Thursday, December 01, 2005

Anti-Smoking Advocates Have No Interest in Even Discussing the Science; The Agenda Cannot Be Challenged

In response to my post yesterday which provided a detailed analysis questioning the claim that smoking bans lead to immediate and drastic reductions in heart attacks, another anti-smoking advocate (different from the one whose attack and insult I discussed in my previous post) publicly attacked me as follows:

He called me a "contrarian gadfly," stating that "every group needs one--it's rather like a corpse at an Irish wake, and nobody pays much attention."

In response to my suggestion that it was inappropriate to insult me personally, rather than to actually attempt to discuss the scientific issues involved in the determination of the effects of smoking bans, yet another anti-smoking advocate stated:

"Michael McFadden is a personal insult, to me and (at least) several other people who read this list. Take it somewhere else."

The Rest of the Story

First of all, I am a good sport and don't mind being called a "contrarian gadfly." It actually has kind of a nice ring to it, and the advocate who attacked me as such has every right to opine that I am such. However, what is disturbing to me is the suggestion that we don't need to pay attention to opinions that differ from the dogma of the anti-smoking movement.

In other words, that in the anti-smoking movement, we have selective attention. We pay attention to, and consider the studies that support our agenda. However, if a study or analysis doesn't support our agenda, then we don't need to pay attention. We can just ignore it.

I view my role in public health as being a public servant. That's always how I have viewed my career as a physician and now as a public health professional. And I think we owe it to the public, who are essentially our clients, to be willing to examine all of the evidence before we make public claims.

Now this doesn't mean that we have to accept the evidence. It just means that we have to be willing to at least examine it. It may well be that an analysis is invalid or scientifically flawed. That's fine, and the study can then be trashed, but I think it needs to be trashed based on the lack of scientific merit, not based on the fact that it tends not to support the anti-smoking agenda.

Even studies that are produced by the tobacco industry or industry-paid consultants require our attention. Again, it may be that there are heavily biased and therefore laden with serious flaws, but it is our responsibility, I think, to examine the evidence and point out those flaws rather than simply to trash the study and ignore it because the author has a tobacco industry affiliation.

The danger here is that we are starting to do exactly what some have accused the anti-smoking movement of doing for a long time - cherry-picking the information that supports our cause. That's precisely what I think is going on here.

The truth of the matter is that while many tobacco control groups or advocates may not care enough about the science to pay attention, many individuals outside of the tobacco control movement are paying attention. Certainly, the thousands of readers who read my blog are paying attention. Certainly, those who read Reason Online's Hit&Run blog are paying attention. The readers at the Smokers' Club web site are paying attention. And the readers at FORCES are paying attention. And you can bet that my readers from the three leading tobacco companies are eagerly paying attention.

We are public servants. I think it's about time that we start paying attention.

Second, the fact that one individual advocate happens to be insulted by the mention of the name of one of the authors of a study does not in any way justify an attack and insult against me. What is happening here is classic guilt-by-association.

Frankly, this is really scary to me. I have heard certain smokers' rights groups talk about McCarthyism in the anti-smoking movement, and I honestly thought that was a bunch of crap, but now I am beginning to question whether or not there might be some truth to it after all. My experience during the past 24 hours certainly hasn't helped to dispel that notion.

The rest of the story is that it is becoming quite clear to me that many tobacco control advocates really are not interested in discussing the science behind their public claims. If the science doesn't support the agenda, then the messenger of that bad news needs to be attacked. This is a truly sad state of affairs.

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