You’ll probably be seeing local stories about GM corn and the weedkiller Roundup coming out soon. Here’s an overseas example. I was asked for comment on the research paper by the NZ Science Media Centre, and said
I do not think the herbicide risks look convincing, especially with respect to cancer. There is no consistent pattern in deaths with dose of either Roundup or GM corn: this is not just showing a threshold, as the authors suggest, since in all six of their comparisons the highest-dose group has lower mortality than lower-dose groups. The hypothesis of hormone-related cancer differences is not supported by the multivariate biochemical analysis, which found differences in salt excretion but not in testosterone or estradiol. The strongest conclusion that could be drawn from this study is that it would be worth studying a larger group of controls than just 10 and (since there is no sign of dose-response) just a single low dose of Roundup or GM corn.
The researchers say “It is noteworthy that the first two male rats that died in both GM treated groups had to be euthanized due to kidney Wilm’s tumors”. This is noteworthy, but perhaps not in the way the researchers mean: increases in human Wilms’ tumor from GM corn or herbicide residues would already be obvious even at rates hundreds of times lower than reported in these rats.
At the time, I had only read the research paper, not any of the media stories. There is a detail in the story I linked above that is absolutely outrageous:
Breaking with a long tradition in scientific journalism, the authors allowed a selected group of reporters to have access to the paper, provided they signed confidentiality agreements that prevented them from consulting other experts about the research before publication.
That is, we’ll let you have a scoop provided we can make sure there’s no risk of getting it right or disagreeing with us. Embargoes on stories about scientific papers are standard, but one of the justifications is
to precisely to provide journalists with time to get the facts right. It would be interesting to know how many of the journalists who signed these agreements were willing to admit to it in their stories.
Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »