by Carl V Phillips
I will have time to write some new analysis in a couple of days. In the meantime, to keep things from getting too quiet, I will just copy and paste some observations I made in a Facebook conversation (at the Tobacco Harm Reduction page, a still somewhat active artifact from my old University of Alberta research group).
I really hate to have to rubbish (I am in England right now, so I have to talk like that) pro-THR missives, but it is important that our side try to do accurate work. The anti-THR liars have wealth and power, while our main strengths are the truth and a mobilized population of product consumers and other supporters that know the truth. We do not help ourselves by embracing bad analysis. If we are sloppy, or just try to do what they do — created a politicized set of claims that is demonstrably wrong — then they have all the advantages.
The missive if in question, unfortunately, kind of reminded me of a thought I often have when I read instructions that accompany some Asian-manufactured product that are in completely garbled English: “This company designed and produced a good product, and have an impressive production process, but then made their whole enterprise seem shoddy by not taking the time to get the instructions right. There are like a billion people in the world who are fluent in English. Could they not hire one of them to spend ten minutes rewriting this so that it was not such a mess?”
For the case in point, there are obviously not a billion, or even a thousand, people who thoroughly understand the science and other technical points about THR, but there are certainly enough that it is easy to find someone to provide an expert review. There is no shame in someone who is skilled in product engineering and another language to draft an instruction document, with the inevitable grammar problems, and then ask for help to fix up the English so as to not detract from the value he has created. It is the refusal to take that last step before going ahead and publishing that does the harm.
As I said, I really hate this, but it needs to be done. There are some powerful good messages about THR in this document. There is some useful information. But….
My first response was an indication of the fact that I was aware of the paper by really just wanted to ignore it and bury my head in the sand. But that is just irresponsible, and I got called on it. If we are going to police ourselves — and not just behave like the ANTZ, embracing any statement from “our team” without caring whether it is sound — it has to be done.
Just to save some of you the trouble of the obvious follow-up: please do not ask me to itemize the errors and explain why they are wrong. Regular readers should be able to figure out a lot of them anyway. I will just offer the advice to not rely on this paper for information, and leave it at that. Well one other thing: I will also beg to any of you who are writing such things to circulate them for comments before publishing them. There are experts who can help you get them right (or suggest that you just pare them down to your basic ideas and not try to delve into needless technical analysis). I can assure you that I do that for anything I write on a similar scope.
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Comment stream about this post from the original Facebook thread:
“Yes, there is lots to argue about here. But as a nicely-packaged inducement to politicians to consider the issues, it works well enough. Shame about the errors – but what can you do? It’s hard enough to get these things done, and getting them perfect could mean they aren’t produced in the first place. The intended audience won’t know any different. It’s true that we shouldn’t blatantly lie like the anti-THR propagandists; but perfection is hard to achieve. Maybe it needs a Truth committee to vet all materials before publishing :-)”
My response to that:
I strongly disagree. There is relatively little to argue about — the bits that were wrong were simply indefensible. Since the truth makes an equally compelling argument, there is absolutely no defense for trafficking in bad information. As for “what can you do?” — are you kidding? I explained this, in case it was not obvious: circulate things among the experts before publishing them. You try to ridicule that as some kind of joke, but it is actually how serious scientists and similar writers always work. It would have required only a simple review to catch and fix 80% of the errors — they are just dumb goofs. (The other 20% are embedded, such that they would have required fixing actual substantive claims — but that should have been done too, obviously.)
As for “The intended audience won’t know any different.” — well, that is what the anti-THR activists are counting on when they lie. Are we really just the same as them. (Answer: No — they are far better at that than we will ever be, so if we fight on those terms, we will lose.) The “perfection” and “argue about” points are a strawman of what I was presenting; it should be obvious I was not discussing a few minor errors or proposing a discussion about some genuine controversy.