The UK, the EU and Brexit

It’s been a while since Britons decided to leave the EU, but the lies, the misconceptions and the half-truths that were common during the pre-referendum are still pretty much in fashion among British politicians. Listening to the news while driving to work, I wonder nearly every morning whether these politicians are completely ignorant about the EU, whether they are completely deluded about the position of Britain in the world, or whether they think that the British electorate is stupid1. Of course, for Boris Johnson2, the answer is known for a long time. But for the others? It seems that the UK government think that they have no one to negotiate with, that every “proposal” they’ll put on the table during the Brexit negotiations will be enthusiastically accepted by their european counterparts, who seem, from a British point of view, to have no interests, no agenda of their own. The positions of the other European leaders are not even acknowledged. Granted, the EU is in a sorry state and the UK, by preventing its deepening and by favouring an Union of states —so loose it cannot even be called a confederation— over an Union of people, does have a great responsibility in that. The politicians from the other countries are not without blame, too, as they pander to their public opinions and use the EU as a convenient scapegoat for policies that their countries agreed to or favour the interests of their countries over EU construction and solidarity.

Still, some news for the British politicians: the UK is no longer a super power. It’s at best a middle-sized power, with very little influence on the world without its allies. It’s the same for other European countries such as France or Germany.

 

When the EU will get its act together (if it does at all), it’s obvious who will be the stronger party in the negotiations. If the UK is really keen to retain access to a market of around 450 million people (compared to the UK 65 million), it will have to compromise. The alternative is a “hard Brexit”. I don’t think that any politician who really cares about the British population is willing to take that risk3.

But given the level of the political discourse on the part of the Leavers, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

On the other side of the rift, there seem to be serious wishful thinking about the Lisbon Treaty and the provisions of the now famous article 50. Liberal democrats are divided on the issue of a second referendum, but they all seem to forget one thing: once the article 50 is invoked, nowhere is it said within it that the process can be halted, let alone reversed4. It is hard, therefore, to think that a second referendum on the terms of the Brexit is meaningful —the first referendum result notwithstanding. The only option is to reapply to EU membership under the article 49 (reading this article, Britain will have a lot harder time to get back in on the special deals it enjoyed so far). Furthermore, the article 50 stipulates that:

That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

This article is about relationships between the EU and third countries. This means that while Britain will still be a member of the EU for at least two years after the article 50 being invoked; for all intent and purposes of the exit negotiations, the it will be treated as a third party. This is logic as the negotiations will encompass the relationships between the UK and the EU immediately after Brexit, but it also sets the type of negotiations.

It’s high time that people get back to their senses and that the ones who put the UK in this mess own it and tell the truth to the UK population, as George Osborne suggested: the UK will not be the strongest party in this negociation, and that if it wants to retain unrestricted access to the EU markets, it will have to accept the conditions set out by the EU. At the same time, the Lib Dems should stop the wishful thinking and accept that, once the article 50 process is triggered, there is no way back. The correct position for them should be to support as soft a Brexit as possible and not have any fantasies about a second referendum. It is not in the interests of the EU to play nice with the UK and it doesn’t have to if it doesn’t want to. It is now a great time for the EU members to redefine what the EU means and what they want to do going forward.

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1 Admittedly, the result of the referendum supports that latter hypothesis to some extent.

2 In a fascinating move, Johnson assured Turkey that the UK would support its membership bid to join the EU… I wonder whether the irony is lost on him or not… There is a French saying that would apply to him: “Les cons, ça ose tout. C’est même à ça qu’on les reconnaît”.

3 News from the Conservative Party Conference contradict my optimism.

4 The short and easy to read article 50 can be found here.

 

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John Oliver nails it

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An unexpected use for WordPress stats.

I haven’t written on this blog for a little while. Life is just getting in the way of my writing it seems, and I can’t do it as much as I’d like to. Nevertheless, I regularly check the WordPress dashboard of this blog. That’s when I noticed a surprising spike of activity. Something strange: as I wrote, I’ve been quiet lately, and the traffic should reflect that.

Given the fact that I mainly wrote on Séralini’s misuse of science as a propaganda tool (a bit — yes — like Lyssenko), I went on to check whether said Séralini published another paper. He did. Another in vitro study with in vivo conclusions, at least in the abstract1. This time, the article is paywalled, so I am unable to read it and tell whether it is yet again a bonkers paper. I’d like to be able to, though, because I am not prepared to give Séralini the benefit of the doubt: since 20092, but mainly the Food and Chemical Toxicology debacle, Séralini has lost any credibility as a scientist3.

