December 11, 2013
It did not take the October 19th cover story of the Economist entitled “How Science Goes Wrong” to raise red flags – the Risk-Monger has been talking about the decline of science for years, highlighting concepts that undermine the reputation of science like the EU’s use of the precautionary principle, the political rise of the environmental activist scientists, the reliance on impact of research in the funding process and the credibility trap of assigned scientific consensus-making in fields from climate change to EMFs. But 2013 has been particularly bloody on the credibility of science and the public perception of the role and value of research – this year may serve as a watershed in the ongoing decline in the role of scientific evidence in our policy and personal decision-making.
The Economist article draws attention to the weakness of the reliability of scientific publications and the factors that are undermining the peer review process, especially as academic publishing hobbles into the digital age. It could not have better foreseen the event a month later when the Reed-Elsevier Journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, retracted the controversial article it had published a year earlier by Gilles-Éric Séralini that had attempted to show that eating GMOs would lead to certain cancers. Séralini exemplifies what I refer to as activist science – where B-grade researchers start with a political ideal and design experiments to produce data that reinforces their confirmation bias. His research was designed around his anti-GMO campaigning, provided the dramatic images for his documentary (cue the sombre music and hazmat suits) and served as “all the evidence necessary” for anti-GMOwers to reinvigorate their tiresome campaigns. The problem is that his research (and I have to choose my words carefully here as Séralini is apparently sicking his lawyers on anyone who speaks ill of his antics) was “inconclusive”. Bad science but great photos and a good demonstration in how to control the media – and let’s not forget his film (watch the Séralini rat movie trailer and seriously ask yourself whether such an activist should be given the same attention as non-politicised researchers).
We shouldn’t have been surprised that Séralini would juice the methodology to meet his need for alarmism (via CRIIGEN, his research, books and films have been funded by French retail chains Carrefour and Auchan as well as Sevene Pharma, a French company that markets a GMO-detox product, but as none of this information is transparently available on Séralini’s or CRIIGEN’s sites, it must not be true), but what was surprising was that his research was published at all. The Food and Chemical Toxicology journal retraction should have come with a serious apology at the utter failure of the journal’s peer review process (despite the enormous profits Elsevier earns from the extortionary subscription rates for their journals, they do not compensate peer reviewers in any way to encourage them to actually read the proposed articles). Somebody should have seen that train-wreck coming (if anything, just from the name and reputation of the lead author) unless Elsevier had wanted to court controversy rather than science.
What is more troubling is that its retraction came after a year of public criticism and outrage. Although this has been called “post-publication peer review”, if journals decide to retract because of a high volume of criticism (rather than just fraud or corruption), should we not be surprised if this sets a precedent for an increase in political campaigning against published articles. Séralini is insisting that a pro-GMO article must also be retracted and his minions are joining in. What if a journal publishes an article that questions the models linking CO2 to climate change and the mainstream climate scientists don’t care for the political colours of the research team. Are we now leaving the task of scientific publishing to the influence of political campaigns and activists? Another step in crowd-sourcing taking over from expertise.
Good robust debate is always welcome in all scientific domains, but as our communication tools evolve, researchers are having these debates in much more politically charged public arenas. When you add to the cocktail the poisons of the need for funding, inevitable conflicts of interest and reduced availability of attractive positions, then that arena becomes a dungeon. When activist scientists start to use research to produce data that suits their campaigning, then we must ask what the role of science in policy-making is and whether we need to develop stricter definitions of who is a scientist and what is credible science (the peer review process was supposed to do that). Is Séralini a scientist or an environmental activist in a white coat (sorry, hazmat suit)? What about Andreas Kortenkamp or Niels Skakkebaek?
2013 also saw the worst case scenario of “our scientists versus their scientists” come true with the activism surrounding the debate on endocrine disruption. Environmental activists have always been aware that their idealism had lacked credible scientific support. Greenpeace had attempted to set up their own labs (bringing a certain disrepute to the University of Exeter). Anti-GMO science had been reduced to near-daily frenzied publications from Mae-Wan Ho. But now, post REACH, anti-chemicals activist scientists are gaining a voice and publicity that has the force to bring down public trust in science and make evidence-based policymaking a pipedream.
The framework for assessing endocrine disrupting chemicals has created a perception that the scientific community is divided (Activism Campaigning 101: manufacture uncertainty) with certain activist scientists like Kortenkamp or Skakkebaek finding political and NGO supporters to give them microphones and funding for studies that could provide flanking to their anti-chemicals campaigns.
With the precision of a politically motivated movement, anti-chemicals researchers signed an endocrine disruption political campaign document called the Berlaymont Declaration (which had less to do with research evidence than it did with the Berlaymont building in Brussels, but it had a nice ring to it). While many signatories were students of the leading activist researchers, one person on the Berlaymont list of “experts” that raised my eyebrows was David Gee, neither an endocrinologist nor toxicologist, but rather a “science delegitimator” who had used his position in the EEA to meddle in debates by creating uncertainty and promoting his anti-industry precaution agenda (he tried the same tactic with a group of EMF dissenters even though he had no qualifications in this research field either). When editors of the leading toxicology journals reacted to the EU’s lack of scientific rigour, common sense and consultation, NGO campaigners drew on their scientific lapdogs to try to reduce their impact with a meandering dissertation about how, among other things, the precautionary principle came about. See an earlier Risk-Monger blog where bad behaviour by activist scientists have poisoned the well and brought discredit upon the research community. Such researcher cum lobbyist campaigning is anything but science and is doing a great disservice to the public perception of research as well as denying policymakers the ability to have a reliable source of trusted evidence. 2013 has been a very dark year for science.
Of course the activists will say that the future of science is in correcting man’s missteps (putting pollution right, rectifying climate change, green chemistry …) or moving back to traditional scientific remedies (organic farming, biomass, herbal medicines …). The European Environment Agency, in Late Lessons II, envisions a new post-precaution role for research – that precaution will stimulate new innovations. Such fantasies may make idealists feel better about the consequences of imposing their dreams on others, and we know that if you really want to believe something, you can convince yourself of any argument that puts a bright shine on things. It was not too long ago that these same eco-idealists were promising us a land of milk and honey with green jobs for everyone in some kind of environmentalist utopia. They have since stopped reassuring us of this so-called green industrial revolution. The Risk-Monger feels that these innocent babes in the woods have been given far too much influence and it is time to isolate them.
So what can we expect for 2014? Sadly, the endocrine debate will get uglier, and quite frankly, more stupid and less scientific. Fewer credible scientists will be involved in public consultations or risk assessments (either by their own omission or through unrealistic conflict of interest standards being imposed on the European Commission by anti-science anarchists like those in Corporate Europe Observatory). Parliamentary elections will bring in more anti-anything MEPs to Brussels looking for a cause. There will likely be no talk about innovation in 2014. NGO campaigners are presently raising their harpoons at the Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission, Anne Glover, for using scientific evidence and reason against their campaigns. She will be sadly missed by the end of the year. As the activist NGOs become more emboldened, there will be less respect shown towards researchers who have been acting in the public interest. If 2013 was a dark year for science, then 2014 looks even dimmer.
I am afraid I have no solution for those of us in Europe with children studying in the fields of natural sciences, except for most of us to be prepared to travel to America or Asia to see our grandchildren. Until then, enjoy every holiday season you can with them.
Author : David Zaruk