Monday, September 1, 2014
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Scary Pictures

PRAGUE – Campaigners on important but complex issues, annoyed by the length of time required for public deliberations, often react by exaggerating their claims, hoping to force a single solution to the forefront of public debate. But, however well intentioned, scaring the public into a predetermined solution often backfires: when people eventually realize that they have been misled, they lose confidence and interest.

Last month, there were two examples of this in a single week. On September 19, the French researcher Gilles-Eric Séralini attempted to fuel public opposition to genetically modified foods by showing the public how GM corn, with and without the pesticide Roundup, caused huge tumors and early death in 200 rats that had consumed it over two years.

Supplying an abundance of pictures of rats with tumors the size of ping-pong balls, Séralini certainly captured the public’s attention. France’s health, ecology, and agriculture ministers promised a prompt investigation and threatened to ban imports of Monsanto’s GM corn to the European Union. Russia actually did block imports of Monsanto corn.

But Séralini’s research posed many problematic issues. For starters, the Sprague-Dawley strain of rats that he used is naturally prone to tumors. Studies of Sprague-Dawley rats show that 88-96% of those that serve as experimental controls develop tumors before they reach two years of age. But the public saw only pictures of tumorous rats that had consumed GM corn and Roundup. If the public had seen the similarly grotesque tumors that grow on untreated rats, officials most likely would not have acted so hastily.

Séralini used only 20 rats as a control group to be fed ordinary corn with no Roundup. Of these, five died within two years, which is unusual, because studies of thousands of untreated Sprague-Dawley rats show that about half should have died in that period. Using his low death rate as a base, Séralini claimed – with no statistical analysis – that the higher death rate (just below 40%) for the remaining 180 rats fed with GM corn and Roundup was suspicious.

Moreover, Séralini’s results contradict the latest meta-study of 24 long-term studies (up to two years and five generations), which found that the data do “not suggest any health hazards” and display “no statistically significant differences” between GM and conventional food.

Oddly, Séralini permitted access to his paper to only a select group of reporters, and demanded that they sign a confidentiality agreement preventing them from interviewing other experts about the research before publication. But, while the first round of articles read like press releases, the scientific community has since spoken out forcefully. The European Food Safety Authority, for example, has now concluded that the “design, reporting, and analysis of the study, as outlined in the paper, are inadequate.”

The study was partly funded by CRIIGEN, a group that campaigns against biotechnology. CRIIGEN’s scientific board is headed by none other than Séralini, who has also just released a book (in French) and a documentary film decrying GM food.

This debacle matters because many GM crops provide tangible benefits for people and the environment. They enable farmers to produce higher yields with fewer inputs (such as pesticides), so that more food can be produced from existing farmland. That, in turn, implies less human encroachment into natural ecosystems, enabling greater biodiversity. But, of course, Séralini’s pictures of cancer-addled rats munching GM corn have instead been burned into the public imagination.

The Séralini fiasco was only a week old when, on September 26, the Climate Vulnerability Forum, a group of countries led by Bangladesh, launched the second edition of its Global Vulnerability Monitor. Headlines about the launch were truly alarming: Over the next 18 years, global warming would kill 100 million people and cost the economy upwards of $6.7 trillion annually.

These public messages were highly misleading – and clearly intended to shock and disturb. The vast majority of deaths discussed in the report did not actually result from global warming. Outdoor air pollution – caused by fossil-fuel combustion, not by global warming – contributed to 30% of all deaths cited in the study. And 60% of the total deaths reflect the burning of biomass (such as animal dung and crop residues) for cooking and heating, which has no relation to either fossil fuels or global warming.

In total, the study exaggerated more than 12-fold the number of deaths that could possibly be attributed to climate change, and it more than quadrupled the potential economic costs, simply to grab attention. But it will be used as a cudgel by those who claim that electric cars or solar panels – technologies that will make only a marginal contribution, given their huge incremental costs – are the solution to climate change.

The technologies that can really make a difference quickly and at lower cost are scrubbers that clean smokestack emissions, catalytic converters that reduce tailpipe emissions, and many others. By focusing purely on cutting CO2, we neglect to help many more people, much faster, and less expensively.

