Entries tagged with “Science”.

Rats, Roundup and Rotten Research

There have been interesting developments in the news these last few weeks, regarding science, the way it’s practised and the way it’s reported. Notably, but not exclusively, there has been an incident where French scientists announced that they had established direct links between extremely high incidences of large cancerous tumours in rats, and maize that had been genetically modified to resist the weedkiller Roundup. ((An important thing to note about the research is that the Roundup itself was under test, as well as the GM maize. Few commenters make a distinction when writing about this.)) Their research had been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and, on the face of it, the findings of the two year study are terrifying. This, of course, is BIG news for media outlets that want to sell stories off the back of the already high level of distrust of GMOs among the general public.


It turns out that there were a few things not quite kocher about this whole affair. For a start, the researchers had taken the unusual step of levying a journalistic embargo on the announcement of their results, requiring interested parties to sign non-disclosure agreements that would prevent them from showing the research to anyone before the findings were publicly announced. The effect of this was that outlets who had access to the story – not wanting to be last on the block in bringing the very latest news to their readership – published the findings as soon as the embargo was lifted, without taking the precaution of having the details checked by other experts. Indeed, when the story hit the streets, criticism of the study, the peer review process and the way the journalistic embargo was used was quick to come from numerous informed parties. What we had here was a situation that New York Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin calls ‘single study science‘ where the results of solitary instance of unsupported research is announced to the world as a definitive conclusion. All good scientists are very nervous when they hear this kind of thing. But it gets worse. When scrutiny was brought to bear on the experiments themselves, it became clear that there were many, many procedural problems with them. For example, the control process used for the tested rats was highly questionable, as was the statistical analysis of the data. Not only that, the type of rat chosen for the study is particularly prone to the spontaneous development of cancerous tumours. There has been a lot written about this incident over the last few weeks, and its deconstruction is not the main thrust of this post, so I won’t dwell on it further. ((There is an excellent examination of some of the problems with the study here on Discover, should you want to read more.)) It’s sufficient to say that, given the way the scientists concerned went about publicizing this research, there remain many questions to be answered about their experiments, the way they chose to inform the community about what they had found and the peer-review process that let the research be published. What we can say is that far better scientific scrutiny is needed before we can establish whether a link exists between Roundup modified maize and cancer in laboratory rats.

That’s not the news you got from the mainstream press, though, because even though many outlets were quick to publish followup clarifications, the main purpose of the embargo was achieved and the less-discerning mainstream media mostly went with the ‘Scientists PROVE that GM corn causes hideous tumours!‘ story. ((Exaggeration for effect. There were no actual headlines that said that, but I bet that’s how many anti-GMers read it.)) Even writers for journals like the Guardian (that should know better) have demonstrated their partisanship by reflexively defending the French scientists involved. ((The Guardian article I have linked here is an illuminating read. For a start, it glosses over the study’s ‘methodological’ errors as if that’s a small thing. In science, methodology is EVERYTHING. It also fails to address a key objection to the whole affair – that journalists were tricked into publishing the results at face value, rather than being allowed to follow the more usual process of getting some views from other experts in the field.)) ((Even though it’s not germane to the point of this post, I want to make it clear that I’m not really a supporter of GMO, at least not in the way that it allows big companies to stake monopolies on food supply. I can see the great good that can come from some kinds of GM, but I am deeply suspicious about the commercial interests that control it. I’m far more relaxed about the science, probably because I understand it a little. It’s not the science we have to fear here, it’s the greed and duplicity of humans who wish to exploit it. The problem is that most people can’t actually separate those two concepts.))

Cooking the Books

Moving on, elsewhere the New York Times brings news of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that finds that, in a review of over 2,000 retracted scientific papers in biomedical and life sciences, an astounding three-quarters could be attributed to scientific misconduct (41.3 percent being actual fraud or suspected fraud). Taken in concert with a tenfold increase in retractions themselves over the last decade, this is a disturbing finding.

