Environmentalists Must Face Down the Anti-Science in Their Own House

How can environmental groups and media outlets maintain that they are advocates of science, and not ideology, when they engage in the anti-science Luddism of GMO fearmongering? The potential of this anti-science behavior to poison their credibility on global climate change is real, as there is an obvious comparison between their flawed risk assessment on GM foods being compared to their legitimate risk assessments on issues of global climate change and pollution.

One of the major arguments of environmental groups on global warming is that there is overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. This consensus, which is represented by the IPCC and supported by the national academies and scientific societies of every country in the world, is that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that human activities add enough of this heat-trapping gas to warm the planet. This is a valid argument. When one finds oneself on the opposite of the scientific consensus of such esteemed bodies as the NAS, the Royal Society, the IPCC, etc., you should be worried. If you don’t have an overwhelming level of evidence and a solid body of literature backing you up, you should consider a period of introspection and self-evaluation, because you might just be a crank or denialist. Most cranks don’t have this capability, instead they have conspiracy theories, and a set of ready-made logical fallacies to throw at their critics like “you’re just a shill for x”, where x is variably big pharma, monsanto, corporations in general, big government, grant money, environmental groups, the democratic party, the republican party, or whatever other bogeyman the crank hates. If they throw in a reference to how they’re just like Galileo, we’ll happily give them the crank stamp and call it a day.

That’s why it’s so disturbing when purportedly pro-science environmental media groups like Grist engage in this exact same behavior. In his promotion of the underwhelming evidence presented recently against GMO corn and soy, Tom Laskawy wrote against the “GMO-lovers” (uggh it’s just like Warmist) “freaking out” over these results.

Umm, no. Freaking out would suggest that a study had been performed that created enough evidence that the extensive literature on safety has in any way been put in doubt. This is not the case. What’s Laskawy’s read of the situation?

OK, everyone have a seat and take a few deep breaths. Go to your calming place. Ready? Good. Because I’m about to talk about a new study that suggests that eating genetically modified crops might not be the best thing for us.

You’ll remember, I’m sure, the recent brouhaha over a French study by scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini that purported to find evidence that a GMO-based diet caused tumors in rats. Critics immediately raised significant questions about that study and the consensus quickly became that it was poorly conceived and executed. It was also the study that caused several science writers to conclude that anti-GMO sentiment was the moral equivalent of climate denial. Good times.

Already we’re in trouble. The study in no way suggests that GM might be harmful to us, because the study doesn’t suggest anything at all. The study authors might make that suggestion, but the results of the study are just as likely to be due to chance as from any effect of GM food, and in the days since I’ve learned their assay of inflammation was only based on redness at gross pathology. In my first read I had been too charitable and thought they had actually performed histology to assess for inflammation, silly me. Similarly, the the Seralini paper was a joke, its press-release promotion was despicable, it was ample demonstration of the ideological bias and political motivation of those performing the study. When science writers like me discuss the equivalence between GMO scarmongering and global warming denialism, it’s not a moral one. We’re criticizing the methods, not their motivations or good intentions. So we already have overstatement of a paper that literally shows nothing, followed by a straw man about how we science writers are just big mean bullies calling them “immoral”. Sorry, we have a legitimate beef with the anti-science methods of the anti-GM advocates, and the methods, not surprisingly, are the same as with global warming deniers. That’s because, when one wants to oppose a body of evidence, the tactics of denialism are pretty much universal, that’s what we’ve been writing about here for the last 6 years.

For the most part we have no issue with the morals of the anti-GM advocates, if anything, they only really have good intentions, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This may be why there is is one clear difference between global warming denialists and GM advocates as far as I know. Marc Morano and Steve Milloy tend to confine their insane stupidity to websites and TV appearances, while anti-GM advocates have frequently used violence, including arson, property damage and destruction of scientific experiments rather than engage in dialogue. The global warming denialists might be mean, and routinely slander scientists like Michael Mann, but they have yet to show up in his lab and set it on fire.

Anyway, after a summary of the study, Laskaway continues:

Nonetheless, even critics of the study agree that it was conducted in a rigorous way, and the findings are intriguing and worth pursuing. The researchers did, after all, find high rates of severe inflammation.

Well if you actually read what the critics said in that link you find something interesting, they said, “The paper does not support the claim that GM crops cause stomach inflammation or increased uterus weight.” Who cares if they complemented its design if they felt the results were so weak that it didn’t support it’s own conclusions? If anything, that would be more damning to the study. Nor do I see where they said these results are “intriguing” or “worth pursuing”. Maybe Laskaway is taking the classic, “needs more study”, deflection of scientists seriously. By the way, when scientists say that, it’s usually a more polite way to say, “nice try, but you haven’t proven anything yet”. Then look to see who is exaggerating to see where the bullshit it. Huffpo described this paper as “damning” to GMOs. Um, are we reading the same paper? The author, Carman, on her website refers to the paper as a “landmark study”. A paper that shows nothing has been declared, by the authors no less, to be a “landmark” within days of it’s publication because why exactly? Has it been cited yet? Has it created a new field of study? Has the Nobel committee been calling already? This paper is only intriguing to those who desperately want it to be. To me it’s about as intriguing as roadkill.

