posted by Carl V Phillips
We now close the case on Ellen Hahn for a while, having pretty clearly debunked basically everything she says about e-cigarettes. While she is probably the most prolific and dangerous anti-THR liar of the year, she will probably end up being a flash in the pan. When I first started working on THR, the “Ellen Hahn” role was played by the University of Florida dentist, Scott Tomar. Remember him? I didn’t think so.
But there are others who have been using disinformation to dissuade people from THR for a decade and are still doing so. One of them is University of Minnesota toxicologist, Stephen Hecht. Unlike Hahn, he is a real researcher, but like Hahn, he is mostly just on a crusade against THR. (Hahn is a researcher only if the sense that the Japanese commercial whaling fleet is really doing research, as they claim. Both are cases of someone doing what they want, in violation of regulations, trying to excuse their behavior as “research” by keeping a record of what happens.)
Hecht’s latest lies about the risks from smokeless tobacco are found in this report, which I will directly address starting with my next post. Today I will focus on a more general point about toxicology.
Toxicology can basically be thought of as trying to figure out whether particular chemical exposures will cause cancer, acute poisoning, or other bad effects, but without actually observing whether the exposure does cause cancer etc. Instead of observing what we really want to know, it tries to predict it by looking at the effects of chemicals on cells, tissue, and non-human animals. (Toxicology also helps us figure out why something is causing its effects and how to perhaps do something about that.) If we have the information we really want — about what the exposure actually does to real people who are really exposed — then that is called epidemiology.
It should be obvious from this that if we have decent epidemiology about whether an exposure actually does cause a disease, then the toxicology that predicts whether the exposure causes the disease is no longer informative. It is kind of like looking at last week’s weather forecast to determine whether it is raining right now, rather than looking out the window.
Obviously there is a lot of value in weather forecasting, and there is a lot of value in trying to figure out whether something will kill people without actually killing people to find out. Both are imprecise, but neither one is inherently junk science so long as its limitations are duly acknowledged. But almost any time toxicology is invoked in the THR context, it turns out to be junk science lies.
There are the Hahn-type lies (see the previous posts that are tagged with “chemicals“) in which she claims that any tiny trace of a sometimes-toxic chemical causes disease. Presumably Hecht, as a toxicologist, would be among the first to label this junk science. But then there are the Hecht lies, wherein he has spent a good part of his career claiming that we should believe speculative toxicological conclusions about smokeless tobacco causing cancer, despite having epidemiologic evidence that shows that such speculation is incorrect.