9/16/2012

EQUAL OPPORTUNITY EMPLOYMENT OF SCIENCE-FU

So, somebody forwarded me one of those articles on "science" you can find on the Internet.   Over the years, I've crusaded against creationism, particularly the young-Earth variety that attempts to inject itself, with disastrous results, in the public school curriculum.  

I've gained some notoriety, some respect and made a few enemies along the way.   And, thanks to people like Chris Mooney, I've gained some appreciation for some of the things that make pseudoscientists tick.   Given my interests, it's not surprising that most of my foes are self-styled political conservatives.

But it would be a mistake to think that in any of my tilts with the "giants" of pseudoscience proceed from any political animus.  I don't ask if they are Democrats, or Republicans, or Jesuits or Rastafarians.  

In fact, yawn-double-yawn, who cares?    Instead, I typically ask myself questions like this: "Are they members of the scientific community? "  "Are they behaving as if they were members of the scientific community?"   "Do they have "evidence" that would past muster with the scientific community?"  "Are their concerns either based upon, or directly address potential shortcomings in well-established models widely-accepted in the scientific community?"

If the answers to these questions are in the affirmative, even if I have doubts about their conclusions, I regard them as colleagues and engage them as such: which means, frankly, that they are treated like adults and their ideas are subjected to the brutal competition of ideas which is science.   I take them seriously if they fit those criteria, even if they hold creationist views, because that's the way science should work:   we shouldn't have any sacred cows, and as long as everyone agrees to play the game of science by the rules that (by definition) are essential to its success, in the long run everybody wins by taking such folk seriously.

On the other hand, if they aren't scientists, they don't act like scientists, if they lack evidence, if their foundational ideas are irrational, then I tend not to take them too seriously as long as they are sincerely interested in understanding the actual science they want to engage.   I only get really bent out of shape when it becomes clear that they are willing to advance their cause by unethical means, or by arguments that any reasonably educated person can be expected to reject as inherently flawed.

It turns out that the political right does not have a monopoly on such pseudoscience.    Again, I was recently forwarded a piece of pseudoscience, in this case just  one of many highly aroused critiques of a Stanford study that's been getting some attention lately for showing (in a meta-study of many short-term studies) that there is very little evidence to support the claim that organic food is obviously healthier than "non-organic" conventional produce.  Why, there's a petition at change.org to "force" Stanford to retract this study, or some such nonsense.

Excuse me while I double up, on the floor, laughing.   Yes, it's Party Rock Anthem tonight.   In a word:  Ha. Ha Ha!  Ha Ha Ha! Ha Ha-Frickin'-Ha, how incredibly stupid are you people?

As if the scientific community gives a rap about what some group of political activists think!   Listen carefully, numbskulls on the left:  the scientific community doesn't care what you think.   It cares about evidence.  In your case, if you want someone to retract an article published in a journal, you don't get that to happen by drafting a petition aimed at their employers.   That's not how science is done.   If the study is flawed, there will be legions of scientists waiting to point out the study's methodological missteps, conceptual lapses or unreplicable results.   That's what we do in science, see?   We spend a lot of time constantly challenging each other, because there's a huge incentive for us to do it:  the guy or gal who makes a better argument, who points out the shortcomings in work good enough to be published, that's a member of the scientific community to reckon with.   The one with the best SCIENCE-FU will triumph over your pitiful "Pseudosciency Style."

I will now apply a little, just a little, of the old SCIENCE-FU to some left-leaning wackjobbery for a change, namely those who push exaggerated claims for the benefits of "organic" food, who (oddly enough) are the same twisted panty-wearers who essentially want to censor the Stanford study out of existence since it doesn't fit their world view.   What are the facts?

Well, the first fact is that the word "organic" was appropriated by these New Age-y types decades ago to mean "produce grown without pesticides" which they conclude (naturally) is better because, you know, it's just more "natural" to grow things without pesticides.   That irritates people who actually have taken a few chemistry classes, because of course the word "organic" simply means a molecule based on carbon chains.   Organic chemistry is the study of compounds based on carbon, whereas inorganic chemistry studies compounds primarily based on other compounds.

