Suppressing Good News for Justice


I came across the noxious concept of "lying for justice" when I was hanging out (albeit briefly) at the City University of New York's graduate school of political science back in the 1980s. The idea of some progressives is that it is necessary to exaggerate a problem in order to get attention from policymakers and funders. "Sometimes you have to shout just to be heard," was another way it was explained to me.

Well, kudos to the New York Times yesterday for reporting on the front page a similar attempt by advocacy groups to suppress scientific information that they believe would harm their cause. First, the good news—global maternal mortality has fallen from 526, 300 in 1980 to 342, 900 in 2008, as reported in the current issue of the Lancet. The number dying is still too high, but progress has been made. However, some advocates wanted this information to remain buried. As the Times explained:

…some advocates for women's health tried to pressure The Lancet into delaying publication of the new findings, fearing that good news would detract from the urgency of their cause, Dr. Horton said in a telephone interview.

"I think this is one of those instances when science and advocacy can conflict," he said.

Dr. Horton said the advocates, whom he declined to name, wanted the new information held and released only after certain meetings about maternal and child health had already taken place.

He said the meetings included one at the United Nations this week, and another to be held in Washington in June, where advocates hope to win support for more foreign aid for maternal health from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Other meetings of concern to the advocates are the Pacific Health Summit in June, and the United Nations General Assembly meeting in December.

"People who have spent many years committed to the issue of maternal health were understandably worried that these figures could divert attention from an issue that they care passionately about," Dr. Horton said. "But my feeling is that they are misguided in their view that this would be damaging. My view is that actually these numbers help their cause, not hinder it."

For shame! Matt Ridley offers some sharp comments on this misbehavior over at his new blog, The Rational Optimist (which just happens to be the title of his forthcoming book):

This is wrong on all sorts of levels. First, because it shows a staggering arrogance among pressure groups about who should be allowed to know the facts—almost amounting to attempted fraud. Second, because the way to encourage people to fund projects is to show evidence that they work, not that they are futile and ineffective. One might almost suspect that these groups would prefer maternal mortality to remain high.

In order to forestall future attempts of this type, the editors at the Lancet should call out the groups that tried suppress this good news. Name names!