Was it the GMOs or the BPA that did in those rats?


It’s the study that compromised journalistic integrity, leading some journalists to agree not toobtain outside commenton the paper before an embargo lifted. It’s the study that featured shocking images of tumors bursting out all over hapless rats, images reproduced in various stories online in all of their tumoristic, gross morphological horror. It’s the study whose authors left themselves open to criticisms from all sides–from science writers and scientists–primarily focused on their strangely lopsided presentation of results–find me the untreated control tumor images in that paper, for example–and their lack of some pretty obvious statistical analyses. 

The study in question took a rat strain that’s notorious for developing tumors under regular rat-life conditions, fed the rats genetically modified corn, the herbicide Roundup, or genetically modified corn diets possibly laced with Roundup, and evaluated the various groups for tumor burden, liver and kidney outcomes, and mortality. A total of 180 rats received some treatment in their water or diet, while another 20 just lived their regular rat lives eating a regular rat diet. The open-access paper is available here [PDF].
The authors, including anti-GMO activist/scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini, executed statistical analyses that took an almost global hammering on the Web. The special irony here is this paper by Seralini et al., complaining about statistics in toxicology trials Monsanto conducted, particularly related to power analyses and estimations of effect size. They wrote the paper in response to a 2007 expert panel decision rejecting their own analyses of a GM corn as having any effects related to “treatment” with the corn.
In their current paper, the authors conclude that their data demonstrate an effect of a diet containing GM corn, specifically a corn known as NK603, with or without the addition of Roundup, on tumor outcomes and some other endpoints in their two-year rat study. But they may have overlooked some other factors that influenced their results.
Were the diets even different? Maybe not 
For diet to be the culprit here, the diets themselves would have had to be different. One report suggests that the lab chow the authors used itself might have contained GM corn. The authors stated as much in a previous study of NK603 and two other GM corns, observing that the study offered “no data … to demonstrate that the diets fed to the control and reference groups were indeed free of GM feed.” In their current work, they don’t mention this comparison at all; instead, after chemical analyses, they say that “for the different corns and diets, the study of the standard chemical composition revealed no statistical difference” and describe them as having been classified as “substantially equivalent.”

Written By: Emily Willingham
continue to source article at emilywillinghamphd.com


  1. This is an excellent article on how we must always be skeptical of how data are presented, and the biases of those presenting them. Scientists are not immune to their personal opinions, which is why it is so important for peer reviewed papers and for the public to be educated in how science is conducted, a basic understanding in statistics, and to be cautious of believing what we want to believe. 

  2. Presentation is all.  The study’s authors clearly understood that Edward Bernay’s baby (public relations) is at least as powerful as facts.

    The ‘unpopular’ press complain of rising costs and falling revenues that prevent them from checking stories and commercial enterprises have been joined by government departments writing their own stories – relieving  the press of the drudgery of doing any actual writing, or recording, and editing.

    Today’s press story is – in the vast majority of cases – not written, or even checked and edited, in the offices of the paper or magazine, or in the radio or TV newsroom.  They are composed in public relations offices, or filmed with pre-arranged questions such that ‘news and comment’ comes close to being scripted.

    We are spoon-fed news and public affairs in a way that would be clearly labelled propaganda, in any other era.

    That anyone calling themselves a scientist should join in this ‘game’ is understandable – however regrettable.  Nevertheless, this is the first case where I have seen scientists follow the rest of society and employ the press embargo (requesting that a story be suppressed until a future time).  As is clear from the story using a press embargo has the effect of undermining the scientific method.  Science proceeds to truth through open discussion – specifically; peer review.  The study’s authors were clearly attempting to further undermine the scientific project by avoiding this vital step.

    Embargoes do not, routinely, include written agreements.  It is an unwritten rule that any journalist breaking it will be banned from receiving future ‘stories’.  The use of secrecy and written agreements is a sinister development.

    It is often said that journalists who report on science have no training in science.  Do they have training in journalism?  The ethics of journalism normally begin with a declaration that truth and accuracy must be paramount.  Is that what we see, every day?  How, then, do they justify the use of secrecy and embargo in this way?

