Misinformation and the media

Publishing problems with writing about human development
"Those in control of the major media sources are apparently unwilling to balance the cascade of false statements made, with the real truth. Even though they probably know the real truth, yet speak and act as though it does not exist." (Ward Kischer)

C. Ward Kischer, Ph.D. is an emeritus professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy, at the University of Arizona, College of Medicine. His specialty is in Human Embryology.

In the November 22nd, 1989 issue of National Review, Kischer came across an article written by Ernest van den Haag, a political analyst not a human embryologist, entitled "Is there a middle ground?" The article included several statements about human embryology that Kischer regarded as questionable. 

For example, van den Haag claimed that the embryo is "pre-human". He stated that the embryo related to the human baby as a larva relates to a butterfly. Kischer claimed that this comparison was "biologically absurd." 

Van den Haag then reaffirmed his claim in response to two letters sent to the National Review (February 5, 1990) but he did so by stating: "things are what they are, not what they become."
"He [van den Haag] might as well have compared [the embryo] to an auto factory, more specifically, an embryo compared to a fender."

Kischer asks:

"If van den Haag really believes this, then he need not have likened human development to that of an insect. He might as well have compared it to an auto factory, more specifically, an embryo compared to a fender. It makes as much sense. The effect is to reduce and diminish the quality and status of the human during development.

"No human embryologist, now or ever in recorded history, has ever referred to the human embryo as "pre-human". Is van den Haag suggesting that our science classes world-wide should now teach this new concept?" 

Kischer's response
Kischer began to take a closer look at what was being published and announced on television and talk shows. To his great surprise, he found numerous articles written "essentially by psychologists, philosophers, and theologians which purported to invoke embryological facts, but which were, in fact, misrepresentations and outright falsehoods."

He could not find any human embryologists who were answering what he saw as "distorted" claims. Deciding it was necessary to set the record straight, Kischer decided to write a rebuttal of van den Haag's article.

The resulting manuscript, entitled "Concerning Abortion: The Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Biological Truth," was sent to the National Review with a cover letter indicating that Kischer had been teaching human embryology for more than 25 years, mainly to medical students, and wished to set the record straight on the misinformation within van den Haag's article.
The known scientific facts about human development  have been misrepresented, distorted or deliberately changed by many lay publications.

The manuscript explained the need to reveal the known scientific facts about human development and was divided into four subtopics, each of which had been misrepresented, distorted or deliberately changed by many lay publications and which had been discussed on various talk shows, news programs, and by commentators, with respect to the "science" of human development. 

The four areas he identified were:
  1. the beginning of life

  2. the quality of being human

  3. viability

  4. sentience
Kischer points out:

"This manuscript neither advocated an anti- or pro-view of abortion, nor did it include any political appeals. It contained only statements which referred to the so-called scientific information which van den Haag used in his essay, and reviewed what is currently known within the science of human embryology, and how this contradicted the statements and inferences by van den Haag."

Kischer's manuscript was rejected and returned with a cover letter indicating that National Review's policy was one of not normally accepting unsolicited manuscripts, but acquiring them from a standard pool of contributors. 

Kischer also sent a copy of the manuscript to van den Haag who never responded. 

He then embarked upon what was to be a three year effort to get his manuscript published.
"Over the course of the next three years this manuscript was submitted to 13 lay publications and 5 scientific publications, each time being rejected and in virtually every case never submitted for review."

The rejections
In his book The Human Development Hoax: Time to Tell the Truth, Kischer details the many lay and professional (scientific) publications to whom he then submitted the manuscript (including abbreviated versions to newspapers). He even changed the style and format slightly to suit the particular journal or media source that he submitted to for publication. He says:

"Over the course of the next three years this manuscript was submitted to 13 lay publications and 5 scientific publications, each time being rejected and in virtually every case never submitted for review."