One of the authors of the study, Dr. Arturo Casadevall of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, said:

It convinces me more that we have a problem in science”

If you view this research in concert with the GMO affair that I detailed above, and other recent missteps of science like the Darwinius debacle, it is plain that Dr Casadevall is right. We have a problem in science.

Crucially, though, the problem is in science, but not with science itself, and this is what I want to talk about today. It might seem that the delineation I just made is splitting hairs, but I believe that it is important that we understand the difference between what science is, and the way in which it is undertaken. It seems to be that, to some, the philosophy of science encompasses its practice also, and when they talk about ‘science’ they are conflating the two things. Indeed, I recently had a discussion with the editor of a reliable online news outlet over his claim that the GM story showed ‘the imperfections of science’. My view is that it does no such thing. What it does show is that some scientists who were keenly aware of the enormous credibility of the scientific process exploited their understanding of how its mechanism works to give themselves a chance to get some high profile exposure. It shows the imperfections of some humans practising science, which is an entirely different thing. The editor’s explanation for his stance was that he believed science was the whole kit & caboodle – the philosophy, the practice and the practitioners ‘with their human failings’. I told him that I thought it was extremely perilous to look at science in this way. ‘If a chef served you a bad meal,’ I asked, ‘Would you blame that on gastronomy? If a banker ran off with your life savings, would that be the fault of economics?’ It is, I said, not a defect of the scientific process that some people use it ineptly or fraudulently.

Villagers with Flaming Torches

What worries me, and it’s something of which I have become keenly aware over the many years of Tetherd Cow, ((Almost unbelievably, next January will be the 8th anniversary of TCA.)) is that for a great number of people, probably the majority, science is something like a ‘point of view’ or a ‘belief’ that is adopted by a cult of people that call themselves ‘scientists’ in the same way as someone might decide to take up religion. Those of us who understand science well go to quite some trouble to explain how much in error that notion is, how science differs significantly from religion and pseudoscience and opinion, and why it is preferable to any of those things as a reliable way of negotiating our existence.

Many folk, on seeing headlines like ‘Science is Wrong Again!’ don’t make a definition between the the bad or unprincipled execution of science and the strict protocols and requirements of proper science itself; between, if you like, the chef and gastronomy. In essence, they’ve eaten one bad meal prepared by sloppy kitchen staff and the experience has given more substance to their already-formed conviction that there is something wrong with the whole idea of cooking food.

To make the situation worse, when scientists are canny enough to appear to follow the rules set down by scientific enquiry, and then their results are called into question outside the mechanism that science itself holds up to keep it on the straight and narrow, it just confirms people’s distrust of something of which they’re already suspicious. If the scientists themselves can’t agree on things, well, isn’t that exactly like religion?

My concern is that in a time where we’re in desperate need of science – of rational, unflinchingly critical appraisal of our world and its problems – the kind of behaviour we’re seeing from scientists in increasing numbers is doing profound and possibly even irreparable damage to the discipline.

To get people to understand that the practise of science as a way of navigating the universe is preferable to the hobbles of religion and superstition, it’s crucially important that people who write about it don’t portray it as a belief system made up of practitioners who can define it in any way they choose (whether by intention or by incompetence). Unlike religion, science is able – indeed, is required – to examine itself and fix its shortcomings if necessary. This facet of science allows it to become stronger and stronger as time passes, and it is this strength, this reliability, that makes it such a formidable tool. Bad practitioners of science should be outed as such. These are people who understand and rely on the power of science and exploit it to their own ends. They are not scientists, because to be a real, proper scientist takes guts. To be a real scientist requires that you look reality right in the eye and suck it up when what it tells you doesn’t agree with what you’d hoped, what you’d expected, or what you’d like. To be a real scientist, you need to practise science. And all real scientists know exactly what that means.

