A non-event

28 Sep 2012

Last week something did not happen. Let me explain what I’m talking about and why it’s heartening news.

In the middle of last week I suddenly started to receive emails suggesting that there was going to be a major announcement the following morning on a refereed paper that suggested that rats fed on GM maize were more likely to develop tumours than those fed on conventional maize.

The press conference was timed in order that it could feature on the lunchtime news broadcasts. So the next day I sat down to listen to the lunchtime news and there was no mention of the paper. Similarly, there was no mention in the evening broadcasts. The next day this refereed paper was only given some credence in the Daily Mail, but not so on their website.

Now if this scientific paper was published a few years ago there would be widespread coverage in the press about the dangers of GM. So why didn’t it get the coverage last week? There may be a few reasons, including a changing press and public opinion on GM. However, there is also, in my opinion, a gradual recuperation in the reputation of and respect for good science.

In March 1996, the British Health Minister announced that a committee of scientists set up to advise the government on spongiform encephalopathy issues had linked an unusual outbreak of a human degenerative neurological disease to BSE. The politicians had said that such a link was impossible. They stated that this was based on scientific opinion but of course no scientist had said categorically that this could not occur. So science and scientists, unjustifiably, got it in the neck both from the media and the general public. There then followed a long period when there was a high level of distrust of scientists, something that was latched upon by the anti-GM movement.

The start of the recovery of the reputation of science was, in my opinion, as a result of the Lancet article in 1998 in which Andrew Wakefield claimed that there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. These findings were based on unsound evidence and in 2004, fellow authors of the Lancet article issued a retraction. In-between the two dates there was considerable media support of Wakefield. He was seen by the press to be a whistle-blower standing up to the state machine. However, in 2010 the General Medical Council concluded after a two and a half year hearing that Wakefield had acted unethically, dishonestly and irresponsibly. Shortly afterwards the Lancet fully retracted the article from its online version.

Science reporters now deeply regret their coverage of the MMR issue and seek to listen to other views before jumping to lurid headlines. This is what happened last week. At the news conference reporters even quoted the comments and concerns of other scientists on the paper. Their access to other views did not occur by chance but through the good offices of the Science Media Centre who circulated the paper, at very short notice, before the press conference to the relevant scientists for theirinformation and comments. It turns out that there were real concerns about the science and these were expressed at the press conference and were obviously not well defended by the speakers. Subsequently, the French author of the paper has refused to release the raw data of the study to the European Food Standards Agency, which is not a position that instils confidence in his findings.

So I think science is now in a much healthier place than a few years ago when any bit of questionable science could unjustifiably grab the headlines. The press conference was arranged by a leading figure in the anti-GM movement and now perhaps that movement will have to accept that questionable science does not lead to a progression in public debate. It only devalues their reputation. Many thanks to the Science Media Centre for ensuring such a balanced debate.