Monday, September 24, 2012

"A rancid, corrupt way to report about science"

On 21st, I called the study discussed below a fraud.  I said so after just looking at the initial media report.  It seems that my judgment was well justified  -- JR

The quote in the headline on this post comes from Carl Zimmer's blog, The Loom, in a commentary on coverage of recent European study on possible health effects of eating GM crops. To give you the short version, the study authors appear to have practiced some very questionable science and some - and cynical - manipulation of the science media.

Or as Ivan Oransky put it on Embargo Watch:  "A study of the effect of genetically modified corn on rats that you may have read about earlier this week doesn’t seem to have said much about whether GMOs are safe. But it sure said a lot about how the scientists who did the work used a crafty embargo to control their message."

And Zimmer and Oranky weren't the only notable science writers to express real dismay over the way the French researchers worked to control the media in this case (you'll find in Oransky's post the fact that the lead researcher has a book coming out on the subject of GM crops, by the way).

The story began in fairly standard way, publication of a study on the effects of feeding the weedkiller, Roundup, and Roundup resistant corn to rats.  The study, published in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology, which was embargoed for release this week.

Here was the catch: The researchers agreed to provide advance copies of the study, which purported to find that a large increase in tumors in the GMO-crop and herbicide exposed rodents, only  journalists would sign an agreement not to show the paper to any other scientists for comment. In other words, the initial stories would be required to take the study at face value. Although Oransky notes that news outlets later updated their story, the first accounts are still enjoying an uncritical ride in activist circles, such as this one from France's Le Monde, where I assume the agreement was signed and which reads almost like a press release.

As the researcher and science blogger Scicurious pointed out in a post at Scientific American's The Crux, this meant that such stories played right into the anti-GMO narrative rather than putting the story in full context or calling attention to the concerns expressed by other researchers about the validity of the results.

To quote: Scicurious: "Following the release of the study, numerous scientists questioned the findings, citing 'anomalies throughout the paper that normally should have been corrected or resolved through the peer-review process.' In particular, there are problems with the statistics performed on the data, the way the data were presented, and the numbers and types of animals used in the study."

Among the problems, for instance, the researchers chose a strain of rats known to spontaneously develop tumors without exposure to any of the products under study. Given a 30 percent mortality rate in their control animals, they also failed to provide ncessary data about which those animals had developed tumors. In fact, so many scientists criticized the findings that the British-based Science Media Centre ended up putting a resource list of such comments on its website.

At The New York Times, Andy Revkin noted that anti-GMO advocates were already promoting the uncritical versions of the study. The piece is also worth reading for the excellent point about the "single-study syndrome" - the tendency of advocacy groups to use these kinds of reports, often out of the context of the greater body of work, to argue their points.

Which is exactly what Rosie Mestal, at The Los Angeles Times, reported - that  the study - despite the methodological criticisms -  "was embraced by opponents of genetically altered foods, including backers of Proposition 37, which if approved by California voters in November would require most foods with genetically modified ingredients to bear a label."

Still, outside of activist circles, it's worth noting that many (good) journalists responded with skepticism to the report:

 At The Washington Post, Tim Carman wrote a thoroughly researched story, describing the study as controversial in the very first graf. (The headline - "French Scientists Question Safety of GM Corn" - oversimplified but that's another risk inherent in single study syndrome).

At Boing-Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote a savvy and sharp-edged analysis with the excellent headline: Authors of study linking GM corn with rat tumors mainpulated media to prevent criticism of their work."

At Discovery News, we find Emily Sohn's excellent "GM Corn-Tumor Link Based on Poor Science".

At Geekosystem, Ian Chant goes farther, calling lead researcher, Gilles-Eric Séralini of the University of Caen,  sketchy for refusing to turn over his data to the EU agency responsible for food safety. This follows on a report from Martin Enserink at Science that agencies with both the EU and the French government are planning to investigate the results more thoroughly.

In other words, that non-disclosure demand from Séralini and his colleagues should have been a red flag from the beginning, a warning that this could be some very suspect research. And the appropriate response from any journalist should have been a flat no - it's far better to be second-day on a suspect story than to be suckered on the first day. Or, to quote Zimmer again, as he calls out organizations that did sign the agreement: "For shame."


