- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 22, 2005

“Terrible.” “Disgracefully bad.” “Scare-mongering.” Those are some of the words Britain’s Royal Society used last week to describe the Lancet, the United Kingdom’s leading medical journal. Much of the invective can be chalked up to an escalating spat between the two institutions: The Lancet recently called the venerable 345-year-old Royal Society “shrill and superficial” and claimed it makes no major contributions to medicine. But in the latest round of charges, the Royal Society accuses the Lancet of contributing to children’s deaths in the wake of a flawed study on measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations and of unnecessarily casting aspersions on a worthy breast-cancer treatment.

Whether the Royal Society is onto something scientifically is something we leave to the experts. If the Lancet is guilty of editorial malpractice, however, it comes after at least one instance of egregious politicization of what is supposed to be an objective and scientific journal, an instance the London Times cited as one of several controversies surrounding the Lancet and one the Economist dissected back in late October, when the study was published.

We’re referring to the Lancet’s role in trying to influence the U.S. presidential election with a cynical “study” of deaths in the Iraq war in October. The study, led by Les Roberts of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, purported to show that nearly 100,000 deaths had resulted from the Iraq war. But as it turned out, Mr. Roberts used less-than-ideal methods and then overstated his results, possibly by a factor of two or three.

The method for this study — looking at population figures and surveying a few thousand Iraqis to ask how many deaths they’d heard of — abstracted the question and avoided the hard work of actually documenting the deaths.

In any event, the fine print showed the study didn’t really even conclude 100,000 deaths occured. It actually concluded that casualties were somewhere between 8,000 and 194,000. At the time, the British research group Iraq Body Count had placed the number of confirmed deaths reported in the media at around 15,000 — probably a low estimate, but not by a factor of six.

None of which prevented Lancet editor Richard Horton from editorializing that the war was “grieviously in error” from a public-health perspective. The authors were even more hyperbolic. One of them, Gilbert Burnham, told the International Herald Tribune he was “quite sure that the estimate of 100,000 is a conservative estimate.”

Does the publication of one politically motivated study mean the entire product of a journal is suspect? Of course not. But it rightly raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic and showed that even the most esteemed and avowedly apolitical institutions can be suspectible to hijacking.


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