Tuesday, July 12, 2005

ANR Again Placing Politics Ahead of Science and Integrity

The Rest of the Story has been following the story of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights' (ANR's) refusal to change its website's personal attack on the character of Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum, in which it states that McCallum is a "former tobacco industry lawyer" in an attempt to malign his character and rile up the public to accuse him of a purely political attempt to dismantle the Department of Justice's lawsuit against the tobacco companies.

As I have argued, the attack misleads the public into thinking that McCallum has previously represented tobacco companies, which appears to be false. While I think there is good reason to question and investigate the sudden change in DOJ's legal strategy and to investigate whether McCallum's involvement in the litigation represents a conflict of interest, I do not find it ethical for a public health organization to attempt to motivate the public to political action by misleading people, especially in a way that could potentially denigrate the character of an individual.

Were this a single incident in which ANR was putting its political goals ahead of accuracy and integrity, it might be overlooked. Unfortunately, however, ANR has a history of putting politics ahead of scientific integrity.

The Rest of the Story

In 1999, I (an ANR Board member at the time) authored a short article about how anti-smoking advocates should respond to scientific challenges to the conclusion that secondhand smoke causes disease. I provided a copy to ANR upon its request, with permission to send the article out to anti-smoking advocates.

Without my permission or knowledge, ANR posted the article on its website.

When I saw that the article had been published without my permission, I immediately asked ANR to make two small changes in the article that I desired in order to avoid the possibility of misleading the public about the character of two individuals who I mentioned in the article. I re-wrote a paragraph in the article to clarify that these two individuals (who had published an article suggesting that the claim of 400,000 deaths due to smoking each year was an overestimate) were not personally tied to the tobacco industry, but that the organizations with which they were affiliated had received tobacco industry funding. Each of those individuals had contacted me and expressed their concern over the possibility that my article could be misleading in this way.

I saw nothing wrong with clarifying the article to remove any possibility of misinterpretation, so I demanded that ANR immediately do so.

ANR refused. Despite having ignored my copyright in the first place by posting the article without my permission, ANR was now further disrespecting my copyright by refusing to allow me to change my own article.

I had numerous discussions with ANR about what possible harm could be done by making the article clearer. From my perspective, their main concern was that they didn't want to say anything remotely positive about anyone with any affiliation whatsoever with the tobacco industry, and that they viewed the clarification as possibly being construed as saying something positive about individuals who had some connection with the tobacco industry and therefore unacceptable, even though the clarification was "scientifically" appropriate and most importantly, even though the article was mine and mine only.

When that first request was denied, I then more formally demanded that ANR publish a complete retraction and apology to the affected individuals, since the possibility of simply clarifying my statement was not being made available to me. This request, too, was denied and once again my authorship rights were disrespected.

In explaining its reasons for denying my request, ANR wrote:

"we have concluded that the possible 'clarification' that you and I discussed is simply not feasible. There is a strong concensus that we do not want to post ANYTHING on our web page that can be construed as an apology or as backtracking from the position taken in the paper you wrote. More specifically, XXXXXX has convinced me that, given XXXXX's long history of attacking ETS science, it would be a mistake to state anything that would give him credence. ... I realize that your views on the matter are heart-felt and sincere, and that mere removal of your name from the paper, without more, will not be entirely satisfactory to you. But at this point ANR must put its political credibility ahead of what you consider to be your scientific credibility."

ANR then decided to completely disrespect my authorship rights and my copyright of the article, and to subsume copyright of the article for itself by publishing it on its website without my name. I never gave ANR permission to do this. What I told ANR clearly was that given its refusal to change my article as I re-wrote it, I wanted the article removed from its website. It was only when ANR refused to honor this author's request that I demanded that my name be removed from its website.

I learned some very important lessons from this episode, which until now, I have not wanted to share publicly. But now, in light of ANR's apparent placement of politics ahead of accuracy and integrity, I think it is an appropriate time to share what I learned.

I learned that I had been seriously misled by the very organization whose Board I sat on. I joined the Board thinking that I could be a valuable scientific advisor, sharing my scientific expertise on the health effects of secondhand smoke in order to guide the development and promotion of sound, science-based public health policy.

Instead, I learned that when it really came down to it, ANR was not interested in science and scientific integrity. It was above and beyond all interested in advancing its political objectives. And it would sacrifice anything - even one of its own Board members and his authorship rights and copyright - to do so.

Basically, ANR used me as a hack man to deliver what it wanted to be a personal attack on two individuals who had some affiliation with the tobacco industry. When I decided that these individuals' arguments had to be dealt with on scientific grounds rather than merely based on the fact that the organizations they were affiliated with had taken tobacco money, and that these individuals were not personally taking any money from the tobacco industry and therefore the article should not allow readers even the possibility of interpreting it as a malignment of their characters on that basis, I and ANR had to part ways.

I resigned from the ANR Board because I didn't want to be associated with an organization that put its own political agenda ahead of legitimate concerns for scientific integrity and which ignored basic legal rights of individuals, including its own Board members, in an all-out and self-righteous effort to disparage individuals who disagreed with its own position on the issues.

I simply didn't see the harm in clarifying my statement so that it could not possibly be misinterpreted by the public, and end up misleading them into thinking that these two authors had personally taken money from the tobacco companies. How can it possibly be wrong to tell (or to clarify) the truth?

Even if ANR was correct and it represented a mortal sin to clarify a statement about someone who argues on the opposite side of a scientific issue in order to avoid the possibility of misleading the public, that would not justify ignoring and disrespecting my authorship rights and copyright on four separate occasions.

And how could publishing a simple clarification of my own work be viewed by ANR as not being "feasible?" It was certainly technologically feasible. It would have taken a couple of seconds of the web master's time. It became clear that for ANR, obeying copyright law and respecting authorship rights was not "feasible" if it meant doing anything that weakened its political positioning.

I was concerned about my scientific integrity because I do not make personal attacks lightly and on a public website, I am going to be as clear as possible in doing so, so that I will not mislead anyone. I admit that I should have been clearer in the article in the first place, but we all make mistakes and one is not always as clear in one's writing as one would like. But when one sees that one can be clearer, what is wrong with doing so? I do that all the time, and have done so with virtually every one of the 56 or so published articles I have authored. It is certainly a legitimate concern for my own scientific integrity to want to be as clear as possible in what I publish and to vigorously edit my material before publication, or even during the publication process.

But ANR disrespected that concern and ignored the legal rights of its own Board member, all in the name of what ANR itself admitted was its overriding concern for its own "political credibility."

So politics trumps science, the law, and integrity in the anti-smoking movement, or at least within ANR. That's the lesson I learned from this episode.

I have no interest in being a hatchet man and I have no interest in being someone who takes pleasure from making personal attacks against individuals. I have no interest in playing political games and I have no interest in dispensing with science, the truth, and having some integrity and character in order to achieve political ends.

Since 1999, I have thought that perhaps this was just an isolated episode for ANR and that it didn't reflect the true character of the organization. However, seeing how ANR has handled its personal attack on the character of Robert McCallum and how it has refused to simply clarify its misleading public claim has convinced me that this was not an isolated episode. I'm afraid it really does characterize the nature of the organization.

And it's because of a concern for the dark cloud that this kind of organizational behavior casts upon all anti-smoking advocates that I'm coming forward with this story now.

I can only hope that things will change and that a respect for the law, legal rights, the truth as an end in itself, as well as a respect for individuals (especially those who are not working for the tobacco companies but who are writing or commenting based on their own sincerely-held views) and an overriding concern for the highest level of character and integrity will return to ANR and to the anti-smoking movement.

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