Recently, BioMed Central’s Virology Journal published a case report speculating that the woman in the Biblical story in which Jesus cures her of fever was suffering from the flu. The case report was obviously quite tongue-in-cheek, akin to many others in the literature, but also applied clinical reasoning to the scant evidence offered by the Bible.
In most case reports that seek to plumb historical facts, investigators review documentation, try to translate what they can into modern meaning, then attempt a diagnosis, usually for the sport of it. From gout in the Holy Roman Emperor to stroke in Woodrow Wilson to the death of King Edward VI, many journals allow researchers this kind of indulgence from time to time.
However, while the editors of Virology Journal seemed initially tickled by this traditional sort of academic and intellectual sport, the blogosphere was not. Very quickly, after a firestorm on the blogs (examples here and here) and across social media in general, the article was retracted, with a revealing comment from the editor-in-chief:
I wish to apologize for the publication of the article entitled ”Influenza or not influenza: Analysis of a case of high fever that happened 2000 years ago in Biblical time”, which clearly does not provide the type of robust supporting data required for a case report and does not meet the high standards expected of a peer-reviewed scientific journal. . . . Whilst only ever intended as an opinion piece and also a bit of relief from the ‘normal’ business of the journal, the speculations contained within this article clearly would be better expressed outside the confines of a peer-reviewed journal.
Even when publishing an article to provide a bit of “relief,” I guess you can’t mess with the sacrosanct, be it peer-review or Jesus.
While part of the problem may be that a religious document is probably not the best place to search for clinical evidence, the real problem seems to have been caused by the real-time Web and social media. As one of the authors noted in a published email about the events:
I was especially astonished that so many comments were made outside the scope of the journal. In medical writing, colleagues would usually make comments in the “letter to the editors” and the authors would respond in the subsequent correspondence. I once again am very sorry to have caused inconvenience to the Journal and anxiety to myself. I think I will never write this type of article any more – not worth the hassles!
I’ll wager that the authors and editors expected this little bit of fluff to pass quietly into oblivion, a harmless lark in an obscure journal. It’s not an unreasonable expectation. In the traditional journal world, reports like this were shielded from widespread evaluation due to relatively small circulations in tight-knit communities. Even in the last decade, the lack of robust commenting on journal articles has helped insulate scholars.
Today, things are different. Now, a science blogosphere bent on sensationalism and hungry for topics is perfectly willing to pick up on a silly article and beat the bejeezus out of it.
It’s worth noting that the authors of the speculative case report are mostly from China and Hong Kong (one blogger believes that how the abstract is written reveals the authors to be devout Christians, but I think that’s a real stretch). Whether their backgrounds intensified or blunted sensitivity to the religious dimensions of their historical case cogitation isn’t clear, but the fact that publication in a Western journal led to de facto censorship based on social media pressures says something negative about publication in the West and the culture following journals.
People do science. Every once in a while, they’ll play with its conceits and boundaries. Bloggers and social media denizens should keep their senses of humor. There was nothing here to get all feverish over. It was just a bit of fun.