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Johns Hopkins Medicine (JHM), headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland, is one of the leading health care systems in the United States. Johns Hopkins Medicine unites physicians and scientists of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine with the organization... more.
Chair of the Expert Committee
Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church
American Association for Public Opinion Research
department of international health
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University
Loma Linda University
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
University of London
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Dr. Gilbert Burnham, Professor of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University
Dr. Gilbert Burnham, Chair of the Mectizan Expert Committee
Dr. Burnham is a Professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in the department of international health. He has extensive field experience in onchocerciasis control and has worked on a number of WHO onchocerciasis-related working groups including the WHO Ivermectin Subcommittee and Scientific Working Group on Filariasis and the WHO Onchocerciasis Operational Research Task Force. He also provided assistance to the WHO Special Program for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases analyzing the impact of ivermectin on onchocercal skin disease. Dr. Burnham worked in Malawi to establish a Mectizan distribution program and eye care project and he conducted an evaluation of the Malawi onchocerciasis control program for the International Eye Foundation. He also worked in Uganda on an onchocerciasis control consultation for Deutsche Gesellschaft Technische Zusammenarbeit. Dr. Burnham has published a number of articles on onchocerciasis and other tropical diseases, including an editorial commentary in the Lancet on the use of ivermectin in loiasis endemic areas, a topic frequently discussed during MEC/AC meetings.
Examples of this can be seen in reactions, from both "sides", to AAPOR's criticism that the study's lead author, Gilbert Burnham, violated "fundamental standards of science" .
Prior to AAPOR's involvement, Burnham had revealed that the survey used a sampling methodology which differed from the published account 1. When researchers requested details, all were refused - making it impossible to assess the study's claim of random sampling (an important matter for a study which estimated 601,000 violent deaths from 300 recorded deaths in the sample surveyed). After receiving a related complaint regarding the survey, AAPOR asked Burnham for "basic methodological details" (including "sampling information", "protocols regarding household selection", etc) but was refused. 3 As a result, AAPOR criticised Burnham for not answering "even basic questions about how their research was conducted" . "His data and methods" - New Scientist A brief piece about this appeared on New Scientist's website. The author, Debora MacKenzie, writes that Burnham "did not send" the information requested by AAPOR, but that, "According to New Scientist's investigation, however, Burnham has sent his data and methods to other researchers, who found it sufficient." Has Burnham really "sent his methods" to researchers? No, he hasn't made details of the sampling methodology available (see comments above, and footnotes 1 & 2). And since AAPOR's complaint was largely about this important aspect of the study, MacKenzie's choice of words here seems misleading, to say the least. The fact that other assorted information on the study's methods has been available, and that data has been released to some researchers ( some of whom , incidentally, have not found it "sufficient" - presumably MacKenzie's "investigation" didn't stretch to talking to them) is irrelevant to AAPOR's criticism about what specifically hasn't been made available to anyone. In response to a complaint about her New Scientist website piece, MacKenzie replied with the following characterisation of AAPOR's emailed requests for information from Burnham: AAPOR has a code of ethics which is apparently widely recognised by survey/poll professionals, but Burnham wasn't bound by this (he's not a member of AAPOR). That, of course, shouldn't stop AAPOR (or anyone) requesting information from Burnham or criticising him for non-disclosure of important details (eg sampling methodology). Behind MacKenzie's piece there appears