Sep 20 2012

The GM Corn Rat Study

By all accounts this study looks like the perfect storm of ideologically motivated pseudoscience. French researchers Gilles-Eric Séralini at the University of Caen, who have a history of opposition to GM food, have published a highly dubious study allegedly linking consuming the GM corn or exposure to the roundup pesticide with increased risk of tumors and death. However:

In an unusual move, the research group did not allow reporters to seek outside comment on their paper before its publication in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology and presentation at a news conference in London.

So – they presented their controversial findings, which they consider “alarming,” but prohibited journalists from doing their job before presenting the results. That’s more than suspicious – I think it’s unethical. Transparency in science is critical, especially when that research has immediate implications for public safety and can have a profound effect on public opinion.

It is much easier to provoke fear than to reassure with careful analysis. It’s almost as if the researchers wanted an undiluted initial shock reaction to their research before the careful analysis could even take place.

But the internet moves fast these days, and that careful analysis is already beginning – leaving those news outlets who swallowed the press release in the dust. The New Scientist has an excellent analysis, based partly on a French blogger who has dissected the study. Problems already identified with the study include the following:

- The population of rats used have a high propensity for tumors.

- There were only 20 rats in the control group, and 80 in the exposure groups, an atypical asymmetry.

- The data reports that “some” of the test groups had a higher tumor incidence, while others did not – sounds suspiciously like cherry picking the data.

- The statistical analysis done by the team was atypical, characterized by nutrition researcher Tom Sanders as ”a statistical fishing trip,” while a more standard analysis was excluded.

- Exposure to GM corn or the herbicide Roundup had the same negative effects. It is inherently implausible (admittedly not impossible) for such distinct mechanisms to have the same effect.

- There was no dose response at all – which is a critical component of demonstrating a toxic effect.

- The researchers did not control for total amount of food consumed, or fungal contaminants, both of which increase tumors in this population of rat.

These are only the most obvious problems with the study – the kinds of things that journalists would have been told if they were allowed to show the study to other scientists before reporting on the study.

Frankly, if a journalist is given such a restriction I think they should either refuse to report on the study, or solely report about the odd restriction, or ignore the restriction and show it to other scientists anyway. The integrity of the science reporting process is more important than this one study or this one research group.

This group has a clear conflict of interest in that they have a history of strong opposition to GM foods and have published dubious research in the past overcalling the risks of GM food. However, I do not believe that an apparent conflict of interest automatically condemns research, if the research is rigorous and transparent.

However, when you combine a conflict of interest (in this case a strong ideological bias) with questionable research methods and then squirrely dealings with the media, you have cause for concern.

Already the French government has ordered a probe into the possible safety concerns of GM corn. That seems like an overreaction to this one questionable study, but as long as they do an honest inquiry into the science the end result should be legitimate. I just hope they publicize the outcome of their investigation, even if negative, as much as the “alarming” research that provoked it.

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51 responses so far

51 Responses to “The GM Corn Rat Study”

  1. ccbowerson 20 Sep 2012 at 9:54 am

    I find the differences in attitudes about GM foods between the people in the US and those in Western Europe facinating. Emotional opposition to GM foods seems to be related to a tendency towards the naturalistic fallacy, and I wonder if this explains most of the differences between the attitudes in the US and Europe.

  2. nybgruson 20 Sep 2012 at 9:56 am

    I had read about this briefly yesterday actually and quickly disregarded the study as rather poor myself. Happily, the Reuters article I came across seemed to me appropriately skeptical which impressed me considering the potential (and intentional) shock value of the topic.

  3. MekkaGodzillaon 20 Sep 2012 at 10:59 am

    Hi Steve,

    I am French and I can tell you that this study is covered here in France has if it were solid science dealing a crushing blow to Monsanto.
    I have yet to hear any detail about the procedure used and problems with it.

    The study feeds into the strong anti GM sentiment most of the French have, which is a form of the naturalistic fallacy, so I guess that’s why it is so easily taken at face value by the media here.

    Thank you for your post, I will definitely follow this story.

  4. ElTejonon 20 Sep 2012 at 1:40 pm

    I think the Naturalistic fallacy accounts for most of it, but I would also add anti-corporatism into it, as well.

  5. CrookedTimberon 20 Sep 2012 at 2:06 pm

    Thanks for covering this! I had only briefly seen some news headlines and was really hoping for more info. Is this journal (Food and Chemical Toxicology) considered reputable in general? I notice it has a pretty low impact factor – 2.999; 5 -yr 3.078. This study design seems so flawed that it is really troublesome that it was published.

  6. ConspicuousCarlon 20 Sep 2012 at 7:34 pm

    Some blogger at Forbes (http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2012/09/20/monsantos-gm-corn-and-cancer-in-rats-real-scientists-deeply-unimpressed-politics-not-science-perhaps/) has pointed out that one of the paper’s authors is a homeopath:

    http://www.criigen.org/SiteEn/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=60&Itemid=105

    Full paper:
    http://research.sustainablefoodtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Final-Paper.pdf

  7. dpryanon 20 Sep 2012 at 7:44 pm

    I had the misfortune of reading this paper (saw it mentioned in the popular press and thought the results to be somewhat…unlikely). A few comments are in store:

    The 20:80 rat number critique (actually, it should be 20:180) is somewhat misplaced, the 180 rats were divided equally between 9 treatment groups. So, all of the groups were equally sized. I agree that it’d be better to have a higher number of animals in the control group in order to have a higher certainty of the normal variability…but there are bigger fish to fry with this paper.

