Some science journalists need to hang their heads in shame

Ben Goldacre and others carried out a very interesting study: they analyzed the top 10 UK newspapers for a week for their health reporting, and categorized the quality of the support for health claims. It’s not encouraging.

Here’s what we found: 111 health claims were made in UK newspapers over one week. The vast majority of these claims were only supported by evidence categorised as “insufficient” (62% under the WCRF system). After that, 10% were “possible”, 12% were “probable”, and in only 15% was the evidence “convincing”. Fewer low quality claims (“insufficient” or “possible”) were made in broadsheet newspapers, but there wasn’t much in it.

I do have one criticism, though. The paper is in a journal called Public Understanding of Science. It isn’t open access, though, so apparently the Public is not allowed to read about the Public Understanding of Science unless they cough up $25 per article. They can read about “science” for cheap in their local tabloid, though. Isn’t this part of the problem, too? Let’s also put part of the blame on a science publishing industry that puts up barriers to reading the real stuff.

Polling the anti-GM vote

There’s a debate going on in The Economist. Pamela Ronald is defending the proposition that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are complementary, not contradictory, which is weird: agriculture is biotechnology, and just breaking ground with a sharp stick and throwing some seeds in is an example of an ‘unnatural’ human practice. I don’t understand how the opposition can make a case, especially when this is their opening statement:

Biotechnology is not a system of farming. It reflects no specific philosophy nor is it guided by a set of principles or performance criteria. It is a bag of tools than can be used for good or evil, and lots in between.

Yes? And? It’s a tool, sure, but that can’t possibly be an objection to a tool being unusable for sustainable agriculture. And focusing on genetically modified plants is odd: all of our crops are genetically modified, often beyond recognition. Modern corn looks almost nothing like teosinte, and is the product of thousands of years of human meddling with crops…this argument reduces to a complaint that the very subtle fine-tuning of specific genes with modern molecular techniques is somehow more troubling than the wholesale radical modification of a whole species by extreme artificial selection. I just don’t get it, unless it’s just some crazy Luddite bias. There are legitimate complaints about how agribusiness can use genetic modification to lock up strains for selfish economic reasons, but the topic of the debate isn’t about abuses of the technique — it’s about the potential for genetic engineering to improve sustainability.

Anyway, it’s a debate with an internet poll attached to it, and so far the kneejerk organic anti-GMO side has a slight edge, 54% to 46%. Read, assess the arguments, and vote yourself.

Like plums? Do something right away!

This is the first I’ve heard of this, but there is a devastating disease called Plum Pox Virus that kills trees bearing stone fruits, like plums and peaches, and the only way to deal with infected plants is to rip them out of the ground and destroy them. There has been a recent outbreak in Pennsylvania; don’t rush out to buy the last of the fruits in an apocalyptic terror, it’s just a hint of a potential problem for the future, but you can worry a little bit. And maybe you can promote some science that will help.

A new variety of plum called the Honey Sweet has been genetically engineered that is completely resistant to the virus. It is just now in the process of being deregulated by the EPA, and they’re looking for public comment (it’s a confusing site: look for “Public Participation for Coat Protein Gene of Plum Pox Virus”, and “Comment Due”; click on it and you can tell the government what they should do).

Work fast, this is the last day for input. For the plums!

A victim of lies

A few weeks ago in Bio-chem, we learned about fatty acids. We learned that any partially hydrogenated fats/oils are trans fats. If it’s under .5 grams per serving, food companies are privileged to round that number down and boast their food as “Zero Trans Fats.”

This hit home to me this morning. I was eating a General Mills cereal. While the box claimed to have zero trans fat, the ingredients list revealed a dirty secret: partially hydrogenated coconut oil. Nice move GM.

Dear FDA, grow a spine.