The paper reporting research on GM potatoes – work that most scientists dismissed as fatally flawed – is now published in the Lancet, along with a lengthy explanation of the reasons behind the decision from the editor, Richard Horton. Arpad Pusztai – the sacked scientist whose work has been at the centre of the GM food controversy for the past 8 months – claims that he and his co-author Stanley Ewen have been vindicated, even though Horton makes clear that this is not the case. The debate is no longer about the merit of the study itself, but on the wisdom of publishing it despite serious reservations expressed by the reviewers and the need for numerous corrections.
Horton argues that publication of the paper was justified not on its scientific merit but because of the "level of public anxiety about this new biotechnology." He also quotes one of the reviewers as saying that although he thought that the data were flawed, he would like to see the paper published in the public domain so that fellow scientists could judge for themselves. Failure to do so might hint at a conspiracy to suppress information.
This sentiment is understandable. If we had never seen Pusztai's paper, we could not have seen so clearly how weak and tentative are the conclusions that he and Ewen draw from their very limited data. Horton comments: "Ewen and Pusztai's data are preliminary and non-generalisable, but at least they are out in the open."
There is, however, a much more fundamental issue here. That is to do with the ways in which the communication of research in journals which are held, quite rightly, in high esteem by the scientific community, is now being driven by environmentalist groups and newspaper sensationalism. This is a point succinctly made by David Whitehouse, BBC News Online's Science Editor. "[The paper] is not there because it is good science. It is there because it caused a fuss. A fuss brought about by single-interest pressure groups and the media … what is worse is that its publication is effectively an admission that science has failed to get its arguments across to the public."
Whitehouse is absolutely right. But we have a reluctant sympathy with the Lancet's editor – damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. And he is right when he says: "Risks are not simply questions of abstract possibilities or theoretical reassurances. What matters is what people believe about the risks and why they hold those beliefs."
Whatever the rights or wrongs about his decision to publish the Pusztai research, albeit only in the 'Research Letters' section of the journal, the real issue of how so many people in our society come to entertain irrational fears about the dangers of GM foods, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, remains to be addressed. Yes, there is need for debate. Yes, there is a need for caution. But there is also a need for rational thinking and objective evaluation of evidence – both markedly absent in popular scaremongering about 'Frankenstein Foods'.
Many people are worried about GM food because they have been exposed to entirely emotional appeals by unelected spokesmen from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, whose ability to get media coverage is legendary. We have to remember that George Monbiot, an occasional Guardian correspondent on 'green' issues who championed Pusztai's case from the beginning, is also the author of a pamphlet called An Activist's Guide to Exploiting the Media – a publication about which he now keeps, unsurprisingly, rather quiet. His colleagues in other green extremist groups, such as Luke Anderson of the Totnes Genetics Group, are also able to masquerade as 'journalists' without their provenance being declared.
It is in these circumstances that people come to lose faith in both science and scientists. When serious, rational and calm debate is replaced with deceitful, agenda-drive campaigning, the ability of people to make sound, evidence-based choices about how they should lead their lives is seriously diminished. It is for this reason that the Social Issues Research Centre is working closely with newspaper and journal editors, broadcasters, GPs and leading scientists themselves, in conjuction with the Royal Institution, to seek a remedy to this dangerous state of affairs. Our joint development of a Code of Practice on Science and Health Reporting is both necessary and long-overdue. We hope that Richard Horton will join us in this enterprise.