Why do food writers think they are competent to evaluate the scientific literature? I know of at least two who, based on their tweets, clearly are not. One is Mark Bittman, who we have previously chastised, and now also Michael Pollan who has been a bit more coy about promoting anti-science related to GMO. Now they’ve both been broadcasting the flimsy results of this paper – A long-term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined genetically modified (GM) soy and GM maize diet – published in the “Journal of Organic Systems”. Why do I feel like I’m reading headlines from Climate Depot or Milloy’s Junkscience? Because it’s the exact same behavior.

For all you budding science journalists out there, here is your first red flag, novel groundbreaking research is rarely reported in a such journals. Not to demean the smaller journals, good science is done there, but the quality of the publications must be one of the first factors taken into account when evaluating the significance of results published in the lay press. Note Reuters and Huffpo both published fluffy repetitions of “press release” evaluations of the study. Neither appears to show any skepticism or depth into the significance of the results, other results within the paper, or whether the fundamental conclusions of the authors are even supported by the data. Let’s do this now.

First, let’s describe the study. It’s a long-term (22.7 week) feeding study in pigs, with two groups of 84 pigs randomly selected to either receive GMO feed or non-GMO feed. During the trial all conditions are controlled, the feeds are found to be nutritionally identical (interesting given how GMOs has no nutrients!11!!!), and were obtained according to standard practices of pig farmers from similar local sources. The pigs were raised to the standard age they are when they go to slaughter, and were then killed and their bodies autopsied. While living the animals were evaluated by weights weekly, level of activity of pigs, level of contentment, skin problems, respiratory problems, eye problems, stool quality, blood biochemical analyses right before slaughter, and mortality. At autopsy organs were weighed and evaluated by veterinarians for evidence of tissue pathology.

Second, the findings. A good science journalist determines these by looking at the data, not by repeating whatever the authors tell them. Looking at the data there were no differences in any of the major variables evaluated by the study, such as weights, veterinary costs, illnesses, or mortality. No significant differences in blood biochemistry were found. At autopsy most organ weights were similar between groups. There was a statistically significant (but likely clinically-meaningless) increase (0.1kg vs 0.12kg) in uterus weights in the GM group. At pathology there were nonsignificant decreases in cardiac and liver abnormalities in the GM group (half as many), in stomach pathology there was one significant finding of more “severe inflammation” (on a 4-point scale from no inflammation to severe) in the GM group. This is the finding that has been amplified as variably “damning” or “concerning” depending on which source is reporting these dramatic new findings.

But since we’re skeptics here (real skeptics not like global warming “skeptics” in scare quotes) we ask, is it really?

Lets take a closer look at the data in table 3. Here are the relevant numbers:
Carmentable3data

While it is clear that along the severe inflammation row there is a difference, look at the moderate inflammation row immediately above it, and see if it changes your mind. What if we were to combine this table into a binary, no to mild inflammation vs moderate to severe? The numbers become GMO 41, non GM 38. Why would I look at it this way? Because pathologic scales of things like inflammation are subjective. (***Update It has been pointed out that the authors also didn’t actually do tissue pathology, instead they just graded how red the stomachs were on gross pathology, which also makes this assay totally meaningless. See full update below***) One should be very cautious about results presented on such a scale representing true differences especially given the next nearest population on the scale is reversed and eliminates your effect when the two groups are combined. Trying to make this objective data to suggest an association is very much trying to cram a square peg through a round hole, and would not fly on most reviewers’ reads of this data, and if I had been a reviewer I would have squashed this on this point alone. The fixation on one single data point in this table to the exclusion of the others and building the conclusions around it is unscientific. One needs to be a lot more cautious given the design of this study. Let me explain.

This is not hypothesis-driven work. They authors did not at the outset say, “we propose stomach inflammation will be greater in GM fed pigs because of x”. No. What they did was feed pigs two different diets and then go fishing for abnormal values. This is not necessarily wrong behavior, scientists go on fishing trips all the time looking to find significant effects. What is wrong is then publishing the results of your fishing trip! This is unscientific.

If you were to study some 20 variables in your study (these authors studied far more variables and I would actually expect more abnormal results then we have), and have a cutoff for significance at the standard arbitrary value of p = 0.05, one would expect, just by chance, that 1 of those variables will be significant. A good scientist then says, “well that’s interesting, let’s see if it’s real”, and then follows this study with a hypothesis-driven study specifically designed to study the apparent effect. When the single effect is then studied in isolation, with appropriate power, one should see if the result you found, perhaps by chance, is a real effect or not.

So what we have in this study is the first half of a valid study (the fishing trip) but no real hypothesis driven research to confirm if this 1 in 20 result is real. There is no molecular data to suggest a mechanism. They don’t further determine if it was the soy component or corn component on the diet. There are no follow up evaluations examining this effect alone, or trying to link ingestion of cry proteins on stomach inflammation. So far, one can only conclude that it’s just as likely that this result occurred by chance as it is to be an actual effect of feeding the pigs GM corn and soy. Now, is that “damning” or “concerning”? Concerning is even a stretch.

