Saturday, April 9, 2016

McGuire et al. Breast Milk Study Fallout, COI, and Sensationalism

Why I'm Standing Up.

Last year my email records were willingly released to activists without a lot of worry. I've been a public scientist for 30 years or so working in research about light and its role in plant growth and development. All public funded, except for a sprinkle of strawberry industry funds.  Nobody really seems to get too excited about that. 

But I always enjoy engaging the public in discussing any science topic, especially in agriculture and especially in genetic engineering. Some people get very excited about that. 

The organization that requested my records, US Right to Know (USRTK), is highly funded by elements of the organic movement. That's not organic farmers per se, or organic researchers. They like me just fine-- I support lots of organic research. 

The search was financed by a radical wing of the movement sworn to decry modern farming and its technological ornaments.  I took US-RTK at their word that they were simply looking to understand influence of companies in why scientists say and do the things we say and do. 

Therefore, I didn't really care.  While I have had interactions with companies and industries of many kinds over the years, nobody ever had any influence over my research or outreach.  Nothing to hide. No big deal. 

Shortly thereafter, USRTK filtered my emails for sentences that could be damning out of context, and systematically distributed them to willing journalists. Some journalists declined to do anything with my words-- they saw it as how they were being used by activists to lynch public scientists.

One popular science journalist even said, "I read the 5000 emails and this guy is a damn boy scout." 

However, a select few were enthusiastic to twist the stories of a public scientist that doubled as a key "inner circle" strategist and lobbyist for Big Ag, namely Monsanto.  They told false stories of how I was a central strategist in the defeat of the California labeling effort, cherry-picking emails that had no such information.  I read about how I was paid by Monsanto to bully a 14 year old girl.  

After I composed myself from laughing I realized the damage this would do, and endured, and still endure the wrath of hate from factions of the public sworn to harass public scientists, simply because they do their job. That job -- to perform the highest quality research and interpret the literature for a public that has questions. 


Why the Science Community is Weak

I've had many thoughts on the matter.  However, one was clear-- I was not impressed with the scientific community's response.  Our national organizations looked the other way, scientists ran for cover. A few spoke out, valiantly, but for the most part, the hush was deafening in support of career public scientist that was suffering.

The scars are permanent. It changed me as a person, it hurt my reputation, and anyone performing a Google Images search will see the smear that Lipton, Borel, Mike Adams, and a gaggle of others seeded, as they offered red meat of a non-story or manufactured narratives to an activist throng poised to destroy the career of a scientist. 

Well I survived.  Changed, but not out, focused more on my lab and my role as a leader in my field, especially in communication. My focus is not the radical wing of a scientifically bankrupt movement. My focus is to share the beauty of our findings with a public that desperately needs real answers, and does not know who to trust. 

I want to earn that trust, and I have. I will continue to do that. 


But one thing is for sure. I swore to myself I would not sit quietly when others were unfairly attacked.  Nobody should have to endure what I endured. 



No Glyphosate in Breast Milk EOM.

Dr. Shelley McGuire is a lactation specialist at Washington State University.  She was asked to test the activist claims, as she is an expert in analyzing breast milk-- a chemically-complex liquid that presents various challenges and caveats to analysis (that activists are free to ignore). 



The report examines breast milk from 41 women using a recently published LC/MS method.  The method of detection can take months to devise, so such work merits independent publication. 

This reputable report demonstrates that the high-resolution proper result are not consistent with the fearful claims on an activist website.  

But what is reported?  Let's analyze the piece that came out this week in Forbes online, by a credible journalist and respected science communicator --  Monsanto-Linked Study Finds No Monsanto-Linked Herbicide Glyphosate In Breast Milk

I'm not sure how many more times you can mention the word "Monsanto" in the title, so maybe a little tip to the bias of the piece going in. 

And also of note, many companies make glyphosate (the herbicide) not just Monsanto.  I'd guess that the majority of human exposures stem from residential use of glyphosate-based products, of which Roundup is just one.  I always buy the generic version at 1/3 the cost for use in my garden. 

