Thomas Sims gets it

Thomas Sims, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Biological Sciences department at NIU. He was interviewed for a column about genetically engineered crops written for Northern Star Online, that claimed that GE foods are unsafe, quoting Dr. Oz, Jeffrey Smith, and the AAEM.
Here is an example of the claims made in the piece.

Between the U.S. and European countries, which has more instances of food allergies? Which has more instances of asthma or autism? Which has more instances of cancer and heart disease? Yes, I understand many factors play a role in these distinctions. However, I think it would be unwise to ignore the relation between the introduction of GM foods and higher instances of food-related allergies. Do you honestly believe major corporations care more about the health and safety of the public over their ability to make a profit?

His words only got a brief mention, and his response is a model for how scientists should respond to these kinds of claims. We have received permission to republish his spot-on commentary. (He has asked that I obscure the name of the young reporter who wrote the column so that it is about the information and not the person. So only the name has been edited.) Enjoy!

Column regarding genetically modified foods was one-sided and misinformed

This author’s column on Genetically Modified (GM) foods  is a thinly-veiled hatchet job, repeating a mixture of half-truths, lies and grossly misinformed opinions about this technology. This was disappointing, as she interviewed me (I’m an “NIU Expert” on plant genetic engineering) at some length during the preparation of her column.
Judging from the content in her column, she came to this subject with a pre-formed agenda, and wasn’t interested in accuracy or real science. Let me be absolutely clear that I am not upset or concerned that she used little if any of the information she and I discussed. This was an opinion piece and she was perfectly within her rights to use or not use any information that I provided to her. I have no ego involved here.
What I found disappointing, however, is that the author gave enormous credibility to anti-GMO advocates, when for the most part those opinions have little, if any, real scientific credibility.
When reporters are writing about science-related issues, whether that be GMOs, vaccines, Global Climate Change or E. coli from German organic farms that has recently killed at least 40 people, they have an obligation to do their best to understand the science and to realize that when experimental evidence is involved, not all opinions are equal.
Having been interviewed on the basis of what seems to me to border on false pretenses, I would like to provide a different perspective on several of the points raised in her article. As an example, she lifts (verbatim) a statement from the website of the official-sounding American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) about the “serious health risks associated with GM food consumption.”
Quackwatch.org lists AAEM at the top of a list of questionable organizations and explains that AAEM was founded by Theron Randolph in 1965 to promote the now-thoroughly-discredited idea of “multiple chemical sensitivity.” AAEM lists several studies in its bibliography that it claims point out the danger of GM foods.
Had she bothered to check these out she would have found that the few peer-reviewed, scientifically-vetted articles quoted showed marginal (and often statistically insignificant) differences in studies of animals fed diets of GM food vs. non-GM food, with the authors of the articles stating that the few differences shown might well be due to factors unrelated to the GM protein present in the food.
This is a typical tactic of extreme advocacy groups: take an inconclusive study, with a couple of data points that might suggest some difference (whether biologically significant or not), blow it all out of proportion from the conclusions of the actual scientists and trumpet it as showing dangers to health and well-being.
What about Dr. Oz, “a surgeon acclaimed for providing health advice”? The author conveniently left out of her piece other statements from the doctoroz.com website such as: “Overwhelmingly…studies indicate that GMOs are safe to consume.”, “Easier farming means more food which, in turn, means less expensive food…less expensive food makes it easier to feed hungry populations around the world,” and “GMOs can be modified to have greater nutritional value…scientists…have genetically modified rice to contain significantly higher amounts of vitamin A.” (More on that in a bit.)
OK, how about the “Institute for Responsible Technology”? Well that turns out to be the personal website of Jeffrey Smith, an anti-GMO agitator with no scientific credentials. Mr. Smith’s self-published anti-GMO books and claims have been thoroughly refuted by academics, including Professors Bruce Chassy and David Tribe (www.academicsreview.org). As they say, consider the source.
Let me briefly return to the genetically modified “Golden Rice” referred to above. This rice variety has been genetically engineered by the non-profit Golden Rice Project (www.goldenrice.org) to produce Vitamin A in the rice grain, something that is not possible to attain by conventional breeding. Vitamin-A deficiency contributes to over 500,000 cases of blindness in children in countries with rice-dependent poor populations (Nature 29, July 2010, p 561). Seventy percent of these children will die within a year of going blind. Golden Rice was developed over 10 years ago, will be provided free of charge, and has the potential to save millions of lives.
Yet Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other anti-GMO organizations have consistently opposed and delayed its introduction. Why? I don’t know, but to me it says that the political agendas of these organizations are more important to them than the lives of millions of poor children, and that’s tragic.