    The crux of their argument surrounds a series of survival curves, figure 1, and tumor appearance curves, figure 2, which are just survival curves with tumor number substituted for mortality. They provide no statistics for these figures. To me, this is a HUGE problem. You can’t just eye-ball graphs like this accurately for judging difference. I eye-balled the mortality data for GMO in males (low dose versus control) and put it into R. The resulting p-value was far from significant, though I may have screwed things up as I’ve never had a reason to use the “survival” package before.

    That dataset is screwy for other reasons, too. Sometimes, such as males fed GMO alone, the lowest dose seems to have the most detrimental effect (or not, if I did things correctly in R). But if you combine that treatment with roundup, which seems to have had no effect alone, you find that now the middle dose is much more detrimental than before (maybe, again, the lack of statistics make it impossible to really know). In what world does that make sense?

    Of course, since they didn’t provide any food or water intake data, it’s impossible to judge their results anyway. I’m pretty amazed that this paper made it through peer-review. Frankly, if a someone showed data like this in a lab meeting, they would be mocked out of the institute.

  8. bonaovoxon 20 Sep 2012 at 7:52 pm

    I have the impression that Europe (and France) in particular has a strong anti-GM stance for political reasons, not cultural ones. Monsanto is an american company and their agricultural industry has a pretty strong lobby. I think they spin the organic industry as hard as they can, so they can block competition from more efficient competitors. They do have more tolerance for regulations than Americans and that I think counts as a cultural difference. By the way, I’m neither American or European…

  9. MekkaGodzillaon 21 Sep 2012 at 12:19 am

    Correction, the French media is catching on on the fact that this study is highly suspicious. But I think it will be too little, too late, as usual.

  10. BillyJoe7on 21 Sep 2012 at 12:53 am

    I heard about this paper on the ABC TV news this morning. The host cautioned viewers by stating that the researchers have a history of opposition to GM foods, their studies have been found to be flawed in the past, and scientists have already expressed concerns about this one. A very sceptical account I,m pleased to say.

    I was also expecting to read about it here and I was not disappointed.

  11. Mlemaon 21 Sep 2012 at 2:50 am

    ack, another “bad” study clouding the scientific waters.

    I agree with bonaovox that this is a political/cultural issue, and I would also say an economic issue. Farmers in other countries have fallen prey to Monsanto business practices. I think they’re trying to fight back by any means possible and many people are sympathetic to their cause.
    It wouldn’t surprise me if this study was influenced by such sympathies. Not very scientific, but you can see how culture could influence this happening.
    When Monsanto is sued in the U.S., Monsanto wins (with rare exception). When Monsanto is sued in France, Monsanto loses!

    U.S. monoculture farmers have found Monsanto products helpful, but problems are arising.
    We don’t really know what the effect on human health will be from GM foods. It’s only in the past few years that we’ve had millions of acres planted with GM corn and soy. What we do know is that we don’t really know what the long-term environmental impacts are of GM products. Regulation and oversight of biotechnology is inadequate. The dollars spent on developing new products is many many times greater than that spent on researching their impact on the environment (and therefore: us)

    I found the following interesting and informative:
    http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/environmental-effects-of.html

  12. Kawarthajonon 21 Sep 2012 at 11:17 am

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t 20 per treatment group sound like a really really small number of test subjects for a product that has already been extensively tested and used for years, impacting millions (hundreds of millions???) of people (i.e. all the people in North America who eat these crops on a daily basis)? I would think that if these researchers wanted to go against a number of studies that show little or no impact on human health of this, they would chose to test a much larger body of subjects. The variation in a small group of individuals (especially rats) can be huge and would not help to identify any out of the ordinary results from eating GMO products. Realistically, they could have gotten lucky in one of their test groups and had a huge spike of cancer rates, which could have just been the result of chance and nothing to do with GMO.

  13. ccbowerson 21 Sep 2012 at 11:43 am

    “I have the impression that Europe (and France) in particular has a strong anti-GM stance for political reasons, not cultural ones.”

    That could explain things from a political angle, but when you are talking about the attitudes of the general population topics like these tend to get intertwined with more fundamental ideologies like appeals to nature (or the related anticorporate attitudes) and fear of technology rather than what is politically advantageous at a given moment. It is often hard to separate these factors, and they are often related, but I think they are distinct

  14. Jared Olsenon 22 Sep 2012 at 5:55 am

    It boggles my mind to think that these guys thought they could get away with this (assuming it is spurious research). Or was their intention to purposely muddy the waters? If so, nothing they do in the future will ever be taken seriously.

  15. Jared Olsenon 22 Sep 2012 at 5:58 am

    BillyJoe7, I’m assuming you’re a fellow Aussie. You gotta use the ‘skeptic’ with a K!! :-) Sceptic is just a little too close to septic…

  16. BillyJoe7on 22 Sep 2012 at 8:49 am

    Yes. But I’ll stick with ‘sceptic’, mostly because that is how it rolls off the fingers. It would take a special effort to substitute the ‘k’. Also, have you heard of “The Skeptic Tank”? (note the ‘k’).

