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More bad science in the service of anti-GMO activism

More bad science in the service of anti-GMO activism

I never used to write much about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) before. I still don’t do it that often. For whatever reason, it just hasn’t been on my radar very much. That seems to be changing, however. It’s not because I went seeking this issue out (although I must admit that I first became interested in genetic engineering when I was in junior high and read a TIME Magazine cover article about it back in the 1970s), but rather because in my reading I keep seeing it more and more in the context of anti-GMO activists using bad science and bad reasoning to justify a campaign to demonize GMOs. Now, I don’t have a dog in this hunt, (Forgive me, I have no idea why I like that expression, given that I don’t hunt.) I really don’t. I was, not too long ago, fairly agnostic on the issue of GMOs and their safety, although, truth be told, because I have PhD in a biomedical science and because my lab work has involved molecular biology and genetics since I was a graduate student in the early 1990s, I found the claims of horrific harm attributable to GMOs not particularly convincing, but hadn’t bothered to take that deep a look into them. It was not unlike my attitude towards the the claims that cell phones cause cancer a few years ago, before I looked into them and noted the utter lack of a remotely-plausible mechanism and uniformly negative studies except for a group in Sweden with a definite ax to grind on the issue. Back then, I realized that there wasn’t really a plausible mechanism by which radio waves from cell phones could cause cancer in that the classic mechanisms by which ionizing radiation can break DNA molecular bonds and cause mutations don’t apply, but I didn’t rule out a tiny possibility that there might be an as-yet unappreciated mechanism by which long term exposure to radio waves might contribute to cancer. I still don’t, by the way, which has gotten me into the odd kerfuffle with some skeptics and one physicist, but I still view the likelihood that cell phone radiation can cause cancer as being just a bit more plausible than homeopathy.

As was the case for the nonexistent cell phone-cancer link, there has now been a steady drip-drip-drip of bad studies touted by anti-GMO activists as “evidence” that GMOs are the work of Satan that will corrupt or kill us all (and make us fat, to boot). Not too long ago, I came across one such study, a truly execrable excuse for science by Gilles-Eric Séralini at the University of Caen purporting to demonstrate that Roundup-resistant genetically modified maize can cause horrific tumors in rats. I looked at the methods and conclusions and what I found was some of the worst science I had ever seen, every bit as bad as the quack “science” used by the antivaccine movement. It wasn’t for nothing that I made the comparison, because the anti-GMO movement is very much like the antivaccine movement and the cranks who claim that cell phone radiation causes cancer. As if to demonstrate that very point, last week I came across an article by the all-purpose crank to rule all cranks, Mike Adams, at NaturalNews.com entitled GMO feed turns pig stomachs to mush! Shocking photos reveal severe damage caused by GM soy and corn:
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Posted in: Basic Science, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Bad Pharma: A Manifesto to Fix the Pharmaceutical Industry

“There is no medicine without medicines” write Ben Goldacre in his new book Bad Pharma. To Goldacre, an author, journalist and physician, this cause is personal. The title, a reference to both his first book, Bad Science, as well as the pharmaceutical industry’s nickname Big Pharma, is a bit of a misnomer. While the focus is pharmaceutical companies and their actions, there are a number of enablers in the health care system – medical journals, regulators, and even medical professionals, all of whom have put the industry’s needs ahead of good medicine. According to Goldacre, the damage is pervasive and deep, right to the roots of modern medicine. These problems know no borders, and affect us all. Despite the different health care systems that exist worldwide, we all depend on for-profit pharmaceutical companies to develop and market new medicines. These companies collectively wield enormous clout, due in part to the remarkable success of medicines over the past several decades. The global pharmaceutical market will probably top $1 trillion (yes, 12 zeros) this year. And Goldacre argues the industry is not only compromised, it is broken. And over 400 pages, he defends the following paragraph:

Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects. Regulators see most of the trial data, but only from early on in a drug’s life, and even then they don’t give this data to doctors or patients, or even to other parts of government. This distorted evidence is then communicated and applied in a distorted fashion. In their forty years of practice after leaving medical school, doctors hear about what works ad hoc, from sales reps, colleagues and journals. But those colleagues can be in the pay of drug companies – often undisclosed – and the journals are, too. And so are the patient groups. And finally, academic papers, which everyone thinks of as objective, are often covertly planned and written by people who work directly for the companies, without disclosure. Sometimes whole academic journals are owned outright by one drug company. Aside from all this, for several of the most important and enduring problems in medicine, we have no idea what the best treatment is, because it’s not in anyone’s financial interest to conduct any trials at all. These are ongoing problems, and although people have claimed to fix many of them, for the most party they have failed; so all of these programs persist, but worse than ever, because now people can pretend that everything is fine after all.

