Editors of Tobacco Control admit they publish indefensible junk science

Ok, that is not exactly what they said. But it was seriously so damn close to that it is not really an exaggeration. This appears in today’s editorial by the journal’s editors, Richard O’Connor, Coral Gartner, Lisa Henriksen, Sarah Hill, Joaquin Barnoya, Joanna Cohen, and Ruth E Malone, with the bizarre title, “Blog fog? Using rapid response to advance science and promote debate”.

There has already been a fair bit written about this today, but there is oh so much more to say. The basic upshot, and what has been getting the most attention, is the declaration that all debate about the papers in Tobacco Control must take place in the pages of Tobacco Control, specifically the publisher’s (BMJ’s) “rapid response” system. (For those who do not know, this is an aggressively-moderated online letter-to-the-editor type system, that requires prior approval and which I would guess refuses to post far more comments than it allows to appear.) Or as they put it,

the growing use of personal blogs to criticise published articles has led us to reflect on appropriate ways of engaging in such debate

Um.

Yeah.

I am not even sure where to start on that. So I won’t. I will focus on going beyond the silly thesis statement (or, rather, thesis demand). I will direct you to Michael Siegel, who called this unprecedented (quite possibly true) and “religious-like” behavior. I suspect he really meant “institutionalized-church-like” behavior, but I get the point. However, I would instead use the analogy of a government that declares the press to be an enemy of the people. For more comments on their main demand you can go to the paper and check out the Altmetric count of Twitter comments; right now it records 34, and if you click on that you will see that every last one of them is ridiculing the authors’ demand.

Gee, no wonder they think free speech is the enemy.

But it turns out that if you look beyond the main declaration in this short editorial, it actually gets even more embarrassing for them.

While the editors make decisions about what is and is not published in this forum, these decisions are made with expert advice and balancing many factors-–—including research quality, contributions to the field, innovation, international impact and policy relevance. [sic: yes that hyphen, em-dash, en-dash combination was really in the original publication; always a pleasure to see such careful editorial standards]

Despite careful review and selection procedures, no journal can guarantee that everything published is accurate, or that all readers will agree with the authors’ interpretation of findings.

Gee, y’think? The mere fact that they thought they had to explain this to their readers says a lot about both their hubris and their faith in their core readers’ intelligence. But, you might ask, what does this have to do with where it is “appropriate” to express doubt or criticism? (The answer, of course, is: nothing.)

They continue:

Recent comments posted on some personal blogs impugn the objectivity of Tobacco Control and its reviewers, questioning our motives and the veracity of peer review.

This is almost accurate. The only error is referring to professional scholarly blogs (I trust this one, Clive Bates’s, Brad Rodu’s, and Chris Snowdon’s are among those they are whining about it) as “personal”. It is almost as if these authors were motivated to try to belittle anyone who disagrees with them.

But, anyway, their point seems to be that anyone who writes such questions (ha! — shall we just go ahead and say characterizations) should be forbidden from doing so? Or, more specifically, that they should feel obliged to submit them to the journal’s rapid response system, where they will never appear.

The editors take complaints about scientific rigour very seriously and, when indicated, we undertake further internal review of papers and peer-review reports to ensure appropriate processes were followed and the decision to publish is defensible. Our role is to facilitate the processes of peer review, transparency and accountability which underpin the legitimacy and independence of academic research.

Um.

Yeah.

I am not aware of a single paper from Tobacco Control ever being retracted by the journal, or even a major erratum being published. It may have happened sometime. But given how many of their papers are identified by commentators as having full-on fatal flaws, “sometime” is hardly an endorsement of their “appropriate processes”. And transparency??? In case any authors of the editorial are reading this, here is a link to the relevant definition of that word.

Now here is where it gets really good:

It is not the place of journal editors to defend the detailed content of research articles that are published in the journal, since this reflects the work of the relevant authors.

This is a statement that is so obviously true, if read literally, that only the subtext matters. That subtext is, “we feel the need to mention this because we know that we could not possibly defend the legitimacy of many of the papers we choose to publish.” This is the bit that inspired the title and first observation of this post.

Ultimately, the author is the guarantor of his or her work and is entitled to be aware of and respond to critiques of that work, particularly when those critiques question accuracy or scientific integrity.

I know exclamations like this are getting a bit old here, but: Seriously? Entitled?

