Keep libel laws out of science
Below (item 1) is a comment about the petition from Alun Salt of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester. Item 2 is a reminder of the legal threats made by Shane Morris.
Strangely, we don't remember Sense About Science - or any of its GM-loving Advisory Council, like Phil Dale, Peter Lachmann, Julian Ma, Alan Malcolm, Vivian Moses, Matt Ridley, Anthony Trewavas, Roger Turner or Michael Wilson - taking up the cry of "keep libel laws out of science" when Morris was threatening to take legal action over material challenging the accuracy of his reporting of his award winning "scientific" research.
Archaeoastronomy, June 4 2009
This time in support of Simon Singh
I thought quite a bit before putting this up. While I support Simon Singh, I have doubts about Sense About Science. Sense About Science is loosely connected with Spiked Online through Living Marxism, which seems to think Christopher Monckton is a credible speaker on climate change. The climate change debate is one of the major sources of pseudoscientific nonsense on the web, so it's disappointing that Sense About Science has so little on the topic. In the end I signed because Jack of Kent is asking for signatures. It was a big help that George Monbiot and Nick Cohen, who are aware of the history of the group, signed. Even now I'm not comfortable with the title of the letter, which implies scientists might somehow be exempt from laws that apply to everyone else.
This is another reason why I'm wary of signing anything that gets passed along by a group. If you want to sign with honesty you need to look into exactly what you're signing. Often there simply isn't time to do that.
[lots of embedded links]
Shane Morris is an Irish-born biotech scientist employed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, an agency of the Canadian government. The Canadian government, together with the Argentine government, joined a World Trade Organisation (WTO) trade dispute launched on 13 May 2003 by the US government against the EU for its reluctance to approve GM food and farming.
Morris is currently, while still apparently employed by the Canadian government, a student at University College Cork and lists his research interests as "Science policy, GM crops, Risk communication". He describes his postgraduate research as being in "Public perceptions and attitudes to modern biotechnology and resulting public policy and legislation".
1. "Wormy corn" scandal
2. Response to "wormy corn" paper
3. Libel threats backfire
4. Role of Canadian government
4.1 Publications by Morris
4.2 External resources
1."Wormy corn" scandal
Morris has been internationally condemned for co-authoring a paper that has been described as a "flagrant fraud", and for attempting to shut down the GMWatch and GM-Free Ireland websites after they published reports about the scandal.
The paper, which Morris co-authored with Doug Powell and others, was titled, “Agronomic and consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweet-corn” and was published in the British Food Journal in 2003. The paper won the British Food Journal's award for the "most outstanding paper" in 2004.
The paper was based on findings from a Canadian farm store where customers were offered a choice of GM or non-GM sweetcorn. The four researchers concluded that 50 percent more people opted for the GM crop.
[image of "wormy corn" sign]
Unfortunately, Morris's paper did not disclose that above the non-GM corn was a sign (see picture, above) asking shoppers: "Would you eat wormy sweetcorn?", while above the GM crop was a sign saying, "quality sweetcorn". The Canadian journalist who originally uncovered the story, Toronto Star reporter Stuart Laidlaw, said there had been pro-GM literature in the shop, but nothing giving the arguments against GM. Also, the contrast between “wormy” and “quality” sweetcorn was highlighted on the sign by the number of times the regular corn had been sprayed with insecticides and fungicide. These blatant attempts to bias the consumers’ choice were not reported in the BFJ paper.
2.Response to "wormy corn" paper
UK campaign group GMWatch published a photo of the wormy sweetcorn sign under the title "Award for a Fraud". Following its exposé, in May 2006, New Scientist carried demands from Dr Richard Jennings, a researcher on scientific ethics at Cambridge University, that the British Food Journal withdraw the paper.
Here's how British satirical magazine Private Eye told the story of what happened next:
"The journal's editor refused, although he did print a letter condemning the paper alongside one from one of its authors, Douglas Powell of Kansas State University, dismissing the allegations. Powell said the signs were only up for a week, contained the language of consumers and were "not intended to manipulate consumer purchasing patterns".
