Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Antithesis of Science: Blind Allegiance, Refusal to Discuss Issues, and Lack of Interest in Making Substantive Responses to Questioning

The shocking events of this week have woken me up to what the anti-smoking movement is really all about, at least right now. It was a jarring revelation, but one that substantially changed my view of what we are all about.

Shocking it was. Sure - I've known for a long time that anti-smoking groups have been unwilling to enter into a discussion of the scientific basis for their statements. I've known that the typical anti-smoking response to questioning is ad hominem attack, rather than substantive discussion of issues.

But it still has to shake you up a bit when you log onto your computer in the morning and find out that a message has been sent to literally thousands of your colleagues stating: "Please ignore Michael Siegel."

What a nice way to start your day, knowing that pretty much all of your colleagues have been instructed to completely ignore you.

But what an odd response that is. If I am wrong in what I'm arguing, then the last thing we'd want to do is ignore me. We would want to destroy my arguments, show why they are unfounded or not compelling.

If one of my colleagues made an argument about a scientific issue and sent it out to large numbers of tobacco control practitioners and scientists and I disagreed strongly with that argument and thought it might be damaging, then I would prepare a scientific response that presented the scientific reasons why that argument was flawed.

Telling people to simply ignore the person is essentially asking people to have blind allegiance to the dogma of the movement. No questioning of that dogma is allowed. It cannot be challenged. There are no replay officials in the tobacco control movement, and no red flags that can be thrown down to challenge the "official ruling" on the field.

This experience also highlighted the fact that the tobacco control movement almost never responds substantively to an argument challenging its statements, tactics, or actions. The only response in our arsenal is a personal attack against the challenger (even if it is someone within our movement), devoid of any substance.

This is the antithesis of science.

I don't see how we can claim to have scientific integrity in the face of the response to my questioning of the misleading (and in some cases fallacious and/or absurd) statements that we are making. And that's really a shame, because what is supposed to sharply distinguish us from the tobacco companies against whom we are fighting is our scientific integrity. Once you take that away, we completely lose the high ground.

Not only is it clear to me that the tobacco control movement is on the losing end of a scientific credibility crisis, but the events of this week have indicated something else to me. It is clear to me that many of these anti-smoking groups and advocates know that they are on the losing side of a scientific battle. If they were truly confident that their position was right, they would not have to resort to this. They could quickly and simply dismiss my arguments by demonstrating why I am wrong. The fact that they had to resort to tactics like this reveals that they realize, at least subconsciously, that they don't have a leg to stand on and that they have to go into attack mode to avoid their claims being exposed for what they are.

It seems that anti-smoking groups that have been challenged really do want people to ignore my arguments because they are rightfully afraid that if people really start to pay attention to what I'm arguing, the truth may be revealed and the movement's ability to make these alarming, but misleading claims about secondhand smoke will unravel.

One of the responses I received during the week was that I should stop expressing my opinions because this is a distraction from the important work that needs to be done. I guess I didn't realize that scientific honesty was merely a distraction, and that accurate and honest communication of science to the public was not the primary work that we are supposed to be doing.

You learn something every day, even if it does come at the expense of all your colleagues and friends being told to ignore you.

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