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.

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19 responses to “Editors of Tobacco Control admit they publish indefensible junk science

  1. I was really, really hoping you’d write about this. Even for tobacco controllers, this is just…….gobsmacking.

  2. Ha, was just having a chat with some folks in a twitter group thingy about asking if you’d mind if we took some of the base arguments from some of your posts (and others – Seigel, Bates, et al) and use them as the core for rapid responses.

    I come here and find that apparently, you’re bloody psychic and have requested we do exactly that. Obviously it makes sense to include links to the full article used, and to post it on any blog space etc we have, for reference and to see what *actually* gets published.

    I look forward to seeing what we can all respectively come up with.

    TC might have believed they were closing the stable door, possibly after the horse had bolted admittedly, but still capable of damage limitation.

    I think they’ve just opened the floodgates on what might be a very revealing session on quite how honest they are about wanting rigorous, open debate on the merits of some of their published work. Should ‘open peer review’ as encouraged by them be clearly blocked (That is, polite, concise, well formed, valid critique) then that would, er, reflect badly on them to say the least.

    Interesting times ahead….

    Steven R

    Oh, and:
    “I do not mean to ignore those of you who blog more broadly and/or have a more, um, footloose approach to your criticisms…”

    Hallo thar!

  3. Oh boy, this I am indeed looking forward to following! Swedish KI put out a very extensive press release Monday February 6th declaring snus use (heavy snus use) a major risk factor for Diabetes type 2 as per a simultaneously released article published in all Swedish Journal of Internal Medicine (DOI: 10.1111/joim.12592. A 6 months earlier paper in international Diabetes Medicine (DOI: 10.1111/dme.13179) showed zero effect interestingly received zero attention from the KI press office. Certainly not enough to send out an embargoed and very detailed press release 5 full days before allowed publication. Most interesting was that in the press release from the KI there is a little retraction hidden away, a retraction that pretty much says the equivalent of “Oh, by the way, the little thingy we’ve always been saying since the 80’s about snus causing the big C and a lot of CVD, wrong, so wrong, sorry”

  4. Jacob Griers piece on shs junk science has been published in 6 online rags in the last week namely slate!

    He touches on the AMI studies mostly but as we all know it’s as harmless as vaping!

    Then remember the journals all went out and decided not to accept any studies from tobacco companies or anyone who remotely got any money’s from them!

    Talk about censorship andvits just the same thing in 5.3 of the FCTC where everyone is shut tobeven talk to government except TC!

    Democratic process was the first thing tc outlawed thru it’s UN counter parts along with denying world bank and IMF loans if you didn’t sign the FCTC treaty!

  5. It seems to me that this article is not aimed at the people who do the blogging, but at The Faithful. In effect, the journal editors are saying, “We have made it policy not to respond to external comment, AND NEITHER SHOULD YOU. So if you have anything to say, say it in our rapid responses section”

    • Carl V Phillips

      Yes, good point. I am working on a follow-up post, and will incorporate that thought.

      • “Tobacco Control provides a valuable forum for analysis, commentary and debate in the field of tobacco control. This includes public presentation of research undertaken and reviewed by scientists and practitioners in the field…”

        I’m almost afraid to ask what a “practitioner” of tobacco control is.

  6. To the external eye the “Tobacco Control” journal looks like an ordinary scientific journal: it has an editorial board of PhD’s and MD’s, its contributors are PhD’s and MD’s working in academic or (mostly) government environments, receiving public and industry (pharmaceutic) grants, it undertakes a formal peer-reviewing process, it includes a rapid comments section, etc, just as any journal in other disciplines.

    However, this resemblance is a deceptive illusion based on common external markings and trappings: “Tobacco Control” is not a proper scientific research journal, it is a journal for a “think tank” of academics and regulators (mostly physicians) whose main task is to advocate and promote a specific tobacco regulation policy. The “science” part is just the skin coverage, as shown by what lies beneath this skin: its publication of a majority of articles that exhibit deep methodological faults (even trivial ones), but that nevertheless contribute to its tobacco/nicotine policy advocation. No journal I known in other disciplines is such a travesty of a science journal.

