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.”

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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.

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.”

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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