By Dr. Gregory Koblentz
The journal Science and Global Security is embroiled in a controversy surrounding its acceptance of an article co-authored by Ted Postol, a former MIT professor and missile defense expert and member of the journal’s editorial board. For the last six years, Postol has promoted a variety of conspiracy theories that deny that the Syrian government is responsible for using chemical weapons against its own people despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In addition, the open source investigative journalist website Bellingcat has debunked many of Postol’s prior allegations. Postol’s latest target is the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017 which the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) determined was the result of a sarin-filled bomb being dropped on the town by a Syrian aircraft. In the article, Postol purports to present a computer model that demonstrates that a 122mm rocket, a type accessible to Syrian rebels, caused the crater where the sarin was released, not a chemical bomb as the JIM concluded. The journal initially defended its decision to publish the article, even after reviewing a critique of the article by Bellingcat, but later backtracked and said it would withhold the article pending further review.
The controversy became so intense that it was featured in Science magazine and quotes Biodefense program director Gregory Koblentz as challenging the journal’s judgment in accepting the article. According to the article, “Koblentz wrote several emails to Pavel Podvig, one of the journal’s three editors, urging him not to publish the paper. Koblentz didn’t question the computer model, which he says he is not qualified to judge, but said Postol’s past statements disqualified him. “You must approach this latest analysis with great caution,” Koblentz wrote to Podvig. The paper would be “misused to cover up the [Assad] regime’s crimes” and “permanently stain the reputation of your journal,” he warned.” Subsequently, Bellingcat published an analysis of newly discovered footage of an intact Syrian M4000 chemical bomb that provided further evidence that such a munition was used in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun. This episode holds an important lesson for the role that journals and editors play in ensuring the integrity of the research they publish in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”