Viewpoint: New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof again echoes scientifically dubious fears about falling sperm counts and ‘endocrine disrupting’ chemicals

The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof has shown an admirable commitment over the years towards highlighting under-reported stories. He fights for the underdog, often in the developing world. That’s all the more reason why his recent column, What are sperm telling us?”, was so disappointing.

The article, one of the most read stories on the paper’s website for more than a week, focuses on a four-year old study that has been seized on to promote a theory about why sperm counts are falling and egg quality shows signs of decline. It’s an important issue. Kristof sub-heads his column with what he believes is the smoking gun: Endocrine-disrupting chemicals may be the problem.”

As an epidemiologist who has spent my entire career studying chemicals and their effects on human health, that’s a problematic theory, at best. Kristof’s commentary, and in fact the research that he selectively cities, tell only part of a complex story about the impact of exposure to environmental chemicals. Rather than conveying the grays of science, he ends up promoting the most sensational, almost black and white, and least probable explanations of a serious environmental and health issue.

How do Kristof’s experts portray the science?

At issue is a 2017 meta-analysis of studies examining sperm counts in different countries. The study, spearheaded by Shanna Swan, an environmental scientist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, reported that from 1973 to 2011 the sperm count of men in Western countries had fallen by 59 percent. In contrast, no significant decline was seen in other parts of the world (however fewer studies were available from these regions). The results of this high-quality analysis confirmed earlier, but less reliable, reports of falling sperm counts. In addition, the results showed that the trend is continuing.

Kristof wrote a remarkably similar column about the meta-analysis, “Are Your Sperm in Trouble,” when it first came out. The selective evidence he chose to feature painted a distorted picture of the science, as I pointed out in a column in Forbes:

“The question of sperm quality has been a focus of scientific discussion for over twenty-five years, and a wealth of serious, well-conducted studies provide no support for the claim that male reproductive function is under threat. What is in trouble is our ability to look beyond isolated results from studies that are held up to inspire fear but that are, at best, difficult to interpret and, at worst, meaningless.”

– Geoffrey Kabat, 2017 Forbes column

Kristof’s recent column reprises but doesn’t advance his thesis by interviewing four scientists who believe that evidence points to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which mimic the body’s hormones, disrupting normal developmental processes, as the culprit.

One of those scientists is Professor Swan, who was the senior author on the 2017 meta-analysis. As it not-so-coincidentally happens, she has just published a book with the clinically detached title: Count Down: How our modern world is threatening sperm counts, altering male and female reproductive development, and imperiling the future of the human race.”

Shanna Swan. Credit: Mizzou Visual Productions

Presumably echoing Swan, Kristof tells us that, “These endocrine disruptors are everywhere: plastics, shampoos, cosmetics, cushions, canned foods and A.T.M receipts. They often aren’t on the labels and can be difficult to avoid.” Swan’s ‘practical suggestions for reducing exposure to EDCs are eye-opening:

“Store food in glass containers, not plastic. Above all, don’t microwave foods in plastic or with plastic wrap on top. Avoid pesticides. Buy organic produce if possible. Avoid tobacco or marijuana. Use a cotton or linen shower curtain, not one made of vinyl. Don’t use air fresheners. Prevent dust buildup. Vet consumer products you use with an online guide like that of the  Environmental Working Group.”

This list is noteworthy for combining the impractical: don’t use plastic containers; with the impossible: buy organic and avoid pesticides (which are used by all farmers, conventional and organic). Some of the advice is simply ridiculous: don’t use a plastic shower curtain (exactly how many endocrine-disrupting molecules are off-gassing from your vinyl shower curtain?).

It’s also troubling that Kristof and Swan tout the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy group funded in part by the organic industry [read the GLP Profile of the Environmental Working Group]. EWG is notorious for not following standard protocols for measurement of pesticide residues in produce. It is also notorious for putting out an annual “Dirty Dozenlist of ‘pesticide soaked’ fruits and vegetables that is widely decried as scientifically illiterate (here, here, here), including by the USDA, during the Obama Administration.

The dose poisons the reporting

In addition to Swan, Kristof brings in three other scientists, all strong proponents of the belief that EDCs are responsible for a number of apparent trends in reproductive health, including the declining age of onset of puberty in girls, an increase in male reproductive anomalies, an increase in testicular cancer, as well as falling sperm counts.

It is a telltale sign that, at no point in his article or in any quote from the experts he interviewed, is the theory of EDCs ever explained; it’s presented as if it is established science, which it is not. Nor do the scientists address a fundamental tenet of toxicology: the dose makes the poison. In fact, the notion of the dose of exposure to EDCs is not even mentioned.

This oversight is an almost universal feature of reporting of low-level environmental hazards in the media. Scientists know that it is the dose, in conjunction with the potency of a substance, that determines its effects. But there is a complicity or sloppy ignorance between scientists, eager to get exposure for their work, and journalists in ignoring this crucial fact.

In reality, biomonitoring of populations indicates that, while exposure to certain chemicals may be detectable in children and adults using modern, ultra-sensitive analytic methods that find traces in the parts per million, billion, or even trillion (akin to one grain of sand in an Olympic sized swimming pool), we are essentially talking about micro-trace amounts that have no health impact.

The single-minded belief of true believers among scientists and the media that they know what is causing highly complex and varied phenomena, while reinforcing the public’s fear of trace exposures to “chemicals,” effectively obscures a much more complex, and not nearly as lurid, picture.

What activist scientists and journalists are not reporting

Missing from Kristof’s column is any understanding that the scientists he quotes are not representative of views in the scientific community. A very different picture emerges when one listens to some of the foremost authorities in the field of reproductive health.

Richard Sharpe is in the Medical Research Council at Edinburgh University and one of the world’s foremost endocrinologists. He is the research scientist who originated the notion and study of ‘endocrine disrupting chemicals’ in the 1990s.

Richard Sharpe. Credit: University of Edinburgh

Over the years, after participating in and reviewing hundreds of studies on EDCs, he is convinced the concept is wrongheaded—an ideological belief and not science based. Speaking to The Guardian, he stressed the lamentable degree of our ignorance concerning the array of factors influencing healthy male reproductive development due to a lack of research investment.

“We need a critical mass of scientists trying to find out what is happening and why it is happening. Unfortunately, we still do not have that. Not enough research is being done. Yet I believe the problem is getting worse.”

On what might be causing the decline in sperm counts, Sharpe added: “Given that we still do not know what lifestyle, dietary or chemical exposures might have caused this decrease, research efforts to identify (them) need to be redoubled and to be non-presumptive as to cause.”

After interviewing Sharpe in 2017, the science journalist Philip Ball wrote that, “Sharpe suspects that diet, lifestyle, medications and environmental chemicals all play roles, possibly in that order.

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Sharpe’s analysis, unlike Swan’s is entirely mainstream. As Professor Allan Pacey of Sheffield University commented, “Almost every aspect of modern life, from mobile phones to smoking and oral contraceptives [contaminating drinking water], has been blamed for declining sperm counts, but no convincing evidence has emerged to link any of them to the problem.

Kristof’s column exemplifies a deep-seated split in the area of environmental epidemiology and toxicology. On the one hand are scientists who take a broad view of normal reproductive development in order to understand where the process might go awry, leading to various pathologies. As this is science in shades of gray rather than black-or-white, this perspective is often not widely reported. After reviewing hundreds of studies over more than two decades investigating possible effects of EDCs, the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded, “limited evidence exists for the potential of chemicals to cause these effects in humans at environmental exposure levels.”

On the other hand are researchers, primarily research toxicologists, who view most pathologic conditions through the lens of exposure to EDCs, ignoring or downplaying the possibility that many other maternal exposures during pregnancy with much greater effects (obesity, smoking, sedentary behavior, intake of a calorie-dense diet, use of medications, etc.) are playing a role. This is a scientifically hazy and unprovable claim despite decades of research, but it captures the imagination of journalists and ultimately of many politicians and regulators.

Unfortunately, by leveraging the media (and often partnering with tort lawyers), these ‘advocacy scientists’ generate massive reams of dubious-quality research, sucking up the bulk of public funding that should be devoted to the more difficult work of elucidating the complex pathways of healthy reproductive development.

Geoffrey Kabat is a cancer epidemiologist and the author of Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks. Find Geoffrey on Twitter @GeoKabat

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Why cousin marriages can wreak genetic havoc on children

If you ever want to see some fascinating genetic disorders, you should all travel to Pakistan.

This is how my genetics professor started off her workshop class with us, during one of the courses in my postgraduate degree in the UK. The workshop dealt with the challenge of examining a particular genetic disorder – and searching for its probable roots. During the course of the workshop, she offered a range of cases, including a family with six children, four of whom suffered from depression, schizophrenia or hearing problems. Of the 10 cases she shared with us, five of them were Pakistani patients and all of them came from cousin marriages.

In more technical language, these are called consanguineous marriages – unions between individuals that are related to each other as either second cousins or closer. There are different degrees of consanguinity, where the first-degree is your parent or your child, a second-degree relationship includes siblings, grandparents and grandchildren, third-degree has aunts/uncles, nieces/nephews, great-grandparents while the fourth-degree also includes first cousins.

These unions hold the potential to create significant genetic issues in nations such as Pakistan, where a recent study estimated that more than 60 percent of the population carries out such marriages. The situation has prompted lawmakers there to pass new legislation aimed at forcing related couples to seek genetic screenings to fight the rising incidence of a hereditary blood disorder and to raise awareness about the dangers of cousin marriages.

Under the Roman civil law, individuals were forbidden to marry anyone within the four degrees. Because of that, cousin marriages started interchangeably being used with inbreeding or incest and therefore became less common in the west. The same beliefs were not pushed in parts of South Asia and the Middle East, where Islam was the predominant religion and only restricted marriages to the third degree. Thereby cousin marriages not only became a common practice but in time also became a cultural norm that is now actively promoted and preferred in most of those regions.

From a genetics standpoint, the link between these cousin marriages and increased risk of genetic disorders in the offspring of such marriages has become strong. The reason for that is in the laws of probabilities. The causes behind the differences between individuals, is mostly due to recombination of genes during the process of meiosis in cells. Other than that, mutational events and independent assortments also cause genetic variations, that differs one individual from the other. However, these variations are of a very small percentage as all humans share roughly 99 percent of their genomes with others. It’s the approximate one percent that brings about the differences between us.

Looking at the average DNA that is shared among relatives, a person shares 50 percent of their DNA with their parents and 50 percent with their siblings. As the degrees shift from 1st to 4th, the percentage of shared DNA drops whereby you end up sharing 12.5 percent of your DNA with your first-cousins.

That shared DNA is significant when those cousins inter-marry. The problem is that the common gene pool from which genetic variation arises becomes smaller and smaller the more one marries within a family. And through such restricted genetic pools, the recessive genes that cause autosomal recessive disorders become dominant and get expressed in the offspring.

The chance of carrying a dangerous allele is slim. However, in these marriages, both cousins share the same set of grandparents. If one grandparent carries a dangerous allele, then there is a 50 percent chance the child of the grandparent (cousin’s parent) becomes a carrier. This increases the chance that the offspring of the cousin will get two copies of the dangerous allele.

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According to various published studies, a variety of disorders have been linked to this breeding practice, including congenital heart disease, blood diseases such as hemophilia and thalassemia, deafness, cystic fibrosis, breast cancer and depression.

Looking at hemophilia in a closer light, the link between this blood disorder and the royal British family has been widely discussed. Royal families were notorious for their cousin marriages (or interbreeding) in order to preserve their lineage and to keep the royal blood ‘pure’. However, the consequences of such interbreeding were devastating, as seen elsewhere in Europe.

Consider the Habsburg  family of Spain. The family possessed the gene for mandibular prognathism, a genetic disorder that causes the lower jaw to outgrow the upper jaw leading to a pronounced chin. In the Habsburg family, this condition persisted and kept getting more pronounced through generations of interbreeding. The condition became so pronounced in Charles II of Spain that he was not able to chew his own food. Along with this deformity, there were a number of other genetic, physical and intellectual problems that he faced. What this tells us is that the condition existed within the genetic makeup of the Habsburg family and became continually worse through interbreeding.

habsburg jaw of charles ii
Charles II of Spain. Image: Wikipedia.

That is the case with how rare recessive disorders show up in the offspring of interbreeding families, primarily because of the restrictions it places on the available gene pool. And yet, the genetic downside of these unions doesn’t weigh against the cultural and societal positives that such cousin marriages seemingly bring for families, particularly in the Middle Eastern and South Asian region.

The main reason behind the popularity of cousin marriage is two-fold. First, it provides financial security by assuring that property or monetary assets stay within a family. Second, it offers personal security for parents who want to see their sons or daughters married to trusted spouses, rather than strangers. This especially holds true in the rural areas of Pakistan where there is limited education and awareness regarding the harms of cousin marriages. Before people can understand that marrying one’s cousin can be harmful to their offspring, they need to first understand what genetics is, how diseases can get passed within the family and how this knowledge can empower their choices and decisions.

One step towards this awareness was taken by news of a legislative bill being passed by the Pakistani government, regarding the blood disorder Thalassemia.  The bill now makes it mandatory for a Thalassemia screening test to be taken by couples before they can get married. The hereditary disorder causes an excessive destruction of red blood cells leading to anemia. In Pakistan alone the rate of being a carrier for this disorder is 3 to 5 percent. It is estimated that approximately 10 million people in Pakistan suffer from this disorder. The hope is that through the mandatory screening, a solid prevention method will not only halt this disorder from being continuously passed on but will also raise awareness regarding hereditary disorders themselves.

This is a crucial step taken by the country, a step needed towards a goal that ultimately gets the message across regarding the importance of preventing the spread of genetic disorders. These marriages aren’t the root cause of these various genetic disorders. But they are responsible for the increased risk of developing these disorders. And if those risks can be lowered, numerous cases of offspring’s born with deformities or cases of fetal mortality can also finally be managed.

