Scientific Journal Veers Into Demonology, Issues Retraction

In a major goof, a scholarly journal prints a speculative take on a Biblical miracle. Enter the stern peer review of the blogosphere.

Jesus heals


It must get tedious sometimes, running a scientific journal–all that dull data, all those pesky p-values. Wouldn’t it be cool if science journals had accounts of Biblical miracles, and speculation on events thousands of years in the past? That seems to be what the editors of Virology Journal were thinking, when they decided to publish a speculative analysis of a Biblical miracle by Ellis Hon et al., of Hong Kong.

Even from the very first sentence of the abstract, which mentions a woman with a fever cured “by our Lord Jesus Christ,” it ought to have been clear to the article’s reviewers that it was not written to the highest objective scientific standards. The authors go on to present evidence that the woman likely had the flu: “The brief duration, high fever, and abrupt cessation of fever makes influenza disease probable.”

A bacterial illness, the authors suggest, is out of the question. But they are willing to take up the possibility of “whether the illness was inflicted by a demon or devil,” as reported elsewhere in the Bible (and they cite 10 instances in the Gospel, chapter and verse). But in this particular case, “demonic influence is not stated”–yup, so it must be the flu. The paper is surreal in its apparent view that natural and supernatural explanations are equally valid in a modern scientific journal.

The paper was swiftly eviscerated online, particularly on the blog Aetiology. On Wednesday, one reader asked why there had apparently been no peer review, but the editor, Robert Garry of Tulane, responded tersely in a post that there had been. Soon, though, enough of a stir was caused that Garry issued an apology on the journal’s site. The piece was intended as “a bit of relief from the ‘normal’ business of the journal,” but “the speculations contained within this article clearly would be better expressed outside the confines of a peer-reviewed journal.”

Today, the journal issued a formal retraction, saying the article lacked “robust supporting data.” That, of course, was the least of its sins. But apart from being amusing, the whole story raises an interesting question: Has the Internet instituted its own form of peer-review, superior in some cases to the old-fashioned pair of anonymous scholars?

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.