KSJ Tracker May 13, 2014

Outside magazine falls for unproven claims of herbicide-gluten link--and more-or-less admits it.

About a year ago, the blogger Keith Kloor led me into a nest of questionable research and unfounded claims suggesting that the Monsanto herbicide Roundup was linked to "inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, depression, ADHD, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, multiple sclerosis, cancer, cachexia, infertility, and developmental malformations."

Stop and take a breath; reading that list sucks up a lot of oxygen.

As I wrote in that post a year ago, these claims remind me of one of Raeburn's Rules: Anything that is said to cause two or more unrelated diseases probably doesn't cause any of them. And what we have here is not two, but a baker's dozen.

The list comes from a questionable paper on the alleged dangers of Roundup (glyphosate) that was covered uncritically by Reuters and Prevention magazine. I criticized the coverage, and so did others. And that should have been the end of it.

But no. It's back, and this time it appears in the respected Outside magazine. And the ailment in question is celiac disease, a hypersensitivity to gluten.

The story, by Devon Jackson, is headlined, "Your Food Is Poisoning You." With a headline like that, you wouldn't expect a lot of nuanced debate--and you don't get it. After an opening anecdote based on a scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jackson writes that research on a link between Roundup and celiac disease (and other ailments) "is now gaining widespread attention. More importantly, there's a growing sense that the science has reached a tipping point: Glyphosate cannot be recognized as harmless."

There is nothing in the story to back up the claims that the research is gaining attention (except from Outside), or that glyphosate is harmful. Jackson tried to back up the claims by following them with a quote from the food writer Michael Pollan, who says, "I'm always suspicious of these consensuses on [the safety of] agriculture chemicals—they almost always fall apart over time, and that may be happening with glyphosate."

As you can see, however, that does not back up the claims. Pollan's suspicion is not evidence.

Jackson then writes, "Where then [beyond the paper in question] is the proof? Well, there isn't much hard evidence."

There isn't any evidence. And if Jackson believes this, why is he writing a story about the evils of Roundup?

He quotes several authorities who worry that Monsanto is suppressing research on these questions. That might be true, but that does not constitute evidence that Roundup is dangerous.

Further, he quotes one researcher who tells him, "The whole story is preposterous and finds a cause-effect relationship when there is none." If that's true, Jackson's story is entirely in error. If that statement isn't true, why did Jackson put it in the story?

He then wraps up with a breezy call for more research, quoting Pollan again on his suspicious.

And he ends with this, from one of the authors of the paper he's reporting on: "The proof isn't there. But the innuendo is."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

-Paul Raeburn

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