Expert response from Kevin Folta
Professor and Chairman, Horticultural Sciences Department, University of Florida
Monday, 04/11/2013 12:08
This is a great question, and as an independent scientist that understands and promotes biotech, I know what it is like to be threatened and discredited. Not that it has ever mattered in my field (that’s important later on).
When we do science our work is sent out into public forums via journals. The work is always carefully analyzed, criticized, and discussed in the context of our fields. It can get nasty, but usually shapes the discussion forward.
But what about “systematic” threats and discreditation? A systematic response is what we see in response to highly questionable findings. It is not a conspiracy or some organized effort. The systematic response is triggered when scientists see examples where science is potentially being manipulated or presented as rhetoric—making some sort of statement that is fraudulent, false or highly questionable. Scientists jump on it. There is no conspiracy, it is a reaction of a scientific community that plays by specific rules.
Threats? Scientists don’t make many threats. If researchers are engaged in dodgy work they sometimes can face institutional charges for academic misconduct, but usually they fade to scientific irrelevance. Nobody believes their junk…. Except for the lay people duped by the bad science! There are still people that vigorously defend the Andrew Wakefield vaccine-autism study!
The anti-GMO world is dominated by a few (and I’m talking few) scientists that are lauded by their followers. They have little credit with other scientists and don’t publish findings in marquee journals, the gold-standard in identifying outstanding work.
But let’s look at the few “independent” scientists that find GMOs to be unsafe. The primary concerns are levied by GE Seralini, someone I would not necessarily claim to be independent. He is a darling of the anti-GMO movement in the USA and Europe, a prolific anti-biotech bookseller and speaker. His work has been funded by Greenpeace and Auchan, a significant retail group in Europe. His institute is called CRIIGEN (Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering) which has a scientific board dotted with luminaries from various industries not favorable to biotech.
He publishes the most anti-GMO work and is hardly independent. But to be intellectually consistent let’s assume his work is free from potential conflict. After all, the science should not, and usually is not, affected by the funding source.
The beauty of science is that it is self-policing and self-correcting. When the work is published it goes under scrutiny by the scientific community at large. When the famous lumpy rat study was published in September 2012, a scientific community looked carefully at the work and discovered it’s unbelievable limitations. We collectively asked, “How does this &$#@& get published?” I took most offense to Figure 3 where three lumpy rats are shown. These tortured animals are presented for fear generation. We know this because they conveniently left off the (also lumpy) control rat that ate standard rat food (Table 2).
The scientific community criticized the work, appropriately. That’s not an attack—that’s criticism. That’s what makes science go—continued deep analysis of our findings.
If in the future independent groups repeat these results you’ll see Seralini get the last laugh and his Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, the small numbers, lax controls and overgenerous interpretations, plus no mechanism to support the findings, plus inconsistency with every other study, suggests we won’t see any more lumpy rats from CRIIGEN’s research team.
That’s a long walk to a short answer—the scientific community is a great filter. The public is not. Pay attention to the consensus, and realize that any findings that want to break a two-decade record of outstanding safety will be prone to great scrutiny.
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