In trying to make sense of science-related issues, we may already be hampered by a lack of scientific expertise, and even for those us who have a science degree, our knowledge often doesn’t spread beyond the scope of our occupation. Things get even murkier when individuals and organizations seem to represent science in their outreach efforts. They often do, but they also have agendas. This has become more prevalent in recent decades because science has become more politicized . Consequently, it’s now increasingly difficult for most people to see through biases and evaluate an issue objectively.
I will outline 3 examples of “smoke-machines”, and to be fair, I will choose examples from both conservative and liberal camps.
(1) The American Council on Science and Health(ACSH) mission is to ensure that peer-reviewed mainstream science reaches the public, the media, and the decision-makers who determine public policy. Although academics from Tuft’s University School of Nutrition Science and Policy find the ACHS’s facts to be about 80% accurate, here’s what they have to say about them:
This site aims to arm consumers with the facts necessary to make wise decisions about health, but be aware that the information here is biased and represents a very conservative interpretation of current science. Consumers looking for a balanced debate on health issues will have to look elsewhere.
A clear example of this bias comes from their position on alcohol:
ACSH has long advanced the science on the benefits of moderate alcohol – and has even opined on studies that associated an increased risk of breast cancer to drinking. “The message here is encouraging and confusing” adds ACSH President Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. “For a woman with diagnosed breast cancer, their findings suggest an occasional drink won’t impact your cancer survival outcome.
The so-called science of on the benefits of moderate alcohol is completely overshadowed by the fact that alcohol is a class 1 carcinogen according to a meta NIH study, which bases conclusions on a large number of studies. ACHS ‘s policy on alcohol completely ignores the general cancer-causing effects and focuses on the most pronounced risk associated with drinking alcohol. And because alcohol is socially acceptable they even try to whitewash the breast cancer connection by highlighting a single study, which caters to the conservatism. They fail to point out the meta study’s findings that females who drink not only put themselves at risk for breast cancer. For those drinking 25g /day,the risk of liver cancer doubles, and if they consume 100 g/day the risk jumps to 9 times, surpassing the lung cancer risk associated with cigarettes in women. For males, the effects of alcohol are not as pronounced but still not negligible. Compared to women, they experience lower rates of alcohol-induced liver cancers: the RRs range from 1.28 to 1.62, depending on amounts ingested. For 25 g/d-drinkers of both sexes, there are elevated risks in the 1.4 to 1.7 zone for oral, larynx and esophageal cancers.
One of their members Josh Bloom, a retired organic chemist, also writes in a tone that caters to the owner of Science 2.0, a blogger and author of a science policy book co-written by Alex Berezow, founding editor of the Forbes-controlled Real Clear Science. The trio specializes in exposing extreme examples about people who are clueless about science while pushing a conservative agenda.
(2) If you read what any of the above writers has to say about organic food, their arguments seem uncannily similar to those of Tim Caulfield of Alberta’s Health & Law Institute. In a recent radio interview for CBC’s the180 , Caulfield stated that “the cold objective science says organic’s not worth it. The organic industry is a huge industry , they still use pesticides — “organic” pesticides — which are not necessarily better for you. And it doesn’t scale up (can’t feed the world).”
For starters, feeding the world includes a variety of approaches. The common reproach sounds suspiciously like the argument of an anxious business competitor. With regard to pesticides, the toxic pair used by some organic farmers are pyrethrin and rotenone. Pyrethrin is from chrysanthemums and is far less of a problem than synthetic pyrethroids, which are only used on non-organic crops. Rotenone has been phased out in Europe and Canada, in 2008 and 2012, respectively because of its interference with the mitochondrial electron transport chain and due its impact on aquatic systems. Even when organic produce has not lived up to its expectations, the science still reveals that their pesticide residues are lower than that of “conventional” food (funny how that label is used to describe food that is not grown according to methods used for 9900 of agricultural history’s 10 000 years). A CBC News analysis of data supplied by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) revealed that 45.8 % of organic samples tested positive for some trace of pesticide, but that was true of 78.4% of non-organic samples. 1.8% of organic produce violated Canada’s maximum allowable limits for the presence of pesticides, but non-organics violated allowable limits 4.7 % of the time. If in addition we consider the different nature of pesticides used, organic wins out again.