Mariam Sajid has a masters degree in molecular genetics and is passionate about improving medical communications that aims to effectively translates scientific advancements to the public. Follow her on her blog.

This article was originally published at the GLP on April 10, 2019. 

Witch Hunt for Alternative Practitioners

Podcast: GMO ‘terminator’ seeds debunked; ‘Alternative medicine’ harms women; Cancer-fighting CRISPR beer?

Anti-GMO advocates have for years warned about the dangers of genetically modified, sterile “terminator” seeds. But there’s a problem: these seeds never existed. Why are women disproportionately attracted to ‘alternative’ cancer therapies that have little impact on the disease? Speaking of cancer, could beer made with CRISPR-edited hops one day offer a novel treatment?

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP editor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

As recently as 2019, anti-GMO groups were warning Africa’s farmers that so-called “terminator” seeds would make them dependent on giant agricultural companies like Bayer. That allegation has circulated online for roughly two decades, but it’s never been true. No biotech company ever commercialized terminator seeds, more accurately known as genetic use restriction technology (GURT). It’s true that researchers at the USDA and a smaller company called Delta Land and Pine patented the technology, but it was shelved amid all the controversy, and the patent expired in 2015 with no fanfare.

It’s well known that alternative cancer treatments offer little benefit to patients who receive them, yet the internet teems with anecdotes from highly educated, successful women promoting “energy healing” and coffee enemas instead of conventional therapies like radiation. Why is there such enthusiastic support for treatments that have been shown repeatedly to be mostly ineffective?

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The answer is no doubt complicated, but one explanation appears to run through many of these stories. Women who feel powerless in their fight against cancer embrace experimental or even dangerous alternatives in hopes of regaining some control over their lives. Research shows the problem may be compounded by postmodernism and other popular ideologies that promote radical skepticism and prize personal experience over scientific evidence.

Scientists in Europe have developed a method to edit hops with the new breeding technique CRISPR-Cas9. The discovery could be used to regulate the production of chemical compounds naturally occurring in hops called prenylated flavonoids, initially to improve the flavor of different beers and maybe one day to help combat cancer. Some of these compounds have been show to have anti-cancer properties in preliminary research, but whether we’ll ever have cancer-fighting beer remains to be seen.

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Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s managing editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

GMO salmon two months from introduction: AquaBounty fights anti-biotechnology misinformation as it gears up for April launch of fast-growing, sustainable AquAdvantage salmon

AquaBounty’s genetically engineered, fast-growing salmon could be sold at US restaurants and grocery stores as soon as this April. The debut would end a 26-year saga during which the development of the AquAdvantage salmon faced challenging science, foot-dragging by federal regulators, intense lobbying by anti-biotechnology groups and flagging salmon demand in the wake of COVID-19.

CEO Sylvia Wulf told reporters on February 23 that efforts to commercialize its AquAdvantage salmon are moving forward despite these hindrances. The company plans to produce 100 metric tons of fish per month at its Indiana facility.

Sylvia Wulf

Will consumers buy GM fish?

AquaBounty’s fish is an Atlantic salmon with two added genetic elements: a Chinook salmon growth hormone gene and an on-off switch from the ocean pout, another edible fish. The modifications make the salmon grow through the winter, unlike conventional salmon. Only females are produced for consumption, and they are rendered sterile.

Salmon is America’s second favorite seafood, trailing only shrimp. Americans consume about 794 million pounds of the pink fish each year, about 2.4 pounds per person. More than 650 million pounds of US-consumed salmon is imported, a huge sustainability drag say many environmentalists, noting the fossil fuels used to import the fish. Besides its ecological advantages, the AquAdvantage salmon could lead to lower salmon prices and an increase in consumption of the heart-healthy food.

85 grocery chains, seafood companies, restaurants, and food service companies, including distribution giant Aramark, have pledged not to sell AquAdavantage salmon, fueling speculation that were would be no market for the new fish. Wulf responded that many of those pledges go back to 2013 and cited recent survey data showing that seven out of 10 consumers were open to purchasing GM salmon after learning about its sustainability benefits.

Credit: AquaBounty

The company has stressed its commitment to transparency, a theme Wulf emphasized throughout her presentation. She said AquaBounty would label its salmon as a genetically engineered product so consumers could make an informed choice. But, she noted, “consumers need to make an informed choice based on accurate information.”

AquaBounty takes environmental concerns about its fish very seriously, Wulf maintained. The company says it has taken extensive measures to prevent escape from its land-based facilities, one on Prince Edward Island in Canada and another in Indiana. “In 20 years, we’ve never had an escape,” she added. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), both facilities are outfitted with “more than adequate” security measures:

Containment measures can include the use of mechanical devices, either stationary or moving (e.g., tanks, screens, filters, covers, nets, etc.), or in some cases, the use of lethal temperatures or chemicals to prevent uncontrolled escape. All production units in the facility will have a minimum of five independent levels of physical containment (i.e., barriers) preventing escape of eggs or fish via effluent flow paths to the outside environment …. and some of the production units will have six or seven barriers in place. This number of containment levels is more than adequate and greater than the number at most fish production facilities.

Regulatory and advocacy group hurdles

Environmental activists have targeted AquaBounty for years, launching their opposition just after the company initiated its application to commercialize in 1995. By 2004, it had assembled its “data package,” but the path to approval was never entirely clear. Finally in 2008, the Bush administration decided that transgenic animals intended for the dinner table would be regulated as animal drugs by the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.

In an attempt to derail approval, GMO opponents cited a 1999 study concluding that modified fish that grow extra large would have a competitive advantage, threatening extinction of conventional varieties. But AquaBounty didn’t engineer the salmon to grow larger than conventional fish; rather it grows faster, reducing input costs and its environmental footprint. There is no chance, independent scientists say, that released salmon would win a Darwinian war in open waters with wild salmon—the so-called Trojan gene effect. After years of review, in September 2010, the FDA released a long-awaited comprehensive guidance analysis that found the salmon environmentally benign and safe for human consumption. The agency concluded the AquAdvantage salmon is comparable to the traditional variety in every measurable way.

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For nearly two years, AquaBounty held its breath, anticipating the FDA green light. The regulatory logjam finally broke in December 2012 after an investigative report by GLP’s Jon Entine, published simultaneously in Slate and the GLP, revealed the FDA had green lighted the fish the prior April. The agency had given the salmon a preliminary “finding of no significant impact” on the environment, but advocacy groups had successfully, and illegally, convinced White House officials to put a hold on releasing the stamped report.

“Within days of the expected public release of the EA [environmental assessment] this spring, the application was frozen,” wrote Entine. “The delay, sources within the government say, came after meetings with the White House, which was debating the political implications of approving the GM salmon, a move likely to infuriate a portion of its base.” According to Slate, which updated its report after the White House dropped its illegal hold:

screen shot at pm

Hours after the stories were published, according to FDA sources, the White House lifted its hold. On December 23, two days after the exposé appeared, the FDA finally released the environmental assessment, one of the final stages in what could be the first federal approval of a genetically modified animal in the United States.

An extended public consultation and numerous court filings delayed the final approval for almost another decade. The FDA ultimately approved AquAdvantage salmon in 2015. Federal regulation pushed by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, which she claimed was necessary to protect Alaska fishermen, even though the different types of salmon are not seen as competitors, further slowed the approval process. The Center for Food Safety [read GLP profile of CFS here], which has led the activist opposition for two decades, further slowed the progress to commercialization. A 2016 import alert prohibited AquaBounty from bringing salmon eggs into the US from its first salmon farm, a 90,000 square foot facility in Canada on Prince Edward Island, until early 2019, after the USDA released its GMO labeling guidelines. AquaBounty opened its second farm, a 122,000 feet farm in northeast Indiana, last year.

In November 2020, a federal judge in the suit brought by CFS “ordered the agency to reconsider the environmental assessment for the salmon,” ruling that the FDA had failed to fully assess the risk of the fish escaping, though he did not withdraw the agency’s original approval. Wulf said the FDA is currently reviewing its environmental assessment, but AquaBounty doesn’t expect the process to hinder its April launch date.

Wulf reiterated that the salmon are all sterile females, a trait the company can test for before a commercial batch of eggs leaves its farming facility on PEI. AquaBounty deliberately chose to pursue a business model, she added, and has no plans to build ocean-based fish farms. From start to finish, she said, the company’s production process is “safe, secure, sustainable.”

Credit: AquaBounty

The salmon will hit markets later than anticipated only last year. Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, demand for salmon dropped, eliminating the need for another supplier and pushing the company’s harvest back a year. But AquaBounty doesn’t anticipate any further delays, and this week began harvesting the first samples of its salmon for 8-10 customers who have expressed interest in the product.

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s managing editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

Jon Entine is the executive director of Genetic Literacy Project. Follow him on Twitter @JonEntine

Viewpoint: Eco-hypocrisy—Mexico bans GM corn and glyphosate to promote sustainability while subsidizing fossil fuels

Imagine for a moment that the US government banned smart phones and tablets and forced everyone to use home telephones and desktop computers. Adding insult to injury, the government said it was forcing you to rely on these outmoded technologies for your own good. What really happened was that politicians were duped by a coalition of anti-technology activists who believe ‘Big Smart Phone’ was forcing its dangerous devices on consumers to boost its profits at the expense of public health.

This policy would inconvenience just about everyone, but with so many people working remotely today, it would almost certainly hinder our productivity and thus compromise our living standards. 

This scenario may sound outlandish, but it’s playing out in Mexico as you read this article. The only difference is that government officials, many of whom are well-known environmental activists, are working to ban genetically engineered crops and the herbicide glyphosate, instead of phones and tablets. The Lopez-Obrador administration is doing this ostensibly to promote sustainable farming, but it’s really just jeopardizing Mexican farmers’ access to eco-friendly, innovative seeds and pesticides that will be essential in the coming decades.

The outdated farming techniques the government is forcing growers to revert to simply can’t produce enough food to feed a growing population, 126,000,000 Mexicans and counting, so all of the modern tools provided by science are needed to sustainably grow the crops Mexico needs. If these proposals are not rescinded, the country could end up facing a food crisis.

Blocking innovation

Over the last two years, the Mexican government has gradually ratcheted up its restrictions on vital technologies. According to the USDA’s most recent annual Global Agricultural Information Network (GAIN) report, Mexico has not approved any biotechnology food or feed products since May 2018. Additionally, in 2019, Mexico halted imports of the weedkiller glyphosate and rejected all new permit applications from farmers who wanted to cultivate glyphosate-tolerant GE cotton, the only genetically engineered crop planted in the country. The denial of cultivation permits and dwindling glyphosate stocks have resulted in an estimated 36 percent decrease in the area of GE cotton planted in Mexico in 2020, a tragic development in what had been a dramatic success story. Widespread GE cotton adoption helped save Mexico’s textile industry, which previously suffered the crushing effects of diminished crop yields caused by pink bollworm infestations. By incorporating GE seed as part of a bilateral agreement with the US, Mexico eradicated the stubborn pest from its farms.

Now it seems there is no place in the country for GE cotton, though it has a long safety record. The crop has not been officially banned, but the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) has consistently rejected all applications to grow GE cotton since 2019, meaning that producers only have access to a few old GE cotton seed varieties that are not suitable for all growing areas. The USDA reported that additional GE cotton seed planting permits were requested for 2021, but SEMARNAT has so far issued no response to these applications.

Banning existing GE crops

The story is much the same for other crops. Existing restrictions on GE varieties in Mexico are the result of years of lobbying by regional and international environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Organic Consumers Association. For years Mexican farmers successfully cultivated GE soybean, for example, but since 2013 no new applications for the environmental release of GE soybean have been approved, thanks to a strong environmental movement that pressures regulators to block access to the technology. This policy has made Mexico one of the largest importers of GE soybean worldwide.

The situation not only affects farmers and consumers but also crop scientists, who have had their hands tied by research funding cuts. This dearth of investment means that Mexico currently has no GE plants under development that would be commercialized within the next five years, according to the USDA.

2021 brings more bad news

Things got worse in early 2021. As part of the Lopez-Obrador administration’s goal to achieve food production self-sufficiency, the Mexican government issued a decree that banned genetically engineered corn cultivation and initiated a three-year phase out of imports. The decree also mandated a phase out of glyphosate over the same time period, though experts have said for decades the weedkiller is safe to use.

The organic industry eagerly welcomed this decree. “It’s a huge victory,” Homero Blas, head of Mexico’s Organic Producer’s Society, told Reuters, arguing that the ban would stop the contamination of native corn varieties and prevent the use of dangerous pesticides. These kinds of talking points resonate with the public, but that doesn’t make them true—Mexico already has rules to safeguard native corn varieties—nor does it negate the impact of the ban. Mexico relies on imports of yellow corn from the US to feed cattle, over 90% of which is transgenic (GE). In fact, Mexico was the top destination for US corn exports in 2019, receiving about $2.7 billion worth of shipments, roughly 18 million tons annually.

In an interview with Reuters, Laura Tamayo, spokeswoman for Mexico’s National Farm Council, summed up the frustration of producers around the country, declaring that “the lack of access to production options puts us at a disadvantage compared to our competitors, such as corn farmers in the US.” Additionally, she added, “the imports of GM grain from the US are essential for many producers in the agri-food chain.”

The key problem is that the decree doesn’t detail how Mexico might replace the imports. If GE technology is banned, there is no way to locally produce the corn that is usually imported. This shrinks the food supply and raises prices, ultimately punishing ordinary Mexicans who are trying to feed their families. As a result, Food processing reported, Mexican ranchers and other consumers of imported GM corn are trying to get the Mexican government to back off the ban.

