On moving on from The Lancet’s egregious error

In the midst of the terrible summer war between the Hamas movement in Gaza and Israel, The Lancet published a rabidly anti-Israel letter entitled “An Open Letter for the People of Gaza” that accused Israel of intentional genocide and Israeli doctors of essentially being part of this genocidal activity — and of course squarely placed 100% of all the blame for the war on Israel’s shoulders, ignoring the rockets and terrorist activities of the Gazan side, and their refusal to respect cease-fire agreements. As I noted in a blog in this forum, and also on Occam’s Corner at The Guardian, several of the authors (Manduca and 24 signatories) failed to declare conflicts of interest, and professed clear anti-semitic views in addition to support for the 9-11 World Trade Center attack.

Despite the fact that I have grave concerns that: a) Israel’s failed government will likely be replaced with an even worse one in several months that will be just as unwilling to  move toward compromise and a fair two-state solution, b) Hamas will again indiscriminately fire rockets on Israeli towns and push for another round of war — I was buoyed ever-so-slightly by a recent commentary written by The Lancet editor, Dr. Richard Horton.

As it turns out, editor Horton agreed to an offer by the Israeli medical establishment to visit Israel. I read that Dr. Horton met with doctors in the north at Haifa’s Technion Univeristy Rambam hospital (including the Director-General of the Rambam Health Care Campus who interviewed me for a faculty position back in 2001) and physicians in the south at the Ben Gurion University medical school. My understanding is that he met with Jewish and Muslim Israeli doctors, rabbis and Imams, and that this visit allowed him to see first-hand how the Manduca letter failed to represent the reality in Israel. And although my preference would have been for the egregious Manduca letter to be retracted by The Lancet, I am cautiously optimistic that Dr. Horton’s commentary reflects a turning point in his understanding of the complexities of Israel and the middle-east. And I respect the courage he showed in admitting that:

I have seen for myself that what was written in the Manduca et al letter does not describe the full reality.

And that:

I was later horrified to discover that two co-authors of the letter had forwarded a vile and offensive video. The clearly anti-Semitic worldview expressed in that video is abhorrent and deserves universal condemnation.

Anti-semitism aside, I believe that there is an important lesson to be learned. The nature of medicine and science is to simplify systems. There is an understandable drive to reductionist philosophy — breaking things down to their simplest components, because the “whole,” the biological system at large — is often too complex to tackle. And while this may be a useful tool to slowly help build a more accurate picture in the scientific world, over-simplification of non-scientific systems — such as politics, good and evil, right and wrong — is frequently not helpful and even damaging. I am pleased that Dr. Horton had the opportunity to see that there are so many excellent people in Israel (Jews and Muslims and those of other religions), and that the country itself is very much split down the middle in its political views and desire for a two-state solution. I also hope very much that Dr. Horton’s letter marks a new understanding of these complexities that will be represented in any future publications regarding Israelis and Palestinians.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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