  17. anushkaon 22 Sep 2012 at 9:25 am

    In my view, the fact that one of the scientists is a homoeopath may partially explain the observation that in some groups animals treated with lower concentrations of gmo maize/roundup die or develop tumors faster that those treated with higher concentrations ;)

  18. locutusbrgon 25 Sep 2012 at 1:49 pm

    @ Mlema
    “We don’t really know what the effect on human health will be from GM foods. It’s only in the past few years that we’ve had millions of acres planted with GM corn and soy. What we do know is that we don’t really know what the long-term environmental impacts are of GM products. Regulation and oversight of biotechnology is inadequate. The dollars spent on developing new products is many many times greater than that spent on researching their impact on the environment (and therefore: us)”

    That is not really true. Humans have been selectively breeding and cross breeding animals/crops for centuries. That is essentially GM. Realistically there is a great deal of evidence that genetic manipulation works and has helped feed the world. I am not aware of a preponderance of good scientific evidence either way. Left with the Null Hypothesis, History dictates that it is probably safe. Worthy of good research but safe. Pointing at direct GM and saying, well that is different, is sort of the natural fallacy variation. Citing over-site as a point of concern is another type of logical fallacy corporate fear mongering. This in not proof that GM food is safe but it does not support danger either. If they did it in a lab bad, in a barn well that’s OK. The plants and animal that primarily supply the majority of the world extend out of the fertile crescent region of antiquity and have been manipulated extensively. TO point at new techniques and say “unknown” is scientifically dishonest. TO say dangerous, I would say has not surpassed the historical precedent.

  19. pseudonymoniaeon 25 Sep 2012 at 9:39 pm

    Looks like Nature has picked this one up:

    http://www.nature.com/news/rat-study-sparks-gm-furore-1.11471

  20. Vinayon 26 Sep 2012 at 1:31 am

    Ars Technica also has a story about this subterfuge. They’ve laid everything out nicely and it’s worth a read.

    http://arstechnica.com/science/2012/09/anti-gmo-researchers-used-science-publication-to-manipulate-the-press/

    Seems like your suspicions were correct Steve.

  21. jodi smithon 29 Sep 2012 at 1:39 pm

    “That is not really true. Humans have been selectively breeding and cross breeding animals/crops for centuries. That is essentially GM. ”

    Not true. We have done selective breeding in the past. We never had crops with built in pesticides before. GM is new, and the effects on people have not been studied much at all.

  22. DougIon 02 Oct 2012 at 9:37 am

    Novella clearly has a double standard when evaluating research. The Monstanto study from which the French study replicates (but goes beyond 90 days of research to 600 days) uses the same parameters.

    They use the same species of rats as Monsanto.

    They use the same sample size as Monsanto.

    To declare the French study has a conflict of interest but a multi-billion dollar corporation seeking approval of a new product which will generate hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in revenue does not is quite silly.

    The rats were allowed to eat whatever amount of food they found desirable. Not exactly going to be a problem if the GM corn is completely safe since we should expect to see no negative effects if they hypothesis that GM corn is harmful is debunked.

    It’s common knowledge that Monsanto inhibits independent research on their products. Apparently, according to Novella, it’s acceptable when Monsanto limits information but not when a group of scientists engaging in independent research limits exposure of the information to prevent a corporate backlash that Monsanto is known for.

    I’d just love to know why Novella has a huge double standard when it comes to accepting, what he calls shoddy research practices? Clearly he has no problem with the species of rats used and the sample size when Monsanto does the research but has it when independent researchers do. Either Novella has no clue as to what he’s talking about or he’s completely biased in this subject matter.

    The original research which was replicated:
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691504000547

  23. Steven Novellaon 02 Oct 2012 at 10:16 am

    DougI

    What I did was criticize this one study and the promotional hype and apparent bias of the researchers. Please point out where I defend Monsanto or their research or claim they have no conflict of interest. You appear to have erected a straw man out of your own imagination.

    Here, BTW, is some more scathing criticism of this study: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/antivaccine-versus-anti-gmo-different-goals-same-methods/

  24. DougIon 02 Oct 2012 at 11:09 pm

    Novella, I’ll refer you to the article above where you criticize the study for using similar methodology to the Monsanto research. It’s not a strawman when I base my criticism upon your own words. As mentioned before, you have a double standard since you accept the Monsanto study without criticism but criticize the French study for using the same rat species and sample size.

    As for ‘strawman fallacy’ you might want to check that since you often label GMO opponents as using the naturalistic fallacy. The mere fact that Monsanto’s products are creating resistant species and is harmful to health isn’t merely some “naturalistic” fallacy you often hype. Nor is the criticism that Monsanto blocks independent research (as mentioned as your “quacks” the Union of Concerned Scientists and New Scientist).

    It’s amusing that the article you link to has the same criticism about sample size and rat species. I’m sure you’ll link to all those articles where you make the same criticisms about Monsanto’s studies. Repeating a claim over and over again isn’t going to give you any credibility. Your hypocrisy is outstanding. Did you even look at the original research before going on your rants?

    Since Monsanto’s research was published in Food and Chemical Toxicology, a publication that you consider a hack rag, I’m sure you’ll make the same conclusions that Monsanto’s research isn’t reliable. Or is that another case of having a double standard?

