When scientists have to strike at their own
12.11.2012 - We all read with dismay – but not a huge amount of surprise – the October paper from French researchers led by Gilles-Eric Séralini on the two-year rat-feeding study looking at the effects of glyphosate-treated GM maize.
It‘s almost boring these days when new headlines emerge saying we're all going to DIE HORRIBLY from eating GM food. This is despite a conspicuous lack of people DYING HORRIBLY from anything other than the usual human-inspired causes, which are not worthy of comment or action because they are 100% ‘natural’.
In the bad old days, scientists, companies and politicians would have been looking the other way when the report was published, and before long the headline would have been accepted as fact. Any response would have been far too late and far too weak to look like anything other than an evil corporate cover-up.
This time, however, I was pleasantly surprised. As they raced to hit deadlines, I heard journalists adding that an awful lot of people disagreed with the results, and that the science was actually a bit suspect – not enough animals, dodgy design, cancer-prone rats and less maths than my budget planning for shoes. They also added, in pensive tones, that the researcher was a long-time opponent of GM crops, and this might mean he isn‘t exactly unbiased.
Even more refreshing was the rapid response from researchers and politicians. The latter got it badly wrong when the GM farce first hit the headlines. But then the French research community itself bit back quickly. The country‘s national academies of agriculture, medicine, pharmacy, sciences, technology and veterinary studies signed a statement that not only are the conclusions unsupported by the presented data, but that the paper spreads fear in the public.
This was rapidly backed up by the European Food Safety Authority, which published a statement pointing out that the author had been invited to supply the evidence missing from the paper, but had obviously ”forgotten” to post it before their deadline. The full review from the EFSA contained the damning phrase “the study has unclear objectives and is inadequately reported in the publication, with many key details of the design, conduct and analysis being omitted. Without such details it is impossible to give weight to the results.” Dark words for any scientist to hear, and I’ll bet the peer review process in Food and Chemical Toxicology is now undergoing an overhaul.
Bravo, I say. The scientific community needs to manage its scientists better. It has been too easy for too long to grab headlines with poor but sensationalist science, and the price is paid by everybody.
When science is bad, it should be the scientists who point it out and remind their own community and the rest of the world that to be science, it has to be scientific – you don’t start from the result, and you always show the maths. Obviously, that doesn’t apply to shoes.