Wednesday, August 28, 2019

#2234: Stephanie Seneff

Stephanie Seneff is a real senior research scientist at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT, specializing in human–computer interaction and algorithms for language understanding and speech recognition. She is also a crackpot, pseudoscientist and conspiracy theorist trying to write about issues in biology and medicine, fields she demonstrably doesn’t understand. She has also managed to become something of an authority in the antivaccine and anti-GMO movements since people in these movements don’t notice or care that she has no competence in those fields as long as her credentials in completely unrelated fields give her crackpot rantings a sheen of authority. Not that Seneff herself would recognize the limits of her competence: “So basically what I do is I read papers and I process them with the computer to help me understand them and interpret them and generalize and build a story […]. Mostly what I do now is study, and then write. Trying to understand biology. I have an undergraduate degree from MIT in biology, and I also spent one year in graduate school in biology before switching over to computer science. And my PhD was on an auditory model for the human processing of speech. So that also involved biology, neurology. I’m not a complete ignoramus in the field of biology.” Actually, she is worse than an ignoramus; her description brilliantly illustrates a serious case of Dunning-Kruger and someone who is confidently scaling mount stupid.

So in 2011, Seneff began publishing articles on topics in biology and medicine, areas where she has no relevant qualifications or expertise, in low-impact or predatory open access journals, such as Interdisciplinary Toxicology, including eight papers in the journal Entropy between 2011 and 2015. It is rather important to emphasize, as Seneff herself admits in the above quote about how she does “research”, that Seneff “has published only speculations and gives many presentations, but has not created any new data” – there is no actual research going on; just manipulations of data from fields she doesn’t have any competence in; basically, her studies are review articles that just cherry-pick the results she wants to use and disregard the rest (some glaring examples are discussed here). Of course, her reviews have also been criticized for misrepresenting the results and conclusions of other researchers’ work, and for extensively relying on pseudoscientific studies and studies that have later been refuted – just to reach home base when even cherry-picking won’t suffice to get her where she wanted. And of course the “peer review process” isn’t going to notice given her choice of journals; the journals in question are pay-to-publish journals of the kind most serious researchers would classify as “predatory”, and the publisher of Entropy, MDPI, has a known history of publishing articles without merit.

Hat-tip: ?

Glyphosate and anti-GMO insanity
Seneff and her regular coauthor Anthony Samsel – a “long time contributor to the Vital Votes Forum” (yes, that description was apparently intended to convey an air of authority) – have coauthored a series of, well, comments that associate glyphosate with a wide variety of diseases, including “gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer's disease”. The comments have received quite a bit of media attention given her and her coauthors’ marketing of the results (one Carey Gilliam seems in particular to be a repeat offender when it comes to pushing Seneff’s conspiracy theories masked as “research” for various newspapers). The paper(s), of course, have no scientific merit – indeed, they have been characterized as “not even wrong” for instance due to “word salads about toxicology and biology that might as well be magic” – which is of course also why they were published in pseudojournals. Seneff and Samsel’s “results” are discussed in some detail here; a good primer on glyphosate is here. Seneff herself claimed that glyphosate is a major cause of autism and largely responsible for the current autism epidemic: “At today’s rates, by 2025, half the kids born will be diagnosed with autism,” Seneff said (the claim was picked up by Snopes after making its ways in the usual conspiracy-and-pseudoscience circles); indeed, she has gained some infamy for using a graph in her Powerpoint presentations that shows that 100% of all children born in 2050 will be born with autism. In other words, according to Seneff GMOs are going to make everyoneautistic. Yes, that’s the level of density we are talking about (for the record: there is no autism epidemic; increasing rates are probably exclusively due to changes in diagnostic practices). Real studies have also found no evidence that glyphosate is associated with adverse development outcomes, nor any of the other adverse outcomes Seneff asserts it is the cause of; indeed, glyphosate is probably among the least toxic herbicides there is. A 2017 Review Article in Frontiers in Public Health characterized Seneff’s glyphosate health-risk research claims asat best unsubstantiated theories, speculations or simply incorrect.”

It is worth pointing out that infamous anti-GMO activist Michael Hansen of Consumers Union, who is himself no stranger to spouting insane conspiracy theories about science, thinks Anthony Samsel is so crazy that he should be avoided lest his side lose their credibility among the public (his side has precariously little credibility among scientists as it is).