Students strike against new federal school lunch rules

A far as I can see, this stupid authoritarianism is mainly going to hit poor families.  Other families can surely send their kids to school packing a sandwich or two

By 7 a.m. Monday, senior Nick Blohm already had burned about 250 calories in the Mukwonago High School weight room.

He grabbed a bagel and a Gatorade afterward; if he eats before lifting, he gets sick.

That was followed by eight periods in the classroom, and then three hours of football practice. By the time he headed home, he had burned upward of 3,000 calories - his coach thinks the number is even higher.

But the calorie cap for his school lunch? 850 calories.

"A lot of us are starting to get hungry even before the practice begins," Blohm said. "Our metabolisms are all sped up."

Following new federal guidelines, school districts nationwide have retooled their menus to meet new requirements to serve more whole grains, only low-fat or nonfat milk, daily helpings of both fruits and vegetables, and fewer sugary and salty items. And for the first time, federal funds for school lunches mandate age-aligned calorie maximums. The adjustments are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 touted by Michelle Obama and use the updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The changes are hard to swallow for students like Blohm. On Monday, 70% of the 830 Mukwonago High students who normally buy lunch boycotted cafeteria food to protest what they see as an unfair "one size fits all thing." Middle schoolers in the district also boycotted their school lunches, with counts down nearly half Monday. They're not alone in their frustration; schools across the country are reporting students who are unhappy with the lunch offerings.

The sub sandwich line at Mukwonago High used to let students pile veggies on a six-inch French bread bun. Options now include a fist-sized whole wheat roll or multigrain wrap, and the once popular line is now mostly empty.

The healthier food is less the issue than the portions.

"A freshman girl who weighs 100 pounds can eat this lunch and feel completely full, maybe even a little bloated," said Joey Bougneit, a Mukwonago senior.

But Blohm is a 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound linebacker. He's also class president, and takes several Advanced Placement classes. If schools want students to perform well, he said, they can't be sitting in their chairs hungry.

Last year's fare featured favorites like chicken nuggets and mini corn dogs in helpings that were "relatively decent," Bougneit said. But health-conscious regulations have changed that. Last week's super nacho plate, for example, offered just eight tortilla chips.

Adding to the dissatisfaction is a 10-cent price hike on lunches because the USDA, which oversees the National School Lunch Program, forced many districts to raise full-price lunches closer to the $2.86 it reimburses for students who qualify for free lunches. That means the leaner, greener lunches at Mukwonago High this year now cost $2.50 instead of $2.40.

"Now it's worse tasting, smaller sized and higher priced," Bougneit said.

Officials share concerns

Pam Harris, the district food service supervisor and a registered dietitian, said children's weight and poor nutrition in America are serious problems, but the changes are too abrupt.

"I could not be more passionate about this," Harris said. "I want to solve this problem. But limiting calories in school lunch is not going to help the overweight kid. What happens at home is a major piece of that puzzle."

"Our issue is pretty much kids just don't want to eat vegetables," she said. "The USDA wants to solve the problem of childhood obesity. Those are two kind of separate issues."

Harris spoke at all lunch periods Friday to explain the federal dietary changes and had students fill out comment cards explaining what they do and don't like about the new menu. She plans to send those and parent letters to the USDA in hopes the department will allow districts including Mukwonago to gradually introduce their menu over a few years.

In a clothing store bag the size of a backpack, Blohm lugged his homemade, linebacker-size lunch including a bag of raw carrots, two ham sandwiches on wheat bread, two granola bars, an apple and three applesauce cups - an estimated total of 1,347 calories.

How long will the students keep boycotting the lunch program?

"I've already told my mom we might be packing my lunch for the rest of the year," Blohm said.

Clay Iverson, Mukwonago's varsity football head coach, said student-athletes are bigger, stronger and more athletic than ever before, and their food intake needs have evolved.

"Everything has been accelerated, and maybe nutrition hasn't been," he said.

He worries that if players' stomachs are growling by the end of the school day, they'll go home and binge on anything they get their hands on and undo any of the benefits of the lighter, healthier school lunch.

Teens need a push to make healthy eating choices, Iverson said, but they've got plenty else to worry about during the football season.

"I wonder if the people who made the decision had to go through a day like Nick Blohm."


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