Likewise, overcoming the burden of indoor air pollution will happen only when people can use kerosene, propane, and grid-based electricity. If the Global Vulnerability Monitor’s recommendation to cut back on fossil fuels were taken seriously, the result would be slower economic growth and continued reliance on dung, cardboard, and other low-grade fuels, thereby prolonging the suffering that results from indoor air pollution.

When confronted with their exaggerations, the authors claimed that “if you reduce hazardous air pollution, it is difficult to not also reduce warming emissions.” But, for both indoor and outdoor air pollution, the opposite is more likely true: lower carbon emissions would mean more air pollution deaths.

When scare tactics replace scientific debate, whether about GM crops or climate change, nothing good can come of it. We all deserve better.

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  1. CommentedNathan Coppedge

    Obviously the thing to consider at this point is does genetic modification constitute disease? I guess that's where the nightmare is. Maybe someone can formulate general criteria by studying generalized genetic properties.

  2. CommentedNathan Coppedge

    The point that I notice about GM food is that we should be cautious about the "subtle" effects of modification, not the most scary and obvious factors, since in most cases "an apple is still an apple", and by and large the factors that get involved in modifying a product are other foods the genetic structure of which is also palatable for humans. It doesn't seem like there's a danger of crossing an apple with a piece of plastic. Some people don't study biology. It's borderline creationism to believe that an apple has been designed for human consumption already, when factually (I think) its rather well adapted for its own purposes of reproduction, however obscure it seems in the context of human manipulation. In this sense GM is just an extension of what has already been occurring, which is one reason I think there is more opposition to GM from environmentalists than from religious leaders.

    Of course, technically many of these arguments against specific reports are ad hominem fallacies, which have no potential to show that genetic engineering is not dangerous in some key instance, which may not be related to the report or person being condemned. Cognitively, genetics detractors have a property of seeing the broad picture of several possible disasters more than those who emphasize the value of specific cases. Certainly there is some future instance where genetics could look like a nightmare. Even if it requires some exaggeration. So some of these people know that, whether or not that entails knowledge. Between the two cases it is sort of an instance of a glass menagerie: the sides are divided with utterly opposite positions, and the difference, really, when it amounts to it, is rhetorical. There are real benefits of genetic products, with real nightmares in the details. Any schizophrenic can see that, but unless a major report emerges (like on the scale of Ebola or something) people are likely to remain passively adaptable and cope with whatever problems emerge as though it is hot sand on a beach. Brilliant sand they say, and they think its brilliant to step on the sand. Nothing to do about that is there? Unless you're a genius. People are not very willing to consider genetic mishaps as the opposite of CDC for example.

  3. CommentedMark Pitts

    The Environmentalists and the Religious Right are tied as the top science deniers.

      CommentedMelanie holzman

      For anyone who does not believe Mark Pitts is dead on, think about the cognitive scientist's claim: "I think that a FAILURE of statistical thinking is the major intellectual shortcoming of our universities, journalism and intellectual culture." (Steven Pinker)

      Next, read Michael Crichton's book on environmentalism: "State of Fear"

  4. CommentedJohan Chaparro

    Did you read the famous meta-study that you cite? You know that they cite articles in japanese that don't have any translation ? (I can prove it) They have only read the abstract ! Everybody run to read the Seralini study but do you have already read the Monsanto study? Did you read the others ?

    When I read the Seralini study I was surprised about the statistical methods, but, please, when you read the Monsanto study you are horrified, shamed and scared about the way the certification process works.

    You are using the same scientifics arguments that the famous http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/pages/press_releases/12-09-19_gm_maize_rats_tumours.htm has use the same day of the publication. Who is sciencemediacenter ? who pay for this website?

    I don't say the Seralini study is good, I say the Monsanto study is the same thing in worst... (and only 3 months of the life of rats ! )

    And for the pictures... they are not fake at least. The problem is that there in not other picture of a rat who eat GM corn for more that one year.

