It was the stuff of anti-GMO activists' dreams: A “peer-reviewed” paper, published in a scientific-looking journal with an impressive title, detailing how a large survey of more than 3,000 people showed major health improvements among those who gave up GMO foods.
Here's how the alternative-health website Sustainable Pulse breathlessly reported the news:
"A peer-reviewed article released Tuesday in the International Journal of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine, conducted by the Institute for Responsible Technology, has revealed that the health of all of the participants improved after switching to a non-GMO diet or simply reducing the amount of GMO foods they ate."
The anti-GMO website GM Watch also got in on the act:
"Switching to a non-GMO diet can transform health for the better, according to survey results reported in a new peer-reviewed article by Jeffrey M. Smith, published in the International Journal of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine."
The health magazine Shape published a long piece based on Smith's piece. Titled "The Possible Health Risks of GMO Foods, According to the Latest Research," it carried the subhead "A new study looks at the potential health risks of GMOs, and the results might surprise you."
Jeffrey Smith is already notorious in the pro-science advocacy community as the former swing-dance instructor and yogic flyer who promotes some of the most extreme anti-GMO myths. However, he apparently lacks even the most basic scientific credentials.
According to the Genetic Literacy Project: "Other than his time as a professional swing dance instructor, Jeffrey Smith has been a political activist, marketing and business development director, and issues activist/author oriented around ventures linked to the multi-billion dollar Maharishi Institute religion and has no other reported science education background or other credentials."
Smith's “research” involved him emailing a questionnaire to 180,716 people on the mailing list of his Institute for Responsible Technology, which he says is a "leading advocacy group that educates people on the health dangers of GMOs." Of these, 3,256 replied, a response rate of 1.8%.
Using this splendidly biased sample of respondents — all of whom had presumably been regularly subjected to Smith's own anti-GMO propaganda by virtue of being on his email list — Smith gathered results purporting to show health improvements among those who had given up GMO foods.
Smith's questionnaire gave a laundry-list of 28 different health complaints, varying from the vague "Digestive problems" to "Fatigue" to "Clouding of consciousness (brain fog)", not to mention Autism, Infertility, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Hilariously, the questionnaire did not give the option of a negative response. Instead respondents were asked to choose whether giving up GMO foods had shown them:
1. Some Mild Improvement
2. Moderate Improvement
3. Significant Improvement
4. Nearly Gone
5. Complete Recovery
6. N/A Not Applicable"
From this, Smith lists the “results,” including that 85.2 percent self-reported that “Digestive problems” had improved, 60.4 percent found they had less “Fatigue,” and so on. The next section in his paper has some excellent examples of correlation-causation confusion, purporting to link acres of GMO crops with bowel dysfunction and “deaths due to intestinal infection.”
"This is not how I wanted to spend my birthday," complained Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam when I asked her to take a look at Jeffrey Smith's paper. As for Smith's sample, Van Eenennaam commented sarcastically: "No confirmation bias there. It would be like the KKK sending out a survey to their members about their thoughts on racial equality. Even 98.2 percent of these people did not respond to the survey."
The upshot for Van Eenennaam?
"Reading that paper was one of the most painful intellectual experiences of my life,” she said. “The misinformation was staggering. The cherry picking was impressive in its scope. It was the who’s who of woo. Pusztai’s ancient unrepeated rat study, Carman’s red-stomached pigs, and Seralini’s many missives made it in, but not the entire scientific literature and scientific opinion of every major scientific society in the world. The scare list was everything from mutagenesis to the Bt toxin to glyphosate. How can you write a 20 page paper and so actively and stridently avoid ANY of the thousands of papers showing no harm from GMOs?"
The question then becomes, as Van Eenennaam crisply put it: "How did this scientific diarrhea get through peer-review?" The recent explosion of predatory journals offering “pay for play” publishing has already seriously polluted the scientific literature, as many commentators have pointed out. Distinguishing fake from real science is becoming increasingly difficult, and anti-GMO activists have been quick to cash in on the new opportunities.
However, the journal that Smith published in, the “International Journal of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine,” is not even of pay-for-play caliber. It is published by the International College of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine. “Functional medicine” is a form of alternative medicine involving various pseudoscientific theories, or to put it more bluntly, quackery.
The journal's editor, Alex Vasquez, is a chiropractor who in previous issues of the journal has published unreadable stream-of-consciousness screeds. Vasquez has also contributed to anti-vaccine books, and the journal has published papers claiming to show that symptoms of Zika virus such as microcephaly were caused by a “Monsanto larvicide” used in mosquito control rather than the virus itself.
"These so called 'Journals' will be the death of legitimate science," worried Van Eenennaam. Her fears may not be misplaced. Smith's tactic, like that of many anti-science campaigners, has been to use sciencey-looking publications and technical language to try to create an air of expertise.
Other anti-GMO groups then report on Smith's "peer-reviewed" paper as if it was a real piece of science, and their articles are then picked up by other media. In this way, myths gain currency online, and can be eventually accepted by many people as fact. If nothing else, Smith's paper gives us a good example of how these myths get started.