Much of Seneff and Samsel’s work in these papers are simple applications of post-hoc fallacies, for instance when they suggest that “[t]he incidence of inflammatory bowel diseases such as juvenile onset Crohn’s disease has increased substantially in the last decade in Western Europe and the United States. It is reasonable to suspect that glyphosate’s impact on gut bacteria may be contributing to these diseases and conditions.” It really isn’t reasonable, any more than blaming increased consumption of organic products. (And the connection to gut conditions matters, because they also adhere to the at best extremely controversial idea that gastrointestinal issues are a causal factor in autism – another correlation/causation failure, really). They make similarly ridiculous correlation/causation mistakes when trying to tie glyphosate to obesity; in fact, had they been careful, they would have seen that they don’t even actually have a correlation to mistake for causation in this case (further discussion here). They are not careful. Seneff also notes a correlation between deaths from senile dementia due to an aging population and … well, she doesn’t notice that association.

The proposed association between glyphosate and autism is further discussed here. According to Seneff, there is of course a correlation between the use of glyphosate and, well, really the expansion of diagnostic criteria and practices for autism (not the number of incidences); therefore, there must be a causal connection. “Is there a toxic substance that is currently in our environment on the rise in step with increasing rates of Autism that could explain this?… The answer is yes, I’m quite sure that I’m right, and the answer is glyphosate.” The evidence-free convictions of an electrical engineer with a history of pseudoscience really isn’t going to cut it in any context where truth, accuracy and evidence matter. And she really, really doesn’t get the correlation/causation thing; nor is she very careful about identifying actual correlation from which one could actually fallaciously derive causal claims.

And as mentioned above, it isn’t just autism, obesity, Crohn’s disease and Alzheimers. According to Seneff glyphosate exposure causes arthritis, concussions, Celiac disease, food allergies, and Parkinsons as well. Indeed, in an interview with anti-GMO activist, yogic flying instructor and conspiracy theorist Jeffrey Smith, Seneff upped her game even further: “I believe that glyphosate may be a contributor to all the – this epidemic that we have in school shootings and the thing that just happened in Boston (the Boston Bombing).”

Wait, was concussions on that list? Oh, yes. According to Seneff, glyphosate causes concussions (her coauthor on that rant was Wendy Morely, who is a “Registered Holistic Nutritionist” specializing in the nutrition of concussion; Morely has no neurology background either, of course). And yes, it’s just as insanely dumb as you would imagine. Their tortured reasoning process is discussed here, and the basic idea is a proposed “diminished brain resilience syndrome”: according to Seneff and Morely, concussions are on the increase because the general population has poor nutrition, disordered gut microbiota, and increased exposure to toxins like glyphosate and GMOs, which render the brain less resilient to injury and less able to repair itself after injury. There is a long road of fallacies and confusions to travel to make that connection look like it works even to those who know nothing about any of the relevant fields (notice how although Seneff and Morely add references behind some of the central figures in their arguments, the sources cited don’t actually contain those figures, and the suggested figures do, entirely unsurprisingly, contradict the figures actually found in the scientific literature.) Of course, the proposal collapses on the starting block, since there is no evidence at all for the claim that concussions are on the rise. In short: Seneff and Morely propose, without evidence, a nonsensical hypothesis to explain – something it couldn’t have done even if it were coherent – a phenomenon that don’t actually exist. The whole attempt is roughly as intelligent or credible as one that tried to use chi vibrations to explain how unicorns fly. 

Though Seneff has her own, wrong idea about the causes of autism, she has nevertheless thrown her lot in with the antivaccine movement. Indeed, according to Seneff, Alzheimer’s, which she has claimed is also caused by glyphosate – and sunscreen – is also caused by vaccines: “The elderly are greatly encouraged to renew their flu shots every single year, and I think this is another major factor that is steadily increasing their risk to Alzheimer’s disease. This is mainly due to the aluminum contained in the flu shot.” She doesn’t have any evidence of course; she just thinksthere is a connection. Some might even consider her claim to think vaccines are a factor in Alzheimer’s is false, due to a legitimate hesitancy to characterize what she is doing as thinking

