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Politics and Junk Science

Issue #74

Data, Numbers

Abortion is a hot political topic in the US at the moment. Many scholarly articles are cited on both sides. Jessica Glenza writes in the Guardian (28 April 2024): “The retraction of three peer-reviewed articles prominently cited in court cases on the so-called abortion pill – mifepristone – has put a group of papers by anti-abortion researchers in the scientific limelight. Seventeen sexual and reproductive health researchers are calling for four peer-reviewed studies by anti-abortion researchers to be retracted or amended.” The papers in question used a meta-analysis. “Of the 22 studies cited by the meta-analysis, 11 were by the lone author of the paper itself.”¹ 

 

The political influence of the controversial meta-analysis is clear: “The paper has been cited in at least 24 federal and state court cases and 14 parliamentary hearings in six countries.”¹ Glenza cites a number of reviews including “one from 2009 by the American Psychological Association” which discounted the connection between mental health problems and abortion.¹ A paper that Sage retracted was nonetheless cited as evidence “by one of the most conservative [US Supreme Court] justices, Samuel Alito.”¹

 

The British Journal of Psychiatry established a research integrity group in response to these concerns, the journal also established an independent panel of experts to investigate. “The panel recommended Coleman’s article be retracted, but was overruled by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the professional association that publishes the BJP.”¹ A possible reason why the association did not retract the paper was a lack of US legal coverage after the author threatened to sue twice. The association’s explanation cited the public debate as one of its reasons for rejecting the retraction request. 

 

Retractions of controversial papers remain surprisingly rare. Glenza cites Ivan Oransky as saying “although retractions had become more common, they were nowhere near common enough to correct the scientific record. About one in 500 papers are retracted today, but perhaps as many as one in 50 ought to be ….”¹ In theory scientific papers should be above politics, but increasingly that seems difficult once a paper becomes involved in a political controversy.


 

1Glenza, Jessica. ‘Junk Science Is Cited in Abortion Ban Cases. Researchers Are Fighting the “Fatally Flawed” Work’. The Guardian, 28 April 2024, sec. World news. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/apr/28/junk-science-papers-abortion-cases.

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