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Uncovering the subversion of scientific methods in pursuit of politics

My Times column on pseudoscience:


Science, humanity’s greatest intellectual achievement, has always been vulnerable to infection by pseudoscience, which pretends to use the methods of science, but actually subverts them in pursuit of an obsession. Instead of evidence-based policymaking, pseudoscience specialises in policy-based evidence making. Today, this infection is spreading.

Two egregious examples show just how easy it is to subvert the scientific process. The campaign by Andrew Wakefield against the MMR vaccine, recently boosted by Robert De Niro’s support, is pseudoscience.

So is the campaign against glyphosate (“Roundup”) weedkiller, which has now resulted in the European parliament recommending a ban on its use by gardeners.

A large dossier claiming to find evidence that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic” was published last year by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organisation. What could be more scientifically respectable?

Yet the document depends heavily on the work of an activist employed by a pressure group called the Environmental Defense Fund: Christopher Portier, whose conflict of interest the IARC twice omitted to disclose. Portier chaired the committee that proposed a study on glyphosate and then served as technical adviser to the IARC’s glyphosate report team, even though he is not a toxicologist. He has since been campaigning against glyphosate.

The IARC study is surely pseudoscience. It relies on a tiny number of cherry-picked studies, and even these don’t support its conclusion. The evidence that it causes cancer in humans is especially tenuous, based on three epidemiological studies with confounding factors and small sample sizes “linking” it to Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). The study ignored the US Agricultural Health Study, which has been tracking some 89,000 farmers and their spouses for 23 years.

The study found “no association between glyphosate exposure and all cancer incidence or most of the specific cancer subtypes we evaluated, including NHL . . .”

Many other studies found very little cancer risk from glyphosate use, but the IARC argued that they included some data generated by industry. Well, of course they did, because we rightly demand that industry, not the taxpayer, pays for and does the safety testing of its products and makes the results public. The IARC appeared to ignore work by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, managing the glyphosate dossier for the European Commission, which judged glyphosate safe. As did the European Food Safety Authority, whose head accused the IARC and Portier of bringing in the “Facebook age of science”.

When Portier’s role and the IARC’s findings were revealed by David Zaruk, who blogs under the name the Risk-Monger, pressure started coming from many groups to censor his science-policy blog.

The publisher EurActiv was forced to shut down Zaruk’s entire blog in the week of the European parliament vote. This is how Big Green behaves in Brussels, routinely.

Dose for dose, glyphosate is half as toxic as vinegar, and one tenth as carcinogenic as caffeine. Not that coffee’s dangerous — but the chemicals in it, like those in virtually any vegetable, are dangerous in lab tests at absurdly high concentrations. So is dihydrogen monoxide, for that matter, if you inhale it, drink it to excess or let its gaseous form burn your skin (that’s H2O, by the way).

Besides, risk is hazard plus exposure, a point ignored by the IARC. If you routinely put coffee down your throat, you are exposing yourself to the infinitesimal hazard caffeine represents. If you spray a little Roundup on your garden path, you are not even exposing yourself to the more infinitesimal hazard of glyphosate.

Roundup is probably the safest herbicide ever, with no persistence in the environment. But the Green Blob hates it for three reasons. It’s off-patent and therefore cheap. It was invented by Monsanto, a company that had the temerity to make a contribution to reducing famine and lowering food prices through innovation in agriculture. And some genetically modified crops have been made resistant to it, so that they can be weeded after planting by spraying, rather than tilling the ground: this no-till farming is demonstrably better for the environment, by the way.

Under the influence, at least in part of the IARC report, the European parliament voted last week to advise the commission to ban glyphosate immediately for “non-professionals” — ie gardeners — but allow it for seven years for farmers. However, a lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on: already retailers worldwide are dropping glyphosate, Waitrose included.

Much the same happened with the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, which was pushed through Brussels by a tsunami of angry emails from greens, in the teeth of clear scientific advice that honey bee numbers were increasing and that alternative insecticides were worse.

James Gurney, a microbiologist who blogs on a site called the League of Nerds, describes the level of scholarship in the IARC report as “on a par with Andrew Wakefield of MMR/autism fame”.

In the case of Mr Wakefield’s claim that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism, the push-back against pseudoscience largely succeeded in this country, though not before real harm had been done. Journalists found that Mr Wakefield had failed to declare financing from lawyers preparing to sue vaccine makers and had taken blood samples at his own children’s party; further research failed to replicate his results. His paper was retracted and he was struck off the medical register, the General Medical Council calling him dishonest and irresponsible. His message is now falling on fertile ground in the United States, however, where measles epidemics have resumed as a result.

In both these cases, superficial plausibility is lent to the scares by history. Earlier pesticides were more dangerous: copper sulphate (still used as a fungicide by “organic” farmers) is toxic; DDT insecticide did wipe out predatory birds; paraquat herbicide was used in suicides. But Roundup is far, far less dangerous than these.

Likewise, early vaccines did carry risks. In the 1950s polio vaccines, grown in monkey tissue, were contaminated with SV40, a virus associated with cancer in monkeys. Many children were infected with the virus as a result. Fortunately, SV40 proved neither infectious nor carcinogenic in human beings, but it was a bullet dodged. Today such contamination is impossible.

Pseudoscience is bad enough when it infects astrologers, 9/11 truthers and crop-circle makers. But when its symptoms show up in mainstream bodies, such as the World Health Organisation, it’s time to be worried.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times