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Double standards

Scientists like myself can’t help but take a cynical view of the situation. The glyphosate and GE corn bans take full effect in 2024, the same year that Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) leaves office. He gets to take credit for “protecting” the environment and promoting food “self-sufficiency”; his successor gets to deal with the fallout of his policies. Experts have also pointed out that AMLO has prioritized investment in fossil fuels over renewable energy, and done little else to cut the nation’s carbon emissions.

These measures to ban GE corn (in addition to the current restrictions on GE crops in the country) and glyphosate raise further doubts about the president’s sincerity, since there is solid scientific evidence showing that biotech crops and glyphosate help reduce carbon emissions and promote sustainable farming in various ways, as was recently reported by science writer Mark Lynas. Referencing a Breakthrough Institute analysis, Lynas reported that “Europe’s refusal to permit farmers to cultivate genetically engineered crops led to avoidable emission of millions of tons of climate-damaging carbon dioxide, 33 million tons of CO2 per year.”

Legal challenges from Mexican farm groups and exporters who sell into Mexico may very well reverse the politically motivated bans. But the task should not have fallen to them. The proper role of every government is to promote the welfare of its citizens, and ensuring they have enough to eat is essential to that charge. Mexico could promote genuine food security and self-sufficiency by granting its farmers access to technologies that strengthen the food supply chain. Instead, the administration has been captured by anti-GMO activists who operate with little concern for Mexican farmers and consumers.

Luis Ventura is a biologist with expertise in biotechnology, biosafety and science communication, born and raised in a small town near Mexico City. He is a Plant Genetic Resources International Platform Fellow at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Follow him on Twitter @luisventura

Can anything be done to counter anti-vaccination activists?

Recently, anti-vaxxers protests shut down the mass vaccination program underway at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. In Israel, the global poster child for a successful vaccination program, anti-vaxxers are making vaccine appointments, then canceling them at the last moment – causing needless waste of a still precious commodity. They’re also making threatening robocalls warning parents that the vaccine causes illness and death, using false statistics to back themselves up.

What, if anything, can be done?

Much of the anti-vax message is disseminated on social media – along with death threats to pro-vaccine proponents and assaults on public health officials trying to increase vaccine uptake. Facebook and Twitter say they are restricting these messages. Youtube has taken down some anti-vax videos. But much misinformation remains. Nor is social media the only deployment vehicle. Conferences and pamphlets and robocalls are prime transmission vehicles, along with websites. So, even if we could remove Robert F Kennedy Jr. from Twitter and Facebook, as Dr. Berezow advocates, Kennedy-Jr’s website, Children’s Health Defense, for example, contains some pretty egregious stuff that would elude social media regulation.

Consider the article on the website by Claire Dwoskin (a wealthy funder of the anti-vax movement) regarding the apparent effects of autism and aluminum – sometimes used as a preservative in vaccines. Dwoskin reports that “[a]breakthrough study … has been published … demonstrating that significant correlations exist between rates of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and total aluminum adjuvants given to children through vaccines in several Western countries.”  Reader, please note that this “study,” was done in mice.

According to Dwoskin, the “research” evaluated the social interaction of mice as a marker of a “key feature of Autism Spectrum Disorder” in humans — social interaction. How? By measuring rodent sniffing!  The researchers found that mice injected with aluminum spent more time sniffing an empty cage than a  “stranger mouse” in a different cage. They concluded that this showed “showed diminished social interest…” at least in the world of rodents. Nevertheless, they admitted that:

“…this study alone cannot make any substantive claims regarding the link between aluminum and ASD in humans.”

But Dwoskin doesn’t tell us this. Instead, she blithely asserts, in a leap of faith – that the study “demonstrate[es] that significant correlations exist between rates of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and total aluminum adjuvants given to children through vaccines in several Western countries, and … that aluminum adjuvants can impair social behavior if applied in the early period of postnatal development.”

It gets worse.

Attempting to further the false aluminum-autism/social impairment narrative, the Kennedy Jr. website reports on another experiment, this one seeking to demonstrate the aluminum adjuvant caused increasing anxiety and compulsive disorders in vaccinated children. This study was done in sheep.

After observing sheep repeatedly vaccinated or administered an aluminum adjuvant, the researchers reported that the sheep suffered depression. How do you identify depression in sheep? By a “lack of response to stimuli, stupor,… and lethargy…..”

Sleepy sheep. Credit: Flickr

This finding, “intermixed with periods of excitement, restlessness, polyphagia, and increased aggressiveness, especially compulsive wool biting between animals. … [along with] pacing relentlessly and overeating,” lead the researchers to conclude that in addition to depression, the sheep suffered anxiety. And because the exposed sheep were more anti-social and spent less time lying down than the control sheep, the website author concluded that this “can be used to identify social stress” in these normally gregarious animals, a conclusion she then applies to human children.

Regardless of the study’s significance vis a vis sheep, there is a logical leap between comparing diagnoses of bovine depression and anxiety – even if valid – and connecting aluminum exposure to emotional disorders and autism in children.

Can this rhetoric legally be banned?

Can we legally shut down websites, social media posts, along with conferences and pamphlets that are misleading or actively spouting lies? The short answer is: no – at least not as things stand at present.

  • In the U.S., freedom of speech is hallowed and protected, except for a few discreet categories of speech, such as child pornography or defamation.
  • According to U.S. v. Alvarez, a case holding that a statute prohibiting misrepresenting one’s war record was unconstitutional – you can even publicly lie about such things.
  • Hate speech or speech advocating criminal behavior, e.g., describing how to make a home-made bomb, is allowed – unless it can be tied to imminent incitement to lawlessness. (Brandenburg v Ohio)
  • Emergencies might justify exceptions that allow speech to be shut down– but only if demonstrable harm (which is also illegal) would imminently result from the speech. The harm must be so imminent and the speech so dangerous (something like an actual appeal to physical violence) that nothing short of stopping the speech would prevent the violence. The expression “shouting fire in a crowded theater” conveys the imminence and actual danger required before public speech can be silenced.

Alas, the misinformation and lies of the anti-vaxxers are not exceptions to free speech protections. In other words, for now, anti-vaxxer rhetoric -as harmful and false as it is – is protected under the First Amendment. The prescribed legal remedy is not to silence the misinformation and lies, not less speech or no speech – but more speech – counterspeech – designed to correct it.

The antidote to unfortunate speech is “counterspeech”

If there is time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more free speech, not enforced silence. Only an emergency can justify repression.

— Justice Louis Brandeis, Whitney v. California 274 U.S. 357

Justice Breyer, often considered a liberal of the Court, updated the concept of counterspeech in the 2012 decision involving lying about one’s war record in violation of a statute criminalizing this behavior, which the Court struck down as unconstitutional:

“The Government has not shown, and cannot show, why counterspeech would not suffice to achieve its interest. The facts of this case indicate that the dynamics of free speech, of counterspeech, of refutation, can overcome the lie.”

U.S. v Alvarez 567 U.S. 709

And there it is, free speech, including the right to lie, is protected – because usually there are less restrictive ways to counter a lie than to prohibit its utterance.

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So, is it true – does counterspeech work?

“Misinformation is not a new problem, but it poses particular challenges for infectious disease management when public acceptance is required for prevention behaviors….”

Sadly, a recent study from the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Disease website demonstrated that counterspeech doesn’t work in the context of epidemic control, at least not today.

In this work, Drs. Emily Vraga and Leticia Bode used an on-line social media format, the same social media often cited for its amplification of mistruths, seeking to debunk two related coronavirus myths via infographics produced by the World Health Organization.

  • Taking a hot bath raises body temperature
  • Hot baths prevent coronavirus infection

The first myth was successfully “detoxified,” – changing the participant’s minds and correcting the misinformation.

The second myth relates to preventative measures, and here the counterspeech efforts failed. Respondents persisted in their belief in idiosyncratic, non-science-based treatment modalities, even after the “science” behind it was debunked.

Belief in such “alternative” treatments, by implication, preempts uptake of vaccines and scientifically recognized measures like social distancing and masking. In fact, anti-vax conferences and websites are prime venues for selling alternative “natural” cures that appeal to anti-vax adherents.

“Some research suggests that corrections fade over time, and the myth could actually be reinforced through an illusory truth effect of seeing misinformation repeated.”

The study’s authors also suggest vaccine myths may be reinforced by the frequency of exposure to that message. Moreover, the algorithms of social media drive us towards those who share our views in a way that media, before the amplification by computers and bots, could not accomplish.

It has oft been said that the law lags behind the science. The time has come to accept the reality – the counterspeech envisioned by great jurists of our past is ineffective in today’s 24/7/365 world of social media and the internet. Perhaps we should do something about it – that is if we want to preserve public health.

Dr. Barbara Pfeffer Billauer, JD MA (Occ. Health) Ph.D. is Professor of Law and Bioethics in the International Program in Bioethics of the University of Porto and Research Professor of Scientific Statecraft at the Institute of World Politics in Washington DC. Find Barbara on Twitter @BBillauer

A version of this article was originally posted at the American Council on Science and Health website and has been reposted here with permission. The American Council on Science and Health can be found on Twitter @ACSHorg

Viewpoint: Challenging organic myths — Big Ag doesn’t ‘control the food supply’ with patented GMO seeds, patented seeds are planted on organic farms, too

It’s not supposed to be like this. Activists and advocacy groups who support organic food and deride anything genetically modified point to patenting as one reason why GMOs are “bad.” Patenting of seeds, they say, is a symptom of control by “Big Ag,” which is taking over our food supply and preventing farmers from planting the seeds they want. The use of patented seeds, they claim, flies in the face of biodiversity that only organic agriculture can provide.

Global Research, an anti-GMO website, makes the familiar case:screen shot at am

Why have we bought into the biotech industry’s program, which pushes a few monoculture commodity crops, when history and science have proven that seed biodiversity is essential for growing crops capable of surviving severe climate conditions, such as drought and floods? As physicist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva explains, we have turned seed, which is the heart of a traditional diversity-rich farming system across the world, into a powerful commodity, used to monopolize the food system.

Are patented seeds corrupting the market for organics?

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that Global Research’s central source, Indian activist Vandana Shiva is not a physicist, although she claims to be; she has a Ph.D. in philosophy and has no practicing or research background in hard science, let alone genetics or agronomy. Let’s examine her claim, echoed by others, that patented seeds allow large corporations to impose genetically modified crops on the world to ‘control the global food system’ at the expense of organic farming and food.

While there are regulatory entities in place to monitor how plants are grown and how foods grown from them are labeled, such as the USDA’s National Organic Program, there is no set standard on how the plants are bred. The issue has grown complicated since 1980 when the US Supreme Court allowed patents to be granted for living organisms, including plants. Patents provide ownership of newly created seeds to plant breeders and agribusinesses.

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A plant patent is granted by the United States government to an inventor who creates or discovers and reproduces a distinct and new variety of plant. Plants and seeds can be patented if they are defined by a single DNA sequence that has been created either through engineering or conventional breeding (that is irrelevant to the patent). The resultant seeds are then granted a patent that lasts for 20 years. This system applies to conventional seeds (including genetically engineered seeds) and organic seeds. It is in effect around the world. For example, in 2015, the European Union Patent Board granted patents for two plants which had been bred conventionally, but not genetically engineered. These were a tomato (which had low water content) and a broccoli (which had enhanced glucosinolates).

In 1980, a ruling by the US Supreme Court made it possible to patent seeds; how plants are grown is not patentable. As Jim Myers, professor of vegetable breeding and genetics at Oregon State University wrote, “In all but a few cases, all contemporary varieties developed by private breeders are protected, and most public varieties are protected as well.”

Patenting does not appear to have limited the availability of seeds, organic or conventional, most experts agree. “Although the widespread preference for GM seed ensures that there are often more GM choices than non-GM, farmers report a wide variety of both kinds,” noted the Washington Post after talking to many farmers and associations.

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The US Patent and Trademark Office records every patent ever applied for, granted, and expired. A search for organic seeds comes up dry. Under programs such as the USDA’s National Organic Program, the regulatory focus is primarily on how organics are grown, not the seed used. The same seed, patented or not, can yield either organic or conventional food depending upon the growing system. Organic seeds, which are not patented, are required for organic certification status in the US and Canada, although both countries allow untreated non-organic seeds to be used under certain circumstances. Many organic farmers, particularly outside of North America, start with conventionally bred seeds, often patented, and raise crops from them using organic methods.

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Which organic products are patented?

Some companies and some individuals have patented non-seed items as organic, although patenting is in contradiction to the ideals espoused by anti-GMO activists, who by and large portray patenting as a ‘ploy’ by agribusinesses to ‘control the global food supply.’ Several organic groups are now advocating a concept known as “organic breeding.” Some companies have applied for and received patents for organic plants, if not seeds:

screen shot at pm

Any farmer wanting to use patented fertilizers, fungicides, and other products developed by organic companies would need specific permission from the patent holder (and this permission would almost certainly involve a fee). While only the last application specifically refers to organic methods, the patents contradict the idea promoted by activists that patenting and organics just can’t — and shouldn’t — mix.

Non-patented organic seeds and the myth of heirlooms

Many organic growers use organic seeds, but not all. Some organic growers use conventional, patented and off-patent seeds, often by starting with the same seeds that other farmers use, but growing crops from them using organic methods. Others use seeds claimed to be organic but not certified as such. In Mother Earth News, writer Margaret Roach extolled the value of “high-quality” seeds, which she equated with “organic, regionally adapted varieties.”

organic

Seeds of Change, a California organic seed and plant grower, specifies that it grows its seeds organically (as opposed to using patented organic seeds), does not use genetic engineering and uses heirloom and traditional varieties of seeds and plants “because of their time-tested value to generations of gardeners and farmers.”

While some open-pollinated, or heirloom, varieties can be quite successful, other heirlooms can be a disaster. Old varieties can also preserve inbreeding with the phenotypic feebleness that often accompanies it. It’s just as hard, also, to determine what an heirloom actually is, just as it’s difficult to determine the exact nature of an organic seed.

