Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Seralini: GMO Maize and Giant Rat Tumors

Some very dramatic pictures have been making the rounds, purporting to illustrate the extreme danger of GMO food.  Images like this one:

which comes from this article claiming that the Seralini study shows how dangerous Monsanto's Round-Up ready maize is, and that this should be a wake-up call to the world to ban GMO foods in general.

I mean, you don't want a tumor larger than your head, do you?

I have some sympathy for the anti-GMO movement.  I think it is reasonable to proceed with some caution here.  I am not eager to consume new-to-our-species substances without compelling reason because this does at least open the door to unexpected detrimental effects.  Even less so if there are not long-term studies for it.  Worries about contamination of non-GMO crops seems legitimate to me, not because the GMO crops are necessarily a problem but because I am wary of actions that are difficult to reverse.  I just have a conservative (literally, not politically) mindset here.  But here I have laid out a steel-man of the anti-GMO movement, and not a description of what it really is.

I'm also not very well educated on the topic, and am weighing in seriously for the first time because one thing at least is really clear:

This Seralini study is bullshit.  I really couldn't say it better than this analysis by VIB in Belgium.  Please go read it and come back.  It's 11 pages, very layman accessible, and a good general education on how to conduct scientific experiments and why this one in particular is worthless.

I'm not going to go through all of those criticisms blow by blow.  I do want to draw particular attention to this:

The results of Séralini et al.’s experiment show that there were fewer
deaths among the male animals whose diet comprised food with 22 or 33% genetically modified maize (= negative control) (the left hand side of the figure below). This is remarkable given that the genetically modified maize was herbicide tolerant, and no new properties that may have had health advantages for the rats. We see the same result after Roundup was added to the drinking water. There were fewer deaths among the male rats that had drunk the highest concentration of Roundup than among those who had drunk pure water (the right hand side of the figure below). And this while Roundup certainly does not contain any known life-extending properties. The researchers should have taken these observations as a warning that there was something wrong with the experiment, because if these results were correct it would mean that consuming large amounts of genetically modified NK603 maize or Roundup would be a way to live longer. These strange findings are not interpretable because as noted previously there is something fundamentally wrong with the research design.

I built a computer program that mimics the trial structure using a random 57% chance of tumor development in any rat in the control group or any of the 9 experimental groups.  Just pure random noise, structured to duplicate just the female trials in the Seralini experiment (so 100 virtual rats.)   I ran this 10 times, and never once failed to have an experimental group with a higher tumor rate than the control group.  Sometimes the tumor rate in an experimental group was double that of the control.  I am, of course, failing to report negative results and ignoring all of the same problems that Seralini has been criticized for.  If this is how you run and report your experiments, you can make them say anything.  It would be dumb luck if you didn't get this result.  If your findings are not distinguishable from random fluctuations, you do not have findings.  Here is a randomly selected and typical result from the program, based on the naturally occurring tumor rate in these particular rats:

Rat group 1: 6 tumors.
Rat group 2: 8 tumors.
Rat group 3: 6 tumors.
Rat group 4: 6 tumors.
Rat group 5: 4 tumors.
Rat group 6: 8 tumors.
Rat group 7: 5 tumors.
Rat group 8: 6 tumors.
Rat group 9: 5 tumors.
Rat group 10: 5 tumors.

Unless you have selected Group 2 or 6 as your control (I am using 1), you have experimental groups that show at least a 33% increase in the incidence of tumors, supposedly caused by whatever distinguishes those experimental groups from the control.  This is meaningless. It is a lie with numbers.

To put it all another way, if you design an experiment like this and selectively report your results like this, you could prove that literally anything causes giant tumors in rats during long-term trials, because the reason for these results is random variation in a population of rats with an already very high incidence of tumors.  Playing Mozart?  Giant rat tumors!  Beige walls on their cages?  Giant rat tumors!  Lots of affection?  Giant rat tumors!

This combined with the way negative results were ignored, criticism has been dodged, and only dramatic photos released really leaves me with the impression that the experimenters had an axe to grind and are being deliberately deceptive.  This is what it looks like when you cannot trust a source.

Here, from the Seralini website, is their 10 things you need to know about the Seralini study.

Not a single one of those 10 points is actually addressing any of the criticisms presented in the analysis I linked, though they try hard to make it sound like the criticism of their study is baseless.  This is an inadequate response at best, and I am inclined to read it as dishonest.

The only thing I find compelling about their arguments is the need for long-term studies and a healthy skepticism for what a negative result in a 90-day trial can really tell us.  But here, I must confess my personal ignorance of how to do this science properly, and note that the source agreeing with me has shown itself willing to compromise the truth to make a point.

From the Natural Independent article:

"The new Monsanto GMO study is considered to be the most comprehensive to date involving the feed/crops and Roundup, which is perhaps why it is drawing such a large reaction across the web from concerned consumers."

If that is a true representation of the results out there (and it may not be, I don't know), then it is an acknowledgement that the anxieties about this crop have no basis in evidence.  If you're anti-GMO and care about the truth, you need to stop referencing this study.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Talking about problems is not a superweapon.

