The Times of London yesterday presented a devastating critique of a scandalously sloppy and politicized article in the famous Lancet medical journal, one of the first medical journals ever printed. The topic? War casualties in Iraq. The Lancet might have done well to remember the old observation that "in war, truth is the first casualty."
In the overcharged battleground of British politics today, with the Left leading the attack against Tony Blair for his alliance with the Bush Administration, Iraqi casualty estimates vary wildly according to the political biases of the source. Curiously, the editor of the Lancet does not claim to be unbiased --- he is passionately anti-war. Nor did the authors of the fraudulent "study," one of whom was running as a Democrat candidate for political office in the US. Predictably the "study" claimed 650,000 dead Iraqis as a result of the overthrow of Saddam --- far and away above other estimates.
If the truth is tough to find in superheated and politicized Britain, it is even harder to find in Iraq itself. The Lancet study claimed to survey households in the middle of a murderous field of battle. Ordinary Iraqis were apparently expected to tell the truth to complete strangers who knocked on their doors, asking about dead and wounded in the household. But Iraqis have just come through thirty years of Saddam, whose minions would slice off the tongues of those they suspected of ratting out the regime. The Saddam thugs are still roaming around, along with al Qaeda types, Mahdists, Sadrists and even weirder sects within sects. The Saudis, the Syrians and Iranians are paying Iraqi gangs to engage in daily mayhem against civilians. The national police are known to be in the hands of the Sadr gang. Then there are just plain crooks roaming the streets, kidnapping people for ransom --- and some honest Iraqi and Coalition personnel trying to keep order. Would you even open your door if a stranger knocked under those conditions?
According to Professor Michael Spagat, a statistician from Royal Holloway College, University of London:
"The (Lancet) authors ignore contrary evidence, cherry-pick and manipulate supporting evidence and evade inconvenient questions...
Iraqi households were supposedly selected randomly, but in fact were "randomly" chosen only in "representative" parts of the country. And you can bet that the surveyors stayed out of dangerous neighborhoods. Nobody apparently checked on what they actually did, and they were paid by the number of questionnaires filled out. No doubt they knew perfectly well what their American bosses wanted to hear. It was Baghdad Bob all over again, even with Saddam moldering in his grave.
The Lancet has shamefully fallen from its high standing --- a fatal flaw in a journal that depends utterly on its credibility. Fraudulent medical science is almost the norm today in Britain, because socialized medicine inevitably becomes a political football. Medical doctors are employed by the National Health Service, except for those who are moonlighting. Like any other bureaucracy, the medics are always looking for more money, and scare stories are their foremost way to squeeze the taxpayer.
So we see a long series of medical media frauds, like the decade-long scare campaign about Mad Cow disease, which never showed more than a dozen proven deaths but did great damage to British agriculture. (The French, interestingly, had their own infected cattle, but merely covered up the facts and kept on merrily eating brain meat, which was supposed to be deadly.). Then there is the annual bird flu panic headline, and regular politicized articles in the British Medical Journal, which has lost even more credibility than the Lancet. In Britain, the land of Newton, Harvey and Darwin, science has become a politicized mess.
The biggest mistake the Lancet made was publishing anything at all. It is a cardinal rule in scientific journals to publish only rigorously tested evidence. If there is no sensible way to obtain such evidence, don't publish anything at all. Instead, the editor decided that even a plainly fraudulent study would have to do. Chances are that the editor chose politically biased reviewers, to give their stamp of approval to a great deception. And it worked --- if you see it as a piece of propaganda. As science, it was a sink-in-the-ground embarrassment.
The Lancet is now feeling the heat, and rightly so. It will never recover its credibility until it returns to decent science. It is far too easy to spot flagrant frauds.