  25. BillyJoe7on 03 Oct 2012 at 7:49 am

    DougI,

    Steve did not even mention Monsanto. He only wrote about this one study. So how could he possibly be using a double standard?

    And how could you possibly know what his views are on studies conducted by Monsanto, when he has not even mentioned them in this post.

  26. DougIon 03 Oct 2012 at 9:03 am

    Roundup is a Monsanto product, it was mentioned above. The study researched Monsanto corn and was a replication of a Monsanto study on that before mentioned corn. The article is in addition to the comments made on the recent podcast regarding the same subject.

    I question Steven bias when he links to a blog that engages in ad hominem attacks to support their position. Conducting a study is far from being a militant environmentalist and having a researcher that is a support of homeopathy doesn’t debunk the research. That’s like saying since Francis Collins believes in the trinity his scientific research is invalid. It reeks of desperation.

    Although I’m impressed Dr. Novella is fluent in French.

  27. Steven Novellaon 03 Oct 2012 at 10:01 am

    Doug1

    You’re on thin ice. If you listened to the podcast, then you heard my huge disclaimer – whatever you think about GM or Monsanto – this one study is crap. I was very clear about the extend of my comments.

    I never defended Monsanto or their research.

    This group didn’t just conduct a study – they have clearly shown their bias over the years, and have been criticized for it.

    Being a homeopath does not make this study crap. This study is crap, and maybe that has something to do with the fact that one of the researchers supports abject pseudoscience.

  28. locutusbrgon 03 Oct 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Doug1
    If a house is built on a crappy foundation and collapses. You don’t point at the neighbors house and say “see a different guy built that house and it blew up, fell over, and burned.” That doesn’t change the fact that that the first house had a poor foundation and collapsed. Pointing out problems with Monsanto’s research does not change the facts of this case, poor structure, poor methodology, poor controls and published as proof of danger. It does not support or deny the dangers of GM corn it is just a collapsed house. You want to show danger do the homework, do the proper structure and be honest with the data. That way you find out the truth. You want someone to say that the grass isn’t green when it is, because Monsanto is “bad” find a less logical blog to complain on. Or do the research the right way and prove it.

  29. locutusbrgon 03 Oct 2012 at 3:19 pm

    @ jodi smith

    “Not true. We have done selective breeding in the past. We never had crops with built in pesticides before. GM is new, and the effects on people have not been studied much at all.”

    I think you lack an understanding of this statement on a fundamental level.
    Many modern pesticides are based on plant based pesticides. Plants do in fact evolve their own pesticides. Natural insecticides, such as nicotine, pyrethrum and neem extracts are made by plants as defenses against insects. Selecting for those traits has been done long before the mechanisms were known. GM corn does not produce internal RAID.
    This case in particular is not to introduce insecticide production it is a programmed genetic resistance to the herbicide patented as roundup. So that you can freely spray to eliminate weeds.
    Doing it in a lab or force breeding and cross breeding to achieve this resistance results in the same plant. Whether through breeding or direct manipulation the risks are the same. Based on the best info we have now. To be clear there are risks, just no evidence that one has more risk than the other. Look at the Cavendish banana decades of culled breeding may make that fruit a fond memory. No GM there just humans mucking around with plant hybridization.

  30. ccbowerson 03 Oct 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Viewing GM foods as a category that can be commented on as a whole has some built in assumptions that require the naturalistic fallacy. If someone wants to comment on the safety of a specific GM fruit (for example), then that should be no different than commenting on the safety of a non GM food: one would need tests/studies establishing that the fruit did not cause harm, etc etc.

    There is no meaningful comment to be made broadly about GM foods in this regard, because the GM category is determined by how the genetics have been altered, which is irrelvant to whether or not the food is healthy or harmful. Comments like:

    “Not true. We have done selective breeding in the past. We never had crops with built in pesticides before. GM is new, and the effects on people have not been studied much at all”

    NOt only does this person not understand that alteration to the corn in the study has to do with herbicide resistance (not the addition of pesticide), but as locutusbrg points out in different words: nearly all plants have pesticides as an evolutionary consequence to having pests. The above quote/comment only make sense if one believes that the evolutionary process in making pesticides is inherently safer than genetic changes cause by human. That can only be ‘supported’ through the naturalistic fallacy, which we have covered ad nauseum as a false assumption

  31. Mlemaon 04 Oct 2012 at 12:20 am

    locutusbrg, ccbowers,

    I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that people are following some “naturalistic fallacy” just because they are wary of GM crops. Genetic modifications, as employed by Monsanto in its quest for international marketability, have the potential for widespread effects that as of yet are simply unknown. That’s because we don’t have a way to anticipate all the ramifications of their introduction (on such a wide scale) into the planet’s incredibly complex environment. The new crops aren’t tested for every contingency. For example, one Bt-corn variety (Event 176) produced a level of toxin that was lethal to the monarch butterfly. Luckily that variety turned out to be a poor-seller, otherwise we may have caused irreparable harm to that species.

    Our current GM oversight is a mish-mosh of outdated regulations. For example, “the current framework gives FDA authority to regulate genetically engineered fish under federal drug laws.” Genetic modifications, widely utilized, can result in negative interspecies effects. Even if indirect, there is potential risk to humans.