But instead of calling for independent, rigorous science to explore the questions the study raised, critics dismiss it as “junk science,” biased by Carman, who is a professor at Flinders University in South Australia but has produced commentary critical of GMOs.

But what if the study didn’t really raise any questions worth answering? If you perform a screen for 100 different variables, and you end up with 5 statistically-significant results, you haven’t actually raised any questions or proven anything. Really, all you’ve done is performed an exercise in statistical probabilities. Without any follow-up analysis, without expansion upon and prospective validation of the findings of the screen, all you’ve done is wasted our time. Don’t make me post the relevant XKCD again, because I will goddammit. This is, also, ignoring the critique which suggests the stomach inflammation assay itself was fundamentally-flawed as they apparently didn’t even do tissue histology for their pathological scale! Basic peer review should have taken care of these problems, and that’s why you have to be so careful about lower tier journals with questionable peer-review and editorial standards.

Critics of GMOs are accused of letting ideology trump science. But watching the scathing, knee-jerk reactions to any new piece of research that shines a less-than-positive light on GMOs, it makes me think that the shrill has found itself on the other foot.

These are not “knee-jerk” reactions to criticisms of GMO, these are reasoned and valid criticisms of shoddy papers, and over-interpretation of data. If there were a legitimate paper showing a risk to GM foods I wouldn’t be pissed off at all, I have no dog in that fight. What irritates me is waking up to find lay-media sources parroting exaggerated claims of a press-release for a paper that basically shows nothing.

And what exactly is the ideology that ties together Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Mike Shermer, Dave Gorski (who thinks the anti-vaxx comparison is more apt), Steve Novella, and Keith Kloor? Could it be skepticism? Respect for science? It sure isn’t politics (Shermer is even a libertarian – ewwwww). None of us works for any of these companies, or receives money from them (although I hear Keith is in bed with Monsanto these days). That won’t stop us all from being called a “shill” in every comment thread in which we express skepticism of the often outrageous, science-fiction claims of anti-GM advocates like Jeffrey Smith. So what’s this ideology that binds us all together on the ludicrous nature arguments made against GMO, other than a hatred of bullshit?

So Laskaway is partially correct, on one side we have groups with a specific and obvious bias with a high probability of ideology clouding their reason on science. On the other side we have the AAAS, the European Commission, the Royal Society, the National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine, and a diverse group of skeptic and science writers from Richard Dawkins to PZ Myers to Dave Gorski and Steve Novella. Feel free any time to take these two weak papers that show nothing, wave them under our nose and call us the ideologues.

This reminds me of Amy Schumer taking on a heckler and warning them to take the draw.

Take the draw.

23 thoughts on “Environmentalists Must Face Down the Anti-Science in Their Own House”

  1. Yep. I actually used to give money to a couple of enviro orgs until I found out what the hell they were doing on this issue. I was unable to support them financially any more for fear some money would go to this behavior. Nor am I comfortable aligning with them on other issues because I don’t trust them in general anymore.

  2. I noticed the same problem about my union local’s (CAW local 444) environmental committee as they eagerly rejected science and jumped on the anti-fluoridation bandwagon, helping the city eliminate fluoridation from our water supply.

  3. Worth noting that the Royal Society did a report on shale gas which gave scientific approval to the process.
    Environmentalists don’t deny shale gas science. As with GMO they prefer to simply ignore it.

  4. MikeB

    I read your link. Notable was the immediate list of anti-GMO talking points (DDT!) but very little science. Or it the one occasion where a scientific study was quoted the person seemed to get it 100% wrong. For example, Ena Valikov posted:

    Its quite elementary. Here are the standard safety tests: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=hammond+safety+assurance done on rodents for 90 days, in which half the rats go missing (die)…

    Except, from her link, the abstract ended::

    "This study complements extensive agronomic, compositional, and farm animal feeding studies with MON 88017 grain, confirming that it is as safe and nutritious as grain from existing commercial corn hybrids."

    I would reply these but you have to register with Facebook to leave a comment.

    Reading that Grist thread these is a lot of the same but I was encouraged that there were a few voices promoting reason and the need to follow the science.

  5. It is frustrating to have like-minded friends and family ranting about GMO crops. It hurts to tell them the try, but it has to be done.

