One of the great shortcomings of modern discourse is its foundation on intellectual relativism - the assumption that all sides of a debate are equally valid and worthy of presentation to the public as being of equal scientific, ethical or moral weight.

But all arguments are not created equal. And in the scientific realm, one of the primary functions of peer-reviewed journals is to sort out the wheat that is grounded in real data from the chaff that is based on unsubstantiated claims.

Indeed, in the face of unscientific, vociferous and tireless special interest groups, the ability of the scientific community to communicate the reliability of data in the debate over genetically modified foods is at the heart of the confidence issue surrounding the biotechnology industry. As mistrust of science is spewed forth by multinational-bashing populists who have unfettered access to the general media, scientific journals must be held to an even higher standard than the general media when it comes to disseminating information or opinion regarding socially charged topics like GM foods, cloning, genetic testing and the like.

Unfortunately, both The Lancet and Nature appear to have thrown in the towel. Over the last few months they have entered the GM debate in a way that provides credibility to polemics who have yet to provide evidence for their case. Thus rather than forcing the anti-GM thinkers to uphold their half of the debate with hard data, The Lancet and Nature have opened their pages to activists unsupported by rigorous research.

Their actions, which feed the scientific relativism of the general media, have exacerbated the already uneven playing field for those researchers who are trying to base the debate on real science.

These frustrations were in evidence last week as The Lancet published the GM potato experiments of Arpad Pusztai, which he previously has used to make dubious public claims about the safety of GM foods. This came on the heels of the Oct. 7 Nature, which provided cover to political arguments by activists that the concept of "substantial equivalence" is an unscientific basis for the regulation of GM foods.

The potato research

The Lancet published the results of Pusztai's experiments with rats fed GM potatoes expressing a lectin from the snowdrop that confers resistance to pests (see Pusztai's Data, A4). The researcher previously had suggested to the media that his studies demonstrated a possible risk of adverse effects with GM foods (see BioCentury, Aug. 17, 1998).