A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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Natural Thinking: (another) case study

by Robert Todd Carroll
July 12, 2015

A friend of a friend on Facebook recently posted a link to an article claiming that a "Harvard Study" proves that bees are disappearing because of neonicotinoid, the world’s most widely used insecticide. The poster commented:

Without bees, we will not survive (Albert Einstein gave the prediction of four years for humanity after bees are extinct). Bees are dying rapidly. Harvard just published [a] conclusive study that [the] direct cause is pesticides. Don't buy conventional produce (most are treated with pesticides). Do not use pesticides. Take part in Monsanto protests. Advocate for bees. Teach your kids about bees' crucial role in our existence. Re-examine your relationship to nature.

Ignore for the moment the mention of Einstein and the claim that he predicted the end of mankind would come four years after bees become extinct. But don't ignore the call to buy organic (implied), to not use pesticides, or to take part in Monsanto protests: those are glaring admissions of bias, a common fault of natural thinking. (Natural thinking is spontaneous, non-reflective thinking.)

The author of the article the Facebook poster links to claims that a single study conclusively proves that Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)* has a single cause. An unbiased thinker knows that there is always a very low probability that a single study ever proves anything. It's also very unlikely that a complex problem that has been studied for over a decade by many competent scientists has suddenly been solved by a lone scientist finding a single cause of the problem.

What should a critical thinker do when she stumbles upon a source claiming that a single study solves a complex problem with a simple solution that just happens to fit perfectly with her worldview? She should stop and reflect. Ask some questions. Dig deeper before posting and offering supportive comments on Facebook or a blog. If you are going to link to something to support your worldview, you might consider making sure the author you cite is a reliable source writing for a reliable outfit. The linked-to article in this case is on a site called CSGlobe and the article lists no author. A quick look around the site tells me that this is not a site I'd go to for quality information about important topics. (There are sections on UFOs, mind control, and conspiracies that are not skeptical, to say the least.) The anonymous author deserves a bit of mistrust as well. There was no attempt to find any critics of the study, but some effort went into finding links to studies in support of the notion that chemicals--not just insecticides--are harming humans and killing not only bees but butterflies as well. The main culprit is Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup.

Before continuing, I think I need to make some things clear to those not familiar with how critical thinking works. I am not setting out to prove the poster is wrong. I am not on a quest to prove pesticides are harmless. I am not writing this to defend Monsanto. My interest here is in determining how reliable the single study is and how cogent the conclusions drawn by the author of the article on CSGlobe are. I am not an expert on bees or pesticides, so I certainly do not aim to prove the Harvard study is right or wrong. Where should I start? By a careful reading of the single study that claims to prove the author has found the single cause of CCD? No. I probably wouldn't understand most of it, anyway. For me, the starting point should be to look at the study to see if it claims what the CSGlobe article says it does. If it does, then I'll look for other experts in this area and see what they have to say about the study and the author.

The study in question was published last year in the Journal of Insectology. The main author was Chensheng Lu, who is with the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard School of Public Health. (The other two authors listed are beekeeper association members.) Who is Chensheng Lu? His Harvard website indicates he is a formidable scholar and scientist. What does Lu actually claim in his article?

I always start with the abstract. In Lu's abstract, he writes:

The observations from this study may help to elucidate the mechanisms by which sub-lethal neonicotinoids exposure caused honey bees to vanish from their hives.

That hardly sounds like "I found the single cause of CCD!" Nor does the conclusion of the article:

We conclude that when honey bees were exposed to either imidacloprid or clothianidin at a dose of 0.73 ng/bee/day for 13 consecutive weeks from July to September 2012, six of twelve previously healthy neonicotinoid-treated colonies died and all progressed to exhibit CCD symptoms during the winter months. The survival of control colonies and the absence of CCD-like symptoms in the only dead control colony not only augment this conclusion but also support the finding that chronic 130 sub-lethal neonicotinoid exposure do not appear to compromise honey bees’ immunity toward pathogen infection. The mechanisms by which sub-lethal neonicotinoid exposure caused honey bees to vanish from their hives during the winter months needs to be elucidated.

