Medicine Icon Medicine

Lancet Hydroxychloroquine Paper Scandal Illustrates Scientific Bias, Not Only in Medicine

David Klinghoffer | @d_klinghoffer

If you’ve ever wondered how much of high-stakes science is politicized, reflecting the ideological views of the scientists involved despite all their insistences to the contrary, look no further than this.

A blockbuster paper in the leading British medical journal, The Lancet, reported increased mortality associated with the “controversial” malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, being tested for use against COVID-19. Why would a malaria drug, of a value that has yet to be determined, be controversial? You already know the answer: it’s because of the identity of the medicine’s biggest cheerleader.

He Looked Them Up on LinkedIn

In briefest terms, scientists drew on shady data from a previously obscure company, Surgisphere, operated by a skeleton crew with a questionable Internet profile. Having won the approval of the journal’s expert peer reviewers, they published in The Lancet. Out of concern about the results, the World Health Organization slammed on a stop to trials of the drug. No one noticed anything amiss until a private medical sleuth with a blog, Dr. James Todaro, asked questions about Surgisphere that evidently the paper’s authors and peer reviewers had neglected to ask. Even a bit of quick googling should have raised eyebrows. Some of Todaro’s research included looking up Surgisphere on LinkedIn. Today the paper was retracted.

From The Guardian:

The World Health Organization and a number of national governments have changed their Covid-19 policies and treatments on the basis of flawed data from a little-known US healthcare analytics company, also calling into question the integrity of key studies published in some of the world’s most prestigious medical journals.

A Guardian investigation can reveal the US-based company Surgisphere, whose handful of employees appear to include a science fiction writer and an adult-content model, has provided data for multiple studies on Covid-19 co-authored by its chief executive, but has so far failed to adequately explain its data or methodology.

Data it claims to have legitimately obtained from more than a thousand hospitals worldwide formed the basis of scientific articles that have led to changes in Covid-19 treatment policies in Latin American countries. It was also behind a decision by the WHO and research institutes around the world to halt trials of the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine. On Wednesday, the WHO announced those trials would now resume.

Two of the world’s leading medical journals — the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine — published studies based on Surgisphere data. The studies were co-authored by the firm’s chief executive, Sapan Desai.

Obvious Sham Claim

Did something like this, a transparent sham claim about a gadget for “ris[ing] to the peak of human evolution,” not set off anyone’s baloney meter?

It is not the first time Desai has launched projects with ambitious claims. In 2008, he launched a crowdfunding campaign on the website indiegogo promoting a “next generation human augmentation device” called Neurodynamics Flow, which he said “can help you achieve what you never thought was possible”.

“With its sophisticated programming, optimal neural induction points, and tried and true results, Neurodynamics Flow allows you to rise to the peak of human evolution,” the description said. The device raised a few hundred dollars, and never eventuated. 

So, the authors of the Lancet paper have withdrawn it and the WHO has reversed itself. Problem solved? 

Not at all. The myth of the objective scientist remains as entrenched as ever in the public and media imagination. Consider: The lives of millions of people are at stake here. Against COVID-19, hydroxychloroquine might be effective or it might not be. The purpose of clinical trials is to find out. Because the drug is associated with Donald Trump, these highly esteemed scientists — authors, editors, reviewers — all embraced dubious data to impugn a medicine that might, or might not, help sick people.

How Confirmation Bias Works

It’s a particularly crude example of how confirmation bias works — how else would you explain this story? — not only among lay people but among top researchers. There’s a health risk to biased science, but at least, when it comes to the coronavirus, we can be predict that in the end the truth will come out about the claims or perils of proposed treatments. The world itself is a giant drug trial.

When it comes to bias in other fields, there’s no such assurance. In considering the origins of life, of biological complexity, or of our own human species, there are no similar tests to perform. We can’t watch large-scale evolution (as distinct from trivial microevolution) taking place in the laboratory, or in the wild. Views about biological origins, what most people mean when they talk about “evolution,” are all a matter of inference to the best explanation. Against the materialist or atheist bias, woven into scientific culture, there is no safeguard. Or rather, there is only one safeguard, and it is skepticism, of the kind demonstrated by scientists and scholars in the intelligent design community.

For being skeptical, though, they are branded as “anti-science,” and the science journals denounce them, even calling for government censorship of ID sites like Evolution News. Can you think of a situation more prone to misleading public opinion? I can’t.

If you’re interested in learning more about the culture of science as it manifests in both evolutionary biology and the response to COVID-19, we have organized a free Zoom webinar on Saturday, June 13, with biochemist Michael Behe. Find more information here. To reserve your place and not miss out, registration is a must.

Illustration credit: United Nations COVID-19 Response, via Unsplash.