By David Woods ([email protected])

The Wall Street Journal published an editorial last month titled “The Lancet’s Political Hit.” It described how that venerable medical journal had published a study exaggerating the number of casualties (by an estimated tenfold) in the Iraq war. It turned out that the study was funded by billionaire George Soros, a famous critic of that war. Moreover, Lancet editor Dr. Richard Horton, according to the WSJ, had said, before rushing the study into print in time for the 2006 US elections, that “this axis of Anglo-American imperialism extends its influence through war and conflict, gathering power and wealth as it goes.”

When even the ‘best’ scientific journals conflate science with politics they not only do themselves an injustice and harm their own credibility; they also do a disservice to readers and researchers who trust them.

This ‘fudging’ of science with political partisanship was also the case when in 1999 the Journal of the American Medical Association fired its editor Dr. George Lundberg for injecting JAMA into a major political debate. The AMA accused Lundberg of having “threatened the historic tradition and integrity of JAMA by inappropriately and inexcusably injecting the journal into a major political debate (President Clinton’s impeachment trial that had nothing to do with science or medicine).”

This was the case, as well, when the Canadian Medical Association journal ousted its editor Dr. John Hoey for a partisan swipe against a newly-installed Canadian health minister, Tony Clement, suggesting that he would favour privatising Canada’s cherished government-run healthcare system.

In his book “The Trouble with Medical Journals” Dr Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, notes that “the two main pressures on medical editors come from politics and from business” – the latter having to do with not offending advertisers. Part of the problem, Smith wrote, “is that the selection of medical journal editors is more opaque than the selection of a pope.” Most editors of the world’s 10,000 or so medical journals have no training in editorship. But editing, he says, is becoming ever more complex and the journals are the main route to the research that underpins medicine; if the process is poor, he says, “there’s something rotten at the root.” Smith argues that it might be preferable to hire professional journalistic editors than academic physicians, some of whom, it seems, see their scientific journals as vehicles for promoting their political views.

But there are other reasons for scepticism about research articles. Dr John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist and researcher at Tufts University, believes that many studies may be flawed by sloppy analysis, which stems, he says, from poor study design or self-serving data analysis. It can be difficult to distinguish error from fraud, sloppiness from deception, eagerness from greed, or, increasingly, scientific conviction from partisan passion. The hotter the field of research the more likely its published findings should be viewed sceptically, he says.

As physician and humorist Michael O’Donnell puts it in “A Sceptic’s Medical Dictionary”: “Scientific Paper – Piece of prose that serves many purposes save that for which it claims to exist – the passing on of information… [and which] often serves the needs of its authors above the needs of its readers.”

So don’t let your sceptic’s guard down when trawling the biomedical literature. After all, scepticism is, as the American philosopher John Dewey put it, the mark of the educated mind.