British Medical Journal accused of fuelling culture war with articles from hardline Covid scientists

Covid masks - Dominic Lipinski
Covid masks – Dominic Lipinski

Britain’s top medical journal is facing backlash from scientists and doctors for publishing a series of articles authored by members of the self-appointed Independent SAGE group.

The British Medical Journal is one of the world’s most prestigious publications but has been accused of being partisan, stoking the culture war and driving a wedge through the scientific community.

Throughout the pandemic the group held regular briefings on YouTube, were often seen on television, and gained a cult-like following of avid fans on social media as a result of their hardline stance.

For the past two and a half years, they have advocated for various interventions and criticised many policy decisions to remove Covid restrictions. At one time a zero-Covid advocacy group, they are now widely viewed as pro-mask and only too willing to reintroduce lockdown-like restrictions.

But just as the public and the wider scientific community are moving into a post-Covid world, unfollowing outspoken scientists on Twitter and scrolling past myriad graphs, the biggest medical journal in the land has thrown its ample heft behind the group.

Scientific and medical journals aim is to be the pinnacle of the scientific world. A publication which epitomises the scientific process and enduring quest for answers and truth, or at the very least to endeavour to form a scientific consensus while nurturing health debate.

But there have been accusations levelled at the BMJ of only representing one side of the story, and neglecting to give other sides of the argument.

‘Disappointing but not surprising’

Dr Jake Dunning, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Oxford and a consultant to the UKHSA, said the BMJ’s affiliation with Independent Sage was “disappointing but not surprising”.

“BMJ has its own agenda and favourites; like iSage it’s not really independent or impartial, and that predates Covid by a long way,” he added.

“Always felt it suffers from a personality crisis, unsure whether it’s a scientific journal or a medical newspaper.”

Critics of the BMJ say that coming to a scientific consensus is never going to be an easy feat, but by platforming the most outspoken members of one side of the debate without riposte only acts to inflame what are already deeply-ingrained divisions.

Kamran Abbasi, the editor of the BMJ, wrote an article where he said the freshly-commissioned batch of editorials will “explore how information was misused, abused, and manipulated to feed an ideologically driven ‘infodemic’”.

In it, he writes that the series will describe both successes and failures of the UK response, but says its conclusion is clear.

“The UK’s response should have been much better… While debate continues about how best to compare the resilience of national health systems to shocks such as pandemics, there is little doubt that the UK’s response fell far short of its potential,” the article states.

The reaction to the editorial decision of the journal has been fierce.

Dr Michael Absoud, a consultant in children’s neurodisability at Evelina London Children’s Hospital, told The Telegraph: “It is a shame that the BMJ is exacerbating our adversarial political system with articles dressed up as science.”

On Twitter, he added that he feels “dismayed” that the BMJ “is choosing to fuel an unnecessary culture war”.

‘Waste of an opportunity for an objective appraisal’

Prof Tim Colbourn, a professor of global health systems, epidemiology and evaluation at UCL, said: “[It is] probably impossible given entrenched sides but would be good for science if a journal tried to bring together scientists with different opinions on important topics like this to try to move toward scientific consensus in commissioned pieces.”

He also wondered if the BMJ and its editor would be publishing “articles jointly co-authored by people with publicly differing views”.

In one of the editorials, eight members of Independent Sage write an “analysis” on how the Covid-19 policy affected children and schools.

The group pushed for schools to remain closed in 2020 until Covid was eradicated, but has since moved away from that fanciful standpoint.

In their article, they claim the UK was an international outlier, the September 2020 return to school “may have accelerated community spread”, and they accuse the Government of relying on evidence that downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus.

Dr Alasdair Munro, an expert in paediatric infectious diseases at the University of Southampton, called the one-sidedness of the BMJ’s publications “a true waste of an opportunity for an objective and unbiased appraisal”. He also questioned why, on a paper about the impact on children, no paediatricians were involved.

“I am beyond disappointed that the BMJ, which I have long respected, would commission members of a political activist group to do such a series,” he said.

‘Littered with errors’

He added that the content of the analysis itself was flawed and “littered with errors”.

A spokesperson for the BMJ told The Telegraph: “It’s entirely normal for people to disagree with articles that take a strong view. I wouldn’t describe that as a backlash. We want people to engage with the arguments.

“We aren’t closing off the debate by publishing these articles. A number of the authors in the series work with Independent Sage. There is nothing unusual in that. They are respected scientists and they have written for us before. Other authors in the series don’t work with Independent Sage. We don’t rule people in or out on the basis of their association with Independent Sage.

“We’re also happy to consider full article submissions from authors who take a different view to anything we publish, and those submissions are considered by our usual process of editorial and peer-review. The debate will continue – and we want it to.”

“How is publishing a series of well considered and substantiated pieces on major issues stoking a culture war? We don’t expect everybody to agree with the views and arguments of the authors that we publish.”

Other authors in the series don’t work with Independent Sage.

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