Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On the McCarthyistic Element in Tobacco Control: No Wrongdoing by Any Individual Advocate, but a McCarthyist Element Among the Movement as a Whole

In light of Monday's post, in which I argued (in response to two recent journal articles that have called those who disagree with the scientific positions of anti-smoking groups "denialists") that there is a McCarthyistic element present in the modern day anti-smoking movement, I wanted to take this opportunity to further explain my position and thinking.

First, I am not calling anyone in tobacco control a McCarthyist. I'm arguing that the movement as an entity has acquired an element of McCarthyism in its actions. That doesn't mean that any particular individual is guilty of wrongdoing. But what it means is that the climate as a whole - the groupthink mentality in the movement - has fostered an environment in which these types of tactics can flourish. And no, not every organization is using them. The problem is that when a few organizations use them and they are not publicly condemned and when those few who do condemn those actions are defamed publicly, then those tactics do in fact become the de facto characterizing position of the movement as a whole. While only a few groups might be using these types of tactics, virtually all groups in tobacco control are supporting actions like this by remaining silent and failing to condemn this approach.

Second, I think we need to remind ourselves of exactly what ASH-UK was saying in its published article. It attacked Michael Blastland and accused him of being a tobacco industry hack who was not expressing his sincere opinion but was being orchestrated by the tobacco industry. With respect to Blastland and others like him who have challenged the notion that the Scotland smoking ban led to a dramatic decline in heart attacks, Dockrell wrote: "While AIDS dissidence was largely an indigenous phenomenon, tobacco dissidence is the carefully conceived creature of tobacco industry lobbyists."

So the tactic seems quite clear: ASH-UK is trying to discredit Blastland and to essentially silence him by taking him out of the discourse on this issue through tying his name and character to Big Tobacco, whether that is true or not. No evidence was presented in the article to support the contention that Blastland's character is in question because of his financial ties to tobacco companies. But that is the insinuation that the article is making.

In other words, ASH UK is publicly maligning Blastland's character, not merely refuting his scientific arguments. That's the key point I think people need to realize.

Moreover, this tactic in tobacco control is a common one. I am not picking this one particular anecdote and trying to use it to make a broad and sweeping statement about the movement as a whole. It is a good illustration, but just one of numerous examples of the use of these tactics.

In fact, as I noted, just last week, another published article used the same tactic to try to discredit those who argue that the scientific evidence is not sufficient to conclude that secondhand smoke causes heart disease and lung cancer. Diethelm and McKee compared such individuals with Holocaust deniars.

I would note that there are many prominent scientists who fit into the category that Diethelm and McKee argue essentially represent Holocaust denialists. These include Dr. James Enstrom, Dr. Geoffrey Kabat, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, and a panel of reviewing scientists for the American Council on Science and Health. At worst, these scientists may simply be wrong. Or I may be wrong. But to put either of us in the same category as those who deny that the Holocaust occurred is despicable.

This is how serious the allegations are that are being leveled in these two published papers. And I wouldn't be so critical of the accusations if they were simply careless or hasty insults lobbed angrily during the course of a heated blog discussion. The point is: these accusations are well thought-out, carefully planned ones which were in print for many months and presumably reviewed many times. Presumably, what they said was precisely what they meant to say. So the accusations take on more meaning.

Third, I have personally experienced personal attacks and treatment from the tobacco control movement which can accurately be described as being McCarthyistic in nature. In a previous post, I recount some of these experiences. For example, I was expelled from a tobacco control list-serve because they didn't like my opinions. I was expelled from another list-serve because they also didn't agree with my opinions and wanted to censor me. I also received personal attacks simply for expressing my opinion that perhaps the science showing that smoking bans cause immediate, dramatic reductions in heart attacks isn't as strong as was being purported. There were also public insults.

The bottom line is that dissent could not be tolerated in the movement and I had to be blacklisted from public discourse in order to discredit and silence me. This doesn't mean that any particular individual is a McCarthyist or that every organization or even many organizations in tobacco control are engaging in such tactics. But what it does mean is that the climate within the tobacco control movement is such that it is conducive to these types of tactics. While no particular individual is to blame and while the use of these tactics may not be widespread among many groups, the acceptance of such tactics by the movement leads to the conclusion that this is the de facto characterization of the movement.

Fourth, I am not the first to argue that the tobacco control movement contains an element of McCarthyism.

Another example of what might be termed "scientific McCarthyism" is the American Cancer Society's (ACS) attack on Dr. James Enstrom. The ACS formally accused Enstrom of scientific misconduct because it didn't like his conclusions regarding the relationship between secondhand smoke and chronic disease risk. This threatened Dr. Enstrom's career and could potentially have lost him his job. No grounds for scientific misconduct were presented, however. And none were found by the University of California after an investigation.

In recounting this experience in the journal Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations, Dr. Enstrom writes: "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”."

Dr. Kenneth Rothman warned about McCarthyism in science which could arise when science was judged based on the presumed character of the individual rather than on the validity of the science itself (see: Rothman KJ. Conflict of interest: the new McCarthyism in science. JAMA 1993; 269:2782-2784.). Rothman predicted in his commentary that focusing on the scientist rather than on the merits of the science could lead to a “new McCarthyism in science.” He 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.

But this is exactly what is happening in tobacco control, and exactly what the two articles I reviewed on Monday demonstrate. They seem to fit perfectly into what Rothman called McCarthyism in science.

I would love to be able to, upon further reflection, retract my opinion that the tobacco control movement exhibits elements of scientific McCarthyism. But unfortunately, such a retraction is not warranted. If anything, I think I am being generous in opining that there is no ill-will among individuals or groups in the movement and that the element of scientific McCarthyism that has arisen is merely a result of the climate and groupthink mentality which has allowed that element to arise and flourish.

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