“when experimental evidence is involved, not all opinions are equal”

Right on.

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Written by Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is a Postdoctoral Scholar at UC Riverside and works on Citrus genetics.

26 comments

  1. “Quackwatch.org lists AAEM at the top of a list of questionable organizations and explains that AAEM was founded by Theron Randolph in 1965 to promote the now-thoroughly-discredited idea of “multiple chemical sensitivity.””
    Multiple chemical sensitivity has been explained, studied via animal studies, has been confirmed via biological markers, and has known genetic predispositions established. If you wish to truly remain on the scientific cutting edge you need to avoid using sources like Quackwatch that deliberately ignore studies that conflict with their preferred conclusions.

  2. As a matter of fact, as I read your column it became clear that you are guilty of many of the charges you level against your opponents simply by using Quackwatch.

  3. Au contraire, brainfan, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (Wikipedia) is not recognized by the AMA, the WHO, and a whole host of other reputable organizations. It is also not recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties. If you don’t take Quackwatch at face value, how about those organizations? Indeed, if you want a primer on the AAEM, here is an excellent piece written by a medical doctor at Science Based Medicine.

  4. “brainfan”, could you please provide some citations for the literature where MCS was “studied via animal studies, has been confirmed via biological markers, and has known genetic predispositions established”? I would like to learn more.
    A quick search for reputable sources found that the status of MCS as a disease is not well accepted, and that MCS may have psychological roots (perhaps similar to Morgeollons?). See this factsheet from Ohio State Extension and this webpage from OSHA. Somehow I’m thinking that “biological markers” (perhaps antibodies?) or a genetic marker would have firmly established MCS in the “this is a disease, not a syndrome” category, but that doesn’t seem to have happened.

  5. What exactly about Quackwatch bothers you? The few randomly selected articles I looked at seem to be full of citations to peer-reviewed literature and none of the claims made violate what I know about biology (i.e. no extraordinary claims). The CV of the main author shows that he is qualified to analyze the literature, having both education and experience in the subjects he writes about, as well as the education necessary to critically evaluate the peer-reviewed literature and other sources. There are no financial connections from either the author or the website to any companies or groups that might impose bias or the appearance of bias.

  6. And the citations for your assertions are ….?
    T. Sims is apparently correct in saying MCS has not been supported in properly conducted trials. See for example:
    Double-blind placebo-controlled provocation study in patients with subjective Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) and matched control subjects, 2008, Clinical Toxicology, 46(5) pp. 443–9
    Furthermore, the positive results that have been seen in human trials are related to poor design and prior prejudice on the part of the participants:
    (Multiple chemical sensitivities: A systematic review of provocation studies, 2006, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 118, pp.1257-1264).
    One doesn’t need to rely on quackwatch.org to see the fallacy of MCS. A simple Google academic search is sufficient.

  7. If you wish to truly remain on the scientific cutting edge you need to avoid using sources like that deliberately ignore studies that conflict with their preferred conclusions.
    or – insert my name there as an employee of a multi-national corporation.
    Anyway – I think the point is that even when a peer reviewed paper states that there are other factors unrelated to GMO that may be the cause of the difference, the paper is heralded as evidence that GMOs are bad. See the “Confused about Safety” forum post for some interesting analysis of what is actually in the papers.
    https://biofortified.org/community/forum/?vasthtmlaction=viewtopic&t=117.0

  8. EDIT MY COMMENT:
    If you wish to truly remain on the scientific cutting edge you need to avoid using sources like INSERT ANTI-GMO GROUP HERE that deliberately ignore studies that conflict with their preferred conclusions.

