Thursday, November 17, 2016

Snopes Claims About Glyphosate in Food

I like Snopes. 

So many times I've been rescued from a critical debunking excursion because someone had provided excellent analysis that I could use as a starting point. 

It is really disappointing to see them go soft and conflate unrelated issues that just confuse the reader.

The article about the Food Babe's claims about Monsanto covering up glyphosate in food items seemed like it would follow the science and once again foist her on her own critically underpowered petard. 

But instead the article by Alex Kasprak just creates confusion.  Even the subhead says, "Monsanto suppressing evidence of cancerous herbicide in food?"

(and to be fair, Alex did reach out and we're discussing this. I do think he wants to get it right)

What "cancerous herbicide?"

Instead of simply letting the air out of a conspiratorial claim, he conflates three issues at once, an in the process lends credence to the crazy claim, while not critically evaluating the others.  Here's the problem:

This is the headline of the article.  A highly-suspect, statistically bankrupt activist brochure is referred to as an "independent study" -- a term usually reserved for actual research.

Next, the author presents the synthesis of the claim as "Mixture" meaning that the claims present some legitimate points. 

STOP RIGHT THERE.  First, there is no "mixture". That claim is false, false, false.  The analysis did not show the chemical conclusively, and of course, there is no conspiracy.

This should read FALSE.  Done.  Enjoy your Ritz crackers.

But the author expands upon the claim and folds in a non-seqitur conclusion about glyphosate that is not accurate either. I see his intent and understand how he got to those conclusions, but they are not relevant to the claim.  Here's the whole thing:

What's true?  Well he says that "studies performed on laboratory animals suggest that glyphosate may be carcinogenic" and that is not the case.  Glyphosate has been evaluated by hundreds of independent peer-reviewed efforts and certainly by many federal regulators in many countries. They all have concluded that it is not a carcinogen. 

The only departure is a hazard-based assessment by the IARC last year that used a thin set of reports to make the conclusion that glyphosate was a "probable carcinogen".  This was a hazard-based report, not considering actual exposures.  They also didn't derive their conclusion much from animal studies. 

I also reject the premise that this is "an active debate in the scientific community."  Scientists are scratching their heads over this, and why the media is complicit in giving fuel to activists claims built on thin science. 

What's false? -- of course, that section is consistent with the scholarly literature.

What's undetermined? -- The author says basically that the results might not be trusted because they are not peer-reviewed and come from activists.   Under that premise alone, the results are not evidence of anything!  They are a claim on a website as valid as the picture of Bigfoot fur is a "mixture" proof of the existence of Bigfoot on Snopes. 

For Snopes to get this right the claim needs to be broken down into three independent claims.

1.  Are the data in the report believable and do they represent a rigorous test using proper methods and statistical representation?

2.   If the results are real, do the levels claimed to be detected pose a carcinogenic threat to humans? 

3.  Do the prevailing data on glyphosate substantiate its hazard-based description as a "probable carcinogen?"

The answer to all three is no, no, and no.  The only one that is even open for discussion is #3, and evaluators worldwide are constantly scrutinizing the compound.  The best evaluations from Germany, the USA, and many others have shown repeatedly that there is no legitimate evidence of a cancer risk at the levels used or in exposure to its residues. 

The problem is that what I think is an honest effort from Alex Kasprak conflates three separate unrelated questions and in the process accodentally misinforms the casual reader that is simply looking at their cheerios, their kid, a cheesy activist brochure, and then turning to Snopes for a trusted synthesis.

I hope he corrects it.  Unfortunately the Food Babe and others will use FOIA to gather our email exchanges and then say that he was just paid off by Monsanto, adding to the conspiracy.  Same old, same old. 


Mary M said...

I wonder how many people now remember that the IPCC had such trouble with the activist "gray" literature that they had to create a policy to stop using it.

Activist diatribes are not "studies" and using that diminishes the words which increasingly need to tell reality from fiction. I would have hoped for better from Snopes too.

Kevin M. Folta said...

