Scientists Behaving Normally: Junk science, Nonscience and Bias

I was all set to post as previously threatened another screed about golden rice in the wake of my spat on Steve Savage’s website with some of his commenters, when all of a sudden Steve releases a new post on the somewhat related issue of scientific evidence, which is perhaps of more general interest. So I think I’ll hold off for now on the golden rice and go with the science/evidence theme. In other news, I’ve been tangling with the former poet laureate on the Guardian letters page and with proponents of the pig swill ban among other things over at the Food Climate Research Network. Goodness, am I really that argumentative? Probably, alas. What a good thing I’m confined to this little window in the blogosphere (click x, top right).

Anyway, Steve’s argument is that science is a conversation which only begins with publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and that the system is hijacked when scientists aggressively move their findings into the mainstream public conversation before the scientific conversation has reached a consensus.  The basic lines of his argument are hard to fault, I think, except that the tendency for scientists to grandstand their conclusions for personal or political reasons is hardly new (think Edison vs Tesla), and ‘scientific consensus’ can often be an elusive destination. But the funny (actually, quite predictable…) thing is that all Steve’s examples of this deplorable practice are ones that have emphasised the negative effects of the mainstream food and farming system he champions. For many of us more sceptical of this system than Steve, the deplorable practice runs at least as much in the opposite direction, as for example in aggressively favourable public prejudging of golden rice by folks that Steve happily links from his blog.

Part of the problem, I think, is that because science has been so successful at unteasing causalities and informing technological developments we invest unreasonable expectations in it to arbitrate between different views of how the world should be which are ultimately rooted in politics and philosophy and which therefore cannot be resolved by scientific experiments. Steve wants there to be scientific conversations, but he doesn’t want Séralini’s study linking GM maize to cancer in rats to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, even though it’s apparently made it through the peer review process twice and was retracted in circumstances that were opaque at best.

That doesn’t seem very conversational of him – surely it’s better for these things to be available in the publicly-accredited scientific domain so that the conversation can truly begin. No doubt the study is flawed – almost all studies are flawed somehow or other. But the Séralini affair and others of its ilk does make me wonder whether there’s some publication bias going on in the world of GM research. If one or a few studies suggest a link between a GM crop and disease, it doesn’t mean that the case against GM crops is closed. A single study rarely proves anything. But you might expect to find the odd study in the scientific literature linking a GM crop to a negative health outcome of some sort even if only on the grounds of simple probability – the fact that there seem to be none (and the fact that those like Séralini and Pusztai who’ve attempted to suggest one have been so relentlessly hounded in ways quite alien to disputes in less politicised scientific arenas) is to me suspiciously redolent of publication bias, or worse. And not just to me – a study published in Environmental Sciences Europe argues that there have been ‘critical double standards’ in the evaluation of Séralini’s study as compared to the feeding studies conducted by Monsanto on their maize.

From publication bias to confirmation bias – one accusation among several levelled at me on Steve’s site by David Röll. My exchanges with Röll have led me to think that he’s basically a wind up merchant and I’m probably taking his comments way more seriously than I should, but hey let’s try to derive something useful from his windy rhetoric. So I’ll admit it, yes, I suffer from confirmation bias. And so, manifestly, does Steve Savage. And everyone else, surely. We all come to particular views over a period of time as a result of various direct and indirect influences and experiences, but the world’s complexity generally exceeds the neat lines with which we seek to organise it. When we encounter scientific research that appears confirmatory of our worldviews we latch on to it gleefully, again I’d argue in part because of the somewhat excessive cachet of science-as-truth in our culture. And when, inevitably, we encounter plausible research that challenges aspects of our worldviews, we look for flaws and rationalisations. And why not – that’s surely all part of ‘the conversation’. Nobody abandons a slowly accreted worldview overnight. Though hopefully addressing its contradictions and contrary evidence allows us to get more nuanced in our understandings.

