Tuesday, March 10, 2009

British Medical Journal (BMJ) lies, goes on attack

Ordinarily, we do not mix medicine and politics on this site. However, we do believe in academic freedom and honesty, and fear that an attack on any is an attack on the rights of all that will ultimately end badly. While we do hold views on truth in the Middle East conflicts, these thoughts are not germane to this article. Rather, we have a major issue with a medical journal leaving science, entering politics, where it does not belong, committing gross errors of fact, and then attacking the organization that pointed out the errors. While arrogance is not in short supply at the BMJ, a commitment to accuracy and truth is deficient in this case. We feel we have the obligation to report the BMJ mistakes so that our readers can keep a cool head when digesting what they read.

Honestreporting.com, a watchdog news agency that checks media facts, reports that the BMJ devotes five articles (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) in a recent edition to reviewing the "perils of criticizing Israel." "Chief amongst these" is Karl Sabbagh's analysis of hundreds of e-mails sent to the BMJ in response to an article published way back in 2004. According to Sabbagh, most of the hostile emails resulted "from a request from HonestReporting, a website operated from the United States and Israel." Also writing on this topic in the BMJ, Jonathan Freedland even admits that Derek Summerfield (the author of the 2004 piece)made a "mistake to open his piece with a clear error, one that inevitably made his essay appear tendentious." So why is the BMJ so defensive towards those who pointed out this admitted error?
HR wonders whether the BMJ's shot at a shadowy and highly effective "Israel lobby" is designed not to inform but to make crticism of itself more difficult. "Needless to say," HR opines, "if an 'Israel lobby' was so influential over the media, there would be no need for HonestReporting to exist."

In the 2004 article, the BMJ, under the byline of Dr (?) Summerfield, stated that "The Israeli army, with utter impunity, has killed more unarmed Palestinian civilians since September 2000 than the number of people who died on September 11, 2001." Leaving aside the grotesqueness of the comparison, that is based on assumptions that are, to put a polite face on it, are incorrect, the numbers cited by the BMJ are themselves wrong. As HR noted, "The only actual similarity between the two is the death count ― approximately 3,000. Summerfield labels all Palestinian casualties 'unarmed civilians' ― denying the fact that (1) the clear majority of Palestinians who have died since September 2000 were terrorists and armed combatants (according to the Institute for Counter-Terrorism), and (2) no Palestinian civilian has been deliberately killed 'with impunity' ― in stark contrast to 9/11. "

As a physician, I have personally found arrogance much more dangerous in the care of patients than stupidity. Doctors who don't know something, can, after all, ask for help. However, the arrogant are left on an island with no idea how to undo harm that they have caused. Moreover, the best response to having made a mistake is to ADMIT the mistake and move on. The original article by Summerfield was not true, because more civilians died in the 9/11 attacks than in Palestinian territories during the cited period, by far, and the campaign to get the BMJ to retract the error was neither unprecedented nor inappropriate as alleged. If the BMJ wishes to become a political magazine instead of a medical journal, it will have to engage the ideas of nonphysicians who are interested in politics. Backtracking, writing even more stubborn and one sided articles, and accusing the watchdogs makes the BMJ look even more foolish than wrong.

The BMJ does have a storied history and reputation. Its a pity that its being sullied by rank journalists.

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