First: If someone wants to know what is being said about him online, particularly by the handful of scholarly critics of this particular literature, there are dozens of ways to do it. (Again, I am nothing if not helpful: Here is a link on how to set up a Google alert. I find it works quite well. See, e.g., my response to a pathetic attack on me and President Trump — yes really — by a hack reporter at the Washington Post; do you think I found that by accident because I was browsing the Post?) A particularly good way to learn about the criticisms is to simply not block all the people who tag you on Twitter with links to the criticisms. Given that these people do block all their critics, one might conclude that they do not actually want their “entitled” awareness of the criticism.

Second: Um, no. If someone publishes something, they are entitled to nothing. If I want to criticize it, or question whether the authors are even aware of how things work on this planet, I am free to publish it in this blog, or send it in a private email to one or a hundred people, or talk about it on the phone, or whatever. It is almost like the editors of this journal are not even aware of how things work on this planet.

They next write:

Thus the proper place to pose questions and debate conclusions from research published in Tobacco Control is directly to the authors, in the form of a Rapid Response.

The fact that they think the previous point flows, with a “thus”, into this conclusion explains a lot about the quality of the papers they see fit to publish.

The participation of scientists and scholars in peer review is critical to advance science, since this is how any errors of concern could be identified and addressed.

Credit to them for admitting “could be” rather than claiming “are”. However, they are still wrong, as I have made clear in my “What is peer review, really” series here.

They then rant for a few sentences about critics not being willing to review papers:

Occasionally, an individual who has written a postpublication critique has declined invitations to review similar papers prepublication.

I will just point out that I have never once been asked by Tobacco Control to review a paper even though, I will immodestly state, I am probably the best reviewer they could get (in terms of expertise in subject matter, research methodology, and scientific inference, as well as being a very careful and thorough reviewer) for quite a few of their papers. Oh, and I would do it.

As noted above, the Rapid Response process provides a forum for exploring such issues. In contrast, placing personal blog posts or social media messages complaining about a study, alleging flaws in the review process, or making ad hominem attacks on authors or editors do not advance the field or allow an appropriate scientific dialogue and debate. This is especially so for topics that are controversial, where discussion of alternative views about the interpretation of findings would be beneficial for readers to view alongside the published article.

The projection is strong with these authors. Seriously? (sorry) Ad hominem attacks are their wheelhouse, not their critics’. I would be hard pressed to identify a single ad hominem attack on the Tobacco Control cabal from any of their critics. And what is their basis for claiming that posting a scientific critique on a blog does not advance the scientific debate? And their basis for suggesting that posting it on their heavily-censored forum does? As you might guess, they offer no such bases.

Now the “alongside the published article” point has a bit of merit on its face, if you are oblivious to how the game is played. They are not going to post anything that demonstrates that the paper is junk and their review process is therefore crap. Well…ok, I don’t know that for sure. So let’s test it. The next time I write a post pointing out the fatal flaws in a Tobacco Control paper (and I really only have time to address the full-on fatal flaws), I will also submit the core content to their rapid response system and let you know the result. Also, I hereby encourage my readers (sorry — I don’t have time) to go back through my archives and find criticisms of Tobacco Control papers and submit the core substance as rapid responses to those papers. Please give me a citation and let me know what happens.

But I have saved the best for last:

As a result of discussion about these issues, the Tobacco Control editorial team has now established a policy that editors will not respond to external blog posts or social media messages about specific studies.

The Tobacco Control editors have never once responded to any of my criticisms of a paper they published. I can assure you that I would not have censored anything they wrote if they did (an assurance that they are not offering to us). I pay pretty close attention to the other three aforementioned scholarly blogs that frequently offer sophisticated, accurate scientific criticisms of their papers, and I have never once seen a response there either. I cannot be so sure there have never been any, but I suspect there have not. (With apologies: I do not mean to ignore those of you who blog more broadly and/or have a more, um, footloose approach to your criticisms, but also sometimes offer equally valid scientific criticisms of particular papers (Jim, Dick, Lee, Fergus, Michael, Steven, et al.). I just cannot claim that I read the comments you get. But I am pretty sure you have had the same experience, and a few tweets I have seen confirm that.)

So basically this statement is the equivalent of putting one’s fingers in one’s ears and saying “lalalala I can’t hear you”. They are declaring that they will now pretend that the reason that they do not respond is not because they could not possibly win the argument, and that trying to argue would further demonstrate the accuracy of the criticisms, but because it is their policy. Never mind the fact that they never responded before.

Truly pathetic.

