned conversation about GMOs with those of us who have scientific evidence supporting our discussion points, then they have to quit using five bad arguments, which they seem to pull out of the manual of science deniers everywhere. Because anti-GMO arguments use the same ridiculous “debate” strategies as those who deny vaccines, evolution and climate change. As I’ve joked more times than I care to remember, I feel as all the science deniers attend the same convention to discuss tactics and strategies. It seems ironic to me that those who are anti-GMO make the same exact points as the climate change deniers, yet those two groups have nothing in common except they are both humans.
It is well accepted observation that when the pseudoscience or anti-science crowd runs out of supporting evidence (usually when it’s thoroughly debunked by scientific skeptics), it has to rely upon the whole range of logical fallacies, which are errors in reasoning to support a position in an argument or debate. Because scientific skeptics (or if we’re talking about medicine, science based medicine) always demand high quality evidence to support their own claims, or alternatively demanding evidence from other making suspicious claims, the anti-science and pseudoscience pushing troupes frequently cherry pick “peer-reviewed” research to use as their “proof” for their claims.
Cherry picking makes it appear that there a nothing but ripe beautiful cherries of evidence supporting your position. The problem is when you look at the whole basket of cherry’s you see all sorts quality. Same with peer-reviewed evidence. You may find one article that says “Point A is correct.” But what is the quality of that article? How does it fit with all the other articles that say “Point A is not only incorrect, but Conclusion B is the scientific consensus.” You can’t cherry pick one article, without understanding and analyzing the vast breadth of research in a field.
Moreover, because the pseudoscience promoters are resort to confirmation bias, always looking for evidence to support their beliefs rather than seeing what the evidence supports, they ignore the vast majority of evidence or tend to misinterpret the evidence. So, when you read some blog post or pseudo-news article about a published scientific article that says GMO’s are dangerous, you need to dig beyond the headlines, and head right to the scientific source to determine what is really being said. And this happened recently. Continue reading “Anti-GMO cult trumpets GMO genes transfer to wild rice–update”
Over the past couple of weeks, I have discussed a study by Gilles-Eric Séraliniet al. published in Food and Chemical Toxicology that concluded that glyphosate-resistant NK603 GMO corn developed by Monsanto causes severe diseases such as tumors in rats. Of course, the study was picked up by many anti-science groups and broadcast widely as “GMO foods cause cancer.”
The biggest criticism from both reviews is that Séralini and his team used only ten rats of each sex in their treatment groups. That is a similar number of rats per group to that used in most previous toxicity tests of GM foods, including Missouri-based Monsanto’s own tests of NK603 maize. Such regulatory tests monitor rats for 90 days, and guidelines from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) state that ten rats of each sex per group over that time span is sufficient because the rats are relatively young. But Séralini’s study was over two years — almost a rat’s lifespan — and for tests of this duration, the OECD recommends at least 20 rats of each sex per group for chemical-toxicity studies, and at least 50 for carcinogenicity studies.
Moreover, the study used Sprague-Dawley rats, which both reviews note are prone to developing spontaneous tumours. Data provided to Nature by Harlan Laboratories, which supplied the rats in the study, show that only one-third of males, and less than one-half of females, live to 104 weeks. By comparison, its Han Wistar rats have greater than 70% survival at 104 weeks, and fewer tumours. OECD guidelines state that for two-year experiments, rats should have a survival rate of at least 50% at 104 weeks. If they do not, each treatment group should include even more animals — 65 or more of each sex.
“There is a high probability that the findings in relation to the tumour incidence are due to chance, given the low number of animals and the spontaneous occurrence of tumours in Sprague-Dawley rats,” concludes the EFSA report. In response to the EFSA’s assessment, the European Federation of Biotechnology — an umbrella body in Barcelona, Spain, that represents biotech researchers, institutes and companies across Europe — called for the study to be retracted, describing its publication as a “dangerous case of failure of the peer-review system”.
The numerous issues relating to the design and methodology of the study as described in the paper mean that no conclusions can be made about the occurrence of tumours in the rats tested.
Therefore, based on the information published by the authors, EFSA does not see a need to re-examine its previous safety evaluation of maize NK603 nor to consider these findings in the ongoing assessment of glyphosate.
“The design, reporting and analysis of the study, as outlined in the paper, are inadequate,” said the EFSA in a press release, and added that the paper is “of insufficient scientific quality to be considered as valid for risk assessment”.
On the basis of the publication, the BfR has come to the conclusion that the authors’ main statements are not sufficiently corroborated by experimental evidence. In addition, due to deficiencies in the study design and in the presentation and interpretation of the study results, the main conclusions of the authors are not supported by the data.
Séralini refuses to release any of his data for public scrutiny, which is highly unusual for peer-reviewed research. One of the most important features of science is being open to the bright lights of criticism, which means review of data. I guess Séralini isn’t really happy that his research is being blasted by scientists worldwide, since the design, analysis, statistics, and conclusions barely met the standards of a high school science fair.