by Carl V Phillips
I was not planning to comment on the recent mass-signed letter that was sent to the WHO, telling them how they should think about e-cigarettes. But then Tom Pruen wrote this gem of an analysis responding to Glantz’s ignorant response to the letter, and I had to post simply to link to that. It is an insightful and very informative analysis (obvious caveat: that is not an endorsement of every word of it).
And now since I spoke up on the topic, some background: Clive Bates penned a letter to the WHO/FCTC and sought signatures from various researchers and pundits who write about THR (or, in some cases, used to). It is a good letter, though I am something of a neutral observer here due to serious ambivalence about it. I am not a fan of petition-type processes, which this basically is. When Clive first showed it to me, my response was the parody, “Dear President Mugabe: It has come to our attention that your governance is harming your people. We are sure you want only the best for people, and thus will change your policies in response to information — which you are no doubt already familiar with — contained in a letter mass signed by a few dozen people — people who you could have paid attention to in the past, but chose to ignore….” Of course I realize that, trying to get the recipients to go all “road to Damascus” is not the only goal of a letter like this, but it is the prima facie goal.
Also, the way it is signed, as if all the signatories were coauthors (as opposed, say, to writing a report and then having it endorsed in a minimal-content cover letter that accompanies it) makes me rather uneasy. One of the most serious common violations of scientific ethics is ghost writing, when someone signs onto a paper that they are not really an author of. This is not quite the same as that, and I am not saying it is unethical, but it has enough in common with a very unethical practice that it strikes me as a bad idea (the letter is clearly a political statement and so the signatures were clearly more about signing a petition than endorsing the content, let alone claiming credit for it; on the other hand, there was enough substantive content that people were putting their name on something that was kind of similar to an analytic paper, and not a mere statement of opinion).
But, to reiterate, it is a good letter — thus my ambivalent neutrality. By contrast, Glantz’s response to it was pure nonsense.
Pruen does an excellent job pointing out the many “um, how exactly does that claim support your conclusions?” moments in Glantz’s writing. He does an especially good job of explaining how Glantz’s banging on about “fine particles” displays a fundamental ignorance about how droplets do not behave like solid particles, and their size does not matter. Burstyn and I explained that recently here, but Pruen goes into more detail. I was reminded of this observation I made almost of a year ago:
Thus, apparently Glantz’s problem (this is the LOL part if you are geeky enough) is that he does not understand the difference between liquids and solids. This perhaps explains why he had to leave mechanical engineering (where not knowing the difference between liquids and solids can be rather disastrous) and go into anti-tobacco extremist activism (where it is not such a problem to not know… well, anything).
It remains a mystery whether Glantz — along with his antipodean sidekick, Simon Chapman who weighed in with the same ignorance of physical science and even funnier innumeracy (in a seriously LOL moment, he demonstrated he could not successfully count to five) — is simply incapable of learning from people who know more than he does (and there are a lot of them) or if he figures that the response to cogent criticism is to lie louder. It takes a special kind of liar to keep repeating the same lie for a year while experts publicly point out that a high-school-level understanding of science shows it is wrong.
There is also an extensive discussion about the precautionary principle in the exchange. A good rule of thumb is that when someone highlights the phrase “precautionary principle” in their argument, like Glantz did, they (a) know they do not have a substantive argument to defend their position, and (b) they have no idea what the precautionary principle is. Of course, there are hundreds of “definitions” of the “principle” out there, but the defensible and widely accepted point is limited to the ethical/political statement: If some entity is going to create a novel exposure, the burden of proof is on them to show us it is not unacceptably harmful before it is unleashed, rather than allowing its unleashing and forcing others to show it is harmful and to try to put it back in the bottle.
That could actually have been a reasonable argument about releasing e-cigarettes back c.2006, or even when U.S. FDA tried to ban them in 2009. But years later, (a) they have been unleashed, so the precautionary principle is moot, and along the way (b) it has been clearly shown that they pose no substantial hazard and do far more good than harm, so the burden of proof has been met in any case. If anything the implications of the precautionary principle have been reversed, with e-cigarettes being the status quo and the proposed massive disruption of the market proposed by the WHO being the novel exposure whose net benefits should be proven before it is allowed to happen.
I leave the rest of it for you to read in Pruen’s analysis, which shows far more patience than I could have summoned for dealing with Glantz’s nonsense.