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Wikipedia’s Leading Abettor in Skepticism’s Pro-Industry Propaganda

Wikipedia’s Leading Abettor in Skepticism’s Pro-Industry Propaganda

Richard Gale, Gary Null PhD and Neal Greenfield, Esq.
Progressive Radio Network, September 17, 2019

For all of Skepticism’s animosity against climate change denialism, oddly this fringe faction within the scientific community consistently supports private corporate interests that contribute to the destruction of the environment and rising greenhouse gas emissions. Although Skeptics admirably deconstruct the arguments of a tiny minority of public voices who reject the evidence of anthropogenic global warming, nevertheless Skepticism routinely fails to agree with the scientific consensus that solutions will require our strengthening ecological resilience, such as reforestation of lands that are being stripped away in order to raise more cattle for hamburgers, larger monocrop farms to plant GMOs and blanketing poisons across the landscape that kill pollinators, birds and other wildlife.  But we would miss the magnitude of Skepticism’s threats to the environment and human health if we were to limit its perception to a boys’ club of belligerent like-minded people who embrace atheism and an extreme materialist interpretation of reality. Rather, it is a wide network of organizations, publications, and individuals with tentacles reaching Silicon Valley firms and the social media, universities, TED Talks, private industry supported front groups, and especially online resources such as Wikipedia. Modern Skepticism’s singular mission appears to promulgate a distinctly secular and scientific ideology that would marginalize and discredit belief systems, medical disciplines, and sustainable ecological remedies that disagree with Skepticism’s doctrine.

Perhaps the most pro-industry faction within the Skeptical network is the Society for Science-Based Medicine and its online site Science Based Medicine (SBM). Most notably are SBM’s co-founders Drs. Stephen Novella and David Gorski. Aside from SBM’s consistent assaults against Complementary and Alternative Medicine practices (CAM), Novella in our opinion frequently defends the most egregious and questionable junk science supported and often funded by corporate industries in their fight against regulatory policies and independent science that warns about the safety and health risks of their products. Consequently, aside from his professional background in neuroscience, Novella oddly presents himself as an expert in his defense of products such as the endocrine disruptor Biphenol A (BPA), the herbicide glyphosate or Roundup, genetically modified foods, synthetic chemical sweeteners, and more recently the telecommunication industry’s talking points about the undocumented safety of the 5G roll out. He defends these products despite thousands of peer-reviewed studies to the contrary.  Over the years he has expressed opposition to a gluten-free diet (aside from the 1 percent of people who have Celiac disease), the state licensing of acupuncturists, veganism, nutritional therapies and the Keto Diet for mental disorders, omega-3 and dietary supplements, antioxidants, etc. If you happen to have noticed that this list is similar to what is found on Stephen Barrett’s Quackwatch, we believe it is no accident. Novella sits on Quackwatch’s Advisory Board and in principle his SBM organization is the successor of the Quackwatch’s faux public image as a protector of consumer health. As we reported earlier, Novella has publicly announced that his Society has received articles “generously donated to SfSBM by Stephen Barrett — essentially thousands of articles that make up Quackwatch. Transforming this into a Wiki that will allow ongoing editing and updating, breathing new life into all those old articles.”  Novella’s goal is “to list reliable science-based medical information everywhere on the web.”[1]

In 2012, Novella and his SBM colleague Dr Harriet Hall were awarded membership on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s Executive Council. Novella was also an associate editor of the Center of Inquiry’s failed peer-reviewed medical journal, The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. On several occasions the journal’s applications for acceptance into the National Library of Medicine were denied for its scientifically unsound and biased articles. He currently serves as the President of the New England Skeptical Society and sits on the Advisory Board of the pro-industry front organization the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). Despite SBM members’ tantrums denying charges that they shill for the pharmaceutical industry and other private corporate interests, Novella’s association with the ACSH gives ample reason for being suspicious about his claims of scientific independence.  It also might explain why he consistently backs industry’s public relations talking points despite the volumes of independent research debunking corporate assertions. After hearing what other organizations and individuals have had to say about ACSH, we can better appreciate where Novella may receive his marching orders in his seeming full-time blogging career:

