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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 18th October 2011

I’m a scientist. It’s not always easy to define what being a scientist means or rather to define what particular things fit an individual into the term ‘scientist’. I rely on the timetable choices offered by my high school to all its 13-year old boys. You could choose ‘arts’ (history, geography, English literature, etc.) or you could chose ‘science’ (physics, chemistry, applied mathematics, etc.)

By that definition, I’ve always thought of myself as a scientist and I’ve held that up as a sign of logical thinking and a closer desire for truth than is found with arty types who are much more inclined to offer interpretations and tolerate imprecise thinking. But, every now and then a scientist or group of scientists does something that gets me tearing my hair out and feeling tainted by the term.

Yesterday, an American company issued a press release saying that the US government was going to pay them a fair sum of money to continue development work on a product. I wasn’t able to find out what ‘a fair sum of money’ actually was but it must have been significant since the company’s share price rose over 35%. It is a very small company so to the US Department of Homeland Security the actual cash sum is, probably, no more than small change.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

The product being developed is a detection system to identify ricin and other potentially harmful substances on a small scale. The target market is small to medium companies who fear they might receive unidentified powder through the post. I’ve blogged, quite a few times, about the lack of potential of ricin, the toxic component of Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant, and you’ll find a full list of those entries if you follow the link to the plant page.

Ricin is never going to be a realistic terrorist weapon but that does not mean that this company’s proposed product is unnecessary. There is a real need for this product because the US government has created it. By repeatedly over-stating the potential for ricin to do harm, the US government has told every disaffected former employee, every animal rights extremist, every white supremacist, in short every ‘nutter’, how to cause terror simply by finding some benign white powder and sending it off in the post labelled ‘ricin’.

One day, the American people may wake up to the disservice their government has done them by creating a true terror threat where none previously existed.

But, back to the subject of science. The press release, yesterday, called ricin ‘a chemical warfare agent’ and even cited a reference to another published work just like a proper science paper would. That reference (and I’m not linking to any of these documents because I’m not here to spread nonsense further) was to a paper, published in 2009, keep that date in mind, in a proper scientific journal about the medical effects of forcing mice to inhale ricin. I’m sure the paper itself contained properly researched information though it went well beyond my comprehension with its discussion of detailed medical effects.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

My concern with the document arises from the introduction. The first sentence of the introduction sets out the supposed position of ricin and includes the words ‘ricin has become a tool of extremist groups’. At the end of the sentence, the authors cite four references to previous publications. Most scientific papers start this way by setting out, briefly, the jumping off point for the present work and giving references to previous scientific work that established what is being said in the introduction.

Cynics sometimes say that authors try to pack this opening sentence with lots of references to make the opening statement seem irrefutable and, if it is not, the hope is that people will be too anxious to get to the meat of the new work to bother following up the references.  But, I followed up these four references that were given to justify ricin’s standing as this substance of dread.

The first was to USA Today and the second to the New York Times neither of which is a peer-reviewed scientific journal and I find it immensely disappointing that the authors think quoting a newspaper article is the proper way to add references.

The third was to the well-respected Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). For some people, I’m sure, seeing a citation to JAMA would be enough and they wouldn’t follow up to see what the cited document was all about. Well, I did follow up and the cited document was a ‘Special Communication’, rather than a research paper, about Iraq’s interest in biological weapons. It was published in 1997 and we knew rather more about Iraq by 2009 than we did then so it seems odd to rely on such out of date information.

Mind you, when you read the ‘Special Communication’ it turns out not to support the notion of ricin as terrorist threat. The seven page document contains only five references to ricin. These include ‘Ricin might have been researched because it is plentiful and known to be effective for assassination’ and ‘A few 155-mm caliber artillery shells were filled with ricin for field testing. Reportedly, tests did not go well and no further attempts were made to develop artillery shells for biological warfare’.

And the fourth reference is to another respected publication the ‘British Medical Journal’ (BMJ). Here again the date is important; 18th January 2003. This is in the ‘news roundup’ section and is titled ‘UK doctors warned after ricin poison found in police raid’. It is a story about the ‘Wood Green ricin plotters’ and, of course, by the time the plotters were acquitted in 2005 it was known that there had been no ricin in the flat in Wood Green. So, you have to ask, why would a scientific paper published in 2009 cite a story that was known to be false?

I really get quite angry at the way scientific principles are abused by many of those involved with work on ricin but, on this occasion, there was also something that greatly amused me.

At the same time as I came across the company press release, I saw a post in George Smith’s excellent ‘Dick Destiny’ blog about this matter.  The first comment, posted soon after the blog item appeared, begins ‘You have no idea what you are talking about’ and continues in this vein. The second comment is from George Smith and says ‘Next time try not posting from an IP so close to the company in the story’. Tee hee.