“The term is one of art more than law, and it is certainly not a term that has any agreed meaning or relevance in patent law,” according to Val Giddings, geneticist and senior fellow with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Heirlooms are open pollinated, which means insects or wind select the parents. Beyond that, the definition is open to dispute and has nothing necessarily to do with quality. By most definitions, a 50-year-old seed that produces a tiny, undesirable tomato is an heirloom. The term is usually applied to fruit, flower or vegetable varieties that were grown before World War II, but not always, and not by regulation.

Some organic seed sellers claim heirloom status for seeds from tomato varieties only 20-30 years old, Giddings noted. Technically, GMOs can be heirlooms. The sweet potato is a natural GMO and you can get seed for it, which means you can have a GMO heirloom.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AMPorterfield

This story was originally published on April 7, 2017.

Podcast: When science and politics collide: How JBS Haldane’s radical views clouded his scientific mind

Speaking with science journalist Samanth Subramanian, author of the recent biography, A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane, Dr Kat Arney explores the life and complex legacy of John Burdon Sanderson Haldane – known as JBS or Jack – whose work, writing and forceful personality made him one of the most interesting characters of 20th century genetics.

As well as being an insightful scientist, fearless self-experimenter and artful communicator, Haldane’s political leanings also affected his approach to science – even at the expense of the scientific rigor that he usually applied to his endeavors.

Following the example of his father, physiologist JS Haldane who experimented on Jack as a boy, JBS Haldane was a fearless self-experimenter, to the point of nearly killing himself and his colleagues. He fought in the trenches in the first world war and was in Spain during the civil war there. He fell out with authority figures and the establishment, was a committed Communist and was suspected of being a spy.

Haldane’s mathematically-minded work in genetics and evolutionary biology set the stage for the way we think about evolution today. He brought intellectual clarity to everything he did, with one notable exception: Haldane’s devotion to the flawed Soviet dogma of Lysenkoism clouded his scientific thinking and set him at odds with his colleagues.

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The last years of Haldane’s life were spent in India – having moved there with 12 jars of live fish for his research! – and his death from cancer in 1964 left a complex legacy of brilliant science, inspiring writing and controversial politics.

 

Full show notes, transcript, music credits and references online at GeneticsUnzipped.com.

Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator and biologist Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media. Follow Kat on Twitter @Kat_Arney. Follow Genetics Unzipped on Twitter @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

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Podcast: ‘Greedy’ factory farms? Milk without cows; Vaccine for melanoma

Farms are larger today than ever before, but it’s not because they’re “greedy factory farms.” Milk of the future might not come from cows but yeast fermented in laboratories. An experimental, personalized vaccine for melanoma helped treat eight people suffering from the disease. How long until we start to see cancer vaccines hit the market?

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP editor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

Critics of ‘Big Ag’ are wont to complain about the ever-increasing size of so-called “factory farms.” Is this growth evidence of greedy plutocrats swallowing up their smaller competitors? Not quite, says Canadian farmer Jake Leguee, who points to a less sinister explanation that springs from basic economics.

Following the industrial revolution, the number of farmers dwindled as people moved into cities from the countryside in pursuit of better living standards. Those who remained on the farms, also hoping to live better lives, bought up the abandoned land in order to boost their production and make more money, a trend that will likely continue as long as younger generations are tempted to leave agriculture for other career prospects in urban settings.

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This doesn’t mean modern agriculture is perfect. Complaints that federal farm subsidies discourage innovation and create moral hazards, for example, have persisted for many decades. Nonetheless, the growth in farm size isn’t by itself something to be opposed.

Thanks to fermentation and genetic engineering, animals are no longer the only source of dairy products. The FDA has already approved the use of lab-grown whey protein, used to produce ice cream, and more products—including milk itself—are expected to hit the market in the coming years. The technology is an exciting leap forward for food production, but it also raises some pressing questions. Will lab-grown dairy products face an anti-GMO backlash? Moreover, will environmental groups and dairy farmers, often harsh critics of each other, form an alliance to oppose the technology?

We usually take vaccines to protect ourselves against infectious diseases. But now researchers are developing vaccines designed to boost our immune system’s ability to defeat cancers, including melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer. Combined with existing treatments, personalized cancer immunizations, vaccines developed from tumor cells in individual patients, could help many more people survive a melanoma diagnosis. One such immunization proved effective in a small clinical trial, indicating that vaccines could become a powerful adjunct therapy after additional research.

Subscribe to the Science Facts and Fallacies Podcast on iTunes and Spotify.

Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s managing editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

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Top 10 biotech propagandizers: Who are the science deniers and snake oil peddlers undermining science in agriculture and medicine?

Anti-science beliefs are proliferating, particularly on the biotechnology and genetics front, covering a range of issues from vaccine denialism to GMO fears. It’s one of the defining characteristics of the Trumpian ‘fake news’ era. The Genetic Literacy Project is committed to helping our readers — policy wonks, journalists, educators and everyone else — navigate this treacherous landscape.

We’ve developed an entire resource devoted to profiling the pseudo-science peddlers and ‘social activists’ in the biotechnology space who put ideology ahead of science:

This is literally a rogue’s gallery of ideologues — heads of activist groups, natural product peddlers, talk show and political self-promoters and, disturbingly, numerous scientists.

1. Andrew Kimbrell

Andrew Kimbrell is a lawyer and head of the Center for Food Safety — one of the most notorious disseminators of disinformation about about our food and agricultural system under the guise of promoting the public interest. He and CFS are major coordinators for legal challenges to conventional agriculture and crop and animal biotechnology. His goal, as stated, is not always to win cases but to ‘disrupt’ the workings of government to slow or stop the pace of technology innovation related to food production.

2. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr is an environmental lawyer that promotes anti-vaccine, anti-pesticide and anti-GMO activism. He has repeatedly claimed that the coronavirus pandemic is “one big lie” by government and multinational corporations led by Bill Gates in order to enslave and track the public with vaccines. These claims have no basis in reality.

3. Joseph Mercola

Joseph Mercola runs Mercola.com, one of the largest “alternative health” news sources on the internet. He claims that traditional medicine and vaccines are responsible for killing and injuring “millions of Americans every year” and that electric devices such as batteries and microwaves give off “dangerous electro-magnetic fields.” His online supplement store has been fined and warned several times by the FDA and FTC for promoting dubious cures.

4. Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva is an environmental activist who has emerged as an international anti-globalization and anti-GMO icon. She is perhaps best known for falsely claiming that the introduction of genetically modified cotton seeds has caused over 270,000 Indian farmers to commit suicide. She is also an outspoken critic of vitamin A fortified Golden Rice – a biotech development that could save millions of lives worldwide.

5. Alex Jones

Right-wing radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones promotes false information about everything from GMOs and pesticides to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Boston Marathon bombings. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called him “the most prolific conspiracy theorist in contemporary America.” Predictably, Jones spends nearly a quarter of his time on-air promoting questionable “supplements” for sale on his website.

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6. Mike Adams

Mike “Health Ranger” Adams built Natural News, an online disinformation empire that encourages viewers to reject science. With false claims that 5G radiation can change the brain, climate change is a hoax, and that vaccines actually spread infectious diseases, an investigation by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that Natural News might be the “largest coordinated disinformation network in the world.”

7. Russell Blaylock

Neurosurgeon turned Newsmax conspiracy theorist and pseudoscience promoter, Russell Blaylock has claimed that chemtrails emit cancer-causing nanoparticles, MSG is “excitotoxic” to the brain, and vaccines are more dangerous than the diseases they protect against. None of this is supported by science.

8. Gilles-Éric Séralini

French scientist and professor of molecular biology, Gilles-Éric Séralini is best known for his controversial research on GMOs. His research concludes that genetically modified food and the common pesticide glyphosate are unsafe for humans – but his methodology has been heavily critized by experts.

9. John Fagan

Founder and former chief science officer of Genetic-ID testing labs, John Fagan is a major force behind the anti-GMO movement. As a “food purity Raja,” he works with various for-profit ‘Ayurvedic alternative health companies’, where he helps sell and promote a wide range of homeopathic cures and herbal supplements. He claims that Maharashi Vedic organic agriculture “uses the sounds of nature to enliven the full value of consciousness in food,” and peddles the notion the genetic engineering is a ‘dangerous violation of nature’.

10. Jane Goodall

Famed primatologist, ethologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall has spent 55 years studying the social interactions of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. However, in recent years she has become a vocal critic of crop biotechnology and CRISPR gene editing, claiming that “The most recent monstrous crime against plants – at least in my view – is the tinkering with their DNA.

Gene-edited crops may be coming to Europe—if scientists can avoid the PR mistakes of the GMO debate

Once the UK left the EU, it would be free to invest in gene editing of crops and livestock to “feed the world”. That’s what the prime minister, Boris Johnson, told the House of Commons in 2019. And following the UK’s formal departure from the EU in January 2021, the government quickly launched a public consultation on the issue.

Yet media reporting might cause plant scientists to have unpleasant flashbacks to the 1990s, when genetically modified (or GM) crops were first being commercialised in Europe. Some of the language used to report on the consultation is eerily similar: the Daily Mail asks its readers whether “Frankenstein food” is about to hit UK plates. Two decades ago, GM crops were also labelled “Frankenfood”.

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Whereas GM crops typically contain the DNA of two different species, gene editing is more precise and allows scientists to tweak the DNA of a single species by itself. Today, many plant scientists see a clear difference between first-generation genetic modifications and the “new plant breeding techniques” of gene editing. These include tools like CRISPR, which can be used like “genetic scissors” to make changes to a plant that mimic natural variation.

In the US and Canada, for example, a non-browning mushroom has found a quick path to market thanks to breeders’ ability to “knock-out” the gene that controls the browning enzyme, improving shelf-life and potentially minimising food waste.

Although this was done in a laboratory, natural processes at the genetic level – and in response to environmental conditions – turn genes “on and off” in a similar fashion. These tools have health applications, too. CRISPR is being used to treat cancer and has the potential for many more medical applications.

Because gene-edited plants can be indistinguishable from their conventional cousins – unlike GM crops – countries around the world are grappling with how they should be regulated. In the European Union, a landmark 2018 ruling by the Court of Justice said that new gene-edited crops should be governed by existing legislation that was developed in response to first-generation GM crops and said that if you breed something that could not occur in nature, it counts as genetically-modified.

However, this does not mean – as was widely reported – that gene-edited crops are automatically GM crops, which by definition could not occur in nature. The EU, like the UK, is now revisiting this issue through a consultation.

Involving the public

As recipients of European plant science funding, we have seen that scientists and the public often talk past one another on the issue of biotechnology. Scientists, for their part, tend to view it in terms of risk (or lack thereof) and invoke humanity’s long history of modifying plants for our own purposes. But we need to move beyond this framework and instead take account of the questions and concerns that the general public has about who benefits from this technology, who owns it and what impacts it will have.

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First-generation genetic modification tended to focus on farm productivity. Protecting crops from pests was the top priority. Gene-edited crops could contribute to a wider variety of sustainability and health goals in future though, such as by improving nutrition or using resources more efficiently. In fact, a whole raft of technologies could be about to revolutionise the way we make food.

However, as we learned with GM crops, technologies are most effective when the wider public and key stakeholders, such as farmers, are actively included in their development.

Protesters at the 1999 Labour Party conference call for the removal of GM crops from animal feed. Credit: Sean Demsey/PA

There is greater and greater recognition among researchers and policymakers of the need to ensure that new technology meets the needs, expectations and values of the public. We have seen that the involvement of patients can make new health technologies more relevant and effective. Already, there is more talk of “democratising” new genomic tools like CRISPR.

So although plant scientists will hope to avoid repeating the same debates about biotechnology that they had two decades ago, there is still opportunity to gain public trust in these technologies through active and open dialogue. We must ask ourselves whether the gene editing consultation goes far enough to gain that trust, particularly for those that see this as Frankenstein-like technology.

Jonathan Menary is a Senior Research Associate at Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC) at Lancaster University. His research focuses on innovation in food and farming systems and, in particular, plant breeding and biotechnology. Find Jonathan on Twitter @Jonathan_Menary

Sebastian Fuller is the Social Science Lead for ADREU and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at St George’s University of London. Sebastian’s research interests are focused on the use of mixed methods to investigate the social impacts of new technologies on healthcare systems. Find Sebastian on Twitter @seb_fuller

A version of this article was originally posted at the Conversation and has been reposted here with permission. The Conversation can be found on Twitter @ConversationUS

Viewpoint: ‘Terminator seeds’—the anti-GMO bogeyman that never existed

Aside from the myth that scientists create GMO tomatoes with syringes, possibly the most prevalent of the “alternative facts” used in opposition to crop biotechnology involves so-called “terminator seeds.” Prominent anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva explained in August 2015 how the biotech industry was allegedly plotting to use these engineered, sterile seeds against farmers and consumers in India:

The GMO mustard is based on what has been called the “Terminator Technology” to make the harvested seed sterile …. The introduction of GMO mustard with Terminator traits will deny Indian citizens the right to safe and pure mustard oil because of the risk of contamination.

Let’s be clear: there were never any GMO sterile terminator seeds in farmers’ fields anywhere in the world. Never. Nada. Nowhere. And yet, this idea has distorted the discussion for decades and was recently revived in the Global South, where it is being used to scare a new population of people—many of whom are food insecure or at real risk of future food production challenges in times of climate change. As recently as April 2019, Claire Nasike, Greenpeace Africa’s “Food For Life Campaigner,” claimed this sterility trait would force farmers to purchase new biotech seeds every growing season:

missnasike gp africal

An obituary provides closure on a window of time, typically with a framework provided by the facts of that time. But it also presents an opportunity to consider the legacy and impact. Today is that day for Monsanto terminator seeds. Yet how do you write an obituary for something that never existed? I consulted guides and I looked at examples, but I never found one for an organism that was only hypothetical. So, how to proceed? I guess we’ll start at the birth of the idea.

