Friday, March 27, 2009

AMA investigates JAMA Editors' actions

The Wall Street Journal reports today that the American Medical Association, the owner of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), has ordered its oversight committee to investigate claims that the journal's editors effectively bullied a scientist critical of a study it published. Read more about the background of the matter here and here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

UN Human Rights farce continues unabated

Hey, now I can be certain, my views on organized religion are unequivocal human rights violations at least according to the UN Human Rights Council. The UN Human Rights Council, an outfit today dominated by Muslim nations, has issued a resolution today that resolves that criticizing organized religion constitutes a human rights violation. In Resolution A/HRC/10/L.2 the UN states under the - as usual - misleading title 'RACISM, RACIAL DISCRIMINATION, XENOPHOBIA AND RELATED FORMS OF INTOLERANCE, FOLLOW-UP AND IMPLEMENTATION OF THE DURBAN DECLARATION AND PROGRAMME OF ACTION' the following niceties: It recognizes 'the valuable contribution of all religions to modern civilization' (among those contributions were the crusades, the slaughtering of children by the Maya, the killing of innocents in the name of Allah, and the list goes on and on and on).

Anyhow, that's neither here nor there, I suppose. In other bits of the resolution the UN stresses that 'defamation of religions is a serious affront to human dignity'. Agh, there we go again, 'human dignity' (a short for, 'I don't like what you're saying or doing, but have no good reasons for that'). They also want 'all States to provide, within their respective legal and constitutional systems, adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general, and to take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and beliefs.' What's religious hatred? Anything that 'defames' religion (like saying that God doesn't exist, Allah is a fiction, stuff like that). How can we figure out whether something is seriously defamatory? Because religious folks dance in the streets and randomly kill folks they happen to disagree with (a not uncommon pastime in some Islamic countries these days). So, it seems that I have just incited you to 'religious hatred'. Truth be told, in centuries gone by, this would have been called blasphemy. Whoever thought we had left those dark ages behind where criticism of religion could lead to serious forms of state sponsored punishments was obviously mistaken.

Here's another gem, aimed at internet and other media censorship: 'Deplores the use of the print, audio-visual and electronic media, including the Internet, and any other means to incite acts of violence, xenophobia or related intolerance and discrimination towards any religion, as well as targeting of religious symbols and venerated persons'. So, from today you better don't take the mickey out of religious symbols or folks like "don't use condoms in the midst of an AIDS pandemic" Pope Benedict, no matter how idiotic they might be, because otherwise, you guessed it, you'd violate 'dignity' (and so some kind of alleged human right of religious folks not to offended).

The UN Human Rights Commissioner is ordered in the resolution to develop initiatives aimed at 'the prevention and elimination of all such forms of incitement and the consequences of negative stereotyping of religions'. There we have it, the 'negative stereotyping of religion' (as in, saying in public that monotheistic religions usually aim at prohibiting women from exercising their reproductive rights, being good buddies with some of the worst totalitarian regimes in power today, the stoning to death of gay men that's a fav pastime in some Islamic countries, stuff like that) will soon be met by a vigorous human rights/dignity based response from the UN.

'Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance to report on all manifestations of defamation of religions, and in particular on the serious implications of Islamophobia, on the enjoyment of all rights by their followers, to the Council during its 12th Session.' Cool, with a bit of luck our 50 Voices of Disbelief book project might soon find itself in an official UN Human Rights 'report' as defaming religious people, symbols or non-reality based ideologies in general. Kinda cool, we'd find ourselves in suitably good company, just think of Voltaire's Candide, undoubtedly another prime candidate for inclusion in the report. Because the Council is controlled these days by Islamic countries, despite its misleading title, the prime objective of this document seems to be to isolate Islamic theocrats and adherents from any kind of criticism of this particular ideology.

Scary stuff, but thank goodness, like most UN human rights stuff, it's non-binding. The real problem is, of course, that the totalitarian regimes that sponsored the resolution will probably use it to come down hard on opponents inside their countries.

