Medical Journals Give New Meaning To ’Political Science’

By Michael Fumento

The Wall Street Journal, January 21, 1999
Copyright 1999 Wall Street Journal

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Yesterday the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published an article based on an eight-year-old Kinsey Institute study. The finding: Bill Clinton thinks like an adolescent.

The study asked students at a Midwestern college whether they considered oral intercourse to be "sex"; a majority did not. One might see this as supporting one element of Mr. Clinton’s perjury defense.

Even before the article appeared, George Lundberg was fired from his job as JAMA’s editor, a post he held for 17 years. At a press conference, AMA Vice President Dr. E. Ratcliffe Anderson declared that Dr. Lundberg had "inappropriately and inexcusably" interjected the journal "into a major political debate that has nothing to do with science or medicine."

Yet Dr. Lundberg’s action was a mere misdemeanor compared with the high crimes JAMA and other top medical and science journals have committed in recent years. These alleged bulwarks of reason and reality have the power to make or break drugs, therapies and careers, and to influence national and international policy. All, almost certainly quite intentionally, have helped bring new meaning to the term "political science."

Consider the report Dr. Lundberg got away with publishing last April by Devra Lee Davis, an epidemiologist at the World Resources Institute, an environmentalist group. Ms. Davis’s specialty is trying to connect man-made chemicals to disease.

Her JAMA study looked at male-female birth ratios between 1970 and 1990, found male births declining, and predictably blamed man-made chemicals. "Proportion of Male Births Down in U.S., Study Says; Pollution Suggested as Possible Cause," blared the Washington Post. Science News asked, "Why Are Boys’ Birth Rates Falling?"

Here’s a better question: Why did Ms. Davis begin counting in 1970, when government statistics on sex ratios of newborns go back to 1940? Probably because the 1940-90 data show at a glance that the ratio swings up and down from decade to decade. Ms. Davis simply snipped off the years she found inconvenient.

Further, the government breaks its data down by race. Had Ms. Davis done the same, she would have shown that for blacks, the relative number of male births since 1970 has been increasing. Do synthetic chemicals discriminate against white males?

In 1997 a single issue of JAMA devoted four articles to an effort to connect so-called Gulf War Syndrome to chemical exposures. To do so, it had to divide a single study into three articles. That study, funded by H. Ross Perot, merely showed that when asked years later, veterans who considered themselves sickest also considered themselves to have the highest exposure to various chemicals during their deployment. There were no actual measurements of exposure.

Any epidemiologist would immediately see this as nothing more than the greatest plague of retrospective epidemiological studies, "recall bias." People who are sick or think themselves so naturally believe their exposure to the suspect agent is higher than healthy people do.

Other recent politically tainted JAMA reports include a retrospective study connecting smoking with hearing loss. This may seem plausible, until we note that the study bizarrely showed a stronger connection with exposure to secondhand smoke.

Then there was the article allegedly proffering hard data supporting affirmative action in higher education. Why was this in a medical journal? Because, silly, it concerned medical-school applicants!

JAMA is hardly the most serious offender in the politicization of science. The most political and heavily covered science story of last year was actually in the journal Nature. Titled "Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child," it relied on DNA testing of Sally Hemings’s descendants. Appearing just before the vote on Mr. Clinton’s impeachment, this was at least as blatant an attempt to aid the president as JAMA’s.

Indeed, accompanying the Nature article was a commentary by Joseph Ellis of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, explicitly comparing the alleged actions of the revered Thomas Jefferson to those of William Jefferson Clinton. A few days later, Mr. Ellis was among the signers of a full-page ad in The New York Times opposing impeachment, in which he noted the "impeccable timing" of the Nature article.

"They unnecessarily politicized something that was intended to be a piece of scientific work," complained Eugene Foster, author of the Nature article. But his study lent itself to this by failing to note that it merely showed that some Jefferson had fathered the child, not necessarily Thomas, who was then 65.

More than two dozen Jefferson adults visited Monticello, including Thomas’s brother Randolph who, one slave later wrote, "used to come among black people, play the fiddle, and dance half the night." A letter indicates Thomas invited Randolph to Monticello nine months before Hemings gave birth.

When our top medical and science journals aren’t trying to influence presidential politics, they’re sometimes publishing bogus studies that end up costing the nation vast sums of money for environmental studies and regulations.

In June, 1996, Science published a study widely portrayed as supporting a recently published book, Our Stolen Future, alleging that man-made chemicals were causing human hormonal havoc leading to everything from cancer to declining sperm counts.

Science’s study purportedly showed that four pesticides tested individually had only tiny hormonal effects but "when we put them in combination, their potency jumped up as much as 1,000 fold." The article made a media splash, and Congress quickly passed legislation directing the Environmental Protection Agency to begin massive screening of chemicals for hormonal effects.

Science’s editors were apparently untroubled by the study’s highly unusual methodology. Not only did it not employ live animals, it didn’t even use animal cells. Instead the researchers gave their chemical cocktail to yeast — great for baking and brewing but a questionable surrogate for humans. The researchers’ work was heavily funded by the W. Alton Jones Foundation, which is the primary financial underwriter for the hormonal disrupter scare. Its director, John Peterson Myers, was a co-author of Our Stolen Future.

Not surprisingly, nobody could replicate the bizarre study. A year later, in a highly unusual move, the authors were compelled to publish a retraction. Congress, alas, has not retracted its legislation. The massive screening is set to begin soon, and may cost consumers more than $20 billion.

In 1993 the New England Journal of Medicine published "The Six Cities Study," a brief against small airborne particles. The researchers — all advocates of greater air-pollution regulation — claimed their study showed that the city with the highest air pollution in general and the highest small-particle pollution in particular had a significantly greater rate of deaths related to respiratory disease than the city with the cleanest air.

But a close reading of the study showed that when smoking and occupational exposures to "gases, fumes or dust" were factored out, there was no difference between the cities’ rates of respiratory-disease deaths. Still, the EPA implemented small-particle regulations that will cost the nation more than $55 billion according to one estimate and over $70 billion according to another.

Whether the politicization of science and medical journals is increasing, as Dr. Ratcliffe seemed to admit it was at JAMA, is difficult to measure. But the role these journals play is so incredibly important, the cost of malfeasance so terribly high, that politics must not be allowed to worm into the science. "Everybody does it" is no more an excuse for our scientific gatekeepers than for our president.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on Gulf War Syndrome and on the media.