Pigs, GMOs & Bullshit

Again, the Internet contends with another negative take on GMOs, like Seralini’s rat-cancer study from last year. This “study” by Judy Carman involves following pigs fed GM and non-GM feed over 22.7 weeks and trying to find something, anything, wrong at all with the GM-fed pigs while ignoring everything that showed no effect or a positive effect. I don’t have time enough to go through the study, so I’ll briefly summarize the findings of Mark Lynas’ take on the study, as well as another from Weed Control Freaks to show you the pseudoscience indicators:

1st Warning Sign: The results were published in a journal not indexed by PubMed with a low-impact factor.

What this means: Scientists don’t take the journal seriously, it has no credibility, or both.

2nd Warning Sign: The study was funded by The Organic Federation of Australia; i.e., they’re potentially biased.

What this means: Lynas articulates the position well in his own take – imagine if Monsanto sponsored a study that showed GMOs are safe. The Antis would lose their minds and completely discard it. That they don’t do the observe shows the hypocrisy of their position. Bad science is bad science regardless of whose, in this case, attempting to do science.

3rd Warning Sign: The study’s protagonist has a history of anti-GMO activism, as well as being a cohort of Gille Seralini whose history of conducting flawed science in service to his anti-GMO activism makes him suspect.

What this means: A scientist’s biases color the interpretation of their results. This has a corollary in the 1st Warning Sign, as such a lowly journal’s filters might not be quite as stringent as a scientist would expect. Carman went into the study with an expectation that GMOs are bad, and was, therefore, more likely to interpret any evidence through that lens, which is, after all, exactly what happened. Also, survey the furore over the overlap between the US gov’t and Monsanto. There are thousands, perhaps millions, of people who think that Monsanto controls the US gov’t, and as a result of that belief, discount public efforts to soothe anti-GMO fears. Again, that the observe is not even a talking point reveals the hypocrisy of the position.

4th Warning Sign: They claim they have no commercial interests, despite many involved with the study standing to gain from increased organic sales if GMOs were shown to be unsafe.

What this means: The study was funded by The Organic Federation of Australia. They receive dues from organic farmers and the more popular organic farming is, for example, through swayed consumer opinion influencing planted acres, would increase their financial stakes.

5th Warning Sign: Funding came from Verity Farms (natural product outfit) and The Institute of Health and Environmental Research, which seems to be entirely dedicated to anti-GMO activism. Their funding sources are not disclosed, though they solicit donations. Jeffrey Smith and Arpad Putzai are both listed as acknowledgments; the former has no relevant science experience and the latter’s GM potato study that supposedly showed harm from GM potatoes is not accepted by the scientific community for methodological errors.

What this means: Imagine a biologist listed Lysonky as an acknowledgement on an evolutionary biology paper. His version of evolutionary biology was a causative factor in the Soviet famines

6th Warning Sign: The study showed pictures of severely inflamed pigs stomachs from the GM-fed group against non or mild inflammation from the non-GM fed pigs. Very similar to what Seralini did in his rat study last year. Showing big, fat disgusting tumors from the GM-fed mice, but neglect to show pictures of the control rats who also had tumors.

What this means: media bait. Juicy, clearly selected photos intended to pack an emotional punch and sway consumer confidence. This is not the sign of an objective analysis intended to impart facts.

However, the above are just indicators. In and of themselves, they don’t automatically mean that it is pseudoscience (therefore, false), but, the indicators taken together paint a picture, and it would be irresponsible for anyone to accept such claims at face value. Moreover, in science, the data speaks first and foremost, so let’s dig in. I’ll start by summarizing some of the findings.

Fifteen-percent of the non-GM fed pigs had heart abnormalities, compared to six-percent of GM-fed pigs. Hmm, that wasn’t anywhere in the press release, but there’s more. Liver problems were twice as prevalent in non-GM pigs as GM-fed pigs. One will note, that in all credulous mentions of this study on the Internet, there is no mention anywhere of these mildly positive findings. This data strikes to the heart of the one-note tone-deaf claims reverbarating around the Internet in support of this study.

In the four categories of stomach inflammation that was, apparently, the subject of the study: None, Mild, Moderate, Severe. In all but the severe section, the GM-fed pigs were better off than their conventionally fed brethren. That tells us that there is no dose-dependent mechanism between the GM feed and the stomach inflammation, so the likelihood that there is a correlation between GM-fed pigs and inflammation is next to none. I happen to agree with Lynas’ conclusion (emphasis mine):

“My judgement is that, as with Seralini, this study subjects animals to inhumanely poor conditions resulting in health impacts which can then be data-mined to present ‘evidence’ against GMO feeds. Most damning of all, close to 60% of both sets of pigs were suffering from pneumonia at the time of slaughter – another classic indicator of bad husbandry. Had they not been slaughtered, all these pigs might well have died quickly anyway. No conclusions can be drawn from this study, except for one – that there should be tighter controls on experiments performed on animals by anti-biotech campaigners, for the sake of animal welfare.”

