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    Scientists Behaving Badly
    By Steve Savage | June 26th 2014 11:43 AM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Steve

    Trained as a plant pathologist (Ph.D. UC Davis 1982), I've worked now for >30 years in many aspects of agricultural technology (Colorado State...

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    Its been a bad week for science, particularly for the science related to food production.

    The notoriously flawed "Seralini Study" about tumors in rats fed GMOs is being republished in another journal after having been retracted. Another paper has come out making a rather questionable link between autism and proximity to pesticide applications on farms.

    Another paper about bees and neonicitinoid insecticides is supposedly going to be published sometime soon, but its authors are already out doing press interviews about it. The three topics: cancer, autism, and pollinators are all important and all complex. They represent the sort of challenges that clearly need the application of good science.

    The problem is that the scientific process, which has been serving humanity well for a few centuries, is breaking down in the "information age."

    That is ironic because the exchange of information is a critical part of the that process.

    Science: It Takes A Conversation

    Science isn't a neat and predictable thing. It progresses via conversation. The one about bees starts with someone asking the question, "why are honeybees declining in some areas?"  

    The next step is that people come up with hypotheses - possible explanations.  One scientists may say, "I think it could be because of viruses that are being spread very widely because most of the North American hives are brought together in California every spring to pollinate almonds. It's a perfect recipe for the spread of diseases."  

    Someone else says, "yes, but there is also that varroa mite that infests hives, weakening them and helping to spread those viruses. Some of the things beekeepers use against the mites could be part of this story as well."  

    Someone else says, "the neonicitinoid insecticides are widely used and can have some sub-lethal effects on bee behavior - they may play a role."  Someone else says, "bees may be compromised by being shipped around and by being fed something like high fructose corn syrup rather than the food supply they would normally eat.  

    Maybe that weakens their immunity or ability to metabolize toxins."

    The next step is that people come up with ways to test the hypotheses - in science if you can't test your idea, its just speculation.  That test might be a lab experiment.  It might be some sort of observations in a field.  It might be looking at relationships between sets of data collected for other purposes.  

    So the conversation typically now moves to "publication" meaning that a scientist formally describes how they attempted to test their hypothesis and shows the data.  Traditionally this step involves something like "peer review" which means that a few scientists with appropriate expertise look at what is being said to see if it makes enough sense to justify space in the journal in question  (this really comes from a day when there was a significant cost associated with printing something and distributing it physically throughout the science community).  

    Peer review is not a perfect process, and actually needs to err somewhat on the "leaky side."  Science needs to be open to surprising or even "heretical" ideas at the publishing phase.  But that is only good as long as the conversation continues.

    In the next phase of the conversational science process, the community responds to the publication.  Someone may say, "well, that's interesting, but did you consider that your data could also fit this other explanation? (a new hypothesis)."  Someone else may say, "I don't think you can reach those conclusions from that data set - there is too much variation."  The whole idea of exchanging scientific information is to spur new ideas and to solicit constructive critique.  

    I won't pretend that is always a congenial discussion, but it has to happen for science to muddle its way towards greater and greater certainty.

    The next part of the conversation is critical.  Someone will say, "I'm going to see if I can repeat your results," or "I have a different hypothesis to explain what you saw and I'm going to do an experiment to test it."  This sort of conversation can clearly go on and on, and until it does you can't really consider the "science" to be settled on any particular conclusion. Were the results repeatable? Are there other key factors?

    This part of the scientific process - the extended conversation - is alive and well in many fields, but there are some scientists who have effectively hijacked the system by aggressively moving their findings into the mainstream public conversation long before the science conversation has reached a consensus.

    The paper on bees this week is a particularly egregious example. In this case they have not reached the point where other scientists can read their paper, and yet they have tapped an often credulous press to let them talk about their work as if it is a solid conclusion.  The scientific conversation about bees is extraordinarily complex, but in the internet age, the author's assertions will become a permanent part of the "record" and will be used to support various agendas no matter what their data actually does or does not show.

