Séralini did it again!

I was browsing through the internet to find matter for a post I’m currently writing on my French blog when I found that Séralini published another paper in which he claims that pesticides as sold to farmers or gardeners are “2 to 1,000 times more toxic than the active principles, which are the only ones tested” (FR). The journal in which it was published is “Biomed Research International”, from Hindawi Publishing Corporation. Out of curiosity, I went to Jeffrey Beall’s “List of Predatory Publishers 2014” to check whether Hindawi was among them. It appears not, but here’s what Beall has to say about them:

I generally analyze at the publisher level rather than the individual journal level. Hindawi is not on my list of questionable publishers. I do receive complaints about Hindawi, however. They use spam a lot, most of their over 500 journals lack editors in chief, and it seems to be a publisher that focuses just on the authors’ needs and not so much the readers’.

Dodgy? Maybe.

Another commenter writes about their professional work, but immediately adds that their review process is “light”. In all fairness, this comment is about a journal only not the publisher itself, and not Biomed Research International. It doesn’t say anything about Biomed Research International. BRI has a rather low impact factor, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad journal. In fact, I don’t believe that a low impact factor means a great deal about the quality of a journal: if the journal covers an extremely specialized field, it will automatically have a low impact factor. That said, I don’t think this applies to a journal entitled “Biomed Research International”.

Anyway, Séralini’s paper can be found here. I haven’t had the time to read the article in full, but I already smell a huge rat: for an extraordinary claim, you need extraordinary evidence. Scanning the paper, I found none. Rather, I found at least two serious flaws: the study is carried out on human cell lines in vitro, i.e. in an environment completely different that the one found in the average human body. Cell lines are a good model to assess cellular toxicity or molecular mechanisms of a toxicity, I do not think for one second that cell toxicity automatically translates at the organism’s level. To properly assess the toxicity of a compound, you need to use whole organisms.

Another flaw is that in no case there is a negative control: what is tested is the effect of the formulation versus the active principle alone. Ok, that’s what the authors want to know, but what about the solvent used? They claim that 0.5% of DMSO has no toxic effect on the cells. That may be true, but why not add a negative control in the form of DMSO diluted in the media to 0.5%, without any “formulation” or active principle, as is common practice? Besides, in all cases, cells were starved (i.e. grown in a media without serum) for 24 hours. This article states that serum starvation “elicited complex and unpredictable time-dependent and cell-type dependent effects”. This certainly warrants a control, does it not?

Well, I guess this paper from Séralini will again be thoroughly shredded. Maybe it is time for the University of Caen to assess the research carried out in Séralini’s lab and to question his links with a militant group, CRIIGEN, which clearly has an influence on the type, and, more importantly, the quality of research carried out there.

Update:

I found out on twitter that Ralf Reski, a professor at the University of Freiburg, Germany, had resigned from an editor position at BRI after the publication of Séralini’s paper. I asked him whether he could detail it a bit and here is the twitter exchange. First, Reski’s statement and my question:

Due to my resignation as editor #Hindawi promised to reevaluate the latest #Seralini paper. http://t.co/QbAomFz9PM Good.

— Ralf Reski (@ReskiLab) 6 Février 2014

And here are the details he gave me:

There you have it: a scientist resigns from an editor position to avoid having his name associated with bad science. And why would someone resign from a prestigious position if there weren’t serious problems with a paper?

Besides, it is worth noting that Séralini’s last paper seems to be just a re-hash of this one. The only difference, here, is the publicity credulous media give him. I already linked to a French newspaper above. Here are some links from French public TV and radio broadcasters, a Belgian public TV broadcaster. It would be useful if, instead of looking for sensationalism, journalists would actually try to inform the public —in short: do their job. Seems that it’s not gonna happen any time soon in Europe…

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The mission of scientists, and how some betray it…

Not a real scientist. But one Séralini should take heed from.

Helen Lewis, editor at the New Stateman, asked some regular bloggers at the New Stateman to write about when, and why, they changed their minds. This is a very interesting read, and this reminded me of the “coming out” of Mark Lynas about GMOs ten months ago. It is quite interesting to read, or hear about how Mark Lynas completely shifted opinion regarding GMOs. The bottomline, and what I think is really important, is that: exposed to scientific evidence supporting anthropogenic climate change, Lynas came to the conclusion that he could not hold anti-scientific opinions on other issues, such as GMOs.