Dan Fincke shared this article (not as an endorsement by him) and I found it both interesting and troubling.  (TW: contains some examples of racism and slurs against women.  Also, I quote some of these below.)

You should give it a read because it's long and I'm going to try to be a little sparing with the quotes.  There are also some good points in there (at the beginning, mostly.)

(You do not need to read but he also links to this old Livejournal post, The Sixth Meditation on Superweapons which makes it clear that this "superweapon" concept is something he's been working with for a while.  It seems that not all of those posts are available publicly right now, but you can find what he has on LJ with this quick googleEighth and Ninth mediations are here.  The thing most glaring to me about these posts is that he doesn't grok feminism and it seems like that's what this whole superweapons thing is really motivated by.  I will try to focus on the main post, but I think the subtext here is "Not All Men Are Like That, generalized and in 1000 words or more", so I'm going to address that as well.)

The author, Alexander, breaks his piece down into sections.  I don't yet have much to say about section I.  It's an example of people talking past each other in an argument that is related to group identity.

In section II, Alexander talks about the weak-man fallacy (similar to straw-man) which he defines as:
"The weak man is a terrible argument that only a few unrepresentative people hold, which was only brought to prominence so your side had something easy to defeat."

Love it.  Great definition, and a real problem that is prevalent in many conversations.  Alexander then goes on to describe criticisms which, at least at a literal level, are only attacking the people who actually hold the minority (weak-man) position being criticized, but which are written to imply that there is a problem with the entire group, and not just the sub-group being specifically criticized.  Things like:

“I hate atheists who think morality is relative, and that this gives them the right to murder however many people stand between them and a world where no one is allowed to believe in God”.
In section III he talks about how these statements "re-center" a category.  I like this, too.

Section IV goes on to talk about how this re-centering causes the group to be less trusted and may "inoculate" the listener against trusting that group so that the listener cannot seriously and fairly consider the defamed group's more defensible positions.  That's all good, too.  At the end of section IV he says this:

"Likewise, when a religious person attacks atheists who are moral relativists, or communists, or murderers, then all atheists have to band together to stop it somehow or they will have successfully poisoned people against atheism."

That sound you hear is mental tires screeching.  I'm just going to leave aside the complexity of moral relativism or communism and address the murderers, because his point is not about the specific problems.  It's about circling the wagons to defend people who share a group identity with you no matter what they have done wrong.

1) Defending murder or other unethical behavior in an attempt to protect a group identity is wrong.
2) Defending murder or other unethical behavior because of a shared identity with the perpetrator actually hurts the image of the group rather than helps it.
3) His framing implies a false choice between defending the larger group or not defending the larger group. The correct response is to condemn the murderer and if someone is unfairly linking murderous behavior to the group identity of atheism, address that fallacious link directly.  Alexander's framing will exclude the possibility of this 3rd option over and over, and I won't beat it to death each time.

In section V, Alexander uses a story about a hypothetical future czarist Russia to show how a lot of literally correct criticisms like those in section II can be part of a campaign to marginalize a group:  Jews, in this example.  I think the important thing to notice here is that sometimes an otherwise fair criticism calls attention to group identity or makes it prominent in such a way as to make that a slander against the group as a whole.  This is really obvious in:

"The next day you hear people complain about the greedy Jewish bankers who are ruining the world economy."
because the real problem is greedy bankers, regardless of their religious group identity.  This statement carries an implied "...and this is reason number N why you should hate Jewish people." This is discernible to most of us, I think.

It may be less obvious in:

"A Jew killed a Christian kid today."
until you realize that there are lots of ways to communicate the event without choosing religious identity as noteworthy.  "Child murdered."  "8-year old killed by complete stranger."  "Teacher murders student."  The original sentence carries an implication that these religious identities are important enough to take up valuable space in the event summary, that perhaps the child was killed because she was Christian, and that the murderer did it because she was Jewish.  The in-group listener is intended to hear "You should be afraid of those out-group people murdering your children."  If the group identities are not actually relevant then the implication is deeply unfair, and becomes an implied attack on the Jewish group identity.

1) Alexander seems to be arguing that statements which are not individually problematic enough to challenge lead to a "memeplex" that is a serious threat to a particular group.  I think the individual statements used in this example (and his others) are indeed problematic enough to criticize.  He seems to have noticed this in section II:

"What are the chances a black guy reads that and says “Well, good thing I’m not a thug who robs people, he’ll probably love me”?
but does not seem to have identified the problem with the statements with enough clarity to move from simply being uncomfortable to pointing at why there is cause for concern.  I hope this helps him clarify that.  (Sincerely, I do.  I think this alone untangles much of what he is getting wrong here.) Major points of the post rest on the false equivalence between criticisms that have this problem and criticisms that do not.
2) In the example he gives, the Jews are a vulnerable minority with something to fear from a majority that is clearly racist against them.  This power dynamic is critical to why the example is so chilling, and is one of the main reasons why some of the comparisons Alexander is about to make will not be valid.  They are living in a system that has it out for them.  They are oppressed.  Another group has disproportionate power over their group, over their safety, over their well-being.

