The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) his week published an editorial denouncing “dangerously incompetent” leadership in Washington on the pandemic and all but endorsing Joe Biden for President. This will go down well in all the right precincts. But then please don’t complain if half of America suspects that science is increasingly politicized.
The editorial recites the government’s well-known failures in managing the coronavirus, such as the initial struggles to roll out testing and hand out enough protective equipment. We can’t disagree with that, but the editors go on to extol China’s virus management, conveniently ignoring its early cover-up and manipulation of the World Health Organization. Why are American elites so enamored of authoritarian command and control? The editors then hit the U.S. for late and inconsistent quarantines, without taking into account the public-health and economic costs of lockdowns.
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You might say “the New England Journal is joining the ranks of academic publications risking their reputations as non-partisan arbiters of good science in order to rumble in the political tarpits.” That’s a line from our 2006 editorial “New England Journal of Politics” describing how the NEJM had waded into a legal dispute over Merck’s painkiller Vioxx. The NEJM also appeared in these pages in 2007 for working to tank a diabetes drug and help Democrats in Congress to regulate treatment approvals more tightly.
Our contributor Scott Gottlieb noted at the time that medical journals have “historically played a special role in helping to define medical practice standards. Even decisions they make on how prominently to place a study, let alone how they editorialize about it, are seen as strong signals to clinicians on how doctors should weigh the evidence. So when editors pursue a political agenda, it’s public health that pays a price.”
Another prominent medical journal, The Lancet, has its own history of political incursions, such as a study on Iraq war casualties funded by anti-George W. Bush partisans. The NEJM’s latest editorial laments that “current leaders” have “undercut trust in science.” The irony is that much of the public distrust of expertise derives from years of scientists behaving like politicians.
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