Ever since Arpad Pusztai was removed from his post at the Rowett Institute last year for his allegedly incompetent research on GM potatoes, the UK news media has conducted a lengthy campaign to vindicate him. The Guardian, acting as Pusztai's most vociferous champion, led the war against Frankenstein Foods. Most other British newspapers quickly joined in the assault, vying with each other in ever-increasing sensationalism and scaremongering about biotechnology.
The problem, of course, was that the overwhelming body of science indicated that there was nothing wrong with genetically modified food and that all scientists of any note who had looked at Pusztai's research thought it was seriously flawed. The rats in the study had not suffered because they had been fed potatoes which had been spiked with genetically engineered cells, but simply because they had been cruelly forced to endure a diet of raw potatoes.
Not that any of this deterred the media in their quest for 'Safe Food' and their wildly speculative stories about ecological Armageddon. Never let sound science stand in the way of features which might sell a few more newspapers. But then came the promise of salvation. Pusztai was right all along. His research was to be reported in that most prestigious of journals, Lancet, co-authored with Stanley Ewen. Editors rushed to tell us how morally courageous they had been to stand up to the scientific establishment and to protect so effectively the food on the plates of the common people.
The Guardian, for example, claimed "The research that did most to raise public alarm over potential health hazards from genetically modified foods is finally to be published, vindicating work that the scientific establishment and government tried to discredit."
The Express noted "The scientist publicly vilified for sparking a health scare over GM foods has had his reputation vindicated by medical experts." An editorial in the same paper suggested that the "wronged GM scientist deserves an apology."
Ah, but . Steve Conner of the Independent has now demostrated that there are still some proper journalists around who check their facts. He did what any fair-minded science editor should have done and contacted a few people who might have been expected to review the Lancet paper. What he discovered was something quite exceptional. The reviewers, who are always anonymous peers, were so outraged by the paper that they were prepared, in some cases, to express publicly their feelings. The research, they said, was so fatally flawed that no conclusions about the effects of genetic modification could possibly be drawn from the data. The conclusions made by Pusztai and Ewen were 'wild speculation'.
In normal circumstances that would have been the end of the matter. The paper would have been consigned to the academic waste bin. In this case, however, the Lancet's editor Richard Horton has announced that he will publish the paper anyway because, he claims, it is in the public interest. This decision is so exceptional that Horton now faces the prospect of a serious revolt by the journal's most distinguished reviewers.
The paper has not yet appeared in the Lancet, though it is billed to do so in the October 18th edition. Meanwhile, the moral crusaders have gone strangely quiet. No 'Pusztai Vindicated' stories today. No mention of the Independent's rational dent to the media's collective self-congratulation. Only the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia saw fit to follow the Independent's lead. And next week? Watch this space.