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Monsanto, Biased Scientists, or the Media: Which One Scares You Most?
Advocates masquerading as scientists to try and establish credibility for biased claims do the public, and science, serious harm. And journalists who fail to call them out and report biased studies as fact compound the damage.
The headline on the website of the environmentalist organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) focuses on two of the movement's biggest current bogeymen; Monsanto, and its popular pesticide, glyphosate. Study: Monsanto's Glyphosate Most heavily Used Weed-Killer in History, the EWG story reports;
Glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since so-called “Roundup Ready” genetically engineered crops were introduced in 1996.
In 2014, enough glyphosate was sprayed to leave more than three-quarters of a pound of the active ingredient on every harvested acre of cropland in the U.S., and remarkably, almost a half pound per acre on all cropland worldwide (0.53 kilogram/hectare).
And the EWG report quotes the author of the study, Charles Benbrook, warning that
The dramatic and rapid growth in overall use of glyphosate will likely contribute to a host of adverse environmental and public health consequences.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the EWG story fails to note (as the study itself does) that while he prepared this study, Benbrook was at Washington State University, where his program:
received funding from foundations, organic food companies, and co-ops.
That’s a far less-than-honest effort at transparency. Benbrook is a widely known and longstanding advocate for organic farming and a leading voice in the movement opposed to genetically modified food. The foundations and companies that created his position at Washington State, giving him a credible academic base from which to advocate his views, were all associated with the organics industry, which he worked for directly before moving to the university. He has been paid by a host of corporate and environmental organizations that vilify Monsanto, glyphosate specifically, and pesticides and genetically modified food generally. When all these overt conflicts of interest were revealed last year, (first by The New York Times in the article "Washington State Professor Allies with the Organics Industry") the university eliminated Benbrook’s position.
But as I said, it’s not surprising that an environmental group might not mention anything that questions Benbrook’s credibility as an unbiased researcher. They are advocates. That’s what advocates do. What is surprising, and should be worrying to a public that relies on the general news media for fair and reliable information about risk, is that Benbrook’s conflicts of interest weren’t mentioned in most of the news reports about his study — some of which sound suspiciously like the story EWG ran.
Compare the headline at Phys.org (mission statement: “Our job is to find the interesting science and technology stories, uncover the details, and give our readers their daily dose of news at a single source.) — Monsanto's glyphosate now most heavily used weed-killer in history, study says. Phys.org is largely just an aggregator, hungry for traffic and readership. But aggregation sites are a growing part of the new media world by which the public learns about risk. Reporting on this study without noting Benbrook’s conflicts leaves Phys.org readers dangerously ill-informed and unable to question whether the "facts" in the study are as Benbrook claims them to be.
So does Newsweek’s story Glyphosate Now the Most-Used Agricultural Chemical Ever. Reporter Doug Main never mentions Benbrook’s conflicts of interest. Nor does he challenge Benbrook’s alarms about the actual risk of glyphosate, a subject of much disagreement among the top food safety regulators in the world.
How about the Minnesota Star Tribune, in a brief piece written by a friend of mine (and great guy), Tom Meersman. Monsanto weed killer Roundup is a huge seller. Tom doesn't mention Benbrook's well-established bias or funding conflicts either.
Farmers Weekly, A UK-based agricultural news service, also regurgitates Benbrook's findings while raising no questions about his honesty although it does note, in its last paragraph, the scientific debate about the potential risk of glyphosate, which Benbrook and EWG fail to mention — Report confirms massive rise in farmers use of glyphosate.
Cleveland.com reports on the study (World roundup: More pesticides used since GMO crops) and only mentions that Benbrook is "an organics consultant."
Compare those reports to the solid job done by Science 2.0 in Glyphosate Now Most Popular Weed Killer In History, Laments Economist Chuck Benbrook. It not only notes Benbrook’s biases and funding conflicts at several points, but also, even more importantly, puts the actual danger of glyphosate in perspective, rather than just regurgitating the fears of an advocate with a well-known bias. It suggests there are reasons to question what Benbrook says and raises those questions itself, on behalf of the reader.
There is a lot to worry about in all of this. Glyphosate may be harmful to human or environmental health, although it has replaced pesticides that were known to be far more toxic to farm workers and the environment, a fact which none of the stories mentions. Monsanto is a big international corporation, out to enrich itself and its shareholders. These bogeymen are worthy of concern.
But of far more concern is the growing trend of dishonest scientists using the supposedly credible "peer-reviewed scientific literature" not to promote knowledge but to advocate biases and points of view. Scientists influenced by corporate money have been doing this on all sorts of issues for years, and appropriately, journalists have been raising red flags about conflicts of interest from corporate influence. Environmental and public health scientists are doing it more and more too. It is unfortunate that those conflicts of interest, just as relevant to the reader, are not flagged nearly as much, as should have been done with Benbrook.
The public really ought to worry about this, about advocates posing as honest scientists and about journalists who fail to report conflicts of interest or challenge the pseudoscience, bias-as-fact “peer-reviewed scientific evidence” of advocates heavily funded by parties with vested interests on any side of any contentious issue. Such incomplete reporting gives these claims a stamp of credibility they don’t deserve. It establishes these questionable assertions as fact in the public’s mind. It leaves people poorly equipped to make intelligent choices about questions of health and safety, and manipulated by a point of view.
Of course that’s just what Benbrook and the anti-GMO funders of his research hope. Shame on them (and others on all sides of many issues) for such deceit. But shame, too, on journalists, who bear a moral responsibility to help us sort fact from spin so we can make more informed decisions about how best to keep ourselves safe. And bravo to the journalists, like those at Science 2.0, who recognize this responsibility and serve the public well by being more careful. These are the sources of information, in this new and fractionalized media world, we should reward with our readership, and our trust.
(Here is my own conflict of interest statement; I have been paid to teach the psychology of risk perception to a wide range of companies, academic institutions, government agencies, and non-government organizations, including several seeking help understanding public concerns about pesticides and about genetically modified food.)
Image: GettyImages, Phillipe Huegen
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.