There’s no room in science for provocateurs

How many times do we have to deal with the folly and fall-out of sub-standard science?  In her letter titled “Future of Meat” dated October 24, 2013, J. MacPherson references the same ol’, same ol’ ill-reputed studies to challenge something that is no longer an issue: the safety of genetically engineered crops and food.

After eating three trillion servings of genetically modified foods, not so much as a tummy ache has been reported by anyone.   Over 750 studies conducted over a span of 25+ years affirm the safety of genetically engineered foods and crops. Many of these are conducted by independent, public-sector scientists.  We call this ‘scientific consensus.’

The Séralini, Carman and Krueger studies are each guilty of three or more of the following: 1) a poorly executed methodology (where correlation is used to imply causation, among other things); 2) weak statistical analyses; 3) poor use of controls; 4) inappropriate sample sizes; 5) spelling and grammar errors; 6) and the authors refuse to release data or methods so that other scientists can replicate the work.  These missing or weak elements violate the basic tenets of ‘good science’ and standardized protocols that have been established for centuries.

But why do these same ol’, same ol’ studies keep getting regurgitated in the media and continue to pop up on the Internet complete with hype and ugly photos?  The answer is two-part: 1) human cognitive habits’ and 2) our attachment to mobile technology and social media.

We are Internet junkies – referred to as ‘just in time’ users.  Almost 70% of North Americans consult Google or social media platforms for information or to get answers to their questions.  We are tapped in. Further complicating matters are our human cognitive habits. We are conspiratorial thinkers. If you think that the omniscient presence of mobile technology and access to cameras 24/7 would have conclusively settled questions about flying saucers, lake monsters, Bigfoot and ghosts, think again. We are also conformists and we always seek out our personal networks to ask questions and seek information that validates our beliefs or our ‘world views.’  We like to think in pictures and we have a habit of finding meaningful patterns in meaningless information. That’s why we see the ‘man in the moon’ and the Virgin Mary on pieces of toast.  Finally, humans love a good (sometimes horrific) story.  Storytelling is an important part of our social fabric. Think about it, before we could write, we have been telling stories as a way to illustrate simple moral lessons or to teach and learn. 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, Twitter and LinkdIn.

send a curse

In combination, our networking behaviour and our human cognitive habits leave us open to all kinds of misinformation.  Science isn’t easy to understand and science certainly isn’t sexy.  So, when studies conducted by the likes of Séralini, Carman and Krueger magically make it through the peer-review process, most of us that understand what ‘good science’ is are left scratching our heads in frustration.  Make no mistake, these so-called ‘studies’ have political agendas driving them.  They are designed, promoted and circulated in such a way that its feeds into our fears and our biases.  The studies (and their authors) are highly provocative – nothing more. And, quite simply, there is no room in objective, evidence-based science for provocateurs.

Speaking of provocative – – – Did you know that the publication of the Séralini study in September of 2012 was neatly bundled with a well-promoted press conference, a book launch as well as a movie – all in the same week?  This is ‘unheard of’ in reputable science circles.  This suggests that Séralini had set out to “prove” something rather than to objectively “investigate” something (in ‘good science’, scientists pose a hypothesis and set out to disprove it). In advance of the publication, Séralini also asked journalists to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement  (NDA).  This meant that journalists’ could not consult with any third party experts in order to report on the study in a responsible and balanced way.  No self-respecting academic scientist would require an NDA.  (Please note: health and food safety organizations the world over have discredited the Séralini study).

But let’s dig look at the peer-review process a bit closer. PubMed is a database of scientific studies (medical and other) that the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) maintains and operates. Publications and journals listed in that database meet important scientific criteria regarding research quality. The Carman study was published in the Journal of Organic Systems, which is not even recognized under PubMed (Mark Lynas talks about this on his blog).  While the journal that published the Krueger study, on the other hand, operates under the umbrella of OMICS publishing group based out of India.  The validity of the peer review process used by OMICS family of journals – since it was established in 2008 – has been questioned by many academics worldwide as well as the US government.  The NIH no longer accepts OMICS publications for listing in PubMed.

