Using junk science to promote Proposition 37

Manifestly shoddy research is being used to promote Proposition 37, the ballot measure mandating the labeling of genetically modified food.

Proposition 37, the ballot measure mandating the labeling of genetically modified food that is also known as the "right to know" initiative, is narrowly running ahead of the opposition, according to the latest opinion polls.

But even if the measure goes down — and it's the target of a $35-million publicity attack by agricultural and food industry interests — the campaign behind it will mark an important milestone in politics: the deployment of weapons-grade junk science.

Of course, ignorance and anti-intellectualism are not new phenomena in our elections, nor in the political processes of other lands, dictatorships and democracies alike. Pseudoscience is part and parcel of corporate advertising in every medium. ("I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV.")

But where science is at the heart of a campaign, as it is for Proposition 37, the promotion of manifestly shoddy research is especially shameful. That goes double where multibillion-dollar industries, tens of thousands of jobs, and the health and well-being of millions of consumers are at stake.

VOTER GUIDE: 2012 California Propositions

The research in question is a paper published a few weeks ago by a team led by French biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini. Its findings were explosive: Laboratory rats fed for up to two years on genetically modified corn of a type widely used in the U.S. developed huge, grotesque tumors.

The paper claimed to be "the first detailed documentation of long-term deleterious effects arising from the consumption" of the corn. Seralini found very similar effects in rats fed high dosages of Roundup, a widely used pesticide that the corn had been engineered to tolerate, and in rats fed a combination of the corn and Roundup. (Both products are marketed by Monsanto, which has contributed at least $7.1 million to the No on 37 campaign.)

The Proposition 37 campaign pounced on the evidence. "Massive Tumors in Rats Fed Monsanto's Genetically Engineered Corn in First Long Term Study," declared the campaign's blog. The campaign's spokeswoman, Stacy Malkan, asserted in a radio interview that "the researchers reported finding very serious health effects in a peer-reviewed study in a well-respected journal." She called it "the first long-term health study — animal study — on genetically engineered foods that have been in the American diet for more than 15 years."

On the surface, it sounds pretty damning. What about beneath the surface?

The Seralini paper attracted almost instantaneous derision from the research establishment, on multiple counts. Many of the criticisms have been widely disseminated, and just last week they were bolstered by the European Food Safety Authority, which is not known as an industry-friendly agency. The agency found the paper to be "of insufficient scientific quality to be considered as valid for risk assessment."

Seralini dismissed most of the criticism as the product not of the "scientific community" but of "representatives of the biotech industry."

If his study is right, he told me in an interview, demand for stricter testing of genetically modified crops "would provoke a crisis in the biotech industry, so they have to move my study out of the way."

By the way, Seralini's paper isn't the first long-term study of genetically modified foods in the American diet, by a long shot. The same journal that published Seralini's paper (Food and Chemical Toxicology) published a survey of 12 studies of genetically modified corn, soybeans and rice tested on rats, cows, salmon or monkeys for up to two years, and in general found no evidence of any health hazards.

Before getting into the details of the critique of Seralini's paper, here's some perspective. It's well established that where big money or politics is involved, scientific rigor is a prime casualty.

The eminent physicist Alvin Weinberg presciently forecast this phenomenon a half-century ago. "Issues of scientific or technical merit," he wrote in 1961, "tend to get argued in the popular, not the scientific press, or in the congressional committee room rather than the technical-society lecture hall; the spectacular rather than the perceptive becomes the scientific standard."

The more recondite the science, the greater the opportunity for mischief — witness the continuing political campaign against evidence of human-induced climate change, and the persistence of creationism in educational curricula.

"The real danger," says UC Berkeley biologist Michael B. Eisen, a crusader against junk science, "is the erosion of the idea that where public policy intersects with science, people have a responsibility to understand the science."

Public ignorance can be a powerful weapon in the hands of people brandishing research carrying the veneer of credibility. Yes, Seralini's paper was published in a "peer-reviewed" journal, but that doesn't make it indisputable. Peer reviews are known to fail, and it's not uncommon — and becoming less uncommon — for published papers to be retracted when their data are shown to be unreliable.

Now, back to Seralini. The chief overall criticism of his experiment is that it seemed designed to prove a specific conclusion, rather than objectively test a hypothesis. Although Seralini claimed no conflicts of interest in his work, he's known as a campaigner against genetically modified foods; the release of his anti-genetic modification book and film, "Tous Cobayes" (loosely translated: "We Are All Guinea Pigs"), coincided with the publication of the paper.

Among the most common critiques of the experiment is that Seralini used an insufficient number of control rats — 180 test rats were fed genetically modified corn, Roundup or both, but only 20 control rats were fed a purportedly normal diet. Critics say that's too small a control group to be statistically valid.

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