I highlight “data-mined” for a very specific purpose. In any scientific study worth its salt, the hypothesis is present before the experiment begins. This is to guard against scope-creep (or, in science, hypothesis-creep, though that doesn’t sound so good). What that means is that the scientist can’t change the purpose of the study when the results don’t match the hypothesis. However, when the conclusion is mined from the data after-the-fact, it allows fluke readings to seem to have a causative effect. In science, statistical significance (a non-random effect) is what all studies strive for. A statistically significant effect is defined as any event that falls below P < 0.05, which means, in layman speak, a 5% or less chance of the result being due to chance. (However, deriving a result at or below 0.05 does not actually tell you if it is due to chance or causative, only the likelihood that it was. That is, with a statistical significance of 0.05, if you repeated the experiment 20 times, you should get 19 consistent results and one fluke result.) Bringing that understanding to bear upon this study, Carman et al. analyzed some 20 factors, and found that severe stomach inflammation in GM-fed pigs was statistically-significant compared to the non-GM-fed pigs. Yet, since that hypothesis was absent prior to the experiment, it neatly falls under the more probable explanation that since this result was absent a dose-dependent result, that it is was a fluke result. Without a follow-up study, it is the only rational position to take.

However, it gets worse. Andrew Kniss over at Weed Control Freaks has shown that their P-values were sneakily derived to ensure that they passed the statistical significance test. So not only did it not pass statistical significance which would obligate the scientific community to replicate the results, they performed funky mathematics just to hit their biased after-the-fact hypothesis!

Here’s how they did it. They separated the four groups of inflammation, and ran separate statistical tests on each so that their P-values could limbo under the P < 0.05. That is, they had to obfuscate the mathematics just to get the right values to validate their bias (I refuse to call it a hypothesis), which, as I mentioned before, was chosen after the experiment run. When all the results were properly subjected to statistical analysis by Kniss, the P-values came out to be 0.2142 if running a t-test analysis, and 0.2081 running a Wilcox test. That is, roughly a 20% chance that the results are consistent with chance. Twenty-percent is a very poor marker for a causal effect. Surprisingly, there is more: hen the males and females were separated and analyzed again, the results were even more stark:

Male t-test = 0.5667 (56.7%) – Male wilcox test = 0.5669 (56.7%) – Female t-test = 0.2564 (25.6%) – Female wilcox test = 0.2408 (24.1%)

Andrew Kniss concludes appropriately:

“If I were to have analyzed these data, using the statistical techniques that I was taught were appropriate for the type of data, I would have concluded there was no statistical difference in stomach inflammation between the pigs fed the two different diets. To analyze these data the way the authors did makes it seem like they’re trying to find a difference, where none really exist.”

Prof. David Spiegelhalter wrote to Lynas thatthere were so many statistical tests that one was bound to come up positive, and he is right. Twenty variables in total were run, and only one, that they had to fish for after-the-fact, showed a result they wanted. (Which, as above, if the much wanted P < 0.05 is aimed at, would have shown up anyway as every twenty tests, one would turn out random.) Then again, it’s not about the science; I very much doubt that Carman cares about how debunked, criticized, and wrong her study is, she and her cohorts only need to create the media attention with the facade of science to fool the public, which Reuters and dozens of others have already bought hook, line, and sinker.

Cami Ryan has summarized many more rebuttals from around the web by scientists of this nonsense study. David Tribe, aka The GMO Pundit, also has a detailed breakdown on his site, and I encourage you to read both Mark Lynas’ review (which has been updated) and Andrew Kniss’ statistical analysis in full to get a flavour of peer-review works.

UPDATE: I mistakenly put the length of the study at two years. David Tribe has since corrected me, it was 22.7 weeks.

32 thoughts on “Pigs, GMOs & Bullshit”

  1. I loved that video, but you know you’re going to be accused now of being on the Syngenta tit. Word of advice: lay low and avoid your Swiss chalet for a few months. You don’t want people talking. Oh, and as you’re going to have your head down can I borrow your yacht? 🙂

    1. Thank you sir. Already got my first Monsanto shill comment the other day. Far as I’m concerned, they’re badges of honour. 🙂 The yacht is all yours!

    1. 22.7 weeks is very precise. That is 22 weeks and 4.9 days. Why would they count 4.9 days? The press release I saw, from the actual study, said 23 weeks. That’s more logical.

