Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sleazy Switcheroo

UPDATE: The letter now seems to have been deleted altogether. Or perhaps it has been moved somewhere else. Comments welcome!

UPDATE II: Here is a Google cache of the second version of the letter. And here is a permanent copy. If anyone really cared, I could probably find a screen shot of the first version. I have confirmed that the National Journal published the first version of the letter but can't find a link to that.

As I first mention in this Deltoid thread, Gilbert Burnham and Les Roberts have done a very sleazy thing.

They initially sent a letter of complaint to the National Journal. That letter was posted here originally but has since moved to here. I think that this move is a technical issue unrelated to my complaint.) Anyway, that letter made an incorrect claim about what the National Journal reported about missing death certificate. Burnham and Roberts claimed that:

The statement on missing certificates is wrong. Three clusters did not have the presence of certificates noted, and in all there were 120 deaths in which the interviewers neglected to note their presence.

The problem is that this statement is clearly false.

I e-mailed Burnham, Roberts and co-author/data-maven Shannon Doocy about this issue on February 7th. We engaged in a spirited back and forth via e-mail. Doocy, as always, knew the data backwards and forwards and, while she was too polite to say so directly, confirmed my position. Roberts defended his position for a bit, misunderstood what the data showed and then, eventually, failed to reply.

On March 4th, I e-mailed the General Counsel of Johns Hopkins, Stephen Dunham, with my complaint, cc'ing Roberts, Burnham and others. I received no response.

And now, mirable dictu, the original letter has been changed in place! The offending section now reads:

The statement on missing certificates is wrong. There were 83 deaths (13%) in which the interviewers neglected to note their presence and these deaths were distributed across 20 clusters.

How is this sleazy? Let me count the ways.

1) Neither Roberts, Burnham nor Dunham ever admitted that the original claims were wrong. They never apologized to Munro/Cannon for incorrectly impugning their article. They never acknowledged that Spagat/my empirical work was correct.

2) They did not inform anyone that they have made this change. They swapped the wording in the proverbial dead of night, perhaps while hoping that no one would notice. Since I am the one who brought this error to their attention, Burnham and Roberts should have let me know that they were (sort of) correcting it.

3) The letter as it is now posted is a fraud. Burnham and Roberts still claim that "The following letter was submitted to the editors of the National Journal on January 7, 2008." In fact, this is not the letter that they submitted to the National Journal.

4) I do not think that they have told the editors of the National Journal that their previous letter to them was in error and that they are falsely claiming to the world to have sent a letter that they did not send.

5) They have not apologized to either the authors (Munro and Cannon) nor to the researchers (Michael Spagat and me) for their false accusations.

6) And, perhaps worst of all, they continue to try to mislead. They still claim that "The statement on missing certificates is wrong." This is a falsehood. Every single statement abut missing certificates in the National Journal article is correct.


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