to be one of those polarised opinions that I mentioned above, resulting in suspicion-mongering. The title, "What is behind criticism of Iraq deaths estimate? , seems suggestive of something sinister, not least because she provides no answer. Instead she writes: "There is no direct evidence that the latest attack on Burnham is politically motivated..." . Why, then, put the thought of such motivations into the readers' minds? Burnham did not release "complete" data (as researchers who received the incomplete data would inform MacKenzie, if she'd bothered to ask them). Meanwhile, what was the reason, if any, that Burnham gave for refusing AAPOR's request for information about the study? MacKenzie claims that: A spokesman for the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, where Burnham works, says the school advised him not to send his data to AAPOR, as the group has no authority to judge the research. The "correct forum", it says, is the scientific literature. This, again, seems odd. What "authority" does AAPOR (or anyone else) need in order to "judge" (ie evaluate) information about a study? Did Burnham refuse the requests of other researchers because they didn't have the correct "authority"? What does "authority" have to do with it? Note also that the comment about the scientific literature being the "correct forum" is disingenuous, as some of the writers appearing in "the scientific literature" were the very people being refused basic information by Burnham in the first place. One can't discuss aspects of a study in the "scientific literature" unless information about those aspects is made available. So, the issue is framed in terms of a totalitarian-state bully demanding "all the data" but with no "authority" to "judge" it. What doesn't appear in this frame is the fact that researchers have been unable to assess (for example) the survey's sampling scheme because Burnham, to date, hasn't made it available, and that AAPOR also requested this, without success. Burnham is not a member, and nor is his institution, and his institution is indeed at this moment telling him that our organization does not have the authority to judge his work, but I am going to write to Burnham anyway demanding that he send me cloned copies of all his hard drives, plus receipts for any food he has eaten over the past three years..." Burnham suspended - is it "relevant" to the science? Burnham's school conducted its own investigation (after AAPOR's criticisms were published). It suspended Burnham for violations of the approved protocol: use of the wrong data collection form and inclusion of respondents' names. Some commentators argued that this wasn't relevant to estimation of the science. Burnham, however, reportedly said the investigation "verified his results" (a surreal claim, since the only thing "verified" was the transcription of data to computer. Lafta was part of the Iraq-based team and one of the authors (along with Burnham) of the official companion document to the Lancet study, which states: Following his school's investigation, Gilbert Burnham said he "takes responsibility" for the identified lapses (over data form and identifiers), but prior to the investigation which effectively forced him to take responsibility (over two years after the study) he had failed to disclose that the wrong data collection form had been used. Previously, researchers had requested (without success) copies of the survey questionnaire. 1. Gilbert Burnham writes: "As far as selection of the start houses, in areas where there were residential streets that did not cross the main avenues in the area selected, these were included in the random street selection process, in an effort to reduce the selection bias that more busy streets would have. ( http://tinyurl.com/yltzr8) This refers to a sampling method which was not included in the published account of the study. To date, Burnham has not made details of this sampling method available (in other words the actual procedures used to achieve random sampling "in areas where there were residential streets that did not cross the main avenues in the area selected" have not been released), despite requests from researchers and journalists.
Gilbert Burnham, Johns Hopkins University
WINNERS: The John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and one of its professors, Dr. Gilbert Burnham, for stonewalling in the face of serious questions about a flawed survey project, which reported more than 600,000 Iraqi deaths from 2003 to 2006.
