Monthly Archives: June 2015

Dear @FDATobacco: Stanton Glantz’s junk science reflects upon you

by Carl V Phillips

Dear FDA Center for Tobacco Products:

I know you did not create Stanton Glantz. His intense barrage of patently absurd junk science predates your existence. You did not cause him to become the combination of utterly innumerate and/or sociopathic (it has always been difficult to be sure how much his utter disregard for real science is explained by each of these). But you own him now, thanks to the fact that you fund him and his minions, and so his nonsense is now on you. You claim to be about science. Are you? Continue reading

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New Phillips-Burstyn-Carter working paper on the failure of peer review in public health

by Carl V Phillips

Our new working paper is available at EP-ology, “The limited value of journal peer review in public health: a case series of tobacco harm reduction articles”, Carl V Phillips, Igor Burstyn, and Brian L Carter (all of the authors are affiliated with CASAA, for those who may not know).

Abstract:

Background: A widespread belief holds that the journal peer-review process has magical powers to ensure that published claims are correct. While this misperception has limited consequences in many fields, in public health it results in consumer, clinical, and policy decisions being based on blind faith in the accuracy of published claims. At best, the review process is merely a couple of readers — perhaps, but not necessarily, highly expert — reading through a paper to ensure the research and presentation are reasonably sound. In reality, even this is often not accomplished.

Methods: We conducted reviews of 12 articles that focused on tobacco harm reduction published in a mainstream public health journal, BMC Public Health, consecutively during 2012-15. We each wrote a reviewer report of the manuscript version that was sent to the journal reviewers, as if we were writing a review for a journal. We then compared these to the reviews written by the journal reviewers. Additionally, we reviewed the changes made to the papers as a result of the journal reviews.

Results: Almost all the papers in the dataset suffered from major flaws, most of which could have been corrected, but none were corrected by the journal review process. The journal peer reviews were almost all inadequate and many contained no substantive comments. Those that contained substantive observations still did not identify most of the blatant major flaws that we noted. In the single case where a journal reviewer identified many of the major flaws, the comments were basically ignored by the authors and the paper was published with no substantive changes. Other than cosmetic improvements, the journal review process was about as likely to make the published version worse than the submitted manuscript, rather than better. Papers with no apparent value were published by the journal and the potential value of other studies was lost because serious flaws in the paper were ignored. Unreported conflict of interest was common among both authors and reviewers.

Conclusions: Faith in the journal peer-review process is misplaced. Even at best, the process cannot promise that a published claim is correct, but in reality it does not even ensure that patent major flaws are not present. In public health, the phrase “according to a peer-reviewed journal article” seems to mean little more than “I read this somewhere.”

It should be evident from the abstract that the primary study aim is not about THR. However, readers of this blog may be interested for several reasons. Most obviously, the case studies are based on articles about THR. But also, the idolatry of journal peer review is one of the more important causes of the persistence of anti-THR lies. Analyzing the reviews of the papers, not the papers themselves, was the purpose of the research, but that required assessing the papers en passant, which means that readers interested in that aspect will should find a fair bit of the content interesting (particularly delving into a few of the appendices).

Some of the material has already been covered here. The previous post was basically written as a footnote for the paper. The post about the terrible paper by Hughes (“Associations between e-cigarette access and smoking and drinking behaviours in teenagers”, by Karen Hughes, Mark A Bellis, Katherine A Hardcastle, Philip McHale, Andrew Bennett, Robin Ireland, and Kate Pike) was basically an excerpt from that research project. The extensive analysis of the Popova-Ling travesty was incorporated as part of the analysis in the paper.

There are few other papers in the analyzed case series that also fall solidly within the anti-THR lies category. There is this one (“Portrayal of electronic cigarettes on YouTube”, Chuan Luo, Xiaolong Zheng, Daniel Dajun Zeng, Scott Leischow) whose value lies entirely in it being unintentional comedy. Strangely, despite being a useless, silly, and badly conducted study, that was then written up as a political broadside that had nothing to do with the study results, it was probably only the 10th worst of the 12 papers in our case series.

Two of the papers were written to try to vilify snus. This one (“Snus user identity and addiction. A Swedish focus group study on adolescents”, Ingrid Edvardsson, Margareta Troein, Göran Ejlertsson, Lena Lendahls) is mostly just uninteresting in terms of what it claims. This one (“Predictors of smoking among Swedish adolescents” Junia Joffer, Gunilla Burell, Erik Bergström, Hans Stenlund, Linda Sjörs, Lars Jerdén) relates more closely to recurring themes from this blog. In particular, it makes the naive gateway claim that fails to distinguish between association and causation. This is particularly pathetic in this case because the paper is ostensibly about predictors and not causes.

Comments on the working paper are welcome, either in the blog comments at EP-ology or via email.

Post publication peer-review: Correction to Burstyn (2014) and related matters

by Carl V Phillips and Igor Burstyn

[Igor Burstyn is an Associate Professor at Drexel University School of Public Health and a member of the CASAA Board of Directors. His research that is described here was sponsored by CASAA.]

Burstyn (2014), “Peering through the mist: systematic review of what the chemistry of contaminants in electronic cigarettes tells us about health risks”, BMC Public Health, is probably the most read scientific paper on e-cigarettes and among the most read in the history of tobacco harm reduction. It is often described as the most important paper on e-cigarettes, being the first to point out that there is ample existing evidence that the non-novel chemical exposures from vaping – which are used to concoct alarmist propaganda — are inconsequential. So imagine our surprise when, after well over 100,000 people had viewed the paper at the journal’s website and countless more via other means (the announcement of the publication of the working paper version remains the most read post on this blog), it went through journal peer-review, and each of us poured over many revisions, one astute reader caught a bright-line error in the results. It is recounted in the following text by IB: Continue reading

“Second-hand vapor”: what tobacco controllers would say if they really believed it was a problem

by Carl V Phillips

None of the people nattering on about the environmental effects of vaping are actually concerned about what they claim.  This has occurred to me before, but it was made particularly clear at the recent FDA workshop that I recounted here and here. It is a very simple point: If there were anyone out there who was actually worried about the effects of “second-hand vapor” or (giggle) “third-hand vapor”, rather than just using claims about them to rationalize attacks on tobacco harm reduction (THR), they would be encouraging the use of smokeless tobacco (ST) instead. Continue reading

More on the FDA ecig workshop

by Carl V Phillips

Those of you who watched my contribution to the workshop (which you can do by following the link in yesterday’s post) probably found the most memorable observation to be the one about San Francisco. But I am rather prouder of not missing a beat regarding a later question. Leading into that, there was a rambling multi-part question to the panel, which a couple of others responded to bits of. I took the mic last to respond to the phrase “renormalizing smoking” in the question. Continue reading

Notes from the FDA e-cigarette workshop

by Carl V Phillips

I have several posts worth of material to cover on the themes presented here. I’ll see if I can get to them. In the meantime, some random thoughts about the third FDA Center for Tobacco Products workshop on e-cigarettes that took place on Monday and Tuesday of this week. As with the previous workshops, it was a mixed bag of good science from industry and a few others, sneaking in amidst the utter junk from the “public health” types. At this one, the mix was perhaps almost up to 50-50, which is a lot better than the previous ones.  Continue reading