    Until 1996, RoundUP weed killer was labeled ‘Biodegradable’ in the US , Monsanto was condemned for false advertising in the state of New York ... Ads who promotes à poison as "safer than table salt" and "practically nontoxic" ... scary pictures (and tv ads)

  5. CommentedJustin Jose

    I wish at least a few Indian politicians read this article.
    It is a common practice in India to exaggerate everything to support one's claim

  6. CommentedJannie Muller

    Even if the tests were inconclusive.

    I doubt that any amount of testing would suffice.
    We have been doing nano tech for ages and only now are realizing how nano-engineered products go through the digestive system and ends up in lakes and rivers with major consequences to wildlife.

    This includes sterile frogs due to "the pill" ending up in the environment.

    We cannot nearly comprehend the influence of GM foods.
    I ask myself, do I need GM food ? Do humanity need it?

    No we don't. It's used in order to get more bang for buck for greedy corporations where farming is subsidized by government . i.e. 100% profit lines. You are also not allowed to hybridize your farm. i.e. if you plant monsanto, you can only plant monsanto.


  7. Commentedterry waller

    Thank for simply speaking some truth Mr. Lomborg. I knew something was wrong with the study but don't have time to reasearch every study. You did all a service by writting this article. I remember researching round up years ago and being shocked at the dishonety of the anti round up "reports" on studies were and how benign most studies actually were if one actually read the entire research. People with agenda's can't be real scientist. Calling the press before peers is a dead give away. How many kids might starve because of this dishonest study and officials outlawing GM corn and round up where it is needed most. Dishonest studies with agendas are borderline criminal.

  8. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    Bjørn Lomborg is utterly discredited by his previous denial of the fact of climate change.

    A question remains as to what his motivation was. I have yet to read an explanation from him that convinces me.

      CommentedMark Pitts

      @Frank - not true! From the very beginning Lomborg has taken the position that global warming is one of the few statistically verifiable claims of the envoronmentalists.
      (See for example his August 2001 article in The Economist.)
      P.S. It would be helpful to other readers if you would explain where you see logical or statistical flaws in his arguments.

  9. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    Majority of the news items that we come across are actually true, but how these items are presented for public consumptions so that a pre-determined response could be orchestrated is the work of marketing. The world has accepted this practice assuming that in a free market competing views would finally settle at equilibrium; bidders on the other hand have a business proposition that could alter the process of achieving this equilibrium.

    Sometimes I wonder whether this is like an auction game with the rule that the second highest bidder loses a hefty amount, in this when once you enter you cannot exit easily.

    Global warming hazards are more assuming the form of an auction game where the second highest bidder would lose a hefty amount and therefore it makes sense to prolong the argument that global warming is actually here to stay, no matter what losses the bidders make for working on this argument.

    Procyon Mukherjee

  10. CommentedAndrés Vallejo

    Isn't this the guy that, until very recently, was denying that climate change was occurring altogether? The point he's making here is important and, presumably, right. Though how can we know since Lomborg is a compulsive denier (which is not the same than a skeptical) in almost every issue that contradicts his no-limits to growth creed.

      CommentedMark Pitts

      From the very beginning Lomborg has taken the position that global warming is one of the few statistically verifiable claims of the envoronmentalists.
      (See for example his August 2001 article in The Economist.)

  11. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    Unfortunately the practice described here is the mainstream today from politicians, through marketing to basically any issue discussed.
    As the article suggested most of the time it is based on "good intentions" the exaggerating party usually truly believes in its truth, that it wants the best for others, to the public.
    Unfortunately it does not change the fact that most of the time these efforts cause more harm than good.
    It comes from the inherent basic human nature, where each and every human being perceives a very limited segment of the whole reality, a segment which is fully filtered by the person's ego, self calculations, how people always justify their own behavior.
    People simply cannot behave in any other way.
    So is there no solution, and humanity will keep stumbling from one fiasco to another as people can simply not trust each other, believe other's opinion?
    The only solution is mutuality.
    Any planning, decision making and action has to be a result of mutual, "round table like" collaboration between people, which might slow down the process, but at the same time has a much better chance of success as when people discuss things around a round table as equals, representing all relevant opinions, even the most contrasting, most opposite opinions on the subject, in between them they yield a common point that is the actual truth.
    In today's global, interconnected world there is simply no other way of decision making and problem solving.

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