Third, it’s important for the good science journalist to interpret these new findings in the context of the literature, and perhaps consult an expert in the field to determine the significance of these results in context of the total knowledge in the field.

One should mention the extensive literature on the safety of GM foods. Other writers including Mark Lynas have evaluated this paper as well with similar conclusions as mine. Additionally, Mark points out the paper’s favorable interpretation of Seralini’s work – a bad sign. The authors appear to have ties to anti-GMO advocacy groups, and even thank Jeffrey Smith (the hysterical anti-GMO fake expert with no scientific or medical training). Andrew Kniss points out that he can’t replicate their result with the appropriate statistical test. I admit, I am confused about exactly how they calculated the p value, as in their methods they describe using t tests, Mann-Whitney and Chi Squared variably based on the distribution or categorical nature of the variables, so half the time reading I was trying to figure out which test they were using at any given moment. I’m still unsure exactly why they chose to do which test in each instance – in table 5 they appeared to switch between a Wilcox and a t-test at random. Although in table 3 they appear to have used a Uncorrected Chi squared based on the footnote, I’m not exactly sure, based on how one could be constructed with different expected values, if this was appropriate. No statistical expert am I, but again this smells a bit like statistical fishing to me. Even so, it doesn’t change the relevance of the results. Even if it does technically pass statistical muster, it’s still just the first step in a real scientific investigation. Another GMO expert suggests given the levels of mold they measured on their GM corn, it could have been a result of their source selling them moldy feed (at levels much higher than are usually found on GM crops).

So, to summarize, in this paper the authors performed a large non-specific screen for potential evidence of harm from GM crops. Of the many analyses performed, one showed statistical significance for severe stomach inflammation on a pathology scale in the GM group, but this effect rapidly-disappears if one groups inflammation based on broader categories. The clinical significance of this finding can only be determined by subsequent hypothesis driven research into this potential effect, but it is equally likely this is a result of random chance.

Or you can skip all the words above and read the XKCD one of Mark Lynas’ commenters suggests

XKCD knows stats

A final note, I’m not interested in comments saying I work for Monsanto, that I’m a corporate shill, blah blah blah. I haven’t worked for, or accepted money from, a corporation in my adult life (excluding Nat Geo sending me beer money for this blog, and working as a valet for Toyota dealership when I was 16). Address the data, the paper, relevant biological arguments etc, or get lost.

**Update**
In reading an additional response to the Carman et. al study, I now change my opinion on this paper from “competently performed but meaningless” to “totally meaningless”.

At issue is a criticism by Robert Friendship in the link above, that the author’s assay for inflammation is basically meaningless. In my initial read of the paper I didn’t notice this sentence “Typical examples of each of the four categories of inflammation are shown in Figure 1. For a severe level of inflammation, almost the whole fundus had to
be swollen and cherry-red in colour.”

I incorrectly assumed the authors had taken sections, performed histology, then assessed inflammation based on a legitimate pathological scale. This was apparently too generous. No, they just looked at the color of the stomach by gross pathology. As Dr. Friendship points out, this is meaningless.

Comments

  1. [...] — yet again — that GM grain is safer than non-GM | GMO Pundit a.k.a. David Tribe • Pollan and Bittman, the Morano and Milloy of GMO anti-science | denialism [...]

  2. #2 Mary
    June 12, 2013

    This is what I was wondering about:

    There was a statistically significant (but likely clinically-meaningless) increase (0.1kg vs 0.12kg) in uterus weights in the GM group.

    I wasn’t sure that was a real measure of pathology. Or if there were valid normal ranges of this. It could even be a feature you’d want in breeding animals.

  3. #3 Justin Horn
    June 12, 2013

    Whether this report is accurate or not (does seem a bit flimsy), I doubt anyone here would argue for GMOs.

    Even if GMOs are completely harmless (including the ones with build in pesticides), no one would be silly enough to think that spraying more and more and more round up on plants is a good thing.

  4. [...] See “Pollan and Bittman, the Morano and Milloy of GMO anti-science” [...]

  5. #5 Mary
    June 12, 2013

    Speak for yourself Justin. I think that the environmental values of GMOs are superior to other production systems in many ways. And that roundup is a better herbicide than a lot of other ones that have been used in the past.

    And I think herbicide is a better strategy than abusing migrant farm workers to pull weeds.

  6. #6 Rob
    June 12, 2013

    That cartoon is brilliant! I’ve been waiting to find a good review of this study since I’ve seen it waved about in various places online and didn’t have the stomach to try to read the whole thing yet.

  7. [...] See “Pollan and Bittman, the Morano and Milloy of GMO anti-science” [...]

