No room in science for provocateurs

How many times do we have to deal with the folly and fallout of sub-standard science?

So often we see the same old ill-reputed studies brought up to challenge something that is no longer an issue: the safety of genetically modified food.

Not so much as a tummy ache has been reported by anyone after eating three trillion servings of GM food. More than 750 well-executed studies conducted over a span of more than 20 years affirm the safety of GM food.

Many of these are conducted by independent, public sector scientists. We call this “scientific consensus.”

Three studies have been published over the past year that have created controversy online and in our dialogues about agriculture:

  • The Séralini et al. (2012) study alleged that rats fed GM corn were prone to tumours and higher mortality rates.
  • The Carman et al. study (2013) reported that pigs fed a diet of only GM grain showed a higher incidence of stomach inflammation.
  • The Kreuger study purported a relationship between glyphosate levels in the urine of Danish dairy cows and ill-health effects.

These studies are each guilty of three or more of the following:

  • A poorly executed methodology
  • Weak statistical analyses
  • Poor use of controls
  • Inappropriate sample sizes
  • Spelling and grammar errors
  • The authors’ refusal to release data or methods so that other scientists can replicate the work.

These weak or missing elements violate the long-established tenets of “good science.”

However, why do these same old studies keep getting regurgitated in the media and continue to pop up on the internet, complete with hype and ugly photos?

  • The internet is an amazing highway of misinformation, and we are wholly tapped in. More than 70 percent of North Americans consult Google and social media platforms for information.
  • We humans exhibit interesting cognitive habits. We are conspiratorial thinkers, we are conformists and we seek out information that confirms our beliefs.
  • We love a good story. Before we could write, we told stories. The only difference is that we don’t do it on cave walls anymore. We do it on the fast moving social media trains of Facebook and Twitter.

This leaves us open to all kinds of misinformation.

Science isn’t easy to understand and it certainly isn’t sexy, so most of us who understand what “good science” is are left scratching our heads when poorly executed studies magically make it through the peer-review process.

Make no mistake, these so-called studies have political agendas driving them. They are promoted and circulated in such a way that they feed into our fears and our biases. The studies and their authors are highly provocative — nothing more.

Quite simply, there is no room in objective, evidence-based science for provocateurs.

Did you know that the publication of the Séralini study in September 2012 was neatly bundled with a well-promoted news conference, a book launch and a movie — all in the same week? This is unheard of in reputable science circles.

It is clear that Séralini set out to prove something rather than to objectively investigate. In advance of the publication, Séralini also required journalists to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which meant they couldn’t consult with any third party experts to report on the study in a balanced way. No self-respecting academic scientist would require a non-disclosure agreement.

All of these studies have been discredited by food safety and health organizations and independent experts.

If any of these studies represented ground-breaking work, which legitimately challenged scientific consensus, they would have been snapped up by high calibre journals such as Science and Nature.

We are in serious trouble if we base our expectations of science on these kinds of poorly executed studies. We should strive for evidence-based information and good science to inform policy rather than someone’s agenda-motivated, fictionalized version of the science.

We should demand better as a society if safety and value-added are the goals of our food industry. We cannot hold progressive and innovative science to such weak standards.

Cami Ryan is a research associate with the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

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