    I don’t think it’s necessary to divide people into: pro-science vs. anti-GMO naturalistic fallacy subscribers. And there’s no way to avoid the Monsanto factor in this issue. The profit motive doesn’t necessarily make for beneficent science. What theoretically is safe and sound science may not prove to be practiced that way.
    I would be interested in your comments on the following article:
    http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/environmental-effects-of.html

    Monsanto has built a sort of mythology around genetic science as a way to “feed the world”. But there’s no evidence that gm crops improve yield, or that they’re drought, flood, or salt resistant (as has also been advertised) They’ve also been promoted as increasing storage of carbon in soils “due to decreased tillage or the ‘no-till’ techniques”. That’s also not shown to be true. In France, Monsanto has been sued for false advertising (among other offenses) They’re also being sued in Brazil for “taxing” their seeds and in India for “biopiracy”. They’ve also been sued in Hungary and Peru.
    I would say this face-off is more about corporate profits vs. individual and societal well-being than it is about science vs, pseudoscience. Under various trade agreements it’s now possible for international corporations to sue states and nations for violating free trade policies. Big global corporations now pose a certain threat to national sovereignty and some countries are unwilling to go down without a fight. I compare France’s rejection of Monsanto GM to the growing rejection of “made in China” in the US. It’s nothing personal, we all just like variety and choice and we don’t like to be told what’s best for us. I think we also intrinsically know that a big impersonal corporation isn’t necessarily interested in our personal well being. It’s no excuse to try to use poorly-conducted research to muddy the scientific waters on the issue, but neither is it a reason for the reactionary belittlement of those who distrust GM crop proliferation.

  32. Steven Novellaon 04 Oct 2012 at 7:40 am

    mlema – Your points about corporate shenanigans on the part of Monsanto are not mutually exclusive to the point that some opponents of GM are committing the naturalistic fallacy. That does appear to be playing a large role. I think, in fact, these are the two main components of anti-GM sentiment – anti big corporation fears and the naturalistic fallacy / fear of the unknown.

    There are also legitimate concerns about introducing new organisms into the environment and human food supply. As has been said – each GM product needs to be evaluated on its own. The fact that it is GM just means that it is new – not that it is especially prone to causing harm. So we need effective regulation and cannot simply trust a company with a huge profit motive to police themselves.

    The whole process should be informed by high quality science.

  33. Mlemaon 05 Oct 2012 at 12:00 am

    Dr Novella thank you for your reply. I was addressing what I see to be some misconceptions on the part of locutusbrg, and possibly ccbowers through support of those misconceptions.

    I didn’t necessarily see any disagreement with what you had written, which I interpreted as a critique of a research study and the suggestion that there were ulterior motives behind the study.

    However, since you made the comment above, I will say that I see no purpose in casting those who don’t support GM as being “fearful” of both corporations and the unknown. i agree that the whole process should be informed by high quality science, but currently it is not – so – while it’s important to survey the studies that are done on GM foods, there is little benefit in casting those who oppose an expansion of the use of GM seeds/foods as “fearful”. This only adds to the divisiveness between people who pile up behind the science on one side (because science is “good”) and those who dig their heels in against the science (because the application of that science is something they see as “bad”)
    What I see in those who oppose GM is not fear but anger. GM crops have been repeatedly embraced by farmers around the world, only to eventually bring about bankruptcy and /or environmental ruin. Monsanto now encourages farmers to add to the type and increase the amount of herbicides they are using to control “superweeds” that have evolved in response to “roundup ready” seed use. Farmers get trapped also by Monsanto’s policies on ownership of crop seeds.

    The fear I see in those who oppose GM is a fear of the unknown, yes, but not the fear of not “knowing” the science, but rather: what will be the result of continued and expanded use of crops which are ultimately untested for wide-spread environmental effects and are also perpetually owned by a profit-driven global corporation. PAinting opponents as fearful of science and as subscribers to a natralistic fallacy is a way to paint them as ignorant and uneducated. Thus: a way to create “sides” in this issue. But experience is education – and there are many opponents who have a lot of experience with Monsanto’s GM crops. They’re angry – not ignorant, and not afraid.

    Now I have to admit that I may be projecting to a certain degree, and that there may be many, many people who are opposed to GM because they subscribe to the naturalistic fallacy. However, I still don’t see any point in creating a false dichotomy here. While there are people who on one side are against science simply on “naturalistic ” grounds, I think I can show that there are people on the other side who support the science without really understanding it either, and remain unaware of the issues with it’s real-world applications.

    It’s absolutely good and important that there are people like you who act as watchdogs for the practice of good science. But it’s also important for other people to serve as the watchdogs of scientific practice. Monsanto has put into practice the knowledge gained from advances in biotechnology. Certainly the knowledge is good – but if scientifically literate people are believing that Monsanto is “helping to feed the world” with this knowledge, then there’s more than one kind of fallacy negatively affecting this issue.

  34. ccbowerson 05 Oct 2012 at 8:09 pm

    “However, since you made the comment above, I will say that I see no purpose in casting those who don’t support GM as being “fearful” of both corporations and the unknown.”