    The external resemblance of the “Tobacco Control” journal, its editors and most of its contributors to journals, editors and contributors of other scientific journals, not only lends them an undeserved scientific authority, but is a very useful feature to deviate criticism that is now being actively utilised by the editors of Tobacco Control.

    The tactic of the editors of the Tobacco Control journal is to identify all their critics, writing mostly in blogs, with the crackpots that besiege scientists in other disciplines. They have launched a desperate attempt to utilise their external resemblance to a real research journal serving real academic communities for this purpose. Their target audiences are: first the medical community, then the authorities and other academic communities (which would identify with TC because of the external resemblance) and also the lay people, who are completely unaware of the inner workings of scientific activity and simply assume that somebody like Glantz (to use an example) is as good a scientist as any other.

    However, this silencing tactic may backfire. Identifying Tobacco Control critics with crackpots besieging scientists is not so easy, since the bloggers (like yourself) that TC tries to pin with the crackpot label or with the “tobacco industry mole” label actually provide a lot of useful information and reasoned arguments supported by actual facts beyond advocacy, whereas the editors of TC have (literally) closed all forms of debate that deviates from their strict advocacy. After all, they are advocates, not scientists. Sooner or later most people will realise and admit that “the king is naked”.

    • Carl V Phillips

      Thanks. Excellent insight. We had talked once about me setting up a blog for you, but events got away from me. Would you like to write some guest posts? Starting with turning this comment into a full-on post?

    • Roberto, you wrote,

      “Sooner or later most people will realise and admit that ‘the king is naked.’ ”

      Exactly. But we’ve sadly been waiting for quite a while. Compare your naked comment there to our leading 2012 TCTACTICS graphic at

      http://www.tctactics.org/index.php?title=Main_Page

      They have a very well-established toolbox of weapons they like to use, whether they’re dressed in traditional Antismoker clothing or their fancy new Antivaper duds. Check out the TCTactics pages and see how relevant many of the defenses against their antismoking claims might be for vaping as well. Ditto for the “Lies Listing” approach I used at:

      http://web.archive.org/web/20151013064024/http://thetruthisalie.com/

      Final note: It seems that the Antismokers’ two most recent and rising fighting techniques on the Internet are

      1) to spew their insults without specifically addressing any of the counterarguments and then declare:

      “This discussion is ended.”

      LOL! Yes, the “LaLaLa, I Can’t Hear You Anymore!” fingers-in-ears approach. And if you dare to continue the discussion without them they’ll run to the moderators and claim you are “bullying” them by continuing to “spout your fake science and mislead people.” Seriously.

      Antivapers are now starting to seriously utilize Technique #1 with this TC editorial and elsewhere, particularly on other heavily moderated Net sites. There *IS* a possible way to take this weapon away from them on the wider Internet however if you think it’s likely to be used at some point: just launch a pre-emptive strike through writing your OWN post with your best points against them and then YOU declare, “That’s it. This discussion is over.” LOL! Of course they’ll come back and attack, and you can jump right back to respond and in that response, point out that you’ll now commit with your opposition to stay as long as necessary if your arguments are not conclusively answered or refuted. You’ve now, hopefully, removed that weapon from their quiver since they refused to respect your own initial declaration as a valid approach!

      and

      2) to declare that “The bans are there simply because smoking STINKS!” (thereby ending the need for them to mount any defense at all against attacks on their science or economics.) Technique #2 will be harder for them to use but you’ll still see it out there sometimes and my money is on it being used more and more as you successfully fight the lies in the scientific arena. Simply pointing out that it’s not true won’t be enough: Stink in the nose of the besmeller after all, and it’s conceivable that even the faintest momentary ghost of a whiff of a scent could be enough to send someone into a psychosomatic asthmatic episode that could kill them. And while it’s true the the REAL cause will be the Antismokers/Antivapers, the finger of blame will still be pointed at the smokers/vapers themselves.