Birth of an anti-GMO bogeyman

Terminator seeds” were never the real name of these products—this was a fearmongering nickname supplied by 1990s anti-GMO activists opposed to many aspects of modern agriculture. The more scientific name, Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT), and its characteristics are detailed elsewhere. This is a family of technologies that could have helped prevent gene flow, or the undesirable spread of biotech crops in the environment, as well as prevented farmers from re-using unauthorized seeds.

Many people don’t know that the actual parents of the patent-known-as-terminator were, in fact, our own US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as well as a company called Delta & Pine Land Company. Later the D&PL company and its intellectual property were acquired by Monsanto. In the ensuing drama, Monsanto promised to not commercialize this technology—and it never did.

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Like many ideas filed at the US Patent Office, GURT turned out to be nothing but paperwork. There was never a commercialized product, nor profit to Monsanto. Without fanfare, the patent expired in the US in 2015. Ironically, anti-GMO activists profited wildly from spreading misinformation on this topic. It generated lucrative speaking engagements and book sales for Shiva and other promoters of the Terminator myths, including the false notion that growing expensive, patented “suicide seeds” was leading poor farmers to take their lives. Facts were no barrier to activists who wanted a scapegoat.

One side effect of a patent expiration is that anyone can use the formerly protected idea without infringement. However, in 2000, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) imposed a moratorium on the use of GURT in any state that is a member of the CBD. So, if any of these countries (and there are nearly 200 member countries) should try to use GURT, they would face non-patent legal barriers.

In short, if anyone tries to tell you that Monsanto’s sterile seeds were really in fields in the Midwest, or that multinationals are coming into Africa with sterile seeds, you can point them to this obituary. Those claims are not true.

Terminator’s lingering legacy

And here’s where the real sadness of the story arc comes in: the lies, distortions, and conflations about this patent have been used to prevent farmers from utilizing tools of modern agriculture that could increase their yields, improve their health by reducing pesticide use and increase food security in their communities. In countries that have overcome the misinformation, like Bangladesh, we have seen that adoption of GMOs has provided real benefits. Farmers are using less pesticide, increasing their profits and saving and sharing the insect-resistant Bt eggplant seeds they grow.

Africa isn’t far behind. Scientists and farmers on the continent are developing crops that serve their local needs. Nigerian and Ghanaian researchers have developed pest-resistant cowpea and other important local crops. Facing devastating fall armyworm attacks, scientists in Kenya are trialing insect-resistant maize. Banana researchers in Uganda are trying to save this staple food with disease resistance and improve its nutritional profile. These applications have nothing to do with GURT, and spreading terminator seed propaganda to keep them off the market would be harmful to local scientists, farmers and consumers.

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Fearmongering about terminator seeds prevents politicians from understanding the facts. Much like anti-vaccine activists who spread falsehoods about ingredients in vaccines, the overheated speculation offered up by campaigners on this topic prevents discussion about real issues facing farmers, such as harsh weather conditions, pest invasions, predatory lending, sociocultural and domestic pressures and inadequate mental health support. In fact, the “suicide seed” accusation lets the real culprits off the hook, such as the banking industry and policy makers.

So when you think of Monsanto terminator seeds, remember that no farmer anywhere in the world has ever had access to them. Activist groups who say otherwise have created severe consequences for developing countries that are trying to feed themselves. The legacy of this unfortunate episode will linger for a long time. But from here forward, the anti-GMO movement can decide whether it will be remembered for perpetuating the dangerous myth of suicide seeds, or recognizing that it’s dead and buried. Let’s hope they choose wisely.

Mary Mangan holds a PhD in cell, molecular, and developmental biology from the University of Rochester. She co-founded OpenHelix, a company that provides awareness and training on open source genomics software tools. Follow her on Twitter @mem_somerville

This article originally appeared at the GLP on August 27, 2019.

Podcast: COVID vaccine fears mirror GMO skepticism; coronavirus and pregnancy; GM crops in organic farming

The growing opposition to coronavirus vaccines bears striking resemblance to anti-GMO fears that have circulated online for more than 20 years. Pregnant women who catch COVID-19 are likely to pass on long-term immunity to their unborn children, but not the infection itself, a new study suggests. A team of scientists says it’s time to allow genetically modified crops in organic farming.

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP editor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

What’s the difference between GMO skeptics and COVID vaccine opponents? Very little, as it turns out. Both groups share a deep distrust of corporations and the regulatory process by which new scientific innovations are introduced. As a rule, keeping a watchful eye on government officials and pharma companies is perfectly reasonable. But when this healthy skepticism morphs into cynicism fueled by fear of the unknown, society runs the risk of forgoing life-saving technologies. So, how did we get here? Did the anti-GMO movement lay the groundwork for vaccine skepticism? Or do both groups happen to attract the same kind of supporters?
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Expecting parents, breathe a sigh of relief. According to a recent study, pregnant women who catch COVID-19 may pass on long-term SARS-COV-2 immunity to their unborn children—but not the virus itself. This could also mean, the researchers suggest, that vaccine-generated immunity protects developing babies. While additional research is needed to validate the results, the study offers more encouraging news as we struggle to bring the pandemic to its end.

“Organic farming is agriculture that makes healthy food, healthy soils, healthy plants, and healthy environments a priority ….” writes the Organic Farming Research Foundation. The industry can advance these goals by introducing genetically engineered crops into organic production, which can cut pesticide use while also helping farmers combat plant diseases and pests. The result: more sustainable farming practices and higher yields. “By incorporating GM technology into organic agriculture,” a team of Purdue University researchers argues, “biodiversity and soil quality could be maintained, while increasing product yield through rapid selection.”

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Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s managing editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

Misleading glyphosate-cancer study Part 2: ‘Symptom of a widespread problem’—Concerns about ideological activism in science research and communications

For the better part of five years, a coalition of environmental groups and tort lawyers (aided by the mainstream press) has relentlessly asserted that the weedkiller glyphosate poses a serious cancer risk. A team of respected epidemiologists poured gasoline on this already raging fire in 2018, when they published a meta-analysis (which I’ll refer to as “the Zhang paper” after the first author) that found a significant association between glyphosate exposure and the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL).  

In part one of this series, I detailed how the authors of what appeared to be an important paper made some highly questionable decisions in order to reach their conclusion, namely selecting certain data points and excluding others from the studies they considered. Despite the serious defects that I and a few other scientists pointed out soon after the paper appeared online, the paper’s conclusion —that relatively heavy exposure to glyphosate was associated with a 41 percent increased risk of NHL —ensured that it would get widespread publicity. 

But there were still other indications of bias in the paper that provide insight into the authors’ thinking. In this follow-up piece, I want to examine some of the other instances of bias, then address three crucial questions. How could this paper, flawed as it is, have passed peer review and largely escaped serious criticism in the two years following publication? What does the Zhang paper reveal about the authors’ mindset, and about standards of scholarship in the field of environmental epidemiology? And, finally, what are the implications for efforts to produce reliable science that can guide policy makers and consumers?  

Other indications of bias

Well before I got to the heart of the Zhang paper, I picked up signals that put my critical antennae on guard. On page three, the authors stated, “GBHs [glyphosate-based herbicides] have recently undergone a number of regional, national, and international evaluations for carcinogenicity in humans [20-23], resulting in considerable controversy regarding glyphosate and GBH’s overall carcinogenic potential.” 

In order to support their claim of “considerable controversy,” the authors provided two references to agencies that found that glyphosate is not a health concern (US Environmental Protection Agency, EPA; Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues, JMPR) and two that found it to be a “probable carcinogen” (The International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC; and California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, OEHHA), thus implying that opinion is evenly divided and balanced.

In fact, roughly a dozen national and international agencies have found glyphosate to be safe and non-carcinogenic (EPA, Health Canada, the European Food Safety Authority, the European Chemicals Authority, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and the health agencies of France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Brazil).  The fact is that IARC is the only major agency that has found glyphosate to be problematic, and its analysis has been deemed defective by many independent experts. As for OEHHA, it mechanically follows IARC in its designation of carcinogens under California’s Proposition 65, a byzantine law approved by voters in 1986 that has led the Golden State to list garlic bread and, for a time, coffee as possible carcinogens. 

A Proposition 65 sign in a San Francisco Starbucks warns of acrylamide in coffee and baked goods. Credit: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Whatever controversy over glyphosate there is, then, is the product of political and legal considerations, not evidence that the weedkiller causes cancer. However, the assertion that there is “considerable controversy” is important to the Zhang authors because, in their telling, it is what motivated their meta-analysis, as the following sentence makes clear: “Hence, addressing the question of whether or not GBHs are associated with NHL has become even more critical” (emphasis mine).

Throughout the paper, there are other similarly one-sided characterizations of the evidence on specific topics. 

First, in their introduction, the authors emphasized the amount of glyphosate used in the past decade and noted that it has been detected in various foods and baby formula, concluding that glyphosate “may be considered ubiquitous in the environment.” However, they omitted that glyphosate has relatively low acute and chronic toxicity compared to other pesticides and that the levels detected in foods are well below the level at which any adverse effects would be expected. 

They observed that use of glyphosate increased roughly 16-fold between 1992 and 2009, but they failed to note that the incidence of NHL has remained unchanged over the past thirty years.

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Second, they articulated criticisms of the Agricultural Health Study (AHS) at length based on secondary considerations, but failed to note its strengths. The AHS is, in fact, the best epidemiological investigation of glyphosate’s cancer-causing potential, and it poses a significant challenge to Zhang’s conclusion. It is striking that the authors failed to note the much more serious problems with the case-control studies they inappropriately combined with the AHS (Read part one for a full analysis of this issue).  

Third, to supplement the results of the meta-analysis of human studies, Zhang et al. summarized the results of studies of lymphomas in mice following the administration of glyphosate, which they interpreted as providing additional evidence of the carcinogenicity of glyphosate. However, the evidence appears mixed and, where increasing trends were seen in the tumor yield with increasing doses of glyphosate, they were modest. Researchers have evaluated glyphosate rodent studies for all tumor sites and found more instances of tumor decreases with increasing glyphosate exposure levels than tumor increases.

Finally, the authors pointed to a number of biological mechanisms that may play a role in the development NHL in humans and of lymphoma in animals. While such mechanisms are worthy of study, it is generally recognized that the results of laboratory studies are less directly relevant to risk assessment than epidemiologic studies and, secondarily, animal experiments.  

Thus, there is a pattern throughout the Zhang paper of what I call “motivated reasoning.” Rather than evaluating the evidence on its merits, the authors constructed a narrative designed to support their a priori hypothesis. In other words, their critical faculties served to imprison them in their motivated thinking, always a danger in science that physicist Richard Feynman addressed in his 1974 commencement address at Caltech titled “Cargo Cult Science.” Feynman emphasized that when you formulate a hypothesis, you must list all the observations and facts that support it, but you must also list all of the observations and facts that do not agree with it. This is the only way not to “fool yourself”—and, Feynman added, “you are the easiest person to fool.”

What about peer review and the response from the wider community?

Given the Zhang paper’s unjustified assumptions and methodological flaws, how did it survive peer review? Peer review is a lottery, by which I mean the quality of the review depends very much on the individuals who perform the review, as well as the editor who oversees the review. Some reviewers are tough minded and the study author senses they miss nothing in evaluating a paper. 

At the other extreme, reviewers who are less alert or less methodologically astute may feel that the authors have made a convincing case. I would argue that Zhang et al. wrote their paper with an emphasis on justifying their choices and judgments rhetorically, if not scientifically. One almost feels snowed by their arguments. And their style of argumentation appears to have been very effective. What is clear is that neither the editors nor the reviewers noticed the pattern of motivated reasoning, selective attention to facts, and unsupported assumptions that I have described.

The fact that the Zhang paper was published in Mutation Research, a publication with a broad focus on genetic toxicology, rather than in an epidemiology journal may have increased the likelihood of an inadequate review of a paper reporting on a meta-analysis of observational epidemiology studies.

How do the authors respond to criticism?

The authors’ response to substantive criticism has been revealing. Rather than acknowledging criticism and presenting valid arguments to support their position or modifying it, they doubled down on their hypothesis and tried to divert attention from the key issues, while asserting the transparency and quality of their work. In addition, they implied that their critics must have some conflict of interest. 

I will give just one example among many. In her February 2020 Forbes piece, responding after a full year to my critique published in February 2019, Lianne Sheppard, the Zhang paper’s senior author, wrote that “cherry-picking of data to achieve particular results is never acceptable scientific practice, and in the case of our meta-analysis, this claim is not true.” But, based on her a priori hypothesis, she defended her selection of the one relative risk out of five from the AHS (relative risk 1.12) that ensured a statistically significant result. 

This was not the main analysis presented by the AHS researchers in their paper – that was the unlagged relative risk of 0.87. And, as I made clear in part one, there are two glaring facts that should have motivated Sheppard to reconsider her choice. First, the AHS, by far the largest and most careful study, showed no support for her a priori hypothesis that the highest exposure group would show the strongest association – and demonstrated this point in all five analyses! Second, as the Zhang authors themselves acknowledged, the latency period for NHL to develop is uncertain, and could be as short as two years, although their conclusion is based on the assumption that it is 20 years. Recognition of both these facts should have made the authors reconsider the justification for their analysis.

After this evasion of the science, Sheppard went on to raise further diversions, arguing that publications in the popular media are not appropriate for the serious business of evaluating risks scientifically. Only the sacred precincts of academic journals–where my colleagues and I have recently published a thorough critique of the Zhang paper – are suitable venues for such discussion. Sheppard seems unaware of the flourishing, real-time discussions of critical issues in science and medicine by the likes of Eric Topol, Peter Hotez, Vinay Prasad, and many others on Twittter. True scientists are happy to engage with an interested audience, whatever the forum. 

