Friday, March 30, 2012

Follow the Honey

There is lots of buzz (sorry) about a pair of just-published articles that provide further evidence that the colony collapse disorder, which is decimating bee populations around the world, can be at least partially attributed to neonicotinoids, one of the most widely used of pesticides. There has been a lot of controversy around this class of agents, and they are banned or restricted in much of Europe—but not in the US. In the writeup in this morning’s New York Times, after a brief summary of the new research, we get this paragraph:
Outside experts were divided about the importance of the two new studies. Some favored the honeybee study over the bumblebee study, while others felt the opposite was true. Environmentalists say that both studies support their view that the insecticides should be banned. And a scientist for Bayer CropScience, the leading maker of neonicotinoids, cast doubt on both studies, for what other scientists said were legitimate reasons.
There followed comments from four of these outside experts. One is from the main producer of neonicotinoids; he thinks the studies are flawed. Another is from the US Department of Agriculture, who thinks the studies shift the weight of research against the pesticide. The other two, both from academia, were evenly balanced, one finding the studies persuasive, the other not.

In other words, the article is a he-said, she-said about pesticides and colony collapse, which relieves the author from having to express his own judgment. Worse, there is no indication whether either or both of the academics have received funding from pesticide manufacturers. Research in entomology and ecotoxicity is expensive, and much of it is funded by industry. Being on the receiving end of pesticide dollars does not invalidate a scholar’s argument, but it is certainly relevant information for nonspecialists who want to know who to believe.

This is an interesting topic for me, because economics has the same problem: a lot of academic, not to mention think tank, economic researchers are funded by business interests with a stake in what their research shows. They present their views to the general public, but rarely with a disclosure of their own interests: the Inside Job problem.

I have two recommendations. First, there should be a public registry, for bee researchers and economists alike, that records any substantial funding they may have received from private individuals or organizations. Journalists should be able to look up this information online and include it in their reports. Professional organizations, like the AEA, should iron out the details and monitor compliance.

Second, journalists have to graduate from the duelling quote game. The only alternative is to write stories that explain, in terms that the public can understand, what the substantive issues are in scholarly disputes, and why some experts go one way and others go another. If a journalist does not have the expertise to do this herself, she should outsource the work to a panel of experts. Their job is not to take sides but to explain, as clearly as possible, what the root basis of the disagreement is, so that readers can understand the points on which the argument turns. In this scenario the job of the journalist is to put together the panel and use her writing skills to make their analysis clear to nonspecialists.

Year by year, more of the issues that democracy has to deal with are technical in nature. Journalism is the indispensable intermediary between arcane knowledge and popular debate. The job isn’t being done very well right now.


rjs said...

my comment on the same story at the WaPo, copied here:

though i'd just as soon see them ban neonicotinids and the rest of the pesticides, i aint willing to put colony collapse into the solved column on top of them yet...i did a lot of reading on CCD when it first broke (subscribed to 2 bee journals back then) and i havent seen anything that fits all the cases reported in those early years..i still think that Israeli acute paralysis virus, first discovered in 2004, is one of several underlying factors, probably weakening the bees to succumb to other issues, such as varroa mites or pesticides...

the only colony i ever lost to CCD symptoms was last april, & it was so wet at the time there wasnt a piece of farm equipment out in the fields anywhere in this county - so no one was using pesticides at that time (im in a wildlife area where there is little activity anyhow)

some reported CCD is likely normal winter kill, and i know there's also been a lot of CCD in non agricultural areas, too...i'm interested to see how the bees make it this year; im willing to bet that with this warm spring in the east, CCD will almost disappear..

Blissex said...

«First, there should be a public registry, for bee researchers and economists alike, that records any substantial funding they may have received from private individuals or organizations.»

This is a great example of malicious misdirection...

Because while there may be some corporate funding behind some research, the really big story is that one that you don't mention: that a professor may be making 10 times his salary as a part time consultant to private industry, with speaking fees, writing policy advice papers, expert witness at lawsuits, retainer fees.

Very few professors (and their heads of department) would want to kill the goose that lays the fat heavy golden eggs by speaking uncouthly about the interests of current and potential customers.

This is very clearly explained in an an appendix to the book "High stakes, no prisoners" by a policy wonk who became a businessman and then discovered how aggressively and venally economics professors market themselves to companies.

Remember also that Ken Lay endowed 35 professorial chairs. That category of donor is one that department heads and university presidents love and don't want to scare by letting some silly undisciplined academic annoy with their discordant views.

It may be uncharitable, but a lot if not most of USA Economics is hopelessly corrupted by prospects of wealth for those who appreciate which side their bread can be very richly be buttered on.

Jack said...

Oh my god. Is it really possible that science professionals sell their souls and their ideas to the highest bidders? Is that possible in modern day America? Academia is a quagmire of scum taking corporate largesse to supplement their "meager" $100,000 plus salaries for six hours in the classroom.

Carl said...

I am the author of this article. In my story, I sought to portray the current scientific debate over neonicotinoids and bees as accurately as possible. I spoke to the main authors of the two studies, and eight experts. There was little consensus, with some favoring one study over the other, and others arguing that little could be said with certainty from either, and others saying that there was a clear message. I also read a number of recent papers and scientific reviews, which also conclude that the evidence has been ambiguous. It's certainly true that I quoted someone from Bayer CropScience, but it would have been remiss of me not to. I did not, however, just reprint the Bayer scientist's critique of the experiment; I got confirmation from another scientist that the critique was valid. In such a situation, do you really expect a journalist to say, "Well, it's all settled"?

Peter Dorman said...

Carl, thanks for taking the time to reply. My main response would be this: the criticism is not that you should have "settled" the debate, but that (1) the reader would be in a better position to make sense of the dispute if the root disagreements were identified, and (2) journalists should transmit information about the extent to which experts have interests in the issue at hand.

An example of (1) would be possible disagreement over whether the pesticide dose administered to the experimental group in one of the studies was "too large", in the sense of being above a potential threshold that is seldom breached in the field. Another expert might say that there is unlikely to be such a threshold, so that a linear extrapolation from the dose is justified. This is hypothetical -- I don't know if these positions were actually taken, but they exemplify what I mean by getting to the basis of disagreement. If the reader knows why the experts disagree, he or she can do more than just shrug shoulders, flip a coin, etc. I realize this places a very large burden on the journalist, which is why I suggested the expedient of an outside panel if the job seems to be too much.

The second issue, material interests that experts have in one side or the other, is possibly something you can do little about, since there is no source you can go to in order to find out who has been paid by whom. So please don't be defensive about this! We the licensed professionals (economists, entomologists, etc.) are the ones who need to clean up our act -- by creating central repositories for this kind of information.

And Blissex, your point about speaking fees is well taken. Why do you think I am malicious?