Round Up the Usual RoundUp Suspects

It’s been no secret that environmentalists have wanted to ban the popular herbicide RoundUp for a long time now—because chemicals! Because Monsanto!—and their persistent lobbying paid off when in 2015 the UN’s World Health Organization declared glyphosate, the active ingredient of RoundUp, to be a “probable carcinogen”—a conclusion not shared by any U.S. or European government agency.

The WHO’s declaration was based on “finding” of its own International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). This episode turns out to be a case study of politicized science or worse (genuine misconduct appears to have occurred), and a healthy reminder of why public trust in the scientific community continues to erode. And amazingly enough, one of the news outlets that has blown the whistle on this sorry affair is Mother Jones, of all places, building on some initial reporting by another often biased news agency, Reuters. It is doubtful that even the most paranoid environmentalist will be able to conjure a way to make out this lefty news outlet as a tool of of Monsanto.

Here’s some of the Mother Jones story from mid-June:

A Scientist Didn’t Disclose Important Data—and Let Everyone Believe a Popular Weedkiller Causes Cancer

By Keira Butler

According to a new Reuters investigation, Aaron Blair, the scientist who led the IARC’s review panel on glyphosate, has access to data from a large study that strongly suggested that Roundup did not cause cancer after all—but he withheld that data from the ToundUp review panel. Weirder still: Blair himself was a senior researcher on that study. From the Reuters report:

Previously unreported court documents reviewed by Reuters from an ongoing US legal case against Monsanto show that Blair knew the unpublished research found no evidence of a link between glyphosate and cancer. In a sworn deposition given in March this year in connection with the case, Blair also said the data would have altered IARC’s analysis. He said it would have made it less likely that glyphosate would meet the agency’s criteria for being classed as “probably carcinogenic.”

So why on Earth would a scientist fail to mention his own work—and blithely let a powerful agency come to a conclusion that his own data suggested was wrong? IARC told Reuters it’s because Blair’s data wasn’t published yet, and the agency has a policy against taking unpublished data into consideration. . .

And how about the rule against taking unpublished data into consideration? I called Michael Eisen, a professor of genetics, genomics, and development at the University of California-Berkeley. Eisen is the founder of the Public Library of Science and an outspoken advocate of transparency in science. He told me that in this particular case, he found IARC’s rule “silly.”

“This is a board of people whose job it is to assess evidence, so they should be able to do that before it’s published,” he said. “The broader issue is that they seem eager to have reached the conclusion that they reached.” He pointed out that in this case, peer review seems a little unnecessary—the review panel itself was made up of experts, so they would have had no trouble evaluating the quality of the data.

Kudos to Mother Jones. But I am shocked, shocked, that there would be scientific misconduct over an issue politicized by radical advocacy groups.

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