Tag Archives: UCSF

The failures of peer review do not begin with the journal – more on the Popova-Ling fiasco

by Brian L Carter

[Editor’s note: This is a guest post by CASAA advisor Brian Carter, who is working with me on research on peer review. He took the lead on part of the behind-the-scenes effort to get the Popova and Ling article retracted, an effort whose failure (and the irony of that failure) I covered in the previous post. –CVP]

Those of us who admire the elegance and clarity of thought contained in good scientific reasoning no doubt found Popova and Ling’s report of a study on warning labels severely lacking. The article is here and Carl V Phillips’s and Clive Bates’s devastating critiques of it are hereherehere, and in comments attached to the article at the journal here. People who manage to publish worthless junk out of sheer scientific ignorance are worrisome enough. But special condemnation is called for when people manage to combine their cluelessness with malicious intent. They use the language and trappings of science like a facade, all to support their decidedly unscientific personal policy goals.

At first, it’s difficult to understand how such an ill-conceived, poorly executed, and scientifically vacuous study could have ever been conducted, much less see the light of day in a respected journal like BMC Public Health. The journal peer review process, which we count on to at least identify utter junk science, was a colossal failure from start to finish, as documented here. However, this most basic failure was simply the last in a long line of peer review failures, aided by willful institutionalized ignorance and prejudice.

Beginning with the release of the article, we can work backwards, like crime scene investigators, to trace the various malicious acts back to the original fraud that formed the ideological genesis for this article. Popova and Ling note in the article that the National Cancer Institute (an organ of the National Institutes of Health), funded their study through a grant awarded to Pamela Ling. This means the very ideas behind the study, the background, the logic, the rationale for doing it, had to be blessed by an expert panel of scientific grant reviewers. These reviewers supposedly make their decisions on the basis of good scientific judgment. If you don’t make your case at this stage, you don’t get the money: Ling had to make a compelling argument for doing what she proposed, and she had to do it better than about 95% of the other applicants because there’s usually only enough money to dole out to the very highest scoring grant applications.

The National Institute of Health publishes information about every awarded grant on its Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT). One of the many pieces of information contained on this site is the applicant’s summary description of the proposed research. Ling’s is here.

Although we are not privy to the study details she proposed, this description clearly supports the thinking and methodology she used and subsequently published. The description is a checklist of the standard University of California San Francisco lies, evasions, and fallacies. Here are the lowlights:

 “Tobacco use is responsible for 35% of cancer deaths, and new smokeless tobacco marketing efforts threaten both to increase cancers caused by smokeless use . . .”

“new smokeless products are marketed as line extensions of major cigarette brands (Marlboro and Camel) to promote ‘dual use.’”

“These changes in smokeless tobacco marketing may blunt the effects of smokefree environments and the health benefits of smokers’ cutting down and quitting.”

“test new counter-marketing messages to block initiation of smokeless tobacco use among novices and the dual use of smokeless tobacco and cigarettes as an alternative to smoking cessation.”

“Findings will be relevant to guide development of policies on smokeless marketing and advertising.” 

That this grant was reviewed and given a top score tells us something about the review committee charged with evaluating its scientific rigor. I have sat on several grant review committees, and each grant has three (sometimes two) primary reviewers (just as journal articles do). With as many as 60-80 grants to review, each member is a primary reviewer on 3-4 grants and usually defers to the primary reviewers of the other grants when submitting a vote on quality score. In this way, the grant review system is embarrassingly similar to the journal review system. The only major difference is that with grant review there are 20 or so potential reviewers, and they all are supposed to be highly qualified to sit on the committee. Most have to have been awarded a grant themselves, be highly published and fairly well known in the field related to the RFA, and have the demonstrated expertise to evaluate the grants they are assigned. However, this academic record is obviously no guarantee committee members are blessed with deep critical thinking skills or untainted by strong political bias.

