Science and advocacy do not mix (the “Greenpeace syndrome”?)

It is not the first time that “activists” have turned to dubious and manipulated science to further their cause. And it will not be the last. The peer-review process which is supposed to catch this kind of politically motivated pseudoscience is often not capable of doing so – and certainly not when the purported science is presented in a stage manged  PR exercise. Anything published by an advocacy group may – sometimes – contain some science but – and it should be axiomatic – no advocacy report is ever science.

In this case a “scientist” – Gilles-Eric Seralini – who is also a well-known activist campaigning against GM crops managed to get the reputed Elsevier Food and Chemical Toxicology journal to publish some highly dubious results that genetically modified corn caused tumors in rats. Seralini is also known for making up honors or paying for them to be awarded to himself! Perhaps this should be called the “Greenpeace syndrome”. Greenpeace is not averse either to making up science to further their political goals. (In fact Greenpeace just today published another apparently independent study in favour of wind power but which they had themselves commissioned!)

Reuters reports today that

(Reuters) – The publisher of a much-criticized study suggesting genetically modified corn caused tumors in rats has come under heavy pressure from scientists to retract the paper and explain why it was ever printed.

The calls follow a report by Europe’s food safety watchdog this week dismissing the study’s findings. 

Reed Elsevier, which published the study in its Food and Chemical Toxicology journal in September, said on Friday it was considering the criticisms and would let readers know if it concluded it needed to change the way it checked research.

In a statement on its website, the journal said “the paper was published after being objectively and anonymously peer reviewed, with a series of revisions made by the authors and the corrected paper then accepted by the editor.”

Hundreds of scientists from around the world have questioned the research, which was written by French researcher Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen and said rats fed on Monsanto’s GM corn suffered tumors and multiple organ failure.

But Gilles-Eric Séralini is less than trustworthy. Back in September Forbes wrote

They took the unprecedented step of pre-releasing the paper to selected media outlets under an embargo on the condition that they sign a non-disclosure agreement. (That prevented the journalists from seeking scientific experts’ opinions on the article.)  At a carefully orchestrated media event they then announced that their long-term studies found that the rats in experimental groups developed tumors at an alarming rate. Within hours news of their “discovery” echoed around the world.  As we say today, the story “went viral.”  But there is both more and less to this story than meets the eye. ……

Séralini has made a specialty of methodologically flawed, irrelevant, uninterpretable — but over-interpreted — experiments intended to demonstrate harm from genetically engineered plants and the herbicide glyphosate in various highly contrived scenarios. …. The experiments reported last week show that he has crossed the line from merely performing and reporting flawed experiments to committing gross scientific misconduct and attempting fraud”.

Reuters continues about the failure of peer-review in the Elsevier journal:

A day after the study was published, Seralini defended his work, saying it was the most detailed study on the subject to date.

But more than 700 scientists have signed an online petition calling on Seralini to release all the data from his research.

The petition, addressed directly to Seralini, says: “Only a full disclosure of the data can quell any uncertainties over the results you published.”

The chief executive of the agricultural research centre Rothamsted Research, Maurice Moloney, said Seralini’s study was “seriously deficient in its design, its execution and its conclusions” – failings compounded by “excessive secrecy around the data”.

In a letter to the journal’s managing editor Bryan Delaney, Moloney said it was “appalling that such work should appear in a respected Elsevier journal”.

He also demanded to know how the paper managed to pass peer review – a process in which other scientific experts check a study, analyze its methods, question the authors and decide whether it is robust enough to give a reliable result.

Marc Van Montagu, president of the European Federation of Biotechnology, said this was “a dangerous case of failure of the peer-review system, which threatens the credibility not just of the journal but of the scientific method overall.”

The lesson is no more than plain common sense. “Science” when used to promote a political agendas is inherently suspect.


Scientists Smell A Rat In Fraudulent Genetic Engineering Study

The Science of Things That Aren’t So

“Greenpeace’s crime against humanity” – Patrick Moore

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