  9. Thanks for asking Anastasia. For the past decade, Martin Pall has established himself as probably the premier researcher studying MCS. He was asked by the publishers at Wiley to write a paper for the latest edition of their textbook, “General and Applied Toxicology.” You can start with this interview where he reviews his information and from there it will take you to his website where there is an abridged version of his paper.
    http://www.prohealth.com/library/showarticle.cfm?libid=14758
    An article on a study explaining the markers is here:
    http://www.csn-deutschland.de/blog/en/predictions-of-multiple-chemical-sensitivity-mechanism-confirmed-by-roman-study/
    And if you wish to see the actual study you can find it easily enough. Same with the genetic evidences. Here’s a letter Pall wrote describing the situation of MCS evidences contrasted with the sham psychogenic theory:
    http://www.csn-deutschland.de/blog/en/martin-pall-about-genetic-evidence-and-multiple-chemical-sensitivity/
    Again, these are articles. Actual papers can be found if interested.

  10. MCS recognition is about as factually relevant as Israel recognizing Palestine or Palestine recognizing Israel. They exist with or without the recognition of officiating bodies just as asthma, allergies, multiple sclerosis, and physiologically caused ulcers existed long before they were recognized by the AMA. I don’t really have a whole lot of interest in spending time rebutting Hall as I’ve done it in the past. Hers is also an ideologically driven perspective.

  11. Since there are numerous data provided by various scans and other studies, the next step for these researchers would be to find what they are doing wrong, if indeed that is what they’re interested in. The following essay references a number of studies that demonstrate physiological reactions in MCS sufferers to chemical incitants.
    http://www.chemsense.com/MCSessay.html

  12. Quackwatch publishes plenty of articles that promote obvious scientifically-supported concepts. He avoids any issue that may implicate standard medicine even though there are plenty of questionable practices and modalities to be found. His background includes choosing the least scientifically-based of the medical profession, psychiatry, and being a failure in that field. He has made grand claims about experiences in other fields that have been found wanting. He does take corporate contributions though if you call them to contribute you may be denied if you’re not a corporate donor.
    He co-authored a book about MCS and has an abbreviated version of it online. I haven’t read the book, but what appears on Barrett’s website is poorly presented to be charitable. He co-authored the book with Ronald Gots, who you may remember was featured on a Dateline episode due to his fraudulent insurance review company. Gots and Barrett both took part in a debate between themselves and Albert Donnay of Johns Hopkins University and Grace Zeim. In the opening, Gots opening lied, citing a study that was performed by a named researcher for a named article for a named journal. Donnay then got up and explained to the audience that the authors, the article, and the journal were all fictitious, while Gots and Barrett couldn’t have been less interested. It’s on tape for those who are interested:
    MCS: The Great Debate
    http://www.mcsrr.org/resources/books.html
    If you reviewed the information about Martin Pall’s work, you’ll find that fibromyalgia shares a lot with MCS. In fact, the two often overlap. And while you’ll see Barrett spend a lot of time refuting MCS and ignoring the supporting evidences, he’s quite open about the evidences for fibromyalgia and quite informative indeed. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that his daughter has it.