As early as 1979, the FDA’s Information Director accused ACSH’s founder Elizabeth Wheeler for making up “blanket endorsements of food additives. Her organization is a sham, an industry front.” [2]

A few years later the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report accusing ACSH for “arriving at conclusions before conducting studies. Through voodoo and alchemy, bodies of scientific knowledge are transmogrified into industry-oriented position statements.” The Center’s director separately wrote “This organization promotes confusion among consumers about what is safe and what isn’t…. ACSH is using a slick scientific veneer to obscure and deny truths that virtually everyone else agrees with.” [3]

Ralph Nader has called the organization “a consumer front organization for business backers.”[4] Greenpeace has described ACSH as a “Koch Industries climate denial front group.” [5]

And in 2017, a consortium of 26 environmental, university medical departments and medical associations, labor and public interest organizations sent a joint request to USA Today demanding that the magazine “refrain from publishing further columns authored by members of the American Council on Science and Health.”[6]

This would include Steven Novella due to his long association with ACSH as an Advisory Board member. Therefore, Novella’s personal denial of conflict of interests and industry bias is conspicuously absurd. ACSH’s own mission statement encapsulates excellently Novella’s and his Society’s long-term goals. “In the span of nearly 40 years, we have managed to irritate a lot of activists and environmentalists who make a living scaring the public over vaccines, GMOs, nuclear power, chemicals, and anything else they think can get them on TV. Our mission is to oppose such nonsense and support evidence-based science and medicine. Hence, our tagline: Science. Not Hype.” [7]  It is therefore no surprise that ACSH’s donors include Chevron and ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, McDonalds, Bristol Myers, Proctor and Gamble, almost all of the agricultural giants including Bayer, Monsanto, DowAgra, Syngenta and tobacco companies such as Altria, Reynolds American, Phillip Morris and British American Tobacco. This raises a serious question whether these corporations could be Novella’s true masters and his Society for Science Based Medicine is actually another front group for private industry. [8]

Perhaps the best example of Novella’s audaciousness is a recent attempt to discredit a ten nation European study, conducted by a network of 43 universities and research institutions, that found a direct correlation between soft drink consumption and mortality. [9] ACSH has a long history of opposing regulations and additional tax on sugar- saturated sodas and heavily processed junk foods, and has defended the neurotoxin aspartame (another miracle invented by Monsanto) in diet soft drinks.

Although this multi-institutional report was a cohort study, it nevertheless evaluated over 451,000 participants. The analysis therefore was largely robust, although by no means conclusively perfect. Cohort studies never are. However, Novella criticizes the conclusions because of that fact that it was a “cohort” study. On the other hand, Novella and his other SBM colleagues regularly accept much smaller and flawed cohort research when it serves their ideological purposes. For example, in their ongoing attacks against physicians and parents who question vaccine safety, the only ammunition they have in their arsenal are cohort and population studies that deny an autism-vaccine relationship. This is just one of many examples of SBM’s glaring hypocrisies in how they preferentially interpret medical literature for their own ends.

In his article “Organic Farming is Bad for the Environment,” Novella promulgates a common Big Agricultural fantasy that “the evidence is clear that organic farming on any meaningful scale is significantly less land efficient than conventional farming.” [10] His data relies on a vague German study. His solution is more GMO crops, toxic pesticides and industrial agriculture. Yes, the evidence is clear, but in direct contradiction to the article’s pitching for companies such as Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta. The facts tell a very different story.