It goes perhaps without saying that the same document stresses the compatibility of this witch-hunt with freedom of expression. Bollocks.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Medical journal primadonnas - the end (not)

I have reported a short while ago (you might want to re-read this before continuing this blog posting) how editorial staff at the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) seemingly bullied Dr Leo after he disclosed in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) an undisclosed conflict of interest of authors of a study JAMA published.

Here now, without further ado, the end of the saga. It's been reported on the websites of the WSJ, JAMAs as well as Dr Leo's. My analysis will make use of content (analysis) provided by subscribers to a bioethics discussion list hosted by the Medical College of Wisconsin.

JAMA's editors have not exactly helped their case. They effectively admit contacting Leo's Dean to complain about his conduct (ie publishing his conflict of interest allegations - 5 months after bringing them to the attention of JAMA's editorial staff) on the BMJ website. They deny having bullied the Dean as well as Leo. However, the Dean confirmed that the gist of the JAMA editors' complaint about Leo contained a threat to the school. Here's an excerpt from said bioethics discussion list: '"In an interview Friday, Dean Ray Stowers said Dr. DeAngelis “flat out” threatened him and attempted to bully him during the conversation. The telephone call was followed by an email exchange. In a March 11 email, Dr. DeAngelis wrote to Dr. Stowers: “As I’ve already expressed to you, I don’t want to make trouble for your school, but I cannot allow Jonathan Leo to continue to seek media coverage without my responding. I trust you have already or soon will speak with him and alert me to what I should expect.” Dr. Stowers responded the next day by saying he couldn’t find any fault in Dr. Leo’s actions and pressed JAMA editors for more specifics on what they believed was wrong with Dr. Leo’s writing or actions. “I think this can be worked out without your continued threats to our institution which are not appreciated and I believe to be below the dignity of both you and JAMA,” he wrote. Dr. Stowers says he has not heard from JAMA since sending that email.'

The JAMA editorial suggests, mistakenly, that Leo was under confidentiality related obligations not to publish his letter to the BMJ until after JAMA had completed its investigation. It's entirely unclear why this should be the case. Leo is perfectly entitled to publish anywhere (as he did) allegations of conflict of interest. After all, everything he reported is a matter of public record (accordingly there were plenty of others who would have been witness to the conflict of interest). What is particularly amusing, perhaps, is that the journal objecting to Leo blowing the whistle on the conflict of interest it omitted to report, had not hesitation to blow the whistle on him (by calling his superior, the Dean of the school). Obviously, one standard for authors, another for editors...

JAMA claims in its editorial that Leo's disclosure of his allegations would hamper its ability to undertake its own investigation. As it happens, however, according to JAMA's own reported timeline, it actually completed its investigation some time before Leo's letter in the BMJ was published. The journal claims, however, that it was unable to publish the subsequent 6 line conflict of interest declaration (even on-line) that it received some time in January until some time in March due to space considerations. Of course, there are no on-line space considerations, as everyone knows. In addition to this, the editors were capable of rushing their above mentioned editorial on-line within about a week. Not overly credible the editorial explanation of space constraints here...

JAMA's new policy on this issue is truly pointless. It aims to enforce censorship on people reporting potential omissions of conflicts of interest declarations to the journal and expects them to keep quiet until it has investigated the matter. Anyone who goes instead directly to the news media would accordingly be in the clear as far as the new JAMA policy is concerned. The solution then would be, instead of waiting for JAMA's breathtakingly long 'investigation' of a simple matter (did you omit to declare a potential conflict of interest?), to issue a press release straightaway, or to write a letter to a different medical journal (as Leo did).

Significantly, the BMJ that published Leo's complaint has refused to withdraw his letter, because, according to the BMJ editor, the complaint was factually accurate.

It is deeply disconcerting that a leading biomedical journal such as JAMA tried to bully an academic as well as a medical school dean for doing nothing other than report the omission of a conflict of interest declaration. A clear abuse of the powers that journal editors are invested with by virtue of the job they hold. This is what really is at issue here!