    It is difficult, to say the least, not to conclude that 21st Century mass media is so corrupted by conspiracies of silence, implicit and explicit (e.g. word lists) involvement in censorship, whitewashing, opinion in news coverage, economic and corporate bias (even though it is used far less often than supposed, it is manifest), sensationalism (a habit they share with religions … ) that it is almost useless to society at large.

    Add to this the very modern idea – created by living media barons – of balanced reporting.  There have been some good books written by journalists on this subject (I recommend: Flat Earth News).  But as we’re discussing science reporting let’s look at the San Diego philosopher of science, Naomi Oreskes.

    According to Jonathan Wolff [The Guardian: The Ethics of Journalism Don’t Work for Science, 3 Jly. ’07] Oreskes reported the
    results of a review of the scientific literature on global warming.  Not
    one peer-reviewed scientific article, of the hundreds she surveyed,
    denied that the earth was warming or that human action was at least
    partially responsible.  The sceptics, she therefore concluded, were largely members of
    think-tanks, often sponsored by companies with vested
    interests, publishing their own reports without peer review.

    Yet such reports are routinely reported in juxtaposition with real peer-reviewed science.

    To add to the problem that reporting anything is an obstacle course of misinformation factories and a media that is routinely and fundamentally undermined – because even its ethics codes are corrupted – we must now add people masquerading as scientists who use secrecy, embargo and public relations presentation.

    Science has become a victim of it’s own success.  Science is so powerful that even the un-educated have switched on to the idea that if someone says they have scientifically justified evidence then they have proof of a right or wrong.  Religions, as all those who visit this Site seem to be aware, have a long history of processing scientific discovery by:
     – Denial  [Shock]
     – Oppression  [Maintain status quo at all costs / Truth is scary stuff]
     – Realisation [Damn, it’s right, now what do we do?]
     – Theological Adjustment [We knew that all along, we were just confused by the clear message … ]
     – Accommodation [It’s too late or costly to do anything, but it’s nice to know.  It’s really not that important.  Nothing needs to change as far as you little people are concerned.  We’re back in control.]
     – Acceptance [Nothing to see here, we need to move on.]

    Are we seeing the realisation of the same model in politics?

    It seems to me that those of us who value truth need to view this story as a 9/11 moment.

    This story moves us from people peddling vacuous public relations ‘information’ that simply delay or confuse the political process to one where real people are being harmed by misinformation and even lies.  Whatever this study demonstrates (assuming it demonstrates anything) lives are at risk.

    Whatever your personal position on G.M. crops, there is no doubt that if they work, and if they really pose no threat to bio-diversity, they will be a great boon to human life.  The only way we will find this out is by reviewing all studies related to G.M. using trained scientists.

    In the wider media / science-reporting arena we need a more radical solution.  It is time for free-thinking rationalists to seek out new models for reporting science and politics.  It is clear to me that newspapers have had their day – we need policies that will accelerate their demise.  Radio and TV appear little better, and we should be considering ownership of media, conglomeration and ethical judgement.  In addition, it is high time that education of future democratic citizens includes lessons in logical fallacies, bias and how informing citizens underpins democratic institutions – in short: Critical thinking.

    Many people have looked forward to a Media 2.0.  A time when citizen journalism will replace corporatism in media.  There is no doubt that this is occurring, at the usual rate of evolution.  Do we need policies that support this change – perhaps even push it forward?

    I don’t pretend to have all the answers – but I do know that scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding cannot progress while our media slowly slips into the mire.


  3. Only 20 control rats?

    Here is a stats. game for you and a friend, played with 5 odd packs of playing cards.

    Get your friend to make two new packs of 100 cards. One new pack with 45 red and 55 black, and the other with 55 red and 45 black. Shuffle both packs.

    You get to turn over 20 cards from each pack and have to guess which pack is which, based on how many red and black cards you see.

    Got good at that game? Try a better simulation of real science. One pack still has 45 red and 55 black, but your friend makes up the other pack with an unknown number of red and black cards (but still totalling 100).

    This time you still see 20 cards from each pack, but you not only have to guess which pack is which, but how many red cards are in the unknown pack.

    Now bet large amounts of money on one go at this game. Now bet your
    scientific reputation. Oh, in certain quarters that’s cheap …

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