There is nothing inherently nice, fuzzy or user-friendly about "organic" chemistry.   In fact, we tend to be very careful with the organics, simply because they can be (gasp) dangerous.  You've heard of cyanide?   Just a carbon triple-bonded to nitrogen, folks.  Rubbing alcohol?   Formaldehyde?   Carbon-based.  Or perhaps you've noticed that we're concerned about carbon emissions from fossil fuels?   Yeah:  methane, butane, octane, kerosene, xylene, trinitrotoluene (TNT)....I'm assuming that you don't pour any of these over french fries.   Actually, given the stupidity of some New Age views on nutrition, maybe I shouldn't assume that, but let's be charitable.   The point is, most organic compounds are actually toxic, and that includes the organic compounds in food.   Our bodies actually spend a huge amount of energy building enzymes whose purpose is to remove as many of the naturally (yes, NATURALLY)-occuring toxins that are in food, yes even in the supposed "organic" foods.

So, from the word 'go' the use of the word 'organic' is at best misleading, because it is used in a sense that really is contradicted by the reality of organic chemistry.   But let's give the advocates of organic food the benefit of the doubt, and not dwell too much on the fact that, where terms are concerned, they are playing Humpty Dumpty's game.
 
Anyway,  I am not persuaded that so-called "organic" food is safer or healthier.    Let's first deal with the claim that "organic" foods are more nutritious, one of the claims made in Lappe's article.   Well, research on this point is as mixed as the greens that might find their way to our tables!   There is a terrible hidden methodological problem with most of the studies cited by advocates of organic produce, and it's related to the fact that anything which is locally owned and grown is likely to be fresher, and thus healthier for you, whether or not it has pesticide levels which are detectable (which, by the way, is typically an amount that is vanishingly small!).

Most people in North America (where most of the studies are done) do not live as I happen to do, in a breadbasket of agriculture.  I can buy significant amounts of just-harvested produce from a couple of different farmer's markets in my own county every week.   It's fresh, like "just-picked-today" fresh.  Most Americans can't do that: at best, even if they go to a farmer's market, it is produce that was picked in the last few days.  Most Americans don't even do that: they consume produce which is not locally grown, and which typically is not organic produce, anyway, because most organic produce is consumed locally, anyway.  In a further irony,  so-called "organic produce" that is shipped far from its point of origin typically is sprayed with stuff to preserve it and to DELAY the hatching of larvae in the crops, so to call it "organic" is a bit of a stretch.   In fact, the dirty little secret of organic produce is that it rots faster, because there is lots of little insect larvae and nematodes growing in the stuff.   That's why the overall yield of organic produce is low compared to conventional produce.

Thus, there is no reason to believe that the nutritional content of fresh produce is lessened by the presence of pesticides.   The relative drop in nutrition in "non-organic" produce is due to a higher percentage of the produce not being consumed fresh, locally, but within 1-2 weeks at some location distant from the point of origin.   Studies that control for this factor find virtually no difference in nutrient levels.   Studies that "cherry-pick" the time that cherries are sampled will inevitably find a difference that works in favor of locally produced, locally consumed organic produce.

As for the health risks?   I can kill lab rats with the best of them for any number of substances, organic or otherwise, if I can select the dosage.  Most of the studies that are cited by organic food advocates as "evidence" for the risks of long-term pesticide exposure fall prey to the classic error of conflating correlation with causation.  For example, in this HuffPo piece decrying the Stanford research by Frances Moore Lappe, the author produces counter-studies that don't actually contradict the findings of the Stanford group, but which simply show a correlation between exposure to organophosphate in pregnant women and reduced IQ scores several years later in their offspring.   Correlation is not causation.   There are lots of things (um, choices?)  that could cause pregnant women to have children with below-average IQ that could also be associated with greater exposure to certain chemicals, and even if we grant for the purpose of discussion that the studies in question have "proven" "organophosphates lowers IQ", they haven't demonstrated that pesticides are the sole, or even the major source of organophosphates.   (Oh, and while I'm on the topic:  guess what kind of molecule an organophosphate is?   Yep, you guessed it: "organic.")

Now that doesn't mean that I am pooh-poohing the studies in question, or denying that certain pesticides (since banned) pose real dangers, or that we shouldn't study current pesticides carefully.   Science proceeds by questioning things, and by continuing to question things.  The Stanford findings are intriguing and merit further study, but conceding that is by no means opening the floodgates to the condemnation of a certain class of chemical.   No scientist would argue that organophosphate exposure has been proven to lower IQ.   The claim that a finding is "intriguing" and "merits further study" is just the kind of cautious language routinely placed in a scientific paper's "conclusion" section, the most modest and inoffensive sort of boilerplate imaginable.   See, here's a lesson for the left:  while many scientists (including me) are no doubt left-leaning in our politics, there is an inherent conservatism in expressing and sharing scientific findings, a deeply-engrained and strongly-reinforced tendency (especially in formal papers) to understate the scope and significance of any conclusions. 