The Berkeley physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn built an influential theory about the history of science around the notion that confirmation bias is part and parcel of the scientific process – a philosophy that can be summed up by the old cliché that you can determine the eminence of a scientist by the length of time they obstruct progress in their discipline. But the great thing about science – almost uniquely among human endeavour – is that its procedures ultimately enable it to overcome confirmation bias and the passing opinions of influential savants. As someone trained in social science rather than natural science, the misery of my discipline is that we just don’t have the same procedures available for escaping ideological blinders. On the other hand, the joy of it is that – economists aside – for the same reason we’re not so prey to the hubris of supposing that our convictions exist above the messy world of politics and argument, issuing instead like some fount of sweet water from the uncorrupted well of pure knowledge. Which is why I consider misguided the shrill appeals to ‘reason’, ‘science’ and ‘logic’ for deciding in favour of agribusiness-as-usual as a solution to contemporary problems promulgated by the likes of Graham Strouts and David Röll and, albeit less aggressively and more informatively, Steve Savage (though that’s not to say that there’s no role for these qualities in addressing such problems).

Science can overcome confirmation bias, but the process of this overcoming is neither fast nor simple. What particularly worries me is the apparently growing use of the label ‘junk science’ to summarily dismiss from consideration research or analysis that isn’t consonant with the supposed consensus asserted by the person deploying the term – the surest way for science to forget the radical questioning that gives it its edge over other modes of thought and to become just another church intent on dispatching the heretics. George Monbiot has shown how the junk science label arose out of corporate efforts to deny the scientific evidence on the consequences of tobacco and, more recently, on climate change. On a much smaller stage, the way that David Röll sought to dispatch my scepticism over golden rice was cut from the same cloth – it’s so much easier to dismiss your opponent for junk science, Gish gallop, conspiracy theory or whatever than actually engage with their arguments.

Well, there are those I’ve accused of Gish gallop myself – time is pressing, and why work through a foot-thick tissue of questionable assumptions and dodgy evidence (especially when the person concerned is only likely to respond with ad hominem abuse). But if you don’t engage with the specific arguments, it opens the door to your own confirmation bias and certainly gives you no right to consider your case proven. In many situations, science does not speak with one voice, and cases of outsider science becoming mainstream are legion. Much as I despair when someone says exactly this in justification of earth vibrational essences, perpetual motion machines or other nonsense (I’m thinking more of things like plate tectonics, the Alvarez hypothesis and the symbiosis in the eukaryotic cell), that fact remains. And in any case, all this talk of ‘the science’ in relation to essentially political commitments on food, farming and society is misleading – the advantages and disadvantages of different farming futures do not only or even mainly lie in what ‘the science’ tells us, but in what kind of social worlds we wish to inhabit. Which was pretty much my position in the FCRN debate, and is a recurrent theme on this blog. So thanks for coming back for more.

17 thoughts on “Scientists Behaving Normally: Junk science, Nonscience and Bias

  1. Chris:
    In your letter to the Guardian you mention the Yorkley Court Community Farm. I followed a link and see there’s a dispute over land – but haven’t dug far enough to see what the other side has to say for itself. Are the YCCF actual land owners? Are they squatters (who may still have some rights)?

    Neither of these angles undoes your argument, and from following matters in Frome (from quite a distance) I can certainly see how you have every right to share your insightful opinion in the matter.

    Zoning matters get VERY political and as such a social scientist should be far better prepared to at least anticipate what various ‘sides’ might go for in their attempt(s) to win the day. [better prepared than say a field scientist who would rather play with his plants than engage fellow humans hostile to his world view]

  2. Chris,
    You seem to have quite that appetite for reasoning out your positions with those who hold contrary viewpoints. I think… that is an admirable trait, albeit one that might be personally exhausting. How about some new posts on possible small farm futures?
    The rain has finally caught up with us with two inches in the past 24 hours. That should bring on some much needed growth with the beans and the potatoes. Hope your veggie production is in high gear.

