Let's say that a big pseudoscientific scare comes to be backed by big money. And by big money, I generally mean government money. Government money, when it gets behind something, will almost always easily be a multiple of whatever private sources can come up with, even from very wealthy people. As the government money gushes forth, careers and livelihoods come to depend on the continuation of the flow. At some point the cause becomes nearly impossible to stop. But can rationality ever prevail over the corruption of government-funded pseudoscience?
Much of the coverage of pseudoscience at this site has focused on two topics, climate change and the high fat diet. In the case of climate change, we are talking about really, really big government money -- tens of billions of dollars per year, supporting thousands of careers of pseudoscientists. Even a newly-elected President adamantly opposed to the scam has so far managed to slow down the flow of money only a little. In the case of the high fat diet -- subject to multi-decadal government-funded attack campaign -- the news that the evidence has disproved any association of fat in the diet with heart disease has still failed to reach my supermarket, where the shelves continue to be filled with products proclaiming themselves "low fat" and "heart healthy." These things aren't fading away any time soon.
But now consider the case of glyphosate, the key chemical ingredient in Roundup weedkiller. Glyphosate has been around for a long time (since the 1970s), and is extremely useful in agriculture -- which means that millions have had long-term exposure to it. Trial lawyers have been drooling for decades over the idea that they might be able to come up with some kind of association of glyphosate with some kind of cancer or other. They have had the problem that the actual evidence keeps turning up adverse. For example, there is the U.S. Agricultural Health Study, by which the U.S. government has tracked about 89,000 farmers and their wives since 1993, reporting after 23 years in 2016 that it had found “no association between glyphosate exposure and all cancer incidence or most of the specific cancer subtypes we evaluated, including NHL [non-Hodgkins lymphoma]. . .” Do you think that would be the end of the matter?
There's more than one place to go to get your government money. In the matter of glyphosate, an activist named Christopher Portier, who was employed by the Environmental Defense Fund, took his case to the UN, in the form of a part of the World Health Organization called the International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC. In 2014 IARC set up a working group to advise on the risk of glyphosate, and appointed Portier the technical advisor to the group. In 2015 IARC issued its report. Conclusion: Glyphosate was reclassified as a "probably carcinogen":
Limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The evidence in humans is from studies of exposures, mostly agricultural, in the USA, Canada, and Sweden published since 2001. In addition, there is convincing evidence that glyphosate also can cause cancer in laboratory animals.
The EU promptly moved toward a ban on the stuff, and trial lawyers began to salivate uncontrollably. But this one got some early and strong push back, starting in April 2016 with this article by Brit Matt Ridley and this one from Jon Entine and David Zaruk.
Now, just a couple of weeks ago, comes an article from Kate Kelland at Reuters, headline "In glyphosate review, WHO cancer agency edited out 'non-carcinogenic' findings." Get ready:
Reuters found 10 significant changes that were made between the draft chapter on animal studies and the published version of IARC’s glyphosate assessment. In each case, a negative conclusion about glyphosate leading to tumours was either deleted or replaced with a neutral or positive one. . . . Reuters contacted 16 scientists who served in the IARC expert working group that conducted the weedkiller review to ask them about the edits and deletions. Most did not respond; five said they could not answer questions about the draft; none was willing or able to say who made the changes, or why or when they were made.
Over at ClimateScepticism, Paul Matthews -- whose interests in pseudoscience also extend beyond the climate scam -- went to check some of the citations in Kelland's work. Here is an example:
The IARC report says that a study (JMPR 2006), found that haemangiosarcoma increased significantly in male mice [that were exposed to glyphosate]:
In the second feeding study, there was a significant positive trend in the incidence of haemangiosarcoma in male CD-1 mice.
But if you look at the original study, it says
There were no statistically significant increases in the incidence of any tumours, either benign and malignant, in either sex when compared with the control groups.
Check it out for yourself by searching both documents for that big word.
Matthews' post also contains a series of links to other coverage of this issue, for example this more recent lengthy article from Ridley. Meanwhile, the EU continues to consider whether to ban glyphosate.
Looks to me like rationality could win this one. A vote by some European regulatory body or other is likely to take place in December. On the other hand, the government money backing the attack on glyphosate was chump change compared to the high fat diet, or to the kingpin of them all, the climate change scam.