Sunday, June 9, 2013

Evaluating Cancerous Rats

Principles that I will be using in this discussion.

The GMO debate brings up a lot of issues and strong feelings. It is after all about what we put in our bodies. Unfortunately, how we debate in the 21st century has become unhealthy. Media presents everything as a two sided argument with no resolution. I hope to avoid that type of presentation.

Intelligence is more than just what we can keep in our heads. As a collection of people, social animals that we are, we have expanded our minds through written language. We are all as smart as the accumulation of knowledge that we inherited. Ignorance then becomes not what we are capable of knowing, but what we have access to. For most scientific information, that means you need to be at least enrolled in a university of some kind or that you pay for access to scientific journals. This makes most of us pretty ignorant.

That is not as bad as I make it sound because there are efforts to make that knowledge public, but I wanted to make the point that there is a barrier. There is currently debate about how to fix this situation, but for now, the information that I would really like to use to make my determination about GMOs is behind “pay walls”. Go looking for actual peer-reviewed science and you will find out what those are.

I’m getting to the question of how I have determined that GMOs are not as bad as and The Organic Consumers Association say they are. First an analogy. I can’t know everything. I can’t be an expert in all fields. But I can evaluate experts in other fields. It is as if I saw a woman standing high up on a roof. I can’t see how she got there, but there she is. She then directs me around to the back of the building and I see a series of ladders. I have no interest in climbing those ladders but I understand ladders. I can now see how she got there.

The opposite of this analogy would be someone who says they can get to the top of that roof but they aren’t going to tell me how. This is much more common.

Debates can carry a lot of information. It is actually a debating technique to overwhelm your opponent with many arguments and then accuse of them not addressing all of them in detail. Debates have time constraints so this technique proves nothing other than the one using the technique is a windbag. Fortunately today we have the Internet, and if we have time, we can find answers to many of those arguments easier than in the past. This may seem overwhelming, but there is a way to go about it.

Most of us probably won’t be in formal debates, but even discussions with friends and colleagues have time constraints, not to mention social constraints. Sometimes, when someone says, “there are just too many questions”, you have to accept that they are uncomfortable with GMOs and you aren’t going to change their mind at that time. You can exit that discussion without conceding that “too many questions” means they are right, it just means that they have questions.

Here’s an example of how to go about finding answers to all these questions:

When I was starting to doubt my negative assessment of GMOs, I saw this horrific picture

Of mice that had been fed GMO corn. That should make you wonder about what you’re putting in your body, right? And the accompanyingarticles had more horrible stuff to say about it.
1 Rats died prematurely
2 Rats had organ failure
3 Rats got tumors.

A couple things popped for me right away however. First, they didn’t just feed the rats GMO corn, they fed them Roundup. These two are tightly bound because the corn is designed to be resistant to Roundup, so farmers can use that Monsanto product to kill weeds, not corn. The problem here is, what are they really testing? In big bold letters at the bottom of the article it says, “GMOs are toxic!” Does this study prove that?

Fortunately this article gives us enough details about the study that we can go looking for ourselves. Often, Facebook posts or emails only show the deformed rats and a few select quotes from the researchers and not much else. The article also has a comments section. These can get pretty heated pretty fast and quickly go off topic, but sometimes they give you just what you need. One of the comments, interestingly not the article itself, links you to the study, and articles like this are definitely not going to link you to any discussion of how well the study was done

  1.        The sample size per group was too small to draw conclusions.
  2.        The strain of rat used is highly prone to developing mammary tumors.
  3.        The authors did not release all of the data from the study. (They say they will publish it later)
That last one concerns me the most. This is the most common problem I see in cases like this. The most extreme case being a sentence that says “studies show” and no further links or information about the study or studies. More complicated examples are studies that are actually reviews of other studies. They can be quite lengthy and contain no real data, only summaries and cherry picked conclusions from sources that are difficult to track down and verify.

Worse than those though, NPR included a comment from another European scientist about Seralini, one of the authors of the study. He said that Seralini has published poor studies in the past, attempting to discredit GMOs. At this point, I could continue to research the other work of Seralini or I could drop this particular line. If you have never looked into this issue before, I could understand your wanting to continue, but since I have spent quite a bit of time with it and have not found anything convincing, I’m done for now.

That may sound like giving up, but it is scientifically sound. Even if I were a researcher of food safety. One study should not bring an end to decades of work. There are other studies, including feeding rats GMO corn, and they have not had results similar to these. Repeating experiments is one of the most important rules of the scientific method. When one repetition has different results, that should lead to questions and to more experimenting but it definitely does not lead to a conclusion. If you accept the results of the French study but don’t accept the results of other studies, then you're making a conclusion then looking for data to support it, that’s the opposite of science.

Earlier studies:

The Mother Jones article starts out with some history that has much to do about why this controversy rages on. In the ‘80s, the FDA gave GMOs “generally regarded as safe” status. This was based more on analysis of the chemical nature of the process rather than any actual testing. That is, they could see no reason why they could be toxic, so they saw no reason to require extensive testing. Also, with the patents in place, independent research is difficult. So, we, the consumers of these products became the test.

But even if we can’t trust our governments or our corporations that is not an excuse for bad science. Bad science just discredits the real concerns that we do have. They may not have the emotional appeal, but if there are political concerns, let’s focus on them and not try to frighten people with pictures of sick rats.

1 comment:

  1. Update. The rat study has been retracted. Of course Natural News takes this as proof of the conspiracy.