Issues & Insights

National Geographic’s Pollution Of Scientific Discourse

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For more than a century, National Geographic has produced a high-quality magazine that is well-grounded in science, history and culture. Lately, however, the editors have allowed agenda-driven articles based on flawed research to slip in between the covers.

Take, for example, the latest piece by science writer Elizabeth Royte, which focused on the work of Jonathan Lundgren, who is portrayed as a hard-working scientist-farmer. He claims that widely used, state-of-the-art neonicotinoid insecticides “may be a threat to mammals,” as well as to bees (an allegation that has been thoroughly debunked). Considering that Royte’s article was a collaboration with the activists at the Food & Environment Reporting Network, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that Lundgren was selected as the story’s hero.

Lundgren became a martyr to the activist community following his departure from a research position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture after bending ethical rules in support of his personal agenda. Now that he’s a private citizen, his crusade against modern pesticides has accelerated.

Lundgren had already established himself as a leading critic of neonicotinoids, the most popular insecticide on the market today. At first, he argued that these chemicals were bad for bees, and so farmers ought to be required to only use “organic” pesticides. Now he’s expanding the claim to also cover all mammals, presumably including humans, based on the “singular experiment” described in the Nat Geo article.

The experiment appears to have been specifically engineered to produce the desired conclusion that “pesticides are bad,” rather than an honest effort to get unbiased results. It followed a classic hit-and-run pattern:

  • Step one: Take a small sample size of your test subjects.
  • Step two: Force feed them with a ludicrously large amount of the substance you intend to vilify.
  • Step three: Make outsized claims about the risks posed by that substance – even though no animal would ever encounter such high doses in the normal course of events.
  • Step four: Issue press releases and schedule media interviews.

The reason this technique works so well is that, in high enough doses, almost everything is toxic, or even fatal. Pathological drinking of water, or psychogenic polydipsia, is a life-threatening condition, as it may lead to severe hyponatremia (low blood sodium), leading to cardiac arrest, coma and cerebral edema. Even excessive ingestion of nutmeg can be toxic and occasionally fatal.

Nobody would suggest that water and nutmeg should be banned by the government as a precaution against their potentially toxic effects, but that’s exactly what Lundgren and company want to do with the organic food and agriculture industries’ nemesis: neonicotinoid pesticides.

The Deer Study

A deeper dive into the Lundgren paper, published in Scientific Reports, exposes a number of shortcomings in the study’s design. He and colleagues explored the effect of imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid, on white-tailed deer. Just 20 adult deer were gathered, and their fawns born in captivity in 2015 and 2016 were examined for birth defects. The deer were fed water mixed with imidacloprid at levels, in the authors’ words, “far higher than any yet reported in natural streams or wetlands.” That was an understatement. The exact dosage depended on whether the deer were in the control, low, moderate, or high treatment groups, which were fed water mixed with 0 ng/L, 1,500 ng/L, 3,000 ng/L, or 15,000 ng/L of imidacloprid, respectively. Even the “low” dose of 1,500 ng/L of imidacloprid is 10 times higher than what would be considered a high dose in the wild. The deer subjected to the “high” dose drank water dosed with an amount 100 times higher than would ever be found outside a laboratory scenario.

The relationship between dosage and toxicity is critical, or as the 16th century Swiss physician, Paracelsus, put it, “the dose makes the poison.” Drinking 100 cups of coffee in rapid succession can be fatal, but that does not imply that a daily latte at Starbucks on the way to work is also dangerous. Lundgren and company know this.

“Our high treatment was intended to invoke an effect and therefore, was much greater than documented in free water,” they admitted. In fact, there was no limit placed on the amount of dosed water that the deer were allowed to drink: “Deer consumed the water treated with imidacloprid ad libitum.” This also means the variables in the experiment weren’t actually controlled, and in 2016 fawns in the high-dosage group, for instance, wound up drinking twice as much spiked water as the low-dose group did.

Having hyper-dosed (overdosed might be more apt) their subjects, the researchers proceeded to slaughter the surviving deer so that their internal organs could be examined. Imidacloprid was present at varying levels in the spleen, which might have been noteworthy if the researchers hadn’t also found imidacloprid in the spleens of the control groups (presumably from environmental exposure) — sometimes at higher levels than the deer dosed with imidacloprid. Moreover, the adult female deer that died during the study had significantly lower imidacloprid levels in their spleen than the adult females that survived. Why, one wonders, didn’t the authors conclude that imidacloprid is a life-prolonging drug?

Still, from this small sample size and in spite of the anomalous results, Lundgren and company concluded that the presence of imidacloprid in the spleen must have lessened the chances of survival for deer — except when it didn’t. “The fawn with this high spleen imidacloprid concentration survived, which was not consistent with the overall trend in the data.” This particular case didn’t neatly fit the narrative and was, therefore, declared an “outlier” that was “removed from analyses.”

It’s hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from this mess, but there’s more. In a claim that faintly echoes conspiracy theorist Alex Jones ranting about chemicals in the water “turning frogs gay,” the deer study was spun as a warning about imidacloprid shrinking genitalia, because “adult female imidacloprid levels in the genitals were negatively correlated with genital organ weight.” That was intended to stoke fear about a commonly used, hugely popular crop protection chemical, by implying it would do the same to humans.

It’s also just the sort of unsubstantiated, outsized claim that excites activists. And making such claims is what earned Lundgren all those invitations to activist events that got him into hot water while he was supposed to be working as a disinterested USDA employee. Now in exile from the government that Lundgren claims “persecuted” him, Uncle Sam is paying a large share of the cost of running Lundgren’s Ecdysis Foundation, which in turn pays him and his researchers a salary.