Interestingly, Séralini himself is giving up on science: he apparently reckons that there is no way his poorly designed studies will ever convince the scientific community of:

  • The validity of his hypotheses
  • The reality of his observations

So he decided to resort to another strategy, probably a more successful one, aimed at the public: PR4. I don’t really see the point of this, as CRIIGEN’s ideas, no matter how ill-conceived, are the most prevalent ones in France. There is no rational debate about GMOs there, or, if indeed you are rational, you’re portrayed by Séralini and his ilk as a shill and viewed as such by the vast majority of the public. This PR person they want to hire won’t be there to further — directly, at least — the anti-GMO propaganda (so they say), she’ll be responsible for answering “smears” against Séralini and the CRIIGEN. It is quite interesting that the scientific process, whereby bad studies get criticized and eventually disregarded, even retracted if they’re really bad, is viewed by the CRIIGEN as slurs. Do they really consider that their word should be law? If so, there is serious work to be done in Caen to teach them how science works. The problem is that I’m sure Séralini knows how the process of scientific discovery works. He just bends it to further his agenda.

This abuse of science does have other victims besides Science itself: Séralini’s PhD students. Here, we have some early career scientists whose understanding of science is completely skewed by the person responsible to teach them how to become good scientists. I might be wrong. I hope I am, actually, because in such a lab as Séralini’s, how can someone get an insight into the scientific process? How can someone accept that critics might actually hold for some work, and can be used to improve it? These students, by going to Séralini’s lab, are jeopardizing the rest of their careers: they’d probably have hard time getting hired for a postdoc position (if I were in a position to hire a scientist, I certainly would have preventions against hiring anyone from Séralini’s lab, and not because I disagree with him, but because it is manifest that they haven’t been taught well), and therefore have no choice but to work for CRIIGEN… Until they begin to question the organisation, that is… That’s the problem with Séralini: his activism led him to let down a lot of people.

I don’t really mind that Séralini has opinions, like anyone else, he is entitled to them. However, he knows that in science, the opinions are informed by facts. Accepted scientific results or theories are not out there because they won a popularity contest. They are out there because they withstood scrutiny. Séralini should know this. But, instead of making an ironclad argument by using well-designed experiments, he uses bad methodology. So, either he’s a bad scientist eager for some recognition, in which case he chose to get his recognition not among scientists, but by posing as a rebel against some sort of “establishment” or he knows that his hypotheses don’t hold water and he intentionally designs inconclusive experiments — which allow him to claim that he is seeing an effect where really there’s none. This attitude further complexifies an already very complicated subject and does nothing to inform the public. Like Fred Singer or Claude Allègre on climate science, Séralini is a “Merchant of Doubt”5. By acting this way, Séralini betrays a lot of people:

  • the French taxpayers, who are entitled to expect that scientists working on their behalf do not willingly misdesign experiments to favour their own biases,
  • His students, by teaching them a method of work and ways of dealing with scientific controversy that are anything but right  and might impair their careers (of course, if these students do actually want to make a career in politics, then they’re fine),
  • The scientific community, by contributing papers that he knows are flawed. Scientists then spend a lot of time debunking his misconceptions or methodological flaws, while their time would be better spent elsewhere, or doing something else.

The not so bad news, here, are that I didn’t even notice his new article until I saw a spike in my WordPress stats. While I’m sure that the anti-GMO crowd are all over it on social media, the French mass-media, normally quite benevolent towards anti-GMO activists, did not write sensationalist stories about it, in contrast to what they did in 20126. It is possible that the whole Séralini affair of 2012 led them to approach the man with caution, tired of being “manipulated like puppets“7.


  1. In case you missed the link in the text.

  2. http://www.ijbs.com/v05p0706.htm. This study has, already, been thoroughly reduced to shreds by EFSA at the time (see annex 1 of this pdf.

  3. http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2013/11/29/bad-science-about-gmos-it-reminds-me-of-the-antivaccine-movement-thanksgiving-edition/

  4. Here is the announcement, in French, of the crowd-sourcing of a PR representative.

  5. http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org/index.html

  6. http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/ogm-le-scandale/20120918.OBS2686/exclusif-oui-les-ogm-sont-des-poisons.html. The title of the article reads: “Yes, GMOs are poisons!”

  7. This comment on the misuse of embargo by Séralini and the behaviour of “Le Nouvel Observateur” was made by Carl Zimmer in this blog note.

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When an anti-science mob has its way

The new EU commission head, Jean-Claude Juncker, apparently bowed to pressure from “environmentalist” NGOs and axed the chief scientific advisor office.

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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…

Posted in Bogus, Quacks, Science, Swindle, Uncategorized | 10 Comments

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) 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: 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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