A Call for Skepticism
by Steven K. Roberts
If ever we needed a demonstration that the fundamental flaw in many arguments is a lack of discrimination regarding information sources, we have it in the Nels Konnerup article, “Toxicology 101 Defended,” in the March 26 issue of the S/C News.
The author makes a “plea for cogent thought, rather than a visceral reaction to the use of pesticides and herbicides,” and cites a number of references “authored by highly qualified and respected scientists.” So far, so good.
But just for fun, I spent a few minutes researching some of these sources to see if I could determine the affiliations and biases of their authors.
Let’s look at the low or declining cancer rates associated with all risk factors except those directly associated with tobacco. This is backed up by references to papers published by Doctors Cole and Rodu and widely cited. Sounds unassailable, right, especially with all those black-and-white tabulated numbers and the letters after the authors’ names? But do you know who Dr. Rodu is?
He is author of the book, “For Smokers Only: How Smokeless Tobacco Can Save Your Life” (with a foreword by Dr. Cole). Information is available at www.DrRodu.com, where you can buy the $15 book and find links to the Mint Snuff homepage.
OK, so this gentleman generates income by making tobacco look bad (which of course it is, and I’m all for anything that helps people quit). But do you smell a hint of potential bias? This is not pure research, this is marketing. Are the cancer-rate figures correct? I don’t know, maybe they are. But the added datum about their source makes me skeptical enough to suspect that there might be another side to the story, so at this point I wouldn’t cite this paper to support an argument without additional investigation. It took about 2 minutes to find this at an Australian cancer research site:
“Death rates from Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma have risen about four per cent a year [since 1950] in line with increasing incidence. The cause of this cancer and the reason for increasing incidence are not known.” We find with a bit more digging that the death rate for many cancers (including stomach, Hodgkin’s, and testis) has indeed declined markedly, thus establishing an encouraging set of averages… but that lymphoma, myeloma, melanoma, and liver cancer are up (although the rate of increase is dropping).
Is this data correct? Well, maybe, maybe not. But now we have seen, with a trivial amount of effort, that the numbers quoted in the article are potentially suspect and very likely optimized to support the sales of a book… while conveniently making it look like environmentalists are barking up the wrong tree.
The other trick I see used here is emphasis on the cancer issue, which is indeed only a suspected link with glyphosphates, not yet proven one way or the other to anyone’s satisfaction. Arguing this point distracts the reader from all the others. There have been conflicting studies, and it’s easy to find comments from “respected scientists” on both sides of the issue. But there’s a lot more to the picture than non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, including a variety of effects on other species. Please read the excellent summary at http://www.beyondpesticides.org/infoservices/pesticidefactsheets/toxic/glyphosate.htm for a much more detailed explanation than I have space for here. Is this report itself biased? Quite possibly: after all, it’s on a site called “beyondpesticides.org.” Be suspicious of anything you read on either side of a thorny issue, and use www.google.com to investigate further if you sense distorted reportage. You will find, however, that many of the citations in this article point to EPA studies and academic research, some of which directly contradict the claims of Dr. Konnerup and the original Toxicology 101 article by Dana Pratt (who I don’t doubt is an expert in the pesticides field).
The point here is that there is a near-infinite amount of information out there, and when one has an agenda (especially economic or political), it’s fairly trivial to find supporting material. Some studies are seriously flawed, with inadequate detail in questionnaires to establish a distinction between specific chemicals and general pesticide use, as was the case with one study published in another of the sources cited in the Konnerup article (The Agrichemical and Environmental News).
So be very skeptical, especially when someone tries to tell you that raining persistent toxins onto your yards and watersheds is perfectly OK because there’s no proven link to lymphoma. Even the Pesticide Action Network database (www.pesticideinfo.org), which is very conservative on human health links, shows the following Roundup effects on other organisms:
Organism Group Effects Noted Aquatic Plant Accumulation, Development, Growth, Intoxication, Physiology, Population Crustaceans Mortality, Population Fishes Accumulation, Avoidance, Biochemistry, Enzyme(s), Histology, Intoxication, Mortality Insects Intoxication, Population Mollusks Enzyme(s), Growth, Mortality, Physiology Phytoplankton Biochemistry, Intoxication, Physiology, Population Terrestrial Plants Growth Zooplankton Intoxication, Mortality, Population
There is another subtle bit of perhaps-unintentional misdirection in the article by Dr. Konnerup. He states that “a report prepared for the Washington Friends of Farms and Forests on integrated vegetation management programs contains the following statement,” and then quotes the claim that mechanical control costs 10-20 times more per mile than chemical methods. This sounds awfully high, compared with other figures I have seen (but hey, what do I know?). Again, off to the Net for background…
It turns out that the Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, along with the Washington Pulp and Paper Association, lobbied vigorously last year against the use of state funds for research into alternatives to the use of persistent bioaccumulative toxins! This is an advocacy group for farmers and timber producers, despite its cuddly-sounding name. Among other things, the organization promotes the use of clopyralid, a potent toxin that is finding its way into compost and killing off residential vegetable gardens, on the strength of the argument that if they don’t use that, then they’d have to use a lot more of something else. Sounds like a hint of bias here as well.
Dr. Konnerup is reasonable when he asks for cogent thought on this issue, but then uses every trick in the book to support his own side of the argument. There is plenty of bias and irrationality on BOTH sides, however, and the reader should not be swayed by a long list of citations, official-looking tabular data, and academic or government affiliations. For that matter, why believe me? You should take my own biases into account as well (full disclosure below in “About the Author”).
When you get right down to the bottom line, it’s all about money… and as voters, it is up to us so see through the hype and misdirection and try to make intelligent decisions about matters that affect our health and environment.
About the Author
Steven K. Roberts is the owner of Nomadic Research on Camano Island, a small R&D firm focused on technomadic adventure and environmental data collection, along with various publishing and consulting spinoffs including a recent project for the National Science Foundation. The enterprise is supported by over 130 industry sponsors and a team of volunteers, and Roberts is the author of 6 books (the most recent of which, detailing the Microship project, is scheduled for early-2003 publication by O’Reilly & Associates). He participates occasionally in environmental and land use issues but doesn’t claim to be an expert, nor is he in the medical profession. His exploits are detailed at www.microship.com.