The Zhang paper is a symptom of a widespread problem

I have devoted time to examining this paper because I believe it is symptomatic of a state of mind that is prevalent in environmental and lifestyle epidemiology. This area is challenging due to the difficulty of measuring human exposure to low-level environmental agents—often measured at a single point in time—and gauging their long-term health effects against the background of exposures that are often orders of magnitude stronger (smoking, alcohol consumption, diet, body mass index, postmenopausal hormones, etc). Nevertheless, numerous papers continue to be published examining the association of self-reported exposures to trace levels of chemicals in urine or blood with risk of some chronic disease.

There are those working in this area who appear to feel that, in spite of the limitations of the studies—or, perhaps, because of these limitations—one has to take seriously results that are suggestive of an association. In a sense, because of the difficulty of documenting low-level exposures, scientists may feel that they have to give them the “benefit of the doubt.” Given the limitations of the data, the findings of such studies need to be interpreted with an allowance for the fact that the studies can’t tell us what we want to know.

The science policy scholar Daniel Sarewitz has used the term “trans-science” to refer to the study of complex questions that can’t be answered by present-day science. In the absence of definitive data, what seems to be most important to these people is their interest in the question regarding the effects of a particular chemical agent. This is how results from weak studies that appear to point to a risk can be seized on, and this is what appears to have happened in the Zhang paper. What is lacking in high-quality evidence is compensated for by ideological and moral zeal.

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Researchers are keenly aware that the media, the public, and even journal editors and reviewers are sensitive to findings that appear to implicate a common exposure in chronic disease. Where strong data are lacking but the issue is one that will resonate with the public and the media, scientists know that their message will get picked up and get traction. We’ve seen many examples of this in research on electromagnetic fields, endocrine disrupting chemicals and BPA, DDT and other pesticides, e-cigarettes, and many other issues.

A number of agencies and institutions have been associated with this type of motivated science—the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) regarding glyphosate, cell phones, and other exposures; the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) regarding BPA; and the Endocrine Society regarding endocrine-disrupting chemicals generally.  

In contrast to the kind of science exemplified by the Zhang paper, there are examples of sober and careful work by scientists who are trying to advance knowledge in their field by building on firm results and framing new hypotheses. This work, however, is unlikely to attract media attention. 

A recent paper by Moubadder et al. has reviewed environmental exposures in relation to NHL. With regard to environmental exposures, they noted that several infectious agents have been causally linked to NHL. However, with regard to chemical exposures, they concluded that numerous studies have attempted to link NHL risk to chemical exposures, but in spite of many reported associations, “causality has not been established.” 

Commenting on the Zhang meta-analysis, they had this to say:

“A recent meta-analysis that included the 2018 Agricultural Health Study (AHS), a cohort of pesticide applicators that have been followed prospectively, and five casecontrol studies found the relative risk of NHL to increase by 41% among those highly exposed to glyphosate-based herbicides [meta-risk ratio (RR) = 1.41; 95% CI, 1.131.75; ref. 20]. However, studies on the AHS population alone, which includes 515 incident NHL cases, have consistently observed no association between reported glyphosate exposure and NHL risk, regardless of the latency period (i.e., 5-, 10-, 15-, and 20-year lag times; refs. 21, 22).”

Taking a broad view of the role of environmental exposures in the etiology of NHL, Moubadder considered glyphosate specifically, but still came to the conclusion that causality has not been shown for any chemical.

In contemplating the contrast between the Moubadder paper and the Zhang paper, I was reminded of interviewing the reproductive expert Richard Sharpe about the huge amount of fruitless research that had been devoted to BPA as a cause of adverse reproductive events. In the early 1990s Sharpe had been one of the originators of the so-called “environmental estrogen hypothesis” and had seen it grow into a huge academic bandwagon, which he dissociated himself from. Sharpe shifted his attention to studying the effects of pharmaceuticals taken by pregnant women on the fetus and the developing child, as well as other exposures. The shift away from studying trace exposures to BPA to more significant exposures has already led to evidence of real effects.

Explaining why he went his own way, he said, “… I was lucky that the question that drove me was ‘what causes these disorders?’ not ‘how do EDCs [endocrine disrupting chemicals] cause these disorders?’ Such a simple difference, but it takes your thought processes in a very different direction.”

Geoffrey Kabat is a cancer epidemiologist and the author of Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks. Find Geoffrey on Twitter @GeoKabat

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Can we have an open debate about IQ, genes, and group differences? Reassessing the legacy of James Flynn

I once spoke to a human geneticist who declared that the notion of intelligence was quite meaningless, so I tried calling him unintelligent. He was annoyed …

– Nobel Prize laureate, Peter Medawar

Of all the endless nature vs nurture arguments, the debate over intelligence and ‘race’ is the most toxic. It also seeps over into wider unease with human genetic research; the fear, for example, that recent advances in ancient human DNA analysis can be used by those with nefarious intentions to resurrect problematic ‘race’ folk theories. 

Given this seeming potential for reviving damaging beliefs, some scholars question whether “we would be better off to give up on particular lines of research” in the human sciences, including “the quest to trace patterns of human migration.” Others, meanwhile, argue for “tighter restrictions” on research into cognitive differences between different human populations. That said, the impetus to explore our ancestral evolution and its impacts remains an essential scientific pursuit, as it is at the backbone of research exploring how human differences impact disease and potential targeted cures.

Such arguments about ‘race’, intelligence and possible censorship were of particular concern to US-born and educated New Zealand scientist and intelligence researcher James Flynn, who died in December 2020, aged 86. Flynn was the IQ debate’s great scholarly champion of environment over genes, known for his respectful rebuke of scholars who took a more deterministic view of the complex relationship of intelligence, genes, and the environment.

IQ and tests

This century-long debate flared in 1969 following the publication of an article in the Harvard Educational Review, in which psychologist Arthur Jensen claimed that observed IQ differences between Blacks and Whites was due mainly to genetics. Jensen further argued for a reset on the poverty reforms that were then rolling out under the Johnson Administration, arguing that compensatory education programs that assumed racial groups were ‘blank slates’ with environment alone the only detriment to equality of performance—Head Start, for example—were destined to fail.

The article caused an uproar that still rages. Jensen, who died in 2012, was widely denounced as a racist, particularly in the popular press and by social scientists. Instead, Jensen’s  critics maintained that environmental factors rather than genes passed along in ancestral cohorts almost entirely explained racial disparities in test scores, a radical environmentalist position that few hard scientists hold today.

This was also when the movement to end the use of IQ tests first emerged. Today, persistent differences in SAT or ACT results among races have been cited as a reason to stop using the exam in college admissions. Last May, many University of California colleges announced they was scrapping its SAT or ACT requirement, as have many other American universities.

Flynn vs Jensen

Having migrated to New Zealand in 1963 “to escape the political repression of the McCarthy era”, Flynn, now based at the University of Otago in Dunedin, responded skeptically to Jensen’s claims. And understandably so. For instance, how could Jensen explain away Flynn’s voluminous documentation that IQ scores among racial and ethnic groups world-wide have risen considerably from one generation to the next? In the 20th century, Flynn discovered, the scores of entire countries rose by more than the Black-White disparity in the entire US. How could that be if IQ was genetically ‘fixed’? He summarized much of this research in a ground-breaking response to Jensen published in 1980.

In 1987, in an article in American Psychologist, Jensen praised Flynn’s criticism of his own work:

… I am asked by colleagues, students, and journalists: who, in my opinion, are the most respectable critics of my position on the race-IQ issue? The name James R. Flynn is by far the first that comes to mind. His book, Race, IQ and Jensen (1980), is a distinguished contribution to the literature on this topic, and, among the critiques I have seen of my position, is virtually in a class by itself for objectivity, thoroughness, and scholarly integrity. 

In a study released in 2006, Flynn and a co-author, William Dickens, concluded that Black Americans had gained as many as seven IQ points on Whites since the early 1970s and into the 1990s, a finding that is hard to explain if intelligence is genetically fixed. The theory that Flynn developed was dubbed “The Flynn Effect” by scholars Richard Hernnstein and Charles Murray, co-authors of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life, the 1994 tome that faced similar harsh criticism as Jensen’s earlier expressed views. 

In the decades since, numerous explanations of the Flynn effect have been proposed, as well as some skepticism about what has driven it and its implications. For example, there is intense debate about whether the rise in IQ scores corresponds to a rise in general intelligence or only a rise in special skills related to taking IQ tests, as schools have been turned into test-taking hot houses, in part because teacher salaries and administrative jobs are often tied to raising test scores.

Others argue that the Flynn Effect’s observed gains in IQ over time are unrelated to ‘g’ (also known as ‘general intelligence’) that many psychometricians believe is a fairly unchangeable mental capacity. (‘g’-scores are used in many professions to predict performance; e.g., the US military and even the National Football League, with its Wonderlic test, utilize g-weighted tests in their evaluations).

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In parallel with the measured gains in IQ scores, long-term declines have been found for “mental speed, digit span backwards, the use of difficult words, and color acuity, all of which are related to intelligence.” More recently, the Flynn effect appears to be fading, as the IQ measure distance between some populations and others has grown. Research suggests that there is now a decline in IQ scores, in Norway, Denmark, Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, France and German-speaking countries, a development which appears to have started in the 1990s. The Flynn effect appeared to have most influenced people born during the mid-1970s (co-incidentally a period of dramatic social transformation on racial issues), and has significantly declined ever since.

Flynn himself relished the debates that his research had stimulated. A life-long social democrat, he was outspoken in defence of free speech, including the right — indeed, the desirability — of open and honest debate on possible group differences in intelligence.

And this willingness to engage with those holding different opinions readily explains the reaction to news of Flynn’s death by his peers. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, a sharp critic of ‘blank slate’ post-modernist critical theory, immediately expressed sadness at the passing of a “defender of Enlightenment ideals”. Of particular note was the response of The Bell Curve co-author and conservative political scientist Charles Murray:

By America’s current standards of academic discourse, Jim Flynn and I should have been at each other’s throats,” Murray said. “We did in fact have different perspectives, though more nuanced than most people thought.

But those differences hadn’t the slightest effect on Jim’s collegiality toward me or any of the people with whom he disagreed. … How else are you going to learn, Jim thought, except by engaging with people who see things differently? …  Jim represented what a scholar is supposed to be—open, curious, passionate about his beliefs but without either self-righteousness or rancor, determined above all else to get it right.

Unfortunately, while scholars are supposed to be open and curious, much of the passion and argument over ‘race’ and IQ has been self-righteous and rancorous. As Flynn himself readily acknowledged, those least open to discussion and most ready to censor opposing opinions, frequently came from his own leftist end of the political spectrum. 

These were the ones, he argued, “who boycott debate” and “put their money on indoctrination and intimidation”, thereby “forfeit[ing] a chance to persuade”. (Here, Flynn’s position reflects characterizations of critical theory proponents that conservatives see as promoters of ‘cancel culture’.)

How to argue with a racist

In his recent bestselling book, How to Argue With a Racist, geneticist Adam Rutherford emphasises the need “to equip [people] with the scientific tools necessary to tackle questions on race, genes and ancestry” and “to provide a foundation to contest racism that appears to be grounded in science”.

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Jim Flynn, too, had long pointed to this danger — that without an understanding of the scientific arguments, “humane-egalitarian” idealists would flounder against informed and articulate racists. 

Censoring debate about the subject would then be doubly counter-productive, further removing the knowledge needed to challenge genuinely racist arguments or, more importantly, the political conclusions that arise from racist misinterpretations of human biological research. That’s the thrust of the argument made in GLP founder’s Jon Entine controversial but critically-praised book, 2000 Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We are Afraid to Talk About Them, in which he wrote:

Although discussing racial differences is likely to provoke strong reactions, on balance and in proper context strong emotions are healthy. …

The “why” of human differences–black/white, male/female, Italian/Irish, between Slavic ethnic groups or one African tribe and another–is likely to remain only crudely measurable. Race–marked by skin color, ethnicity, and geography–is a fuzzy concept. …The challenge is in whether we can conduct the debate so that human diversity might be cause for celebration of our individuality rather than fanning distrust. 

In one of his last essays on this topic, Flynn re-emphasised what “Those who want to forbid discussion and scientific investigation ignore”, for instance, the ability to defend your position with facts “rather than just right opinion” and the opportunity to hone your argument by having its weaknesses revealed. “[T]ruth gains vitality from being challenged rather than being an unquestioned inheritance,” he argued.

To kill an idea is to forfeit all rewards that may flow from reaction to that idea. If I had not read about [research into group differences], with its emphasis on IQ and the general intelligence factor, I would never have documented massive IQ gain over time, or urged a revolution in the theory of intelligence, or connected cognitive gains and moral gains …

In contrast to Flynn, those who argue against open discussion of contentious science fear it will breathe new life into socially harmful ideas, akin to publicising the details of how to build “massively destructive bombs” or to create “deadly viruses”. And on their side of the argument is the undeniable fact that past beliefs about racial superiority/inferiority caused incalculable harm. 

Nevertheless, the analogy with socially destructive bombs and viruses implies that everyone, regardless of existing political beliefs or values, would suffer through public debate of sensitive issues. Yet is this really the case? If, for example, evidence of genetic differences between racial populations was more widely discussed, would this inevitably lead more people to become racists? We believe not; the egalitarian moral belief that people should be treated equally is not dependent on people actually being equal in all respects. 

Of course, given the odious history of twisted interpretations of Darwinian theories of ‘race’, some form of use or abuse analysis of proposed research is warranted. As part of this, though, the detrimental consequences of creating taboos on discussion must also be taken into account (for instance, conceding the argument to racist ideologues who may present themselves as simply telling the unpalatable ‘truth’ that others are too scared to discuss). 

In the absence of a scientifically accurate account of racial diversity, we cannot adequately challenge pseudo-scientific racist arguments. In addition, avoiding discussion of human biological diversity may limit our understanding of the genetic basis of disease and hamper medical research that could improve peoples’ lives.

