Scientists’ Agendas: The Unspoken Politics Behind the CDC, NEJM, JAMA & Others
I sometimes go on somewhat strange side-trips in these editorials. Some are more stranger than others, but this one is probably middle-of-the-road. I don’t always talk exclusively about mental health issues, but sometimes need to discuss other issues of importance. These typically concern everyone in some fashion or another.
This time it’s in reaction to a Reason magazine published in the April, 1997 issue entitled Public Health Pot Shots: How the CDC Succumbed to the Gun “Epidemic.” Now, I’m not even certain I have clearly formulated opinions about gun control in general, so I’m not really pro-gun or anti-gun. Personally I don’t own one, but I also can’t bring myself to believe some of rhetoric regarding the importance of gun control in America today. Are people really so naive to believe that if we outlawed guns tomorrow, criminals couldn’t get their hands on illegal guns just as easily as they can get their hands on some pot or cocaine? So gun control seems like one of those “easy answers” which seems like a quick solution but which, in fact, is likely no solution at all.
But this editorial isn’t about the pros and cons of gun control. This editorial is about how organizations have taken sides in this issue when their objective is to research issues objectively and present facts and conclusions from those facts as objectively. This is not only about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC), but also highly regarded, refereed professional journals such as The New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The CDC, a U.S. government-funded agency charged primarily with studying medical diseases and examining how best to control outbreaks of said diseases and prevent them in the first place. The CDC falls under the U.S. Public Health Service. The CDC’s main role, then, is to save lives. In that role, it has funded millions of dollars of research in the past decade or so examining handgun use in America. But the CDC also carries a largely unspoken political agenda — to get handguns banned. To that end, its published research base always comes to the same conclusion — more handguns lead to more deaths. Less handguns would decrease the loss of life. These studies, which are hardly the equivalent of controlled research, are published in the aforementioned journals. These journals, too, support the same political agenda, so these types of studies’ publication is not surprising.
Simplistic studies, which were grabbed on by the American media machine, have been published citing the striking differences between homicide rates in Seattle and Vancouver. The researchers improperly tried attributing these differences to Canada’s stricter gun laws, while ignoring other explanations of the differences. When suicide rates were compared two years later by the same researchers, they still attributed the fact of Seattle’s lower suicide rate to the American laws. The popular “A gun in the home is 43 times as likely to kill a family member as to be used in self-defense,” phrase spouted out by handgun law proponents is again based upon seriously-flawed research. The researchers in this study carefully excluded many additional variables which would have lowered that number dramatically. All of this sloppy scientific research appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine. It leads one to seriously question NEJM’s referee and editorial review process.
You would think that the CDC would turn to criminologists, such as Gary Kleck, when studying criminal behavior and the complex relationships between guns and death rates. But little to none of the CDC-funded research ever cites contradictory research which shows little relationship between gun ownership and the likelihood of increased possibility of death. This ignorance of the research or purposeful ignoring of contradictory research is certainly unbecoming serious scientists. But it fits in very nicely if you have a political point of view to forward.
Science is not performed in a vacuum and it is not nearly as objective as some would have you believe. Human beings, with all of their innate biases, prejudices, opinions and beliefs (whether true or false), conduct the research. And therein lies our answer — science is only as good as the researchers are honest and full of integrity. Admitting one’s own biases and aggressively going after possible alternative explanations and contradictory research is the most useful and common method for trying to refute those biases. All too often, it seems, some scientists seem ignorant of such unspoken agendas.
So the next time you hear a quick media clip about how researchers proved so and so today, be skeptical. Scientists’ results need to be replicated time and time again before taken as fact. And most of all, correlation does not equal causation. Just because we note that two variables seem to rise and fall together (e.g., my wearing black pants on Tuesdays) doesn’t mean the one is causing the other’s behavior (Tuesdays aren’t causing me to wear black pants; it just happens by chance that those are the pants I wear most Tuesdays).