As professors at two major schools of public health, we are horrified by the loss of life, physical and psychological injuries, environmental damage, and destruction of property throughout the Middle East today, resulting not only from the conflict in Gaza but from other longer and more destructive conflicts in the Middle East in Syria, Libya, and Iraq, where unspeakable massacres take place on an almost daily basis. We are almost as dismayed, however, by the commentaries on these wars by some academics and professional journals, in ways that reflect clear bias against only one (decidedly reluctant) combatant, Israel.
Among the examples of badly distorted academic commentary, a recent editorial in the leading British medical journal The Lancet, following earlier publication of a letter from Gaza that attacked Israel, has raised serious questions about that journal’s commitment to the academic research process.
When we were doing our doctoral training several decades ago at (respectively) University of Pennsylvania and Stanford, we were taught that academic research always required a statement of the known facts that then formed the foundation for the analysis that followed. By this basic scientific criterion, unfortunately, The Lancet’s recent editorial, as well as the majority of correspondence it published in response to above letter (August 9) about the Israeli-Hamas war, violates every tenet one expects from a legitimate research publication.
Specifically, The Lancet conflates criticism of its stance with attempts to silence criticism of Israel, when, in fact, the criticism is aimed at The Lancet’s gross violations of scientific method.
In summarizing the correspondence it published, The Lancet stated the following: “the letter has led to a debate about the appropriateness of a medical journal giving space to opinions about an issue that lies at the intersection between health and politics. But here is a war that is having far-reaching effects on the survival, health, and wellbeing of Gaza’s and Israel’s civilian residents. It is surely the duty of doctors to have informed views, even strong views, about these matters; to give a voice to those who have no voice; and to invite society to address the actions and injustices that have led to this conflict. Our responsibility is to promote an open and diverse discussion about the effects of this war on civilian health.”
The anti Israel letters threw around terms like “massacre”, “occupation”, “use of gas” and the like with no provision of evidence
Nobody questions the appropriateness of The Lancet hosting open honest debate about controversial issues. In this case, however, this charge is itself a disingenuous evasion of the core criticism that The Lancet never addresses. Which is that the original letter – and several of the subsequent letters published in response – ignored key facts, used biased and distorted terminology, overtly violated principles of scientific method and were anything but open and diverse. True, The Lancet published four letters upset by the original diatribe, but it also published an additional five sympathetic to the original piece and concluded with its own summary of the correspondence that ignored those letters that differed from The Lancet in their statement of the facts..
The anti Israel letters threw around terms like “massacre”, “occupation”, “use of gas” and the like with no provision of evidence, no definitions and no causal reasoning that would be expected in an article published in an academic journal. If it is the so called “occupation” that is the root of the conflict, how do the editors explain ignoring the fact that Israel left Gaza in 2005? If the issue is the siege of Gaza, why do the editors fail to mention that the latter is a legal response to the fact that Hamas imports weapons intended for use against Israel? If civilians are killed and wounded, how can it be that the editors ignore completely the fact that Hamas fires intentionally from schools and mosques, and that it placed its entire military leadership in tunnels directly underneath Gaza’s largest hospital? If Israel, which its detractors in The Lancet characterize as a superior and advanced military force, is deliberately targeting civilians, why has the number of civilians killed been disproportionately low compared to the number of combatants killed? Are the authors of these falsehoods more informed than Palestinian Human Rights activist Bassem Eid, who has recently written that Hamas needs the death of Gazans to serve its political agenda?
That editors and editorial writers of academic journals hold private political opinions is neither new nor unusual. However academic research can only flourish – and justify the large amounts of funding it receives from public sector and charitable organizations – if those working within it set aside their personal preferences and commit themselves to seek objective and replicable evidence. When a major medical journal departs from that pathway and, instead, ignores essential facts to publish overt propaganda generated by a globally acknowledged terrorist organization, the entire academic research process is in serious jeopardy.
For the moment, this problem seems worse in Europe, but those charged with preserving the legitimacy of academic discourse in the US should take note as well. Words also can have destructive consequences, and when a prestigious academic journal engages in demagoguery and incitement, the probability that innocent people will suffer grievously increases exponentially.
The authors are Professors of Health Policy and Management at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Braun School of Public Health in Jerusalem, Israel and Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta Georgia, respectively.