Modifying the message: how tricks masked home truths about anti-GM science

Science is a battleground with areas that are bitterly contested by special interests that sometime stoop to trickery. JD Hancock

Well-established science is highly reliable and serves us well. Modern medicine, the airline industry, and the internet all show what science can achieve in terms of healthier, more interesting and wealthier lives for ordinary people.

But science is also a battleground with areas that are bitterly contested by special interests. And even professional scientific publications can be used to mislead the public and the media. Subterfuge is neither limited to nefarious industries or cynical researchers in their pay, as this story illustrates.

Last week, the Australian public was treated to an anti-GM media campaign that set a new low for media manipulation, complete with graphic images. A paper published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology suggested that rats fed a diet containing Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize died more frequently, and earlier, over the two-year study than control groups.

Even if you hate genetically-modified crops, you should be alarmed at how easily some of the Australian media was taken in by a slick public relations campaign that was designed to show only one side of the story and delay responses by critics. And you should be worried about the broader implications for the abuse of media and public trust by scientific-sounding technobabble.

Behind the scenes

It all started with a representative of the anti-GM lobby spruiking a new study from the Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN) in France. The study purports to show that GM corn and the herbicide Roundup cause tumours in rats. It claims, among other things, to have tested Roundup at low levels similar to those found commonly in drinking water.

Aside from the dubious science behind these claims, not reported widely was the fact that activist groups had access to the paper, based on the study, for some time before any scientists did (long enough to prepare five-page summaries and media releases).

Also omitted were the unusual non-disclosure clauses imposed on journalists who were given access to advance copies of the study, corrupting the pre-publication embargo on the press. The authors allowed only a select group of reporters to have access to the paper before publication, and stipulated that they sign confidentiality agreements that prevented them from consulting other experts about the research before reporting the story.

The effect of these restrictive clauses was wide reportage of this questionable anti-GM study without the balancing insight of informed independent scientific comment. Once other scientists actually had a chance to review the paper, the criticisms were fast and furious.

Claims of harm from genetic modification have been made by CRIIGEN in the past. And they have been rejected by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for dodgy statistical analyses.

There’s already a highly unusual petition to CRIIGEN from scientists around the world demanding access to the original data for independent analysis. Even mainstream organisations long critical of genetically-modified foods, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, have left this story alone.

IITA Image Library

What’s more, results as astonishing as those claimed by CRIIGEN, would ordinarily be published in a high-quality journal such as Nature, but were not. Sadly, even devastating technical rebuttals of the study will not arrive in sufficient time or be given enough coverage (it’s old news now) to offset erroneous public perceptions of GM corn.

Media coverage

But the larger issue is around journalistic practice. The media in the United States and Europe smelled a dead rat from the demands to sign non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements.

Forbes ran the headline “Monsanto’s GM Corn And Cancer In Rats: Real Scientists Deeply Unimpressed. Politics Not Science Perhaps?” noting, they “might also look at the people pushing the paper, The Sustainable Food Trust. To a reasonable degree of accuracy this seems to be the militant wing of the Soil Association. For those of you who don’t know your British hippies this is essentially the British trade union for organic farmers.”

An MIT blog noted that this was “A rancid, corrupt way to report about science”. It noted that the study “doesn’t seem to have said much about whether GMOs are safe. But it sure said a lot about how the scientists who did the work used a crafty embargo to control their message.”

In Australia, there was little mention of the bad experimental design of the project, and media opinion repeated the publicists’ story-line. This raises the question posed by a blog that covered this back-story (especially pertinent when science journalism is actually being pared back) about whether journalists are merely stenographers.

Because the scientific community didn’t get early access to the paper, most Australian media ran it without the usual safeguard of seeking at least some comment from an expert with an opposing view. Examples of such coverage include ABC Radio’s Jon Faine (despite some wariness), ABC 24, and ABC news.

Lessons for journalists

If a new promotional tactic works for one organisation, others can be expected to follow. This abuse needs to be nipped in the bud, and those behind the story given the cold shoulder to avoid further media manipulation.

If the Australian news media is to avoid being used as a mouthpiece for political opinion dressed up as science, it needs to do more homework. Where there are obvious opportunities for distortions of controversial claims, the media need to ensure that they are reviewed with due care. The media needs to not be taken in by someone manipulating them over urgent deadlines, and by the dangling chance of being first with the story.

Critical thinkers though they may be, even leading journalists cannot be experts on everything, and should bring real experts into the show, to provide balance. Reporters will rarely be across the science in sufficient detail to guard factual accuracy, and there are resources they can access for help. A good general rule for science reporting is surely this – if a story seems too sensational to be true, it probably isn’t.

Read a critique of the research: Genetically modified corn and cancer – what does the evidence really say?