  8. #8 Mark
    June 12, 2013

    @ Justin,
    While you should always wash your veggies there are very limited alternatives to pesticide and herbicide use. Only 3% of agriculture is organic, it wastes land, is more expensive, and shows no signs of replacing conventional agriculture as it’s rate of increase is far from exponential. We need real solutions to feeding the world, not pie-in-the-sky solutions that only work in the wealthy parts of the first world.

    GMO have the virtue of being able to decrease pesticide use, allow the use of “no till” farming which is environmentally superior, as well as other benefits. While I wouldn’t drink roundup, it has the benefit of being toxic via a pathway that humans and other animals do not posses. Among herbicides, it is one of the most benign. Either way, wash your veggies, as the organics are actually more likely to harm you via transmission of pathogens like e. coli.

  9. #9 Oliver
    June 12, 2013

    “If you were to study some 20 variables in your study (these authors studied far more variables and I would actually expect more abnormal results then we have), and have a cutoff for significance at the standard arbitrary value of p = 0.05, one would expect, just by chance, that 1 of those variables will be significant.”

    This is pretty funny if you think about it. You’d expect 1 in 20 parameters to show a significant difference at p=0.05, and the data shows much less than that. So really, if they want to argue anything from this one study, they should be making the opposite argument, and extolling GMOs as more like non-GMOs than we anticipated. Hey, we expected to see more differences, and this one study shows there aren’t as many as we feared! It’s what the whole of the data shows! Must mean there’s not really a debate here after all, folks.

    Not that that’s great journalism either, but at least it doesn’t look like cherry picking. Must be too much work.

    Speaking of lousy science journalism, Steven Novella posted on this topic a few days ago. He hits the nail on the head, especially with the all-too-common false balance and need for scientific literacy.

    If there’s one thing I can say from the little journalism experience I have, it’s a lack of familiarity with the topic is a problem in the field. Not if you’re specialized, but definitely so for almost everyone else. Try to conduct an interview with somebody on a topic you’ve only a rudimentary grasp of; a lot of your questions end up just being probes for basic information. The problem is that this gives the more dishonest interviewees out there ample room to spin things without being called out on it.

    To some extent, this is remedied by balance with an opposing view, and the organization I was with always did try to include the two sides. I get why you want to do this—to stay neutral, not endorse one side or the other, and avoid telling the listener what to think. The assumption in journalism is, we’ll present both sides as they say it, and quote their arguments without distortion, and let the listeners make up their own minds. That’s the way to go when neither side is spouting BS, but with a lot of issues out there (science is one; economics is another biggie), the only people equipped to tell if one side is full of it are… the experts. The very people who aren’t going to learn from listening, anyway.

    “I’m not interested in comments saying I work for Monsanto, that I’m a corporate shill, blah blah blah.”

    Uh oh, Mark, you’d better be careful, this is the kind of disclaimer we would no doubt expect to see if you were on Monsanto’s payroll—after all, why would you deny working for Big-GMOs if you didn’t work for them?

  10. #10 jane
    June 12, 2013

    The study looks weak, but so does your attack on it and the people who have reported on it. First of all, you cannot in fact judge the quality of a study by the journal’s impact factor – ignoring the fact that others of your ilk have taken to saying that the big Nature, Science, PNAS heavies are no good because they occasionally publish things that Science is said not to approve of. Where you can publish depends upon the quality of your study, how well its results fit with the dogma of the day in the editors’ country, how many times the editors think it will get cited in the following two years, and how much name recognition you or your institution have. I am not aware of any evidence that any of these factors are strongly correlated.

    As for your comment above, based on reported data, it is not true that organic agriculture necessarily uses more land or is more expensive. Some organic methods produce far more nutrients or calories per acre of land than conventional agriculture; the tradeoff is that they are much more labor-intensive. In developing countries, the extra cost of buying patented seeds, which you cannot or may not save, and the numerous inputs that these crops require can outweigh the profit from the extra yield – if any – with devastating costs for farmers. Labor, by contrast, is cheap. Though modern high-productivity, soil-building organic methods have been developed only in the past several decades of study, horticulture and agriculture as practiced for the vast majority of human history and in much of the non-rich world today were and are organic in the sense that they did not utilize synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. What people have been and still are doing in poor countries is not “pie in the sky” for the rich.

    It is also not true that GMOs will reduce chemical use across the board. Perhaps the reason that such claims continue to be made is that the companies producing these products have legal control over what studies are done with them, and have been able to keep much independent research from being conducted. The only reason to make a crop able to survive higher doses of Roundup is so you can spray Roundup more freely. Resistance genes may spread to wild crop relatives (“weeds”), beyond the fact that all weeds that are regularly sprayed risk evolving resistance, leading down the line to more spraying than ever. You can indeed reduce pesticide spraying by inducing the plant to produce pesticide in its own tissues, but this too has environmental impacts in the killing of beneficial and non-pest insects; chemical exposure continues, though the delivery method is less visible and (maybe) cheaper.

