A Fearful Lie

Although I don’t practice medicine any more I still read some of the medical journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine. A banal sentence in a multi-authored paper in that august publication caught my attention last week:

The first and last authors vouch for the accuracy and completeness of the reported data and analyses and for adherence of the study to the protocol.

In other words, the authors swear that, in their paper, they lie neither by commission nor omission. I find this declaration very curious. It would never have occurred to me, had the authors not made it, that they might be lying. It is also utterly worthless as a guarantee, no doubt insisted upon by the editor. Most scientific authors do not falsify their results (if for no other reason than they will sooner or later be found out), and if they did they would surely be capable of lying about whether they had lied or not. I am reminded of the forms you have to fill in on entering the United States, asserting, by ticking a box, that you are not and never have been involved in genocide. (Genocide has replaced communism as the deportable crime of deportable crimes.)

I have heard this kind of bureaucratic absurdity defended on the grounds that it is easier to prove a lie than to prove the sin or crime about which the lie is told, but this seems to me flawed. To prove that I have lied about committing genocide, for example, you surely would have to prove that I had committed genocide, and lying about having committed genocide cannot be worse than having actually committed genocide. It follows that the question is entirely redundant; it is a figment not of a bureaucrat’s imagination, but of his lack of imagination.

The foolish question and the worthless asseveration in the NEJM might seem, and no doubt are, small things, but yet they point to something larger, namely a fearful frame of mind. It is as if the American immigration service and the editor of the journal feared to be blamed if, by chance, a genocidal criminal entered the United States or a scientific fraud were published in the NEJM. In a way, their situation is even more pitiable than that of K in The Trial; for K at least had been accused of something, though he never discovered what. These functionaries are afraid even before they have been accused of anything.

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