Good God, what a mess: That’s what I kept thinking as, face in palm, I read the latest updates on an evolving controversy over Golden Rice. I was alerted to it by a recent piece in the Boston Globe, but Retraction Watch had the story first. Here’s their summary:

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is retracting a paper that showed genetically engineered rice serves as an effective vitamin A supplement after a Massachusetts judge denied the first author’s motion for an injunction against the publisher.

The journal announced plans to retract the paper last year following allegations that the paper contained ethical mis-steps, such as not getting informed consent from the parents of children eating the rice, and faking ethics approval documents.

Last July, first author Guangwen Tang at Tufts University filed a complaint and motion for preliminary injunction against the journal’s publisher, the American Society for Nutrition, to stop the retraction.

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According to the ASN, on July 17, a Massachusetts Superior Court “cleared the way” for the publisher to retract the paper. So they have, as of July 29.

Basically, the study gave some kids Golden Rice, some kids vitamin A supplements, and some kids spinach. The study found that Golden Rice worked as well as the vitamins, and the spinach wasn’t as good. And those findings seem to be valid, despite the retraction. Here’s what Tufts University told Retraction Watch:

The journal indicated that its retraction was based on the fact that the authors were unable to provide sufficient evidence that the study had been reviewed and approved by a local ethics committee in China and that parents and children involved in the study had been provided the full informed consent form as well as eligibility issues identified in regard to two subjects in the study. No questions were raised about the integrity of the study data, accuracy of the research results or safety of the research subjects.

Tang isn’t talking, but here’s what I bet happened: She thought she was testing the ability of a totally safe rice to deliver vitamin A, and so she only sought consent for that. I can imagine that many scientists might not even think to mention, or get consent, for the fact that this rice happens to be genetically modified, because to many scientists genetic modification is a non-issue — no more important than the color of the hat the farmer wore when cultivating. But it turned out, it was an issue for people, and that’s important, whether it’s a scientifically valid safety issue or not.

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Consider the issue through the lens of a different hypothetical case: Let’s say I’m doing a clinical trial on a drug in gelatin capsules. I’m just testing the drug, and the gel-caps may be perfectly safe from my perspective. But if I’m working with any strict vegetarians, I better be damn sure to tell them that the drugs are delivered in a capsule made from animal products. People’s values matter. And when it comes to GMOs, I bump into a lot of scientists that have a hard time accepting that: They are empiricists — they are interested in facts, not values!

Values can be disgusting and hateful, and I’m not saying anyone should kowtow to cultural ideals they consider wrong. I’m just saying that failing to consider people’s values, no matter how groundless you think they are, is a recipe for failure. If you want someone’s cooperation — so that they might participate in your study, or get a flu shot, or start fighting climate change — you have to understand their values. You can try to convince them they are wrong, but you can’t expect them to simply agree that science has closed off the debate, and start helping you.

Scientists are usually best at doing science, and not always the best at doing diplomacy or cross-cultural communication. We need scientists to inform the decisions we make about handling new technologies, but it can be hard to hear the scientists whose findings don’t fit with our values. Our ability to communicate lags behind our ability to discover.

At this point, after 30 years of vitriolic debate over genetic engineering, it seems to me that many of the most empathetic scientists, the people who can understand and speak to the values of their opposition, have retired to the sidelines. The people who keep up the struggle often have great conviction, and little interest in seeing the world with the eyes of their adversaries. Stories like this only speed the vicious cycle.

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