SLAAS deeply concerned over ‘sweeping statements’ on arsenic in rice

Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS ) last week said that as an organization dedicated to the promotion of science and scientific inquiry in the country, it is deeply concerned that sweeping statements have been made public on a subject that has far reaching impact on lives and livelihoods of people, violating the accepted norms in presentation of new scientific knowledge.

For several weeks a public controversy has raged regarding claims made by a group of researchers at the Universities of Rajarata and Kelaniya that high levels of arsenic in imported pesticides, having contaminated both water and soil of farming areas, has found its way into the food supply, and was responsible for the high incidence of chronic kidney disease in the North-Central Province, SLAAS said in a statement.

The SLAAS cannot comment on the truth of these claims, which have been investigated by other institutions better equipped to do so. Their results contradict the claims made by this group. ‘However, we wish to make the following observations on the scientific process for gaining and disseminating knowledge, in order to guide both the press and the general public".

Scientists obtaining new research results are expected to submit these results to other scientists for verification in a process called "peer review". This includes publishing, or presenting their results to fellow scientists, before releasing them to the general public. If the results are likely to have an impact on public policy or public well-being, it is particularly important that other scientists have an opportunity to verify or reproduce these results, the statement noted.

If important policy decisions are to be taken based on those results, it is especially critical that they be reproduced, using standard, accepted methods, by an accredited analytical laboratory which meets international standards (most university laboratories are not accredited in this way). Scientific findings affecting public policy, especially policy with an international dimension such as import/export, must be scientifically valid, legally defensible, and obtained using internationally accepted protocols. If a new, untested method was used to obtain any of the results, this method must be carefully validated beforehand, by comparison with accepted methods and using standard sample, it said.

In this case, there has been no peer review of the results. It has been claimed that a new method was used to obtain certain results, but no evidence of validation of this method has been presented. Instead, there appears to have been an attempt to get quick publicity. Under the circumstances, the authorities, including the Ministry of Agriculture and the Registrar of Pesticides, have acted very responsibly in submitting samples to a duly accredited laboratory, the Industrial Technology Institute, for verification, the statement noted.

"Even if arsenic is found in water and soil in the North Central Province, that does not constitute sufficient evidence to attribute causation of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) to arsenic. We urge that the detailed methods used, including the sampling of water sources, collection of samples, the analytical method used, its validation and detailed results, as well as the body of evidence published or presented for review as early as possible".

There is another serious issue which casts grave doubts on the credibility of the claims made by the Kelaniya group. The Press has publicly identified as the leader of this group an individual, who despite holding a responsible position, professes a disdain for "Western" science. He has publicly claimed supernatural revelations ("samyak drushtika devivaru’) as the source of his group’s information and even methods. While recognising that many scientists are deeply religious, the SLAAS wishes to state categorically that superstition and the supernatural have no place in science, and that scientific results inspired by such sources are highly suspect because of a probable bias on the part of the investigator, it said.

"We also note that the other researchers in the group have yet to distance themselves from the eccentric statements of their leader, and they need to do this if they wish to be taken seriously as scientists. Finally, the SLAAS considers it extremely unfortunate that the Dean of a Science Faculty should make it his publicly stated aim to run down science and bring it into disrepute".

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