In fact, the only such responses by any of these authors that I have ever seen are Ruth Malone’s tweets. Which I have to say are quite delightful. I will be sorry to see them go. Indeed, I cannot help but think that the entire purpose of this stated policy, and indeed of the entire editorial, was for the other editors — lacking the balls to just come right out and say it to her — to force Malone to cease her embarrassing tweets which, indeed, do a good job of demonstrating the accuracy of the criticisms of Tobacco Control.

NYT calls Trump a liar; critics fail to make it so clear about Glantz

[Update: For those who want more details of the criticism of the Dutra-Glantz paper, or are only interested in that and not the broader question of how to combat lies, I have posted a PubMed Commons comment here.]

Further on the critically important theme of my previous post, we are perhaps already starting to see a positive trend. The New York Times went as far as to identify one of Trump’s lies with the word “lie” in its top headline today. They did not go quite so far as to label him a “liar”, understandably, but that is implicit. Readers of this blog will recall my arguments for the importance of calling out liars as such. Piecemeal responses to each individual lie are a hopeless tactic and not effective. For one thing, you end up with this problem: Continue reading

Dealing with tobacco control liars: under Trump, everyone will see what it’s like

I found myself struck by the parallels between my typical Twitter feed about the behavior of “public health” people and the flurry of tweets about Trump’s relationship with the truth that the inauguration has created. We are not talking strained similarities here, but rather the exact same playbook. In the former category, we have my observation here: Continue reading

The year tobacco control officially came to own e-cigarettes

by Carl V Phillips

I have seen several year-end posts about the state of e-cigarettes, most from cheerleaders who naturally made optimistic predictions. Overly optimistic, I would say. Continue reading

Tobacco control turn their long knives on heat-not-burn cigarettes

by Carl V Phillips

I intend to write a proper post or two on PMI’s iQos and heat-not-burn (HnB) cigarettes more generally, but haven’t had much chance to blog lately. Those products have very serious potential to be the most important thing that ever happened in THR (and, yes, I know what I said there). For now, I can just do a quick one on the back of a recent post by Dick Puddlecote, and recommend reading it.

DP recounts how ASH (UK), true to form, are marketing their doubt and general anti attitude, trying to block the huge benefits that these products could bring. He invokes my concept of anti-tobacco extremism, and links to one of my posts that invokes the concept. Here is another one, about how anti-tobacco extremism naturally results in stronger opposition to low-risk products than to cigarettes, just as we have seen. Continue reading

What conflict of interest accusations really mean (with a tie to The Times’s attack on GTNF participants)

by Carl V Phillips

Public health activists are extremely fond of using ad hominem attacks to avoid admitting they have no substantive defense against their critics. They are not alone, of course, with many supporters of other indefensible causes doing the same — e.g., anti-agritech activists, “alternative” energy advocates, alt-right adolescents on Twitter, etc. These attacks most often take the form of claiming “conflict of interest”. Endless ink has been spilled on the fact that resorting to an ad hominem attack is practically an admission that one’s opponent is right. But there is far too little discussion about the actual substantive content of the COI. Basically, what is dressed up as genteel productive discussion is actually a bald accusation that someone is lying, and moreover usually that they are only choosing to lie because of some (often trivial) transfer of funds. Continue reading

Anti-muslim fanatic and tobacco control fanatic, a dialogue

by Carl V Phillips

Somewhere in an imaginable land, a dialogue.

ANTI-MUSLIM FANATIC: Hey, I wanted to thank you. We have adopted your blueprint.

TOBACCO CONTROL FANATIC: You’re welcome. … Wait, what?

AMF: Yeah, we now have a plan for the endgame for driving Muslims from this country.

TCF: That is terrible. What does it have to do with us?

AMF: I told you, we are following your blueprint: Punitive taxes. Limiting where people can practice Islam. Vilification campaigns. All your favorites.

No more immigrants. That last one is a bit different, but we adapted your plan to forbid the development of new products.

Also, a ban on little rugs.

TCF: But that is a gross violation of people’s rights and the norms of our society. Religion is an intimate private decision. Even if you think your goal is a good idea, are you saying you want to trample on people’s happiness and the fundamental glue that holds our society together in pursuit of some personal pique?!

AMF: Are you sure you want to go down that path?

TCF: Um, fair enough. But how are you ever going to get support for that? We always had a plan to expand beyond those with the burning pique to enlist a lot of useful idiots.