The head researcher was formally censured by the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) for covering up his data collection efforts, but the Bloomberg School refuses to investigate the methodology. (Ah, the wisdom of the three monkeys: "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil!"). BACKGROUND: In 2006, the British medical journal, The Lancet, published the results of a survey, designed and supervised by Dr. Gilbert Burnham of the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and his colleagues.* The survey purported to show that about 600,000 Iraqi deaths occurred in Iraq by July 2006, as a consequence of the invasion of Iraq. But contrary to scientific norms, Burnham refused to provide details about how the survey was conducted. John Hopkins Bloomberg School initially stood behind the study, but then eventually concluded that Burnham had made some unauthorized changes in his methodology, and thus "the School has suspended Dr. Burnham's privileges to serve as a principal investigator on projects involving human subjects research." But then the school advises Burnham not to release details about his methods, so the scientific community can't have the information it needs for a definitive assessment. The Stonewalliing/Coverup Award takes issue with a study widely criticized by conservatives on substantive grounds, though our only concern is that the Bloomberg School of Public Health and Dr. Gilbert Burnham refused to come clean with the report's methodology. In fact, anyone who reads the linked Johns Hopkins press release will see that Dr Burnham's study violated procedures by recording the names of subjects. You are correct in saying that the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suspended Dr. Burnham from acting as a principal investigator in projects involving human subjects because he recorded names of subjects, a violation of the study procedures that had been approved. You are also correct in saying that this particular violation does not itself detract from the study's findings. We never made such a claim in our description of the award. The STONEWALLING/COVER-UP award we granted to Burnham and to the Bloomberg School was earned because of Burnham's and the Bloomberg School's refusal to release details of the methodology of Burnham's study. As we noted in the background to the award, the American Association for Public Opinion Research censored Burnham specifically for that refusal. What kind of information did Burnham and Bloomberg refuse to release? Some people claim that the procedures used by Burnham led to a much higher estimate of Iraqi deaths than is warranted. The only way to address those criticisms is if Burnham were to reveal exactly what his procedures were, so that other scientists can made an objective assessment. His refusal to release such methodological detail obviously leads to this question: What is he hiding? In other words, Burnham has made his full data available to other scientists already after 2007. While I'm also critical of Burnham violating some details of his protocol and not being more forthcoming it seems that he corrected this problem several years ago. Why then this criticism well after the fact in 2010? In the previous post, I acknowledged that the steps taken by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health against Burnham were not relevant to the validity of his study. But I noted a second censure by the American Association for Public Opinion Research, which asked Burnham to outline in detail the method by which he collected his data and made his estimates of the body count. He refused to do so, and for that reason, AAPOR issued its censure. The release also noted that "AAPOR found that Burnham, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, repeatedly refused to make public essential facts about his research on civilian deaths in Iraq. In particular, the AAPOR inquiry focused on Burnham's publication of results from a survey reported in the October 2006 issue of the journal Lancet. When asked to provide several basic facts about this research, Burnham refused." This lack of transparency by Burnham is the crux of the issue in our STONEWALLING/ COVER-UP Award. Yes, we implied that Burnham was "jacking up the body count," but we are quite willing to be proven wrong. Let Burnham provide the requested details as to how he counted deaths in Iraq, and if other scientists agree this was a reasonable approach, we're more than willing to admit we were wrong. In the previous post, I acknowledged that the steps taken by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health against Burnham were not directly relevant to the validity of his study. (Perhaps, even here, I was hasty, because it can reasonably be argued that if Burnham was not being forthright about recording the names of respondents, in contravention to the protocol he said he had been following, then it is difficult to trust any of his numbers.) Nevertheless, in the original post, I noted a second censure, which you have ignored altogether. That one was by the American Association for Public Opinion Research, which asked Burnham to outline in detail the method by which he collected his data and made his estimates of the body count. He refused to do so, and for that reason, AAPOR issued its censure. The release also noted that "AAPOR found that Burnham, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, repeatedly refused to make public essential facts about his research on civilian deaths in Iraq. In particular, the AAPOR inquiry focused on Burnham's publication of results from a survey reported in the October 2006 issue of the journal Lancet. When asked to provide several basic facts about this research, Burnham refused." We are not arguing which study is correct, but rather that if Burnham wants his study to be viewed seriously, he must make available to the scientific world the methods by which he obtained his estimates. And that he refuses to do. To this day, neither Burnham nor the Bloomberg School of Public Health have released the specific information requested by AAPOR. This lack of transparency by Burnham is the crux of the issue in our STONEWALLING/ COVER-UP Award. Yes, we said that "jacking up the body count with bad studies is not a good tactic for anyone," because it appears to us that in fact Burnham did just that. His refusal to come clean with his method of making estimates is clearly suspicious, regardless of what other studies show (and here there is much conflict among the various studies' results). The only way to allay suspicion is for Burnham to provide the requested details as to how he counted deaths in Iraq, and to let other scientists assess the utility of those methods.