Tuesday, October 16, 2007

More on My Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations Article: Highlighting the McCarthyism in the Tobacco Control Movement

While the primary conclusion of my article published yesterday in Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations is that a large number of anti-smoking organizations are making inaccurate claims that a single, acute, transient exposure to secondhand smoke can cause severe and even fatal cardiovascular events in healthy nonsmokers, the article also highlights the way in which I was treated by the tobacco control movement for being willing to advance this opinion.

In the article, I write: "In response to my questioning of the validity of these types of scientific claims being made by many anti-smoking groups, I have been personally attacked, publicly condemned, accused of being a traitor, accused of being funded by tobacco companies, called a fanatic, and have had my opinions censored by a prominent tobacco control policy discussion list-serve, from which I was expelled because advocates were apparently unhappy with my expressing dissent from the established dogma of the movement [76]. In my expulsion from the tobacco policy (tp-talk) discussion list-serve, I was informed told that the list-serve “made the dictatorial (but perhaps benevolent) decision to remove Mike Siegel from tp-talk today. I felt that his posts lately have interfered with the quality of the listserv messages. I suspect I'll be the subject of a blog posting about how he's been kicked off a tobacco control listserv, but I can deal with that” [76].

What is really being said is that I disagreed with some of the dogmatic views of the movement. In this case, that's what interference with the quality of the discussion means: disagreeing with the mentality of the movement. There is apparently no room for dissent in the tobacco control movement, and dissent is met not only with personal attacks, but with outright censorship. Unfortunately, the one type of response I have not received is a scientific justification for the claims that are being made or a refutation of my scientific arguments. The general approach has been to attack ad hominem, rather than to directly confront the arguments being made. For this reason, I have come to the impression that the tobacco control movement does not allow room for any difference of opinion, and that those who dissent with any aspect of the prevailing wisdom must be discredited, attacked, and silenced. I sense a rather McCarthyistic element in the tobacco control movement. Whether the scientific arguments I have made are valid or not is up for question and debate; the unwillingness of the movement to be willing to entertain a discussion of the validity of its scientific claims, on the other hand, is a dangerous element in a public health movement.

This may be exactly the type of problem that Rothman predicted in his commentary which suggested that focusing on the scientist rather than on the merits of the science could lead to a “new McCarthyism in science.” [77] Rothman argued that every piece of scientific work and criticism should be judged solely on its scientific merit, and that any attacks on these works should be science-based, not ad hominem attacks. My experience revealed that tobacco control advocates and groups are falling into this trap; the response to my critical pieces has consisted entirely of ad hominem attacks and has been devoid of any discussion of the scientific merits (or lack thereof) of my work."

The Rest of the Story

The reason I was expelled from the tobacco control list-serve is that they were not happy with my expressing opinions that questioned the validity of claims being made about secondhand smoke, no matter how obviously absurd those claims might be. No one actually challenged the scientific validity of my statements. They were just threatened by the fact that someone would have the gall to question the dogma of what I now realize is a religious-like faith. And so they ignored the science and went straight to the personal attack.

The worst thing in the world that you can do in the tobacco control movement is to have the gall to suggest that secondhand smoke isn't as immediately deadly as the movement is suggesting. That is one piece of dogma that is not subject to debate. Once a statement is made by an anti-smoking group, it takes on a Biblical-like quality. It cannot be challenged. Doing so is heresy. Doing so makes you subject to ex-communication from the movement.

Note that I acknowledge that discussion of the lack of scientific merit of my analysis and commentary would be fair game. If anti-smoking groups were actually defending their statements by demonstrating how and why their scientific claims are correct and my assertions are wrong, there would be no problem. I've learned, however, that the point is not to actually discuss the science. The point is that the gospel-like dogma of the tobacco control movement, especially as it relates to secondhand smoke, is simply not up for discussion or challenge.

Interestingly, in the same issue of Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations, Dr. James Enstrom presents his own story of being accused of scientific misconduct for accepting tobacco industry funding to complete a study which reported that secondhand smoke exposure was not associated with lung cancer.

As I highlighted in The Rest of the Story, the American Cancer Society accused Dr. Enstrom of scientific misconduct, apparently because they did not like the conclusions of his study, because as it turns out, there were no grounds for an academic misconduct accusation and Enstrom was cleared by the University of California of all such charges.

In his article, Enstrom too sees an element of McCarthyism in his treatment by the tobacco control movement: "Being able to distinguish between real and implied scientific misconduct is important to the integrity of science in general and to the integrity of individual scientists in particular. Falsely accusing an honest scientist of scientific misconduct is just as wrong as scientific misconduct itself. Implying that an honest scientist has committed scientific misconduct because he has published unpopular findings or has used an unpopular funding source is wrong and falls under the category of “scientific McCarthyism” [4]."

As I argued in my blog post regarding the American Cancer Society's attack on Enstrom, it appears that the ACS was using Dr. Enstrom as a fall guy for unfavorable research findings. There were no grounds for a scientific misconduct charge. It was a false accusation, and it was based solely on Enstrom's having published unfavorable findings and using an unpopular funding source. It does, therefore, fall under the category of scientific McCarthyism.

Dr. Enstrom also notes in his paper my role in questioning the statements of anti-smoking groups about the acute cardiovascular effects of secondhand smoke: "Michael Siegel, MD, MPH, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at Boston University School of Public Health and a prominent tobacco control researcher, told JAMA "We're really risking our credibility [as public health professionals or officials] by putting out rather absurd claims that you can be exposed briefly to secondhand smoke and you are going to come down with heart disease or cancer. People are going to look at that and say that's ridiculous." Siegel’s own paper expanding on this point is published alongside the present article [84]. Furthermore, since March 2005, Siegel has posted many detailed and insightful analyses regarding ETS and tobacco control on his personal website, “The Rest of the Story: Tobacco News Analysis and Commentary” [85]. Each post includes “Comments” from readers who provide additional insights. For instance, on June 28, 2006, he posted “Surgeon General's Communications Misrepresent Findings of Report; Tobacco Control Practitioners Appear Unable to Accurately Portray the Science” [86]."

I should note that for expressing my opinions, which in this case happen to be unfavorable to the anti-smoking movement, I have forfeited a continued career in tobacco control. There is no room in the movement for someone who questions this type of dogma.

One question that may occur to readers is whether there is anyone else in the tobacco control movement who supported me and expressed agreement with my opinions. The answer is: absolutely. However, most of these individuals were only willing to express their support privately. To express their support publicly would result in their own expulsion from the movement, and in some cases, the end of their careers. This is how the McCarthyism in the tobacco control movement works.

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