As an example:  when Watson and Crick developed the model of DNA's structure, they had no doubt as to its significance.   They went down to the local pub, and as legend has it, bought a round of drinks for everyone announcing they had discovered the secret of life.    But, when it came time to write the paper, it was a very short paper.  You can read the whole thing online here in about two minutes, and its conclusion couldn't be more understated if it was mumbled into a microphone by Calvin Coolidge:  "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."

The Stanford study has a similarly modest conclusion, and certainly does not "prove" that "organic" produce might not be healthier to consume, and the authors of that study haven't, to the best of my knowledge, made such claims either:  rather, it is the media in its attempt to make the claim digestible (but also, ahem, "interesting") that has cast this study as a wholesale rebuke of notions that those committed to "organic" produce hold dear.   Thus, the highly emotive language used by Lappe':  the Stanford scientists were 'reprehensible' to publish this 'reckless' article.

Reprehensible?   Reckless?   I do agree that the conclusion of the Stanford study shows no consideration for how their findings might upset the carefully-stenciled cartoon worldview of many self-styled nutritionists, but beyond that I can't help but sneer.  The truth is that Lappe's judgement, and the censorious response of the "change.org" petition,  is all too typical of non-scientists on the left who attempt to pontificate on science. The organic food industry in this country, all too often, is allied with pseudoscience, such as the mindless opposition to GMO's (genetically-modified organisms).   Shockingly, this mirrors the pseudoscience that is usually associated with social conservatives!

That's a pretty strong claim to make about the New Age-y types, but hear me out.  These folk are, as far as I can see, engaged in a project of wishful thinking based upon the naturalistic fallacy, and their opposition to scientific findings contrary to their beliefs is in part driven by self-interest.   After all, "organic" food advocates have carved out a sizeable niche market to bear their "truthier" version of agriculture, a niche market largely made up of left-leaning folks which (to me, at least) bears an eerie resemblance to the niche markets created by creationists and dominionists,  characters who are making all kinds of money peddling alternative views on biology and American history to churches, religious academies and home schoolers.

So, it seems clear (to me, at least)  that the right does not have a monopoly on pseudoscience.   For every guy who wants to teach the Earth is 10,000 years old, there's some gal who's convinced that the crystals around her neck have "vibrational energy", and in my experience the latter individual has a whole series of untestable beliefs about animals and food that are at odds with reality.

Ah, but illusion abounds.  You should see the looks on my student's faces when I remind them that every food product they consume requires the sacrifice of another organism.   Unrealistic attitudes about food are inculcated at a very early age in a society that packs most consumables in plastic, which most people never harvest for themselves.  I have to wonder if my students think the item simply appears in the plastic!  It is equally unrealistic, however, for folk like Lappe' to think that simply changing the way we think about food is going to change the hard facts about food in the 21st Century.   Whether we like it or not, industrial-scale food production is essential for the short-term survival of our global population, and that means pesticides and biotechnology to maintain the high yields required.   In the long term, of course, human population growth can not be sustained...indeed I am skeptical about whether it can be sustained at its present size.

Activists like Lappe' seem to think that the answer is changing our priorities and patterns of consumption, but the only way they will be able to reverse the industrialization of food production is to reverse population growth.   Otherwise, demand trumps every other consideration, including possible long-term health risks.   I have to laugh at the Europeans who have bought into the pseudoscience of "Frankenfoods", but at least their position has a certain consistency.   They have NEGATIVE population growth, so they can afford to have a "natural" system based on local consumption with traditional methods.   They don't have to sacrifice freshness and worry about pesticides, because their shrinking populations don't require increased yields.  Bully for them, but the rest of the planet does, like it or not.

