Special Report: How does questionable science become fact? Just publish it

A media case study An MIT electrical engineer wrote a paper about pesticides that sparked debate about glyphosate and possible disease links

There is a basic understanding in academia: publish a thorough paper indicating a chemical or product is safe and the world ignores your work, but publish a study suggesting a chemical kills people and you become a folk hero.

“Bad news is news. If you want a story, it’s hard to publish something saying everything is going fine,” said Stephen Duke, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist known for his glyphosate expertise.

“Publishing no-effect papers is not the way to make your reputation as a cutting edge scientist.”

That thinking may be described as cynical, but the case of Stephanie Seneff, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology electrical engineer and computer science professor, demonstrates why academics are cynical.

In April, Seneff and Anthony Samsell, an independent scientist and consultant, published a paper on the dangers of glyphosate in Entropy, a multidisciplinary journal that charges academics a publishing fee.

In the literature review, Seneff concluded that glyphosate residues on corn, sugar beets, soybeans and wheat cause a laundry list of human ailments, such as autism, depression, obesity, heart disease, cancer, infertility and Alzheimer’s disease.

Although her advanced degree is in electrical engineering, Seneff has branched out into writing about nutrition and health. In 2012, she published another paper, again in Entropy, making the controversial argument that aluminum adjuvant in vaccines and acetaminophen, the drug in Tylenol, increased cases of autism. Despite Seneff’s questionable qualifications, the Reuters reporter still wrote a story on the glyphosate paper in a straight up tone, as if Seneff was a toxicologist who had studied agro-chemicals for decades.

The Reuters story gave the Seneff and Samsell paper credibility, and thousands of bloggers, websites and institutions picked up the story, including the healthy living magazine Prevention and the Rodale Institute, an organic farming centre.

Media watchers such as Paul Raeburn, chief media critic for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT, slammed the Reuters story for irresponsibly “dropping bombshells … into the public discourse.”

In a blog post, Raeburn also asked two questions:

  • Is it realistic to conclude that one herbicide causes multiple sclerosis, cancer, ALS, ADHD, autism and Parkinson’s disease?
  • Why is an MIT electrical engineer, who specializes in human computer interactions, writing papers about pesticides?

“When claims are made that a particular substance can cause so many unrelated diseases, we might begin to suspect that it doesn’t cause any of them,” Raeburn said, answering the first question.

The media attention and intense online debate over Seneff’s paper might provide the answer to question No. 2. Following the Reuters story, Seneff became a rock star among anti-pesticide campaigners.

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In contrast to Seneff’s paper, the media ignored two U.S. scientists in 2012 when they published a toxicological review of glyphosate that concluded the herbicide is safe.

John DeSesso and Amy Williams, toxicologists with Exponent, an American scientific consulting firm, reviewed glyphosate’s effects on humans and animals in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health.

They determined, as have previous scientific reviews, that the herbicide didn’t adversely affect developmental or reproductive processes at realistic exposure rates.

An internet search for the Williams-DeSesso paper produced results from a few academic publications, while the Seneff-Samsell paper generated thousands of hits, mostly sites arguing that glyphosate causes cancer, bowel disorders or autism.

“For the past 30 years, Dr. Seneff has been passionate about teasing out potential causes of autism, after seeing what it was like for a close friend whose son was diagnosed,” said 
LibertyBeacon.com, an alternative media outlet.

“(Seneff) points out the clear correlations between increased glyphosate use over recent years and skyrocketing autism rates.”

Advocates, activists and scientists are increasingly challenging glyphosate’s harmless status, despite decades of research indicating it is safe. Gilles Seralini, a French scientist, has ratcheted up the pressure by publishing highly controversial studies indicating glyphosate formulations are toxic to human cells.

DeSesso said tension and debate is a normal element of academia, but a subculture exists where subverting mainstream findings is the raison d’être.

“There’s a whole segment of people that don’t believe what the government puts out or what industry puts out,” he said.

“There are the conspiracy theorists … and they’re making (a) living publishing papers looking at that. That’s a big driver for them, trying to find stuff … and to get people interested in what they’re doing.”

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A minority of scientists may be dishonest, but most researchers are well intentioned, Raeburn said.

“A small number might pervert their results for personal gain or to support their beliefs, but we can find people like that in any field, whether it’s science, used-car sales or auto repair,” he said.

DeSesso agreed, saying scientists who publish papers claiming that a particular chemical is killing scores of humans are rarely committing fraud. In most cases, they believe in their results and their cause.

“They’re not stupid people,” he said. “They think they are doing the right thing.”

As Raeburn noted in his blog, Seneff’s glyphosate expertise and her scientific conclusions may be suspect, but the turning point in the saga was the media exposure. Questionable science becomes part of the debate if a journalist uncritically reports on such studies.

“I think that some people begin with a point of view and then go looking for “studies” that support it, and sometimes those studies are not very good,” Raeburn said.

“We’re not always as rational as we like to think, and neither are scientists.”

Other stories in this Special Report:

UN report released March 20, 2015UN body declares glyphosate probable human carcinogen

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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  • Bill

    Just looking at one factor (glyphosate use) and comparing it to autism in children is irresponsible, there are a lot of different factors to be considered. I could say that increased organic food production and consumption also correlates to autism increase, (which the data would show it does), but does that make it true? Hardly. There are many variables to be considered here, you can’t just look at one set of data, many other things have increased over the years with autism rates, so only looking at one data set is irresponsible science

  • howard fredeen

    Many years ago someone playing around with the statistical tool known as correlations published two findings of interest to crusaders. One demonstrated the high positive correlation between the price of steel and the height of women’s skirts. The other was the high correlation between the consumption of whiskey and salaries of clergy. The public reception? Ours not to reason why; ours to use as may best serve our interests. The modern ploy is to create a myth, put it on a website, generate attention for that website, and a gullible public will soon pronounce the myth as scientific fact. This is the tool used with devastating effect by environmental/animal rights/etc. “activists”. .

    • AgrSci1

      Howard, I wouldwould be fun to have references to the studies you describe.
      As a statistician friend of mine tells me, “correlation” does not prove “causation”.

    • Larry

      Howard makes a great point. A statistician friend of mine tells me, “correlation” does not prove “causation”. In fact, there are an amazing number of articles the blame the same health conditions (asthma, allergies, autism, etc.) on a number of different causes such as over-the-counter medicines, pesticides, childhood vaccinations, and others. Please post links to the studies you mention, they are very amusing

      As for Dr. Deneff, her research has been absolutely discredited.

  • autismepi

    Dr. Seneff’s hypothesis on acetaminophen and autism now has the support of a well controlled, prospective cohort study. Prolonged prenatal use of acetaminophen was associated with severe adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes (autism phenoytypes) when the offspring were 3 years old.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24163279

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/22/us-tylenol-pregnancy-idUSBRE9AL15L20131122

    • Larry

      Here, educate yourself – Bogus paper on Roundup saturates the Internet:
      http://www.examiner.com/article/bogus-paper-on-roundup-saturates-the-internet

      A passage from this article:
      The paper by Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Seneff was recently published in Entropy, which while claiming to be a peer-reviewed journal is not a place where you would expect to find articles on biology. Looking at a current table of contents, it seems more to specialize on physics. It isn’t even indexed by PubMed.

      So was this bizarre article peer-reviewed by actual biologists? No matter, neither Samsel nor Seneff are biologists either. Seneff is associated with the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT. Her homepage says she has a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering.

      And Anthony Samsel describes himself as an Independent Scientist and Consultant. He is retired from Arthur D Little, and has done work that seems to be primarily chemical engineering.