You may remember that some time back I told you about the exceedingly odd Bleeding Tooth Fungus that grew in my backyard. Well now, after Violet Towne spotted the above seaweed-like stuff on our driveway the other day, I think I may have to start up a new Cow Category called ‘Weird Shit That Mysteriously Appears In My Garden’. There were dozens of clumps of it, and it looks just like something you might find on the beach at low tide. ((Or in a troll’s nostril.)) Only we’re 20 kilometers away from the nearest ocean, and this stuff was still damp.

Turns out that this is the colony form of a rehydrated genus of cyanobacteria called Nostoc. Nostoc can be found pretty much everywhere in the world, and due to the bacteria’s ability to survive (and even thrive) in harsh environments it is even quite happy in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Most of the time the Nostoc colony goes completely unnoticed, but after a lot of rain, it may swell up into jelly-like blobs such as the ones in my garden. Its sudden appearance on the ground with no apparent cause has earned it the folk name of Star Jelly, as it was thought to have fallen from the sky.

Nostoc is also known (much more evocatively) as Witches’ Butter or Troll’s Butter and some species are in fact eaten, particularly in Asia where people seem to delight in gobbling down disgusting things. There’s no way I’m chowing down on it. For one thing it’s been found to containe Beta-methylamino L-alanine, a toxic amino acid that has been implicated in degenerative brain diseases. ((Although I have to say that in my opinion anyone who would consider eating it is well along the degenerative brain disease path in the first place…))

I have a simple dietary guideline in this respect: Never eat or drink anything that looks or smells like some kind of biological excretion. It has served me well thus far.

What's Your Opinion?

You will recall that a couple of weeks back I had a personal letter from Melissa Rogers, CEO of Shoo!TAG, in which she took me to task for ‘defaming’ her product, and asking why I believed there was no scientific support for it. I clearly outlined my position to her in a manner that I thought didn’t leave much room for interpretation. After receiving her reply this morning, though, I get the distinct impression that she didn’t actually read my letter, so much as skim through it in the way that I assume she approaches scientific literature. This is the sum of what she wrote:

Although I respect the right to your opinion, we obviously do not agree.  My question is:  What would you do, if you discovered you were wrong?

Dear Ms Rogers,

The entire problem here is that we’re not talking about an issue of opinion. You have made claims that challenge fundamental precepts of science as we currently know it, and you have said quite plainly on your web site that your product uses these novel scientific discoveries to repel insects. By doing so you are not putting forward an opinion that I am merely countering with some contrasting opinion. What you are doing is quite deliberately declaring that you have scientific substantiation of the principles by which you say Shoo!TAG operates. Scientific evidence and opinion are two very different things. Indeed, the scientific process is specifically designed to weed out the influence of opinion.

I believe that you understand very clearly that you need more than just opinions to make Shoo!TAG sound credible to your customers. You want to make it appear that you have science behind your claims, because you know, as we all do, that science works. The trouble is that, although you know lots of scientific buzzwords like ‘quantum’ and ‘electromagnetism’ and ‘fractals’, you don’t really understand much about these things, nor indeed, about the scientific process itself.

On your website, you use every opportunity to attempt to give Shoo!TAG scientific validity, even if it means distorting the truth. You use lots of scientific sounding language, you have a ‘Technology’ page (formerly called ‘Science’) where you talk about your ‘lab’ and ‘experiments’. You have implied repeatedly that you have endorsements by legitimate scientific institutions (which is demonstrably not true), and you publish scientific-looking documents with lots of tables and statistics. Your patent application has pages of technical-sounding language which is plainly contrived to give the impression that there is something scientific going on (when really it makes very little sense to anyone who does understand science).

The primary difference between opinion and science is that an opinion is, by its nature, a subjective stance. Science tries very hard to iron out all subjectivity and make an assessment of facts that can be agreed upon by anyone who cares to observe that assessment.