Section VI.  He applies this to feminism, and seems to draw an equivalence between what feminists say and what MRAs say. I will return to this last because I think criticizing the arguments of feminism is his real point. 

Section VII is an example of someone who is personally persecuted by Westboro Baptist Church and saying:
"People! We really need to do something about this Westboro Baptist Church! They’re horrible people!"
and then religious people shout this person down by saying they don't want to be lumped in with WBC.  This is intended to represent the other balancing concern, that people with real things to criticize may be silenced by a group that feels attacked.  Notably, the criticism in this example doesn't generalize at all so it's just bizarro land that these fictional religious folks are so offended by the criticism of WBC.

"Atheists who talk about the Westboro Baptist Church may be genuinely concerned about the Westboro Baptist Church. Or they may be unfairly trying to tar all religious people with that brush."
And you can tell which by reading what they wrote and checking it for unfair implications against all religious people.  This isn't going to be on the next episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
"Religious people have to fight back, even though the Westboro Baptists don’t deserve their support, because otherwise the atheists will have a superweapon against them. Thus, a stupid fight between atheists who don’t care about Westboro and religious people who don’t support them."
I'm not going to beat that dead horse.  I swear I'm not.

In section VIII the dead horse continues unbeaten.  Alexander talks about group identity and then brings us back to the example in section I.  Most notably:
"Alice, for her part, didn’t bother bringing up that she never accused Beth of being careless, or that Beth had no stake in the matter. She saw no point in pretending that boxing in Beth and the other careful self-diagnosers in with the careless ones wasn’t her strategy all along."
This is the concluding paragraph, and I think it's worrisome that Alexander ends on this note.  No solution is actually proposed for the general case.  Should we not criticize anything that isn't a group-wide problem?  Are we supposed to pretend that groups do not exist? Should we all just pick a group, circle the wagons, and see who is left standing?  When the dust settles and our group is victorious, what shall we do with all the awful people in our group identity that we "had to defend"?

As best as I can tell, and I am basing this in part on his other LJ posts on the topic, Alexander's real point here is that feminism should not be criticizing men who do X because that is a weak-man argument and a Very Unfair Superweapon.  So basically, this seems to be a very elaborate Not All Men. I won't untangle that here, it's been done elsewhere. 

Notably some criticisms such as "Sure, white men–you were brought up to feel entitled to anything you wanted..." are fairly assigned to a group identity.  That behavior is a direct result of how white men are socialized, and there is no effective way to talk about the problem without talking about the group identity that it is fairly associated with.  The greedy Jewish banker is probably still greedy if you remove the Jewish identity, but the entitled man is probably not still acting entitled in those ways if you remove the male identity.  Mentioning the group identity is not an attempt at defamation here as it was in "Jew murders Christian child.", it is pointing at a relevant or central detail.

I don't even know where to start with his point that some MRAs being willing to acknowledge that not all women are "skanks, attention whores or predators."  This isn't an example of someone noticing that a truth about members of a group is not true about all members of the group.  It is a slur used to injure members of the group that they do not approve of, and to threaten the rest if they step out of line.

I also want to talk about why men are not Jews living under hypothetical future czarist Russia. 

In the general case of men being criticized for X by feminism:
1) Men are in a position of power and privilege in our society (I am speaking as an American here.)
2) Men are not an oppressed, vulnerable group.
3) Usually, X is not being criticized in an attempt to defame men, as it was in the Jewish example, it is being criticized in an attempt to address an injustice, as it was in the WBC example.  There do exist feminists who speak about men in general in unfair and malicious ways, but I am not going to allow the conversation to re-center feminism around them because that is not the norm.
4) Men often feel defensive when they hear these criticisms.  (And please note that I didn't need to say "some men" but you still probably understood that it was implied.)  I certainly did for a long time, and then I realized that it wasn't useful or justified.  I started really listening and figured out that my feelings were being hurt by things that hadn't actually been said or implied. And I was doing this because I had pre-conceived notions that feminism was going to be hostile to me as a man.  Apprehension was overriding comprehension.  Here is a quote from his Sixth Meditation:
"Sometimes I read feminist blogs. A common experience is that by the end of the article I am enraged and want to make a snarky comment, so I re-read the essay to pick out the juiciest quotes to tear apart. I re-read it and I re-read it again and eventually I find that everything it says is both factually true and morally unobjectionable. They very rarely say anything silly like "And therefore all men, even the ones who aren't actively committing this offense I'm arguing against, are evil", and it's usually not even particularly implied. I feel like the Jew in the story above, who admits that it's really bad the Jewish guy killed the Christian child, and would hate to say, like a jerk, that Christians aren't allowed to talk about it."
If it's factually true, morally unobjectionable, and doesn't contain unfair implications, then maybe your feeling of defensiveness is unjustified.  The comparison to the Jew in your parable is false, because the evilness of the Jewish identity in that parable was strongly implied and you've acknowledged that this wasn't the case here. 

Maybe, just maybe, you're experiencing an inoculation effect against feminism.  I certainly was.  But yeah, weak-man arguments negatively re-center perception of a group, and this is bad.