    This is not to say that I think no GMOs have value, or even that the pesticide and herbicide-promoting GMOs have no value. But please do not promote the sort of silliness that acts as if practicing modern organic agriculture means going “back” to living in mud huts.

  11. #11 RJ G
    New York, NY
    June 12, 2013

    Mark Lynas… he is a know shill.. why bring him into the conversation. He has been proven to be liar even while he was in the environmental movement before selling his soul to pay his debts and bills.

  12. #12 Mark
    June 12, 2013

    @ Jane

    First of all, you cannot in fact judge the quality of a study by the journal’s impact factor – ignoring the fact that others of your ilk have taken to saying that the big Nature, Science, PNAS heavies are no good because they occasionally publish things that Science is said not to approve of.

    Straw man and straw man. I made explicitly clear good science can be done in small journals, but it should heighten suspicion when dramatic results come from the pay-for-play Canadian Journal of Irreproducible results. Further, while we criticize Science and Nature, it’s only because their name is no security form also being wrong. In fact since they are the location where the revolutionary is published, sometimes they require even more scrutiny. But they are excellent journals with extremely high standards of peer review. The lesser journals you must read with the expectation that peer-review may be softer, data may be of poorer quality, and you must increase your awareness of failures in this regard. This is such a common refrain of cranks, I can show you the comments from the global warming deniers with their lists of skeptical papers published in the East Asian Journal of Theoretical Geology, that when we criticize the journals say the same thing. No, quality of the journal is a factor. It’s not the only factor, and good science happens in small journals, but there are real differences in quality between journals, as well as a major problem with bogus pay-for-play journals out there which have demonstrated major flaws for peer-review, and a weak point for false access to the scientific literature. An article like this is the living proof. I would have destroyed it for any journal, it is fundamentally-flawed.

    As for your comment above, based on reported data, it is not true that organic agriculture necessarily uses more land or is more expensive. Some organic methods produce far more nutrients or calories per acre of land than conventional agriculture; the tradeoff is that they are much more labor-intensive.

    Wait what? Nutrient density per acre? That’s our new measure of yield? And labor!=cost? How do you figure. Labor is cost. Even modern organic farming suffers from some pretty big obstacles towards broad applicability, if it were truly more efficient, it’s growth wouldn’t be so stagnant. It also has issues environmentally (depending on the crop) usually requiring tilling, or use of pesticides that while “natural” aren’t necessarily “short-lived” or harmless to humans. Organic is not necessarily equivalent to environmentally friendly (not that I’m forgiving conventional, but people have to understand they are not synonymous), and as should be apparent from the cost on the shelves, economically superior.

    In developing countries, the extra cost of buying patented seeds, which you cannot or may not save, and the numerous inputs that these crops require can outweigh the profit from the extra yield – if any – with devastating costs for farmers.

    One, the terminator thing is a myth, for other seeds that you can not re-plant that’s because they were bred from hybrids, common to both GM and non-GM variants of those crops. Farmers in developing countries develop black markets to obtain these seeds, and it’s not because they don’t work, or don’t create an economic incentive. Else, they must be fundamentally stupid. I do not believe they are.

    Though modern high-productivity, soil-building organic methods have been developed only in the past several decades of study, horticulture and agriculture as practiced for the vast majority of human history and in much of the non-rich world today were and are organic in the sense that they did not utilize synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. What people have been and still are doing in poor countries is not “pie in the sky” for the rich.

    The incredible amount of damage done in the third world by pesticide use would belie that the “non-rich” world is even partially organic. No, herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer are cheap, and nearly universal any place the farmers engage a market. The environmental damage to the water supply in countries like India, China, are dramatic as a result of this. GM’s are irrelevant to subsistence farmers, those countries and farmers which have access to seed supply are already participating in a market system.

    It is also not true that GMOs will reduce chemical use across the board. Perhaps the reason that such claims continue to be made is that the companies producing these products have legal control over what studies are done with them, and have been able to keep much independent research from being conducted. The only reason to make a crop able to survive higher doses of Roundup is so you can spray Roundup more freely. Resistance genes may spread to wild crop relatives (“weeds”), beyond the fact that all weeds that are regularly sprayed risk evolving resistance, leading down the line to more spraying than ever. You can indeed reduce pesticide spraying by inducing the plant to produce pesticide in its own tissues, but this too has environmental impacts in the killing of beneficial and non-pest insects; chemical exposure continues, though the delivery method is less visible and (maybe) cheaper.

    I’m disappointed. These claims are made again and again, even though they’ve been debunked. The non-pest insect (read monarch butterfly) study was bogus. The cry proteins are expressed in the leaves and body of the plant, not the pollen. The only creatures killed by bt are animals chewing on the leaves, by definition pests. The monarch study (the first one) was a result of contamination. Horizontal gene transfer is not as common as the anti-GM folks would have us believe, and while resistance is a problem, it’s a problem with all methodologies. It’s not an argument against GM. And there are plenty of reasons to spray a herbicide rather than till. Your argument against roundup is fundamentally unsound.