AMF: It’s all in your blueprint. We can do it. Get this: “Think someone being Muslim does not hurt you? Well 9-11 cost America over $5 trillion. That’s $17,000 from every man, woman, and child.”

TCF: But that’s absurd. Most of that cost was the result of people like you making the country lash out in the wrong directions, impose security theater, and such. The attack itself caused only a small fraction of that loss.

AMF: Um, “quit smoking because it is expensive, makes you leave your friends in the pub while you go outside, and could cost you your insurance or your job.” Again, are you sure you want to go down this path?

TCF: ….

AMF: ….

TCF: Ok, props for that.

But that attack was a few foreign militants and their international support network. It had nothing to do with the practice of Islam among people living here. If you are worried about terrorism, wouldn’t it be more effective to withdraw our active support for Wahhabism, to whom much of it traces; not arm “moderate” warlords, because there is no such thing as a moderate warlord; back off on policies that inspire such attacks; and avoid destroying the social structures in the mideast that provide a bulwark against the rise of such factions?

AMF: Um, look, I realize that the necessary conceit of this dialogue is that both of us are far more thoughtful, honest, self-aware, articulate, and willing to engage in open dialogue than anyone who actually espouses either of these positions. Still, that statement seems to strain the conceit beyond any semblance of reasonableness. And I don’t just mean that “to whom much of it traces” grammar.

TCF: Yeah, fair enough. Ok, try this: If your goal is to prevent terrorist attacks, a goal very few people would question, why not focus on policies that are targeted at discouraging militants rather than discouraging the practice of Islam more generally? Doesn’t attacking law-abiding members of society actually hurt the goal?

AMF: Oh, I didn’t say that the goal was stopping attacks. In fact, a few more attacks would really do us a lot of good. Playing on fear and costs is just how we build support for the campaign. We hate it that anyone around us practices Islam and want to put a stop to it. We don’t care if their personal faith is perfectly peaceful and harmonious. We don’t care how much it might mean to them. It is still Islam, and it has to go.

TCF: With all due respect, you are monsters.

AMF: Um, actually we got all that from you too.

TCF: From us?! How…? Oh, I see.

AMF: Thanks again, by the way.

TCF: You are still monsters. We are fighting against a scourge that people get habituated to it at an early age, before they are capable of understanding the ramifications of their choice. They are innocent victims of what they see around them being considered normal, and of the machinations of huge corporations who can only keep going by recruiting at an early age.

AMF: [raises one eyebrow]

TCF: Yeah, ok. But the same is true for being a Christian or any other religion. What right do you have to decide the indoctrination of being brought up in one religion needs to be stamped out but another is fine?

AMF: We both know the youthful brainwashing claim is meaningless for either one of us. It describes countless behaviors and beliefs, like patriotism, studying hard, playing sports, eating meat, reading fiction, masturbation, cooking with curry, drinking soda, respecting one’s elders…

[seven pages of transcript omitted]

Anyway, to answer your question, we decide. We can decide because we are ascending in influence here. Might is right.

We got that one from you too.

TCF: Yes, I suppose you did. But it is still different. Tobacco is addictive.

AMF: “Addictive” refers to compulsive drug use that seriously impairs someone’s functioning. Tobacco use does not do that.

TCF: We just mean that using it makes you more inclined to use it. You get cravings to do more of it.

AMF: That describes about half the things on the list I just recited.

TCF: Well addictive also means it makes you very unhappy to give it up once you start. And people who choose to quit are really glad they did.

AMF: You might be over-generalizing a bit there. But anyway, that still probably describes about quarter of the things on my list. Notably including being a Muslim.

TCF: Hmm. So you are going to portray the people you are abusing as dupes who thus are really being made better off by the abuse. And do that after you anchor everyone’s thinking on the worst-case product …er, people… to condemn the entire practice. I guess we really are on the same page. Your ideas are starting to grow on me.

But, wait! No! No no no! You are trying to trick me. The difference is that your goal is just the zealous preference of a group of fanatics who have no right to judge how others choose to live their lives, while our goal is….

AMF: [other eyebrow]

TCF: Our goal is good! It just is. We know we are right. And we know that is right because we know we are right. Turtles all the way down. We will have to agree to disagree.

AMF: Why is there any need for agreement in order to disagree? I’ve never understood that.

TCF: Moving on, I think you have a serious implementation problem. I really don’t see how our blueprint will let you pull off an endgame.

