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Firing of JAMA Editor Wrong Decision

Opinion

Matt Nisbet

January 21, 1999

Matt Nisbet
Coordinator, Council for Media Integrity
January 21, 1999

Last Friday’s firing of George Lundberg, the seventeen-year editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), shocked the medical, science and media world. A statement from the American Medical Association (AMA), publisher of JAMA, gave as the reason for the dismissal, Lundberg’s decision to publish research that shows 60 percent of college students surveyed in 1991 did not think that engaging in oral sex was “having sex.” The study appears in this week’s edition of JAMA, apparently timed to coincide with the Senate impeachment hearings and the State of the Union Address. AMA Executive Vice President Ratclife Anderson condemned the editor for “inexcusably interjecting JAMA into a major political debate that has nothing to do with science or medicine. This is unacceptable.”

Media reports, however, speculated that the sex study was just the latest in a series of editorial decisions on topics of current controversy and public debate that caused the AMA to shudder. Lundberg devoted a November JAMA issue to alternative medicine and approved recent controversial articles on euthanasia, and an eleven year-old’s debunking of therapeutic touch.

Under Lundberg’s direction, JAMA not only published research of immediate social importance, but actively engaged the media, providing weekly doses of medical and science news to the public. In an era when media coverage of science is difficult to find, and at a time when scientists have difficulty attracting media attention, JAMA is a rare success story. Surveys of journalists find that they are overwhelmingly more likely to read JAMA than other well-known science publications including Science, Nature or Scientific American.

The decision to release Lundberg turns on the relation of society and science. The AMA’s official justification for the dismissal follows from a century of staid tradition, with science and scientists seeking to maintain the appearance of impartiality in matters of social importance or conflict. Many in the scientific and medical communities cling to science journals as the last bastion of scientific conservatism, striving for a blind impartiality and artificial political naiveté in editorial selection. But as New York University sociologist Dorothy Nelkin told the Los Angeles Times, “You can hardly do a study anymore that doesn't have social ramifications.” Should a medical journal like JAMA “avoid anything that will arouse the anti-abortion movement? Or should it ignore studies that use lab animals so as not to arouse the animal rights movement?”

Absolutely not. Our society has entered an era of unprecedented scientific and technological advancement. In our daily lives and in government decision- making, we cannot escape the impact of science. In fact, science has become our best means for understanding the world around us and, often, the most effective guide for decision-making.

Yet we face an alarming crisis of scientific illiteracy and lack of public appreciation of science. Whether it is the O.J. Simpson jury overlooking DNA and blood evidence in favor of conspiracy scenarios, the $16 billion dollars that Americans spend on unproven alternative medicine therapies, or polls indicating that 31% of the public believes that an alien spacecraft crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, millions of Americans too often disregard science in forming opinions and making personal and collective choices.

Faced with this challenge, the scientific and medical communities, and the journals they publish, have a responsibility to inform and educate the public about scientific information pertinent to current public policy and debate. The Clinton impeachment proceedings may be the most important domestic political development of the century. Regardless of whether or not it is lost in the chorus of political rhetoric, if a scientific study can add light and clearer understanding to the impeachment deliberation, then it should be published. To say otherwise is socially irresponsible.

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Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.