Genes do not determine values or identity

The problem here is egalitarians tying their political values to actual facts about human biology; the mistaken belief that moral equality is dependent on all people being biologically or psychologically the same. Yet as Pinker argued in The Blank Slate: The modern denial of human nature, when scientific evidence appears to conflict with political values, “people are tempted to suppress the facts and to clamp down on debate … leav[ing] us unequipped to deal with just those problems for which new facts and analyses are most needed”. screen shot at am

Geneticist David Reich has made much the same point about those who decry genetic research into human diversity as inherently racist. The “well-meaning people” who deny likely genetic differences between different human populations, Reich suggested, “are digging themselves into an indefensible position, one that will not survive the onslaught of science”. 

And Flynn too emphasises where attempts at censorship miss their mark: “Suppressing free inquiry is by its nature an expressive of contempt for truth by power. The truth can never be racist.”

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With regard to intelligence research, far from being ‘massively destructive’, such studies could, in future, prove hugely beneficial, especially in education. Without a clear understanding of human cognitive development, and how it is determined by both genes and environment, we are hamstrung in our attempts to improve an existing education system that persistently frustrates so many. Indeed, by ignoring the biological side of the interplay between genes and environment, we may be simply setting up many young people to fail, generation after generation. Those promoting practical uses of “personal genomics,” for instance, see the potential for tailoring education to reflect the needs and the abilities of individual learners, rather than forcing all learners into a one-size-fits-all system.

As for Flynn, he admitted to having “no illusions … that the debate over race and IQ will end. 

And I do not deny that it could have social and political consequences. Perhaps someday we will conclude that a portion of the present gap will prove to be genetic in origin. I do not want to sugar the pill but will only say I am not too alarmed.

Yet even if the “worst case scenario” of ineluctable differences in cognitive ability proved to be the case (which is far from certain), this does not destroy the humane-egalitarian desire to create a better future society. After all, if everyone had a decent standard of living, much of the heat linking biology with racial inequality would fade — a point Flynn illustrated with joking reference to his own Irish ancestry: 

Assume that the lower job profile of Irish Americans compared to Chinese Americans is due in part to genes: I do not know one Irishman who cares (the English would be a different matter).

For the first time in history science, promises a glimpse of how the world’s different populations — popularly and simplistically called races — have evolved. Going forward, the tsunami of information genetic research is now unlocking will revolutionize medicine, as we develop targeted, personalized response to diseases based on individual and group inheritance. Research on the brain is just part of that mostly-promising and optimistic enterprise.

In his reflections on Human Diversity, a book that came out shortly before Flynn’s death, Charles Murray pointedly suggested that many of those most opposed to research on the brain and IQ mistakenly equate human intelligence with human worth. That’s understandable. With these caveats in mind, it is perhaps fitting here to leave the last word to Murray, Flynn’s supposed great adversary: in losing Jim Flynn, he says, “We have lost an exemplar”.

Disclosure: James Flynn was the external examiner of Patrick Whittle’s PhD thesis, looking at the implications of human evolutionary theory for egalitarian political ideas.

Patrick Whittle has a PhD in philosophy and is a New Zealand-based freelance writer with an interest in the social and political implications of biological science. Follow him on his website patrickmichaelwhittle.com or on Twitter @WhittlePM

Dawn beckons as COVID vaccines roll out, but the next few months promise to be the darkest yet, and echoes of the AIDS era

One strange aspect of plagues is that they often finish strong. I learned this the hard way last time around. Many people have a general sense of AIDS being terrible in the 1980s and then slowly petering out in the 1990s, as treatments improved. It’s intuitive to think this way, and even to remember things this way. But, in reality, the worst ever year for deaths from AIDS in the US was 1995 — over a decade after the first deaths in America — and just before the arrival of the cocktail therapy that turned everything around. The virus killed more people in America in the year right before the medical breakthrough than in any other previous year.

AZT, known as Zidovudine or Azidothymidine, the first approved treatment for HIV. Credit: Will McIntyre/Deni McIntyre/Getty Images

I remember this vividly because a very close friend of mine died that September. Like me, he had been diagnosed two years earlier, but his infection was much more advanced than mine. He’d soldiered through humiliating opportunistic infections, his body contorted into agony as it turned into a living skeleton, covered in lesions, struggling to breathe, slowly starving, as microbes ate his food before his body could.

Two years was an almighty, courageous slog through this indignity, and so it was agonizing to watch him finally surrender to the virus just as the breakthrough treatments emerged on the horizon. He was 31. It was like watching a fellow soldier killed on the last day of the war. There was something poignantly devastating about the timing.

It comes back to me now because we seem to be in the same, awful moment with Covid19. The medical puzzle has largely been solved — the vaccines clearly work, and more are arriving. And yet the deaths mount — in some places, exponentially. And they are mounting in many parts of the world because of new, mutating variants, from 30 to 70 percent more transmissible and perhaps deadlier than those we have become used to. I don’t think we’ve quite absorbed that reality. This virus was very easily spread in the first place. Now it’s far easier. In other words, we are much more likely to get infected now than at any previous time in the pandemic.

In Britain, the death rate has tripled since December, as the B.1.1.7 strain takes hold. As Ezra Klein notes, in Portugal, “daily confirmed deaths have shot from about seven deaths per million in early December, to more than 24 per million now. Denmark is doing genomic sequencing of every positive coronavirus case, and it says cases involving the new variant are growing by 70 percent each week.” In Spain, the number of new cases is double what it was in the second wave and four times as bad as the first wave — as Madrid suspends all new vaccinations because the EU has run out of the supply. The strain that is becoming dominant in South Africa is measurably more resistant to some existing vaccines. In Brazil, the city of Manaus was hit hard by the virus last May, killing 348, the highest monthly toll in 2020. But in the first three weeks of January this year, with the new viral strain P.1. gaining momentum, 1,333 have died. It’s as if a Category 3 storm has been updated to a Category 5.

A memorial in New York City in May, when the U.S. coronavirus death toll passed 100,000. Credit: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

In the US we’re now accustomed to a daily death toll of 4,000. It’s amazing how easy it has become to live with mass death. Yes, we just saw the sharpest decline in new cases since the pandemic began — but that’s off a record high, remains far higher than last spring, and if new strains emerge, as they will, infections will surely rise again. A virus is a dynamic target; and time matters. Covid19 can elude us; and adapt to us. It can kill millions even in retreat. If we do not keep on top of it, and act quickly, and restrict its spread now, we could go backward.

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All of which, it seems to me, makes the case that this plague, like many others, could become worse yet before it suddenly turns the corner. The next couple of months may be the most fatal of the entire pandemic — even as freedom from this virus is within sight. There’s a special agony to those deaths, as there will be for all those human beings who will die of a virus for which a vaccine already exists.

This makes fast, effective vaccination essential. Nothing matters more in government right now. Apart from that, we have our own work to do. So I’ve made a special effort to batten down the hatches. I see almost no one any more; I wear three masks everywhere. I binge on streaming services (currently “The Bureau,” perhaps the best miniseries I’ve ever watched). I get groceries delivered. However isolated I was before, I am more isolated now. I’m lucky — yes, privileged to be able to do this. But if you can, you should. In epidemics, a large number of small decisions can make a massive difference.

And yes, I have some PTSD about this — and not just about losing my friend right at the finishing line of AIDS. I got infected myself years before. The patterns of safety I had relied on failed me. I can’t recall any moment where I fucked up, but obviously I did. I wasn’t vigilant enough, even though I thought I was. And I’m determined not to make that mistake again.

In this plague, among others in history, the exhausted cliché is actually true. It is getting much darker just before the dawn. From a survivor of one plague, I just want to say: don’t let your guard down now. Don’t be the last one to die.

Andrew Sullivan is a British author resident in the United States, editor, political commentator and blogger. Find Andrew on Twitter @sullydish

A version of this article was originally posted at the Weekly Dish and has been reposted here with permission. 

Viewpoint on sex and gender: Has the New England Journal abandoned science for woke political correctness?

Two years ago, “Titania McGrath,” whose satirical Twitter account regularly skewers the ideological excesses of social-justice culture, suggested that “we should remove biological sex from birth certificates altogether to prevent any more mistakes.” The joke (obvious to those who follow the culture wars closely, but perhaps obscure to those who don’t) was directed at gender activists who insist that male and female designations “assigned at birth” are misleading (and even dangerous), since they may misrepresent a person’s true “gender identity”—that internally felt soul-like quality that supposedly transcends such superficial physical indicia as gonads and genitalia.

But the line between satire and sincerity has become blurry on this issue. [December 17], the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), widely considered to be the world’s most prestigious medical journal, published an article entitled Failed Assignments—Rethinking Sex Designations on Birth Certificates, arguing that (in the words of the abstract) “sex designations on birth certificates offer no clinical utility, and they can be harmful for intersex and transgender people.” The resemblance to Titania McGrath’s 2018-era Twitter feed is uncanny. Two of the authors are doctors. The third, Jessica A. Clarke, is a law school professor who seeks to remake our legal system so as to “recognize nonbinary gender identities or eliminate unnecessary legal sex classifications.”

The very idea of “a dichotomous sex-classification system” is dubious, the authors believe. And even if such a system were preserved, they write, it should be based “on self-identification at an older age, rather than on a medical evaluation at birth.” Sex designations on birth certificates, it is argued, “offer no clinical utility; they serve only legal—not medical—goals.”

On social media, where the NEJM article has attracted nearly 6,000 (almost uniformly negative) comments, many readers expressed disbelief that such a piece would appear in the same storied academic journal known historically for definitive, groundbreaking scientific papers on such subjects as general anaesthesia, the discovery of platelets, and the clinical course of AIDS. “I’m a pediatrician,” wrote one Oregon-based doctor. “The growth curves for male and female babies are notably different. Am I to just give up on tracking normal growth and development?”

In apparent anticipation of such responses, the NEJM authors write that “moving [sex] designations below the line of demarcation would not compromise the birth certificate’s public health function but could avoid harm.” The term “line of demarcation” refers to a separator on birth certificates. Information above the line, such as name, sex, and date of birth, generally appears on certified copies of birth certificates and carries legal significance, whereas information below the line consists of medically irrelevant demographic information that typically is included only for purposes of compiling aggregated population statistics. In effect, the authors are urging that a person’s biological sex be downgraded to the same secondary, below-the-line information category that includes, for instance, a child’s race and the marital status of his or her parents.

While such arguments seem inconsistent with common sense (not to mention the daily diagnostic and treatment protocols employed by millions of doctors around the world), the fact that editors at such a prestigious journal as NEJM have chosen to assign credence to these arguments leaves us no choice but to unpack them.

In 2001, a Consensus Study Report titled Exploring the Biological Contributions to Human Health: Does Sex Matter? was approved by the governing board of the National Research Council. Based on input from 16 experts drawn from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, all “chosen for their special competences” on the subject matter, the authors of the book-length report concluded as follows:

Being male or female is an important basic human variable that affects health and illness throughout the life span. Differences in health and illness are influenced by individual genetic and physiological constitutions, as well as by an individual’s interaction with environmental and experiential factors. The incidence and severity of diseases vary between the sexes and may be related to differences in exposures, routes of entry and the processing of a foreign agent, and cellular responses. Although in many cases these sex differences can be traced to the direct or indirect effects of hormones associated with reproduction, differences cannot be solely attributed to hormones. Therefore, sex should be considered when designing and analyzing studies in all areas and at all levels of biomedical and health-related research.

This conclusion is hardly controversial. Nor should it be: Until just a few years ago, even most transgender activists didn’t claim that biological sex was a superficial construct that paled in comparison to self-asserted gender identity. Yet the authors still took care to support their conclusions with an abundance of academic citations. The material details the measurably different manner by which the average member of each sex responds to medical therapies and metabolizes nutrients. The report also covered sex differences in overall body size and composition, and the prevalence of obesity, osteoporosis, autoimmune diseases, and cancer. Coronary heart disease—which claims about 650,000 American lives every year, more than double the COVID-19 death toll—is described as a disease “that affects both sexes differently.”

Not only is biological sex a clinically significant factor in medicine, in many cases it is among the most important factors that a patient presents—even putting aside such obvious examples as prostate and uterine cancer, which afflict only males or females respectively.

Lest one dismiss 2001-era research as ancient history, consider another review, published in the Lancet just four months ago under the title Sex and Gender: Modifiers of Health, Disease, and Medicine. “The combination of all genetic and hormonal causes of sex differences [yield] two different biological systems in men and women that translate into differences in disease predisposition, manifestation, and response to treatment,” the authors concluded. “Therefore, sex is an important modifier of physiology and disease via genetic, epigenetic, and hormonal regulations.” In addition to generally affirming the conclusions of the 2001 National Academy of Sciences review described above, the authors detail other afflictions with sexually distinct patterns that have been investigated during the intervening two decades—including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza, pneumonia, chronic kidney and liver diseases, depression and suicide, and COVID-19. They state plainly that “efforts to bring sex and gender into the mainstream of modern medical research, practice, and education are urgently needed, as the lack of appreciation for sex and gender differences harms both women and men.”

So given this baseline of widely accepted medical knowledge about the important differences between the biologically male and female populations, why did NEJM publish Failed Assignments—Rethinking Sex Designations on Birth Certificates?

To help answer that question, consider the case of another misleading article: Lise Eliot’s appreciative Nature review of The Gendered Brain, a 2019 book by Gina Rippon that inaccurately claimed observed sex differences in the brains of males and females are largely a “myth” that reflects “neurosexist” bigotry. In a published response to Eliot’s credulous take on Rippon’s book, several experts reminded Nature‘s readers that “a variety of neurological and psychiatric conditions demonstrate robust differences between the sexes in their incidence, symptoms, progression and response to treatment… When properly documented and studied, sex and gender differences are the gateway to precision medicine.”