  13. Your second link is actually about an Italian study called Biological definition of multiple chemical sensitivity from redox state and cytokine profiling and not from polymorphisms of xenobiotic-metabolizing enzymes. They found no genetic markers (although they didn’t check that many genes), only finding “he activities of erythrocyte catalase and GST were lower, whereas Gpx was higher than normal. Both reduced and oxidised glutathione were decreased, whereas nitrites/nitrates were increased in the MCS groups. The MCS fatty acid profile was shifted to saturated compartment and IFNgamma, IL-8, IL-10, MCP-1, PDGFbb, and VEGF were increased.” I don’t have access to the full paper so I don’t know whether these differences were statistically significant or biologically significant, or if their groups were controlled for other commonalities that may explain the differences between groups.
    The 1st and 3rd links you post have some passing mentions to peer-reviewed studies, but not enough information for me to actually find them. The link you provide below on Chemsense titled “A Literary Critique” only has one one source that might be a peer-reviewed study about MCS, but I can’t tell from the abstract if it’s actually a study or just another review/editorial.
    I looked for Martin Pall on PubMed. Strangely, he doesn’t seem to have done any research on MCS, although he has written a few articles about it. I was surprised to see so few articles with more than one or two authors. I’ve gotten used to seeing medical papers with a ton of authors. His pre-2000 works include mostly research papers instead of editorials, and his research subjects were more about basic biological questions using microorganisms as models, having nothing to do with MCS.
    I did find a link to Dr. Pall’s website, and at the bottom of this page there are a lot of references, although I don’t have time to look at every one at the moment.
    I don’t want to point out the obvious or anything, but a link from that first article you shared went to the “DR. PALL PRODUCTS VALUE PACK” only $119.49. One has to wonder if Dr. Pall is providing sound information, considering that he may have a direct financial interest in promoting a condition which there is a “cure” to. Does Dr. Pall get royalties for this company to use his name to sell these products?
    I’d like to see some solid evidence-based information about MCS – peer reviewed studies. Not some nice letters or articles, but actual studies.

  14. brainfan, you aren’t doing a very good job of supporting your claims with references. At all (sorry, but I’m not going to buy a $25 video and wait for it to get to me). And, you’ve just made claims about a person and an organization without proof – which some would say amounts to libel. I’m trying to be open minded here, but slinging claims isn’t really helping.

  15. Glad for all the discussion, and for the literature look-ups that various people have done. I did look up brainfan’s claim of DNA markers linked to MCS (from references in the Wikipedia article cited by Karl). There’s a 2004 study out of the University of Toronto that finds a small (but statistically significant using Chi-squared) difference in a cytochrome P450 allele CYP2D6 associated with self-reported MCS. Without getting into an in-dept analysis, the bottom-line is that statistical significance doesn’t mean biological relevance. (OK to make it obvious, just because something is “statistically significant” in terms of measured differences, doesn’t necessarily mean that it has any realistic effect/difference in biochemistry or physiology. I beat on LOT’s of grad student regarding that point!

  16. You probably already know this, but those accusations against Barrett (almost verbatim) are not uncommon between different groups of pseudoscience advocates. I’ve seen anti-vaccine advocates use the “failed psychiatrist” and also dismissing him as just not an expert. I’m not sure one can get a PhD in studying pseudoscientific claims, so sure, he’s not an “expert” on what he’s criticizing.
    Blatant ad-hominem of course.
    Also, thanks for dissecting the links he gave above. I LOVE it when that happens. It’s also eerily similar with creationists and antivaxers, they copy-paste links that someone else said proves their views, but most people don’t have the time or the means of analyzing them.

