Last May, a Korean report in Science magazine prompted headlines around the world by declaring it had made tremendous advances in the heretofore disappointing field of embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research. It has now prompted much soul-searching in media land. “How could we have been fooled?” reporters are asking themselves in print.
Well, wake up guys, because the major science and medical journals have been fooling you for years. And what appeared to be a trickle when I first wrote on it in 1999 has become a torrent.
In fairness, for many submitted papers it’s quite difficult for journal editors and assigned peer-reviewers to spot data manipulation. This is especially true for that generated from a single lab. But not so if it’s pulled from some public source.
Consider a report by three environmentalist authors back in 1988 in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), analyzing male-female birth ratios between 1970 and 1990. The authors found male births declining, and predictably blamed man-made chemicals. Yet public data going back to 1940 showed gender ratios are always changing, for no obvious reason. Years that disproved their thesis were simply sliced out.
Fast forward to September 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina. Activists – including those in white lab coats – saw a grand opportunity to tie the exceptionally violent hurricane season to global warming. A study in Science declared, “A large increase was seen in the number and proportion of hurricanes reaching categories 4 and 5.”
But again, the researchers simply cut off their data at 1970, although public statistics go back to 1850. As with the gender ratio study, using the full data set would have reversed the conclusion. Why did the editors and peer-reviewers at both JAMA and Science not insist on use of the full data set? Because slicing off inconvenient data is a time-honored tool of advocacy science.
Yet published studies at least are subject to debunking. Try reading between lines that don’t exist because journals refuse to publish them.
Such was the case this month when Science killed a paper at the very last minute by respected British scientist Peter Lawrence. It criticized “the cult of political correctness” that insists men and women are born thinking alike. Editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy explained it didn’t “lead to a clear strategy about how to deal with the gender issue – as if Science hasn’t published countless papers on global warming with no strategy on how to deal with it.
In fact, among the hundreds of articles on global warming in Science and its British counterpart, Nature, trying finding one that doesn’t take the doomsayer party line.
Some journal editors are completely unabashed about their chicanery. In 2004 The Lancet released ahead of publication and right before the 2004 U.S. presidential election an outrageous report claiming 100,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed since the U.S. invasion. Yet other calculations showed a range of 15,000 - 24,000 – and even bin Laden claimed just “over 15,000.”
Even Science’s awful stem cell embarrassment wasn’t purely a matter of fraud. I have written repeatedly on how both Science and Nature have turned themselves into cheerleaders for any supposed advance in ES cell science, while opening their pages to laughable attacks on what many see as both medically and ethically superior – namely using adult stem cells.
Perhaps the best explanation for why the Korean paper slipped by is that the editors so desperately wanted to believe it was real that they missed all the warning signs of fraud.
If you think I’m cherry-picking, consider I’ve only cited papers from three of the world’s top four medical and science journals. Nothing here from the Annals of Aneurisms. Further, the problems with all these papers were readily apparent before publication and all reports were on politically-charged issues.
Bottom line: First, there needs to be an outside body of peer-reviewers not picked by the journals themselves. Second, the media need to stop treating medical and science journals as somehow sacrosanct. Like seemingly everything in today’s world, they’ve gone political.