Autism, Biofortified, Coyote Blog, Discover, Facebook GMO Skepti-Forum, Glyphosate, Huffington Post, Kevin Drum, MIT, National Public Radio, pesticdes, Stephanie Seneff, Synthetic vs. natural pesticides, Warren Meyer
The chart above is something of a joke, but it has a serious point: it provides evidence every bit as solid as some research making the rounds on social media. Bad science finds easy footholds on the internet, but more shocking is the ease with which it is tolerated and even promoted within academe. But according to Warren Meyer, we live in the age of “post-modern science“:
“It means that certain data, or an analysis, or experiment was somehow wrong or corrupted or failed typical standards of scientific rigor, but was none-the-less (sic) ‘accurate’. How can that be? Because accuracy is not defined as logical conformance to observations. It has been redefined as ‘consistent with the narrative.’”
Here is a particularly egregious example of scientific swill that I have seen posted several times over the past few days: “MIT Researcher: Glyphosate Herbicide will Cause Half of All Children to Have Autism by 2025“. The headline itself is more than sufficient to sound the BS alarm. This MIT “researcher”, Stephanie Seneff, is not a biologist, chemist, or geneticist. As it happens, she is a computer scientist (with advanced degrees in electrical engineering) who specializes in “text mining.” Her work, apart from serving as an activist, involves finding correlations between the appearance of words and “adverse outcomes” in reports and literature. She has a reputation in the scientific community as a bit of a “quack”. In this case, HuffPo goes so far as to say that her glyphosate research is “dumb.” Discover has also objected to Seneff’s work, and MIT’s tolerance of it.
A frequent refrain in critiques of research is that correlation is not causation, a fact that is demonstrated by the chart above and Seneff’s research. At best, Seneff presents evidence of correlation between the uses of certain words, the selection of which may be subject to severe bias. In addition, there is no convincing evidence that autism is increasing, but there is plenty of evidence that the definition and diagnosis of autism have expanded dramatically. There is increasing evidence that autism is often of purely genetic origin.
Here are a couple of other useful links debunking Seneff’s work:
Synthetic pesticides like glyphosate are applied to crops in low concentrations that are unlikely to cause harm. So-called natural pesticides are often applied more heavily because they are less effective at controlling pests. It is not clear that one is safer than the other. Here is a nice piece on synthetic vs. natural pesticides.
Kevin Drum has asserted that the internet contributes to “cognitive inequality”. That is, it “makes smart people smarter and dumb people dumber”. The spread of disinformation like Seneff’s research via social media is a good case study of the latter part of Drum’s claim.
A big hat tip to members of the Facebook GMO Skepti-Forum for many of the links above.