Ugly glare on Union of Concerned Scientists, Consumers Union, journalists as RNA-GMO danger link disintegrates

| November 12, 2013 |
Atlantic

Can science self-correct, in effect protect against sloppy or politicized research? Scientists can try—but the success of those efforts depends in large measure upon the integrity of journalists and advocates to address their own reporting mistakes.

But as GLP executive director Jon Entine reports in Forbes, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Consumers Union and prominent anti-GMO journalists are discouragingly but predictably silent after multiple science publications severely challenged an alarmist RNA study they had hyped.

A great illustration of the challenge of controlling ‘metastasizing misinformation’ has emerged with the publication of a fascinating and important article in Nature Biotechnology that sharply challenges the credibility a study that had made controversial claims that dramatically raised the fear factor about GMOs. The controversy began when a Chinese research team led by Chen-Yu Zhang reported in Cell Research in 2011 that microRNAs from rice and other commonly eaten plants altered animal’s physiology in ways that could be harmful. The small pieces of RNA showed up in the bloodstream of both mice and humans, and in mice livers. The Nanjing University-based team concluded that this genetic material could bind to receptors in human liver cells and block the blood’s natural ability to remove LDL or “bad” cholesterol.

As biology PhD student Anne-Marie C. Hodge wrote in her Scientific American blog, “the revelation that plant microRNAs play a role in controlling human physiology highlights the fact that our bodies are highly integrated ecosystems.” To some degree, she suggested, ‘we are what we eat.’

But right from the start, prominent scientists and journalists found raised questions and pointed out potential flaws in the research—at the very same time The Atlantic, Grist and other publications heralded these findings as confirmation of their favorite thesis, that GMOs were potentially dangerous to humans. The science ultimately self-corrected and both the study and the alleged dangers have been rebuked. But the longtime damage to genetic literacy has been done.

GLP’s Jon Entine provides the backstory in Forbes in an intriguing look at how the anti-GMO industry and sycophant journalists work—and the consequences of flogging single studies to score ideological points. 

  • Amanda

    People will still be citing this debunked study for years to come. The harm has been done by those not willing to retract or correct what they’ve previously written. It happens over and over again. Misleading more people.

  • Balasubramanian Ponnuswami

    If these vested interests want to say ‘NO ‘to MNCs let them say it straight; Why drag science in their arguments? These Elitist talks do not hold much water and the farmers across the world do not care much about these useless arguments anymore.

    • Loren Eaton

      I agree with you, but this study (as wrong as it appears to be) along with EVERY other debunked study on the alleged dangers of GMO are etched in stone as far as the anti-GM crowd is concerned. And if someone steps forward with better data to refute these studies or simply points out the flaws, well “they must be on Monsanto’s payroll.”

      • Balasubramanian Ponnuswami

        True. I am wondering if there is any concerted effort with a view to studying the activist behavior against introduction of any newer technology evolved based on societal needs (best example is Golden Rice II)? I do not think so. If there is one, I like to extend a moral support to such a study with my experience on Bt eggplant in Indian context.

        • Mark

          I think both sides are guilty of this including you Jon:

          “Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses.[Note 1][1]People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Biased search, interpretation and memory have been invoked to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence),belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false), the irrational primacy effect (a greater reliance on information encountered early in a series) and illusory correlation (when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations).

          A series of experiments in the 1960s suggested that people are biased toward confirming their existing beliefs. Later work re-interpreted these results as a tendency to test ideas in a one-sided way, focusing on one possibility and ignoring alternatives. In certain situations, this tendency can bias people’s conclusions. Explanations for the observed biases include wishful thinking and the limited human capacity to process information. Another explanation is that people show confirmation bias because they are weighing up the costs of being wrong, rather than investigating in a neutral, scientific way.”

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