Can Regulators Act Honestly?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

"The wisest man in the world, with the purest integrity, cannot find a criterion for the just, equitable, rational application of an unjust, inequitable, irrational principle." -- Ayn Rand

Regulators in California have just decided to libel one of the most productive companies in the world, by listing the active ingredient in Monsanto's RoundUp weed killer as a carcinogen. This ruling comes only a week and a half after Reuters broke a story about a scientist at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concealing his own results to the contrary at a meeting by that agency. Until California's ruling, WHO's IARC was only major agency to assert that glyphosate was "probably" carcinogenic.

According to a story in Mother Jones (of all places):

So why on Earth would a scientist fail to mention his own work -- and blithely let a powerful agency come to a conclusion that his own data suggested was wrong? IARC told Reuters it's because [Aaron] Blair's data wasn't published yet, and the agency has a policy against taking unpublished data into consideration. For his part, Blair told Reuters that the data wasn't published in advance of the IARC's decision because there was too much of it to fit in one paper. (Reuters asked two outside experts to weigh in, and neither could understand the decision not to publish the data.)

And how about the rule against taking unpublished data into consideration? I called Michael Eisen, a professor of genetics, genomics, and development at the University of California-Berkeley. Eisen is the founder of the Public Library of Science and an outspoken advocate of transparency in science. He told me that in this particular case, he found IARC's rule "silly."

"This is a board of people whose job it is to assess evidence, so they should be able to do that before it's published," he said. "The broader issue is that they seem eager to have reached the conclusion that they reached." He pointed out that in this case, peer review seems a little unnecessary -- the review panel itself was made up of experts, so they would have had no trouble evaluating the quality of the data. [bold added]
It is interesting to consider the question of why anyone would be eager to reach such a conclusion in light of glyphosate's long track record of safety and benefit, as outlined by John Hinderaker of Power Line:
... The development of glyphosate tolerant crops (soybeans, corn, cotton, eventually others) was a marvel: farmers could apply RoundUp over the top of crops, killing weeds while the crop was unaffected. The result was cheaper food and clothing.

As a bonus, glyphosate was remarkably benign from an environmental standpoint. In general, insecticides are toxic to humans because humans are quite a bit like bugs. Herbicides, on the other hand, are generally not very toxic to humans, because we aren't a lot like plants. But even in this context, glyphosate stood out as a harmless chemical. It targets an enzyme that is found in plants, but not in humans or animals. Moreover, glyphosate breaks down easily and does not persist in the environment. It is pretty much the perfect herbicide (until resistance starts to develop, but that's another story). [bold added]
That's a good question, and the answer lies in part in the fact that the whole idea of the "public interest" is a fiction. I recommend reading everything at that last link, lest anyone who happens by get the wrong lesson from this obvious abuse of government power: It isn't that the power to act "in the public interest" can be used dishonestly -- It has. -- but that, as Ayn Rand notes, "it cannot be used honestly."

Much of the call for the government to regulate practically every aspect of our economy comes from suspicion of selfish interest, especially that of the profit motive for business. (It's as if the folks at Monsanto would reap great profits -- or have anywhere to spend the money -- by poisoning practically everyone in the developed world...) It would be a great cultural improvement were people to view with even half as much suspicion the motives of those who -- although they don't even know us -- claim to act on our own behalf and have the force of government coercion at their disposal.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

I would contend that as long as the Precautionary Principle is allowed to be used in legislation, regulators cannot act honestly. The Precautionary Principle is antithetical to reason and rationality, concepts that honesty is built upon. It elevates the arbitrary (what someone thinks might potentially happen) the level of fact, or worse (as is seen in the way we treat our children these days) treats the arbitrary as more significant than facts.

Gus Van Horn said...


You're right that the precautionary principle is bad, but regulation is worse than that since its real premise is that men must be forced to act in certain ways. (The precautionary principle is a only variant of this idea.) This is very different than the idea that the government uses force only in retaliation against those who violate individual rights.