    Mlema- The purpose is that we were discussing the motivations for anti GM attitudes, which like most attitudes in the general population is not based upon a good understanding of the topic, and careful consideration of the evidence. Its pretty clear that GM foods clashes with certain ideologies and this is a reasonable discussion whether you like it or not. The difference in attudes between Europe and US was also mentioned, which is informed by the ideological biases of different groups. Anticorporate attitudes, fear of the technology, and the naturalistic fallacy are all relevant here. Why so sensitive about this? This is a standard discussion on a skeptic blog.

    That is not to say that there aren’t legitimate concerns about introducing ‘new’ organisms to the environment, and corporate influence of science and politics, but I don’t know why its necessary to provide that disclaimer to have the previous discussion. These issues are not new to GM, and in fact I will argue there is really little in the GM issue that is new in that regard. As far as I can tell, my view on the topic is how Steve describes his. I’m wondering where you are coming from.

  35. locutusbrgon 05 Oct 2012 at 10:01 pm

    mlema
    I understand perfectly what your view is there is no misunderstanding.
    TO be clear I am not dismissing the environmental concerns of new crops no matter what the origin. Corporations can be bad that is not up for debate. Monsanto in particular has questionable business practices. Again I do not debate that. Disregard for safety and rampant greed is all over corporate world globally. I am not trying to propose that we ignore these facts. Bottom line is that bad research done with poor methodology is not the answer. GM corn may be destroying the Ozone, de-evolving chipmunks, burning the rainforests, drawing a planet killer asteroid towards the earth. This study has about as much evidence towards these ridiculous things as it does for tumors in rats. So even if I believe that Monsanto is out for world domination, this study gives no evidence towards that end. That is the point. I will retract (partially) previous statements and say that I really am not an environmental or genetic expert and cannot say for certain either way about GM corn. TO my knowledge I am not aware of any evidence that shows that breeding new strains of crops is less dangerous than manipulating them in a lab. For example: you could argue that the cross breeding of European honeybees with African strains was disastrous. NO direct GM there but still bad. You have to ask yourself would the outcome have been different if GM was done. Probably not. That is the point of the natural fallacy. Not that modifying plants and animals is risk free, just that GM is not automatically “more” dangerous, or a complete unknown. There is a new aspect to this science so there are unexpected pitfalls. I am not a corporate apologist, I don’t trust them. Vigilance is necessary in science. That said you do not have to be an expert to see that this study in particular does not give us any good information about GM corn or the Monsanto corporation. I don’t care about the authors just the truth. I do not agree with; screw the methods as long as we make a point, and get people scared enough to do some real research. That is the best case argument for this research and I think it is piss poor. This just reeks of noble goal, damn the facts. That is not science.

  36. Mlemaon 06 Oct 2012 at 1:51 am

    ccbowers: “Emotional opposition to GM foods seems to be related to a tendency towards the naturalistic fallacy, and I wonder if this explains most of the differences between the attitudes in the US and Europe.”

    No. It doesn’t. If you study the history of Monsanto (an American company) in Europe, it will be very easy to discern the root of the emotional opposition to GM foods in Europe. The implication that Europeans, or anyone who is opposed to GM foods (practically synonymous with Monsanto) is “afraid of the technology” or is befuddled by a “naturalistic fallacy”, is a way to play down the validity of their concerns, and is also an attempt to paint anti-GM people as ignorant and fearful. Yeah, it’s a skeptic practice, but why?

    Fears about the real world consequences of Monsanto’s money machine should be of concern to everyone. i hate studies like the one discussed here because: reputable science publications are compelled to elucidate their faults, which in turn causes the uninformed public to be reassured that GM food is safe after all (because the legitimate scientists have shown that a study which showed otherwise is bogus). Meanwhile, the real problems with Monsanto’s GM seeds/crops fade from observance.

    Yes, I am sensitive to this issue. Anyone who is concerned about sustaining agriculture as the world populations climbs towards 8 billion should be likewise concerned. Dr. Novella’s characterization of Monsanto’s dealings as “shenanigans” is another way to minimize this concern – as if Monsanto is just a bunch of mischievous children.

    Dr Novella also said “I think, in fact, these are the two main components of anti-GM sentiment – anti big corporation fears and the naturalistic fallacy / fear of the unknown.”

    I believe that is wrong, and that was the genesis of my comment to Dr. Novella.

    Dr. Novella’s comment to me seemed to be in reply to a comment I had made to you and locutusbrg.
    To locutusbrg because he had said that I said something that was untrue, when it hadn’t.
    And to you because you had agreed with him.

  37. Mlemaon 06 Oct 2012 at 2:09 am

    locutusbrg,
    thank you. I agree with you. As I said to ccbowers, I hate studies like this because when the legitimate science serves to show that the study is a bad one – then the public feels more complacent about Monsanto’s products/practices. The real problems with GM crops, and monoculture and commercial fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide use, don’t find their way into the public discussion too much anymore, in spite of the fact that these problems are growing globally and effect us all.

    I would love to see skeptics shine a light on this issue. It’s important to debunk these bogus studies against GM foods, but the way companies like Monsanto, Bayer and Dow do business with regards to the environment is something that I think would be a good topic for skeptics to examine…because it’s completely different than their public relations would like us to believe. Always question, right? :)

  38. ccbowerson 06 Oct 2012 at 10:59 am

    “…is also an attempt to paint anti-GM people as ignorant and fearful.”

