Viewpoint: ‘Advocacy research’ discredits science and aids unprincipled activism

This article originally appeared at Forbes and has been republished here with permission of the author.

The scientific research enterprise today is in something of a quandary. Various empirical studies show that 80-90% of the claims coming from scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals fail to replicate. (To simplify that statistic, that’s equivalent to only a 10-20%  success rate for recipes from a cookbook.)

For the most part this is due to flaws in the design of experiments, unidentified variables or sloppiness in performing them, but sometimes it is the result of nefarious intentions leading to fraud or misconduct.

The latter problem is only likely to become worse with the proliferation of “predatory publishers” of many open-access journals (which anyone can read online without a subscription fee). According to an exposé of these practices by Gina Kolata in the New York Times, the journals published by some of the worst offenders are nothing more than cash-generating machines that eagerly, uncritically accept virtually any submitted paper, as long as the authors pay a hefty publication fee. Most often, the “peer-review” of those papers is fictional.

Another equally worrisome and related trend is the increasing frequency of articles containing flawed “advocacy research” that is actually designed to give a false result. This phenomenon is increasingly common in studies of the supposed adverse effects of chemical pesticides and genetically engineered plants or the ostensible benefits of organic foods. Many of these deceitful studies are exposed eventually, but even long after the findings have been discredited, they provide propaganda value to support a certain cause or position as they continue to be cited by activists.

One of the worst and most pernicious examples of the impact of flawed advocacy research was the study by Andrew Wakefield, who claimed to have found that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine can cause autism. The results of the study have never been duplicated but have been refuted repeatedly, and Wakefield’s paper was retracted by the journal that published it. Wakefield was stripped of his medical license in 2010 by the U.K.’s General Medical Council, which found him guilty of ethical violations and of failing to disclose financial conflicts of interest. Although the medical and public health communities have attempted to educate the public about the fallacy of Wakefield’s findings, it appears that they have diminished the public’s confidence in vaccination programs that were safely and effectively eradicating serious and highly contagious diseases.

Below are a few of the most egregious examples of flawed advocacy research on agricultural chemicals. (We have elsewhere discussed examples that pertain specifically to genetic engineering research.)

Tyrone Hayes and atrazine

Tyrone Hayes, a University of California Berkeley biology professor claims to have found that “developing male frogs exhibited female characteristics after exposure to atrazine…at exposure levels deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency” and that the chemical induces mammary and prostate cancer in laboratory rodents and is a potential cause of reproductive cancers in humans.

The Hayes saga began in 2002, when, as described by science writer Jon Entine:

Hayes published a blockbuster study claiming that the herbicide atrazine, hailed by scientists for decades because of its low toxic profile, caused sexual abnormalities in frogs. He speculated that it could harm humans. Hayes’ claims set off a firestorm, fanned by advocacy groups that view large agricultural companies as just this side of the devil. Millions of dollars has been poured into research to address his alleged findings.

However, not only have other investigators and regulatory agencies in the United States and elsewhere been unable to reproduce Hayes’ claims and have found his experimental designs to be flawed, but the Environmental Protection Agency has complained that Hayes has failed to make all of his raw data available for their review as he is ethically required to do.

Bee Biases and Baseness

As part of the supposed bee “crisis” that has been extensively publicized in recent years, a great deal of dubious research has been advanced by scientists with hidden agendas. Harvard nutritionist Chensheng Lu, who boasts no entomological or beekeeping experience whatsoever, published a pair of widely debunked, scientifically flawed studies which claimed to prove that neonicotinoid pesticides were producing a honey bee die-off–at the same time he served on the board of directors of The Organic Center and worked in a promotional capacity for the Organic Trade Association to tout the benefits of organic products. (Organic agriculture prohibits the use of neonicotinoids.) These conflicts of interest, as well as those below, clearly do not pass the sniff test.

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University of Sussex scientist David Goulson and his team have published a series of studies–many contradicted by other research–that supposedly links neonicotinoid pesticides to a range of bee ailments and identifies various paths of bee exposure to them. But in January, 2016 Goulson tipped his hand by signing on as a trustee of the Pesticide Action Network, UK–the UK branch of the global activist organization dedicated to eliminating chemical pesticides, the largest volume of which are used in agriculture.

Then there’s Jonathan Lundgren, the dissident U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher who was finally cashiered for using his USDA platform to disseminate scientifically suspect research that supposedly indicted neonicotinoid pesticides for harming bees and had not been properly approved for public release. He went on to open his own organic farm and become a consultant to organic farmers.

By far the worst case of activist science involving bees and neonicotinoid pesticides was uncovered by David Zaruk, a researcher in Belgium, who discovered a document on an activist scientist’s website that documents a scheme hatched by a group of scientists operating as the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, “the world’s largest and most diverse environmental network” of government and civil society organizations. They intended to orchestrate the production and publication of a series of “high impact” scientific papers, using respected scientist authors and targeting the most prominent scientific journals, to support a pre-determined conclusion: that neonicotinoid pesticides were dangerous and must be banned. The step-by-step publication plan was explicitly designed to ratchet up pressure on EU and other western regulatory authorities to achieve the desired policy outcome–a ban–before any of the actual research or writing had been done.

Why Do They Do It?

Why, then, do these spurious claims continue to proliferate? Scientists cheat and lie for the same reasons that people commit espionage and betray their country–money, ideology, disillusionment or delusion.

Money is the key to much of the misconduct in research on genetically engineered organisms and chemicals. There exists in Europe and North America, in particular, a vast, well-established, highly professional protest industry fueled by special interest groups that seek to line their own pockets while compromising the public interest. A review of tax returns of the “non-profit” activist organizations that oppose agricultural biotechnology and other modern production methods and fund much of the spurious research reveals more than $2.5 billion is being spent annually. Only a small fraction of that is actually expended on fraudulent experiments; much more is spent on non-research propaganda, such as advertising, protests and lobbying.

The dissemination of that propaganda is facilitated by a phenomenon called the “information cascade,” the way in which incorrect ideas gain acceptance by being parroted until eventually we assume they must be true even in the absence of credible evidence. It is a sort of evil twin of the “wisdom of crowds,” which postulates that in the aggregate, large numbers of individuals making independent judgments even about complex questions are often correct. An information cascade on the other hand is marked by non-independent judgments resulting from people having had certain “facts” drummed into them by the media and others. (In his entertaining Getting It Wrong, W. Joseph Campbell debunks various myths that many of us have come to believe after repetition over many years.)

Whatever the reasons may be for misconduct by scientists and journals, we should recall the admonition of Dr. DeWitt Stetten, Jr., the former deputy director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, “Science cannot tolerate the man who takes lightly his moral obligation to report strictly what is true.”

Henry I. Miller, a physician, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy & Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Follow him on Twitter @henryimiller.

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