Clearly, the primary reviewers for Ling’s grant were fellow travelers able to ignore (or, through confirmatory bias, simply not see) the clear evidence that smokeless tobacco use has trivial cancer risk, if any, a well researched scientific finding that makes the entire premise of the grant specious. None of the other 15-20 committee members (who have access to all grants under review, and usually have read the summary descriptions) apparently had any serious objections either. Any one of them could have raised the point of smokeless tobacco’s trivial risks and demanded a debate on the topic, a discussion that could have significantly lowered Ling’s score. So Ling’s grant sailed to the top of the score list in much the same way it sailed onto the pages of BMC Public Health.

How does a grant review committee so ignorant of smokeless tobacco pass muster on Ling’s grant? For this clue we have to dig a little further. In the “details” section of Ling’s RePORT page we discover she had submitted her grant under a specific Request For Applications (RFA). The NIH frequently publicizes RFAs when it wants some narrowly focused research applications to address a particular topic area–in this case, an RFA titled, “Measures and Determinants of Smokeless Tobacco Use, Prevention, and Cessation.” The RFA is a special invitation to submit a grant tailored to it. Full text here: http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/rfa-files/RFA-CA-08-024.html.

Most of the RFA contains instructions on how to apply, but the most important piece of information is listed in the executive summary under “purpose.” This text describes what the issuers of the RFA want in an application and helps explain the rubber stamp of the review committee.

“The overall goal is to develop an evidence base to inform smokeless tobacco control efforts, and to develop effective ways to limit the spread and promote cessation of smokeless tobacco use.”

There you have it. From the very beginning the federal government, in the form of the National Cancer Institute, deliberately solicited applications for the express purpose of figuring out how to “limit the spread” of smokeless tobacco, especially for smokers who might fall into the fictitious trap of dual use in an attempt to switch. They formed a review committee that would stick to the flawed central premise of the RFA. The premise was right in Popova and Ling’s wheelhouse, and they naturally proposed an experiment going further than merely misleading smokeless tobacco users with false labeling, but adding some graphic and disturbing images to boot. You can fault Popova and Ling’s ignorance of good scientific practice, and their shameless attempt to use their wreck of a study in a shabby attempt to influence FDA policy. But you can’t accuse them of failing to deliver exactly what the government wanted.

Glantz complains about research ethics LOLOLOL

by Carl V Phillips

Yes, the man whose superpower is an inhuman ability to willfully misinterpret study results and lie to the public based on that (and who is completely immune to the effects of evidence, logical argument, authors telling him he is interpreting their studies wrong, etc.) is complaining about research ethics. In particular, he is complaining about the recent Shiffman et al. paper which demonstrated that the prospect of interesting flavors did basically nothing to entice teenage non-users toward wanting to use e-cigarettes.

Glantz wrote an extremely weak letter to the journal that published the paper which, to its credit, rejected it. The study had some definite limitations and I would say that the authors did over-conclude from their results, which Glantz tried to say (a stopped clock is right twice a day, though is seldom so deliciously ironic when it is). But the basic conclusion of the study — that interesting e-cigarette flavors provoke a collective yawn among teenagers who do not use tobacco — is solid. It is this result that flatly contradicts a favorite claim of Glantz and his cabal and that Glantz, completely unsuccessfully, tried to challenge. Continue reading

Glantz attempt at dialogue makes clear the vacuousness of his arguments

by Carl V Phillips

The leading ANTZ strategy for creating the illusion that they have valid arguments, hiding the fact that they are a combination of liars and clueless, is to avoid dialogue. It is relatively easy to create the illusion of valid arguments that will trick the ignorant masses (and especially one’s own useful idiots) if you simply keep repeating your talking points and pretend that the rebuttals to them do not exist. The ANTZ make a practice of not showing up at any public discussion (except the fake public discussions where they control the entire agenda and prevent the airing of rebuttals) and pretending that the evidence that shows they are lying does not exist. The reasons for this are clear: If they try to engage in dialogue, it immediately becomes apparent that they do not have a leg to stand on. Continue reading

