Reuters gets dinged for being off-kilter journalistically when it comes to politics; to the current generation of independent voters they became famous for their Mid-East coverage last decade by retouching photos to make Israelis look bad and Arabs look persecuted, adding in smoke from explosions that didn't exist, etc. Editors and journalists at other corporate media companies never noticed, but bloggers tripped them up.

They're not much better when it comes to science - at a time when some scientists think there should be more corporate media coverage of science, I think there should be less. If the Higgs boson leading to time travel stories do not make mainstream media science look bad enough, their recurring Miracle Vegetable of the Week alternating With Scare Journalism of the Week stories certainly do.

So when I saw a Reuters article dutifully gushing over a paper that claimed glyosphate, the chemical in Monsanto's popular herbicide Roundup, caused everything, I was excited because I had something to write about and a target that really had it coming. I couldn't hammer PETA twice in the same week and the guy I wanted to speak to about using black holes to measure things hadn't written me back. The author claiming proof that a child's astrological sign determined the quality of day care refused to send me a copy, which was probably for the best.  

There's always yoga and a Discovery claim that "channeling spirits" changed gene expression, but picking on Discovery seems a little unfair; it would be like a UFC fighter taking down a handicapped kid. 

However, Reuters is big, and it was, apologists noted, citing a peer-reviewed report in the scientific journal Entropy. That's a worthy foe.

Wait, Entropy? What is that?  Oh, it's another open access journal.

It might seem strange that anyone at Science 2.0 - a pioneer in empowering scientists to bypass corporate-controlled media and speak directly to the public without editors or journalists and their cultural litmus test getting in the way - could be critical of open access, which lets people read studies for free that might otherwise require a subscription. But open access has its ugly side. Once some open access journals adopted 'editorial review' instead of peer review, it showed the marketplace that peer-review was subjective and the marketplace did not mind - plus, scientists are not investigating these individually, they assume if you have one peer reviewed open access journal, they all are. So a company can just hand editors a few items to check off and make sure the credit card clears and be on their way to $10 million a year. 

Now, there are 25,000 journals. If you want a paper published and have a credit card, you can get a peer review stamp somewhere. What can the larger open access companies do, complain or note that their Sneetch has more stars than other open access journal Sneetches? Good luck with that. If peer review is a subjective hybrid, it isn't peer review.

My skepticism aside, I read the paper anyway and it said what Reuters said it said; that cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes were impacted by glysophate and it kept gut bacteria from working properly.  That means Roundup was linked to gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Basically, everything. 

There's just one problem, and it's why Reuters failed Journalism 101 again. They took a conclusion at face value and seemingly never read the paper far enough to ask 'where is the data'? When something is too good to be true, I look for a Gilles-Eric Seralini rat.  People with an agenda often play games with statistics (or at least leave the assumptions and parameters and how relevant it is to the null hypothesis out of the press releases) so it's best to look at the data. I don't always understand it the way a research biologist would but I know how to check off the boxes as well as any open access journal editor. 

And the paper has no data. It has detailed explanations about how obesity develops (ummm, thanks) and all kinds of stuff about autism and Alzheimer's Disease too, but it has nothing that people associate with a study.  Like, you know, a study. One author is an IT person and the other an 'independent consultant', whatever that means.  I have no real issue with either of those - clearly lots of citizen scientists do quality work - but it looks odd to be overturning tens of thousands of biologists and not actually have one involved.  One of the co-authors of the latest nonsense also claimed a vaccine-autism link in a paper last year. 

How is this study in an entropy journal anyway? Shouldn't they be publishing articles on reversing time and stuff?  Well, the authors called it exogenous semiotic entropy: the disruption of homeostasis by environmental toxins. And it seems the credit card cleared because that is the only link to entropy.

So I began to research more - biology is complicated, it takes time - and started to write a piece and I saw something weird happening; people everywhere beat me to it. In the past this would have gone unchecked, the process was that a big company like Reuters or the New York Times publishes something and then someone at Huffington Post rewrites it, along with Mother Jones, Grist, whoever, as long it matched their confirmation bias. The public just believed it while scientists just did a facepalm and grumbled quietly. Not today.  It was scientists debunking this thing before anyone else had a chance.  I saved this draft to come back to it and then my Twitter feed was overrun with people hammering Reuters for publishing anti-science nonsense. Meanwhile, anti-science activists basically claimed this meant we should 'teach the controversy'.

Seeing it debunked before I did it was downright refreshing. When Science 2.0 started, we were the only science site that hammered the anti-science beliefs of anyone outside the Republican party. Reading mainstream media and blogging six years ago meant you were told there were only three anti-science positions in the world; evolution, human embryonic stem cells and global warming. No energy, no food, no medicine, and the common denominator in the political beliefs of those people was dismissed because they were all under the same tent as the corporate bloggers and journalists. 

Yet now that can't happen. A new generation of scientists is not going to be swayed by 'at least they are on our side against Republicans' hints from corporate media, they are on Team Science first.

So I watched and compiled comments and links from biologists and then this came across my Twitter feed on Friday:  When Media Uncritically Cover Pseudoscience by Keith Kloor at Discover blogs.  And he had done everything I intended to do. I don't like to write about things when I have nothing new to say and Kloor was as hard on them as I could ever be and did one better, noting that the Reuters journalist who fell on their face, Carey Gillam, tends to make a habit of it and will apparently uncritically accept any claim made by anti-science groups.  If you read the New York Times, picture Mark Bittman.

Well, I gave up on that point. But yesterday, one of our own invoked both Reuters and the journal, because they have that Big Corporation and 'peer review' stamp, when I criticized an anti-science hippie for posting a Huffington Post article that (naturally) gushed over with motivated reasoning about a study they clearly never read, or lacked the comprehension to read, and had simply rehashed an activist journalism piece.

So it's not over yet, there are still people here who need some context - and that means there is a large chunk of the audience who sees a name like Reuters or Huffington Post and believes because they are giant corporations, they must be better than actual independent science media. Let's continue to prove that wrong.

Links:

Citation: Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Seneff, 'Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases', Entropy 2013, 15(4), 1416-1463 doi:10.3390/e15041416

When Media Uncritically Cover Pseudoscience by Keith Kloor at Discover

Apparently my entire Twitter feed, since everyone clobbered this thing.