U.S. organic sales have increased by 11.5 % to over $35 billion annually, which its opponents love to point out. But the amount still pales in comparison to the trillion-plus dollars spent by Americans on groceries every year. And you won’t see conservatives like Caulfield or the Berezow-alliance picking on Coca Cola whose revenues were in excess of $46 billion last year(2013). Doesn’t such a corporation also misrepresent their products?
(3) David Suzuki is Canada’s most prominent environmentalist, but when he comments on genetically modified food, he genalizes, calling it “bad science“. Despite abuses by some corporations, genetic engineering saved the papaya industry in Hawaii in 1998 by inserting a ringspot virus-resistant gene. And there have been also examples of GM science checking itself such as when the plan to introduce methionine-rich Brazil-nut protein into a West African soybean was aborted. Although the intention was good—their diet is deficient in the essential amino acid methionine— someone remembered that many people are strongly allergic to Brazil nuts.
(4) The there are some who cater to environmental concerns but not by addressing the issues but by inadvertently feeding phobias. One of many examples of this is a south Florida company that sells water filters but which also blogs about controversial issues like the cooking oil preservative tBHQ, used in popcorn and fast food French fries. They may be raising legitimate concerns about the additive but make themselves easy prey for attack by revealing that they are chemically illiterate. They confuse a butyl-derivative with butane, and they are intimidated by the fact that it’s a petroleum byproduct without realizing that a wide array of compounds are petroleum-based, ranging from carcinogenic benzene to aspirin, which is more beneficial than harmful. They also quote dated studies about tBHQ, which suggested that it was cancer-causing.
When I dug into the tBHQ controversy, it was another example of how we have to look into the grey areas of scientific controversies. At first,the opposition to the preservative seemed like a clear and shut case of chemical phobia. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the American and Canadian equivalents have given the preservative the thumbs up after the EFSA had conducted a commendable investigation into possible side effects of the compound. based on dog studies, they set a concentration-limit of 200 mg of tBHQ per kg of fat or oil But due to the small weight of infants, the antioxidant is to be kept out of infant formula. They learned that tBHQ does not accumulate in the body; it’s excreted mostly through urine. After 2 to 4 days of ingesting it, there are no traces of it in the body. The same linked source describes extensive cellular and subchronic studies. Other researchers looked for cancer-causing effects and found none.
But there was one area had not been investigated—the possibility of allergies. And luckily some researchers did not see it as a completely open and shut case. In 2014 research published in the Journal of Immunology they concluded that even low doses of the food additive, tBHQ, increase IgE (immunoglobin E) response to food allergen and exacerbate clinical signs of immediate hypersensitivity.
The connection to allergies one of the few accurate statements on the water company’s web site, but the way it was described, they still exaggerated the findings.
Too many of us are often wrapped up in our self-interests, opinions and rationalizations. But there are serious health and environmental issues that cannot be addressed if we make up our minds and pass legislation before adequately exploring an issue.Even if no politician entered the arena without self-interest, they would still spin-silly, listening to media and lobbyists who are on a mission to gain influence and distort the truth.Thoughtful analysis, mature evaluation and creative solutions are becoming rarer than the love of science itself.
But recently in Canada, our politicians are not being spun silly. They may have lost their tolerance for opposition to large scale development of oil resources in Alberta and the Arctic. The current government has responded with federal cutbacks to research programs on climate change and ocean habitats. For those scientists still working in such programs, they have essentially been muzzled when it comes to communicating results with the public. According to the new protocol, they could only speak openly if their content is approved by officials.
James Turk, an executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers said in a Fifth Estate investigation “Silence of the Labs” : “What’s important is the scale of the assault on knowledge and on our ability to know about ourselves and to advance our understanding of our world.”