  3. I should also offer a hat-tip for the link to the FRCN blog post… where they made a disparaging remark about soy…

    On the one hand I suppose I should ride off into the setting sun on the blogosphere and set them straight – as for goodness sake they show an image of Edamame (human food… unless left as table waste and then more appropriate for pig swill than for chickens)… instead of grain soy which is actually what they want to talk about. And for the sake of brevity they should actually do the little bit of homework to discover that soy is actually a BETTER feed for those chickens and pigs than current alternatives… it has more feed value per pound, the plant producing it requires no nitrogen fixation from Haber/Bosch, and since the UK is not producing all the animal feed it needs [thus forcing at least some importation] the importation of a more nutrient dense feed saves on the carbon balance… fewer tons (tonnes?) need to be imported for a similar level of meat/egg/milk production.

    So why not just pop over and enlighten them? I have to live within some limits myself. But if someone from FRCN wants to stop by SFF I’ll be happy to supply data and other fun filled facts to support the above.

    Soy. It can do so much. [perhaps a commodity ‘branding’ opportunity there??]

    • Clem

      I think our comments crossed, so I missed your one above in posting my one below.

      Anyway, a bit more background on Yorkley Court is here:

      On soy, your comments are interesting. My take on it, from a position considerably more ignorant than yours, is not that it’s such a bad crop agronomically or nutritionally (though I know one or two folks who think otherwise) but that the growth in global meat consumption fuelled mostly by rising population and prosperity in Asia is largely in soy-based chicken and pork, with potentially bad consequences in terms of arable land take. John Vandermeer et al in the book mentioned in my previous post aren’t fans of soy production in Brazil…perhaps a topic for another post/discussion…?

      • I now have my own copy of Nature’s Matrix. Haven’t gotten too far into yet, so at this point only have one quibble. Haven’t seen their beef on soy yet – but have seen a fairly longish report that was similarly dismissive of the huge Brazilian soy rush. Not recalling the source off the top of my head. My copy is at work.

        But the gist of the argument is to lay blame upon soy when actually if there is any ‘blame’ to be assigned it rightly falls to hungry Homo sapiens who are looking for calories. If one simply substitutes food (or feed) every time the writers say ‘soy’ you come with a more credible argument. The regrettable side of their thinking however is that soy is arguably THE single best choice for producing the food/feed the international appetite is calling for. I allude to nutrient density above, and to biological nitrogen fixation as assets in comparison to other common food/feed sources. The amount of protein produced per acre is higher for soy than for corn:

        [Ok, that’s a Wikipedia link… but if you like I can dig up something better].

        And even this goes against the ‘local’ food argument, if you do find yourself in a food insecure situation and need to import something… soy is the hero. Other legumes (lentils, lupines, peas, and beans can help if they’re in better proximity – but in most environments I know anything about adapted soy genetics will usually yield more). Yep, I’m biased. But until someone can provide a comparable cache of stable wholesome protein and oil from the same size land footprint, they need to be more careful tossing such aspersions about. It makes them look foolish.

        Before signing out I do want to suspect that Perfecto et al in Nature’s Matrix may be unimpressed with the manner in which the Brazilians have overwhelmingly converted the landscape to soy (i.e., in many places there is no longer any ‘Matrix’ to be found). And this is unfortunate. But how is that soy’s fault?? This is laying blame on an innocent by-stander.

        • Clem,
          That was a helpful summary of the benefits of soy. So, in a less food insecure system, like East Tennessee, is there a role for soy other than as a feed source for livestock?

          • Soy does have its horticultural manifestations (if you will)… Edamame would likely be the most recognized here. As a University town, Knoxville likely hosts the sort of consumer who knows what edamame is and may have tried it. If you’ve ever had pea pods (immature sweet pea – in the whole pod) then edamame is the simply the soy version. The soybean pod is covered in trichomes (the little hairs on the plant) and therefore most folk will ‘shell’ the seeds and eat them only. I have no problem with the pod and will usually just break the sting along the back side and pop all the rest.

            Because edamame is a fresh vegetable it’s harvest is not easily mechanized. At farmer’s markets I’ve seen edamame sold on whole plants – the customer pulls the pods off when preparing.