    In the case of the Seralini study, it was originally announced with a sophisticated PR effort tied to sales of a book.  And even though the subsequent part of the "science conversation" was almost unprecedented in terms of being a peer-based "smack down," the "GMOs cause cancer" conclusion has become a "scientific certainty" to a subset of society.  The new autism/pesticide paper is just at the stage where scientists are asking the good questions about whether it actually shows what the authors say it shows. But once again it was released in an intentional press play before that discussion had even started.  Because of the "end arounds" of the conversation, the society that we scientists are supposed to serve is being pushed towards exactly the sort of fear that science had once diminished.

    I'm not saying that science needs to be kept as a private discussion until all the answers are in.  With topics this complex we don't know how long that could take.  But when scientists intentionally and prematurely leverage the power of the press and social media, we have a problem.  In science, uncertainty is something quite comfortable.  That is what provides the challenges - our "job security."  

    And on the occasions where something previously uncertain can be convincingly explained - that's when we get the rare opportunities for kudos and respect among our peers.  Who wouldn't want to be part of answering and maybe even solving challenges like cancer or autism or pollinator issues? 

    Society is not well served when scientists imply that a question is "answered," when it's really just in the lively conversation stage. If this week is any indicator, the application of "science" isn't looking like a very healthy process.

    There is a great resource on the complexity of the bee issue written from a beekeeper's perspective http://scientificbeekeeping.com/

    Bee image from Wikimedia Commons

    You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com


    Thanks for a refreshingly balanced view about this situation...I'll bookmark your article to help explain this to non-scientific people.

    Lorraine T,Thanks.  I hope you can give some good info to your friends
    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    This is a great article Steve that should hopefully be shared far and wide for many people to read, however I do feel that it overlooks one small problem and that is the psychology behind why many human beings and probably animals are  constantly trying to identify health risks for themselves and their family in order to avoid them, long before those risks are identified and proven by science to be dangerous because by then those now certain dangers could have already become the cause of major health problems for them and their family. 
    For example toxic β-Methylamino-L-alanine, or BMAA from cyanobacterial blue green algae blooms is known to be bioaccumulating in our food and to be present in our water supply and is now hypothesised by scientists such as Dr Rachael Dunlop and Dr Paul Alan Cox to be potentially causing up to 90% of neurodegenerative diseases such as Motor Neurone Disease (MND) and Lou Gehrigs' ALS, as well as having been implicated in the ALS-dementia complex, so why would anyone who is aware of this potential risk then wait for several years for this scientific information and hypothesis testing to be completed and broadly scientifically accepted before trying to eradicate BMAA from their own water and diet, long before global governments and the public in general take the appropriate actions?

    Even though there are repeated harmful cyanobacterial blue green algae blooms globally and also in Australian recreation and drinking water, no Australian public authorities are currently testing for the presence of neurotoxic BMAA after the harmful blooms have treate and/or died even though that is when toxic BMAA is released into the water. 

    BMAA is invisible, tasteless and impossible to remove by boiling or with algaecides or disinfectants although it can be removed by using activated carbon filters. BMAA also bioaccumulates in animals that drink and swim in the water such as farm animals, fowl and fish and especially crustaceans and mulluscs such as prawns, crabs, lobsters, oysters and mussels, non of which I personally will eat any more. Cows milk is probably also probably contaminated when cows are drinking from blue green algae infested dams and rivers.

    I know that research grants have currently been applied for by Australian scientists to try to identify and measure  the extent of the BMAA problem in our recreational and drinking water and therefore these hypotheses will hopefully eventually be tested and if they are then proven to be valid the water will inevitably be better treated and/or the public will be made much more aware of the BMAA problem and its causes and effects. 

    In the meantime the incidence of MND, Lou Gehrig's ALS, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative diseases keeps rising, as does the incidence of global, toxic, blue green algae harmful cyanobacterial blooms which are being made worse by climate warming and eutrophication from nutrient run-off from fertilisers, sewerage, industrial pollution, deforestation and soil erosion while people are also still swimming in and drinking water that is potentially neurotoxic from this blue green algae cyanotoxic BMAA contamination.

    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Helen,I've got to admit that I have not taken the time to look into this whole issue.  I was sent a book about it to read which I might actually have the time to do on a vacation next week

    Steve Savage