Now consider the different social-media imprints of these two Nature articles, as quantified by the website Altmetric, which tracks the degree to which scientific literature is reported by news outlets, blogs, and social-media users. As the accompanying image shows, the attention paid to Eliot’s positive review of Rippon’s dubious book on “Neurosexism” dwarfed the sober and factual debunking of it by a ratio exceeding 50:1.

Indeed, Nature‘s original “Neurosexism” piece immediately went viral on social media. It showed up in eight news outlets, five blogs, 6,543 tweets, 70 Facebook pages, and received mention on Wikipedia, Reddit, and three video sites. And why wouldn’t it? The idea that there are no sex differences in human neuroanatomy—that we are all blank slates, so to speak, and so any observable variation must be the result of cultural conditioning or sexist bigotry—always plays well in the lay media, as it accords well with the expansive progressive understanding of sexism. Meanwhile, the actual facts, boring as they may be to most social media users—that “a variety of neurological and psychiatric conditions demonstrate robust differences between the sexes in their incidence, symptoms, progression and response to treatment”—barely received any notice whatsoever.

And here we get to what has changed in recent years. Historically, scientific journalists and publishers worked within a professional milieu in which, with few exceptions, the judgments that mattered most were those rendered by other experts. But that’s now changed, thanks to social media. While the editors at such publications as Nature and NEJM may be excellent scientists, they also have the same appetite for praise and acceptance as everyone else. And if social media is telling them that a certain kind of article will mark them as enlightened, surely that will affect their choice of what to publish.

Not to mention, their choice of what to unpublish. On November 17th, Nature Communications published an article titled The Association Between Early Career Informal Mentorship in Academic Collaborations and Junior Author Performance, whose peer-reviewed results challenged the fashionable idea that same-sex mentoring arrangements help younger women. Needless to say, Twitter erupted in fury, leading to a slew of revisions that editors hoped would mollify critics. But that didn’t keep critics at bay. And so this week the article was retracted entirely, with the editors abjectly pledging to now “reflect on our editorial processes and strength[en] our determination in supporting diversity, equity and inclusion in research.” It’s hard not to read this as an admission that the publication will no longer even pretend to ignore ideological fashion in rendering its editorial judgments.

The revisions, and then retraction, were performed under the conceit that Nature Communications editors are simply rigorous scientists responding to “criticisms from readers [that] revolved around the validity of the conclusions in light of the available data, assumptions made and methodology used.” But even if one were to take this claim at face value, it’s clear that such rigor seems to be applied on an ideologically selective basis: The November 17th Nature paper was retracted despite being approved, in its multiple forms, by not one but two peer-review teams—while the NEJM and similarly prestigious publications now publish articles about sex and gender that plainly defy basic biological principles of sexual dimorphism understood even by small children.

It is also unclear how (or if) NEJM editors evaluated the broad claim that registering sex designations on birth certificates “can be harmful for intersex and transgender people”—not to mention the equally unproven argument that “designating sex as male or female on birth certificates” misleads people by falsely “suggest[ing] that sex is simple and binary when, biologically, it is not.”

“Sex is a function of multiple biologic processes with many resultant combinations,” the authors write. “About 1 in 5,000 people have intersex variations. As many as 1 in 100 people exhibit chimerism, mosaicism, or micromosaicism, conditions in which a person’s cells may contain varying sex chromosomes, often unbeknownst to them. The biologic processes responsible for sex are incompletely defined, and there is no universally accepted test for determining sex.”

As a biologist, I understand the terms that are being used here. But as a journalist, I get the sense that the authors’ primary goal is to overwhelm readers with specialized language that suggests an individual’s sex is the output of some complex equation (or, as the authors put it, “a function of multiple biologic processes”). Such language disguises the plain fact that sex is defined functionally based on the type of gamete (sex cell) that forms the basis for an individual’s reproductive anatomy. Males comprise the sex that produces small, motile sex cells (sperm); while females comprise the sex that produces large, sessile sex cells (ova). It doesn’t matter whether any individual can actually, or eventually does, produce gametes. An individual human being’s sex is determined by their primary sex organs, and an individual’s sex is accurately recorded over 99.98 percent of the time using genitals as a proxy for underlying gonad type.

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Intersex conditions, whereby a person may have ambiguous genitalia or a mismatch between sex chromosomes and external phenotype, are real but extremely rare. And they do not result in a third sex. Nor do they demonstrate the existence of some mythical sex “spectrum” (notwithstanding several science journalists’ efforts to pretend as much), given that there is no gamete that exists between sperm and ova for one’s anatomy to produce (or be structured to produce). Furthermore, while those with chimerism, mosaicism, or micromosaicism may exhibit variation in sex-chromosome composition on a cell-by-cell basis, every specialist (including those who wrote the NEJM article) knows full well that it is an organism that has a sex, not its constituent cells. The vast majority of people with the above-listed conditions do not exhibit ambiguous sexual characteristics; they are clearly male or female.

The NEJM authors state that sex designations on birth certificates are harmful to people with intersex conditions because the requirement to pick “M” or “F” may serve to increase pressure on parents of intersex infants to pursue surgeries designed to alter a child’s genitals so as to make them appear more typically male or female. While I share the belief that surgeries on intersex infants should be withheld until patients can give proper consent, and that nobody should be pressured into unwanted surgery, birth certificates are not the culprit here. Rather, what needs to be reconsidered is the societal notion that there is only one narrow way for biological males and biological females to look. (Indeed, the authors themselves seem to be exhibiting just such a regressive attitude, as their analysis implicitly rests on the assumption that intersex men and women are not fully male or female, a claim that many intersex people themselves might vigorously and properly reject.)

As for individuals who identify as transgender, their biological sex is typically not in any way ambiguous. A trans person is someone who is male or female, but who self-identifies as someone of the opposite sex—which, of course, they’re free to do, but which does nothing in and of itself to change their underlying biology.

In regard to trans individuals, the NEJM authors write:

Assigning sex at birth also doesn’t capture the diversity of people’s experiences. About 6 in 1,000 people identify as transgender, meaning that their gender identity doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth. Others are nonbinary, meaning they don’t exclusively identify as a man or a woman, or gender nonconforming, meaning their behavior or appearance doesn’t align with social expectations for their assigned sex.

While I have no reason to dispute the statistics cited here, it is stunning that this kind of logic would be featured in a scientific journal. “Identity”—including “gender identity”—is a socially constructed phenomenon that says nothing about one’s biological sex. And while it has always been known that some individuals are affected by gender dysphoria, the idea that biology shall be superseded by self-conceived gender identity—not only in the social and legal spheres, but also in some quasi-scientific sense—is a novel claim that would have seemed bizarre to everyone (including trans activists themselves) just a few years ago. Twitter and Tumblr are full of people who insist on the truth of this claim, of course. But they generally do so as activists and moralists—not as scientists.

The NEJM authors claim that trans people are harmed when they’re not allowed to use public spaces according to their self-identified sex, as opposed to their actual biological sex. On this point, the authors aren’t breaking any new ground, but are simply weighing in on an ongoing debate between those who prioritize the desires of trans people (women, in particular), and the hard-won rights of biological women who seek to keep male bodies out of vulnerable female spaces, including locker rooms, prisons, and rape-crisis centers. There is a real good-faith debate to be had about where the rights of one group begin and the rights of the other end, but it has nothing to do with birth certificates, and the authors don’t seem to have any special insight into its resolution. Nor do they grapple substantively with countervailing arguments rooted in biological reality, summarized well by Callie Burt, associate professor of criminology at Georgia State University, in a recently published articled in the journal Feminist Criminology:

Women’s sex-based provisions have been instituted and maintained to mitigate historical and ongoing social disadvantages (e.g., support for women/girls, quotas, and awards and competitions) and to provide female spaces free of the threat of male violence, sexual harassment and objectification to facilitate women’s equal involvement in public life. Some provisions (e.g., female awards and quotas) are designed to overcome social disadvantages rooted in historical exclusion, while other provisions, such as sports and female reproductive control, are sex separated due to biological differences (male physiological advantages and female reproductive burden, respectively) and justified by the individual and social benefits of female social involvement such provisions facilitate (Coleman, 2017). In general, sex-based provisions continue to be crucial to females’ well-being and equal participation in society, facilitating privacy, equal opportunity, and dignity in a world where male people have long been hostile and exclusionary to female people (e.g., Lawford-Smith, 2019a).

What Prof. Burt is describing here are the rights won by generations of women, often at great personal cost, in defiance of patriarchal societies that organized their power hierarchies around the real and timeless biological reality of sexual dimorphism. And it’s been distressing to see how easily many progressive thinkers, including some scientists, have been convinced that this biological reality can be airily dismissed as a mirage.

Even “Titania McGrath” could scarcely have known how quickly such ideological fads would metastasize into medical literature. And it should be a source of shame for the editors of the NEJM that today’s published content now reads as a plagiarized rehash of yesterday’s farce.

Colin Wright is the Managing Editor of Quillette. He holds a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Follow him on Twitter at @SwipeWright

A version of this article was originally posted at Quillette and has been reposted here with permission. Find Quillette on Twitter @Quillette

Podcast: Brushing your teeth keeps you young? Ageing research uncovers new clues in the quest to live a longer, healthier life

In the latest episode of Genetics Unzipped, geneticist Kat Arney takes a look at the biological changes that underpin ageing, and how we can use this knowledge to live longer, healthier lives.

Arney speaks with Dr. Andrew Steele, author of the new book Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old, to take a deep dive into the processes that underlie ageing and, excitingly, whether we might be able to slow them down to live longer, healthier lives. Although Steele is excited about the potential of anti-ageing therapies such as senolytics, which get rid of senescent ‘sleeping’ cells that accumulate in our tissues as we age, one of the simplest and cheapest ways to slow down the tick of time might be sitting right on your bathroom shelf. And he doesn’t mean that bottle of fancy moisturizer.

“My favorite tip is to brush your teeth as it looks as though that could slow down the ageing process. When you’ve got gum disease or tooth decay, it’s something that your immune system can’t ever quite get rid of, this constant low-level skirmish going on in your mouth and over years, that’s chronic inflammation,” he explains.

“It can accelerate heart disease, it could accelerate cancer and there’s even some sort of tentative evidence at the moment where they have found bacteria related to gum disease in the plaques of people who have dementia. Is it a causative factor? The fact is I’m happy to take the risk and brush my teeth because obviously there’s a load of other benefits at the same time.”

Arney also speaks with Dr Raheleh Rahbari, a research fellow at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, who is studying how patterns of DNA damage accumulate in our tissues throughout life. She discusses how our bodies are patchworks of mutation, right from the very start of life, and the impact this has on ageing and diseases like cancer and dementia.

“Our results show that there are variations in terms of how mutations and changes in DNA accumulate in different tissues. We can see that, for instance, colon from someone who is 30 accumulates less mutation compared to someone who is 80,” Rahbari says.

“Recently, we noticed that actually this might be variable across different tissues. For instance, in testicular tissues from men, we realized that accumulation of mutations is a lot lower than colon. This is really fascinating because it shows that there is evolutionary pressure to keep mutation in this tissue a lot lower and possibly protect the germ cells from acquiring mutation because of their evolutionary role.”

Full show notes, transcript, music credits and references online at GeneticsUnzipped.com.

Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator and biologist Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media. Follow Kat on Twitter @Kat_Arney. Follow Genetics Unzipped on Twitter @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

Listen to Genetics Unzipped on Apple podcasts (iTunes), Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Podcast: FDA’s double standard? Geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam examines why agency defends GE crops but overregulates GE animals

After more than 30 years of development and regulatory review, AquaBounty’s fast-growing, GM salmon is poised to hit US grocery stores in 2021. It’s an important step forward for sustainable food production, but the occasion also raises some frustrating questions. Why did it take the US, typically viewed as a global biotechnology leader, three decades to approve its first genetically engineered food animal? More importantly, why does the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so stringently regulate genetically engineered animals while going out of its way to defend the safety and efficacy of GE crops?

“Years of research in the US and around the world show that GMO foods are just as safe to eat as non-GMO foods,” the agency said of biotech crops in a recent video. Scientists have for years made the same case in defense of GE animals, arguing that they don’t pose a unique risk just because they’ve been genetically engineered. But the FDA remains unimpressed and regulates animal biotech under the same rules that apply to veterinary drugs, making it prohibitively expensive and time consuming for researchers to breed genetically engineered animals for use as food.

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The opportunity cost of this regulatory double standard is enormous. Not only has it forced some scientists to move their research out of the country, it has prevented farmers from using technologies that can improve animal welfare, cut antibiotic use, reduce pollution and ultimately offer consumers less expensive animal products. University of California, Davis animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam offered a particularly striking example in a recent five-part series for the GLP:

A GE cow designed to be resistant to Staphylococcus aureus mastitis was reported by public sector researchers with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in 2005. Mastitis is a disease of the mammary gland and is estimated to cost the global dairy industry $19.7–$32 billion annually. And yet despite this disease burden, this GE cow was never commercialized.

The 30-year net present value of forgoing S. aureus mastitis-resistant dairy cattle was estimated to exceed $10 billion dollars for the United States and European Union, let alone the opportunity cost of diffusion to other major dairy producing countries such as India, and other non-monetary benefits such as improved animal health and welfare, and reduced antibiotic usage.

So how did we get here? On this episode of the Science Facts and Fallacies podcast, Van Eenennaam joins geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP editor Cameron English to discuss the messy history of America’s animal biotech rules, and what might be done to enact more sensible, science-based regulations.

Subscribe to the Science Facts and Fallacies Podcast on iTunes and Spotify.

Alison Van Eenennaam is an extension specialist in animal biotechnology and genomics, Department of Animal Science, University of California, Davis. Follow her on Twitter @biobeef 

Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s managing editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

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