We all have our own biases, and I should disclose mine. I’m a pharmacist who has seen HIV go from a death sentence to a chronic disease, thanks to newly developed drugs. I’ve watched cancers like leukemias be effectively cured, thanks to medication. And I’m amazed that surgeries like double-lung transplants, impossible in the past, are now a reality, thanks in part to drug treatments. Yet I’ve also spent more than a decade reviewing the efficacy and safety of prescriptions drugs. Regrettably few are truly innovative. Many are approved with lingering questions about long-term safety and effectiveness. The value some offer can be questionable. I’ve also seen tremendous harms caused by drugs – from individual patients who have suffered horrible adverse drug reactions to population-level disasters like the Vioxx (COX-2) debacle. And I haven’t ignored the countless fines levied on pharmaceutical companies for bad, and sometimes even criminal, behavior. With its repeated capacity for self-sabotage, the pharmaceutical industry is its own worst enemy. My colleagues who work in the pharmaceutical industry agree. They’re smart, honest people that genuinely want to help get good treatments to patients. They’re embarrassed by what they see. So while I have no doubts about the astonishing track record of innovative new drugs that have transformed medicine, I also have no illusions that drug companies always behave in ways that support science-based medicine. And I think there is the potential for the industry to do much better. So how do we get this? (more…)

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Bad Science: Four Things I Learned From Dr. Ben Goldacre

“You cannot reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.”

– Ben Goldacre, MD

Dr. Ben Goldacre is the author of the popular Guardian column, Bad Science. He has recently published a book by the same name. Bad Science received a very favorable review from the British Medical Journal and although I was tempted to write my own review for Science Based Medicine, I decided to cherry pick some concepts from the book instead. I hope you’ll enjoy the cherries.

Honesty & Placebos

As you can imagine, any good book about bad science must devote at least one chapter to the concept of placebos. We are all quite familiar with placebos, and how squarely the vast majority (and some would argue all) of complementary and alternative medicines fit into that category.  Ben surprised me with a couple of points that I hadn’t considered previously. Firstly, that alerting patients to the fact that you’re planning to prescribe them a placebo does not necessarily negate its effects, and secondly that no matter how skeptical or intelligent you are – all humans are subject to placebo effects.

Ben references a 1965 study from Johns Hopkins [Park et al., Archives of General Psychiatry] in which patients were explicitly told that they were going to receive a sugar pill (with no medicine in it at all) as treatment for their neuroses. The researchers reported substantial improvements in many of the study subjects’ symptoms.

This is the script that the physicians were to use to explain the placebos to the study subjects:

Mr. Doe… we have a week between now and your next appointment, and we would like to do something to give you some relief from your symptoms. Many different kinds of tranquilizers and similar pills have been used for conditions such as yours, and many of them have helped. Many people with your kind of condition have also been helped by what are sometimes called ‘sugar pills,’ and we feel that a so-called sugar pill may help you too. Do you know what a sugar pill is? A sugar pill is a pill with no medicine in it at all. I think this pill will help you as it has helped so many others. Are you willing to try this pill?

Wow. I was under the impression that the efficacy of the placebo was in the person’s belief that it was a legitimate medicine/therapy. Perhaps it only matters that the prescribing physician believes it might help? Perhaps snake oil salesmen are wasting their time on linguistic and pseudoscientific mental gymnastics?

Of course, the “gymnastics” do help. Other research has shown that the more complex the associated placebo ritual, the more potent its effects (such as piercing the skin with fine needles in many different locations). Nonetheless, I was surprised that an honest and accurate description of a placebo does not necessarily negate its effects.
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