Monday, October 18, 1999
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
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).