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Opinion: In GMO debate, science used by both sides

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Recent comments by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., at the Bay Farm Research Center in Columbia, Mo., characterize one of the analytical tools at stake in many of the policy debates facing contemporary agriculture. 

“It’s ironic to me that the same group that’s pounding the table about climate change wants to ignore the science with GMOs,” she says in an article by the Collumbia Missourian. “If you believe in science, you believe in science. You can’t just pick and choose depending on the issue.”

When it comes to issues such as GMOs, antibiotic residues on meat, global warming, water pollution and pesticide use and its residuals, participants on one or both sides of the issue make an appeal to science to bolster their position.

The larger problem in making public policy decisions about GMOs, antibiotic residues and a host of other ag-related issues becomes clear when one listens to the arguments that each side is making. As McCaskill points out, one can be on one side of an argument with regard to science on one topic, and seemingly the other side when it comes to a different issue.

Psychology findings

Such apparent inconsistencies tell us little about the nature of the underlying science surrounding the two issues. Instead it tells us the debate involves more than science. One has to understand beliefs, self-interest, the question of how one establishes what is safe and potentially unsafe, economics and a host of other factors to make sense of the debates over what seem like relatively simple issues.

A recent study by researchers who reproduced 100 studies published in three leading psychology journals found “more than half of the findings did not hold up when retested.” Of the 100 studies, 35 held up in the replication, while 62 did not.

“It’s like we’ve come clean,” says Alan Kraut, the executive director of the Association for Psychological Science. “This kind of correction is something that has to happen across science, and I’m proud that psychology is leading the charge on this.”

According to Carey, “This attitude reflects an enormous culture change that has begun to take hold in psychology. As recently as five years ago, researchers acted largely as their own editors, shaping the story their data told. But well before the publication of the new report, a handful of researchers around the world had begun setting up systems to increase transparency and data sharing. The report’s findings came as no surprise to them.”

Jelte Wicherts, an associate professor in the department of statistics and methods at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands says, “It’s interesting. I’ve just joined a faculty where the young researchers, they’ve completely changed their ways. They share all their data on request, without any regulations; they put everything online before sending out papers for review. It’s a grass-roots effort.”

Data transparency

What lessons can we draw from this as we consider the role of science in providing a set of data points that can be used to discuss issues, such as the safety of GMOs, antibiotic residues on meat, global warming, water pollution and pesticide use and residuals?

Given the recent happenings in psychology and at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, no simple appeal to “science”— even by dozens of renowned scientists — will reduce the controversy over the host of issues surrounding the question of the safety of GMOs. Full transparency and release of the studies — including all of the data sets that were created during these studies — that have been conducted by and on behalf of the companies that have produced and are marketing these products is a good start. Until then, the current cacophony will undoubtedly continue and many of the appeals to science will fall on deaf ears.

Editor’s note: Schaffer is a research assistant professor in the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center at the University of Tennessee. Ray is the former director of the APAC.