Guest post from Tom Sheldon.
On 18th September we were tipped off by several respected journalists about a peer-reviewed paper to be published the following day at 2pm.
This is not unusual. We are often alerted to new studies early so we can do what we were set up to do: make sure that the views of the scientific community are represented to journalists when science is in the news. Journals – and journalists – know that the SMC will respect the embargo and only solicit reactions from scientists qualified in the subject area under discussion. So why was this one different?
Those journalists only knew that the paper ‘described the long-term health damage to rodents from eating GM maize’. They did not know what was in the paper or supply us with a copy. Early information was unavailable, and reporters were under strict instruction – by way of a non-disclosure agreement – not to solicit any third party reaction to the study. This is highly unusual. If the science is dependable, why the need for secrecy?
Journalists are not used to being manhandled in this way and, quite rightly, this process was making them uncomfortable and deeply suspicious from the outset. And when it turned out that the paper was claiming that a type of GM maize – which has been part of the food chain in millions of meals and the subject of countless safety studies – was being shown to cause cancer in rats, alarm bells started to ring. This was an extraordinary claim, and it needed extraordinary evidence.
Reading and analysing a complex paper in a short space of time is a tall order for any busy journalist, and the SMC ensured they had quotes from multiple toxicologists, geneticists and statisticians. We do not want reporters to accept these quotes wholesale, they should never replace proper journalism; but it is essential that reporters can quickly see where the body of evidence lies and what the mainstream scientific community is saying. If the data were strong enough to support the conclusions, this would be the first quality study to show detrimental health effects linked to GM. It would be the story of the decade.
There have also been eyebrows raised over the organisations handling the embargo and publicity surrounding this paper. One was CRIIGEN – whose remit is providing “scientific counter-expertise to study GMOs…and to develop non polluting alternatives”. I object to this misuse of language. For a start, what is counter-expertise anyway? Expertise is either sound or it’s not. This isn’t espionage, and such language only serves to polarise the debate. No serious scientist should ever say that they are providing expertise to further the cause of one side or another; facts are facts. And ‘non-polluting alternatives’ assumes from the start that GMOs are pollutants. I find it hard to take any organisation seriously that is this openly biased.
Also behind the scenes was the Sustainable Food Trust, whose job it was to ‘amplify’ the message of the research. I’ll drink to that – providing the research is good. But the EFSA initial report on the Seralini study strongly suggests otherwise.
In response the SFT appears to have turned down the knob on this amplifier, merely pointing out that “EFSA has focused on concerns over Prof Seralini’s methodology but it ignores the outcomes which show that over a lifetime rats which consumed GM maize or Roundup suffered much worse health than controls.” This spectacularly misses the point. Methodology is everything. If it is as poor as the initial EFSA review says it is, the outcomes are worthless.
I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that far too much has been written attempting to discredit scientists on both ‘sides’ of this debate. Some of the above events should raise suspicions, but none is enough to write off this study. Scientific debate can quickly become a belittling exchange of smear and counter-smear, and we learn nothing that way.
So Seralini has a book out warning of the dangers of GM. So what? I’m sure he believes in the validity of his work and I assume he is sincere in wanting to warn people. I know climate scientists who write books warning of the dangers of climate change. Should we mistrust all of these people? Of course not – that would be a smoke screen, a dangerous distraction from the only task that matters: examining the science and determining the validity of its claims. Ad hominem attacks or cries of conspiracy are no substitute for high-quality results and robust methodologies.
Similarly, those scientists whose quotes we issued have been denigrated unfairly (and sometimes bizarrely tenuously) by a number of vocal campaigners. The rule seems to be, if you don’t agree with us, you must be part of the conspiracy. But the idea of a pro-GM conspiracy is as risible as that of a climate conspiracy, as it would mean thousands of research scientists risking their entire careers to cover up the toxic effects of GM. I find myself agreeing with Keith Kloor that the anti-GM lobby sometimes behave like the ‘climate skeptics of the Left’; political and ideological feelings run high on this subject, all too often at the expense of the evidence.
