GM Watch editor Jonathan Matthews responds to a Danish scientist who sees value in the new Sense About Science report on peer review. [for more about the report: http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=4074]
1.Dear Jonathan Matthews
2.Dear Dr X
3.A hot flush for Big Pharma
1. Dear Jonathan Matthews,
Thank you for this.
I looked at the report yesterday.
I did follow Dr. Horton's troubles with the Pusztai case, but was not aware of the hard talk against him from Dr. Lachmann and The Royal Society.
I also have been a long time observer of the debate about the (peer) review system in science, which surprisingly is not used very much, or has not yet reached the social and economic sciences, at least not in Denmark. This was revealed in a media storm here in connection with the Lomborg case, where the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) decided that Lomborg had not followed good scientific practice in his book, but was not guilty of scientific dishonesty.
A number of social- and economic scientists even declared that they did not know what good scientific practice is in their fields, by contrast to a group of about 600 scientists from the medical and natural sciences supporting the DCSD in the Danish media.
I think, irrespective of the natural and inevitable criticism and sometimes the public exposure of evident flaws in peer review, that the report makes an honest effort to explain what this inherent part of science is about and I also find that this is worthwhile to convey in detail to journalists and a wider public, including politicians.
It would be interesting to know what you think?
2. Dear Dr X
I entirely take your points. In fact, I totally agree with the report when it says that peer review though a very flawed system is, like democracy, the best of a bad lot. And if I thought that the people pushing the report were purely altruistically concerned to educate the public, journalists and fellow scientists about the merits of peer review, I'd be delighted.
Sadly, however, this is, in my view, very far from the motivation behind the report, and the constant references to mobile phone, MMR, GM, BSE type "scares", and the direct lie about Pusztai's research being rejected by a leading journal, reinforces my sense of this.
Perhaps I could give an example of non-peer reviewed research being reported in the media which you won't find in the report. Below I've pasted in an article from the British Medical Journal about the media coup for HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) achieved by an organisation called the Social Issues Research Centre, which carried out work for a pharma front group. They captured press headlines like "HRT 'leads to better sex and a happy healthy life'" (Evening Standard - 07.05.2002). PR doesn't come much better than that!!
The SIRC has a sister company called MCM (with identical personnel) which used to promise the following on its website:
"Do your PR initiatives sometimes look too much like PR initiatives? MCM conducts social/psychological research on the positive aspects of your business. The results do not read like PR literature, or like market research data. Our reports are credible, interesting and entertaining in their own right. This is why they capture the imagination of the media and your customers."
The reason I mention this example is partly that it is very different from most of those given in the report, but also because the director of SIRC/MCM, Dr Peter Marsh, is on the advisory board of Sense About Science. Marsh and the SIRC have also been involved in a joint project with the Royal Society to produce guidelines for the media on reporting science and health stories. In fact, SIRC on its website - www.sirc.org - runs a media watch section to highlight the misreporting of such stories!
It seems to me that the real game going on here is one of double bluff. What is projected is an image of the true scientist as one who only argues his case with great care on the basis of sound peer reviewed data open to critical scrutiny. But, in reality, such standards are only intended as requirements for those scientists whose views or findings are regarded as problematic, while they are simply ignored in relation to scientists making statements supportive of the technology/issue in question. In the latter case, while the SIRC/RS/Sense About Science-type scientists claim the moral and intellectual high ground,the reality is that anything goes! Statements that are quite unproven, comments on research that is still unpublished, even accounts of research that may be seriously misleading, or even entirely false, are likely to pass without censure.
I wrote more or less the same thing in an article, giving examples of this, about 4 or 5 years ago - see: http://ngin.tripod.com/false.htm. Interestingly, the John Innes Centre whose scientists I took to task in the article, is among the funders of Sense About Science, while Prof Mike Wilson, who I also focused on in the article for havingly misled the media, is on their advisory board.
My belief is that the real aim of those behind the new report is to try and better control the information available to government, the media, and the public, and to become the arbiters of what is acceptable science. Indeed, at one point the Royal Society even set up a register of scientists that journalists should contact on different topics to get authoritative opinions - the GM related sientists included ones I would regard as "campaigners" more than scientists, and as hemmed in by vested interest. A similar register is now being operated by the Science Media Centre whose director contributed to this report and who claims a "vast array of national media journalists... use the centre on a regular basis".
Hope this makes some sense of my concerns
3.A hot flush for Big Pharma
How HRT studies have got drug firms rallying the troops
BMJ 2003;327:400 (16 August)
HRT industry tactics play out not only in the ivory tower, but also in the corridors of big public relations firms. A group called HRT Aware hired London based PR firm the RED Consultancy to create an initiative that would "secure positive news coverage about HRT, target 45+ women with positive HRT messages, and link HRT to an aspirational life style" (www.pmlive.com/awards).
The Choices Campaign, as it was called, launched in February 2000 to wide media coverage. It reached masses of "ordinary" women by touring bingo halls with local celebrities, using a former soap star and female doctor as spokeswomen, and forging relationships with charities such as the Menopause Amarant Trust. What is not so well known is that HRT Aware was an industry group comprised of oestrogen product manufacturers Janssen-Cilag, Wyeth, Solvay, Servier, Organon, and Novo Nordisk.
HRT Aware also commissioned the Social Issues Research Centre to produce a Jubilee Report (named to coincide with the Queen's Jubilee celebrations), which last month won a Communiqué award from the magazine Pharmaceutical Marketing in the public relations and medical education category. SIRC's research linked the improved lives of modern day postmenopausal women to HRT. It introduced a new elite group of 50+ women, dubbed the "HRHs" (hormone-rich and happy), who were said to have better careers, relationships, health, wellbeing, and sex lives than those not taking HRT. The Jubilee Report received widespread - and supportive - media coverage in the UK, virtually none of which mentioned that the pharmaceutical industry fashioned the campaign.