Is Increased Rigour Really Going to Solve the Problem of Misinformation?

In the most recent publication of Nature, François Houllier has continued discussions, following the GM rat tumours and the lil Séralini et al. paper that thought it could. In Biotechnology: Bring more rigour to GM research, Houllier, I would contest, misses the problem entirely.

Yes, rigour is by all means valuable and something academic research should strive for, however none of this has much to do with the proceedings of Séralini et al. (2012).

Like Wakefield et al. (1988), the paper clearly had a preconceived agenda that had nothing to do with improving our understand of and human application within the known universe. I commented as much in my previous post on the subject that the involved researcher took the highly unorthodox approach to obscure the impartiality of the reporting science communicators to ensure that the greatest possible positive publicity could occur… Oh and the release of the paper came with two books (I had thought it was one) and a movie focused on the reports findings – findings the lead author acknowledges are weak.

Of course we want to know that the food we eat and give to our children is of the highest quality and safe, thus it seems plausible to conclude that the individuals behind this paper attempted to cash in on these rational fears by appealing to expert authority without submitting the basis for that authority to the critical review of the expert community! They took a short cut to maximise their impact – something that has, as Houllier states, undermined confidence in GM produce. This is unfair to the wealth of human knowledge as well as potential human well being and entirely motivated by personal gain.

The effect of Wakefield et al. (1988) has continued long after the credibility of not only the paper but the lead author himself have been entirely discredited. Imagine if his paper too went along with pop media; books and movies associating (even on the cover) death with GM produce.

Rigour is not the point here at all; but instead it is academics knowingly subverting the course of public awareness of scientific understanding for personal gain. What needs to happen is more rigour in how science should be communicated to the public.

Oreskes and Conway, in Merchants of Doubt, demonstrate very much the same manipulations of public understanding for personal gain (and ideological entrenchment against reality) and also make a valuable point that science communication needs to live by the principle of fair weight, not equal weight, to various ideas.

If science communicators were sufficiently trained and followed a suitable ethical code to provide fair weight, such merchants of misinformation would not be able to obtain the credibility they require to pursue favoured outcomes at the expense of reality. They would be forced to back it up against their fellow community of experts (remember, truth ultimately fails deconstruction indefinitely, regardless how much it is unfavourable to individuals) or reduced to crackpot conspiracy media outlets.

In either case, unfounded or otherwise weak conclusions simply would not be able to enjoy undeserved respect and attention.

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