KSJ Tracker April 26, 2013

Discover blogger Keith Kloor stumbles into nest of questionable studies and reporting on GMOs and multiple ailments.

This morning, the Discover blogger Keith Kloor filed a noisy objection to a Reuters story on a questionable paper alleging harmful effects from Roundup, the trade name of glyphosate, a widely used pesticide from Monsanto.

As Kloor points out, the paper charges that the illnesses "to which glyphosate could plausibly contribute, through its known biosemiotic effects, include inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, depression, ADHD, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, multiple sclerosis, cancer, cachexia, infertility, and developmental malformations."

When claims are made that a particular substance can cause so many unrelated diseases, we might begin to suspect that it doesn't cause any of them. (One of Raeburn's Rules.)

Kloor lambastes the paper and the Reuters reporter, Carey Gillam, who appears to have done minimal original reporting in this story. She briefly quotes one of the paper's authors, Stephanie Seneff, who says she and her colleague "have hit upon something very important that needs to be taken seriously and further investigated." There is no evidence here of original reporting--a major failure in a story on such a controversial subject.

I decided to Google the phrase "have hit upon something very important that needs to be taken seriously," and I found dozens of stories using the exact same quote from Seneff. I can't tell where it originated. (Google actually returned 487 results, but some were duplicates; I read through only a few pages of them.)

Gillam also includes one quote from a Monsanto official she identifies as "Jerry Steiner," (the Monsanto vice-president Gerald A. Steiner), who says "We are very confident in the long track record that glyphosate has. It has been very, very extensively studied." That quote, too, appears all over Google; I can't tell where Gillam got it. 

Gillam identifies Seneff as a research scientist at MIT, which struck me as odd. But it's true: Her MIT page says she is "a Senior Research Scientist in the Computer Science and Artficial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT. She received the B.S. degree in Biophysics from MIT in 1968, the M.S. and E.E. degrees in Electrical Engineering in 1980, and the PhD degree in Electrical Engineering in 1985, also from MIT." This struck me as odder. Why was an electrical engineer writing about pesticides?

Her page lists 10 papers she has written with others, most of them appearing in the journal Entropy, where the latest paper was published. She introduces them by saying, "These papers collectively explain how widespread cholesterol sulfate deficiency throughout the body is behind most modern diseases and conditions." She has also written about why she thinks the cholesterol-lowering drugs statins don't work, in a paper posted on the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory's website.

Her work at MIT, she says on her MIT web page, deals primarily with "computer conversational systems, including speech recognition, natural language parsing, discourse and dialogue modelling, language generation, and information summarization." But that distinction was lost on Robyn O'Brien at Prevention magazine, who reported on Seneff's latest paper as if it were an MIT study. What is glyphosate doing to us, she asks? "Well, MIT aimed to find out," she writes.

After he posted his diatribe, Kloor discovered (and notes in an update) that the blogger Orac at scienceblogs.com had taken apart Seneff last November over a paper entitled "Empirical Data Confirm Autism Symptoms Related to Aluminum and Acetaminophen Exposure."

Kloor then realized he had critiqued Reuters's Gillam before, in a post last October, concerning a story Gillam wrote that was critical of genetically engineered crops, or GMOs. In the story, on a paper published in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe, Gillam does not report any comment from outside experts, who might or might not have been as critical as Kloor, but who would have, at the least, put the story in perspective--and possibly persuaded Gillam not to write it.

MIT should be concerned that one of its employees is evidently using her MIT affiliation in papers that are completely unrelated to her work at MIT and are eminently deserving of the criticism they are getting. And Reuters ought to ask Gillam to do quite a bit more reporting before dropping bombshells such as these into the public discourse.

-Paul Raeburn


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