These are all really important ‘red flags’ when we try to assess the validity of scientific studies.  If these studies represented anything ground-breaking – something that legitimately challenged the ‘scientific consensus that exists out there – they would have been snapped up by higher calibre PubMed journals such as Science or Nature. Plain and simple.


If this is where we hold our expectations of science – like the quality of work produced in studies conducted by the Séralinis, Carmans and Kruegers of the world – then we are in serious trouble.  I want fact and evidence-based information and ‘good’ science to inform policy – not someone’s agenda-motivated, fictionalized version of the science. If safety and value-add is the goal for our foodstuffs then, as a society, we should demand better than what Séralini, Carman and Kruger have to offer.

We cannot hold progressive and innovative science to such weak standards.

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Related posts:

From ‘I Smell a Rat’ to ‘When Pigs Fly’ – bad science makes it rounds

bias + misrepresentation = politically motivated propaganda

Outstanding Summary of the Seralini Study by J. Byrne

Other things of interest: Myles Power on the Pig Study (Carman etal).

Brian John vs @Mark_Lynas. It’s Mark for the ‘conversational’ win.

It never ceases to amaze me how low people will go in order to push a political agenda.  Brian John, of GM-Free Cymru, did just that in his open letter to Mark Lynas dated February 10, 2013.  You may recall Mark Lynas’ powerful address to the Oxford Farming Conference in early January where he apologized for assisting in the demonization of GM, a technology that can be used to benefit the environment. It is a technology that Lynas now defends:

“What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.” M. Lynas

As a social scientist, much of my work revolves around the qualitative analysis of interview data and text-based analysis.  Words and language and how they are used to communicate are revealing about people, their circumstances or their position on a given social issue.

Out of curiosity, I took the liberty of using “Wordle” to generate some word clouds to contrast and compare the text in Mark Lynas’ speech (January 3, 2013) with the text of John’s ‘open letter’ to Lynas (posted February 10th). Here are the results:

Wordle ‘word cloud’ of the text of Mark Lynas’ lecture at the Oxford Farming Conference:

Bjohn vs Lynas 2

text of Mark Lynas’ lecture at the Oxford Farming Conference – Jan 3, 2013

Wordle ‘word cloud’ of the text of Brian John’s open letter to Mark Lynas: “Beware the Rise of the Science Stalinist”:

bJohn vs Lynas

Text of B. John’s open letter to Mark Lynas, Feb 10, 2013

Mark’s speech starts with “I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops.”

John’s letter to Mark begins with the ‘Stalinist’ reference and then goes to… “I want to address just one issue arising from your recent high-profile conversion into a GM evangelist.” (From there on, John ‘ties’ into the collective effort of independent reputable scientists to ask for the retraction of a poorly executed study by Séralini and his team; a study that has since been discredited by several food safety organizations worldwide (including but not limited to: Health Canada, European Food Safety Authority, French National Institute for Agriculture Research, CNRS, Inserm, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, National Centre for Scientific Review… check out my previous blog entry)).

So, how about those terms of reference? In his address, Mark uses words like: hope, world, growth, innovation, farmers, think, better.  B. John uses words like (well, once you get past the lists of ‘villains’ and ‘victims’): attacks, zealots, beware, vilification, witches, burning, Rottweilers.

What a marked difference.

Words are powerful.  They are a form of action; they can influence change. As we try to elevate the discourse around the GM debate, the kind of language we use matters. It is a reflection of our intent and our willingness to engage in a thought-provoking and proactive manner. Brian John’s text not only inaccurately represents the facts, but the tone and his choice of words suggest that he is less interested in engaging in constructive dialogue and more interested in purveying rhetoric.

We need to use better words; we need to find a better way.