Following the rejection by National Review, Kischer made the following submissions:

* Reader's Digest - as per their instructions received by telephone, he included in his letter a brief description of the manuscript and why he had written it. He then asked if they would be interested in the article. Their reply included the following sentence: "After careful consideration we have decided your material would not work as an original article in Reader's Digest." They went on to say that most of their articles "are prepared on assignment by staff writers, or regular contributors to the magazine." 

* The Atlantic - Their response was "I am afraid one of the two articles on abortion we just published, though different from the piece you propose, must preclude us from taking up the subject again for some while." 

* New Republic - which replied with a form rejection letter. 

*Family Circle - replied that the manuscript "just isn't right for us". 

The New Republic and Family Circle had previously published articles on abortion with alledgedly false and misleading statements about human development. 

* The Saturday Evening Post - even though it is the official organ of the Benjamin Franklin Literary and Medical Society, sent their form letter of rejection which included the comment "we feel this article is inappropriate for our readership". 

During this time Kischer rewrote and reduced the manuscript in size so that it would conform to a newspaper Op-Ed piece. He then sent it to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Arizona Republic. 

"Each Op-Ed editor quickly rejected the article. I wrote another abbreviated form concentrating only on the origin of life and sent it to the Arizona Daily Star, which, to my surprise, published it. Subsequently I condensed all four of the topics within this manuscript to the format of another newspaper Op-Ed piece, and submitted it to the Tucson Citizen, which published it.

"If facts are misstated they don't necessarily have any implications for an argument that involves a value judgement as the abortion argument does."
Kischer submitted the complete manuscript to The New England Journal of Medicine as an unsolicited editorial opinion or special article. It went to the desk of Marcia Angell, M.D., Executive Editor. 

Kischer: "Apparently, it remained on her desk for approximately six weeks. Within that time I had attempted to call the Journal office and requested information as to the disposition of that manuscript. Finally, during the sixth week and after the fifth phone call I succeeded in talking to Dr. Angell about the manuscript. She had not sent it out for review and she had rejected it." The conversation went like this:

Angell: "If facts are misstated they don't necessarily have, or those misstatements don't necessarily have, any implications for an argument that involves a value judgement as the abortion argument does - and we are just not going to publish something on this issue that really using facts, or not using facts, or correcting facts, or putting facts in a different perspective . . ."

Me: "You are an M.D.?"
Angell: "Yes "

Me: "Do you believe in the biological basis for the practice of medicine?"
Angell: "What are you talking about?"

Me: "If a surgeon intervenes in a uterus to remove an embryo or a fetus, it seems to me that surgeon ought to know whether or not whatever is being removed is alive, and whatever . . ."
Angell: (talkover) "Why?" 

Me: " . . . whatever is being removed whether or not it is human!"
Angell: "Why? Why does he have to know that?"

Me: "If you want to question that - why wouldn't you want to question elements in the Hippocratic Oath . . . for example, do no harm?" 
Angell: "I would!" 

Kischer points out that the New England Journal of Medicine, publishes routinely on the subject of abortion, in vitro fertilisation, foetal tissue research and other socio-legal issues, as well as social policies. 

More rejections
Following rejection from the New England Journal of Medicine, he then sent the manuscript to Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 

Again, the manuscript lay on the desk of the Editor, Richard Landau, for approximately six weeks. Kischer says:

"I eventually was able to talk to him on the telephone at which time he admitted the manuscript had not been sent out for review and told me "two's enough". I inquired of him what that meant since I knew of only one article in his Journal published on abortion and that was by Rivers Singleton, Jr.
"You should know that I am pro-abortion. Violently so!"
(- Perspectives in Biology and Medicine editor)

I reminded him of several errors that Singleton had made in that paper, which I was trying to correct on the basis of factual and scientific knowledge in human embryology. Landau informed me that there was another manuscript that had been accepted for publication and would be published within the next several issues of the Journal. 

