Cold, objective science? Think twice

In-Science-We-Trustby Enrico Uva

In trying to make sense of science-related issues — say, global warming, or vaccines and autism —we are often hampered by a lack of scientific expertise, and even for those us who have a science degree, our knowledge often doesn’t spread beyond the scope of our specific field. Things get murkier still when individuals and organizations represent science in the course of outreach efforts, and yet they also have more or less hidden agendas. This has become more the case in recent decades, as public science has become more politicized. Consequently, it’s now increasingly difficult for most people to see through biases and evaluate an issue objectively.

I will outline a few examples of “smoke-machines,” reflecting a spectrum of ideological biases.

(1) The American Council on Science and Health’s (ACSH) mission is to ensure that peer-reviewed mainstream science reaches the public, the media, and the decision-makers who determine public policy. Although academics from Tuft’s University School of Nutrition Science and Policy [1] find the ACHS’s facts to be about 80% accurate, here’s what they have to say about them:

“This site aims to arm consumers with the facts necessary to make wise decisions about health, but be aware that the information here is biased and represents a very conservative interpretation of current science. Consumers looking for a balanced debate on health issues will have to look elsewhere.”

A clear example of this bias comes from their position on alcohol [2]:

“ACSH has long advanced the science on the benefits of moderate alcohol [3] – and has even opined on studies that associated an increased risk of breast cancer to drinking [4]. ‘The message here is encouraging and confusing’ adds ACSH President Dr. Elizabeth Whelan.  ‘For a woman with diagnosed breast cancer, their findings suggest an occasional drink won’t impact your cancer survival outcome.’”

The so-called science on the benefits of moderate alcohol is completely overshadowed by the fact that alcohol is a class-1 carcinogen according to a meta analysis conducted by the NIH [5], which bases its conclusions on a large number of studies. ACHS’s policy on alcohol completely ignores the general cancer-causing effects of drinking alcohol. And because alcohol is socially acceptable they try to whitewash the breast cancer connection by highlighting a single study instead. They fail to point out the meta study’s findings that females who drink put themselves at risk not just of breast cancer: for those drinking 25g/day, the risk of liver cancer doubles, and if they consume 100g/day the risk jumps to nine times, surpassing the risk of lung cancer associated with cigarettes in women. For males, the effects of alcohol are not as pronounced but still not negligible. Compared to women, they experience lower rates of alcohol-induced liver cancers: the ratios range from 1.28 to 1.62, depending on amounts ingested. Moreover, at 25g/d drinkers of both sexes experience elevated risks in the 1.4 to 1.7 range for oral, larynx and esophageal cancers.

It is interesting to note that one of ACHS prominent members, Josh Bloom, is a retired organic chemist who also writes for Science 2.0, owned by Hank Campbell, a blogger and author of a science policy book co-written by Alex Berezow [6], the founding editor of the Forbes-controlled Real Clear Science and Real Clear Religion. The trio specializes in exposing extreme examples about people who are clueless about science while pushing a conservative agenda.

(2) If you read what any of the above writers has to say about organic food [7], their arguments seem uncannily similar to those of Tim Caulfield of Alberta’s Health & Law Institute.

In a recent radio interview for CBC’s the180 [8], Caulfield stated that “the cold objective science says organic’s not worth it. The organic industry is a huge industry, they still use pesticides — ‘organic’ pesticides — which are not necessarily better for you. And it doesn’t scale up (can’t feed the world).”

For starters, feeding the world of course includes a variety of approaches, and the above refrain sounds suspiciously like the argument of an anxious business competitor. With regard to pesticides, the toxic pair used by some organic farmers are pyrethrin and rotenone. Pyrethrin is from Chrysanthemums and is far less of a problem than synthetic pyrethroids, which are only used on non-organic crops. Rotenone has been phased out in Europe and Canada [9], in 2008 and 2012 respectively, because of its interference with the mitochondrial electron transport chain and due to its impact on aquatic systems.

Even when organic produce has not lived up to its expectations, the science still reveals that the pesticide residues are lower than that of “conventional” food (funny how that label is used to describe food that is not grown according to methods used for about 9,900 of agricultural 10,000 years of history). A CBC News analysis of data supplied by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) revealed that 45.8 % of organic samples tested positive for some trace of pesticide, but that was true of 78.4% of non-organic samples [10]. 1.8% of organic produce violated Canada’s maximum allowable limits for the presence of pesticides, but non-organics violated the allowable limits 4.7 % of the time [11]. If in addition we consider the different nature of the pesticides used, organic clearly wins out.

It is true that U.S. organic sales have increased by 11.5 % to over $35 billion annually, which its opponents love to point out. But the amount still pales in comparison to the trillion-plus dollars spent by Americans on groceries every year. And you won’t see conservatives like Caulfield or the Berezow-alliance picking on Coca Cola, whose revenues were in excess of $46 billion in 2013, and who also has a history of questionable claims made to the public.

(3) David Suzuki is Canada’s most prominent environmentalist, but when he comments on genetically modified food, he generalizes too much, calling it “bad science” [12]. Despite abuses by some corporations, genetic engineering saved the papaya industry in Hawaii in 1998 by inserting a ringspot virus-resistant gene. And there have been also examples of self-correcting GM science, as when the plan to introduce methionine-rich Brazil-nut protein into a West African soybean was aborted. Although the intention was good — the local prevalent diet is deficient in the essential amino acid methionine — fortunately someone eventually remembered that many people are strongly allergic to Brazil nuts.

