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The Continuing Problem of Advocacy Masking as Objective Studies Published in Professional Journals

Posted Feb 10 2009 12:09pm
I have written about this before --the phenomenon of political or ideological advocacy masking as objective scientific studies and then published in prestigious medical and other professional journals. ( So have others who I admire.) Ironically, in the post I link above, I quoted an article published in the Lancet complaining about biased studies in the UN , the very journal which this post concerns. Apparently, it published a "study" claiming very high Iraqi civilian casualties. (No comments about the Iraq War please.) Now, a polling organization is trying to find the bases for the claims but the authors are refusing to cooperate. From the story:
A prominent group of polling researchers has accused the lead author of a 2006 study suggesting massive civilian deaths in Iraq of violating the polling profession's codes and ethics. The Executive Council of the American Association for Public Opinion Research said Dr. Gilbert Burnham, a Johns Hopkins University professor, had repeatedly refused to cooperate with an eight-month investigation into his research on the Iraqi death toll that made headlines in October 2006 when it was published by the Lancet, a British medical journal.

The widely publicized study headed by Burnham contended that nearly 655,000 Iraqis had died because of the U.S.-led invasion and war in Iraq. "When asked to provide several basic facts about this research, Burnham refused," the council said. It noted that the group's Code of Professional Ethics and Practices calls for researchers to disclose their methodology when survey findings are made public so they can be independently evaluated and verified. "Dr. Burnham provided only partial information and explicitly refused to provide complete information about the basic elements of his research," said Mary Losch, chair of the association's Standards Committee.
Wait a minute! Didn't the editors at the Lancet require Burnham to provide this information before publishing the article as part of the peer review process? This was a widely reported story and everyone assumed that the Lancet would have required the authors to provide proof of their claims. Indeed, its appearance in a venerable journal gave the media the justification to run with the story.

Here's the point: If the peer review process was corrupted somehow, we need to know. If it was short-circuited or ignored, it means the editors published the "study" because they wanted it to be true or for a political reasons. If so, it was a stark betrayal of professionalism and a further corruption of science by ideology that is all too prevalent today. The Lancet owes its readers a full investigation of the article's accuracy and a retraction if the authors cannot emperically justify their conclusions.
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