An Enemy of the People
How Monsanto’s Roundup lawsuits are strikingly similar to Henrik Ibsen’s famous play
The courts have been ruling against Monsanto in droves, demanding they pay compensation for causing cancer, due to glyphosate in their weedkiller Roundup. People are outraged, farmers are up in arms. And all of this is shockingly similar to Henrik Ibsen’s play “An Enemy of the People”.
The play is about a man, Doctor Thomas, and his brother, Peter, who is the mayor of their town. The two duke it out when Thomas claims the baths in the community are causing sickness due to infusoria. Peter isn’t down for this, so he tries to stop Thomas at every turn. Thomas, in retaliation, doubles-down and goes to more and more extreme means to get the word out about the dangers of the baths.
However, what you should know is that infusoria is mostly harmless to humans. Might not be a good idea to drink a good amount of it, but bathing in it should be fine. At least, for people back then. Though perhaps not as simple as that, and in some rare cases potentially dangerous, any fear that infusoria is a public menace and making droves of people sick is a gross exaggeration, if not a downright falsehood. This doesn’t make it different from the Monsanto scandal, however, it actually makes it extremely similar. Let me explain.
It is curious the play focuses on the morality of disclosing information to the people, but never stops to consider that information might be false or misleading, and acting radically quick on that misunderstanding might have tremendously negative consequences. Instead of merely saying infusoria is in the water, Thomas instead directly connects it to the number of people who got sick. Many things can make people sick, just as many things can cause cancer. And our understanding of bacteria when the play was written is probably similar to our current understanding of cancer.
“Oh, but that isn’t what the play is about!” You might say. Plays can have multiple interpretations, and be about more than they were perhaps intended. For instance, “The Merchant of Venice” is (probably) unintentionally a fantastic play about the systematic biases Jews faced during the time of Shakespeare. The “villain” can be viewed as the hero; and the hero, the villain. The same view could be applied to “An Enemy of the People”.
The Players — Enemy of the People
Intentionally or not, we see the character’s personal demeanor reflected in how they approach the claim of the water being unsafe. Thomas’s character recklessly spends more than he makes, and desires to have some kind of greater impact. Peter, on the other hand, is cautious, hesitant, doesn’t spend outside his means, and doesn’t presume what the future will bring, nor what his role in it is. From this perspective, it makes sense that Thomas would jump on any semblance of a link between the water supply and the sickness, desiring to shout to the hilltops about it. He also appears clueless about how people will react to the information, claiming everything will run “quite smoothly”. He jumps from microbes in the water (what his findings actually suggest) to “poison in the water supply”. In his interest of “serving the people”, he neglects his duty as a scientist, instead inflaming his study with rhetoric and exaggerations, quickly integrating it into how he views society as a whole. Worse still, he deals with what scientists never deal in, which is absolutes. He declares it is impossible not to be convinced by his findings.
Peter, on the other hand, doesn’t pretend to know what effects the information will have, nor its validity. He is instead cautious not just of the information itself, but how the information will be interpreted. Thomas assumes Peter’s doubts are merely because of his self-interest, but even if they are, it doesn’t make the doubts invalid. Peter is also fully aware that this information will be out of their hands if it’s released to the public, and could be interpreted or used any given way. Peter considers the negative effects entities like the media and the public can have, and unforeseen consequences. “Anyone who has a grudge against us will use these rumors.” He says at one point, which is a prudent assessment, since his brother later does exactly this. Peter’s error comes in his swift and relentless actions to crush those that get in his way, which end up creating more enemies than he might have had before, including his own brother, who he might have been able to work with. Such subversive tactics might also undermine his credibility, and ironically, give more credibility to Thomas’s side.
The media is a player as well. They believe in the “good” they are doing, and that their enemies, namely those in power, who they view to be “evil” and “greedy”, need to be crucified. They hold that their positions are certainly right, and that a revolution shall come where power is given to them: put in “the hands of the liberals”. “War to the knife, I hope.” Hovstat, one of the journalists says, “We will get our knives to their throats.” However, they are quick to switch sides when the tide favors them, blowing in whatever direction takes them. They have no loyalty to Thomas, Peter, or the truth.