Further, in the course of the conversation he said: 'You should know that I am pro-abortion. Violently so!' "

Kischer discovered that Clifford Grobstein (a developmental biologist who was probably the inventor of the term 'pre-embryo') was, at that time, a member of the editorial board of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. The second manuscript Landau referred to, that eventually was published in his Journal, did indeed concern abortion and the abortion controversy and was a very pro-abortion article. The author of the article, Robert T. Muller, a psychologist, justified abortion on the basis that our society executes convicted criminals and therefore the paradigm for killing was already embedded in our society (1991. In Defense of Abortion: Issues of Pragmatism Regarding the Institutionalization of Killing. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 34:315-325).
"In my manuscript I [indicated] that gill slits never appear in humans, and the embryos never display a tail, but that, unfortunately, the caudal area is referred to as a tail process."

The manuscript was then sent to BioScience, the official publication of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. Again, it was rejected without review. The Editor, Julie Anne Miller, included a comment in the cover letter stating that a resumed copy contained reviewer comments.

Kischer: "In fact, there were three comments, only, written on the manuscript, two of which were corrected typos, and did not constitute a bonafide review. The third comment concerned my correction of the fact that Singleton in his article in Perspectives had inferred that the human embryo displayed gill slits and a tail. In my manuscript I corrected that by indicating that gill slits never appear in humans, and the embryos never display a tail, but that, unfortunately, the caudal area is referred to as a tail process. 

"The so-called reviewer for BioScience had written after that sentence "snide, again". After receiving the manuscript back from Dr. Miller and BioScience, I wrote to her that one comment written in a phrase on one copy of my manuscript did not constitute a bonafide review. I requested a copy of a review commentary and that not being available I requested that the manuscript be reconsidered and this time sent out for a real review. I never received a reply from her."

Still more rejections
Following this the manuscript was reentitled to: "In Defense of Human Development" and was submitted to Issues in Science and Technology, then to Policy Review. Again, it was summarily rejected in both cases. 

Next, the manuscript went to Pharos, which is the official publication of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society. Their reply, another rejection, included the following comments: "We have had this paper for a much longer time than in the case with other manuscripts. The delay in our getting back to you reflects the fact that there was considerable debate among the various members of the Editorial Board to whom we sent the paper regarding its suitability for publication. Everyone agreed that the paper was well written and it obviously deals with a topic of importance in our current society. Taking into account the pros and cons, however, I regret to say that we have come out on the side of not accepting the paper."
Kischer claims that, to date, not a single major publication has published any article correcting false statements about human development.

To date, not a single major publication, lay or scientific, has published any article correcting the plethora of false statements about human development which Kischer claims have burdened the literature for the past 15 or more years. 

The rejection letter following submission to the Western Journal of Medicine included the following statement:

"It is the policy of the Western Journal of Medicine to send (to the author) any available comments from the board's reviewers. This is intended to assist authors to rework manuscripts before submitting them to another publication." 

Rubber stamped in bold black letters at the bottom of this letter were the words "No comments received". Kischer received the manuscript back, with the letter of rejection, within 10 days.

The manuscript was also sent to the (anti-abortion) Human Life Review, but was, once again, rejected with a brief cover letter indicating that it was essentially "inappropriate" for publication in Human Life Review. Kischer notes that one year later an article appeared on abortion, with what he terms "a somewhat romanticised" approach. 

Thus, in all, this manuscript, essentially, was rejected, in one form or another, a total of eighteen (18) times.

After reading a lead article in The Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, entitled was "Who or What is the Pre-Embryo?" by Richard A. McCormick, Kischer wrote a reply to McCormick's article and submitted it to the Journal. He was encouraged by the editorial Statement of The Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal which stated that it "publishes opinion and analysis dealing with social, ethical, and public policy aspects of bioethics and related areas of 'applied' ethics. It presents varied points of view and encourages open debate of critical issues." 
The term 'pre-embryo' was apparently conceived by Clifford Grobstein in a 1979 article from Scientific American.

In this article Kischer reviewed all of the previous and contemporary textbooks used in human embryology, none of which used the term pre-embryo. He pointed out that this term was apparently conceived by Clifford Grobstein in a 1979 article from Scientific American. 