But "Monsanto-Linked" is code for "you can't believe it" and the author knows that. 

The article states: 


The study, however, is weighted with conflicts of interest that include having three Monsanto employees as authors. The first two authors also have received grants from Monsanto, and the costs of the chemical analyses for the study were covered by Monsanto. This study is not, however, the only one reporting this outcome.

This really bothers me as a scientist.  The author is willing to discount the findings, or at least sees them as "weighted" (e.g. suspect) because employees of Monsanto are authors, and the company at least partially covered the costs of this expensive analysis. 




Classic. Right form the Merchants of Doubt playbook  While ultimately stating the outcome of the work correctly, the implication is that the work is tainted, somehow suspect, and worse, a victim of its own transparency!  She implies a conspiracy between the journal, a professional society, a respected scientist, and an ag-biotech company. 

Instead, can we please discuss data?  Can we discuss the methods?  What is it about the detection that you find inappropriate?  What is questionable from an analytical chemistry standpoint?  Why are the data not to be trusted?  That is what journalists should be asking! 

To imply that association with a company is tantamount to misconduct with the data/methods not discussed, is seriously off base, and impugns the integrity of Prof. McGuire and her research team.  

The validity of scientific results and their interpretation takes place in the peer-reviewed literature, not in Forbes.  Unfortunately the first salvo that necessitated this situation came from an activist group on a website that claimed to find glyphosate in breast milk using a noisy test and published on a website piloted by a team sworn against genetic engineering.  

McGuire's group took the risky task to pursue the truth and perform the proper test, scientifically testing the hypothesis that glyphosate in breast milk was detectable. They showed, using proper scientific methods, replication and dissemination, that it was not. 

That is the story.  Quality, transparent science, sound methods, and and independent lab show that the people that manufactured data for the Stunning Corn Comparison are likely not being honest here either. 

The real story for a journalist should not be that McGuire's work is suspect because of associations with a company.  It should be a comparison and contrast against the on-line report from an activist group's noisy assay with no controls versus a properly-performed study.  It should teach the public what the differences are, and how they can better equip themselves to understand what is legitimate science, and that activist drivel devised to scare them. 

But that does not get clicks.  


Sticking it to Scientists

Maligning a legitimate scientist due to associations, with no evidence of wrong-doing and complete transparency throughout the process is a much juicer story that fits the popular narrative that our best-- most respected public scientists are just dupes of Big Ag that should be shamed into silence, and eventually out of public service.

And this coming from an author that won the Maddox Prize 2014, awarded to someone standing up for science despite adversity. 

Of course, the author does step back and make it look like this might be one "lens" the public could use to see the situation, striving for a sense of objectivity.  However, the use of other terms, like calling McGuire's association with Monsanto a "slumber party" are highly disturbing, implying the popular quid pro quo myth. 

The original article has since been adjusted to remove some of the language first used to inflate the scientific collaboration to the intimacy of a corporate fluid-swap slumber party

McGuire was kind enough to be interviewed on the Talking Biotech Podcast -episode 30.    She explained that the association with Monsanto was because Monsanto houses the world's experts in glyphosate detection.  That's why she worked with them.  That's what we do in science. We find the best possible collaborators to do the job. 

Plus the results were all verified by an independent laboratory. 

McGuire was forthright and transparent with her associations, as it should be.  Only to be trashed by the internet's jury as a slumber-party stooge that can't be trusted. 


My Final Thoughts.



Our scientific integrity is not defined by cherry-picked emails and lazy journalists glad to smear a scientist to cash a check --- It is determined by our peers and the most rigorous scientific standards. 

Our legacy is determined on the advances that line the library shelves and seed new discovery-- The New York Times lines the bottom of the birdcage. 

Our impact is determined by the solutions we deliver that help people and the planet-- Their impact is measured in mouse clicks generated by sensational claims with thin facts. 

Our value is measured in the lives we touch, the students we train, the problems we solve. Critics' value is measured in how much they can stop us from doing it.  