How the play unfolds
We see Thomas become more and more corrupted by his own ego as the play plays out, at first with small comments, such as declaring he is “a patriot trying to cleanse society.” But he slowly becomes more ambitious, “You thought you could turn me out, but now I shall take you out.” He later declares, parading himself as the “mayor” with his perception of the power he’ll get from the release of the study.
The doctor becomes more power-hungry and narcissistic, obsessed with ‘cleansing society’. Fixated on a moral crusade, he forgets all about the baths, and instead launches a movement geared toward ‘exterminating’ the ‘vermin of society’ , and creating a new society in his own image, believing the people aren’t equipped to govern themselves, believing them to be stupid masses.
At this point, the truth ceases to matter to him, just fighting for the ‘cause’ of destroying those he believes to be evil. The water and health of the people no longer have importance, as he fixates on his superiority, believing the masses are poorly-bred creatures. Instead of wishing to save the people from filth, he instead sees them as filth. His obsession with cleanliness and his narrow vision of the truth leads him to proclaim that all who don’t live by his truth must be exterminated, believing them to be unfit to live.
Naturally, after trolling a crowd of people for about an hour in the Town Square, the ‘people’ are wise-enough to see a man prepping for their genocide, and turn on him. However, after trying to kill a few journalists by flinging them out a window, Thomas sets to his new ‘work’ of exterminating the liberal elite and the party leaders, building a cultish education system of child ‘specimens’, and will most likely execute something similar to France’s “Great Terror” or perhaps something worse. But let’s return to the real world.
The Players — Monsanto and its Adversaries
In a slightly more moderate vein, the story of the attack on Monsanto is a tale of narcissism, crusaders for a cause, and a disregard for truth in favor of butchering an entity they view to be ‘vermin’ or ‘unclean’. The attack has quickly become less about the potential risk of Roundup, and much more about a political crusade to destroy big agriculture and greedy businesses. Though, thankfully for us, not quite as many genocidal tendencies as An Enemy of the People.
The notable figures similar to Thomas is sources such as the Guardian, the Huffington Post, and others who tend to be anti-Big Agriculture. The more extreme ones include U.S. Right to Know, an anti-biotech group funded by the Organic Consumers Association, and Sustainable Pulse, an Anti-GMO website. In their crusade, they have disregarded and neglected truth. Their hatred of Monsanto has dated back to misguided views of GMOs, which they have relentlessly and falsely characterized as dangerous. Sustainable Pulse has attacked at least 40 scientists all over the country, accusing them of collusion. One of these Michelle McGuire, a nutrition professor at Washington State University (WSU), who has several times been the victim of harassment by such groups, for saying Roundup was not present in breast milk. U.S. Right to Know labeled her a “Monsanto shill and a bad scientist, someone more interested in a paycheck from Big Ag than the health of children — including her own”. Anti-GMO groups, Michelle has said “will do and say whatever they have to to get their way, even if it’s a lie. I actually wanted to know if there was glyphosate in human milk, and they tried to take me out because my answer wasn’t what they wanted.”
The players get to more… interesting from here, such as Former NFL running back and ESPN analyst Merril Hoge, who has filed a lawsuit against Monsanto, claiming Roundup caused his cancer, along with some 17,000 others. A court ruled in favor of a California couple, in a $2 Billion lawsuit, despite the EPA ruling the chemicals in Roundup not to be cancerous. One of the claims of the Jurors was that if Roundup’s safe to use on plants, it must also be safe to drink. The Jurors claimed their ruling was not biased, like Thomas’s claim of about the baths, but they made their motives clear. One Juror saying the reason for the high amount, the 8th largest in US History, was to “take us seriously,” saying that a significantly lesser sum wouldn’t have the “same punch-in-the-gut effect”. The amount has been reduced, but is still in the millions. Others are considering glyphosate (the chief component of Roundup) bans, such as Nelson City.