    Your extrolation of what I have written is inaccurate. Ignorance has nothing to do with it, and is not implied. (Did I state that somewhere?) The whole point of discussing ideological commitments is that they color one’s views significantly separately from information and evidence. There are many people who are unconcerned and completely ignorant (that is likely the predominant view in the US). The researchers of this study are clearly knowledgeable, yet are highly ideologically motivated to oppose GM foods as a category with the flimsiest and suspect evidence. Again, this has nothing to do with ignorance or eivdence.

    My main problem is viewing GM foods as a category whose safety can be commented on as a whole. This is how it is discussed (and how you discuss it), and implies there is a misunderstanding. This is even how the researchers discuss it, and how it is being reported in the press. The harms of any food (GM or not) must be demonstrated the same way- through science of the particular food. There is no need to separate GM or non GM foods in this regard.

  39. daedalus2uon 06 Oct 2012 at 1:28 pm

    Mlema, You have made a statement which I think is at odds with the facts:

    “What I see in those who oppose GM is not fear but anger. GM crops have been repeatedly embraced by farmers around the world, only to eventually bring about bankruptcy and /or environmental ruin. Monsanto now encourages farmers to add to the type and increase the amount of herbicides they are using to control “superweeds” that have evolved in response to “roundup ready” seed use. Farmers get trapped also by Monsanto’s policies on ownership of crop seeds.”

    You state that there are multiple instances of bankruptcy and environmental ruin caused by GM crops.

    There are many false reports of such things, but I have not been able to find any reliable reports. Could you provide citations?

  40. ccbowerson 06 Oct 2012 at 1:54 pm

    “There are many false reports of such things, but I have not been able to find any reliable reports. Could you provide citations?”

    Reliable reports are not enough… one would need to implicate GM crops as more likely than non GM crops to do these things. Mlema seems to be conflating the actions of a particular corporation with the concept of GM crops in general. It can be good to become passionate about a topic, but not so it clouds your judgement

  41. daedalus2uon 06 Oct 2012 at 2:46 pm

    CC, that is what a reliable report would be, factual information that implicates GM crops in causing bankruptcy in farmers who use them, or environmental ruin due to them. There simply aren’t any reliable reports of such things.

  42. locutusbrgon 06 Oct 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Mlema
    Whoa… Please do not lump me in with a discussion about monoculture, herbicide and pesticide use.

    “The real problems with GM crops, and monoculture and commercial fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide use, don’t find their way into the public discussion too much anymore, in spite of the fact that these problems are growing globally and effect us all”.

    That is a fairly broad subject which I did not comment on, and based on your tone you will not like my answers.
    The only point I will make again, is that the real problem with GM crops is that they are unknown, and have historical evidence that can provide a justification for use. If you have studies that show that GM crops are inherently more dangerous than traditional methods I am open to seeing them. If there is someone on this blog who has info I would like to learn. Please post links to research, not supposition, opinion pieces and economic studies. Relevant to the crop not the manufacturer.

  43. adaon 12 Oct 2012 at 7:06 pm

    One thing that I find surprising is that, at the time of the publication of the paper, a book was already written and a movie already finished, supporting the findings of the paper.
    If the book and the movie were begun before the end of the study, one may wonder how they knew that the paper would have given those results in advance.

  44. taobethon 14 Oct 2012 at 12:21 am

    Forgive my gushing, but I have just found this site, and I’m enamored with the ideas being exchanged. As a US native, I can say that the naturalistic fallacy is a major motivator for anti-GMO propaganda here. However, this is not to say that there aren’t many other completely valid reasons for skepticism and wariness, they are merely less prevalent. Also as an American, I feel that there is little community for critical thinkers who actually understand how to evaluate research. I feel like I have finally found a home. I want to make out with you all, at least figuratively. lol

  45. DougIon 14 Oct 2012 at 12:39 pm

    “You’re on thin ice. If you listened to the podcast, then you heard my huge disclaimer – whatever you think about GM or Monsanto – this one study is crap. I was very clear about the extend of my comments.

    I never defended Monsanto or their research.

    This group didn’t just conduct a study – they have clearly shown their bias over the years, and have been criticized for it.

    Being a homeopath does not make this study crap. This study is crap, and maybe that has something to do with the fact that one of the researchers supports abject pseudoscience.”

    Oh sure, repeat a claim often enough and I guess it becomes true. Of course you didn’t directly defend Monsanto’s research, you just ignored it and went after a study that conflicted with Monsanto’s conclusions and accepted Monsanto’s research without question.

    If a scientist being a homeopath is irrelevant then why did you bother mentioning it? If you could criticize the study on it’s merits then there wouldn’t be the pathetic ad hominem attacks of character assassination. Of course no apologies by you, logical fallacies are only committed by those you don’t like, you’re guilt free because you have a blog with the word ‘science’ in it.

    Why no comment on your blatant double standards? Monsanto published in a journal you criticize, they use the same rat species, they use the same sample size yet your criticisms only go in one direction. Why no claims of conflict of interest on part of the Monsanto researchers? Why no ad hominem attacks against the researchers of the Monsanto study? Why no criticism about the contracts people must sign if they want access to Monsanto’s seeds for research?

