The Lancet takes the flak
The controversial decision by The Lancet's editor, Richard Horton, to publish Pusztai's flawed study has, predictably, won him few friends. The friction between him and the Royal Society, whose early comments on Pusztai's work were condemned by Horton as a 'breathtaking impertinence', has escalated into open warfare. Very few scientists are stepping forward to offer support for his increasingly isolated position.
In this week's edition of the journal there is correspondence criticising the Ewen and Pusztai paper on the grounds that it overlooked very elementary issues such as a proper control sample, blind coding and the pitfalls of data dredging. There are also serious criticisms of another paper which appeared in the same edition of The Lancet as the Pusztai paper by Brian Fenton and his colleagues and which also hinted at dangers of GM food.
The real vitriol, however, is aimed at Horton himself. Carl Feldbaum of the Biotechnology Industry Organization complains that "The Lancet has placed politics and tabloid sensationalism above its responsibility to report and assess new science." Aaron Klug of the Royal Society also responded to the 'breathtaking impertinence' slur by saying: "We commented on Pusztai's unpublished work because he himself had commented on it, so extensively that it had become a matter of public interest. Since a one-sided debate was raging on the back of unvalidated experimental data, the Royal Society had a duty to examine such evidence as it could from all sources, including Pusztai himself. That is impertinence only if you endorse scientists flouting normal practice and rushing to press with unvalidated data and invalid conclusions."
It is, however, a letter from Roger Fisken which most cogently attacks Horton's claim that failure to publish the Pusztai paper would ". only intensify public scepticism about science and scientists." Fisken argues that ". we as scientists have not been nearly aggressive enough in attacking the scaremongering and sheer nonsense put out by the lay media on a variety of medical and scientific topics. Besides writing about these issues we should be lobbying the Press Complaints Commission and the government to try and ensure that journalists are taken to task and made to publish amendments if they grossly distort the facts in any kind of technical reporting." Fisken goes on to mention the damage done by adverse publicity in the media concerning MMR vaccine – unfounded scares which have now resulted in a possible measles epidemic because of lowered vaccination rates. (See Scaremongers: the new threat to children's health)
We at SIRC wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. That is why we are currently working with the Royal Institution, the Select Committee on Science and Technology, leading scientists, doctors and journalists to develop solid guidelines and a code of practice in this area.
The attacks from all quarters on Richard Horton, however, may have one beneficial effect. As Felbaum suggests ". the editor's poor judgement will strengthen the resolve of other scientific journals to adhere to the publication standards The Lancet saw fit to abandon."