What is peer review really? (part 4a – case study followup)

by Carl V Phillips

I thought it would be worth taking this series non-linear to follow up on Part 4, which used the recent Popova-Ling “peer-reviewed journal article” as a case-study to illustrate much of what is wrong with journal peer review and the fetishizing thereof in “public health”. Popova and Glantz relied on that paper in the comment to the FDA that I discussed in yesterday’s post about Swedish Match’s MRTP application, which asks permission to remove the false and misleading “warning” labels from their products. This is a great illustration of why the fetishization, “it is in a peer-reviewed journal, so it must be right”, is such a dangerous travesty. (H/t to Brian Carter inspiring some of the observations that appear here.) Continue reading

More on the FDA and MRTP

by Carl V Phillips

In the previous post, I linked to CASAA’s comment to the FDA re Swedish Match’s MRTP application, wherein they ask to be able to change the “warning” labels on their smokeless tobacco products to not “warn” about risks that do not exist and to move a bit(!) closer to communicating the low risk of these products as compared to smoking. Clive Bates also weighed in on this, via this post and his own comment to FDA on the application. It is worth following up on some of his points and some others. Continue reading

What is peer review really? (part 4 — a case study)

by Carl V. Phillips

[Update: I have submitted a comment to BMC Public Health that is based on this post. My copy of it can be viewed here.]

[Update: The comment has now been accepted by the journal and appears, attached to the original article, here.]

I interrupt the flow of this series, in which I am currently laying out some common myths about journal peer-review, to provide a motivational case study that makes many points better than any abstract principles can. As I discussed in the previous post, which built on what Clive Bates had already written, a newly published article by Popova and Ling was unethical and misleading, fraught with anti-THR lies. But here is the good news: It was published in a Biomed Central (BMC)  journal. While BMC still basically practices the 20th-century version of peer-review that I have pointed out to be a failure, they do not keep it an anonymous black-box like most journals do. (This is a huge improvement over the standard health science practice — enough so that when I started a journal, I chose to do it at BMC — though still far short of other fields’ real peer review, as I have discussed previously in this series.) Thus, we can review not only the paper, but the “peer-reviews” that caused it to be published. Continue reading

New public health research: lying to people can affect them (as if they didn’t already know)

by Carl V Phillips

A new paper in the normally more-respectable BMC Public Health, by never-respectable ANTZ at the University of California (San Francisco) reports research that mostly showed that, if people were given disinformation claiming (nonexistent) health effects from smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes, accompanied by gory pictures, then they will be tricked into to thinking the risk was higher. Surprise!

Well, of course, it is no surprise that people can be tricked and no surprise that UCSF “researchers” would conduct such unethical research. It is rather more of a surprise that the non-ANTZ BMC Public Health would publish it and that an ethics committee would allow it to be done. Ok, maybe not the latter — the ethics committees are pretty much in the pocket of public health. That committee at UCSF probably would never allow, say, Farsalinos’s survey of e-cigarette users, and would trump up some claim that it was a threat to the study subjects, whereas they allowed serial liars Lucy Popova and Pamela M Ling a free hand to tell people they might as well smoke.

Anyway, Clive Bates was first off the block in responding to this travesty, and he covered the breadth of it well, so I am not going to reinvent the wheel here.  Go read what he wrote first. Then come back to this, wherein I go deeper into a few specific points. Continue reading

More anti-THR junk science from UCSF, the new Karolinska

by Carl V Phillips

As I alluded to yesterday, there is another bit of anti-ecig junk science out today.  Once again, it is from the Glantz shop at UCSF.  Glantz did not put his name on this paper (presumably to create the illusion among the naive that this is not all part of a single organized disinformation campaign), but that hardly matters.

The little study (published as a “research letter”) followed a small group of smokers for one year, and compared quit rates for those who had recently tried an e-cigarette at the baseline survey and those who had not.  They found that those in the former group had a slightly lower abstinence from smoking at followup.  Clive Bates does a good job of pointing out how this thin result led to overblown conclusions, and then UCSF created a misleading press release, and this tricked the press into reporting out-and-out falsehoods.  Do read Clive’s post for more — there is no reason for me to repeat it here.  (If the NYT picks up the story, I might respond to that, but I am not inclined to spend any effort responding to random stories from unsophisticated news sources.) Continue reading