  17. Let me ask a question of you and the others here: do you demand the same burden of proof to “believe in” multiple sclerosis, for which there is no known cause, cure, or marker? I do apologize for my tone here, but I’ve been through this same process before where I’m grilled for information and nothing even begins to sway the wall of denial. It’s frustrating to try to “defend” a debilitating illness.
    “They found no genetic markers . . .”
    I said “biological markers.” Six genetic predispositions have been found in separate studies elsewhere.
    “The 1st and 3rd links you post have some passing mentions to peer-reviewed studies, but not enough information for me to actually find them.”
    I’m not going to hold hands here. It’s becoming clearer where many of the people on this blog are coming from, that of the misguided perspective that science is about denial until proof. You’re on the opposite side of Ignaz Semmelweiss. MCS was “roundly discredited” before science ever had the ability to understand it, and now that science is at work uncovering the mysteries of it the deniers are scrambling to justify the premature claims of the past.
    “I looked for Martin Pall on PubMed.”
    Is Pubmed the only place where research is published? Here and elsewhere, I just love the appeals to authority which has already shown itself prone to being wrong. Peer review? There are plenty of peers who’ve reviewed and approved Pall’s work, which is why it is published in a prominent text on toxicology where the phenomenon should be studied. As I mentioned before (which will be ignored of course) is that the medical community has notoriously denied numerous medical conditions until the evidence became obvious. MCS has the added difficulty of having an entire cottage industry of repression fighting against it. The cowards are afraid to buck the system and the self-fashioned intellectuals hold the coat-taills of the industries they prostitute themselves for. This is how it all began:
    http://www.mindfully.org/Health/MCS-Under-Siege.htm
    “Strangely, he doesn’t seem to have done any research on MCS, although he has written a few articles about it. I was surprised to see so few articles with more than one or two authors.”
    He’s done plenty of research on it.
    “I’ve gotten used to seeing medical papers with a ton of authors.”
    Most major medical breakthroughs are found by small numbers of researchers rather than large groups. This complaint means nothing.
    “His pre-2000 works include mostly research papers instead of editorials, and his research subjects were more about basic biological questions using microorganisms as models, having nothing to do with MCS.”
    And?
    “I don’t want to point out the obvious or anything, but a link from that first article you shared went to the “DR. PALL PRODUCTS VALUE PACK” only $119.49. One has to wonder if Dr. Pall is providing sound information, considering that he may have a direct financial interest in promoting a condition which there is a “cure” to. Does Dr. Pall get royalties for this company to use his name to sell these products?”
    This is typical. The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most profitable industries on the planet, yet MCS deniers complain that Pall allows his name to be used on the product of compound pharmacies (which Stephen Barrett is also trying to put out of business by the way). Pall explained the mechanism behind MCS and proposed POSSIBLE ways to mitigate the process. He was hounded by people who are desperate for help and he naturally would want to provide it. He does NOT claim to have a cure.
    “I’d like to see some solid evidence-based information about MCS – peer reviewed studies. Not some nice letters or articles, but actual studies.”
    I did make it clear that I was sending links to articles from where you could find studies. There are plenty of studies to be found, but the science is still in its infancy. The scientific process does not often stumble on a blatant eureka moment, but rather learns by small increments over time. The studies do not individually provide a convenient answer, but the bulk of them put together paint a gradually emerging picture of a new disease process.
    http://www.mcsrr.org/resources/biomarkers.html
    http://mcs-america.org/SteinemanDavis.pdf
    http://www.mcs-america.org/MCSScientificStudies.pdf
    http://www.mcscanadian.org/res_heuser.html

  18. Barrett has taken dozens of people to court for libel and lost all of those cases.

  19. “I’m not sure one can get a PhD in studying pseudoscientific claims, so sure, he’s not an “expert” on what he’s criticizing.”
    Nonsense. One can use currently understood scientific knowledge to expose unscientific claims. That isn’t just the problem here: he’s claimed to be a legal expert, based on an incomplete correspondence course. He’s claimed to be an expert in numerous branches of medicine and I’m sorry, but becoming a medical doctor in the 1950s (as admirable an achievement as that is) does not make one an expert on fields of medicine outside of your chosen branch (psychiatry). If a practicing psychiatrist were to decide to switch to oncology for example, he would need to go through years of residency to be able to arguably claim to be an expert in the field. No, it doesn’t mean you can’t comment on the subject, but we’re talking about being an expert.

  20. I’ll leave the thread now. Medical research has always succeeded due to those researchers who see a problem and endeavor to find an answer. When faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges and sometimes even ridicule from those who “know better”, they continue to work out of a motivation for success and also out of a personal conviction to help people who are suffering. Those who deny MCS based on limited knowledge and malicious mischaracterizations are knowingly heaping harm on a vast number of people from all different walks of life, from the stereotypical “chemophobes” to professionals like doctors, lawyers, chemists, nurses, etc.

  21. Hmmm, let’s see if I get this right. A review of previous studies finds them lacking in design and conclusions, indicating the results were biased towards positive outcomes. A properly conducted study, following standard clinical trial protocols, finds no evidence of MCS, yet they are the ones who should “find out what they are doing wrong”. Thanks for reminding me about the part of the Scientific Method that says “repeat your experiments/analyses several different ways until you get the results you want”.

  22. When you’re dealing with correlation, and not causation, the statistics involved simply quantify human ignorance.

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