  6. I agree with the dismantling of the study, but the moral equivalence of those who don’t acknowledge global warming and those who are against GM crops is dubious at best.

    On the “global warming isn’t real and/or isn’t a problem and/or isn’t manmade” side, we have corporations worth trillions of dollars and half of our political system pumping out lies as fast as they can think of them. Not only do they not want additional research, they actively campaign to cut current funding. And while scientist’s labs haven’t been blown up, they have faced numerous death threats. There is not a single Republican with the power to do anything who is in favor of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and very few Republicans in general who recognize the scientific evidence. The underlying basis for failing to acknowledge reality is greed and a desire to maintain the status quo.

    On the “all GM crops are bad” side, we have some environmentalists but a great divergence in opinion because there is no “company line” to tow. Many do seem to genuinely want more research, and many prominent environmentalists are loudly in favor of GM crops. Democrats are incredibly divided on the issue, as can be seen in heavily Democratic California shooting down changes that would require GM crops to be labeled. The underlying basis for opposing GM crops is a concern that chemical-intensive monocropping (encouraged by GM crops) is unsustainable, that corporations have a century-long track record of introducing harmful elements into our air, water, and soil, and lying about it, and that small scale subsistence farmers are pushed off their land in developing countries. While blind hatred of GM crops is incredibly misguided, it’s nowhere near on the scale or importance to the future of humanity as people who deny the reality of climate change.

  7. Environmental issues have always been a bit… non-science. They have also been, at varying times, both right, and left, issues, depending on just what the “issue” was, which use might be infringed, or what sort of damage might be done. Where it intersects corporate positions, you can find people backing some issues, derailing/denying others, and both sides arguing for policies that are on the radical side of absolutely stupid. When the corporate side is in denial of any environmental needs (i.e., its not a resort, which might have an interest in preventing dumping in the lake, but not in bulldozing a few thousand trees, if it means they can build a mess of cabins, but rather, something like commercial logging, in the older days, if less so now), then the other side will often go entirely off the rails against what is being done. This happened with the nitwits not allowing cutting to remove trees that threatened the rest of the forest, because, to them, it was the same as clear cutting.

    Pretty much, if you want to find denial, look to a corporation. If you want paranoia, conspiracy theories, and ideology, find an environmentalist group. Even if most of their ideas are sound, there is bound to be at least one thing they are bloody deranged about. If you want facts… try to find someone that does science on it, which hasn’t been biased by either group (good luck with that, in some cases), and make sure they don’t work for someone’s think tank.

    Oh, and, as has been pointed out, often, the reason those labeling bills get shot down is because they amount to things so damned vague, useless, and without meaning, in pretty much all of them bills, as to only a) feed the paranoia, b) misinform, c) fail to provide any information at all, or c) require damn near anything, including water, to be labelled. Well, OK, maybe not water, but.. close enough.

    In other words, the result would be, roughly, the same as seeing “gluten free” on a box of rice crackers. 1. Misleading, in that it suggest that other people’s rice crackers does have it. 2. Implying, like one guy I ran into one day at the store already thought was the case, that it was some sort of “additive”. 3. Worse, suggesting that, without clear evidence that you have either the rare genetic condition that requires avoidance, or a less rare, but variable allergy, possibly not even to the gluten specifically, that the magic label means jack all, other than, “Oh, look, something I don’t have to be scared to death of, because I read a fashion mag last week, with an article from Dr. Ooze in it about the dire effects of gluten!”.

    Bad labeling doesn’t help anyone, and I have yet to see anyone write one that both provides useful information **and** also addresses the rampant misinformation, so that said label will actual do what is intended – provide a choice, instead of just feeding paranoia.

  8. There’s only one reason a lobby would oppose providing the consumer with information about the contents of a food they are marketing.

    I want to know what is in it, and I want to know where it is from. Then *I* can make the decision whether I want to buy it.
    Here we have corporations saying, *we* will decide what you buy, because we don’t want to provide you with the information you require to make a decision.

  9. There’s only one reason a lobby would oppose providing the consumer with information about the contents of a food they are marketing.

    Nonsense, there’s lots of reasons people wouldn’t want a warning label on their products. This is especially true if the reasons for generating that label are totally specious.

