Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Anti-Smoking Researcher Accuses Rest of the Story Author of Slander; Writes to Dean in Attempt to Have Me Reprimanded and Stifled

The author of a paper which I criticized in a May 28 blog post has written a letter of complaint to the dean of my school, accusing me of slander and seeking that action be taken against me for such slander.

The letter states as follows:

“I am writing to you today to file a formal complaint concerning one of your faculty members, Michael Siegal. As you may know, Dr. Siegal regularly posts blogs on the internet that are critical of tobacco control research. Dr. Siegal was once a respected member of the tobacco control community, and I served with him on the board of the Tobacco Control Research Center. In recent years, Dr. Siegal’s critiques have become quite offensive to others in the field of tobacco control. He has alienated his former colleagues in droves, and as a result he has been banned from participation in tobacco control listserves, and to my knowledge, no longer serves on the boards of any tobacco control organizations.”

“Today, Dr. Siegal posted a blog concerning a study I had published in BMC Public Health concerning youth access to tobacco. I feel Dr. Siegal has slandered me by impugning my reputation as an honest academic researcher. Honest and respectful scientific debate is always welcome, but this blog was anything but. To make his point, Dr. Siegal misrepresents important details about my study, and makes a number of assertions about the current state of our knowledge that have no basis in fact. As a result, readers are misinformed regarding scientific facts and are led to conclude that my study is critically flawed. Through factual misrepresentations, Dr. Siegal misleads his readers regarding the value of my work. I assume that deceiving the public is not part of the mission statement for the School of Public Health.”

“It is one thing for Dr. Siegal to express his own bias and to be academically sloppy, but he goes beyond that by inserting several innuendos to imply that the study has a hidden bias. He states that we have ‘no objectivity’ and ‘no credibility.’” …

“I am writing at this time because this is not an isolated incident. I have been his victim before and from his postings I have observed that other academics are also dealt the same abuse on a regular basis. Even his format in which he presents the researchers’ words and then responds with “The Real Story,” implies that the authors of the original research are being dishonest. One can disagree with another researcher without slandering his or her character.”

The Rest of the Story

This story is an important one, because it is illustrative of the type of thinking that has come to permeate the tobacco control movement. You simply cannot criticize a tobacco control study. Even if you are a distinguished professor in the field. By doing so, you are committing slander. It doesn’t matter whether you are telling the truth or not. It doesn’t matter how well your opinions are supported. What matters is that you are being critical of tobacco control research, and that is simply not allowed in the movement. Criticism is tantamount to slander. It is offensive to your tobacco control colleagues and alienating. It will get you kicked off listserves and make you ineligible for leadership positions in tobacco control.

Before discussing the substance of the complaint, I want to highlight what this means for the tobacco control movement. What it means is that any dissent is stifled. If researchers are led to believe that any criticism of published scientific articles in tobacco control is slanderous and offensive, will lead to complaints to your dean, and will lead to your expulsion from listserves and ineligibility to participate on the boards of tobacco control organizations, then logically, researchers are going to keep quiet about studies with whose conclusions they disagree.

This is exactly how crappy science – like that behind the Helena et al. conclusions – comes to be accepted as dogma, without public challenge. It is not that the science is solid. It is simply that anyone who criticizes the science is going to be viewed as a traitor, a slanderer, an offensive former colleague.

To use the term “scientific McCarthyism” really doesn’t seem all that inappropriate here. In fact, it seems to fit the situation quite well.

An even better analogy might be to a religious movement. The tenets of the religion represent dogma which cannot be challenged. Anyone who does is a heretic and must be cast out from the movement.

This is the way in which the tobacco control movement can be kept “pure” and devoid of any challenge to its doctrines. It ensures that dogma will never be seriously challenged, that the ways of the past will always continue, and that the extremist elements of the movement will be able to assert and maintain control.

But as all good scientists understand, this is a pure recipe for scientific disaster, because the very process of good science is one which relies upon the constant challenging of existing ideas and dogma. A movement in which scientific articles are not subject to criticism is one in which science can no longer flourish.

This threat to the strength and integrity of the science in tobacco control and public health, and not the fact that I am being personally attacked without justification, is what troubles me about this episode.

Now to the substance of the compliant. The researcher accuses me of slander. This means that he is alleging that I have lied about him, that I have recklessly disregarded the truth in an intentional attempt to discredit him and malign his character.

In order to make such an allegation in a letter to my dean, I would expect that the letter should specify exactly what matter of fact I have lied about or misrepresented. However, the letter fails to specify any factual matter about which I have lied or which I have misrepresented.

Thus, the letter is accusing me of slander - a most serious offense - without providing any evidence whatsoever that I misrepresented factual information.

The truth is that my commentary was simply a criticism of the study, published in BMC Public Health, which concluded that enforcement of youth access laws result in a substantial reduction in youth smoking. The paper was based on a cross-sectional study which found a correlation between the presence of more rigorous enforcement of youth access laws and lower youth smoking rates. But as I explain in my commentary, correlation does not equal causation. It is also possible that the lower youth smoking rates preceded the strong enforcement of youth access laws. In other words, it may be that towns with lower youth smoking rates also have greater anti-smoking sentiment, and this anti-smoking sentiment may lead to intensive enforcement activity.

My other criticism of the study is that it presented a very biased review of the existing literature on the topic of youth access laws. In particular, it failed to even mention a meta-analysis which showed that these laws have no effect.

But apparently it is not allowable in tobacco control to criticize a study on such grounds. Criticism equals slander.

Interestingly, the letter itself presents misinformation of fact in order to try to make its point. The letter states that my blog is entitled "The Real Story." The letter suggests that by using the phrase "the real story," I am suggesting that the study under discussion is false and the researchers are dishonest. The truth, of course, is that this blog is called "The Rest of the Story," by which I am only trying to imply that I have a perspective to add that may be different from what was presented in the study and in the media coverage of it.

To be clear, I made no assertion that the researchers in question were dishonest in any way. Bias does not mean dishonesty. It also doesn't imply any wrongdoing whatsoever. A researcher can be perfectly honest and perfectly proper and appropriate in his work, yet still be biased in his presentation of findings or conclusions.

The letter actually goes so far as to suggest that because I opine that the study's presentation of the existing literature is biased, I am guilty of slander. Of course, my views on whether there is or is not bias in any particular study is merely an opinion, and so expressing that opinion is not and cannot be slander.

The reality is that all research is biased to some extent. So if you are not allowed to suggest that a particular piece of research is biased, you are not free to comment on any research. It appears that is exactly what is desired in the tobacco control movement. The scientific literature in tobacco control should be immune from criticism. It is apparently like a sacred text: its validity cannot be challenged.

This episode is important because it demonstrates the current mentality in the anti-smoking movement. There is really no room for dissent or criticism of tobacco control science and if you do dare to criticize, you are putting your career in jeopardy.

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