    But please do not promote the sort of silliness that acts as if practicing modern organic agriculture means going “back” to living in mud huts.

    Straw man again. I criticized organic for not being broadly viable as a food source. I don’t see how a method that represents 3% of our food supply (and grows as slowly as it has) can replace conventional agriculture. I don’t see how it will continue to be a realistic option while it is more expensive, especially because in industrial countries, labor is only going to get more expensive, and as the world industrializes and modernizes this will be a global trend.

    The organic movements priorities are fundamentally flawed. They emphasize “natural” over “environmentally-sound” and “economically-viable”. I am not a believer in the naturalistic fallacy. Natural is not by definition better. What if there was an “unnatural” solution (stupid on it’s face as nothing is actually unnatural but using the definition of the faithful), that was better for the environment and people? What if there was a pesticides, harmless to humans, and so rapidly degraded to biodegradable components minimizing environmental impact? Would organic farmers use it? No, because the naturalistic fallacy is more important than evidence. That’s why this movement encroaches on denialism, the fundamental ideology is just as susceptible to anti-science (primed to it even) because it’s not based on rational concepts.

    @R J
    I will not have this “shill” nonsense here. This is the first and last time I’m going to have such a comment on this thread. Don’t make me add “shill” to the spam filter. It’s a lazy, stupid, illogical attack on the person, and it degrades all of us to have it as part of the discussion.

  13. [...] his Science Denialism blog, Mark Hoofnagle, Ph.D., referred to the study as a “fishing trip,” as it did not [...]

  14. #15 Anon
    June 13, 2013

    @Justin Horn
    By volume you might claim we increased usage of pesticides for certain. But the difference in environmental and toxic effects can be orders of magnitude different for those pesticides make using them a superior option to what is currently available.

    And some gmo crops use less pesticides.

  15. [...] Hoofnagle, MD, PhD provides a really straight forward explanationof how the scientific process should work and how this study fall short. He also includes an [...]

  16. #17 Jonathan
    USA
    June 14, 2013

    It is interesting to hear people who have never worked in a field in their life declare whether or not organic farming is more or less productive than conventional. As someone who has worked in fields to pay for college and is now a published scientist in forest research I can say that the production levels in organic farming is astounding given proper techniques without the use of any pesticide or herbicide whatsoever as is forest production. The cost of labor is greater however but when considering economic viability, one must consider that an economy includes the number of jobs and the number of people with or without them as we have seen in our recent recession. Joblessness is a huge driver of unrest and discord in government and society so what would be the problem with needing more workers to produce a crop when there are huge numbers of people without jobs? In my eyes this makes organic production MORE economically viable. Given the cost for chemical nutrients, recycled animal waste products are far more efficient and contribute to the organic matter in soils making the soil grow rather than deplete. Chemical fertilizers add nothing and accelerate organic matter decomposition. Also the reduction in cost of pesticides from use of natural predation, something that cannot happen from blanket killing of insects will make organic production more economically feasible. Also monoculture crops make it easier for diseases and pests to spread and using inter planting techniques and rotating crops is a natural cheap solution but requires more work and planning on the farmers’ part. It is seen from antibiotic resistant bacteria, (and evolution) plants grow immune or resistant to pesticides over time and GMO herbicide resistant genes may transfer to weeds making super weeds. (Jurassic Park “life finds a way…”) A real innovative solution is what we need with long term results not a quick fix that Monsanto is producing. Just like fossil fuel driven power is a reaction with a limiting factor and therefore an end, the limiting factor in agriculture is soil. Nutrients are abundant in nature except for phosphorous but soil will be gone long before phosphorous. The research being done on breeding crops from perennial plants instead of our current annual crop dominated system is a more innovative long term solution to our problem with soil depletion.

    On the issue of journal impact, no forestry journal has near the impact of Science or Nature yet they will undergo as much if not more scrutiny since they specialize in that field. The impact factor is based on how many people are reading that journal. Not many but forest managers read forestry journals so the impact factor is low yet the reviewers are the experts in that field and are scathing in their reviews when warranted as I have experienced. I have seen in my field specifically the publication of controversial articles in regards to salvage logging in Science, specifically the Donato et al., Post-wildfire logging hinders regeneration and increases fire risk 2006 article. Despite methodology issues, obviously biased discussion, results and disregard for many factors, forest practices are affected forever without any concern given to other experts in the field published in journals with less of an impact factor. In short Science and Nature isn’t any better than smaller journals just more people read them. Also, many of the global warming deniers are more hung up on the wording and prefer global climate change over warming as many geologist and geophysicists do. Also are we going to really compare a journal in Asia to this Australian journal when in China they say the air quality is great when they can’t even tell a building is on fire the smog is so bad?