(4) Then there are some who cater to environmental concerns not by addressing actual issues, but by feeding phobias. One of many examples is provided a South Florida company that sells water filters as their main business, but which also blogs about controversial issues like the cooking oil preservative tBHQ, used in popcorn and fast food French fries. They may be raising legitimate concerns about the additive, but make themselves an easy target for criticism by revealing themselves to be chemically illiterate. They confuse a butyl-derivative with butane [13], and they are worried by the fact that it’s a petroleum byproduct without realizing that a wide array of compounds are petroleum-based, ranging from carcinogenic benzene to aspirin, which is far more beneficial than harmful. They also quote outdated studies about tBHQ suggesting that it is a carcinogen.

When I dug into the tBHQ controversy, it revealed itself to be yet another example of how we have to wade carefully into the grey areas of scientific controversies. At first, the opposition to the use of the preservative seemed just a case of chemical phobia. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the American and Canadian equivalents have given the preservative the thumbs up after the EFSA had conducted a commendable investigation into possible side effects of the compound. Based on dog studies, they set a concentration limit of 200mg of tBHQ per kg of fat or oil, and as a precaution in consideration of the small weight of infants, the antioxidant is kept out of baby formula. The studies concluded that tBHQ does not accumulate in the body, as it is excreted mostly through urine. Two to four days after ingesting it, there are no traces of it in the body [14]. Other researchers looked for carcinogenic effects and found none.

But there was one area had not been investigated — the possibility of allergies. Luckily, some researchers did not see the controversy as an easily open and shut case. In a research paper published in 2014 in the Journal of Immunology, Cheryl Rockwell and collaborators concluded that even low doses of the food additive tBHQ increase immunoglobin E (IgE) response to food allergens and exacerbate clinical signs of immediate hypersensitivity [15]. The connection to allergies is actually one of the few accurate statements to be found on the above mentioned water company’s web site, although the findings are still exaggerated.

Too many of us are too often entirely wrapped up in our self-interests, opinions and rationalizations. And yet there are serious health and environmental issues that cannot be addressed if we make up our minds, and pass legislation, before adequately and fairly exploring the issue. Even if a politician were to enter the arena of discussion without self-interest, he would  likely immediately fall for the biased tales produced by lobbyists and propagated by the media, agents who are on a mission to gain influence even at the cost of distorting the truth.Thoughtful analysis, mature evaluation and creative solutions are becoming rarer than the love of science itself.

It gets worse: in Canada politicians seem to have lost their tolerance for opposition to large scale development of oil resources in Alberta and the Arctic. The current Canadian government has implemented federal-level cutbacks to research programs on climate change and ocean habitats. The scientists still working in such programs have essentially been muzzled when it comes to communicating results to the public: according to a new protocol, they can only speak publicly if their speeches are approved by federal officials.

James Turk, an executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers said in a Fifth Estate investigation entitled “Silence of the Labs”: “What’s important is the scale of the assault on knowledge and on our ability to know about ourselves and to advance our understanding of our world.”

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Enrico Uva has a degree in chemistry from Concordia University and a graduate diploma in science education from McGill University, both in Montreal, Canada. He has worked briefly as an analytical chemist in the food industry and as a research assistant for Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Enrico currently teaches chemistry, serves as science department head at LaurenHill Academy, and contributes regularly to the University of Waterloo’s Chem13 News, a publication for high school and junior college chemistry educators.

[1] Tuft’s University School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

[2] New Study Toasts Risks and Benefits of Alcohol for Women, ACSH.

[3] Moderate Alcohol Consumption and Health, ACSH.

[4] Breast cancer risk from alcohol reassessed, ACSH.

[5] Alcohol Consumption and the Risk of Cancer, NIH.

[6] Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left, by A. Berezow and H. Campbell, 2012.

[7] The Lies that Whole Foods Tells, Real Clear Science.

[8] Food Fight: Organic versus non-organic, CBC, The180.

[9] Rotenone in Organic Production, by Brian Baker, 24 February 2014.

[10] Pesticide residue found on nearly half of organic produce, CBC News.

[11] Maximum Residue Limits for Pesticides, Health Canada.

[12] David Suzuki speaks out against genetically modified food, CBC News.

[13] Tbhq List Of Products Petroleum Foods Are Toxic, MiamiWater.com

[14] Opinion of the Scientific Panel on Food Additives, Flavourings, Processing Aids and Materials in Contact with Food on a request from the Commission related to tertiary-Butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), EFSA Journal.

[15] The Nrf2 activator, tBHQ, exacerbates immediate hypersensitivity response to food allergen, The Journal of Immunology.

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51 thoughts on “Cold, objective science? Think twice

  1. SocraticGadfly, pesticide residues results are only meaningless if organic and non organic foods are grown within a certain distance of each other. But it’s no coincidence that out of the teas sold in Canada, orange pekoe tea, which is grown in Ceylon, Kenya, and India, contains no detectable pesticide residue. In the cultivation of tea, no such compounds are used in those countries and probably not in the surrounding areas either. That is not the case for several teas imported in China. Among several insecticide-residues found in Legends of China green tea was imidacloprid, also a neonicotinoid. The concentration found was 0.55 ppm, more than ten times the concentration that kills honeybees. (for analyses referred to and references, see my article https://uvachemistry.wordpress.com/2014/10/18/pesticides-in-tea-strange-brew-indeed/ )

    Tienzengong, your comment is appreciated. My article may not be excellent, but it’s based on a theme to which I have devoted a great deal of thought. The examples may not have been mind-blowing, but I specifically stuck mostly to topics and writers that I have inside knowledge on. I was after accuracy, not market value.

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