In 2012 Seneff was a coauthor with Jingjing Liu (from Seneff’s lab) and one Robert M. Davidson on “Empirical Data Confirm Autism Symptoms Related to Aluminum and Acetaminophen Exposure”, published in their standard pay-to-publish journal Entropy (in fact, they also blame autism on mercury in the article, but probably didn’t dare put it in the title in case even the editors of Entropy, whom we suspect do not read beyond the title, would have noticed). There is a good review of the article here (“Rarely have I seen so much antivaccine pseudoscience packed into a single paper”). You get a feel for the contents of the paper from the way they frame their study: “The ASD community has maintained a long-standing conviction that vaccination plays a causative role in ASD, an idea that has been vehemently denied by the vaccine industry, but nonetheless is still hotly debated,” which must count as one of the most egregious manufactroversy gambits in the history of the Internet (it really isn’t hotly debated, the ASD community is not in general antivaccine, and refutations of the proposed link have not come from the vaccine industry). And yes, they cite celebrity fraud Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent and retracted 1998 paper as evidence. They also cite Gayle DeLong, Mark Geier, Boyd Haley, Helen Ratajczak and really a whole cornucopia of antivaccine conspiracy theories published in bottom-feeding or predatory journals, while systematically of course neglecting the overwhelming amount of large, real, serious and extensive studies that consistently yield results that don’t fit their narrative. It is actually not entirely clear what their thesis is; the antivaccine movement has blamed everything from thimerosal to aluminum adjuvants, and Seneff et al. seem to cite it all equally approvingly despite the fact that the claims contradict each other. Of course, the MMR vaccine has never contained either aluminum or thimerosal, but Seneff et al. don’t seem to have gotten the memo and blithely go from blaming “heavy metals” like mercury and aluminum for the “autism epidemic” to blaming the MMR vaccine. They also blame vaccines for SIDS, despite vaccines being negatively correlated with SIDS. Then they dumpster-dive in the VAERS database. (And no, they apparently don’t really have the faintest idea what the VAERS database actually is, but nevertheless went on to “torture the data until it confessed”) And that’s just the start. At least their paper provides an illuminating illustration of how anti-vaccine “researchers” work.

Despite Because of her lack of expertise or knowledge in the fields she is writing about Seneff has become a central character in the antivaccine movement, and she participated in the antivaccine film Vaxxed, for instance, as well as in the antivaccine series The Truth about Vaccines.

Cholesterol denialism and more
Seneff has also put her degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science to work in dreaming up theories that ADHD is caused by eating too many low fat foods, that autism is caused by a cholesterol/vitamin D deficiency syndrome because mothers eat too many low fat foods and use too much sunscreen (her 2008 essay “Sunscreen and Low-fat Diet: A Recipe for Disaster”), that sulfur deficiency causes obesity (sulfur deficiency is of course not actually a thing, but Seneff knows nothing about chemistry, biology or medicine), and that a low fat diet and statin drugs (for high cholesterol) can cause Alzheimer’s.

Yes, Seneff (and colleagues) have also aligned themselves with the conspiracy theorists in the cholesterol denialist group THINC (yes, cholesterol denialism is of course a thing) and garbage-published on the health impacts of fat and cholesterol consumption in America. According to Seneff Americans are suffering from a cholesterol deficiency; this is, to put it diplomatically, incorrect. In 2014–2016 Seneff was accordingly proposed as an expert witness for litigators seeking damages from Pfizer associated with their cholesterol drug Lipitor, but the court dismissed the suggestion, of course, since Seneff has no expertise in the field and failed to provide credible evidence linking Lipitor to any specific harm.

Oh, and she has also blamed low fat diets and statins on autism. So, just to tally up: thus far Seneff has blamed autism on low fat diets and statins, GMOs and glyphosate, sulfate deficiency, vaccines, aluminium and painkillers. That’s what happens when you don’t understand the difference between correlation and causation and is also really bad at actually identifying correlations, we suppose. Her regular coauthor Anthony Samsel, meanwhile, has even proposed that water dynamics are responsible for autism. 

As a result of her stalwart efforts on behalf of dangerous nonsense, Stephanie Seneff is currently on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute (CMSRI). She has no relevant qualifications to assess the medical safety of anything whatsoever, of course, but that probably makes her a fine match for the CMSRI, which is a conspiracy-mongering pseudoscience organization.

Diagnosis: It is worth emphasizing again: Stephanie Seneff has no expertise, background or competence in anything related to medicine, biology or how to use population studies. And she has done no research whatsoever on the topics she writes about. Her output isn’t studies, but conspiracy rants superficially structured like research papers and published in pay-to-publish journals. Seneff is a pseudoscientist and a tragic case of Dunning-Kruger. But she has also found a receptive audience, and even mainstream media isn’t always able to distinguish her writings from science. Dangerous. 

Hat-tip: Vaxopedia

1 comment:

  1. I'm quite surprised that it took you this long to profile such a high-profile bat-shit loon. As for her language-processing research, the fact that the words "neural network" don't appear in any titles at least of any of her papers is illuminating. Not much for citations either. I smell a failed career here, and a manufactured new one.