    Furthermore, the scientific methodology of having to have a clearly defined hypothesis before beginning a study for it to be “science” is clearly asinine. Do we forget penicillin and Teflon so easily? Also grouping nil to mild and moderate to severe would be ridiculous to do since you would expect nil to moderate inflammation in natural control settings as people do in real life. People with inflamed ulcers shouldn’t be grouped with people with recurrent diarrhea as one is severe and one is moderate and there is much debate of severity in forest fire research as well but there are clear distinctions. Writing on a blog that their observation is bogus and not contacting them and asking how they categorized conditions and writing your findings is not scientific either and doesn’t make you a scientist. It makes you a blogger. I think the burden of disproof is on the companies who spend so much money on “research” when it is mostly development. Where is the research that is similar to this and shows how open these GMO companies are? The difference between research in organic production and GMO production is obvious to anyone who has actually conducted research from an idea to publication… FUNDING! How can you make money from teaching farmers how to be more efficient and smarter? You can’t patent a technique or an idea so there is no way to make money on it. MONEY! Think about the end game for these companies promoting their research. If this woman had the funds that Monsanto has she’d be able to do an all encompassing huge sample size study and have the influence to get published in Science. Instead she is torn down by men mostly because she is an easy target and a woman. Let’s not be naive and let’s be truly objective scientists! If this is really a scientists blog and comment section.

  17. #18 Mark
    June 14, 2013

    It is interesting to hear people who have never worked in a field in their life declare whether or not organic farming is more or less productive than conventional. As someone who has worked in fields to pay for college and is now a published scientist in forest research I can say that the production levels in organic farming is astounding given proper techniques without the use of any pesticide or herbicide whatsoever as is forest production.

    Oh yes? Provide data. Cite some evidence. Organic farming is a tiny minority of what is done, and the proportion grows slowly. Please explain how it is going to provide for the majority of our food supply.

    Joblessness is a huge driver of unrest and discord in government and society so what would be the problem with needing more workers to produce a crop when there are huge numbers of people without jobs?

    This is Luddism, it is not realistic in the economy and society as we have to expect stoop labor to replace the lost jobs from our most recent economy. Get real.

    Given the cost for chemical nutrients, recycled animal waste products are far more efficient and contribute to the organic matter in soils making the soil grow rather than deplete. Chemical fertilizers add nothing and accelerate organic matter decomposition.

    They add nothing? Then why are they used? Why is this farming cheaper and responsible for 97% of crops? What you say fundamentally contradicts reality.

    Also the reduction in cost of pesticides from use of natural predation, something that cannot happen from blanket killing of insects will make organic production more economically feasible.

    Now I suspect you don’t actually know anything about organic farming. Organic farming uses pesticides as well, it just uses “organic” pesticides.

    Also monoculture crops make it easier for diseases and pests to spread and using inter planting techniques and rotating crops is a natural cheap solution but requires more work and planning on the farmers’ part.

    Agreed.

    It is seen from antibiotic resistant bacteria, (and evolution) plants grow immune or resistant to pesticides over time and GMO herbicide resistant genes may transfer to weeds making super weeds. (Jurassic Park “life finds a way…”)

    Please explain the mechanism of horizontal gene transfer that you propose. Please explain how conventional pesticides are different in terms of generating resistance. Isn’t resistance a feature of all attempts to protect crops with conventional or GM pesticides? (hint- it is)

    On the issue of journal impact, no forestry journal has near the impact of Science or Nature yet they will undergo as much if not more scrutiny since they specialize in that field. The impact factor is based on how many people are reading that journal.

    Um, no, that is not how impact factor is determined. Do some research. It is based on citation frequency.

    In short Science and Nature isn’t any better than smaller journals just more people read them.

    I would love to introduce you to some global warming denialists who love to make the same argument. Is it just a little bit embarrassing to make the same arguments as they do? No, there is a major difference in quality between journals, and Science and Nature are not journals that are limited to a specific field. You can publish on any topic in these journals, it just depends on how interesting the results are, and the quality of the findings. It’s interesting how the denialists are so interested in dragging down the higher tier journals to create the appearance of equality between major journals and pay-for-play joke journals.

    Furthermore, the scientific methodology of having to have a clearly defined hypothesis before beginning a study for it to be “science” is clearly asinine. Do we forget penicillin and Teflon so easily?

    This is meaningless. Have you actually read Alexander Fleming’s paper on penicillin? It starts, as this paper does, with the initial observation of an interesting effect on some plates of staph that had been exposed to air and died. He then goes on to carefully characterize and explore the nature of his incidental discovery and began to isolate the anti-bacterial compound. The Carmen study is the equivalent of the first paragraph of Fleming’s paper. Maybe you need to do some reading. I don’t criticize the concept of screening as a whole, I criticize the failure of the authors to follow up on this finding and demonstrate that it is more than just statistical fluctuation. To compare this sloppy crap to Flemming is frankly offensive, you think this is Nobel material? This is sloppy crap. The equivalent comparison would be if Flemming had only published that some of his plates had been contaminated and the Staph died, without explaining the cause of the effect, or isolating the relevant compound, or pursuing the findings beyond the initial observation. Read his paper and see what real science looks like.