Time will be kind to scientists they seek to defame.



Months ago, I literally repeated that over and over as I cried myself to sleep as I planned my exit from this discipline.

We don't need to earn journalists' respect. They need to earn ours. 

I wonder how many of them will have the courage and character to apologize someday. 


15 comments:

Mary M said...

We had just about convinced scientists that it was worth the time to be available to the media, to get the voices of science out more. We told them to find ways to get stories into new places that are outside of our typical audiences.

We had just told them that social media was swell. We told them that telling their own stories on blogs was worthwhile. We said--get out there, in public--find creative ways to tell our stories!

And what do we find? It's thankless, and worse, abusive. It's very hard for me to recommend that scientists do this now. And I was a big supporter of it.

Ben T. said...

Dr. Folta, I just have one question for you. Do you actually remember when your father, Jor-El, was placing you into the rocket as Krypton was exploding? You're my hero dude.

Anonymous said...

I generally despise the impugning of people's integrity simply by the fact of where they are employed, whether it's a large chemical company, a pharmaceutical, a bank, etc... It's an intellectually lazy, ad hominem argument. And honestly, as a young scientist looking for a career outside of academia, be it in research or otherwise, it's really discouraging to see the abuse you can face when going up against the internet's ignorant hate machine if you choose to stand up for factual information.

Unknown said...

The New Normal is that any scientist who has any contact with Monsanto, in any way, at any time, even if fully disclosed, is irredeemably compromised.

You are forewarned.

Ania Rose said...

Seconded. I really couldn't say it better.

Thank you, Dr. Fonda, for everything. I'm sorry people are assholes. I wish I knew how to fix that.

Anonymous said...

What a small, ugly mind, you have, Unknown. Who protects us from the ignorance and oppression you would inflict on us? You are not a hero. You are a coward. You have an inflated sense of your intellect and your popularity.

Michael Costa said...

Mr. Folta, you are a hero. After being hatcheted by the media, you have the courage to stand up for a fellow scientist who is being smeared for simply seeking answers to a legitimate question.

It is a shame that rather than seeking ways to work together on important issues, the anti-gmo camp would prefer to perpetuate a polarized atmosphere that holds us all back. It is clear that conducting research in the agro field is not for the faint of heart.

Thank you for sticking to your guns and sticking to the truth.

Anonymous said...

McCarthyism is the new normal? How can you defend that?

Anonymous said...

There a difference between activist and extremist. Don't pretend to be an activist while you're threatening an entire field of study. Using FOIA to harass someone and then following up with threatening and harassing emails, phone calls, Craigslist posts, etc is extremist.

Anonymous said...

I have a question for Dr. Willingham: should the academics and NASA who worked with SpaceX be "called out" in a similar smear piece to her "article" in Forbes? If not, what is different about agriculture? Is it because invoking Monsanto generates more click-throughs? Is it because Dr. Willingham gets some sort of financial incentive for more people clicking on her "article"?

All the authors clearly declared their affiliations. It was as transparent as it could get. And yet that warrants a "slumber party"? This is not the work of someone who understands how science is done in the context of public-private partnerships in the 21st century.

Unknown said...

I was being sarcastic. Sorry.
That does seem to be the attitude of many, including, it appears, Dr. Willingham.

Ena Valikov said...

Usual Monsanto tobacco-science, only in this case verified literally by a tobacco lab.
Dear Kevin- the charming pesticide salesman sells out babies this time---
but only to science illiterates....unmitigated Monsanto garbage. http://beachvetlbc.blogspot.com/2016/04/wsu-professor-launders-monsantos.html

Ena Valikov said...

The only ones who don't understand how science works are Monsanto cult members
-the puppets...Dumb, dumber and dumbest
http://beachvetlbc.blogspot.com/2016/04/wsu-professor-launders-monsantos.html

Anonymous said...

How many peer-reviewed papers have you published in high-impact journals, on biotechnology?

Anonymous said...

The question above was for Ena Valikov.