Headlines Like This Make Me SO glad I Learned To Science

Five years ago, the headline below would have scared me.  Today it makes me take pause and look for supportive data and additional information.  What a fundamental change that is indeed.  (Full article associated with this headline here)

 

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One of the first things I ran across when googling ‘splenda leukemia’ was this Op Ed from Forbes.  Oh isn’t this interesting?  The institute from which the study came is known for sketchy science practices.

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(I half expected to find the ever-infamous Seralini’s name mentioned somewhere in the text.  Remember him?  He designed a study using rats prone to tumors, fed them GMOs and then produced so-called data showing that the GMOs caused the tumors.  This study was a joke to the science world – published, retracted, republished – and a lot of people believed it and still do.  The pictures of those poor, lumpy rats provided the emotional hook.

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Giles Seralini with one of his sad, little rats.

 

 

Why Be Transparent When You Can Be Theatrical?

Forbes Contributor Trevor Butterworth writes:

Normally, when academics find something that might be of deep concern to public health, they submit their research to peer-reviewed scientific publications, which then fast-track the findings online if, that is, their academic reviewers find the study rigorous enough for publication.  Moreover, these publications also send out an embargoed copy of the paper to journalists, along with a press release. In theory, this gives time for journalists to read through the paper, examine the data, and formulate questions for the authors of the research or other outside experts.

But why be transparent when you can be theatrical? In a move that bypasses good but boring scientific practice and goes straight for the klieg lights and the razzle dazzle of the media, Dr Morando Soffritti, Director of the Ramazzini Institute in Bologna, Italy offers only a press release saying that he found mice were at increased risk for cancer after being fed Splenda, the popular non-calorie sweetener.

Later, Butterworth adds (emphasis mine):

He (Soffriti) plans on telling the world more about this alarming finding, which disagrees with everything else we know about Splenda and sucralose,  at a conference on childhood cancer in London tomorrow (Wednesday 25th), organized by Children with Cancer UK.

Ok, so this article alone makes me become very skeptical indeed about this study linking leukemia to Splenda, or sucralose, the generic name of the substance.  I now wonder, well what does the actual data say?  From here I try to find  evidence-based articles where I can hopefully find links to actual peer-reviewed research.   To find the actual studies with a few simple clicks proves difficult but I make a vow to dig in deeper later.  Sticking with the Forbes piece I go on to read:

The problem hanging over the Splenda finding is that which hangs over the Ramazzini Institute in general: Quality control. No matter what substance the Institute tests for cancer, the results always seem to be positive, whereas other laboratories testing the same substances repeatedly fail to come up with the same findings.

Then I go on to read:

Take aspartame, which the Ramazzini Institute declared carcinogenic in a study it conducted in 2005 and multiple studies thereafter. The European Union’s Food Safety Authority commissioned a panel of experts to examine this study as a matter of high priority, given its alarming findings; its conclusions, however, were devastating. It appeared that many of the rats were sick with chronic lung respiratory disease, which just so happens to cause the same kinds of cancer that Ramazzini attributed to aspartame.

That sounds alarmingly like what Seralini did!

Suffice it to say, this study has been extensively and internationally criticized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the UK’s Department of Health Committee on the Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COC), the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA/ANSES), and the New Zealand Food Safety Authory (NZFSA) and others.  Quite an impressive – and for me, convincing – list.

I smell a rat!

One would assume that a research institute that wanted to be taken seriously would be concerned that so much criticism was coming it’s way.  Apparently that is not the case.  Butterworth writes:

The pattern was, tell the media about the cancer warning first, inflame public and political opinion, then stonewall the agencies on the data later. None of the studies were ever published in a leading, peer-reviewed cancer journal.

I still haven’t been able to get to the actual peer-reviewed studies initially done on sucralose.  But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up.  It is on my to-do list.  The bottom line of what I’m trying to express is that we as consumers have to perform our due diligence if we want the actual facts. The science may in future show that sucralose is dangerous.  But it hasn’t yet.  That is what I know so far.

 

Here are some dos and don’ts that I follow:

  1.  Don’t just blindly believe any old headline you see.  As I encounter headlines that are in line with what I may already believe only because I’ve heard something here or there, I am extra skeptical.  I must remember at all times that beliefs are NOT facts.  I must dig in my heels and do some research.
  2. Don’t accept the first several click results from google as being the end-all, be-all of information. 
  3. Do place a red flag in my mind next to emotional appeals, sensationalized headlines, dramatic statements, photographs and memes.  Find out more.  Look for evidence-based information but be aware that a lot of websites disguise data as being science based when it is not at all.  Always be on the lookout for trustworthy sources.  Research can be difficult to understand if you haven’t studied the sciences in grad school.  Find an expert to help you!

JuleeK/Sleuth4Health

Read a former post Spotting Bad Science For Dummies Like Me about how to recognize psuedo-science.

3 responses to “Headlines Like This Make Me SO glad I Learned To Science”

  1. There’s another way to spot pseudoscience in many cases, as a criminologist would say, follow the money. While some will prostitute their degree and reputation for acclaim, most do so for the oldest reason of prostitution known to man, money.

    • Scientist’s reputations are their bread and butter and they have to sweat for years in labs to get where they are. I don’t believe huge numbers of them will readily put their reputations on the line for a few dollars. I honestly believe that that is a public misconception. Are there a few bad eggs out there? Sure. But they are the exception rather than the rule. I would love to hear comments from other scientists about this issue.

      • True, reputation is critical in research, for who would even read the works of someone who was repeatedly discredited by their own misdeeds?
        Consider the terrible shame of Hwang Woo Suk, who faked cloning results and embezzled significant amounts of funding, yet made a major breakthrough in stem cell research.
        Who would trust him after that with grant money? Would any peer reviewed publication trust his work and publish newer work?
        How many scientific advances may be lost, all because of what he did and now has a reputation in tatters?

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