Novella’s article attracted strong criticisms. One comment not only nailed Novella on his sloppy review of the data but also noted the study was partially based upon one of the author’s Master thesis at Chalmers University in Sweden!!! The study was published in the obscure Journal of Cleaner Production. Falling back on the defensive, Novella adds a comment, “I never claimed that we are not producing enough food right now to feed the world. We are, if we optimize distribution and reduce waste.”  Novella is seemingly blind to the fact that the planet is already primarily being fed by traditional agriculture, including pesticide-free organic methods. GMO farmers only represent approximately 0.38 percent (3.8 million) of the world’s one billion farmers. Therefore, over 99 percent of farmers rely upon local, traditional, and/or organic and sustainable farming. We can thank non-GMO farmers for sustaining our global food security. As of 2014, 90 percent of all GMO crops were grown in just five countries among the 28 nations that permit GMOs. Another five, according to Cornell University trained molecular biologist John Fagan, grow an additional 8 percent. In fact, over 90 percent of GMO crops comprise only 4 plants: canola, corn, cotton and soy.[11] This would hardly suffice to feed the world’s population. And both the EPA and USDA have repeatedly claimed that industrial agriculture is responsible for 9 percent of the US’ total greenhouse gas emissions. This figure too is overly conservative and misleading because it underestimates methane and nitrous oxide pollution from factory and monocrop farms and animal feedlots. It also ignores ethanol production and the massive use of petroleum products and fossil fuels to energize the industrial agricultural experiment.[8]

Novella would have us believe that this study closes the case against agrichemical farming’s carbon footprint. Fortunately, German officials will have nothing to do with the study Novella relies upon.  On the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development’s website we read, “agriculture also has a great deal of potential for climate change mitigation: through sustainable farming and good agricultural practices such as the use of organic fertilizer, crop rotation, cultivation of fruit and other trees, and improved feed for livestock.” The Ministry has also stated that food security can only be assured through agricultural biodiversity. However, the chemical-based GMO agriculture Novella defends destroys biodiversity. Based on recommendations from Germany’s Environmental Ministry, the country has come down hard on the use of glyphosate and plans to phase it out by 2023 because of its detrimental impact on the environment.[13] The EU only approved the use of glyphosate through 2022. The forthcoming review will hopefully be a death sentence for the toxic herbicide as further investigations and the release of internal documents reveal the extent of Monsanto’s malfeasance and efforts to cover up its products’ health and environmental risks. At present 19 of the 26 EU nations are making efforts to ban GMOs.  Glyphosate has already been banned or dramatically restricted in Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. Other nations that have banned GMOs include Russia, Algeria, Madagascar, Turkey, Bhutan, Saudi Arabia, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela.

Novella has also criticized the California’s court decision to award damages to victims of glyphosate exposure, claiming the ruling was not confirmed by the science. He continues to argue that the levels of herbicide that humans consume pose no health risks. The article was reposted by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project (GLP).[14] The Project’s primary partner and funder is Monsanto and operates as a public relations effort on behalf of Big Ag to protect and defend GMOs and agrichemical products. Entine’s work, notably his book Scared to Death, is also promoted by ACSH.[15]

Back in 2014, Novella made the hasty claim, “We now have a large set of data, both experimental and observational, showing that genetically modified feed is safe and nutritionally equivalent to non-GMO feed. There does not appear to be any health risk to the animals, and it is even less likely that there could be any health effect on humans who eat those animals.”[16]  According to the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, animal research indicates illnesses humans should be worried about include infertility, immune dysfunction, accelerated aging, insulin regulation abnormalities and adverse changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. Just several months ago, biologists at Washington State University observed a variety of diseases in the second and third generation offspring of rats fed Roundup Ready feed. In effect the study replicated Seralini’s earlier study that found rat descendants developing prostate, kidney and ovarian illnesses, obesity and birth abnormalities. Males had a 30 percent increase in prostate disease and females a 40 percent increase in kidney disorders.[17]

Only in recent years are nutritional intake differences between GMO and organic foods coming to light, and the latter is winning the debate. Unlike organic farming, industrial agriculture, which depends upon synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides and herbicides, depletes the soil. For example, the Mayo Clinic has cataloged small to moderate increases in flavonoids, including antioxidants, found in organic produce.[18]

In 2017, a six-nation study (Belgium, Denmark, France, Poland, Sweden and Harvard in the US) undertook a comprehensive review of the health implications of organic versus conventional agriculture. The study concluded that:

Organic food reduced the risks of allergic diseases (Novella has suggested that organic produce should be blamed for allergies!!!)
Pesticide use in industrial agriculture adversely affects childhood cognitive development
There are minimal nutrient differences except organic fruits and vegetables have higher phenolic compounds
Antibiotic use in conventional animal production is contributing to antibiotic resistance.