Sadly, not everyone has the same consistency, even when we talk about scientists. Far from relying on the scientific consensus on a subject —especially when  they are no experts on the subject in question— some cherry-pick the evidence. Thus, you’ll find some denying that climate change occurs, or that it is man made, claiming that this scientific field is corrupted; but they’ll often claim that their support of GM technology stems from scientific evidence, that it is, as Ford Prefect would put it, Mostly Harmless. One of these scientists is Claude Allègre. Others will mirror these positions in saying that climate change is happening but that GMOs are dangerous. The AAAS happens to have issued several statements regarding these two issues. Here is one of them on the former, and on the latter.

What these two attitudes tell us about the scientists who hold them? Well, basically, while their day job might be to “do” science (although Allègre is retired), they do not seem to understand its inner workings. Or, and this is worse, they knowingly manipulate the narrative on the production of knowledge that is science to further some ideological interests of their own.

These scientists are quite rare, fortunately, but are very vocal. Pretending, like Séralini, that you are falling victim to a conspiracy to silence you, or, to compare yourself to Galileo, doesn’t further the public understanding of how scientific research is made. Quite the contrary: how many times had I to explain to some friends of mine that, no, Séralini is not some kind of martyr or some new Galileo (I usually don’t have to explain the same things about Soon, Baliunas and other climate change deniers are) but simply someone who has some commercial interest in fearmongering on GMOs, he sells books about it (some of which do seem to be quite  cranky to be honest). Furthermore, on a  strictly scientific point of vue, his experiments do not stand scrutiny… More subtle than the Galileo argument, however, their publications in peer-reviewed journals maintain the illusion that, in a particular field, the scientific community is deeply divided about an issue… A good way of marketing doubt, as Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes put it in their book, “Merchants of Doubt”. According to Oreskes and Conway, PR companies were actively involved in the denial of climate change in the U.S. When Séralini published his now retracted paper, the marketing of the had been perfectly orchestrated: a deal with one magazine, a book and a “documentary“ published within one week…. Not only the attitudes reflect each other, the strategies are the same. Some claim that a PR firm was hired by the CRIIGEN to publicize the study, but I have yet to find evidence for that.

How a layman or woman can choose between conflicting positions in science? Well, as I and others wrote before, looking where the consensus is may give a clue. Of course, the majority might be wrong. There has been examples of a whole scientific community being wrong, here’s one. Quite often, however, these examples date back to a time when scientific inquiry —as we understand it today— didn’t exist. Going with the majority (and I’m not talking about a 51-49 % difference, here, but about a 95 – 5 %) is generally a safe bet. Why? It’s not like scientists are sheepishly following the mob. If 95 % of scientists of a particular field agree on something, that is because there is good evidence supporting the consensus.

It’s hard though for people to understand that, thouh: journalists often tend, in the name of “balance” to present both positions as equally valid. This false balance has consequences on the public outreach of scientists, be it on climate change or GMOs. Sometimes, it is even worse: they play right into the schemes of Séralini and the likes to try to get a “scoop” (fr).

I personally think that scientists, especially, like Séralini, when they work in a teaching institution, have a duty to the public besides producing knowledge: to inform about science and its subtleties. By refusing to do just that, Séralini and others scientists who either deny the reality of climate change or who are fearmongering about GMOs betray their mission as scientists.

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A much needed read

If you’re interested in science and policymaking, you probably know about Mark Lynas. If not, just a short recap: during the 1990s, Mark Lynas participated in the rise of the anti-GMO movement, and not just by giving talks, but also by destroying crops fields.

However, while writing an award-winning book on climate change, and meeting with scientists involved in climate science, he got exposed to the way science is done. He then came to realise that his outlook on GMOs and their supposed danger might be wrong. For his involvement in the anti-GMO movement, he made a public apology in Oxford in January 2013. His talk earned him much hate among the environmentalists.

Far from bowing to the bullies, Mark Lynas is calling them out as conspiracy theorists. Read it! It’s worth it.

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The danger of unwarranted reverence: the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine and Charles Windsor

You know that there is a problem in a country when personality cult is so obvious that everybody considers it normal for the object of this cult to wander in areas it shouldn’t. I’m not talking about the usual suspects here: Russia or North-Korea. No, my concern here is the UK, where a prince publishes an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, despite the fact that he has no credentials in medicine —or life sciences. Yet, this isn’t the first time that this snake-oil salesman peddle his anti-science, evidence-free drivel. What’s new is that he is doing that in a journal that should be wary of such things.

