In the Guardian James Heathers, a research scientist, asks, “TheLancet has made one of the biggest retractions in modern history. How could this happen?”
The Lancet is one of the oldest and most respected medical journals in the world. Recently, they published an article on Covid patients receiving hydroxychloroquine with a dire conclusion: the drug increases heartbeat irregularities and decreases hospital survival rates. This result was treated as authoritative, and major drug trials were immediately halted – because why treat anyone with an unsafe drug?
Now, that Lancet study has been retracted, withdrawn from the literature entirely, at the request of three of its authors who “can no longer vouch for the veracity of the primary data sources”. Given the seriousness of the topic and the consequences of the paper, this is one of the most consequential retractions in modern history.
It is natural to ask how this is possible. How did a paper of such consequence get discarded like a used tissue by some of its authors only days after publication? If the authors don’t trust it now, how did it get published in the first place?
The answer is quite simple. It happened because peer review, the formal process of reviewing scientific work before it is accepted for publication, is not designed to detect anomalous data. It makes no difference if the anomalies are due to inaccuracies, miscalculations, or outright fraud. This is not what peer review is for. While it is the internationally recognised badge of “settled science”, its value is far more complicated.
Just a guess, but I think there is a more immediate explanation for the way that this study was accepted a little too readily: a widespread desire among doctors and scientists to believe that anything Donald Trump believes must be wrong.
As it happens he probably was wrong. Though the use of hydroxychloroquine to try to treat the coronavirus appears not to be the disaster it was reported as being, the latest tests say it is not a cure for Covid-19 either. It does pretty much nothing either way. But we would have found out that useful piece of information earlier if the trials had proceeded without interruption.
Source: I think I might be able to guess