Monday, March 23, 2009

A step closer toward our species' demise

For awhile there was some hope that as a species we might be able to survive a tad bit longer. Courtesy of the world economic crisis car production went down dramatically, oil consumption plunged to new lows - good news all round, in other words. Unfortunately, in that sparsely populated country called India some company called Tata has decided to do something about this. It has just brought to market the world's cheapest car. Ain't that fantastic news? It's hailed on the news as a great great success story. India, instead of building appropriate and efficient public transport systems (should be an economic walk in the park, seeing the population density in that country!), is getting a billion small cars to clog up its already choked-up streets. Hurray, we're well back on the road to our permanent exit. Indeed, economic growth is predicted to return in a couple of months. Sorted!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Gambia's crackpot leader is at it again

I have written before about the amazing leadership qualities of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. Last time I wrote about this African leader I noted that his claim to have personally found a cure for AIDS might have been ever so slightly mistaken - well, I used more drastic words. Since then a reader of this blog alerted me to information about the latest travails of Gambia's leader. Yahya Jammeh had about 1000 villagers abducted by his special forces and rounded up in camps where 'witch doctors' beat the living hell out of them and forced them to drink all sorts of noxious substances. Reason being: the cause of death of the great leader's aunt was alleged witchcraft. So the Pres imported 'witch hunters' from neighbouring Guinea and had them have a go at about 1000 randomly chosen Gambian villagers. Amnesty International reports 'Many said they were then forced to confess to being witches. In some cases, they were also allegedly severely beaten, almost to the point of death. ... Villagers said they had been held for up to five days and forced to drink unknown substances, which they said caused them to hallucinate and behave erratically' I thought the Roman Catholic Church had a monopoly on these sorts of activities, but no, Muslim leader Jammeh seems to be operating in the same vein. Never mind that this kinda stuff is happening today, a few hundred years after the Catholics fought 'witchcraft' and burned to death a lot of people all over Europe.

Meanwhile, the leader of said Church, Pope Benedict (of ex-Hitler Youth fame) went out of his way to contribute to the AIDS crisis on the African continent by telling the locals in Cameroon that condoms contribute to the AIDS pandemic and that people should not be using them. I'm sure Benedict (whose penchant for wearing red shoes and colorful dresses is well-known and well-documented) is not using condoms either.

It's amazing what kind of things religious folks get up to when given half a chance, it seems. I wonder how long it will take until reality based policies will take hold in such godforsaken (pun intended) places. In any case, the African continent seems to be today's preferred playground for crackpots of all shades and colors. I wonder why...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Yay, our forthcoming book already on amazon

There you go, the official publication date of our up-coming anthology '50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists' is known, September 10, 2009. It's already on amazon. You can even register there to be notified when the book is out! Cool how quickly the Wiley-Blackwell folks have moved in terms of promoting the book. We even have our own facebook site with more than 500 members (and counting). Yay!

In case you want to know who the 50 (there's a few more actually) voices are, here's a list of contributors: Here's a complete list of contributors and essays:

Unbelievable! — Russell Blackford; My “Bye Bull” Story — Margaret Downey; How benevolent is God? – An argument from suffering to atheism — Nicholas Everitt; A Deal-breaker — Ophelia Benson; Why Am I a Nonbeliever? – I Wonder... — J. L. Schellenberg; Wicked or Dead? Reflections on the moral character and existential status of God — John Harris; Religious Belief and Self-Deception — Adèle Mercier; The Coming of Disbelief — J.J.C. Smart; What I Believe —Graham Oppy; Too Good to Be True, Too Obscure to Explain: The Cognitive Shortcomings of Belief in God — Thomas W. Clark; How to Think About God: Theism, Atheism, and Science — Michael Shermer; A Magician Looks at Religion — James Randi; Confessions of a Kindergarten Leper — Emma Tom; Beyond Disbelief — Philip Kitcher; An ambivalent nonbelief — Taner Edis; Why Not? — Sean M. Carroll; Godless Cosmology — Victor J. Stenger; Unanswered Prayers — Christine Overall; Beyond Faith and Opinion — Damien Broderick; Could it be pretty obvious there’s no God? — Stephen Law; Atheist, obviously — Julian Baggini; Why I am Not a Believer — A.C. Grayling; Evil and Me — Gregory Benford; Who’s Unhappy? — Lori Lipman Brown; Reasons to be Faithless — Sheila A.M. McLean; Three Stages of Disbelief — Julian Savulescu; Born Again, Briefly — Greg Egan; Cold Comfort — Ross Upshur; The Accidental Exorcist — Austin Dacey; Atheist Out of the Foxhole — Joe Haldeman; The Unconditional Love of Reality — Dale McGowan; Antinomies — Jack Dann; Giving up ghosts and gods — Susan Blackmore; Some thoughts on why I am an atheist — Tamas Pataki; No Gods, Please! — Laura Purdy; Welcome Me Back to the World of the Thinking — Kelly O'Connor; Kicking Religion Goodbye … — Peter Adegoke; On credenda — Miguel Kottow; “Not even start to ignore those questions!” A voice of disbelief in a different key — Frieder Otto Wolf; Imagine No Religion — Edgar Dahl; Humanism as Religion: An Indian Alternative — Sumitra Padmanabhan; Why I am NOT a theist — Prabir Ghosh; When the Hezbollah came to my school — Maryam Namazie; Evolutionary Noise, not Signal from Above — Athena Andreadis; Gods Inside — Michael R. Rose and John P. Phelan; Why Morality Doesn’t Need Religion — Peter Singer and Marc Hauser; Doctor Who and the Legacy of Rationalism — Sean Williams; My non-religious life: A journey from superstition to rationalism — Peter Tatchell; Helping People to Think Critically About Their Religious Beliefs — Michael Tooley; Human Self-Determination, Biomedical Progress, and God — Udo Schuklenk.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Remarkable tourism ad taken in Singapore

I took this photo in a MRT station in Singapore in March 2009, the Chinese (PR that is) tourism people advertising occupied Tibet's Lhasa as a Chinese tourist destination.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Medical journal primadonnas

Interesting story on conflict-of-interest reporting in biomedical journals. As you may or may not know, most leading biomedical journals require their authors (as well as peer reviewers and editors) to declare any kind of conflict of interest that they might have with regard to the manuscript/content under consideration by the journal. JAMA, the high-impact journal of the American Medical Association published a piece on the use of a particular anti-depressant in stroke patients. The study duly underwent anonymous peer review, passed peer review and so it went into print. Standard operating procedure as far as as biomedical peer reviewed content publishing is concerned.

The Wall Street Journal health blog reports an interesting fall-out between a neuro-anatomy professor in the USA and some of JAMA's editors. What happened, according to the WSJ blog is this: Jonathan Leo, the neuro-anatomy professor in question, published a letter on the website of the British Medical Journal's website alleging that the authors of the study in question failed to disclose a financial conflict of interest. Turns out that the allegations were correct. JAMA published in its March 11, 2009 issue an erratum including the omitted conflict of interest declaration as well as an apology from the study's lead authors.

What's interesting, however, is what happened in-between. Jonathan Leo, a professor at a small college in Tennessee received shortly after publication of his letter on the BMJ website a call from one of the editors of JAMA. He claims that that bloke threatened him this way: 'He said, ‘Who do you think you are,’ ” says Leo. “He then said, ‘You are banned from JAMA for life. You will be sorry. Your school will be sorry. Your students will be sorry." That's the story according to Leo. JAMA claims, not unexpectedly perhaps seeing the inappropriateness of this, that Leo's recollection of the conversation was incorrect.

Leo gets a second call from another editor at JAMA, someone even higher up than the first caller. Things didn't exactly improve... - Here's what the WSJ reports: 'The call from Fontanarosa was followed up by one from JAMA editor-in-chief Catherine DeAngelis to Leo’s superiors, Leo says. He said she asked his superiors to get him to retract his article in the BMJ. Leo says he decided to call DeAngelis directly to find out what, in particular, she might be objecting to. He said she was “very upset” but didn’t make specific complaints about the article. In a conversation with us, DeAngelis was none too happy to be questioned about the dust-up with Leo. “This guy is a nobody and a nothing” she said of Leo. “He is trying to make a name for himself. Please call me about something important.” She added that Leo “should be spending time with his students instead of doing this.”When asked if she called his superiors and what she said to them, DeAngelis said “it is none of your business.” She added that she did not threaten Leo or anyone at the school.'

