The Inadequacy of Anecdotes

Over on OpEdNews Blogs, there is a rather lengthy discussion going on beneath a post by “Yup Farming” called “Independent Studies Refute GMO Safety Claims.” Those ‘studies,’ of course, are an assembly of non-peer-reviewed and anecdotal claims, but that is not the reason why I bring it up. The discussion was derailed by a few tangents, and I was just about to abandon reading it any further, until someone posted their real reason why they believe that GE foods are unsafe. Personal experience.

Barbara Peterson, a retired correctional officer from California, described how she eliminated a food reaction that her mother was having, through dietary changes. She then went on to experiment on herself:

You’d think I would have learned from this, but no. I kept on with the processed foods for myself, along with the good stuff. Well, guess what? Yup, I got the ugly stuff too. This stuff was so bad that it started on my leg and spread all the way to my shoulders and down my arms. It looked like the worst case of oozing poison oak you have ever seen. It felt like bugs were crawling under my skin, and I couldn’t sleep. I was going crazy.

I started experimenting on myself, and researching about GMOs. At first, I cut out everything but raw veggies, fruits, and organic eggs. I started clearing up. It took a while, but finally the rash was gone. Then I introduced things into my diet one at a time. When I ate things with high fructose corn syrup, I broke out almost immediately. When I stopped, the rash went away. I finally determined through trial and error, that if I eat products that are high in GMO content, I have a reaction. Since omitting most GMO from my diet, the rash has not come back.

So, anyone attempting to convince me that GMOs are not harmful is barking up the wrong tree. I know from personal experience that they are. Statistics can be manipulated according to personal bias and in favor of the person signing the paycheck. One thing that no one can manipulate is the way my system reacts to GMO.

Anyone convinced that she is having an allergic reaction to genetically engineered foods? I decided to wade back into the discussion with a thoughtful response, reproduced here so you don’t have to dig:

Barbara, countless people have attested to the veracity of astrology by their own personal experience, and although you may believe that you have eliminated all variables except genetic engineering, you haven’t. Does your body react differently to ‘organic’ High Fructose Corn Syrup (yes it exists), or just HFCS that comes from conventional GE corn? Do you have an allergy to a commodity crop such as corn, soy, or canola that is also commonly genetically engineered? Or are there other common components of some processed foods causing it, and you pinned it on the wrong cause?

There’s a simple way to find out. No fancy arcane statistics, no chain of suspicious funding from people you don’t know – the Gold Standard of allergy testing is in fact very accessible. You need three people. The first person randomizes a placebo (sugar pill) with a suspicious food item. In this case, you should have a placebo, a GE food sample, and the equivalent non-GE food sample. These randomized samples are numbered and given to a second person (doctor) who will administer them to you on separate days. Neither you, nor the doctor know which one is which. This is a Double-Blind study, because you and the person examining the symptoms are both blind to which one is the GE food.

People have claimed to be allergic to GE crops, and have gone in for double-blind allergy testing at hospitals and every one of them has come out having absolutely no reaction to it. If you really, truly believe that you are reacting to GE foods, you should go in and get yourself tested as above at a well-known allergy clinic. Let me tell you, if you were actually allergic to GE corn but not non-GE corn, you would become instantly famous. Everyone in the debate would know your name and you would be instrumental in clamping down on GE crops. In fact, if you know that you are allergic, it is your duty to everyone else to demonstrate it scientifically to prevent it from happening to anyone else!

On the other hand, you are probably not, and you eliminated something from you and your mother’s diets that was causing your problems, and you don’t know what it was. A guy named Keith Finger (google “keith finger GMO“) put videos online of himself ‘reacting’ to starlink corn, but he went in for a double-blind test and it turns out he was not allergic to it at all.

People believe that their own personal experiences are more reliable than statistical studies, but they are not. We fool ourselves every day. Just a few weeks ago I had an apparent sinus infection and was prescribed antibiotics. Did the antibiotics fix the problem, or did I just get better at the same time for other reasons? I don’t actually know. Personal experience is at best pseudo-statistical, and when it comes to a complex web of variables like food (especially processed food with lots of ingredients) it is wholly inadequate.

In a later comment, I mentioned that high fructose corn syrup made from conventional and GE corn is completely indistinguishable, and suggested that she contact me so I could forward her the study. No word from her yet. (In fact, by a later comment, she has apparently ignored my responses.) Bottom line: she is not having a reaction to genetically engineered corn via corn syrup, but is perfectly willing to claim that she is indeed having such a reaction.

Here is a question: is it responsible for someone to claim that a food is causing them to have a reaction when they don’t actually know whether or not it is? My dad has a mild case of celiac disease, known not from a professional diagnosis but from him cutting out wheat, barley, and rye from his diet. A small amount of gluten from these grains is enough to send his digestive tract in a spin.

But wheat-gluten intolerance is well known, and the symptoms are well described. But Barbara is not claiming to have a known nutritional disease, she is claiming to have an altogether novel reaction to genetically engineered crops, moreover, that she knows that she is having this reaction. What if she was?

As I said above, it would be her duty to civil society to take herself to a credible allergy clinic at a hospital and undergo a double-blind test to determine if she really is having this reaction. Then it would be her duty to tell everyone that there was an unseen risk with GE foods. I’m not talking about writing a blog post for OpEdNews Blogs, I’m talking about the New York Times. Science, Nature, The Lancet, Skeptic Magazine – it should be printed everywhere… if it could actually be demonstrated.

The proteins introduced into GE crops have been tested to make sure that they are not allergens. To continue to claim, publicly, that any food as well-tested as GE crops is causing someone to have an allergic reaction – without sufficient evidence to back it up – is irresponsible. Especially so when it is part of an effort to manufacture doubt about those foods. (Would anyone care if someone claimed they were allergic to Dragonfruit – unless they were trying to ban it from being grown anywhere?)

In order to have an intelligent dialogue over genetic engineering in agriculture, the people engaging in that dialogue have to agree to back up their claims with the best information that is available, and when they believe that something extraordinary is true they must go to the effort to demonstrate that it is indeed true. If we don’t trust to a rigorous scientific approach in determining the truth-value of our beliefs, then all we will be doing is endlessly debating over our own delusions.

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He currently works as a Post Doctoral Research Associate for the USDA in Madison, WI. His favorite produce might just be squash.


Food, Science


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