In the meantime, the way to proceed in science is not to condemn a published finding as "reprehensible" because it goes against your carefully-cultivated belief system, nor to attempt to suppress by censorship through petitions in the court of public opinion.   Critics of the Stanford study should do the hard work of replicating the work with better controls to address their concerns about its methodological or ideological biases, but with the same rigor of analysis, such that it is publishable in the scientific literature.   If they choose censorship and appeals to public opinion over the hard work of science, I don't care what their politics are.   Such folk are not only playing a different game than we scientists we play, they are attempting to redefine the rules of the game in such a way that their views are immune from criticism.   That's no different from the shell game pursued by creationists in the courts and in state legislatures, and it's just as contemptible to any real scientist.   These people, apologists for pseudoscience, will be justifiably excluded from the scientific community.

Words: 2,772

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6 comments:

Madhusudan Katti said...

Enjoyed the snark in your rant, Scott, and can imagine how steamed you are at having to deal with pseudoscientific nonsense from left, right, and center! I couldn't agree with you more about the new-agey left, which has me routinely tearing my hair out or banging my head into the desk almost every time I turn on Pacifica radio, for example (with some fine exceptions, of course).

You are spot on with the criticisms of the pseudoscientific critiques of the Stanford study, and the way the media has hyped them beyond the more modest conclusions in the actual paper. I've also seen some advocates getting bent out of shape because Stanford (not the specific study, afaik, but the University as a whole!) receives funds from Cargill, and *gasp* the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation! It must all be a massive corporate conspiracy!!

My own concern about the study and, especially its media spin have more to do with the ecological aspects of agricultural methods, which are basically ignored. I never really expected "organic" food to be fundamentally better or different than "conventionally" grown food. And I consider practically all the food crops we grow to be GMOs because we have been selectively breeding, hybridizing, and modifying genomes for centuries! Yes, modern biotechnology allows us to do much more, but can also find ways to both improve nutritional content and reduce pesticide use for many of our foodstuffs! How do the organic advocates wrap their heads around that?

The real worries I have revolve around the impact of our agriculture on all the other species that share our habitats on this planet. Synthetic organic chemicals used in agriculture, as well as modified genomes of cultivated species, can have (and do have, as seen in recent history and many ongoing cases) catastrophic negative effects on many wildlife species. And many in our tribe of scientists have indeed been too cavalier in advocating the use of new technologies without considering their overall ecological impacts, on indeed ignoring such impacts for expediency. Advocates of "organic" and environmental activists play an important role in reminding us scientists of such broader implications of our research, which often tends to be too narrowly disciplinary. As you know, i also sympathize with, and indeed share some of the goals of these movements including changing our industrial models of food production to make them healthier and equitable for humans and the rest of biodiversity. Which is why the pseudoscience of these activists burns me so much more!

Anyway... you've got me building up steam for my own rant, so I better stop here, and say thanks again for administering your equal-opportunity smackdown.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Unfortunately, the only way to get off the industrial agricultural "maximize the yield at all costs" model is to reduce the size of human populations. Nobody gets elected on that platform. Even the guys who claim they are "small government" guys don't really believe in no growth. They want the economy to expand indefinitely, and they have certain programs of their own they want to grow not only bigger, but at ever increasing rates. We've got a President who gets criticized because he ONLY wants the US military to be the biggest and baddest on the planet, but isn't willing to constantly up the rate at which we spend on the military, even though there's no other country on the planet spending comparable money on THEIR military. So I'm pessimistic about moving to a sustainable agricultural model, precisely because it goes against what the majority of the world seems to want to believe about the world. Ah me.

Moderator said...

I've often wondered why words like 'natural' are considered to be defacto good and 'chemicals' bad. I tend to just think about salt and arsenic and then go, huh?

Calladus said...

I like to remind people that my dog's poop is "all natural".

As for dangerous chemicals on our food, one of the MOST dangerous is that deadly chemical, Dihydrogen monoxide.

We should start a petition against it.

R. Moore said...

While some people on the "left" certainly engage in psuedo-science, it is the "right" that makes requires psuedo-science as a foundational principle of the ideoology.

That is the correct context, otherwise you create a false equivalency between the two groups.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Well, I certainly wouldn't argue that pseudoscientists on the left are actively attempting to get their beliefs taught as "science" in the public schools. "Organic food" silliness is not a threat to our religious liberties, as is creationism. There are no "creation nutritionists" trying to protect our youth from the evils of organic chemistry.

I was simply speaking about my willingness to give pseudoscience short shrift regardless of its source. That doesn't imply any equivalency in motives and desired outcomes. You have to admit, though, that petitions to suppress an article in the scientific literature are obnoxious, and only laughable because the number of people who would subscribe to that approach is small.