Friday, August 24, 2018

Source Material

The Queen has been out on her annual fall trek through the thrift stores hunting clothing and other apparel for our upcoming trip (hopefully Haweewee if it doesn't get blown off the map by the hurricane currently spinning up in the Pacific). So, she sends me a text at the office with the a photo of the following t-shirt:

She allowed as how it was the perfect shirt for me...since I typically refuse to accept much of anything without critically assessing the facts and source material.

I can't help it. I come by my flaw honestly as I was trained that way by a wise, old, Jesuit priest turned history professor in my history methodology class. The man had to be in his 70s at least at the time, and that was...more than a few years ago. Let's just say, if that man is still creeping around this old mud ball, I'm shooting him in the head on general principle. You can't be too careful to prevent a zombie outbreak.

God will sort it out.

Anyspeculation, there was a point to this post. I'm sure of it.

Oh yes...critical assessment of facts and source material.

That old Jesuit had all us wannabe history majors do a project (a research paper really) the main point of which was an annotated bibliography. He didn't really care what the subject of the paper was as long as the bibliography was annotated with a critical assessment of the source material including whether it was primary, secondary, tertiary, etc. He also wanted us to take it a step further and assess whether the source material exhibited any bias (this came back to bite me in the butt with my African history professor, but that's a story for another time).

Fast forward mumble, mumble years, and that is one the lessons that has stuck with me to this day. Unfortunately, I think this lesson has been lost on an entire generation (or more) of people.

Case on point. The other night, I come home from work to find two, brand new, freshly purchased boxes of Cheerios (M&M's preferred breakfast cereal) on a pile of stuff being gathered for donation. I queried The Queen as to the reason suspecting something was afoot.

The Queen informed me that my father-in-law, Opa, had told her that he had read an article somewhere that claimed Cheerios contained dangerous levels of a particular pesticide residue. Opa is one of those people for whom a little information is a dangerous thing (no, seriously, he's never met an internet scare of conspiracy theory that he hasn't latched onto). He really should not be let loose with an internet connection without a minder.

This revelation, as one would expect, caused my eyebrows to raise and set off my facial tics just a touch.

I set about investigating the claim du juor. Opa was questioned regarding the source of the Cheerios Challenge. After much fumbling about the dustier corners of his memory, we were able to tease out the source of the pesticide proposition. It was a news article from the Detroit Free Press linked to from the Natural News website referring to a study done by a group called Environmental Working Group.

Now we were getting somewhere. I start doing my due diligence on EWG. EWG claims to be a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. A laudable goal to be sure. Funding is primarily from grants and individuals. Notable names among the donor list is the Walton Family Foundation (think Sam Walton of Wal-Mart fame) and The Turner Foundation (Ted Turner - CNN Founder). They also have corporate partnerships with many of the bigger names in organic foods.

Nothing about this is particularly alarming. It's not like George Soros or the Koch Brothers are involved. Having said that, did I mention EWG has a lobbying arm? Silly me. That must have slipped my mind. And regarding what issues do they lobby? Environmental, agricultural, food, toxic chemicals, etc.

So, they are environmental advocates. Again, nothing particularly wrong with that, but it could color their findings on certain topics or influence their reporting of facts. We'll get back to that in a minute.

I tracked down the article EWG posted about glysophate levels in foods. Glysophate, for the uninitiated, is the evil active ingredient in RoundUp (created by the nefarious mega corporation Monsanto...yes, I'm being a tad tongue in cheek). It seems that EWG commissioned a laboratory study of glysophate levels in common breakfast cereals. The article published by EWG reporting the results of the lab study started with a link to a recent California jury verdict in which Monsanto was ordered to pay $289 million to a plaintiff dying of cancer allegedly caused by exposure to glysophate. They then get into a discussion of the levels of glysophate in food allowed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (1.1 milligrams per day for a 154 pound average person), the EPA (not specifically noted by referenced to be 60 times higher than the CA state allowable level) and the EWG's calculated "one in a million" cancer risk of 0.01 milligrams per day.

The original article I read did not "show their work" on the math, but it seems to have been corrected as they now report that a person would have to eat a 60 gram serving of food exceeding 160 parts per billion glysophate concentration to reach their calculated risk level of 0.01 millgrams per day (which, by the way, is 110 times lower than the  level the state of California says is too much which in turn is 60 times lower than what the EPA says is too much). So, just to put a bow on the math, EWG is saying that the safe level of glysophate in foods SHOULD be 6600 times lower than the level currently allowed by the EPA. They don't make a convincing case for why the level should be 6600 times lower than the EPA or 110 times lower than the state of California. Instead, they seem content to make the argument that it is a chemical linked to cancer and is therefore bad in any quantity.

For the record, I'm not volunteering to drink or otherwise consume 1.056 million parts per billion (that's 160 parts per billion times 6600) concentrations of glysophate in my daily Cheerios; and, truthfully, EWG may not be wrong in their conclusion. I just take issue with the manner in which they are presenting their information.

Back to the report on the study results. First off, the article currently on their website has been drastically revised from the version I read a few days ago, and I really wish I had a screen capture or PDF copy of the original to compare and contrast. The current version shows that EWG took samples of 45 conventional breakfast cereals and 16 organic breakfast cereals and tested them for glysophate concentration. They then report the test results in concentration parts per billion for each sample. All fine and dandy so far. Where things really went off the rails in the original article was that samples results were grouped according to which ones had unsafe levels (color coded in red...for contrast I'm sure). The thing that really bugged me in the original was that  they did not make it clear that the table of results categorized each product according to EWG's much lower concentration level.

To clarify further, the report starts out talking about concentration levels in milligrams per weight before  shifting to parts per billion in the lab results table. The revised article does now provide a brief conversion from milligrams per serving to parts per billions, but the original article did not.

Even in the revised article, if someone is not reading carefully, they might miss that critical distinction. The skeptic in me suspects that was EWG's intent in order to advocate for a new, lower standard for safe concentration levels.

Another, in my opinion, glaring omission from EWG's article is the results of other scientific testing on glysophate, a discussion of the MSDS sheet on the chemical, etc. For instance, it took me literally seconds to find out that the WHO and UN studies on glysophate determined that mammal animal models suggest that concentrations as high as 2000 milligrams per kilogram of  body weight was not associated with genotoxic effects. There's more detail out there than I'm willing to transcribe or cut and paste here. Bottom line is that you would probably have to ingest enough to drown yourself before you'd be at a legitimate risk of getting cancer, and you'd probably puke it up before you got close to those dosage levels.

After I pointed out these little details, the Cheerios mysteriously reappeared in the pantry.

Now, this is just one little drop of questionable information in a practical galactic ocean of information floating around the internet. Why should you care? Well, the president attacks CNN almost daily accusing them of being fake news. Fox News claims to be fair & balanced. Alex Jones gets banned from social media for making wild claims reported as news. For every EWG, there is a company or interest group lobbying for the opposite position. And let's not forget all those companies out there trying to make a buck selling snake oil and legitimate products.

Everyone, it seems, is publishing information at the speed of light. The incredible quantity of information being published everyday makes it impossible to fact check it all. That is why it is so incredibly important to learn to critically assess source material.

So, the next time you hear someone ranting about the latest scandal, conspiracy theory, social justice melt down...etc. Take a step back and dig into the source material with a critical eye. I'd bet that, more often than not, you'll find discrepancies in the reporting that will be most illuminating.

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