Finally, we might take note that two years ago Novella gave a glowing review of the book Getting Risk Right authored by Dr. Geoffrey Kabat, an epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine. Kabat is Novella’s colleague on the ACSH’s board of scientific advisers. In effect Novella agrees with Kabat’s imaginary claims that cell phone use reduces the risk of brain tumors, the adverse effects associated with BPA may likely be due to contamination of blood samples in experiments, that without the human papilloma virus there would be no cervical cancer and therefore the HPV vaccine should be mandatory, and that 99.7 percent of dietary supplements are unsafe, etc.  Novella seemingly agrees with all of Kabat’s outrageous declarations.[19]

For years Kabat has written opinions against environmental and health activists to protect Monsanto. He collaborates with Jon Entine on the Genetic Literacy Project, mentioned above, where he has made the claim that there are no more studies that “we can do to show that glyphosate is safe.” An article he wrote for Forbes Magazine to discredit scientists who raised health concerns about Roundup was pulled by the publication because of his failure to disclose his relationship with ACSH. Worse, Kabat has regularly authored papers backing the tobacco industry’s arguments that second hand smoke does not increase cancer and heart disease risks.  According to the public interest organization US Right to Know, a search through the University of California’s Tobacco Industry Documents pulls up over 800 files associated with Kabat, including invoices for consulting to tobacco companies at $350 per hour.[20] At least on the issue of smoking, Novella sharply disagrees, but on all other matters, he and Kabat walk in close unison.

So, let’s be very clear. In our opinion Novella is not a champion of public health. Time and again he defends corporate interests. He is a master wordsmith, who has succeeded in tailoring the illusion of science-based medicine as a new gold standard; nevertheless, it is only a ruse to confuse the public and to protect corporate interests. And Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales has bought into this nonsense by showing favor to Skeptic editors, such as the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia who look upon Novella as a god of scientific genius. Throughout Wikipedia pages on Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the topics discussed in this article, Novella’s writings are frequently used as authoritative references. Wikipedia on the other hand claims to not permit biased resources as legitimate references. Yet nothing could be further from the truth because Novella and SBM authors are thoroughly compromised. Wikipedia is losing all credibility and the encyclopedia would better serve the health of the public if it were to ban references to Science Based Medicine altogether.

NOTES

1  https://prn.fm/medical-skepticism-todays-scientific-cultural-disease/

2  https://people.com/archive/elizabeth-whelan-has-only-to-say-saccharin-or-bacon-is-harmless-then-await-the-tide-of-criticism-vol-12-no-9/

3  https://www.industrydocuments.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/#id=mrhx0121

4  https://books.google.com/books?id=zIyAtgAACAAJ

5  https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/global-warming/climate-deniers/front-groups/american-council-on-science-and-health-acsh/

6  https://usrtk.org/news-releases/public-interest-groups-to-usa-today-ditch-corporate-front-group-science-columns/

7  https://www.acsh.org/news/2016/07/27/if-acsh-is-a-corporate-shill-were-really-bad-at-it

8  https://usrtk.org/our-investigations/why-you-cant-trust-the-american-council-on-science-and-health/,

9  https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/soft-drinks-and-death-risk/

10  https://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/organic-farming-is-bad-for-the-environment/

11  https://www.amazon.com/Fight-Against-Monsantos-Roundup-Pesticides/dp/1510735135

12  https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/07/29/the-9-lie-industrial-food-and-climate-change/

13  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/04/germany-ban-glyphosate-weedkiller-by-2023

14  https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2019/04/05/neurologist-steven-novella-heres-what-latest-science-says-about-glyphosate-cancer-link/

15  https://usrtk.org/food-for-thought/jon-entine-the-chemical-industrys-master-messenger/

16  https://www.aei.org/publication/the-debate-about-gmo-safety-is-over-thanks-to-a-new-trillion-meal-study/print/

17  https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190423133807.htm  18  https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/organic-food/art-20043880

19  https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/why-do-things-that-are-unlikely-to-harm-us-get-the-most-attention/

20  https://usrtk.org/pesticides/geoffrey-kabats-ties-to-tobacco-and-chemical-industry-groups/