  10. “If you perform a screen for 100 different variables, and you end up with 5 statistically-significant results, you haven’t actually raised any questions or proven anything. Really, all you’ve done is performed an exercise in statistical probabilities. Without any follow-up analysis, without expansion upon and prospective validation of the findings of the screen, all you’ve done is wasted our time. ”

    Well, no. Pretty much ALL toxicology tests are done this way, though usually they use rodents rather than pigs. You jam a lot of something down the throats of a bunch of rodents, then you collect data relating to as many organs and biochemical processes as possible to see if you see anything worrisome. It would not be good toxicology at all to say “Well, we only looked for increased uterine weight, and we didn’t see any, so the fact that half of the group that got the chemical had liver tumors isn’t worth publishing.” When you kill animals for the sake of a fishing expedition, you extract as much data from their bodies as you can. You are quite correct that any apparent differences between groups in such a study should – if there is reason to think the results could be relevant to human welfare – be confirmed in a second study that is specifically planned to examine those issues. However, it’s nonsense to say that the first study does not “actually raise any questions”; that’s precisely what it does. It is not necessary to publish all desirable follow-up studies simultaneously with a preliminary study; such is simply not the standard practice in toxicology. On the contrary, publishing the preliminary study greatly enhances your chances of obtaining the funding needed to do the follow-ups. That’s not to say that the study being attacked here is a great example of toxicological research; it isn’t. But it is within the bounds of that field’s current practice, even specifically American practice.

    By the way, people who knee-jerk assume that a study’s authors deliberately faked their data or lied about blinding just because they don’t like the study’s results or an author’s beliefs are, 99% of the time, people who have never published actual research themselves. (The other 1% are people who have falsified their own data and now project the shadow onto everyone else.) Easy to sit back and throw rocks at the heretics when you are not in a position to face such slander yourselves.

  11. Yes Jane, all toxicology studies are done this way, but usually broad claims aren’t made without additional confirmation. That is what is at issue. When the headlines describe this as “damning” or GMO “not safe to eat” that’s a huge leap from an initial screen. That, and Carman calling this study a “landmark” study on her website is just more evidence of excessive hype of minimal results.

    I agree, I don’t think anything here is faked. If taken at face value it was performed in an appropriately blinded fashion, although it’s clear from the comments of one of the researchers that not everyone was blinded, but as long as those collecting the data were that’s ok. My impression initially was that it was a competently-performed, if overblown result.

    Now that I’ve read that they only did gross pathology for the stomach result I’m less charitable. The assay they are using to make these proclamations is simply inadequate. I had assumed that they had taken sections and were using a standardized scale of pathology by tissue pathology for gastric mucosa. They did not. They had a vet grade how red the stomachs were on a scale from 1-4.

    Once I realized that, it was all over. There is basically nothing to justify additional study.

  12. They had a vet grade how red the stomachs were on a scale from 1-4.

    Once I realized that, it was all over. There is basically nothing to justify additional study.

    Kagehi quietly sweeps the study in which tea leaves, and goat spit where consulted, to determine the vitamin content of organic food under his rug, “What? Is there a problem?””

  13. I was an environmental lobbyist for a number of years and, amongst other issues, I lobbied on GMOs. My stance was that GMOs were not bad per se but that the industry needed to be regulated. I have never argued that genetic engineering was ethically or morally wrong, or that it was scientifically flawed, but I did oppose industry self-regulation. I would be surprised if a scientist did not think observations were a fundamental part of the scientific method and my observations were that some corporation may place profit ahead of ethical and moral considerations. I believe there there have been instances of companies, in their pursuit of profits, introducing products into the environment that have resulted in environmental degradation, for this reason I lobbied that the industry, not the science, needed societal regulation. I still believe this.

  14. Ho dovuto aggiornare la pagina tre volte per riuscire a leggere l’articolo. Per

  15. Nonsense, there’s lots of reasons people wouldn’t want a warning label on their products. This is especially true if the reasons for generating that label are totally specious.

    If the product contains a particular ingredient, requiring the label to spell it out doesn’t seem specious to me.

    I don’t want to buy any product if the GMO that is in it has for its sole purpose the promotion of Roundup sales, for example, on ethical grounds, and I am unable to make such a decision if the GMO vendor is allowed to immorally have such information omitted from food labels.

  16. Craig, the Roundup-ready trait helps farmers and consumers, too, by keeping the costs of operations under control and improving yields, thus keeping prices lower. The farmers who by the RR seeds don’t care about Monsanto’s bottom line: They’re looking at their own bottom lines.

  17. It doesn’t “keep costs under control”. It increases the use of pesticides and externalises costs in the form of damaging the environment (both chemically as well as genetically) in exchange for dubious claims for yield improvement.

  18. Mark,

    Wondering if you could train your scientific eye on this study:


    The authors compare US & Canadian yields of the primary GE crops with yields in Western European countries that prohibit the use of GE seeds, and they come to the conclusion that any yield gains cannot be attributed to GE. Their analysis also concludes that, while GE may have led to decreased pesticide/herbicide usage, Western European nations decreased their usage even further despite not growing GE crops.

    It would be great to get your interpretation of the study’s strengths, limitations, if the conclusions actually match the data, etc.

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