Bee studies, blogs, and biases

My original posting last Wednesday (“Ignorance and the so-called “bogus” bee study“) has generated some vigorous discussion, which is exactly what I hoped it would do. At some point, one of our readers posted the link on the original blog site, where it generated the following response:

“The issue on CCD and these studies that point to “causes” other than pesticides comes down to a question: What came first? The pesticides or the problem. Farmers almost always have the gut answer correct. In this case the farmers are the hundreds if not thousands of beekeepers who are certain that neonicotines are root cause of colony collapse disorder. I’m not a PhD, admittedly, but I’ve yet to read anything that points to an answer other than the pesticides.

“And for Linda to suggest that science can’t be “bought” at universities is an incredibly naive statement. I’m not saying Jerry was bought out, not at all. But I do think, overall, there’s a ton of pressure from the chemical industry for scientists to find an answer, any answer, that doesn’t point back directly to pesticides.”

I responded to this posting on the blog this morning, where it sat waiting for approval by the moderator:

“There are dozens of peer-reviewed studies on colony collapse disorder that can be easily accessed by anyone who is really interested in the science. Here’s a quote from a 2009 article:

“Of 61 quantified variables (including adult bee physiology, pathogen loads, and pesticide levels), no single measure emerged as a most-likely cause of CCD.”

From “Colony collapse disorder: a descriptive study.”

Authors: Engelsdorp, D. van; Evans, J. D.; Saegerman, C.; Mullin, C.; Haubruge, E.; Bach Kim Nguyen; Frazier, M.; Frazier, J.; Cox-Foster, D.; Chen, Y. P.; Underwood, R.; Tarpy, D. R.; Pettis, J. S.

Available at: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0006481.”

Then….it was deleted.

For whatever reason, the moderator of this blog didn’t want to post my response. So I’ve reposted it above, and have a couple of other observations:

1) “Gut answers” aren’t science. Sure, gut feelings can convince researchers to explore some particular question, but they are inspirations – not necessarily answers. As my husband pointed out, people once had “gut feelings” that the earth was flat and that the sun orbited around the earth. Enlightenment happens.

2) Let’s see some specific examples where science has been “bought” at universities. I’m sure there are a few bad apples (especially in pomology – HA!), but to my knowledge none of my colleagues have pandered to chemical companies and falsified data for publication. This is a serious charge – and if it’s true, we all deserve to see hard evidence.

As always, feel free to post YOUR comment. We won’t censor you, even if you don’t agree with us.

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Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and an Associate Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - www.facebook.com/TheGardenProfessors "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - www.facebook.com/groups/GardenProfessors Books: http://www.sustainablelandscapesandgardens.com

12 thoughts on “Bee studies, blogs, and biases”

  1. As a layman with no science degree to legitimize my opinion, I too have a “gut” feeling. It is that no one wants to bite the hand that feeds. I am inclined to believe that many researchers are respectful of those that supply them with research funds. Embarrassing the donors in public probably is not a good way to ensure further grants.

  2. Allan, I don’t have any personal experience, having never received this kind of grant before. It’s a valid question – and I’ll be curious to see if anyone can add to it.

  3. In my experience, whenever the university I went to was given money by outside parties, be they corporations, foundations or other independent bodies, the university went to great lengths to ensure their reputation was not compromised by how the money was spent. The research such funding was spent on was kept a very close eye on by the university. Universities will always look out for their own interests, and not compromising their reputation is #1 on the list. Science might be able to be bought from private research companies, but to suggest that buying science from a university is just as easy shows an incredible naivety of how universities allocate funding for projects.
    When a researcher’s integrity is called into question you need to have evidence, or at least a logical expression of why it is you think a researcher to be corrupt. A ‘gut feeling’ just doesn’t cut the mustard, I’m afraid.

  4. Jimbo’s right. There’s a good bit of oversight. In terms of corporate sponsorship of research, “public embarrassment” is not an issue (at least in our discipline). Companies WANT unbiased results, or else they’d let their own R&D folks handle all the trials. I know faculty who work with plant growth regulator companies, fertilizer manufacturers, etc. If the product is still under development, results (good or bad) are usually just reported to the company, end of story. If faculty intend to publish the results, as in the case of a graduate student’s work (which has to get published in the form of a thesis and hopefully as a refereed manuscript), you just let the company know that up front. You acknowledge the financial help in the “credits” and then get on with reporting results. I’ve yet to hear of a company that’s not o.k. with that. Finally, in our discipline (horticulture), we’re not talking big bucks for product development and sales here (well, maybe Scott’s). It’s a tiny, tiny market, compared to agronomic production (corn, soy, etc.).

  5. Tim, these are fascinating articles, particularly the one in The Atlantic. Even though we’re not in the medical research field, I’m sure some of the same problems these metaresearchers found exist in other fields of study. Wouldn’t it be great if all universities, at some level, had this same watchdog mentality as Dr. Ioannidis’s team?

  6. Linda,
    It would be fabulous if the same watchdog mentality was employed at all universities. I hope more people read the articles.

  7. The CCD research situation reminds me a bit of Nassim Taleb’s book, The Black Swam. Taleb doubts the value of a lot of research done on complex systems, such as the economy.

    With bee research there must be tremendous pressure to come up with a reductive “solution” that will maintain commercial beekeepers position in a monoculture-based agricultural system. It’s not about being “bought,” it’s about an unconscious support of a cultural paradigm that’s “too big to fail.”

    I’m with Taleb, don’t mess with complexity in the first place. In beekeeping that approach is eloquently summarized by the late Charles Martin Simon: http://www.beesource.com/point-of-view/charles-martin-simon/principles-of-beekeeping-backwards/

  8. It’s a Catch-22 system, Erik. To build a resilient body of research, experiments have to be limited to a few variables, and thus it takes a while to generate enough data for a meta-analysis. It may look reductionist in terms of the immediate utility of the information, but it’s the way science works best. When complex problems are analyzed without sufficient supporting data (some modeling studies come to mind), you end up with results that aren’t necessarily reliable. CCD was formally identified in 2006, which makes the field of study pretty young.

  9. Boy, I really started something! I left this comment on Paul Tukey’s blog October 18th, 2010 at 12:07 pm and it is still waiting moderation.
    “Where in the origianl paper does it say CCD is caused by the fungus-virus combination? I read it and it didn’t say that. Also, even if the lead researcher was ‘bought out’ how did he convince the other 16 researchers?”

  10. The neither the lead researcher nor the research was funded by any chemical company. Your innuendoes are just cheap journalism: do your own research properly!

  11. Peter, I suspect you are cutting and pasting into various blogs. If you read this one carefully, you’ll see that it supports the researchers. I respectfully suggest you follow your own advice.

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