when bad science, mass media, and luddism mix

October 3, 2012

lab mouse

There’s a good reason why politics and science don’t, and shouldn’t, mix. It’s one thing to use a number of thorough studies to inform policy. But trying to make law with cherry-picked studies is wrong from beginning to end. Don’t that that to The Guardian’s editor John Vidal. According to him, only GMO industry shills would dispute the widely ridiculed French study that tries to pin an often used weed killer on cancerous tumors in rats, smearing and ridiculing the chief researcher because they can’t handle the truth about their poisonous mutant plants coming out. Just ignore the fact that the chief researcher has a scathing anti-GMO book coming out in stores, and that his idea of peer review was to ban the press from publishing any criticism of his paper if science writers requested to see his work firsthand and solicit expert opinions.

Had a researcher working for Monsanto done the same thing, how much do you want to be that Vidal and his fellow anti-GMO crusaders would holler at the top of their lungs about bad science invading the public discourse? Tellingly, he applies this very double standard when presenting excuses for Gilles-Eric Séralini’s shoddy work, arguing that he used the same benchmarks as a typical Monsanto food safety study and therefore his control groups and timelines for the mice exposed to Roundup are valid. These, by the way, are the very same studies anti-GMO activists say are woefully inadequate to show anything conclusive. But then again, if you believe that any criticism of a study that says what to hear about GMOs is an industry conspiracy, I suppose you would think that industry studies are a proper rebuttal, even if you argue with their validity.

Here are the key issues. Séralini has a major conflict of interest and a heavy ideological slant he doesn’t even try to hide. He used rats known to frequently develop cancerous tumors by the end of a two year span. He didn’t show a relationship between tumor growth and frequency and the doses of Roundup used. The paper has numerous methodological and statistical flaws. And just to put the cherry on top, he sensationalized his findings and tried to ban the press from seeking second opinions before his formal announcement and the launch of his book. Even if you think that GMOs are pure mutated evil, you have to admit that this is a terrible way to do science and there are far better ways to show if GMOs are dangerous. Conducting a sound study and being open to criticism rather than just trying to make a political point would be one example. But for the environmentalist equivalent of global warming denialism, that’s very unlikely to happen…

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  • venqax

    Good points. It is an unfortunate reality that politics and science will intersect. And the more government financing is involved in science, the more politicized science is going to be. There is no way around that. Where they probably properly should cross– and things become genuinely political- is regarding the formation, adoption, and implementation of policies to address scientific realty, while leaving science to determine what that reality is. E.g.. if the political debate were limited to what should be done about climate change, as opposed to whether it exists or not. Or, how GM food stuffs should be handled, rather than whether not they are harmful. Too bad there is so much mistrust of politics and science (and not all of it ill-founded, by any means) that it is very hard to achieve those conditions.

  • Greg Fish

    And the more government financing is involved in science, the more politicized science is going to be.

    But this study wasn’t funded by a government. It was a promotional vehicle for Séralini’s views and book designed to manipulate governments into taking his stance based on cherry-picked data.