But the shame isn’t resting with Charles Windsor here: the one who should be ashamed of himself is Dr Abbasi, the editor of the JRSM who finds Charles views about medicine “engaging”, which, to me reads as “I abdicated any critical thinking in front of royalty”. And Dr Abbasi ignores an important thing here: by allowing Charles to publish his bullshit in the JRSM, he gives credence to any charlatan out there. It is even worse when you call views of a loon (whose only achievement in life has been to be born in the right family) “engaging”.

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Slippery slope of “decency” dictatorship in the UK

The incriminated picture, which led Kent police to arrest a man on Sunday.

On Remembrance Day, a man was arrested for posting a picture of a poppy he burnt. I won’t go into details, as the Guardian has a very good piece on that. But that guy, quite simply, didn’t hurt anybody. He just burnt a poppy. His poppy. Now, that burning such a symbol might be offensive to some, I can conceive to that. I don’t really understand it, but I can conceive to that. But here’s the thing: if you don’t want to be offended, don’t discuss with anyone: there’s a good chance that, at some point, you’ll be.

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Atheism +: a chance to widen the scope of american atheism

The recent months (or should I say years) have seen a bitter feud developing among atheists — American atheists first and foremost. As far as I understand, the divide lies between those who think that atheism should limit itself to the critic of religions and those who assert that a coherent atheist movement is bound to concern itself with social justice, feminism and gender issues. In short, “atheism +” ambitions to be more than a philosophical movement: it wants to be a social one.
I do think this is a good thing: atheism seems to me to be a pretty narrow subject. In fact, born and raised in France, I always associated scepticism and atheism with the Left, and I always thought that an atheist discourse without any political consideration on social justice was missing something. Dawkins wrote in “The God Delusion” that instead of looking for explanations in a deity, people should marvel at what life is and enjoy the fact of being alive (I won’t bother to browse it, if you want to find the exact quote, read it). I read this book in 2007 and since then this type of affirmation always annoyed me: I find it quite hard for the vast majority of the population of the planet to “enjoy life”. This sentence struck me as typical from someone quite remote from everyday struggle. And indeed it is: as an Oxford professor, Dawkins certainly cannot complain about his life. He certainly has little to worry about and enjoys  it. Good for him.
His point, though, is moot for most of the people on the planet: for them, life is anything but enjoyable. This is certainly true of the Afghan population, stuck between the Taliban hammer and the NATO anvil, but there is no need to go that far: Brixton and Stockwell show all too well that life isn’t necessarily a day at the beach in the UK either. While Dawkins’ argument is rational, it is not really audible for this reason. In fact, even for me, who cannot really complain about life, it seemed weird, a bit like the word of a bearded hermit in its ivory tower. This is what “pure atheists” don’t seem to understand: the evil influence of religions in society isn’t that obvious for most of the people. In fact, given the actions of some charities, a lot of people, even unbelievers, do actually think that religions hold a moral high ground. Nevermind the child molesters or murderous fanatics. Most of the people don’t actually see that the principal supporters of social conservatism — which help to maintain them in poverty or a kind of submissive state — are religions. Therefore, holding an atheist discourse without defending social justice won’t help atheism to spread, quite the contrary: it will limit it to close, sectarian circles which will end up like an army retirement house: all old, all white, all male. This is all the more true when a part of this movement works hard to dismiss the concerns of some of its members on harassment or the way they feel at conferences.
The aspiration of social justice and religions always clashed because social justice threatens the privileged churches and their members. I’m surprised that some atheists don’t see that. Then again, religion isn’t the only undercurrent of society, sexism is another. And while atheists are supposed to be devoid of religion, the account of Rebecca Watson clearly shows that some of them can count themselves among the worst bigots when it comes to feminism. The set-up of anti-harassment policies at conferences seems to have sparked another wave of unabated douchery. Now, on harassment, there is one take I find particularly interesting: that of Dawkins. Here’s what he had to write when Rebecca Watson decided to tell guys to behave at conferences:

Dear Muslima
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
Richard

What strikes me here is the common way of thinking we can find whenever we read critics of social movements: people shouldn’t complain about spending cuts, frozen wages and the like because “it is worse in Africa” (or everywhere you might find it convenient to point out). Well… That’s just the kind of stuff a person in a dominating position would say, no? This goes along the lines of: “Be happy with what you’ve got, because it’s worse, much worse, somewhere else; don’t you dare complain about your situation”.
That’s nothing else than a way to try to silence people who point out that there may be some problems with an underlying sexism at skeptics conferences (an underlying sexism no doubt imported from the wider society). If you do so, you’re just admitting that to you this isn’t much of a problem, or not a problem at all. Maybe because you’re a man, maybe because you’ve been brainwashed into justifying the bullying of women as a way to help them “grow up” (ironically the author doesn’t seem to see that an appeal to men to help women to “grow up” is sexist: this means that men are — by default — “grown-ups” but women aren’t). Or maybe you’re just a flaming misogynist moron who thinks women should submit to whatever “project” a man has for them, as harassment, or rape and deaths threats to some feminists in the atheist movement made clear. Jen McGreith isn’t the only one who  had to put up which such a despicable attitude: Rebecca Watson, Surly Amy, Greta Christina and a 15 year old girl had to undergo the “jokes” or the ire of scumbags for being women. And women, mind you, who dare to think and speak for themselves.
Sexism has been infused in the western societies for a very long time, indeed, in Europe or in North-America, it used to be justified by the Bible, much like the Qu’ran or the Torah justify it elsewhere. It is a direct product of religiosity. Yet, some atheists refuse to see that as a problem. To such an extend that anti-harassment policies sparked a controversy in the American atheist movement (here is a timeline). Given the links above, I came to the conclusion that most of those who oppose these anti-harassment policies are indeed misogynists who seek to exploit women by any means necessary. No need to deny it folks: your actions speak for themselves. A civilised debate about how best to put anti-harassment policies in place would have been acceptable, but as soon as you threaten women to rape them, kill them or try to trigger a rape survivor (an account here, mild compared to the full thing), that’s it, you’re a sexist moron. No need to deny it.
Now, most of the controversy, especially the one on the creation of the ‘Atheism +’ network happened on the other side of the pond, I read one opinion piece here branding Atheism + as “divisive”. An opinion piece that is flaming with hypocrisy, in my opinion: while citing Jen McGreith reasons to call for a third wave of atheism, the author omits to explain why there is a passion about that among A+ members: the abuse that some feminists underwent when they wanted to voice their concerns. This was the reason to found A+ in the first place. Refusing to acknowledge that, forgetting the reasons why A+ has been founded; and, mostly denouncing atheism+ members as “rude” without examining the behaviour that caused some atheists to look for a place where people would have more in common than just atheism is just hypocrite. At best. There is another interpretation, less indulgent to this author, but I’m not really financially able to sustain a libel suit in the U.K. Well… You get the gist, anyway.
People might say — in fact some did — that they’re “just about atheism” and call for atheists just to concern themselves with it, and forget all the rest. To be clear, while an atheist myself, I do not feel closer to an atheist who would be homophobic, sexist, racist and conservative than to a liberal theist. My atheism isn’t the cause of my social views but a consequence of them. Being a proud leftist led me to reflect on power as means to maintain the working class under the thumb. And while the courts, the army and the police are certainly one edge of the sword (together with a more sophisticated domination system encompassing the media, the property market, etc…), religion is definitely another. In every country where the state and the churches have not been separated, there has been suppression of gay and women rights. More broadly, churches allied themselves with right-wing dictatorships almost systematically. This has been the case in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Chile, to name but a few… Some libertarian atheists might even recognise that, while they won’t buy in religion, it might be a good tool to maintain the population under the leash.
I don’t really get the problem with the creation of ‘Atheism +’. Atheists have already plenty of organisations across the U.S., one more won’t change much about that. Besides, there is kind of a freedom of association principle here, and I do get that Jen McGreith or Rebecca Watson do not want to be in the same room (however big) or on the same network than people calling them names or, worse, threatening to rape and kill them.
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Vested interests in science: a problem not likely to go away quietly

Examples of scientists who bent their results to make them fit their theories are countless. Mengele in Nazi Germany or Lyssenko in stalinist USSR are prime examples. The anthropogenic global warming “controversy” also has its wealth of scientists doing away with scientific principles (shameless self-citation). This, sadly, isn’t limited to anthropogenic global warming. Nearly every scientific result of importance to the economy or the society is scrutinised. And this is good, as long as it doesn’t lead to distortion of these results, manipulation of the public or threats to scientists raising an issue of public interest. The tendency to make scientific results stick to whatever ideology is around is strong, as the behaviour of the Reagan and Bush II administration showed (Oreskes and Conway have a few examples of this in their book “The Merchants of Doubt”), but there seem to be more actors arising on this front. The “debate” on climate change is an example of this: while the Bush II administration did everything it could to silence the scientists, going as far as modifying one of their reports, other organisations tried to obscure the science of climate change. As such, Freedom of Information bills are abusively used by right-wing think tanks to harass –and try to discredit– scientists working on anthropogenic climate change, and the journalists who report on this issue. Continue reading

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