I agree 1000% If that is an "independent study"....

Michael Costa said...

It really does seem that the author did his best to provide a fair assessment. It's promising to see that Snopes is actively involved in reaching out and correcting errors.

J.B. Robertson said...

In this case the author clearly prioritized "fair" over "accurate". False equivalency and equal time is why facts are muddied on news channels, and other media. There is NOT always two sides to every debate.

Anonymous said...

Just being really picky here but since we are using science to debunk garbage shouldn't we not use "1000%" :-)

Nero said...

If someone used FOIA on Food Babe, I bet they'd find a lot of interesting information.

Nero said...

Also, someone needs to tell the author that Food Babe is as far from being a "guru" as you can get.

Michael Emberley said...

FOIA? Is this blog a federal government agency?

Hotshot said...

Michael Emberley, no, but scientists like Kevin could be and have been FOIAed by Food Babe and others any time they write critically of them. Any scientist they find who has ever talked to or knows someone at Monsanto then becomes a claim of "Monsanto influence", not to mention the harassment of the researchers involved.

Sauron said...

Dear Kevin, why don't you use a private email account for non work and non university related communication?

Debbie Cottrell said...

If only they could. As a non-government entity, she is not subject to obeying any FOIA laws.

Cake Baybee said...

If one reads the readily available World Health Organization's report that caused such a hooplah, it will lead to questioning how "probable carcinogen" was reached by such a report. The report looked for any one of 5 compounds in this report, only one of which was glysophate.
They referred to papers from over the last 30 years that examined one or more of these 5 compounds. What with tens of thousands of studies to look at spanning 30 years, this report found 19 to use as their references for conclusions and only a handful of those addressed glysophate and none of those were positively conclusive for glysophate being carcinogenic.
My faith in people's interest in science died a lot that day.

Wzrd1 said...

So, a claimed detection of 100 - 250 or so ppb is the same as toxic in magic land, when the testing company even disclaims the results of their non-peer reviewed, questionable testing.

Let's look at real world toxic substances, which are actually toxic.
Ricin, around 20 mg/kg is lethal, let's go toward 25 mg/kg, as we're not mice.
How about beryllium?

Species Reference Route LD50(mg/kg) LDLo(mg/kg) Adjusted LD Derived Value
Rat Blair 1951 oral 90 ----- 158 mg Be/m3 16 mg Be/m3
Mouse Tabershaw 1972 oral 100 ----- 161 mg Be/m3 16 mg Be/m3
Rat Sazhina 1965 oral 82 ----- 49 mg Be/m3 4.9 mg Be/m3
Mouse Sazhina 1965 oral 80 ----- 48 mg Be/m3 4.8 mg Be/m3

See how the good doctor and I provide citations from reputable sources? Those sources also provide citations to follow. You can even find replication studies performed by other reputable sources.

Wzrd1 said...

FOIA requests are not only federal, state universities can be required to submit to FOI requests as well.
The good doctor has written about his trials and tribulations with such specious requests on multiple occasions.

Rob said...

Snopes has updated the article, changing the claim to "False," with a lengthy discussion of all of the evidence.

Anonymous said...

Just because it isn't a carcinogen doesn't mean that it doesn't cause other problems.

The Beezy said...

What? FOIA on Food Babe or what? Sorry no FOIA on food babe. That's not how that works lol

Wzrd1 said...

Epic reading comprehension failure, oh anonymous one. Might I suggest a remedial reading course?

Hint: FOIA does not cover private individuals, but individuals and organizations who receive public funding. What does cover a private individual would be a discovery motion upon initiation of litigation for libel.
That is something that I, a rather vindictive man, would happily do in the good researcher's place.

Wzrd1 said...

Oh, before I forget again...
"Just because it isn't a carcinogen doesn't mean that it doesn't cause other problems."

Yeah, like an excess of water does not cause cancer, but one can drown in it. BAN WATER BECAUSE I AM AN IDIOT!
Not the best of ideas, yes?