Let me try to explain this difference with some simple analogies:

In the 18th century, a mathematician named Daniel Bernoulli outlined a principle that showed that in a fluid flowing over an object with differing surface areas, a pressure differential is created on one side. This quite simple observation went on to have profound effects for our modern lives, perhaps the most well-known being the invention of the airplane. The Bernoulli Principle is what keeps aircraft in the air. Now it doesn’t matter what your opinion of Bernoulli’s discovery is; it will work for everyone in exactly the same way. Even if you hold an opinion that Bernoulli ‘just made it all up’, it will still work anyway. Bernoulli’s Principle is a sound scientific idea to which millions of people entrust their lives every day. And it is independent of opinion or belief.

Now let’s consider some colours: twenty shades of some dark red colour, say. We can show those colours to a hundred people and probably get a hundred different opinions on which of those shades might be called ‘purple’ or ‘crimson’ or ‘red’. And we could show them to people in China and Spain and Canada and get more opinions still. But if it came down to whether you would stake your life on the opinion of Gladys Blackshaw of Manchester, England, of whether the card she had in her hand was red, crimson or purple, you simply wouldn’t do it. Why? Because opinion is highly subjective and we don’t trust it for important decisions.

This is why humans came up with the idea of science in the first place: it is the most reliable way we know of assessing the world. What this means is that your opinion or my opinion or anyone else’s opinion is entirely irrelevant when it comes to your claims for how Shoo!TAG is supposed to work, because the only correct way of establishing the validity of your claimed results is with science.

You ask me what I would do if I discovered I was wrong? ((Asking a question like this is a technique much beloved of those who are unable to argue with evidence on their side. By throwing an open-ended query back at the interrogator the argument is deflected away from the issue at hand, which, in this case, is: What kind kind of evidence can they provide that they are right? What I would do if I am wrong is hypothetical and irrelevant to the usefulness of the discussion unless they can demonstrate that they are actually right. They are making the unverified claims, not me.)) Well, the only way that I’m going to ‘discover’ that I’m wrong is if you can demonstrate some good science behind your product. The onus is not on me to prove that I’m right – I’m not the one seeking to sell a product based on remarkable new scientific principles. It’s YOU who are obliged to show the world that you’re right – YOU are the one making money out of this scheme. You have a responsibility to back up your claims. As I have said repeatedly, you can easily bring real science to bear on Shoo!TAG, should you have the courage to do it. It’s not even particularly hard science, as these things go. If you genuinely believe in your product, I simply don’t understand why you wouldn’t seek this kind of widely accepted corroboration. The really impressive thing about proper science is that if you really can scientifically demonstrate the astonishing results you say you can get, I (and everyone else on the planet) will have no choice but to accept your evidence, because the science will bear you out.

It won’t come down to a matter of opinion.

Peter Miller

Since we’ve been speaking of apples, death and pancreatic cancer, here’s a photograph that my friend Adrienne sent me a couple of days ago. This is the Newton apple tree that I planted with the ashes of my beloved Kate, lovingly tended in its Blue Mountains home.


The Conversation is carrying an enormously insightful article by Dr Matthew Bailes, the Pro-Vice Chancellor of Research at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

Dr Bailes was one of the discoverers of the ‘diamond planet’ that you can’t fail to have heard about recently if you follow any kind of science news. It even made a sizeable appearance in the mainstream media all across the world.

…the diamond planet has been hugely successful in igniting public curiosity about the universe in which we live… Our host institutions were thrilled with the publicity and most of us enjoyed our 15 minutes of fame. The attention we received was 100% positive, but how different that could have been.

How so? Well, we could have been climate scientists.

As Dr Bailes goes on to point out, the scientific process involved in discovering a diamond planet is exactly the same scientific process involved in gathering data on climate change. And yet, the media and the general public is happy to accept the scientific community’s assessment of one and not the other.

I highly recommend you read this article and Tweet it, Like it and otherwise recommend it to your friends.

(Oh, and seriosuly, make sure you subscribe – for free – to The Conversation. Real news, real journalism, no agenda. As it should be.)

What Shoo!TAG‘s ‘science’ sounds like to anyone who knows real science:


With thanks to Sir Joey for the lolz