Then, last month another of the paper's authors, Canadian government analyst Shane Morris, threatened a libel action against GMWatch's internet service provider.
Morris said the wormy signs had been taken down long before he joined the research team on 27 September 2000. He put two photos on his blog that he said showed the "wormy" sign had been removed and replaced.
But a computer scientist who saw the images disputed this. And a Toronto-based food policy expert, Dr Rod MacCrae, who visited the shop on September 27 2000, told the Eye: "All I can tell you is that a wormy corn sign looking very much like the one in GMWatch's photo, was there at the farm the day I visited."
Dr Richard Jennings, who lectures on scientific practice at Cambridge University, is adamant the paper should have been withdrawn. "The case is a flagrant fraud, as far as I see it. It was a sin of omission by failing to divulge information which quite clearly should have been disclosed." But then, if the researchers had disclosed the wormy corn labels, would any respected scientific journal have published it?"
3.Libel threats backfire
Morris's libel threats against the GMWatch and GM-Free Ireland websites backfired via a flurry of criticism including a complaint to the UK High Commissioner for Canada, renewed calls for his paper to be withdrawn, and expert photographic evidence from Tim Lambert, computer scientist at the University of New South Wales, concluding that the authors' accounts of the use of the signs were "untrue". Peter Melchett of the Soil Association accused Morris of resorting to "personal abuse" in attacking critics of his paper.
In November 2007, twenty-eight British MPs in the UK House of Commons including the former UK environment minister Michael Meacher, and Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond tabled an Early Day Motion deploring:
"the continuing efforts by an employee of the Canadian Government, Shane Morris, to close down websites in the UK and Republic of Ireland which have, along with Dr Richard Jennings of Cambridge University, said that research which claimed that consumers prefer GM sweetcorn published by this employee and others and given an Award for Excellence, is a flagrant fraud."
In December 2007, five Irish Senators, led by Senator David Norris, asked the Leader of the Senate to request the Government to formally intervene to stop "the extraordinary interference by an agent of the Canadian Government in political discourse in this country".
In January 2008 forty scientists sent an open letter to the editor and editorial board of the British Food Journal (BFJ) calling for the journal to retract the paper. The signatories included leading experts in the areas of science policy and research ethics and two Members of Parliament, including Britain's former minister of the environment Michael Meacher. They comprised experts from Britain, Canada, the US, Norway, France, Italy, Brazil, Indonesia and Japan. The scientists called the British Food Journal's publication and subsequent honoring of the paper a "disgraceful incident" which "has brought science and the BFJ into disrepute".
4.Role of Canadian government
The Canadian Government also came in for criticism from Michael Meacher MP in an exchange of correspondence with the Canadian High Commissioner in London. The Canadian government had tried to distance itself from Morris's research by saying he was not their employee at the time he conducted it. Meacher wrote to the High Commissioner:
"I quite accept that Mr. Morris was not working for the Government at the time he participated in the research back in Autumn 2000 and that he co-authored this paper in a private capacity, but I cannot accept that that makes it an entirely private matter. Throughout his employment by the Canadian Government - first in Summer 2001 as a Professional Consultant to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and later as its National Biotechnology Operations Coordinator, before going on to his current post as a Consumer Analyst for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada - his scientific credentials, particularly in relation to biotechnology and consumer issues, must have been a significant consideration in assessing his suitability for the roles he was undertaking. The fact that he now stands accused of being party to mendacity, falsification and fraud in respect of biotechnology and consumer issues, is therefore hardly something that the Canadian Government can turn a blind eye to.
This is also not simply an issue of what Mr. Morris may have got up to before he was employed by the Canadian Government, as it is not only the study itself that is controversial but Mr. Morris's more recent attempts to defend the study. His statements as to how the study was conducted, and his role in it, have been contradicted by a number of scientists and others, who as you may know have in some cases directly accused him of making "untrue statements". In this context, I would also refer you to the current issue of the magazine Private Eye where he is accused of "melodramatic lies" in relation to claims he recently made to the magazine.
