Unifying Themes Behind Pseudoscience

Most of the coverage of pseudoscience at this site has been of two things, the climate scare and the high-fat diet hoax.  But in a column in yesterday's Times of London, Matt Ridley reminds us that there are plenty of more examples of big-time pseudoscience out there.  His column covers two more that are also the subject of recent news:  (1) glyphosate ("Roundup") weed killer, and (2) DDT.  That makes four.  Do all of them seem to have some unifying themes?

Why is glyphosate in the news?  If you are in the U.S. you may not have seen much news about it lately.  But Ridley notes that just last week the European Parliament voted to ban it for "non-professionals" -- that is, gardeners -- while also "allowing" its use for another counting-down seven years for farmers while the matter is "studied."  So what's the problem with glyphosate?  It certainly has some big positives.  Besides having a large role in increasing crop yields and reducing famine around the world, it is much less toxic than prior-generation weed killers:

Dose for dose, glyphosate is half as toxic as vinegar, and one tenth as carcinogenic as caffeine. Not that coffee’s dangerous — but the chemicals in it, like those in virtually any vegetable, are dangerous in lab tests at absurdly high concentrations. . . .  Roundup is probably the safest herbicide ever, with no persistence in the environment.   

But Ridley gives several reasons why glyphosate has come to be hated by what he calls the Green Blob:

[T]he Green Blob hates it for three reasons. It’s off-patent and therefore cheap. It was invented by Monsanto, a company that had the temerity to make a contribution to reducing famine and lowering food prices through innovation in agriculture. And some genetically modified crops have been made resistant to it, so that they can be weeded after planting by spraying, rather than tilling the ground: this no-till farming is demonstrably better for the environment, by the way.   

But what's the state of the science?  Is glyphosate dangerous?  On that subject we have the U.S. Agricultural Health Study, which has been tracking 89,000 farmers and their spouses for 23 years.  The results:

The study found “no association between glyphosate exposure and all cancer incidence or most of the specific cancer subtypes we evaluated, including NHL [non-Hodgkins lymphoma]. . .”   

Numerous other studies reach the same results.  So why isn't that the end of the matter?  Because something called the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the UN's WHO, hired an EDF activist and long-time anti-glyphosate campaigner named Christopher Portier to advise on glyphosate.  Portier proceeded last year to put together a big dossier on glyphosate for IARC, claiming to find that glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic"; and he's been going around from government to government pushing for a ban ever since.  And thus the European Parliament's vote last week.  Ridley characterizes the Portier dossier as "surely pseudoscience" and based "on a tiny number of cherry-picked studies."

For more on the IARC anti-glyphosate campaign, see this from blogger David Zaruk: "IARCgate For Dummies:  Three Reasons This WHO Agency's Glyphosate Campaign Is A Scandal."  

So what themes do we find here?  Activist campaigners claiming to be advocating for environmental or health issues (often for both) seek to exploit minor potential risks of concern to wealthy constituencies to gain vast additional amounts of additional control over people's lives.  Oh, and in the process throwing under the bus poor and third-world constituencies.  In the case of glyphosate, it's the poor who would benefit greatly from increased crop yields and decreased famines.

Do you notice any similarities to the situation with DDT?  People forget that malaria was very much a major health problem in the United States until as late as World War II.  Although progress had been made against it through laborious efforts with larvicides and draining of stagnant water, it was the widespread use of DDT after the war that literally wiped malaria out in the U.S.  Then came Silent Spring. DDT got banned, and today millions annually continue to die in Africa.

What I don't understand is how people can convince themselves that they are on the moral high ground when they would ban glyphosate for the poor while they themselves eat like kings; ban DDT for the poor while they themselves live where malaria has been wiped out by DDT; ban fossil fuels for the poor while they themselves jet around the world; and on and on.