Nelson city council has been hoodwinked by anti-GMO groups into not buying genetically modified plants for parks in the past. The idea that the RDCK is pursuing a glyphosate ban is a continuation of woo on a much grander scale. Nelson Star
Many in the media have wished to attack Monsanto. They’ve viewed them as “greedy”, corrupt, and unenvironmental for years. From false fears of GMOs to fears of herbicides. On top of this, the season seems to be ripe for being anti-corporate and anti-“greed”. Any entity that is big and wealthy tends to be harpooned by those who believe they are acting for “the benefit of the people”, regardless of how truthful. But this is most likely not so much because of personal convictions, but more because the tide is currently favoring stories that are anti-big business. In this vein, they are the same as the media players in the play: loyal to no one, and certainly not loyal to truth.
Rising anti-business sentiment in society at large can hardly be kept out of the jury room. Concerns about our poisoned environment are ever present. The credibility of scientists has been undermined by partisan political attacks and more general fears that we’ve lost our ability to ensure that technological advances work to our advantage. -LA Times
Monsanto is similar to Peter. Methodical, clear-thinking, but also autocratically ready to crush those that stand in their way. This has back-fired in some regard, especially their attack on a Reuters journalist, despite them normally publishing articles that support their side. They, like Peter, have also hurt their reputation by trying to squash dissent, influence studies, and silence journalists. But like Peter, despite using unpopular methods, this does not make their claims inaccurate.
The Science — What it really says
Glyphosate kills weeds by attacking a certain pathway (the shikimic acid pathway) that exists in plants and certain bacteria (eubacteria), but not animals (or humans). This does not mean it is harmless to humans, but many don’t understand the primary reason why it works is not directly harmful to people.
An Agricultural Health Study of 57,000 pesticide users since the 1990s found no significant link between glyphosate use and cancer. Medical science is currently unsure what causes non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, comparable to the uncertainty of what causes sickness in the time of An Enemy of the People. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority ruled “based on current risk assessment the label instructions on all glyphosate products — when followed — provides adequate protection for users.” In 2015, Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment suggested glyphosate was neither mutagenic nor carcinogenic. These studies looked at glyphosate’s ability to produce mutations in bacteria and to mammalian cells, and found they were negative. The majority of evidence also indicated glyphosate was unlikely to cause significant DNA damage.
Animal studies, conducted on rats and mice, were given oral doses of glyphosate for up to 89% of their life spans, at concentrations much higher than humans would be exposed to. Studies observed by the European Food Safety Authority included nine rat studies where no cancers were seen. Out of five mouse studies, three showed no cancers, even at the highest doses. One study showed tumors, but it was not dose dependent (suggesting random variation, not causation) and in one study tumors were seen at highest doses in males only. This led to the European Food Safety Authority’s overall conclusion that glyphosate was unlikely to be a carcinogenic hazard to humans.
The IARC evaluation, which seems to be the sole grounds of the legal disputes Monsanto is facing, included only six rat studies. In one study, cancer was observed, but this wasn’t dose dependent (suggesting random variation). They evaluated two mouse studies, one of which was negative for cancer, and one that showed a statistically significant “trend” in males. The IARC thus concluded there was sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in animals but there was no consistency in tumor type (mouse vs rat) or location. In effect, the IARC conclusions are a controversial outlier when it comes to glyphosate research.
Onto humans, The European Food Safety Authority looked at 21 human studies and found zero evidence for an association between cancer and glyphosate use. The IARC (yes, the same one that published the rat study) looked at 19 human trials and found no statistically significant evidence for an association with cancer. It did find three small studies that suggested an association with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but not statistically significant. Not statistically significant is a very important word in data science. Some variance from the mean, or average, is to be expected. But a misunderstanding of it can create mass hysteria.
Reason reports “The mountains of studies Partridge cites place the scientific consensus about the lack of a link between glyphosate and cancer on par with the vast evidence demonstrating the safety of GMOs generally, and with the overwhelming consensus that manmade factors cause climate change.”
In conclusion, we see that the Monsanto situation and An Enemy of the People have many striking simularities. Both have a hazy fear of health most likely based on psuedoscience, or else exaggeration fears, not made any easier by it involving a health condition that is not widely understood by even the experts of their time. Both have a crusade brought against ‘evil doers’ based on this hazy understanding of science. And both have the targets of such crusades using shady tactics to undermine their adversaries, which end up likely hurting their public perception and damaging their credibility.
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