Hoover Daily Report

Letter: Feeding the Propaganda of Anti-Technology Activists

via Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Peter Berkowitz is right to condemn abuses in the peer-review process ("Climategate Was an Academic Disaster Waiting to Happen," op-ed, March 13 ), many of which reflect the biases of both articles' referees and journal editors. It is not uncommon to find egregiously, obviously flawed articles in prominent international scientific publications. As in climategate, if the articles have policy implications, misinformation is quickly and widely propagated and feeds the propagandizing by opportunistic, antitechnology activists.

Some of the worst of these flawed papers have conveyed false alarms about the safety of gene-spliced (or "genetically engineered") plants, which subsequently have been extensively reported in the popular press.

A case in point is a 2001 paper in the British journal Nature that purported to show that genes from a pest-resistant, genetically engineered variety of corn had migrated into native corn plants in Mexico. However, colleagues of the authors had pointed out flaws in the methodology and results months before the article was submitted to the journal. The publication triggered criticism from major research groups that was published subsequently in Nature and eventually the original paper was condemned by the editor in chief. (Ironically, even if the results were accurate, the appropriate response would be, "So what.")

Another example of apparent bias appeared in an article in the British medical journal The Lancet which claimed to show that introducing into potatoes a gene that codes for a substance toxic to insects caused damage to the immune system and stimulated abnormal cell division in the digestive tract of laboratory rats. However, many research groups have shown that the experiments' research methodology was fundamentally flawed and that no conclusions about the safety of biotech foods can be drawn from them. After an extensive review, the British Royal Society unequivocally condemned the study.

The editors of the journal remonstrated that in spite of the article's admittedly deficient methodology—and over the strenuous objections of the paper's referees—they published it to "make constructive progress in the debate between scientists, the media, and the general public" about a very politically charged issue. Unleashing such a sham has proved to be anything but constructive, because its findings are frequently cited as presumptive validation of its spurious conclusions.

These kinds of failures of peer review and editorial judgment corrupt the traditional process by which new scientific knowledge is obtained and reported, and they inflict irreparable harm on the reporting and archiving of scientific developments for policy makers, the media, the public and the scientific community.

Henry I. Miller, M.D.

The Hoover Institution

Stanford, Calif.