It is also inevitable that Mr. Morris's use of heavy-handed libel threats and aggressive public statements will be viewed as reflecting on the institution that employs him."
2.1 Publications by Morris
Powell, D.A., Blaine, K., Leudtke, A., Morris, S. and Wilson, J. (2001). Safe enough: enhancing consumer confidence in food production technologies in Governing Food ed. by P.W.B. Phillips and R. Wolfe. McGill-Queen's University Press. Montreal.
Morris, S. (2001) “Food under Fire: Risk in the Public Sphere”, a paper presented at the conference entitled “Food of the Future: Comparing conventional, organic and genetically modified food crops: Understanding and managing the risks”, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, B.C., May 2-4, 2001.
Powell, D.A., Blaine, K., Morris, S.H. and Wilson, J. (2003) Agronomic and consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweet-corn. British Food Journal, Vol. 105, No. 10, pp. 700-713.
Morris, S.H. (2007) EU biotech crop regulations and environmental risk: a case of the emperor's new clothes? Trends in Biotechnology, 25(1): 2-6.
4.2 External resources
For more information on Morris, see The GM-Free Ireland website.
Address: Shane Morris, Genetics & Biotechnology Lab, Room 2.12, Dept. of Biochemistry, Lee Maltings, Prospect Row, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland.
Website: Morris's blogs
1. "World Trade Organisation dispute on genetically engineered organisms", Greenpeace briefing, May 2006, accessed January 2009
2. "Shane Morris", Dr Charlie Spillane website, accessed January 2009.
3. Powell DA, Blaine K, Morris S and Wilson J., "Agronomic and consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweet-corn", British Food Journal, 2003, 105 (10), pp. 700-713.
4. "New Scientist editorial", New Scientist, No. 2553, 27 May 2006, accessed January 2009.
5. "Corn fakes", Private Eye, No. 1194, 28 September 11 October 2007, archived at Bioscience Resource Project website, accessed January 2009.
6. "Corn fakes", Private Eye, No. 1194, 28 September 11 October 2007.
7. Laidlaw reported on the experiment in Chapter 4 of his book, Secret Ingredients: The Brave New World of Industrial Farming (McClelland & Stewart, 2003). The relevant part of the chapter is archived here (accessed January 2009).
8. "Controversy over claims in favour of GM corn", New Scientist, No. 2553, 27 May 2006, accessed January 2009.
9. "Corn fakes", Private Eye, No. 1194, 28 September 11 October 2007, archived at Bioscience Resource Project website, accessed January 2009.
10. "Soil Association complaint to James Wright, UK High Commissioner for Canada", 4 September 2007, accessed January 2009.
11. Peter Melchett, "Soil Association calls for British Food Journal to withdraw misleading paper by Powell, Blaine, Morris and Wilson", 4 September 2007, accessed January 2009
12. You can see the photographic evidence at "Would you eat wormy sweet corn?", Tim Lambert's blog, accessed January 2009
13. "Soil Association criticises Shane Morris for 'personal abuse', letter from Peter Melchett, Soil Association, to Shane Morris, 7 October 2007, accessed January 2009.
14. "Early Day Motion 425: Scientific research into GM crops", Early Day Motions, UK Parliament website, accessed January 2009.
15. "Seanad Debate", Vol. 187, No. 26, accessed January 2009.
16. "Open Letter to British Food Journal Editor & Editorial Board: Wormy Corn Paper Must be Retracted", undated, published online by GMWatch 24 January 2008, accessed January 2009.
17. James R. Wright, UK High Commissioner for Canada, letter to Michael Meacher MP, archived in undated form on the GM-Free Ireland website, accessed February 2009.
18. "Michael Meacher MP - correspondence with High Commissioner for Canada", published by GMWatch 31 January 2008, accessed January 2009.