So, what is the point of Hecht’s latest press release?

posted by Carl V Phillips

I have been asked two very good questions about this topic:  (1) Is it really fair to treat Hecht as if his new claims reflect the same type of serial anti-THR lying found in Ellen Hahn?  (2) What exactly was the research that Hecht was touting in this press release?  The two questions are closely related, and one of them can be answered.

“This is the first example of a strong oral cavity carcinogen that’s in smokeless tobacco,” said Stephen Hecht, Ph.D., who led the study. “Our results are very important in regard to the growing use of smokeless tobacco in the world, especially among younger people who think it is a safer form of tobacco than cigarettes. We now have the identity of the only known strong oral carcinogen in these products.”

The answer to (1) is right there, in “…who think it is a safer form of tobacco than cigarettes.”  Out-of-control activists like Hahn might actually know very little about the relevant science they claim to be expert about, but Hecht has been at the center of anti-tobacco politics and research for many years.  There is no possibility he has failed to learn that smokeless tobacco is indisputably a safer form of tobacco than cigarettes.  Even in the unlikely event that he believes everything else he claims, the much lower risk of smokeless would still be obvious to him.  Perhaps his lies about the epidemiology, analyzed yesterday, could be seen as merely trying to puff up the perceived importance of his unimportant research rather than primarily being an active anti-THR effort.  But that “…who think…” lie is clear and obvious evidence of anti-THR activism disguised as science, which perfectly represents Hecht’s behavior over the years.

Notice also the “first” wording.  This is clearly meant to imply something like, “up until now, we were not really worried about smokeless tobacco causing oral cancer, but now we should look into it.”  The thing is, Hecht has been claiming that smokeless tobacco causes oral cancer for over a decade, claiming that the nitrosamines he has repeatedly reported on (particularly the chemicals known as NNN and NNK) were sufficient proof of that.  He has reported lab studies of basically the same thing, over and over and over again, and whatever the study result, his conclusions remained based on his politics.  His studies never changed the fact that the actual health science shows no measurable risk of cancer.  But that evidence never stopped Hecht from claiming that each of his non-new results provided new evidence that smokeless tobacco causes a high risk of cancer.

So what did he do this time?  It is very difficult to figure out because all we have is the press release.  Issuing a press release without making a working paper available is anti-scientific behavior in itself; even if everything presented were true, we are being asked to accept someone’s asserted conclusions without knowing their basis for those conclusions.  Some commentators focus on the lack of “peer review” in press releases, but this is really a red herring (peer review in health science is almost worthless — a topic for another day).  The real problem is the lack of information that would allow a reader to assess what was done and whether the methods and the conclusions seem reasonable.  All we actually know from the press release is that Hecht subjected rats to a mega-dose of a nitrosamine called (S)-NNN, presumably in a way that does not closely resemble smokeless tobacco use, though we do not know.  Some of the rats got cancer.

That is all we know.  We do not know what Hecht meant when he called this the first identification of a strong oral carcinogen in smokeless tobacco.  Is he admitting that his claims over the last decade about the other chemicals were lies?  Or are we supposed to conclude that “strong” has some subtle meaning, such that his previous claims were based on “non-strong” carcinogens and so he was not lying then about all of his claims then, but this is somehow different so he is not lying now about “first”?

Also we do not know how many trials Hecht ran, with how many different animals, with how many different chemicals administered in different doses and different ways, before he found a single result that made for good propaganda.  Actually, chances are we will never know that, even when this ends up in a journal.  When I said that toxicology was not inherently junk science, I glossed over the fact that this “hunt the carcinogen” branch of toxicology seems to have as its primary methodology, “keep doing ever-so-slightly different things until random error produces an outlier result for one trial, and then report on that result as if it were the only experiment that was done.”  That approach definitely qualifies as junk science.

The reader is not even told what (S)-NNN is, or how it differs from the NNN Hecht has been over-concluding about for years.  I could not easily find anything about it (e.g., it is not even clear whether this research represents Hecht discovering the chemical), though I am not a chemist so I might be missing something that the experts in that field could figure out.  But you know who are not experts in this entire area of chemistry?  Approximately everyone who reads the press release and the pseudo-news stories that resulted from it, who can thus be easily tricked by Hecht’s assertions.  All they came away “learning” were that Hecht and his ilk were not too worried about smokeless tobacco causing oral cancer last month, but based on this exciting new breakthrough, we should immediately take action.  More on that last aspect of the lies in the next post.

One response to “So, what is the point of Hecht’s latest press release?

  1. Pingback: Policy recommendations as lies | Anti-THR Lie of the Day

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