    Nah, you just dismissed all critics as ‘quacks’ and left it at that. Your reasoning is poor, you have a double standard, you resort to poor logic and you’re a hypocrite. It isn’t a ‘naturalistic fallacy’ to be cautious that eating an untested, or poorly tested product is safe, but you love to immediately create a strawman and throw it out regardless of the research that is out there. But considering the extent of your “research” into the subject was some blogs I shouldn’t really expect much from one displaying such intellectual laziness.

    The fact is Monsanto has a history of intimidation, secrecy, funding their own research, bribing politicians to weaken regulation and falsifying research (but, by all means, they say dioxin is safe so just keep on spreading that Agent Orange because some of the research that found AO harmful used sprague-dawley rats, so you should conclude that dioxin is perfectly safe and anyone who says otherwise are quacks). Heck, tobacco research used those same species of rats so I guess smoking doesn’t cause cancer because who would ever thinking of using a common species of lab rat in the lab? Only quacks apparently, but we all know a blogger must know different because ranting in a blog is better than doing actual research.

    You’re no skeptic, you’re a fraud.

  46. sonicon 20 Oct 2012 at 1:07 pm

    A follow up from the French Academies of Science.
    http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/19/six-french-science-academies-dismiss-study-finding-gm-corn-harmed-rats/

    I liked the quote in the comments–

    “Which is why I (Andy Revkin) agree with Michael Eisen of UC Berkeley, who said this in my early post on this: 

It’s a really messed up field. The vast majority of research on GMO safety – on both sides – is done by people out to prove something rather than investigate something. This affects every aspect of the work, from study design, to execution, interpretation and publicity.

This particular study was so poorly designed – the highly sensitized line, the inexcusably small number of animals – that you didn’t even have to look at the ridiculous statements from the lead author (like “GMOs are a pesticide sponge”) to see that it was biased.

The result of all of this severely tainted work (and there’s plenty from the pro-GMO side too) is that the really good science in the field gets drowned out, and isn’t taken seriously because people just assume that it, too, must be biased. Total mess.”

    I believe that pretty much covers it…

  47. BillyJoe7on 20 Oct 2012 at 1:32 pm

    …except for finding that “really good science”. (;

  48. Mlemaon 27 Oct 2012 at 12:02 am

    daedalus2u,

    thank you for your comment/question – which caused me to re-evaluate why I said what I said (but not change what I said :)

    If you see this post and are interested in extending this discussion, please let me know. I realize I made a sweeping and dramatic statement, but I stand behind it.
    This is a gigantic topic – be forewarned. Perhaps you could reference one of the “many false reports” which you have in mind, and we could go from there.

  49. Mlemaon 27 Oct 2012 at 12:09 am

    ccbowers

    “My main problem is viewing GM foods as a category whose safety can be commented on as a whole”

    I think we can critique them as a group because they’re all created with the same methodology, and they’re all created, distributed and patented by a few multi-nationals – and these are where the safety questions come from. (Although there remain concerns about the food itself, since “equivalency” isn’t really a scientific safeguard) There are a few in the works from public research, but that is heavily funded by the industry, or reliant upon patent releases from the industry.

  50. Mlemaon 27 Oct 2012 at 1:57 am

    GMOs need to be scientifically assessed for risk
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-294X.1994.tb00036.x/abstract

  51. elion 06 Jan 2014 at 4:12 pm

    This is a “double standard community” not a skeptical community.
    The study was a reproduction of a Monsanto study, supposedly proving GMO safe (which might be true or not, I do not think anyone can know now).
    I haven’t seen Steven Novella jumping to review the Monsanto article calling for it’s retraction – this is the manifestation of the double standard, there is no double standard if similar studies are treated in the same manner – otherwise a bias is created.

    I am not saying the study proving or disproving something, but it is a piece of evidence.
    A great many studies will need to be retracted by the above standards of small sample size – which is the only meaningful and not erroneous criticism in this article.

    I wondered why would it be so important to retract the study? ok, so it is not a large study it is a reproduction of previously done study, then my brother explained to me, the retraction is extremely important because than the regulatory bodies or “skeptics” can claim that the preponderance of evidence in the peer-review literature is negative (they off course will be right since everything was retracted and next journals will be intimidated in the future to publish).

    Note that the Monsanto study of a 3 month duration, is a joke much more worthy of abuse than this study since you can’t show safety for a product that is supposed to be used for a life time using a 3 month study, every bone in a skeptics body should be aching of such an abuse (yet Steven was silent).

    Unless of course Steven Novella already knows it is safe apriori and all the studies and all that science shit is just a regulatory paperwork – than then it is a completely different matter.

    This study did the natural thing and reproduced the Monsanto study with the same parameters but extended the period to a rodent’s lifespan – which is completely logical next step, moreover to show harm, a much smaller sample size is adequate, there is no symmetry here, to show safety a much stronger and longer study is needed.

    Moreover as is clearly attested by the editor that there is complete transparency, disclosure of all study’s raw data, and not even a trace of any suspicion of any mal conduct, in his words:
    ““unequivocally” he had found “no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data.””

    This is here a manifestation of one of the more curious ideologies of the skeptical community i.e. that it is a priori safe and can be accepted without proof that the introduction of an untested new genes (that supposedly code for new proteins) into the food chain and consuming them over many decades is completely safe by the sole notion that people were breading crops in the past.
    I think this is a ludicrous and an indefensible position.

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