Jury or science?

August 20, 2018

Monsanto has been ordered to pay $US 289m to a man who claimed herbicides containing glyphosate had caused his cancer.

Bayer, the parent company of Monsanto, has dismissed the claims.

A Californian jury said Monsanto should have warned users about the dangers of its Roundup and RangerPro weedkillers.

Bayer completed its $66bn takeover of Monsanto in June.

A Bayer spokesperson told the BBC the two companies operate independently. In a statement the company said: “Bayer is confident, based on the strength of the science, the conclusions of regulators around the world and decades of experience, that glyphosate is safe for use and does not cause cancer when used according to the label.” . .

The jury ruled against the company but courts, and juries,  aren’t equipped to determine scientific facts:

I could write many lengthy posts about why that ruling is wrong. I could talk about the numerous scientific studies that failed to find evidence that glyphosate causes cancer (e.g., this large, long-term cohort study with over 50,000 participants that wasn’t funded by Monsanto and failed to find an association between glyphosate use and cancer among farmers [Andreotti et al. 2017]). I could talk about the well-established fact that the toxicity of glyphosate is quite low. I could talk about the fact that multiple well-respected scientific bodies have examined the evidence and concluded that it does not suggest that glyphosate causes cancer. I could also talk about how the one dissenting scientific report (i.e., WHO’s IARC report) cherry-picked their evidence and reached a conclusion that has been widely criticized by the scientific community. Plenty of other pages have, however, already done all of those things, so I won’t spend more time on them here. Rather, I want to discuss why trials like this one are inherently problematic. Citing court rulings is an extremely common tactic among science deniers (anti-vaccers do it all the time), but it is not a logically valid tactic because courts don’t determine what is and is not a scientific fact.

Courts and juries might be well equipped to deal with legal matters but whether or not glysophate causes cancer isn’t a matter of law, it’s a matter for science.

The first major problem is simply that juries don’t consist of experts in the relevant scientific field. As I’ve talked about before, science is complicated. It takes years of carefully training, study, and hands-on experience to learn everything that you need to know to be able to properly evaluate scientific evidence. The notion that an untrained jury is going to master that over the course of a trail is absurd. . . 

A court pits two opposing sides against each other. It is an adversarial system which aims to find the plaintiff guilty or not, it is not designed to determine what is scientifically valid and what is not.

. . . Which conclusion seems more reliable to you? The one that was arrived at by experts spending months carefully and systematically examining all of the available evidence, or the one that was arrived at by non-experts basing a decision on a comparison of two extremely biased representations of the evidence? I think that the answer to that is pretty obvious.

To be clear here, I’m not saying that scientists are infallible or that the conclusions of scientific organizations are definitive statements of reality. That would be an appeal to authority fallacy. Rather, my point is that the courtroom system is fundamentally flawed and unreliable for determining scientific facts. The fact that a jury decided that X causes Y is completely and 100% irrelevant in any scientific debate. It has no bearing on reality, and you would be crazy to trust it instead of relying on numerous high-quality studies and reviews and meta-analyses of those studies that were systematically assembled by teams of experts. Whether or not something is a scientific fact has to be determined by actual research, and a jury’s opinion about that research is irrelevant.

Scientists aren’t saying there is no risk at all form using glysophate but study after study has concluded that if used as directed it is safe.

Monsanto will appeal. In the meantime farmers and their advisors are concerned about the implications if more  glysophate bans are imposed.

THE LEADER of one of Australia’s peak grain grower bodies has said if Australia were to follow the Brazilian lead and suspend the use of the herbicide glyphosate it would ‘send the industry back to the 1980s’.

Andrew Weidemann, Grain Producers Australia chairman, said a glyphosate ban could send total Australian grain production back to around 25 million tonnes.

Over the past 10 years, according to official Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) data the total Australian winter crop has averaged around 41 million tonnes.

“A ban on glyphosate would be a disaster agronomically,” Mr Weidemann said.

“Our conditions suit the use of glyphosate perfectly, it allows us to conserve moisture in our long hot summers without the need for cultivation.

“We know that cultivation degrades our soils but without glyphosate we’ll have to go back to it as a form of weed control.”

LaTrobe University farming systems researcher James Hunt said the environmental costs of a glyphosate ban would be huge. . . 

Low and no-tillage systems conserve soils and soil moisture. They are a much greener option than conventional cultivation but they won’t work without efficient weed killers like Roundup.

As is too-often the case, emotion has trumped science on glysophate and its environmental benefits lose out to unsubstantiated greenwash.

The cost of that will be paid for by soil degradation, lower crop yields and more expensive food.

Although, the company could try this:


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