AMF: One might say you also have a serious…. Nah, I’ll go a different direction here: There are a lot fewer Muslims in our country than there are tobacco users. And more people who hate them and want them to go away. So I would say we are better positioned than you.

TCF: But the tactics won’t translate. I see how immigration controls can work. But how are you going to tax people for being Muslim?

AMF: First you strip the tax-exempt status from mosques and Islamic organizations. Someone will have to pay that, and it can only be the individual Muslims because all taxes are ultimately paid by consumers.

Ha! you probably assumed that because I am espousing alt-right ideas that I don’t understand basic economics.

TCF: Well, yeah, that seemed like a good bet. But I do remember the conceit of this conversation, so ok. I’ll have to take your word for it, though, because the conceit cannot possibly go as far as to give me credit for understanding economics. Anyway, go on.

AMF: We also impose a head tax on them. We will make it low to start with so people just get used to paying it. Then we will crank it up until it impoverishes them. The first bit has a long history. The second bit we got from you.

TCF: Ah, so then they eventually succumb and abandon their faith. Yup, that should work. But, wait, can’t they just declare they renounce Islam it without really doing so? It is not like they have to buy anything, or that you have a test for it like we do.

AMF: Actually, we don’t expect many of them to either give it up or pretend to. We just like the idea of impoverishing them. We got that from you too. People don’t just give up true belief. The cost of pretending can also be rather steep, especially if you still want to do a Hajj. It is not a cheap and simple evasion like buying black-market cigarettes to avoid the tax.

TCF: But then what is the point of doing it?

AMF: Same reason you do it: To give governments a financial stake in the War on Muslims. If they want the money, then they have to support our policies. That’s when we get them to unleash the rest of your tactics:

We start ridiculing Muslims, using their own tax payments to broadcast the message that they are vile. God, I love that part!

We teach every child in school that any practice of Islam is vile. Kids are great, aren’t they? You can claim everything is being done to protect the little naive innocents, and then sell them simplistic generalizations because they are so naive and innocent.

Also, we are going to ban proselytizing immediately and then expand than to ban anyone associated with Islam from making any positive statements about Islam, whether true or not. And if anyone else says anything, we will accuse them of being secretly in the pay of Big Muhammad and try to get them sent to Gitmo.

TCF: But that tramples over so many of the fundamental freedoms that our society cherishes. It is a slippery slope to all kinds of other actions. It is difficult to imagine where that could end.

AMF: Yes. So?

TCF: Nothing. Just making sure we were still on the same page.

AMF: At some point, we will make it illegal to bow toward Mecca except in designated areas. We got that from you, but it turns out ghettoizing works for religions too.

TCF: Um, actually we may not deserve credit for originating that idea.

AMF: Oh, and then we will slowly move those designated areas to even more remote locations. Also we will embed broken glass in the pavement.

TCF: I think maybe we could learn something from you. We will have to stay in touch. Secretly, of course — you are still a monster.

AMF: Back atcha.

TCF: So what else of ours have you figured out how to use?

AMF: Here is one I have been working on: “Treating law-abiding and peaceful Muslims differently from terrorists is like getting hit by a jetliner in a 7 story building rather than a 110 story building.”

TCF: That’s…. horrific.

AMF: So you don’t like it?

TCF: No, I love it! You really have studied the script.

AMF: How about these: “I get it dude [sneer], yours is a noble and peace-loving faith.” …and… “Allowing muslims to integrate into our pluralistic society will give you oral cancer.”

TCF: Um, what?

AMF: Yeah, that last one needs a little work. Still, it is no further from the truth than how you use it. Oh, and we have a great one about “third-hand salat”, but I am keeping that under wraps until we need a media boost.

TCF: Clever. So what is your timeline for endgaming the Muslims? We always attach a year to our slogans, like “a tobacco-free world by 2020”.

AMF: We are not setting a deadline. We only wanted to borrow your tactics. We did not see any reason to borrow your hubris and embarrassing legacy of failed promises.

CTFK threatens researchers, but you should not really care

by Carl V Phillips

My tobacco control amusement for the week (other than my nomination to TPSAC) comes from a letter sent from the notorious Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids (CTFK) and the obscure ENSP (which is apparently not actually a phishing site for people mistyping their sports news search, but rather a pliable recruit that gave CTFK an excuse to hassle Europeans too), to Christopher Russel and an unknown number of others. Christopher posted it here. The letter seeks to intimidate the recipients from attending the GTNF conference this month. Continue reading