    Also grouping nil to mild and moderate to severe would be ridiculous to do since you would expect nil to moderate inflammation in natural control settings as people do in real life. People with inflamed ulcers shouldn’t be grouped with people with recurrent diarrhea as one is severe and one is moderate and there is much debate of severity in forest fire research as well but there are clear distinctions.

    Is there something about crankery that prevents the organized presentation of an idea? Can anyone interpret the thought behind this argument?

    Writing on a blog that their observation is bogus and not contacting them and asking how they categorized conditions and writing your findings is not scientific either and doesn’t make you a scientist. It makes you a blogger.

    I’m a scientist because I have a PhD in molecular biology, a medical degree, and because I’m published in the literature, not because I write about science on a blog. I don’t need to contact the authors to evaluate the data they presented in this paper, this is the nature of science, the results are presented, in addition to the methodology. Given an educated read on their results and methodology, my interpretation is their results are equally likely to be due to chance as due to a real effect from the feed. I don’t need to contact the authors to ascertain this. This is an incomplete study based on what is presented, and if a paper can not stand on it’s own, it’s not my duty to seek additional explanation from the authors. This is just the first half of a legitimate scientific study. You don’t just perform screens with a statistical probability of a certain level of false positive results, then when those false positives appear at the expected rate, exclaim you have discovered an new effect. This is not science. Requiring contact to the authors is a requirement of journalism, not science.

    I think the burden of disproof is on the companies who spend so much money on “research” when it is mostly development. Where is the research that is similar to this and shows how open these GMO companies are? The difference between research in organic production and GMO production is obvious to anyone who has actually conducted research from an idea to publication… FUNDING!

    So should the authors have disclosed their ties to the organic farming industry? They disclosed no conflicts of interest despite the authors being involved in organic and anti-GMO advocacy, despite citing thanks to a variety of anti-GM advocates. Who has the conflict here? I receive no money from any farming or corporate interests. If anything, I have fewer conflicts than the authors.

    How can you make money from teaching farmers how to be more efficient and smarter? You can’t patent a technique or an idea so there is no way to make money on it. MONEY!

    Um, that is the definition of patents. You patent techniques and ideas to make money on them. What are you talking about? This is the opposite of reality. Do you know what a patent is?

    Think about the end game for these companies promoting their research. If this woman had the funds that Monsanto has she’d be able to do an all encompassing huge sample size study and have the influence to get published in Science.

    Influence has no effect on being able to publish in science, or that is where Monsanto’s studies would be published. In all the industry-sponsored research I’ve read on GMO, I have yet to read one published in Science or Nature. If I’m wrong, please, point out the citation. I also do not criticize this study over sample size. The sample size is irrelevant to the critique.

    Instead she is torn down by men mostly because she is an easy target and a woman. Let’s not be naive and let’s be truly objective scientists! If this is really a scientists blog and comment section.

    And here is where you demonstrate you are a true crank. With no valid argument against the critique, you have to resort to calling me a misogynist and oppressor. Help! Help! I’m being oppressed! I love it. Classic crank persecution complex.

    Is anyone impressed by this level of argument? Let’s see, we have a variety of logical fallacies, followed by fundamental ignorance of things like impact factor calculations, false equivalence, a Fleming gambit (not a Galileo, original!), a variety of non sequiturs , then finally ad hominem and cries of persecution. Have you been reading the HOWTO?

  18. [...] his Science Denialism blog, Mark Hoofnagle, Ph.D., referred to the study as a “fishing trip,” as it did not set out [...]

  19. [...] last September and it is just as true today. [UPDATE: On a related note, see this Mark Hoofnagle post at his Denialism blog.]  For example, take Grist, a popular environmental media site. They would [...]

  20. #21 Tamar Haspel
    June 14, 2013

    Hey! I resent the crack about food writers. I’m one, and I wrote about that study for Huffington. The venue isn’t conducive to a statistics lesson, but I basically said what you said:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tamar-haspel/gm-feed-pigs-stomach-inflammation_b_3430408.html

  21. #22 Mark
    June 14, 2013

    @Tamar –
    I admit. It’s unfair to castigate all food writers based on how Bittman has been behaving lately. But the nature of most of his writing with regards to food is to scan for findings that confirm his pre-formed beliefs, and then shout it from the rooftops as if it’s some stunning result.

    And anyone who’s made it this far down the thread should read your link above, I agree, it’s a good article.

    I would have suggested one thing though, your title helps reinforce the false belief this is some smoking gun result. When one writes for the purpose of a skeptical read of overblown results, it’s important not to reinforce the false result or the overblown hype. This has actually been studied, and even if a paper is written to debunk a myth, and people read it, if the paper repeats the myth people will tend to remember the myth and not the debunking.