  2. I don’t think the first few “warning signs” count. Yes, it is good to be critical of where the data is coming from, but I believe counts as their motives… not reasons to dismiss the data. Like a cancer survivor would be more likely to donate to a cancer study, so a more eco-minded person would be interested in performing this type of experiment. This happens everywhere, across unversities everywhere and including Monsanto companies and Big Pharma as well.
    I see that you have written about the “Appeal to Nature” fallacy. I daresay this article falls prey and uses as tactics to several classic fallacies itself: Strawman (misrepresentation or exaggeration of someone else’s argument to make it easier to attack), tu quoque (criticizing the criticizer), the fallacy fallacy (just b/c something is shown poorly doesn’t mean it is wrong), and ad hominem (attacking your accuser’s personal traits).
    Moreover, 22.7wks is an odd number for a study to use. That is 22 weeks and 4.9 days. Why would they count 4.9 days? The press release I saw, from the actual study, said 23 weeks. That’s more logical. Even if they DID count a day decimally, then that should lend itself to their strive for accuracy.
    Also, I don’t understand the double argument. You mention that there could be implications that gm-diet could be good for a pig’s liver. Then it is stated that none of this should be believed b/c some of the pigs had pneumonia and the data was bad. So which is it?
    Finally, the study was published in the Journal of Organic Systems, a peer-reviewed science journal. Just b/c it has not been around awhile doesn’t mean it is less credible. Peer-reviewed is peer-reviewed.

    1. Well as I said, they are indicators. Warning signs that should keep you wary of the claims. Not to be dismissed a priori but scrutinized a little closer.

      Might I ask where the strawman argument is? The study authors claimed certain things. The data in the study do not suggest a link. Therefore, they are wrong. Plain and simple. I didn’t have to characterize their study as anything but in order to reach that conclusion.

      I attacked no one’s personal traits, only what they have shown to do historically and publicly. All involved had a history of anti-GMO activism. There is no caricature of their beliefs, it’s how they view themselves, and how they structure their online life.

      As for the GM-fed livers (and hearts), I merely point out that those pigs fed a GM diet seemed to have better health for those two organs. I say we should ignore it because it is not statistically significant, just as the inverse isn’t, ‘that GM-fed pigs suffer more from stomach inflammation.’ They don’t, the study is poor, has many biases, and the conclusions don’t follow from the data. There is no double-standard, the double standard is on the authors for picking out one thing (out of the dozens of tested parameters) and pretending that GM food is therefore bad while ignoring that there was more data on the indicating the opposite; none of which was statistically significant in the other end, but it goes to show their bias front and centre.

      Finally, not all peer-reviewed journals are created equal. Furthermore, the “peer-reviewed is peer-reviewed” quote indicates how very little you know about science, I’m sorry to say. Other science journals don’t link to this journal, that makes it suspect, it only publishes articles twice a year, suspect again, what do they do for the other 10 months of the year? It seems more like an organic club trying to prove an ideological bias. Peer-reviewed doesn’t also mean empirically verified, only that a small group of scientists think it deserves to be seen by other scientists, where in this case, it was shredded for being a poor study that at best showed how little they cared for their pigs indicating animal rights violations. In this case, I think calling them scientists is a stretch, but it doesn’t mean it is empirically verified. If you’re interested, read my post “Not All Scientific Statements Have Equal Weight.” If you think just because it is peer-reviewed, then it’s “peer-reviewed” then why do you not accept the 600+ peer-reviewed studies that show no harm from GMOs?

      600 studies vs this one poorly-constructed study. It’s not even a choice.

      1. If you want to understand those against GMOs, and its studies, then you should realize that many consider the studies non-trustworthy. Scientists that actually go against Monsanto and others lose their jobs, their livelihoods. They are silenced before their work can be critiqued by other scientists and the public.
        If we are not allowed to hear their reviews and hypothesis, then how can we believe in the motives of those that refute them?

    1. I would if there was anything to them. The Monsanto Protection Act is a convenient, fictional strawman that many have latched on.to provide support for their position. The ‘Monsanto Protection Act’ doesn’t protect Monsanto, it protects the farmers who have bought seeds from Monsanto or any other biotech company from being unlawfully sued by activists and destroy their farming livelihood with anything but scientific evidence for harm. The ultimate authority still lies with the USDA and FDA with the passing of the act. The ‘act’ is the quintessential example of repeating something so often that people just take it for fact. It has very little to do with Monsanto except for the fact that Monsanto happens to sell the majority of GM seeds in the USA.

  3. I always take animal studies supposedly trying to “relate” something to HOW HUMAN BODIES MIGHT REACT with a grain of salt, ESP. RATS. A small-ass animal like THAT, with probably a very-different biochemistry, having the exact same reaction we would? Please… Pigs might be more legit to use, but still…

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