            Natto is another Asian specialty food made from soy. It could be considered an ‘acquired’ taste. A small plot of soy kept for natto would also make sense. More can be said on natto if there is interest.

        • Can’t much argue with that Clem – certainly can’t blame soy itself, which as you point out has quite a number of benefits. But one might still question the wisdom of where we’re going globally with the pork-chicken-soy nexus. I suppose you could say of most of the big global crops that prompt environmental concerns like soy, oil palm, sugar cane and many of the cereals that they’re kind of victims of their own success – they’re good crops, which is why people grow them in such quantity. And the problem is the quantity (and perhaps the tendency to monoculture associated with it), not the crop.

  4. Thanks for those comments, fellers. You’re right Brian about the exhaustion of engaging across the divides. I like to read stuff that challenges my assumptions, and occasionally it can be illuminating to debate the issues with those who take a very different view, but normally it just generates heat rather than light – a lesson I really need to take to heart. More on small farm futures? Thanks for the suggestion – I’ll do my best to oblige.

    Clem, the ownership issues around Yorkley Court are a rather tangled tale which are touched on in Issue 14 of ‘The Land’ (2014)…regrettably unavailable electronically so far as I can tell. My understanding is that the present occupants don’t own it, but it’s not entirely clear who does (a more common phenomenon than you might suppose on this small, crowded and historically well documented island) and though discussions between the farm occupants and the local authority were ongoing to regularise the situation it appears that a claimant to the throne is trying to preempt this with the eviction. I know a few of the people involved in the farm slightly – young, serious people who want to farm but don’t have easy ways of accessing land, associated with the Reclaim The Fields group. In terms of ‘small farm futures’ I find the rise of groups like this one of the more encouraging signs for the future, but they’re up against the full might of conservative English rural mores.

    • Chris,
      It has always seen, as an outsider, that the conservative rural land laws of England were a bit of a double edged sword. It both has allowed for an open undeveloped rural countryside, when compared with the island’s population density and the endless sprawl of America. Yet it has kept many from accessing land for productive use.

      How hard is it to actually purchase an acre or two if you want to run a CSA?


      • It’s not difficult to buy small areas of land (though prices can be high, especially in peri-urban areas where horticulture competes with horseyculture) – the problem arises when you decide that you need to live on your holding. I agree that English planning laws are a double edged sword – the problem really is that big developers have lawyers who scare the hell out of local authorities, whereas small-scale farmers don’t, so you get weird situations in which whole fields get allocated to housing while somebody else nearby is struggling to get permission to live in a trailer. We have the idea of ‘green belts’ around towns, which arose originally with a view to having peri-urban farms feeding the towns, but is now often used precisely to prevent new farm formation. People don’t seem to realise that the countryside used to be more peopled than it is, that large fields of ryegrass or wheat aren’t necessarily ‘natural’, and that if you don’t let peri-urban veg growers establish holdings you invite large-scale mechanised alternatives, while the veg keeps coming from water- and labour-stressed southern Spain!

        • It varies across the US. Tennessee is quite hands off regarding what you do with your property. That is of course good and bad. But to give an example: we built our house in 1999, doing much of the work ourselves. Only two permits were required: septic and electrical. Both were cursory inspections. No building codes required. But, it has changed somewhat as more of your “horsey-farmers” move into the area.
          They of course are the ones who complain that their neighbor’s fighting cocks wake them up. Really?:
          One would think that when you buy property next to a trailer with three hundred fighting cocks tethered in the front yard you might have a clue. But, they never do.
          Anyway, I’ve been counting gardens as of late, as you know. And, I am pleased that we average around 50% in our neck of the woods. Of course that makes selling at farmer’s markets problematic. If everyone does for themselves how in the hell do we sell anything! Therein lie one of the small-farm paradoxes.

          • Interesting – yes that indeed is a small farm paradox, and one that I think needs some thought. The present alternative of minimal people in farming, huge machinery and wafer thin margins creates other paradoxes, of course. I hope to come back to this one & chew over it.

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