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Milloy: Another Green Conflict-of-Interest Bust

I just caught yet another environmental activist-scientist falsely claiming to have no financial conflicts of interest. It’s a good thing for Washington State University’s Charles Benbrook he isn’t a global warming skeptic like Willie Soon.

Benbrook and co-author Philip Landrigan of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine recently authored a junk science-fueled commentary in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) attacking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for approving a new pesticide intended to address the problem of herbicide resistance in genetically modified crops (GMOs).

Now the NEJM prides itself on having very strict financial conflict-of-interest disclosure standards — God help you if you a pharmaceutical company-funded researcher who fails to tattoo that fact on your forehead let alone whatever you want to publish in the journal.

Despite the NEJM’s standard, both Benbrook and Landrigan declared in their conflict-of-disclosure forms posted online that they had “nothing to disclose.”

But I knew that both Benbrook and Landrigan are long-time professional anti-pesticide and anti-GMO activists, despite their seemingly benign university associations. I contacted the NEJM and informed it that both are board members, advisors and/or paid consultants to multiple advocacy groups and commercial interests which lobby against GMOs and pesticides.

A few days later, the NEJM responded that it had contacted Benbrook and Landrigan, and that neither had any update to make to their disclosure form. I replied with the nearest document at hand which was Benbrook’s own resume posted on his university web page describing anti-pesticide and anti-GMO consulting and expert witness-for-hire activities.

Caught red-handed, after several days the NEJM responded that Benbrook’s disclosure form had been amended to disclose his financial conflicts of interest. But the correction was made quietly and without any indication that Benbrook had first submitted a false disclosure form and then falsely told the NEJM it was accurate when first asked about it.

The NEJM’s kid glove treatment of Benbrook and its lack of interest in Landrigan’s conflicts stands in stark contrast to what happened to climate skeptic Willie Soon, who was raked over the coals earlier this year by the mainstream media, his employer and journals for alleged failure to disclose industry funding of his work. Though Soon had actually complied with all applicable disclosure standards — unlike Benbrook and Landrigan — that did not save him from being publicly flogged.

This is not the first time I have exposed the double standard on conflict-of-interest disclosure for that the politically correct enjoy.

Last June, I caught Harvard and Syracuse researchers lying about their financial relationship with EPA in the publication of a study intended to boost EPA’s global warming rules. A few years ago, I busted MIT researcher and global warming alarmist Kerry Emanuel for failing to disclose his insurance industry ties in the prestigious journal Nature, which subsequently forced Emanuel to disclose his relationships.

Since financial conflict of interest standards are often enforced like a one-way street and are subject to easy misinterpretation, the solution is to eliminate and replace them with scientific data and open debate.

A scientist’s financial backing is not nearly as important as the quality of his research, which can best be judged by the efforts by others to replicate his results. This requires access to his raw data, a full description of his methods, and willingness to timely respond to subsequent questions.

For commentaries like the one written by Benbrook and Landrigan, the solution is even easier — just present both sides of the argument, like USA Today does on its editorial page. Presented with both sides of an argument, readers will have less worry that they’re only being told part of the story.

Steve Milloy publishes JunkScience.com (Twitter @JunkScience).

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