posted by Carl V Phillips
Today I will start an analysis of the buzz-generating press release by Christina Gratziou (University of Athens) et al., based on their presentation at the recent European Respiratory Society (ERS) meetings. Much has been written about this non-result that was blown up into the unsupported claim that e-cigarettes damage the lungs. I call your attention in particular to a post by Katherine Devlin (ECITA) which does an excellent job of analyzing the situation, as well as presenting the analysis with verve that I cannot hope to improve on (see her letters to newspapers that naively reported on this, which are linked from the post, for more detail).
While it would be tempting to just yield this topic to Katherine (especially since she even used “lies” as the first word of her title), I think I have a few views on this that have not been covered and a few useful clarifications. Also, I hope to make this blog a catalog of both anti-THR lies and issues related to anti-THR lying, and there are some points to be covered on that here. With that, I start with the question of “why should the lay reader (or a reporter who does not understand the subject but wants to transcribe the press release) know that Gratziou is a liar?”
Start with the official abstract of her presentation:
Electronic-cigarette is marketed as potentially safer tobacco exposure product, but there are not enough data concerning its impact on the respiratory system. Therefore, we set out to investigate the acute effects of an e-cigarette on respiratory functions in healthy subjects and in smokers with and without chronic airway obstruction (COPD and asthma).
The basic statement is not too terrible. To make it accurate would require only the minor change to saying e-cigarettes are a safer product. Alternatively, to hedge and not make unnecessary claims in the introduction, that they are potentially safer or that they are widely believed to be safer. Perhaps the poor wording just reflects the author not being a native English speaker; after all, “tobacco exposure product” is clearly garbled.
But, wait: “marketed”? Why would a scientist care how they are marketed, even if she is inclined to mention how they are perceived. The only time anyone ever uses that nefarious-sounding word, marketed, is when they are actively setting out to dispute the marketing claim. But someone doing vaguely-informative biomarker research should not be in the business of addressing such claims. Someone writing a summary of all the knowledge on a topic can engage in such pursuits, but a single bit of lab research can only ever be about that single bit of lab research.
Now consider the press release (reporting on the exact same results covered in the abstract):
New research has shown that despite electronic cigarettes being marketed as a potentially safer alternative to normal cigarettes, they are still causing harm to the lungs.
This includes similar downplaying of the existing knowledge that they are safer. But, wait: “despite”? That word conveys the message that the belief is wrong because the research provides evidence of that fact. But this is obviously a lie; even someone who somehow honestly believes that we lack sufficient evidence that e-cigarettes are less harmful than smoking, and whose caveats and other wording meant that she was just being a hyper-cautious about drawing any such conclusion, would know that finding one specific harm from e-cigarettes would not justify that “despite”. Not unless the discovered harm were somehow worse than the combined harms from smoking, which this one obviously was not. (Indeed, it was not apparently much of anything, but I will come back to that in a later post.)
But Gratziou is not hyper-cautious, nor a careful scientist. Consider, for example, this interview she gave at the conference (h/t “elpatron83″ at ECF for the link)
We don’t suggest anybody to take and use e-cigarette as an alternative tool for smoking [broken English in the original -- not a criticism, just trying to quote accurately]
(Aside: Viewing the video, and even reading her text, one cannot help but be struck by her apparent glee when claiming that a tool that is helpful to so many people is bad for you. She was not sad to be the bearer this unfortunate news; she reveled in it and clearly thought it was wonderful to report it. Such glee — which can be observed in many anti-THR and anti-tobacco activists — is not the mark of a mere liar, but of something much much worse.)
The hyper-careful scientist possibility goes out the window as soon as she starts making unequivocal policy/behavior recommendations. Even apart from the fact that she was telling people “you might as well smoke”, the fact that she was telling them what to do at all makes her an advocate.
There is nothing wrong with being an advocate, of course, nor with doing research when you are also an advocate. But if you are actively supportive of a particular relevant viewpoint, you need to make that conflict of interest clear. A researcher who gives no hint that she has that conflict of interest is implicitly communicating that she does not care which way her research comes out, which is clearly not the case here.
Moreover, if you are an advocate-researcher, then if your research tends to support your bias, you then need to be extra careful vigilant about presenting it in a way such that an honest expert reader of it would conclude, “I understand that the author preferred to get the answer that she got, but when looking at what she reported, unless she was simply lying about the data, she does indeed seem to have supported her conclusions.”
Gratziou failed both of these tests. She covered up her conflict of interest, and she presented nothing but vague descriptions of the research and assertions about the results.
As a contrast, those of you familiar with the bits of my research whose results argue in favor of THR might have noticed that I make clear my views (stating them, that is; giving unintentional clues about bias via weasel words obviously does not count to one’s favor) and do everything I can to make sure that every bit of information that could possibly be reported is reported. I have read plenty of whining about my research by people who wish it was not right, but I have never once read a challenge to my research by an anti-THR advocate or other ANTZ that identified any flaws in the research or reasoning, or that suggested there was something being hidden. Ironically, I did publish a correction to one paper based on an error spotted by someone who is pro-THR; for most anti-THR papers, spotting such errors, which are clearly rife, would be impossible because the authors just make assertions rather than showing their work.
It is also interesting to consider the previous posts in this blog from the perspective of the obligations of the advocate-researcher: Stephen Hecht has consistently covered up the fact that he is an anti-THR activist, and pretends to be doing unbiased research. Ellen Hahn does not actually do research, so there is no mistaking that she is merely acting as an anti-THR activist — so by this one measure, she is the least dishonest of the individuals we have discussed.
Returning to Gratziou, she is Chair of the ERS Tobacco Control Committee, which is apparently responsible for the ERS’s aggressively anti-THR statement on e-cigarettes; undoubtedly she approved it and quite probably she authored it. This moves her from advocate to activist. (Incidentally, that statement might well be the dumbest, most uneducated position statement I have ever read from a theoretically-respectable organization — I am not counting the American Pediatric Association or ANTZ groups in that category, of course. So it will be the topic of one or two future posts here.)
I will go on to analyze the science of her report — the few sentences worth of it that she actually reported — in the next couple of posts. But today’s post should demonstrate how even someone who knows basically nothing about science (like, say, a typical health reporter for a newspaper), someone who cannot even figure out that the transitory effect that she measured cannot legitimately be called “harm to the lungs”, should know that she is a liar: Her background statements made clear her activist agenda. Yet she never admitted to being an activist, let alone made sure her claims were credible in spite of her bias. Her grand sweeping conclusions about e-cigarettes could not possibly be supported by her research; even a health reporter should be able to figure out that unless she discovered an effect that might kill a third of all long-term users (which she obviously did not, nor did she even claim), then even if her results were completely definitive, she would not have support for her claim that you might as well smoke. Yet she aggressively used weasel wording to imply that her little result contradicted the conventional wisdom.
Given the clear evidence that she is a liar and intent on presenting biased results without admitting her biases, her assertions should not be accepted (let alone published in newspapers), and the substance of her report (such as it is) should be analyzed with that in mind. As I will do.
…to be continued….