Last week I wrote about a regrettable piece on homeopathy that was published in Scientific American Brasil. There have been gratifying developments. Within hours, the editor in chief of Scientific American, Mariette DiChristina, appeared in the Comments. She said that Scientific American does not condone the pseudoscience of homeopathy, that the piece clearly should not have been published, that it would never have been published if Scientific American had been consulted beforehand, and that she had complained to the responsible parties. I was very grateful for her response to my article, for her intervention, and for her willingness to speak out in support of good science.
Lo and behold, two days later Ms. DiChristina reported that the editor of Scientific American Brasil had written a letter of apology and had published it on the website. Here is a full translation:
Error of judgment
By Ulisses Capozzoli, Editor of Scientific American Brasil
In the 119th issue, published close to April 1 and on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Scientific American Brasil (in June), I committed an error in evaluating a note about homeopathy, published in the Advances section, an error that I want to recognize not only for Brazilian readers but in relation to the nearly bicentenary tradition of the American parent publication, Scientific American.
The note in question is related to a course on the application of homeopathy to agriculture, offered by the Federal University of Viçosa (UFV) through its department of phytotechnology, and, according to their information, with the support of the National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq).
The fact that it is a prestigious university in the field of agriculture and that the course is sponsored by the main agency that finances scientific research in Brazil, the CNPq, led me to accept and publish the note, which was written by a collaborator, a biologist who had completed the 10 month course at UFV.
This was my error of judgment.
If a homeopathic doctor, among the approximately 15 thousand who exist in Brazil, opens an office and treats patients with homeopathy, he cannot be accused of misconduct or charlatanism. This is because homeopathy is legally recognized here as a medical, pharmaceutical, and even veterinary specialty.
This situation relaxed my vigilance about the note in question and its content, which helps to explain my mistake. But, without a doubt, it doesn’t justify it; therefore I offer my apology to readers and to the original Scientific American.
By the end of this year, I will have edited 18 issues of Scientific American Brasil: 12 monthly issues and another 6 bimonthly issues. I prepare all the texts of each one of those issues, which means I read every word, before and after proofreading. The magazine, as my readers know, deals with subjects on the frontiers of science, with a concern for using clear, precise language and unequivocal concepts.
When I committed the error described above, I disregarded the conceptual content: Scientific American, reflecting what is probably the majority of scientific opinion, understands that homeopathy is not science.
Readers outraged by my evaluation have sent e-mails to our editorial offices and have addressed the question on social networks, which allowed me to realize that I had committed an error. In a dawn with a high, almost full moon in the sky, and the perfume of the lady of the night [night-blooming jasmine?] flooding a little garden, I realized that my only means of repairing the damage is to recognize the error and to apologize, as I am doing, with the support of the editorial office director, Janir Hollanda.
I am comforted by the fact that the history of science is full of mistakes, some perhaps more egregious than mine, but each of them properly corrected. I’ll cite a few for the enjoyment of readers. In 1887 the French chemist Marcellin Berthelot said, “for science, the world from now on has no more mysteries.” This short and apparently objective phrase is considered one of the stupidest of all time.
The American astronomer Percival Lowell’s proclamation that the canals on Mars were of artificial origin is certainly common knowledge and the same could be said of the theory of spontaneous generation: the idea that mice can be born naturally from trash. The genesis of this concept dates back to Aristotle, who said in his treatises The Generation of Animals and History of Animals that some insects “came from the dew that falls on leaves.”
Cold fusion was a fiasco (repeated in several parts of the world) by the American electrochemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons in 1989.
And all of this without mentioning the very accurate measurements of the size of the human brain that were given controversial interpretations by the French surgeon Paul Broca.
I hope this will be followed by an apology in print in the next issue of the magazine, but I’m glad it was published immediately. He readily admits that explaining why he made his mistake doesn’t justify it. Of course, someone in his position of scientific responsibility should never have been swayed by the factors that swayed him (legality, funding, etc.) And the fact that others throughout history have made famous mistakes does nothing to excuse his own errors.
Science Is Alive and Well in Brazil
Homeopaths are predictably crowing on the Internet that their beliefs now have the approval of Scientific American, for instance here, but it is encouraging to see that many Brazilians have complained about this infiltration of pseudoscience into the magazine. It is also encouraging to learn that the SBM blog has followers in Brazil. At least one Brazilian blogger had already complained to Scientific American Brasil, and he reproduced his own letter as well as my blog post here. I got an e-mail from a researcher in Brazil who sometimes writes against homeopathy. He attached several articles he had written, including criticisms of published articles favorable to homeopathy and a survey of Brazilian newspapers showing a favorable bias in their coverage of homeopathy. He’s currently going through a database of MSc and DSc dissertations from a Brazilian science foundation, and has identified dozens of dissertations on homeopathy — the vast majority of them claiming positive experimental results of some sort. I hope he will eventually publish his findings. It seems that although homeopathy is rampant in Brazil, so is science-based medicine and critical thinking.
Mariette DiChristina Sets an Example
Ms. DiChristina should be applauded for her prompt intervention and her defense of rigorous scientific standards. One of our commenters said
I find it very interesting that the editor-in-chief of Scientific American has demonstrated more scientific integrity in journal standards than the editors of journals claiming high impact factors in the field of medical science.
How true! How unfortunate! Another commenter provided a recent example where the editor of New Scientist tried to defend a pseudoscientific article.
