The pseudo-skeptic blogosphere was abuzz in celebrative glory after a damning study to Monsanto’s GMO corn was recently retracted. The same irrelevant talking points were repeated again and again. See the following for a few examples: Sharon Hill at “Doubtful News”, Michael Simpson at “Skeptical Raptor”, Steven Novella at “NeuroLogica”.
The study was retracted for two main reasons: rats with a tendency for tumors were used and small sample size. According to the head of the study though, Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini, they used the exact same rats and the exact same numbers that Monsanto used to get authorization for its maize. The counter argument is that these were two entirely different sorts of studies. Yes so? The main difference between the studies was that Séralini’s study was more extensive. Monsanto’s study lasted only 90 days while Séralini’s lasted 2 years. Monsanto looked at short term toxicity while Séralini looked at long term toxicity. Among competent scientists, a longer study tends to be more accurate since toxicity indicators like cancer are usually a slow process. If any study should be criticized it is Monsanto’s since they did not monitor the effects of their maize long enough to catch harmful side-effects like cancer. In addition, Séralini’s study involved a greater number of tests groups. A greater range of parameters were measured. More information was given on what the diets contained. In particular, the control diet was explicitly stated to be non-GM. Monsanto in comparison did not state that their control diet was non-GM in their 90-day feeding trial data. So Séralini’s study used proper control diets as stipulated by EU GMO legislation whereas Monsanto used irrelevant control diets.
One of the main “failings” of the study was the rat species used which had a tendency for tumors, the Sprague Dawley rat strain. So what if that strain is more likely to develop tumors? What Séralini found was that rats fed Monsanto’s Roundup-tolerant GM maize NK603 had very high levels of cancer and died earlier than the control group. How in any way is it relevant that the rats used are more susceptible to tumors? The whole point of a control is to show that the thing being studied has some sort of significant effect you wouldn’t see if that thing wasn’t present. Only crackpots, imbeciles or liars would ever find tumor susceptibility a significant issue here. It is a valid minor criticism that could be resolved by a future study using a different rat strain. But retracting an entire paper over such a ridiculous non-issue is horrifically unscientific.
The sample size argument is also entirely irrelevant. Séralini followed the toxicity part of OECD protocol no. 453 as he should have. This protocol states that you must use a minimum of 10 rats of each sex per test group. He followed the protocol and used 10 rats of each sex per test group. Whereas Monsanto used 20 rats of each sex per test group but strangely only analyzed 10 in their study. Both then used 10 rats per group, the minimum required. But why did Monsanto only analyze 10? Did they select only the 10 healthiest GMO fed rats and the 10 least healthy control rats to falsify a positive result? We can’t tell because their data is conveniently unavailable.
It’s true that for a cancer study a minimum of 50 animals of each sex per test group are required. But Séralini was investigating toxicity of NK603 maize not to find out if it caused cancer. Plus he had no reason to believe GMO diets could result in cancer since Monsanto’s studies showed no such effects. Séralini observed high rates of cancer in the GMO maize fed rats and reported that observation as any good scientist would do. Was he expected to ignore observations that did not conform to what he expected to find?
It is also true that Séralini’s results are inconclusive because of the rat strain and the small sample size. But so are Monsanto’s results. Studies are retracted over serious errors or fraud not inconclusiveness. Monsanto’s study used GMO contaminated feed for the control group so that the feeds were almost identical. How is using contaminated feed that would eliminate the uncovering of any side-effects not a serious error?
Steven Novella has made some interesting comments about how Séralini’s response is more about expounding the fact that other studies and especially Monsanto’s have the same alleged methodological deficiencies as his study. He claims this involves committing the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. However, this fallacy involves pointing out an inconsistency of the opponent instead of dealing with the argument. Séralini is not doing this. He has dealt with the argument and is simply saying that he acted the same way as Monsanto and wonders why he is attacked while Monsanto isn’t. What he is exposing is an extremely disturbing bias. Novella is bizarrely implying that simply showing bias amounts to committing a logical fallacy. He is misrepresenting Séralini’s actual argument and attacking that misrepresentation. In other words, he commits the straw man fallacy. Real science is without bias. Pseudo-science is biased. Séralini is absolutely correct that the same standards should be applied to all research. Not just the research that threatens massive corporate interests should be subject to excessive arbitrary scrutiny. Marco Truzzi identified such double standards in the application of criticism as one of the fundamental characteristic of pseudo-skeptics.
What this retraction really shows is that mainstream science is a fraud. It is falsely represented as rational and free from bias when clearly it is not. It is easily corrupted by powerful corporate interests to suppress legitimate science that damages their bottom line. And what kind of skeptics would champion this corporate perversion of science? Why pathological skeptics of course.
10. Truzzi, Marcello (1987). “On Pseudo-Skepticism”. Zetetic Scholar (12/13): 3–4.