Friday, December 22, 2006

On Scientific and Moral Integrity: Final Thoughts for 2006 ------ Rest of the Story will Return on Monday, January 8

Last Friday, sports broadcaster Jim Gray reported during a Philadelphia 76ers basketball telecast that he had spoken with (now former) 76ers star Allen Iverson on the phone and that Iverson told him he wanted to be traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

There was just one problem. Gray didn't talk to Iverson. It turns out it was an impostor. Iverson's agent immediately called the network to tell Gray that he didn't talk to Iverson and that the reported story was a mistake.

So what did Gray do?

He immediately "went on the air to say that Iverson's agent Leon Rose called to inform him that the reporter never spoke to Iverson. Gray said on the air that he had talked to an impostor." Gray immediately acknowledged the mistake, corrected his statement, and apologized.

At almost the same time as Gray's gaffe, Atlanta Falcons head coach Jim Mora stated on a Seattle radio interview that he was interested in coaching for the University of Washington football team, and that he would leave his job in the middle of the season if necessary to accept a job coaching the Huskies: "if that job's open, you'll find me at the head of the line with my resume in hand ready to take that job." Mora, being interviewed by KJR's Hugh Millen and Dave Mahler, was then asked, "If you're available?" Said Mora: "It doesn't even matter if I'm available. ... I don't care if we're in the middle of a playoff run. I'm packing my stuff and coming back to Seattle."

It turns out that Mora was joking; he was being sarcastic and merely trying to be funny. But the fans and the Atlanta media were non-plussed. He was heavily criticized for the comments.

So what did Mora do?

He immediately held a press conference and stated: "Clearly I made a mistake in the way I came across. My intent was sarcasm and wit with an old buddy I roomed with in college, Hugh Millen. I thought I was kidding but in listening to the replay it certainly didn't sound like that. So I apologize. I certainly didn't want to offend anyone in Atlanta here with the Falcons, Ty Willingham, or people in Seattle. It was just very poor judgment on my part and for that I apologize." Blank did not attend the news conference, but Mora had the appearance of a man who had been reprimanded by his boss. "I have talked with Arthur," Mora said. "He's disappointed in me and he should be. I'm more disappointed in myself than he ever could be with me. ... I opened my mouth and I let people down. "This is where I want to live. This is where I want to grow old, and boy, what a horrible job I did of expressing that, a horrible job. You'd think I'd learn. You think you get enough shots at this, you'd figure it out. But I never cease to amaze myself at some of the things that come flying out of my mouth before I can get them back."

Mora immediately acknowledged the mistake, corrected his statement, and apologized.

And at almost the same time as Gray's and Mora's guffaws, Massachusetts Senate President Robert Travaglini told a public audience that he would withhold support for incoming Governor Deval Patrick's legislative agenda because Patrick had blamed the legislature for wasteful spending. This public scolding was quite unexpected since Patrick has not even taken office yet and the two must work together if anything is to be accomplished in 2007.

So what did Travaglini do?

He immediately held a press conference at the State House, invited Patrick, and made a live, public apology to Patrick, an almost unprecedented occurrence for a politician:

"Travaglini appeared briefly with the governor-elect yesterday afternoon at a hastily called press conference at the State House, where Patrick accepted the apology and said he was not offended by the Senate president's remarks. ... "What I did was make public a conversation that was private, between the governor and I, and make public some of those details, and I don't think that was appropriate to do," Travaglini said. "We're going to have differences, but I think I've demonstrated in the four years I've been president that conflict isn't part of our arsenal. We like to compromise. . . . What happened yesterday does not fit in that mold." Travaglini said that the state Senate is "standing ready to partner with the new administration." The public appearance followed a private apology the day before. ... His appearance with Patrick was a rare event on Beacon Hill. Political figures at the State House almost never apologize for their sharp comments or attacks on their colleagues, let alone stand with them before the media to make their mea culpas."

Travaglini immediately acknowledged the mistake, corrected his statement, and apologized.

The Rest of the Story

In contrast to the behavior of Gray, Mora, and Travaglini, anti-smoking groups have refused to acknowledge that they have made mistakes in their communication of false health and medical information to the public, have refused to correct their statements, and have failed to apologize for the errant reporting of important health information.

When I checked the American Cancer Society's smoking ban strategy guide this morning, it was unchanged - it contained the same fallacious claims that I reported to the American Cancer Society and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids earlier in the week, including the absurd claim that brief exposure to secondhand smoke can immediately cause atherosclerosis.

Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) is still telling the public that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure causes heart damage similar to that of active smokers, and that it reduces the ability of the heart to get life-giving blood. And we know that they have re-visited this "fact sheet." It is now dated "November 2006," and I originally reported the mistake to ANR in March.

So far as I can tell, the Association for Nonsmokers' - Minnesota has still never acknowledged its mistake in telling the public that 30 seconds of secondhand smoke exposure makes nonsmokers' coronary artery function indistinguishable from that of active smokers. Neither has it corrected the statement or apologized for the mistake.

As of this morning, SmokeFreeOhio is still telling the public that secondhand smoke causes debilitating pulmonary emphysema, even though the most comprehensive reviews of the subject - those by the U.S. Surgeon General and the California EPA - have failed to conclude that this is true.

So far as I can tell, the Office of the Surgeon General has yet to correct its claim that brief secondhand smoke exposure causes heart disease, nor has it even acknowledged that this was an error.

Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada is still claiming that secondhand smoke causes reduced oxygen delivery to tissues comparable to that seen in children with cyanotic heart disease.

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) is still telling the public that 30 seconds of secondhand smoke increases the risk of a fatal heart attack among nonsmokers to the same level as that of an active smoker.

And the one organization (ClearWay Minnesota) that did completely retract its fallacious claims about the acute cardiovascular health effects of secondhand smoke by deleting the relevant smoking ban manual from the internet has, so far as I can tell, failed to acknowledge the mistake, correct it, or apologize for it.

I have a hard time believing that these organizations actually believe the statements that they are making, and that the reason they are failing to respond is that they actually think these communications are accurate and are not misleading to the public.

Are you telling me that they really believe that the damage to the heart from active smoking is merely as bad as that from 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure? Are you telling me that they really believe that the risk of a fatal heart attack in a nonsmoker who is exposed to drifting tobacco smoke for 30 minutes is the same as the fatal heart attack risk of an active smoker? Are you telling me that they really believe that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke can cause hardening of the arteries? Are you telling me that they really believe that 30 seconds of secondhand smoke causes coronary artery dysfunction in nonsmokers which is the same as that in active smokers?

I think it's quite obvious that they don't actually believe that these claims are accurate and truthful and that they are not misleading to the public. If they do actually believe these things then the scientific integrity of the movement is completely shot, we have absolutely no scientific credibility, and we are incapable of, and should immediately stop providing any health and scientific information to the public.

Despite all the inaccuracies and the misleading information that has been communicated by anti-smoking groups to the public in 2006, I have still yet to witness, even once, an anti-smoking group acknowledging that it made a mistake, correcting the statement, and apologizing for the error.

I don't expect any anti-smoking group to be perfect and it is perfectly acceptable to make mistakes. However, the real sign of character and integrity is what you do after you make a mistake? Do you ignore it and fail to acknowledge it, or do you admit it, correct it, and apologize?

To me, that is the ultimately test of the scientific and moral integrity of the anti-smoking movement, and at least in 2006, the movement failed the test with flying colors.

I can only hope that 2007 will bring some major changes to the tobacco control movement.

What has been particularly disturbing to me has been the response of the movement to my pointing out these mistakes. Instead of responding, even once, in a substantive way (and addressing the actual science and the accuracy of the claims), I have been repeatedly attacked (publicly), insulted, accused of taking tobacco money and working for the industry, slandered, accused of being a scientific fraud, and generally lambasted and ex-communicated.

I would have loved, even once in 2006, to have actually been debated about the scientific merits of these statements by anti-smoking groups.

And do you know what I would have done if I were shown to have been wrong? Yes - I would have immediately acknowledged my mistake, corrected it, and apologized for misleading my readers.

I should add that while I have completely given the anti-smoking groups the benefit of the doubt in interpreting these fallacious health claims as merely being innocent mistakes, the failure to correct the claims seems to me to have a different interpretation. The intentional decision not to correct the mistakes seems to me to indicate a willful decision to mislead the public. And if true, that is unethical.

I'm going to need to see some real action in 2007 to prevent me from concluding that there is an intentional effort to deceive the public and that this effort is widespread among the tobacco control movement.

I am fighting for nothing less than the scientific and ethical integrity of the anti-smoking movement. These are basic values that were instilled upon me by my parents and I'm not going to let go of them simply because my colleagues are warning me to shut up because they are afraid I might be hurting the anti-smoking movement.

In the long run, what is hurting the anti-smoking movement the most is the fallacious claims themselves. Because these claims destroy the scientific integrity of the movement. And our scientific integrity is the one thing that truly, in the past, has separated us from the tobacco companies.

Take away that distinction and what are you left with? Not anything that I would want to be a part of. That's why I can't and won't relent in my effort to restore scientific integrity to the movement.

I do have to say that it has also been quite disappointing to me that there are really few individual advocates who have joined me in my effort to restore scientific integrity to the movement. But ultimately, I understand the reason why few others are willing to publicly speak out and simply acknowledge that these public claims are inaccurate or misleading and to call for the correction of these statements.

The reason is that if you do so, your career in tobacco control will be destroyed. You will be attacked, people will be told to ignore you, people will be told that you don't know what you are talking about, and you'll be accused of taking tobacco money and being a tobacco stooge and a traitor. That's the reality of the groupthink mentality that has overtaken the movement and the McCarthyistic element that drives it.

Ultimately, I am willing to forgive anti-smoking groups for making these fallacious public claims. But for forgiveness, you have to be willing to first admit the mistake, correct it, and apologize. There has unfortunately been no sign of any of these in 2006.

Most importantly, this is not a game. We are supposed to be public health practitioners and we have an ethical responsibility to the public to communicate the science and represent the findings and implications of scientific studies as carefully and as accurately as possible. In other words, this is our job. This is ultimately what we go to work every day to do. It is not some sort of ancillary activity or frill.

I am having a lot of troubling waking up every morning to remember that my movement is widely misleading the public about important health information. It's an issue of conscience for me. This isn't about anything more salient and compelling than that.

My readers have stuck with me through my struggles, and often despite major differences of opinion have shown respect, something I have not received from many of my colleagues and certainly not from the list-serves from which I have been expelled because of my willingness to speak out for what I believe. For that respect, and for just listening, I thank each of you.

And I wish you all a happy holiday season and a happy and healthy New Year.


NOTE
: The Rest of the Story will be back on Monday, January 8

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