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This blog is dedicated to all those looking to deepen their green--whether you are making a commitment to a greener lifestyle and need help taking the first steps or whether you're already a practicing tree hugger who is looking for practical advice on what steps to take next. Over the years, I've heard all the good intentions and all the excuses. I've also seen my fellow environmentalists sabotage the good intentions of others. I am making a commitment to you, dear reader, wherever you fall on the spectrum, to help you take the next steps to fulfilling your commitment to the earth, to your health, and to your well-being. Stay tuned for articles and interviews.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The problem with causation…



This morning, a friend posted an article that was reporting on a scientific paper linking Roundup to the increase in celiac disease,gluten intolerance, and irritable bowel syndrome. Of course, I was curious. I am not a fan of pesticides, but I’m also a scientist (a social scientist, so I might not understand all the bio-chemistry, but I’m still a scientist who understands and respects the standards and rigor of the scientific method). So off I went to get the skinny on the next Monsanto scandal. 

The article was little more than a brief introduction, followed by the abstract to the scientific paper. I didn’t read very far before I went back to Facebook to see what popped up underneath the original post. As an aside, I’ll mention that when Facebook started recommending additional articles, I was kind of annoyed, but for moments like this, where the original post was kind of “thin” on information, I’ve grown to appreciate the hints to get me started on that deeper digging affectionately known as “procrastination.” I mean, it’s kind of related to work, right?

Sure enough, what seemed like it might be a scandal for Monsanto, may, in fact, be a scandal for science. One of the articles facebook recommended was “Bogus paper on Roundup saturates the Internet.” The author of this article focuses on the credentials of the scientists and the placement of the article, arguing, first of all, that the science can’t be valid because the scientists were engineers instead of biologists. “So was this bizarre article peer-reviewed by actual biologists? No matter, neither Samsel nor Seneff are biologists either.” I don’t necessarily agree with that point, since Samsel is a chemical engineer and much of the internal research done at Monsanto is probably done by people with similar credentials. Seriously, Roundup is chemically engineered—Mother Nature doesn’t make it on her own. 

On the other hand, James Cooper, the author of the article the “bogus paper” critique article, calls the scientists out for not conducting original research on the topic, but instead using (questionable) existing research to draw conclusions that don’t hold up. He even lists the “weasel words” that Samsel and Seneff use to make their claims. I will admit that I have not read the original article. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. At any rate, I can get behind this part of his critique.

It probably makes sense to mention that the article by Cooper and the Huffington Post article that also popped up on Facebook both came out in April 2013, while the article that my friend posted is from this month. Maybe this isn’t really that much of a scandal after all. Nevertheless, something about the conflict triggered me. 

Here’s my concern. When I used to teach the principles of the scientific method to undergraduates, there was a mantra that “correlation does not equal causation.” Just because we see a pattern does not mean that A causes B to happen. The majority of social anthropology (my sub-field) doesn’t really care too much about causation. And while correlation is interesting, it is not always meaningful. What IS meaningful is perception and attitudes.  

For me, a lot of it comes back to a quote from Seneff that appears in the HuffPost article: “We ‘have hit upon something very important that needs to be taken seriously and further investigated.’” Bad science? Probably. Why discredit yourself and/or publish an inconclusive article full of “maybes?” My guess is that the authors wrote the peer reviewed article specifically to create a media buzz. They wanted to say—“look at all these studies that are finding correlations between the increases in particular (types of) diseases and the use of pesticides. We need to be asking more questions and demanding answers.” It seems like an appeal to the precautionary principle, to me. Let the burden of proof rest with Monsanto that their product is safe. 

The environmentalist in me can get behind that sentiment (if indeed that was the authors’ intent—I’m taking a lot of liberties here). The anthropologist in me thinks that it’s still not the right question.  

Round-up is the little white pill. It’s the quick fix. It’s THE answer.  For some.

For others, Round-up is EVIL. It’s what’s wrong with industrial agriculture. It’s what’s wrong with global capitalism. 

In fact, Roundup is none of those things. These are attitudes and perceptions. Roundup is one of those things, it seems, is easy to have an opinion about. I want to see us asking more complex questions about how attitudes about this product link to broader social attitudes and perceptions. And here I'm going to jump over to Roundup ready crops to help make my point. I want to see us having the more fundamental discussion about what it means socially, economically, biologically, for a company like Monsanto to chemically alter the structure of seeds to make a kind of “one-size fits all” product that creates a market of dependencies and creates an adversarial relationship between farmers and an industry that is supposedly designing products “for” them.  Monsanto isn’t the only company in the business of GMOs, but for the purpose of today’s soapbox, it will stand in for all mega-agri-businesses that seek to patent food as technology. 

How have we let ourselves get to a place where a “Monsanto” can sue “Joe Farmer” for seeds that drift into Joe’s fields, but Joe can’t countersue Monsanto for contaminating his soil because Joe Farmer’s soil isn’t patented? 

Why would we, as a society, get behind any company that applies the marketing strategy of “planned obsolescence” to our food? 

Roundup has been heavily criticized for decades, yet its use continues to increase (at least according to the above articles). AND it's critical to the creation of new products (seeds) for farmers that are supposed to help society (abundant food = no hungry people, right?). On the other hand, consumption of organics is increasing. Are these two trends marching along in lock step? (Part of me wants to search the internet for this answer, but the other part of me that needs to pay for my organic greens needs to get back to paid work). I don't think it's that simple. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will confess that I garden without chemicals and buy organics about 65% of the time, but I also keep Roundup around for poison ivy and brushing on the occasional (uninvited) tree stump. I’m not a saint. 

Whether or not there are correlations between the use of Roundup and an increase in certain types of diseases may be interesting and is definitely worth further investigation. The impact of Roundup ready seeds on biodiversity and human health are also questions I'd like to see scientists tackle. At the same time, even if we can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Roundup CAUSES something bad to happen, it doesn’t address other, more fundamental question about the philosophy behind the science. We seem to be trapped in a culture of finger pointing in search of the culprit that causes all sorts of bad things to happen. To me this obsession with causation is reflected in our cultural tendency towards quick fixes (fad diets, “wonder drugs,” “instant” everything). 

I’m not suggesting that I have the answers. I’m saying that we need to be asking different questions. I’m suggesting that the answers that will help us create meaningful changes are complex, multi-dimensional, and they may not give us a clear villain.

What questions do you want to see asked that defy a simple cause and effect answer?

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