As a result of the quotes we issued the study got the treatment it deserved in the UK press – practically none on broadcast news, and shorter, heavily qualified pieces in newspapers. Coverage here was far better than in France as UK science journalists had access to a range of responses and detailed guidance on the scientific shortcomings of the study. And as always we would have liked to compile a bigger selection of more detailed quotes, but the stifling embargo made that impossible.
Yet in an extraordinary twist of logic, these scientists who were rapidly critical of the study have been lambasted for “only having spent 3 hours looking at the paper before responding”. In fact the embargo was designed to give third-party scientists even less time than that. We only had those precious additional hours thanks to the French magazine which broke the embargo. Without it, the careful PR strategy would have been much more likely to work. As it was, independent scientists had more time to respond; and completely autonomously, they all came to the same conclusions. Since then, those same scientists – and many others – have had even more time to examine the work. In that time they have found far more to criticise, not less.
Of course, the SMC is also routinely counted among the pro-GM lobby. One anti-GM campaigner wrote to us recently asking “is the SMC intending to issue comment to journalists as critical of Monsanto invoking ‘historical norms’ in the feeding test debate as it has been of Seralini’s preliminary tests?” The answer is simple: as soon as there is a threat of “GM Proven Safe as Monsanto Invokes Historical Norms” being splashed all over the front pages – leading countries to drop all regulation and testing of GM technologies – then yes, we will. But the media aren’t interested in those kinds of headlines, and anti-scientific campaigning is habitually one-sided.
On this occasion we approached over fifty academics asking for responses. We published all that we received, and all were critical. Scientists still aren’t exactly queuing up to underline the rigour of the original work. Even John Vidal’s Guardian article does not quote a single third party scientist in support of the Seralini conclusions.
I do hope the press report the response by EFSA – the very agency John Vidal wants to take the study seriously. They have taken it extremely seriously, and they have found it severely wanting. Their full report will be available by the end of October and it is essential that the media report its findings – whatever they are.
Yet even when up against a huge weight of evidence, the image of the anti-GM scientist as the little guy, the lone voice of truth up against the full force of the GM industry and their academic stooges remains a captivating picture to some. At our tenth anniversary event in October 2012, Lawrence McGinty, ITN’s doyen of science reporting, openly warned his audience that journalists – and the SMC – should be careful not to routinely ignore the maverick in science.
He is absolutely right of course, and I commend his wise statement. But let’s always be careful who we count among those mavericks. Andrew Wakefield famously received media attention for his claims about MMR and autism. On the other hand, Peter Wadhams – a respected ocean physicist – has made widely reported predictions that the Arctic will be free of sea ice by summer 2015, despite being in some disagreement on this point with many of his peers.
For the sake of argument, let’s call each a maverick. Which of these is the one we should not ignore? One received media attention for a deeply flawed and unethical study; the other for a lifetime of high quality research and publication. Lawrence would be the first to agree that, while Galileo was a maverick, not every maverick is a Galileo. We all rely on good journalists, with a neutral agenda and an eye for sound science, to tell the difference.
If the SMC and the thousands of UK academic scientists we quote really were in the pocket of industry, or government, or the climate lobby, or whoever, we would quickly be found out and we would be ruined. All we can do is continue to issue evidence-based scientific opinion from the best available experts.
On the flip side, if the maize crop really were this harmful, the team which exposed it would be in line for a Nobel prize and could take their pick of any journal in the land. But lives, economies, and the future of agriculture are at stake here, and the science needs to be good. Science should also invite criticism – this is always where its strength has lain. Studies like these change people’s lives, and we all owe a debt of responsibility to the public to ensure research and reporting of that research is responsible and not scaremongering.
One day there might be a paper that shows that GM gives you cancer. If it is, the SMC will camp out all night to run that press briefing and warn the world. But this wasn’t it.
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.