Friday, September 15, 2006

California Lieutenant Governor Blasts UC Study for Obtaining the Wrong Results

In a September 13 letter to his fellow University of California regents, state Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante condemned a UCLA study for reporting findings that go against the prevailing belief that secondhand smoke is a cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers and for its having been used by opponents of smoking bans to help defeat a smoking ordinance in Missouri. The letter urges the Regents to adopt a policy refusing tobacco industry funding of research at the University of California.

The study, conducted by Dr. James Enstrom at the UCLA School of Public Health and Dr. Geoffrey Kabat at SUNY, Stony Brook and funded in part by the Center for Indoor Air Research (an organization funded primarily by tobacco companies), failed to find a significant association between secondhand smoke exposure and lung cancer risk.

Bustamante wrote: "As you may know, a $500,000 UCLA study, funded by the tobacco industry, was released in 2003 questioning the risk of developing lung cancer from second-hand smoke. Although the findings of this study conflict with respected state and national studies that offer evidence of the strong correlation between second-hand smoke and lung cancer, its results already were used in the defeat of an anti-smoking ordinance in Missouri. ... My questions are: What is the damage to the University of California? Does this hurt our state's reputation and our scientific credibility?"

The Rest of the Story

While I strongly support the proposal for the University of California to refuse tobacco industry funding of research in order to protect the academic integrity of the institution, I do not think it is the findings of the study that are problematic and I certainly don't think that the fact that the findings conflict with those of other studies is a reason to condemn this research.

In fact, I find it slightly scary that Lt. Gov. Bustamante seems to condemn this research because of its findings.

It was just yesterday that I posted about the Public Understanding of Science article which uses this exact paper (the Enstrom/Kabat study) to demonstrate the way in which the anti-smoking movement has become a Foucaultian truth regime. It is perhaps illustrative that just the same day as I blogged that article, Bustamante's condemnation of the very same study came out, and the condemnation was based primarily on the fact that the research came up with findings that ran counter to the established scientific truth according to the movement.

We cannot condemn research based solely on which way its findings come out. That is contrary to the scientific process and it is a way of silencing critics of a particular dogma. It is highly partisan and it makes good science impossible.

I am also troubled by a second basis for Bustamante's condemnation of this research: the fact that smokers' rights advocates in Missouri used it to oppose a smoking ordinance. A researcher does not have control over how his research is used. Anyone can take a piece of research and use it any way they choose. How can the research be condemned because of how someone chooses to use it?

Nothing in Bustamante's letter questions the validity of the research itself or the integrity of the specific methods used to investigate the relationship between secondhand smoke and lung cancer. Are we to gather from this that it is only the results, not the process by which the research was conducted, that render it academically unsound?

Bustamante's objectives are reasonable, but he provides the wrong rationale. It is not the findings that can render research unsound, it is the conduct of the research. And unless he is prepared to articulate what Enstrom and Kabat did wrong in their conduct of the research, he should not be condemning it.

Ultimately, the problem is not the research, it's the use of that research as a marketing tactic by the tobacco industry. Universities should not engage in tobacco-funded research because they have no business serving as a pawn in the public relations strategy of these companies. And universities can control whether they choose to allow the tobacco industry to use them as a cog in their public relations machinery, whose ultimate goal is to sell more deadly tobacco products.

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