At this point, I could stop my investigation. The author of the "Harvard study" does not claim that he has found the single cause of CCD. The unnamed author of the article at CSGlobe is wrong and, I suspect, whoever it is was more interested in the propaganda value of the claim than its truth.

Just for the heck of it, though, I dug a little deeper. What I found was that no matter what source I looked at, reputable scientists agree with this assessment on Wikipedia:

The mechanisms of CCD are still unknown, but many causes are currently being considered, such as pesticides, mites, fungus, beekeeping practices (such as the use of antibiotics or long-distance transportation of beehives), malnutrition, other pathogens, and immunodeficiencies. The current scientific consensus is that no single factor is causing CCD, but that some of these factors in combination may lead to CCD either additively or synergistically. [seven separate sources are then listed]

Let the scientists do their work. And, if you are going to cherry-pick a study to support your biases, look over the study before posting on Facebook or your blog. Otherwise, you'll end up looking foolish, which is not nearly so bad as being wrong as well. As for quoting Einstein....well, some of us see that as a desperate move, an attempt to add some authoritative clout to questionable beliefs. Einstein's opinion about the end of bees signaling the end of humanity is no more relevant to the issue of CCD than my opinion about people who eat honey. Anyway, again the first question worth asking here is "did a person with one of the greatest minds who ever lived really say such a stupid thing?" The answer seems to be "we don't know." Here is what Snopes.com has to say about it:

....searches of Einstein's writings and speeches and public statements, as well as of (scholarly) compilations of Einstein quotations reveal nary a reference to the "four years" phrase or any other statement mentioning bees (save for a brief comparison between humans and colony insects such as ants and bees). The compiler of The New Quotable Einstein also found no Einsteinian source for this quote and lists it as "Probably Not by Einstein." 

Secondly, even though Einstein died in 1955, assiduous searching of a variety of databases of historical printed material (e.g., books, newspapers, magazines) has so far failed to turn up any mention of this quote (attributed to Einstein or anyone else) antedating 1994, when it suddenly started popping up in newspaper articles reporting on a protest in Brussels staged by beekeepers....

Sometimes it pays to stop to reflect before hitting that "share" button, unless you don't mind looking like a dupe who will quote and cite anybody to support your biases. If it's truth you're after, though, you might try something unnatural: critical thinking. Take it slow. Reflect. Do a little research before fortifying your belief armor with one more piece of nonsense.


* I cite Wikipedia for information on CCD because if I cite the EPA or some environmental group like the Natural Resources Defense Council, I will surely appear biased to many readers and give cause to those seething with rage waiting to be unleashed on anyone who gets their panties in a tuck. By citing Wikipedia I will only awaken the seething wrath of those who think I am a moron for not citing scientists they agree with.

further reading

Harvard Study Proves Why The Bees Are All Disappearing, posted on CSGlobe with no author name attached

Are Neonicotinoids the Sole Factor Responsible for Colony Collapse Disorder? by Joe Ballenger, 5 June 2014

Honey Bee Health and Colony Collapse Disorder United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service

Sub-lethal exposure to neonicotinoids impaired honey bees winterization before proceeding to colony collapse disorder Chensheng Lu, Kenneth M. Warchol, and Richard A. Callahan. Bulletin of Insectology 67 (1): 125-130, 2014.

In situ replication of honey bee colony collapse disorder by Chensheng Lu, Kenneth M. Warchol, and Richard A. Callahan. Bulletin of Insectology 65 (1): 2012

Multiple Routes of Pesticide Exposure for Honey Bees Living Near Agricultural Fields by Christian H. Krupke et al. PLoS One. 2012; 7(1): e29268.

Colony Collapse Disorder - the EPA

Vanishing Bees - the Natural Resources Defense Council


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