The foundation isn’t a large operation, but more than half of the $1.2 million the foundation received through 2019 came in the form of government grants, plus more in coronavirus assistance in succeeding years. It’s not clear how remaining on the U.S. government payroll (at least indirectly) qualifies as being oppressed by Uncle Sam.

Nat Geo’s Wallaby Scare

The deer scare isn’t the first time National Geographic has embraced an activist narrative. In an article published last year, it attacked another widely used crop protection product. The target then was atrazine, which farmers use to prevent their crop yields from being reduced by noxious weeds. Nat Geo described an experiment in which Australian marsupials fed with atrazine gave birth to offspring with “shorter, smaller penises.” There’s the scary claim again, and right up in the third paragraph the article was quick to assert that the findings apply to “all mammals — including humans.”

How did the researchers achieve what Nat Geo called “dramatic effects”? Once more, the experiment involved hyper-dosing test subjects with an impossibly large amount of the chemical. In this case, 10 pregnant wallabies were fed drinking water infused with 450 parts per million of the herbicide atrazine for 200 days, and their offspring’s reproductive organs were measured. Ten pregnant wallabies drank the same dosed water for five days. Another 20 pregnant wallabies were used as a control group.

As the researchers explained, “Although the dose used in this study does exceed that found typically in local water sources, it is quite possible a wild animal could get such an exposure.” Actually, it’s not. Not even close.

Atrazine has a solubility limit of 33 mg/L in water at room temperature, so 450 ppm (or 450 mg/L) isn’t just an unrealistic amount, it’s an amount impossible to achieve in drinking water at environmentally-relevant temperatures. It’s at least an order of magnitude greater than even the highest level ever recorded in Australia, which the authors claim was a spike of 53 mg/L in Tasmanian streams after forestry spraying (which is very doubtful, given atrazine’s water solubility limits).

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality monitoring system has never seen more than 0.334 parts per million in the environment, meaning the dosage used on the wallabies was more than 1,300 times higher than the highest level ever recorded in streams near agricultural areas. Those measurements are taken weekly during the peak times when atrazine is used.

No wonder the EPA has said that inconceivable claims about the solubility of a substance in water raise red flags. In fact, the agency discarded the results of a similar study on atrazine because of the “high number of non-definitive endpoints and study quality concerns, including exceeding solubility at some of the higher test concentrations.”

The authors speculate that wallabies could potentially have grazed on crops sprayed with atrazine, which could have boosted their intake. No evidence is provided to support this speculation, but even if the wallabies fed exclusively on crops with the highest atrazine residues for 200 straight days, and even if those residues didn’t wash off or dissipate and degrade in sun, soil and atmosphere – as they do – the dose would still be an order of magnitude greater (at least 10 times higher) than they could possibly be exposed to.

All of these issues should have raised concerns at National Geographic. Over-the-top claims should always be treated with editorial skepticism, which makes one wonder what has changed at the magazine if they’re letting such whoppers slide by. It doesn’t just tarnish the reputation of a publication that’s been around since 1888, it also lends credence to the horde of scare articles these stories spawn in the popular press.

The activist group Friends of the Earth referred to the wallaby result as the “chemical ‘castration’ of marsupials” in its demand for regulators to take action to ban atrazine. Articles covering the two studies included “South Dakota State study shows world’s most common pesticide a danger to deer,” and “The Pesticide Industry’s Playbook for Poisoning the Earth.” The Natural Resources Defense Council used the Lundgren study to petition the EPA to ban neonicotinoids. 

These kinds of cascades of disinformation are not uncommon, and are often part of activists’ propaganda strategy. By publishing sensationalistic, misleading articles, National Geographic is a collaborator in unnecessarily frightening the public and encouraging regulators to focus on phantom threats, rather than on things that matter. Nat Geo’s readers deserve better.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was a research associate at the NIH and the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Links to his articles are at henrymillermd.org. Follow him on Twitter at @henryimiller

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5 comments

  • Hack science and pseudoscience have become very popular because the vast majority of people are (1) not equipped to assess it and (2) they like doom and gloom fantsies. Since, hack science sells, the second tier publishers are happy to give it voice.

  • I found a glaring inaccuracy in this story:

    “Lately, however, the editors have allowed agenda-driven articles based on flawed research to slip in between the covers.”

    Lately? Ha! Nat Geo has been hyping environmental alarmism since the 1970s.

    • Much agree. I cancelled my subscription to Natl Geo about the same time I cancelled Consumer Reports.

  • NatGeo has merely jumped down the rabbit hole of green propaganda instead of practicing journalism, and did so decades ago. They are not alone in committing this kind of folly. Scientific American became an unreliable “woke” source of science coverage at about the same time.

    There really are no sources of science coverage left for the general public.

    NatGeo remains an expensive glossy photomagazine, often with wonderful pictures. Just don’t expect the photographs to provide any more of an accurate picture of their topic than you’d have expected Playboy magazine photos to present an accurate representation of the average woman.

  • Unfortunately, this is becoming broadly true for many of our “established” scientific organizations, including AAAS and the National Academies, because of their intentional exclusion of industry scientists from representative participation. Only 7 of 489 new AAAS Fellows, and 0 of their 200 Board of Reviewing Editors are from industry; and not a single member of the NASEM panel on genetically engineered crops was from industry in spite of the fact that almost all the crops were developed by industry scientists.

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