    Also as an update, I’ve noticed on Carman’s own blog she’s referred to this as a “landmark study”, she’s a legend in her own mind I guess. However, this is barely the beginnings of a real scientific study, and given the pre-test probability of finding some statistically-significant effect by chance, one can hardly call this groundbreaking.

    This is a competently performed screen for toxicity from diet. Others have suggested her mortality was too high, but overall the structure of the study is not bad. The problem is in the interpretation. When one performs a screen and finds something, you don’t just stop and report the findings of your screen. Given the risk of presenting a chance result such a finding should be explored and expanded upon before declaring yourself victory over GM foods, overturning an extensive literature on safety, and saying you’re study is a “landmark” study. That alone is ridiculous. You don’t just decide a study is a landmark study the day after it’s published! This hasn’t even been cited yet, or confirmed. This study hasn’t yet resulted in a new field of exploration or literature. That’s an awfully arrogant bit of behavior right there.

  22. #23 Robert Wager
    Vancouver Island BC Canada
    June 14, 2013

    “This is a competently performed screen for toxicity from diet.”

    I completely disagree with this point. There is very poor evaluation of the feed and no isolines (the basic requirement for proper toxicology on GM crops)

  23. #24 Mark
    June 14, 2013

    Robert, that may be so, but is outside of my expertise to say. The finer points of GM feeding regimens are not known to me. From the point of view of sample size, pathology, biochemistry, and end points (things I’m more familiar with), it seemed a reasonably constructed animal study, but I am not a GM scientist. I’m a molecular biologist who is usually studying drugs and surgical models rather than diet, although I do have some experience with feeding pathological diets. I also am not a piggery expert by any stretch so I have to rely on others in their description of the overall high mortality and poor living conditions suggested by the study. As Tamar points out in her article the study is, if anything, damning of industrial farming conditions on livestock.

  24. #25 saijanai
    June 16, 2013

    you are wrong about fishing expeditions. By definition and design, a normal toxicity study IS a fishing expedition. It is only in the Bizarro World of GMO safety testing that one tries to avoid finding false positives.

  25. #26 Mark
    June 16, 2013

    @ 25 Sijanai

    I’m wrong am I? Demonstrate, using the literature, examples of publications of screening assays that are published on their own..

    While you’re at it, show me other examples, using the literature, that their gross pathology scale of stomach inflammation is legitimate.

  26. [...] and uterus size. The study was a fishing expedition and not hypothesis-driven. It’s not surprising that it found something. I’d be shocked if it hadn’t. In the end, this study abused a fairly large number of [...]

  27. #28 Tamar Haspel
    June 17, 2013

    Mark, I think doing a toxicity study on GM vs. non-GM feed is legit, and it basically is a fishing expedition. People with more statistical expertise than I have (not hard!) have taken issue with the methods, and I take issue with the strength of their conclusion, given the possibility that it’s chance.

    But there’s one issue I haven’t seen mentioned. I harbor a strong suspicion that they parsed stomach inflammation into mild, moderate, and severe after the fact. If you look at their results without that parsing, the GM pigs actually healthier than the non-GM pigs. And no other factor is parsed into degrees, although many (pneumonia, in particular) could have been. Did they really sit down when they designed the study and do it that way? I’d like to know, but we never will.

    • #29 Mark
      June 17, 2013

      Doing the study is legit. I absolutely agree. But, since it is a screen it is illegitimate to make strong conclusions from the study without follow up analysis. You aren’t going to find a lot of papers in the literature in which just an initial screen is performed, potential effects are observed, and the researches then make conclusions from the screen. No, you’ll see additional assays, confirmation in a hypothesis-driven fashion, mechanistic studies etc. There are actually lots of studies like this that are published, but since the results are negative or consistent with being due to chance, there is no problem. A negative screen doesn’t warrant additional work because it’s pointless. You can’t ever really prove a negative. But to have a positive result from a screen, then claim your study is a “landmark” publication and proves GMO are dangerous? That is crank science right there.

      These authors have no credibility. In additional reading I’ve seen over the last few days, seing their ties to Seralini and GMO advocacy, I don’t expect them to show any shame or introspection for their overinterpretation of a non-result. Instead we’ve seen the opposite. The fact they called their own study a “landmark” study alone is just so far beyond the pale of appropriate scientific caution I’m just astounded. What a cranky thing to do. They’ll compare themselves to Galileo next.

  28. [...] A New Way to Do Nuclear (this sounds a lot like thorium-based reactors, which aren’t new at all. Still promising though) Experts propose restoring invisible and abandoned trials ‘to correct the scientific record’ Debunking The Narrative Of Silicon Valley’s Innovation Might Beautifully Exotic Looking Species of Moths from Ottawa Pollan and Bittman, the Morano and Milloy of GMO anti-science [...]

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