Kischer: "In spite of the stated objective to publish articles on both sides of an issue, The Kennedy Institute for Ethics Journal rejected my manuscript without review. I protested to the Editor, Renee Shapiro, and subsequently she apparently did seek a kind of review which, again, as in the instance of BioScience, came back with a handwritten comment on a manuscript copy that I was 'fossilized'." 

"The scientific data in this manuscript was not reviewed and not commented upon. I then sent this manuscript to Cross Currents, the official organ of the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life (ARIL), College of New Rochelle (New York). Again, the manuscript was rejected without review and without comments."

Success at last
Kischer then sent both manuscripts to The Linacre Quarterly, the editor of which is John P. Mullooly, M.D. The Linacre Quarterly accepted both and eventually they were published. The first one, "In Defense of Human Development" appeared in the November 1992 issue, volume 59, number 4, pages 58-76. The second manuscript: "Human Development and Reconsideration of Ensolement" appeared in the February 1993 issue, volume 60, number 1 pages 57-63. 

Following the problems Kischer had in getting his manuscript published, he attempted to deliver the history of these rejections at a conference sponsored by the Journal of the American Medical Association, which took place in Chicago in September, 1993. 

Peer review and research integrity
Kischer attempted to deliver the history of the problems he had in getting his manuscript published, at a conference on 'Peer Review.' sponsored by the JAMA.
"When I was informed that there was to be a conference sponsored by the JAMA in Chicago in September of 1993 on Peer Review, which would be the perfect forum to relate the problems described above, I wrote to the organizer of that conference, Dr. Drummond Rennie, but, at the same time I called the Chicago office of the JAMA and made an inquiry about the meeting. 

"I was told by Cheryl Manno, the person assigned to collate the abstracts and send them out for review that 'We are still sending abstracts out for review.' I then asked, if that is the case may I fax to her an abstract of the paper I would like to deliver from the podium. She said yes. I wrote the abstract and faxed it that afternoon and she confirmed by telephone the next morning that she indeed had received the abstract. 

"The abstract I faxed was essentially the history of rejections including biased statements by some editors of the article on the misuse and false statements of the known science of human embryology within the abortion controversy. 

"I waited several days and received a reply of my original letter to Drummond Rennie, the organizer of the conference, who said in the letter that the program had already been established and to allow me on the program would mean bumping someone off. I found Rennie's letter to be disconcerting since I had been told that abstracts were still being sent out for review.* (*Dr. Rennie was appointed to a commission on Research Integrity by HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, during the Clinton administration.)

"I wrote him back indicating that I had been told that the program had not yet been put together and asked him to reconsider. He replied and again refused my request, but did not reply to my claim that I had been told the program had not yet been established. 

"It was interesting to me in the meantime to have received a flyer on the program to see the various sessions scheduled for the program and the names of the session chairmen. 

"It was no small observation to me to see that the session to which my abstract would have been sent, and in which I would have delivered my presentation, was chaired by none other than Marcia Angell, the Executive Editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. If the abstract I faxed to the JAMA office had, indeed, been sent to review, it would seem logical that Dr. Angell would have reviewed it."
Kischer does not believe [human embryology] is well understood by the lay public, "because the truth has not been given to them."
Kischer says that human embryology is a subject which is fast becoming incorporated into daily communication, but in a distorted "New Wave" form. He does not believe it is well understood by the lay public, "because the truth has not been given to them." But he finds that it is not just the lay public which has trouble interpreting the facts or science of human development. He has found this kind of problem among medical students. 

He cites for example, a third year medical student who called an afternoon radio talk show in Tucson Arizona, on April 17, 1993. The medical student made the following statement: "In the emergency room, we pronounce a person dead when the heart stops beating, I would like to propose we just reverse that, that life begins when the heart starts beating."

Kischer points out that misinterpreting the facts is clearly a problem, not just in the media, but in education, particularly that of medical students.