On SBM we have frequently criticized the publication of poor studies and credulous articles about CAM by major medical journals and have wondered how the articles ever got past the editors and peer reviewers. There have even been articles that were proven to be fraudulent but that were never repudiated by the journals. The Lancet did finally retract Wakefield’s infamous article, but it took them 12 years. We have even criticized the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine for ill-advised articles on integrative medicine and acupuncture.
We have criticized the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) for wasting funds on very questionable research. Its director, Josephine Briggs, seemed receptive to our message, but she was equally receptive to an “international team of homeopaths” who left the building feeling quite satisfied that they had made a favorable impression.
It would take a lot of integrity for a medical journal editor or a political appointee to buck current trends of quackademic medicine, popular demand, and political correctness; to boldly call a quack a quack; and to stand firm for science-based medicine in the face of opposition from many of his colleagues or employers. It’s possible that doing so might even lose him his job. But surely it would be a worthy effort. Ms. DiChristina has set a fine example for others to follow. I can only hope that other editors will find the courage to follow her example.
For the convenience of our readers in Brazil, a translation into Portuguese follows.
Note: Thanks to Felipe Nogueira for the translations.
Atualização: Homeopatia na Scientific American Brasil
Semana passada, eu escrevi a respeito de uma nota lamentável sobre homeopatia que foi publicada na Scientific American Brasil.
Houve uma repercussão gratificante. Em questão de horas, a editora-chefe da Scientific American, Mariette DiChristina, apareceu nos comentários. Ela disse que a Scientific American não apoia a pseudociência da homeopatia, que tal nota não deveria ter sido publicada, que nunca seria publicada se a Scientific American fosse consultada previamente, e que ela reclamou com as partes responsáveis. Eu fiquei muito grata pela sua resposta ao meu artigo, pela sua intervenção, e pela sua vontade de se pronunciar em defesa à boa ciência.
E eis que dois dias depois a Sra. DiChristina reportou que o editor da Scientific American Brasil escreveu uma carta de desculpas e a publicou no website.
Eu espero que isso seja seguido por uma desculpa impressa na próxima edição da revista, mas estou contente que foi publicada imediatamente. Ele prontamente admitiu que explicar por que ele cometeu o erro não o justifica. É claro que alguém na sua posição de responsabilidade científica nunca deveria ter sido convencido pelos fatores que o convenceram (legalidade, financiamento, etc.). E o fato de outros durante a história terem cometido erros famosos não o desculpa de seus próprios erros.
Ciência está viva e bem no Brasil
Homeopatas estão presumivelmente comemorando na Internet que suas crenças agora possuem o apoio da Scientific American, como neste exemplo. Mas é encorajador ver que muitos brasileiros reclamaram dessa infiltração de pseudociência na revista. É encorajador saber que o blog SBM tem seguidores no Brasil. Pelo menos um blogger brasileiro já reclamou com a Scientific American Brasil, e ele reproduziu sua própria carta assim como meu post aqui.
Eu recebi um e-mail de um pesquisador brasileiro que às vezes escreve contra a homeopatia. Ele anexou vários artigos que ele escreveu, incluindo críticas a artigos publicados favoráveis a homeopatia e uma coletânea de jornais brasileiros mostrando um viés favorável na cobertura da homeopatia. Ele atualmente está pesquisando em uma base de dissertações de Mestrado e Doutorado de uma fundação científica brasileira, e identificou dezenas de dissertações em homeopatia – a grande maioria delas afirmando resultados experimentais positivos. Eu espero que ele eventualmente publique seus achados. Parece que, embora a homeopatia seja valorizada no Brasil, o mesmo pode ser dito da medicina baseada em evidências e do pensamento crítico.
Mariette DiChristina Dá Um Exemplo
Sra. DiChristina deveria ser aplaudida pela sua rápida intervenção e pela sua defesa de padrões científicos rigorosos. Um de nossos comentadores disse “Eu achei bem interessante que a editora-chefe da Scientific American demonstrou mais integridade científica em padrões de periódicos do que editores de periódicos que afirmam altos fatores de impacto na área da ciência médica.” Que verdade lamentável!
No blog SBM, frequentemente criticamos a publicação de estudos ruins e artigos crédulos sobre MCA (medicina complementar e alternativa) pelos principais periódicos de medicina e perguntamos como esses artigos passaram pelos editores e revisores. Há exemplos de artigos que foi provado serem fraudulentos, mas que nunca foram repudiados pelos periódicos.
Lancet finalmente retratou o vergonhoso artigo de Wakefield, mas isso demorou 12 anos para acontecer. Criticamos até mesmo o prestigiado New England Journal of Medicine por artigos mal orientados em medicina integrativa, e acupuntura.
Criticamos o National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) por desperdiçar fundos em pesquisas muito questionáveis. Sua diretora, Josephine Briggs, pareceu receptiva à nossa mensagem, mas ela foi igualmente receptiva a um grupo internacional de homeopatas que saíram das instalações bem satisfeitos com a favorável impressão que deixaram.
Precisaria de muita integridade para um editor de um periódico médico ou um político eleito resistir às atuais tendências de medicina “charlatã-acadêmica”, demanda popular, e ter honestidade política; para chamar charlatanismo de charlatanismo e manter-se firme à medicina baseada em evidências face à oposição de muitos colegas ou empregadores. É possível que ele perca seu trabalho. Mas com certeza seria um esforço que valeria a pena. Sra. DiChristina deixou um bom exemplo para outros seguirem. Eu só posso esperar que outros encontrem a coragem para seguir o exemplo dela.
Nota: Agradeço ao Felipe Nogueira pela ajuda nas traduções.