Friday, 29 November 2013

Self censorship & the corruption of science

By coincidence I've read two similarly disturbing things about the suppression of scientific information this week.

The first is from NZ and was first published in 1978 by the Timaru Herald under the title Rape of our Heritage but can still be purchased under its new title. Written by Canterbury farmer Brown Trotter, it tells of his successful experiments at using trace minerals to improve production and the health of his soil, plants and animals, and most spectacularly: himself. Trotter writes vividly of the scepticism and hostility he faced from the scientific establishment in NZ when he started this work in 1945, and reprints a few letters from an ally by the name of Fergus Hickey, who was doing research for a Waikato-based firm. A passage from a letter Hickey wrote in 1949 is worth recording (try not to vomit at the sexist parlance of the times).
The Dept of Scientific Research (DSIR), which has some 'top line' men on its staff, has a much more open mind, but the men do not care to express themselves too publicly for fear of putting the Department of Agriculture men 'off side'. Privately, I have had some very interesting views put to me.
For instance, at Grasslands, Palmerston North, the experimental pasture station of the DSIR, they have everything that money can buy in the way of improved strains of grasses and clovers, also fertilisers, yet they have told me that they would not think of running their dairy herd without supplementary minerals.
On one occasion I asked one of their leading men why it was, if they knew that supplementary mineral treatment was necessary, they did not make a statement to that effect in contradiction of Dr Cunningham, and thus help to lead 'the poor bewildered farmers out of the wilderness'. They told me that it was more than their lives were worth to come out in opposition to the Dept of Agriculture. 
Way back then, agricultural science was being corrupted by social norms that effectively prevented the truth from being heard. Self-censorship was considered a prudent and career-preserving strategy.

Scroll forward to today and we see something quite similar happening. Last year, peer-reviewed research by a French team was published in Food and Chemical Toxicology. It reported on the longest ever study (2 years) of the effects of feeding rats on Roundup-ready maize, one of the flagship GMO products, which it found to induce tumors.

So obviously there had to be something wrong with the study, because we all know for certain that this stuff is perfectly safe. Sure enough, a firestorm erupted including allegations of fraud. What to do? Well the editor quite properly "examined all aspects of the peer review process and requested permission... to review the raw data". Fair call, but the outcome seems much less fair. Last week, the editor wrote to the authors with an ultimatum to voluntarily retract or have the paper retracted by the journal. The whole letter(pdf)  is worth reading but this is the key section.
The Editor-in-Chief wishes to acknowledge the co-operation of the corresponding author in this matter, and commends him for his commitment to the scientific process.
Unequivocally, the Editor-in-Chief found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data. However, there is a legitimate cause for concern regarding both the number of animals in each study group and the particular strain selected. The low number of animals had been identified as a cause for concern during the initial review process, but the peer review decision ultimately weighted that the work still had merit despite this limitation. A more in-depth look at the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions can be reached with this small sample size regarding the role of either NK603 or glyphosate in regards to overall mortality or tumor incidence. Given the known high incidence of tumors in the Sprague-Dawley rat, normal variability cannot be excluded as the cause of the higher mortality and incidence observed in the untreated groups.
Ultimately, the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication for Food and Chemical Toxicology.
GMWatch says this is "illicit, unscientific and unethical". It suggests that the editor's letter is inconsistent with the ethical guidelines that this journal (and many others) have agreed for retractions. Obviously, the "high incidence of tumors" point is irrelevant in the presence of a control group (that's the whole point of control groups), and if you're worried about the number of rats used, well have a look at what Monsanto presents as evidence in NZ. GMWatch also raises questions about the role this dude may have had in the whole process, and I note that for some reason his name is missing from the list of editorial board members on the Editor's letterhead, though he's definitely on the board.

Both of these stories point to the same basic problem, which is that powerful groups in society have a very keen interest in suppressing inconvenient science. That should not be even slightly surprising, though it is very disappointing when scientists cave in to pressure from vested interests.

2 comments:

  1. Here's what Thomas Lumley said at the time the paper came out.
    http://www.statschat.org.nz/2012/09/20/roundup-scare/

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  2. Lumley: "The strongest conclusion that could be drawn from this study is that it would be worth studying a larger group of controls than just 10 and (since there is no sign of dose-response) just a single low dose of Roundup or GM corn."

    As I said in one of the linked posts, 10 rats seems way too few to draw strong conclusions. I'm therefore intrigued to know why this sample size is so common in industry work on safety.

    More generally though, the retraction seems inconsistent with the ethical principles - also linked above.

    I also think its revealing about the emotion:analysis ratio that the retraction was described by a local scientist as the authors being "shot down in flames".

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