Day By Day

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Another Self-Inflicted Blow to Scientific Authority -- the Lancet

I have long argued that if the scientific establishment is suffering a crisis of credibility it is because of the actions of "scientists," not the much derided rise of belief in supernatural agency.

In part people have lost faith in scientific authority because of the nature of the scientific enterprise. Scientific knowledge is often tentative, subject to constant revision. This is unavoidable and does not in it itself delegitimize science, although it does undermine the case for constructing civic policies on the basis of scientific opinion. Larger problems are the politicization of science, the journalistic excess of science reporting, the ideological corruption of science, and the rampant careerism that dominates the field. In short, science as currently practiced, is a human activity with no better claim on our trust than any other.

The latest example comes from the prestigious British medical journal, the Lancet. The Times reports:

BRITAIN’S premier medical journal is endangering public health by publishing unfounded scare stories, 30 of the country’s leading scientists say today. Poor editorial judgment at The Lancet has fuelled panic over issues such as the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, hormone replacement therapy and genetically modified (GM) crops, the eminent medical researchers charge in a letter that the journal has refused to publish.

The signatories, thirty fellows of the Royal Society, two of whom are Nobel laureates, accuse it of favouring “desperate headline-seeking” over sound science, to the detriment of public health. “Under the editorship of Richard Horton, the publication of badly conducted and poorly refereed scare stories has had devastating consequences for individual and public health, in the UK and abroad, and carried a high economic cost,” they say.

Read it here.

This is not some marginal publication -- this is the Lancet, the most prestigious medical journal in Britain. The rot has been spreading for decades, and here is evidence that it has reached the top. Peer review has failed. If you cannot trust what you read in the Lancet, the public cannot be blamed for mistrusting all pronouncements by medical authorities.

I repeat: if there is a crisis of credibility in modern science it is the fault of scientists themselves.

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