Leading Article: A science lesson that we must all digest

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The Independent Culture
IF THERE is anything to be salvaged from the sorry affair of Dr Arpad Pusztai - the scientist who fed genetically modified potatoes to rats and generated a national outcry as a result - it is the realisation that good science is difficult to achieve, and bad science is all too easily hyped into a scare story. Dr Pusztai was guilty of bad science and some sections of the media were equally culpable in accepting his claims at face value.

The interaction between scientists and the media is at the best of times a delicate business. Scientists deal with the messy job of unravelling the complex laws governing the natural world; journalists have the equally difficult job of revealing the truth as simply as they can to a public audience. Where the two aims can clash is when complex scientific issues are simplified in the media to the extent that they become distorted. This was part of the problem with Dr Pusztai, whose complex experiments were interpreted as hard evidence of the dangers from GM food.

It turned out that his research showed nothing of the kind. Dr Pusztai's work was a classic example of science by press release. Instead of submitting his research to his peers, and letting them review and criticise the work before it was published in a scientific journal, he allowed the interpretation of his results to cast doubt over GM food.

The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons says in its own report on the issue, published yesterday, that science stories in the media should be governed by a code of practice to ensure accuracy. That misses the point. What is needed is for all of us to realise that the complexities of science sometimes do not permit a simple, black-and- white conclusion. This necessary caution will always be undermined by scientists who bypass the peer review process. That is the real scare story.