Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

01/14/2008 (1:40 pm)

Bent Science?

Three weeks before the 2006 midterm elections, the British medical journal Lancet released a disturbing study of civilian deaths in the Iraq war (view study here,) claiming that 650,000 more civilians had died since the inception of the war than would have died if there had been no war. This has become a rallying point for anti-war advocates.

But it’s the assault on science, not the assault on Iraq, that turns out to be the most disturbing finding.

Over the weekend, we learned that Lancet, one of the most frequently-quoted journals in the medical world, truncated the peer-review process to ensure the study’s release in time to influence the 2006 elections in the US. George Soros, famous far-left financier, provided half the funds for the study, apparently in a deliberate attempt to defeat Republicans in the Congressional races. Lancet also released a similar study just prior to the 2004 Presidential election (view study here,) aimed at influencing that election as well.

The primary source for these revelations was a lengthy discussion in the non-partisan National Journal, published more than a week ago. It became news over the weekend, courtesy of a London Times article that highlighted Soros’ funding, prompting this scathing editorial from the Boston Globe, this one from the Washington Times, and much chatter from the blogosphere.

From the National Journal article:

In 2004, Roberts [one of the authors of the Lancet study] conceded that he opposed the Iraq invasion from the outset, and — in a much more troubling admission — said that he had e-mailed the first study to The Lancet on September 30, 2004, “under the condition that it come out before the election.” Burnham admitted that he set the same condition for Lancet II. “We wanted to get the survey out before the election, if at all possible,” he said.

“Les and Gil [authors of the study] put themselves in position to be criticized on the basis of their views,” Garfield concedes, before adding, “But you can have an opinion and still do good science.” Perhaps, but the Lancet editor who agreed to rush their study into print, with an expedited peer-review process and without seeing the surveyors’ original data, also makes no secret of his leftist politics.

The National Journal further provided evidence that the authors of the study, researchers from Johns Hopkins University aided by a former Hussein regime official, may have violated ethics rules designed to protect the safety and anonymity of subjects of scientific surveys.

There was already reason to question the findings of the study. The study was originally disputed because it presented casualty projections an order of magnitude larger than any other source, including the anti-war Iraq Body Count. Criticisms include: far too few cluster points, with the result that small anomalies can cause huge statistical swings; failure to record demographic data for evaluating the demographic validity of the sample; suspiciously large data groups, called “data-heaping,” that indicate possible fabrications of numbers; suspiciously small numbers of subjects refusing to participate; failure to control for duplication or fabrication of death certificates; failure to identify or exclude combatant deaths; failure to address anomalies, like the drop in child mortality after the war began.

Compounding the suspicions, Riyadh Lafta, former health official in Saddam Hussein’s regime and coordinator of the actual survey, refuses to release his original data for peer review, and refused to be interviewed by National Journal.

Equally disturbing was the national press’ eagerness to trumpet the results of the survey uncritically when it was announced. From the National Journal article:

Within a week, the study had been featured in 25 news shows and 188 articles in U.S. newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.

We’ve seen this eagerness in the national press many times before. The claim that it’s about profit-seeking does not explain the selective eagerness to rush to print stories that favor talking points of the political Left.

We’ve also seen this tactic of producing questionable studies to bolster talking points before. I wrote previously about a similar instance regarding voter photo identification and its effect on voter turnout.

This combination of manufacturing science to suit the needs of the political left and complicity from the press to broadcast the results uncritically, bends both science and journalism to produce propaganda. The unfortunate result is that formerly trusted sources of critical information can no longer be trusted. If science is the tool of the political left, and peer review doesn’t weed out the badly-formed reports, then the public stops trusting scientists, and knowledge fades away.

Critics will respond that the Bush administration has become infamous for “bending science” for the purpose of partisan politics. My observation is that most of the reports of this phenomenon are, themselves, instances of partisanship twisting the reporter’s evaluation of the Bush administration. I published an instance on my blog back in December, where an entire Congressional study denouncing the Bush administration’s “war on science” turned out to be a complaint that the administration’s PR statements didn’t draw from sources the Democrats favored.

Another instance occurred back in 2005, when the New York Times reported breathlessly concerning a former American Petroleum Institute lobbyist altering Bush administration press statements concerning global climate change; it turned out that the administration was obeying a court order, but that fact hardly made it to print.

By contrast, the Lancet incident involves, not press statements by a political body, but genuine abrogation of peer review responsibility by a highly reputed scientific journal, and distortion of actual findings to deliberately affect elections. Lancet’s reputation should be seriously damaged by this incident, which is a genuine academic scandal.

Here are offhand comments about the incident from Instapundit, Paterico, and Newsbusters, and a more thoughtful commentary by Tigerhawk.

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1 Comment »

February 16, 2009 @ 2:10 pm #

[…] will be) told about social scientists fudging numbers to champion abortion rights, ban smoking, discredit the Iraq war, and excuse Bill Clinton’s compulsive lying. And don’t get me started on what’s […]

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