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How Science Works: Learning From Controversy Over a Study Linking GM Corn to Tumors in Rats

By   /  January 6, 2014  /  12 Comments

The whole topic of Genetically Modified Organisms is controversial, and this article doesn’t discuss their use or banning their use. Instead, we want to look at this current controversy to help us understand how the scientific process works, why science done well is important to helping us make decisions, and how we can gather information to help us understand the difference between science properly done, and science poorly done.

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In November of 2012, the journal “Food and Chemical Toxicology” published a paper by Fre
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About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

12 Comments

  1. Donald says:

    Thanks for getting this conversation started here and we look forward to your next installment. I’d like to guess that the “scientific protocol” that allowed Monsanto to pick which ten rats it wanted to report on was originally created by researchers who did not want to report the real truth of their findings. Sure, “they” will rattle off 25 reasons this “protocol” is OK and scientific but they are just trying to fool themselves as well as the rest of us. Just another example of how broken the system is. We will continue growing quality forage and avoid using herbicides and pesticides and share our methods with each other. Hopefully more and more people will do the same. Thanks.

    • Kathy Voth says:

      I didn’t do a good job when I wrote the sentences about Monsanto testing only 10 rats out of its group of 20 and I left the impression that they may have done something bad. I have since checked out the protocol (OECD 452) more fully. The protocol allowing researchers to run research that includes 20 animals in a group but to only have to do blood work on 10 of them was developed by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. The purpose of this protocol, like all of the others, is to make sure that scientists follow proper procedures. Observations are done on all animals in the group, but blood work is only done on at least 10 males and 10 females from each group. The same rats are tested throughout the life of the study so researchers can’t just pick animals to get the results they want. Blood work is expensive, so doing it on only some of the animals saves money while still providing a study with statistical validity. All the animals are sacrificed at the end of the study and necropsied and information is gathered on all of them at that point.

      It’s unfortunate that this kind of controversy tends to reduce trust in scientists. Of course each scientist starts with a hypothesis, and maybe even has a preferred outcome. But my experience working with researchers has demonstrated that overall they are trustworthy, and the system they work within has enough checks and balances that those who cut corners are found out sooner rather than later.

  2. Chip Hines says:

    The one thing missing in this debate is the confirmed fact that weeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate which was a given at the beginning which Monsanto knew. Chemicals are always going to be defeated by the natural world. And the geneticists at Monsanto ignored this.

  3. Chip Hines says:

    Ron,
    I do not believe Kathy is riding into the valley of death. She is explaining research methods and that I appreciate. The part I am glad she brought out was Dr. Huber used ten rats and Monsanto used 20 and cherry picked the 10 to use for the results. That is, in my thinking, unethical. I can make thinks look much better be picking results that fit what I want instead of going with what is found.

  4. Ron Harben says:

    Hi Kathy,

    Are you sure you want to open this can of worms on science? I’m sure you realize that this subject (science) is fraught with political and economic overtones that preclude changes being made about the “truthiness” of science. I’ve included a few links to articles that show that much of what is viewed as the truth (something that science is tasked with ferreting out) is nothing more than what a person has been lead to believe. I rarely believe anything that I read/hear/see in the mainstream media anymore – especially if there is any economic ramifications to the subject at all. Instead, I will research on my own to determine – as much as possible – what the facts are on the subject. I doubt most people have either the time nor the inclination to do so themselves; too much “backfire effect”!

    I think you’re riding into the “Valley of Death” on this subject.

    http://www.spaulforrest.com/2011/06/why-do-people-believe-stupid-stuff-even.html

    http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org/

    http://dementedagitprop.com/

    http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/scientific_integrity/how-corporations-corrupt-science.pdf

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/23/opinion/krugman-the-post-truth-campaign.html?_r=0

    http://mycommonsensepolitics.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3154:the-science-of-fox-news-why-its-viewers-are-the-most-misinformed&catid=19:the-really-bad-mean-folks&Itemid=30

    • Kathy Voth says:

      Well, having opened this can of worms a bit, and on a study that is very controversial, I agree that it’s very scary. In fact, I’m working hard on both understanding and explaining how statistics worked in this study and should work in general for the follow up article.

      The fact is that every single human being comes with bias of some sort. The purpose of the way we go about gathering information is “supposed” to give us the best shot possible at being as transparent, authentic and as truthful as possible. What I hope to do is help us all be more careful consumers of information, and to notice when biases are showing, whether it’s our own or someone else’s. I’d also like to promote more thoughtful dialogue, a little trust, some self-awareness, and a lot less name calling and insults. I believe that’s the path to better solutions to all the issues we face.

  5. Bill Beaman says:

    Good article. I hate the fact that a new term “good science” is now being used and my definition of “good science” is a particular study or research providing information that agrees with someone or some groups point of view.

    Too often now, when we hear that “a scientific study concludes:” we just groan and discount the information.

  6. Rebecca Nesbit says:

    Interesting, thank you. One aspect which I felt deserved more attention was the animal welfare issues with this paper. I blogged with my thoughts http://gmfromthefence.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/retraction-of-seralinis-controversial-study-on-gm-toxicology/

  7. Chip Hines says:

    Kathy,
    When Monsanto used 20 rats and picked the ten to use for their results that would seem to be not only unethical but manipulating the results. If someone can cherry pick the results that is not true research in my thinking.

    I have always assumed there was a standard protocol to follow. Is the Monsanto research method allowable in the scientific community?

    This was a great article. Thanks for delving into the two research programs to bring out the differing methods. All the fighting going back and forth in the news is hard to understand without clarification.

    • Kathy Voth says:

      Hi Chip!
      I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this topic and have learned that there is a scientific protocol that allows for the testing of only 10 of the rats, making what Monsanto did perfectly fine. I’m not sure why, because I’m not a statistician which is what makes trying to write about this for the regular person, like me and you, so very hard.

      • Bill Elkins says:

        I’m glad to see the issues discussed, but would point out the following- 1)there are several statistical strategies for dealing with experimental evidence. Likewise numerous statisticians -and of course THEY do not speak with unanimity. 2)Following one “recognized” protocol carefully without deliberate cheating is important, if only so that others can evaluate your work. But suppose the chosen protocol was not entirely appropriate, and a different one gives a different answer? In any case, independent replication will be needed to sort these problems out.
        So what is a concerned individual to do?
        Well he/she can look at the evidence to the extent time permits, and make a TENTATIVE conclusion, subject to modification as new info- emerges. It saves time to defer to opinions of some experts ,whom one believes are better informed on the issue. Of course one’s opinion of any expert, or group thereof, can also change, especially as circumstances change and new info- emerges.
        ‘Twas ever thus -We all live with our beliefs and the knowledge that others disagree. These beliefs may be better informed by statistical analysis or indeed refuted (at least for the time being.) Daniel Kahnemann has a best seller– THINK FAST, THINK SLOW, that guides one thru to some realization of how often we deceive ourselves with or without statistical help.

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