So, clearly it's a he says - she says story but it's not insignificant that Leo seems to have received two critical calls from JAMA editors. As it turns out, however, his claims in his letter on the BMJ website were actually substantively correct.

Makes you wonder about JAMA's ethics standards. It is quite remarkable - in a bad way - to call a biomedical scientist who correctly flags the omission of an important conflict of interest disclosure with regard to a paper your journal published 'a nobody and a nothing'. Seriously, JAMA, you'd reconsider how you deal with such matters!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ethics expendable in times of economic crisis?

I'm not suggesting that my two anecdotes can prove anything one way or another, but I wonder nevertheless whether it's purely coincidental that in times of economic crisis ethics, and more specifically bioethics is on funders' chopping blocks. At the University of Tennessee Health Science Center the Department of Human Values and Ethics, one of the oldest medical ethics programs in North America has been proposed by the medical school dean to be closed down. Its three faculty would likely lose their jobs if this came about. The dean proposed that their teaching and research be taken over by interested medical school faculty or medical practitioners. The university's endowment lost a lot of cash in the current economic meltdown, so money needs indeed to be saved, it seems. The idea though that ethics is something that could 'just' be taken over and done by someone with a strong interest or strong feeling about medical ethics is remarkable.

On last count we've had some 34 or 35 ISI (Web of Science) listed peer reviewed English language journals (and many more in other languages) serving the highly prolific academic research community in bioethics. Some of these journals have higher impact factors than biomedical journals of good international standing. Indeed, the number of excellent submissions received by some of these journals is so high that these journals publish on a monthly basis high quality peer reviewed bioethics content. Yet at the University of Tennessee a medical school dean believes work in this area could be done by someone with some kind of interest in medical ethics. It is somewhat doubtful that a similar attitude would be taken if it was pathology or surgery that's on the line. Ethics, in other words, seems to lend itself more easily to taking short-cuts when money is in short supply.

Well, in New Zealand the government announced that it will disbandon its National Bioethics Council to save money. The country's small bioethics council has produced during its life-time a whole range of excellently researched position papers on a whole range of different contentious issues, usually taking well-informed and sensible positions. I wonder whether it's really a money issue here that's at play or whether someone in power is using the economic crisis to get rid of folks saying things that the powers that are are uncomfortable with?

Friday, March 06, 2009

Cult of Misery at it again

in Brazil this time around. Quite remarkable story, and yet in line with the Roman Catholic Church's complete and utter disregard for anyone alive and kicking (as opposed to the oh-so-infinitely-valuable 'unborn'). Here's what happened:

Medical doctors assisted a 9 year old girl with having an abortion. She had been raped by her stepfather over several years, eventually resulting into a pregnancy (with twins). The young girl would have been unable to give birth to the twins even if she had wanted to do so. Her doctors pointed out that the girl's uterus was plain too small to permit her to give birth to one child, let alone twins. The Cult of Misery's ideology wants it that pregnant women will - in case of conflict - be sacrificed for the sake of the great 'unborn', so no big surprise that the church organization worked tirelessly to prevent the abortion from taking place.

Brazil currently has pretty much a stone age type legislation in place with regard to reproductive health issues. Abortions may only happen legally in Brazil if one of two conditions are met: a) the pregnant woman's life is at risk, and/or b) rape has taken place. In the tragic case under consideration both conditions were sadly met, and accordingly doctors were permitted to undertake the abortion.

The Cult of Misery's local representatives, probably deeply concerned about the raped survivor's life having been preserved by the medical intervention, have since decided to punish those concerned with the decision making and execution. Their harshest punishment is deployed against the medical professionals as well the young girl's mother: excommunication. In case you're not a member of the Cult, you need to understand that if you're excommunicated you won't go to heaven and you won't enjoy eternal life. That's the deal on offer from the Cult for its members.

What's interesting about this case is this: the decision to excommunicate the doctors and mother (recall that their call on the abortion issue preserved the rape survivor's life) goes hand in hand with another decision made also by the church hierarchy, namely to revoke the excommunication of a holocaust denying catholic bishop. Gives you a fair idea why so many refer to the Roman Catholic Church as the Cult of Misery. The organization seems to have a knack for spreading misery, a lot of it.