      – MJM

      • Hi Michael,

        I know that the debate with anti-smoking true believers (whether online or in person) is far removed from a scientific debate that involves reflective self-critical mood and requires patience and ability to listen. I will certainly keep in mind the debating tactics that you suggest, specially the issue of “let’s ban it because it stinks” that clearly conveys prejudice. Also, I can easily make the claim that “the debate is closed”, since (given the evidence) arguments, such as outdoor ETS exposure causing cancer or heart disease and damage to children from “third hand smoke” stored in rugs, are akin to stating that the earth is flat. There is no other label besides “true believer” to describe folks (even health professionals) still peddling these arguments. In fact, more and more tobacco controllers are simply stating that the aim is to “live in a society where smoking is not normal” irrespective of the scientific basis of the damage from exposure to smoking.

        What makes the debate on smoking issues (for example ETS) particularly harrowing is the “true believer” attitude that is not confined to anti-smoking neurotics posting in social media or false coughing and waiving arms when somebody smokes 10 yards away from them. Sadly, this frame of mind is also found (even if expressed more politely) among educated health professionals who should know better.

        It is very illustrative to read the article “Silencing science: partisanship and the career of a publication disputing the dangers of secondhand smoke”, by Sheldon Ungar and Dennis Bray, Public Understand. Sci. 14 (2005) 5–23 (it can be googled). Ungar and Bray examine the reaction (through the “Rapid Response” section of the BJM) to the publication of the famous long term cohort study by Enstrom and Kabat on the links between ETS and lung cancer in non-smoking spouses of smokers. They classify the responses in three categories: professionals well connected with the topic, professionals (mostly physicians) not directly related and lay people. The level of abuse (towards the journal and towards the authors) found in these responses is appalling, with educated professionals politely expressing the same “true believer” arguments that lay people express rudely. Ungar and Bray also discuss the selective media approach and the how the sanction of experts can lead to a broad social internalization of a consensus that can be based on scientific fallacy. This paper appeared in 2005 and its conclusion is pessimistic. However, nowadays, with the emergence of the e-cig disruptive technology supported by a minority of established public health scientists, things may start moving.

        • Roberto, yes, as you wrote, the TC “true believers” are now comfortably “simply stating that the aim is to ‘live in a society where smoking is not normal’ irrespective of the scientific basis of the damage from exposure to smoking.” — and the same will be pushed for vaping regardless of any lack of evidence for a threat from vaping itself.

          When I shared an early draft of “Brains” with friends in 2003, one of the criticisms I received was that my use of the term denormalization three times in the book made it look like “tinfoil hat” material — since obviously such a crazy motivation didn’t really exist. ::sigh:: We’ve seen how that turned out I guess. Same deal in 2012/13 with “TobakkoNacht — The Antismoking Endgame.” Of course the phonetic reference to Kristallnacht got criticism, which I’d expected, but my use of “Endgame” also drew fire as simply being a crazy term that Antismokers would never actually use. Heh, yeah, right: we’ve seen how that’s been turning out, eh?

          Your pointer to Ungar and Bray is excellent! I read it back in 2005 but haven’t thought about it for a while till your note. Definitely worth a first read or a re-read by all! ( “Silencing science: partisanship and the career of a publication disputing the dangers of secondhand smoke”, by Sheldon Ungar and Dennis Bray, Public Understand. Sci. 14 (2005) 5–23)

          Their analysis of responses to the E/K research is very well done. I’d actually done a very similar analysis of my own before seeing theirs and my results VERY closely agreed with their findings. The responses were like a collection of testimonies at the Salem witch trials.

          Re The Great Vaping Divide among the Antismokers: It’s a fight in progress and it remains to be seen whether the Vapers will join the smokers under the wheels of the bus and in our dimly lit warrens of resistance, or if they’ll win out. I have to admit though that I have doubts as to whether they’ll maintain their critical attitudes toward scientific analysis if they win or if they’ll enjoy their new positions ON the bus as it continues to roll over the smokers in the gutter. If they choose the latter they’ll be leaving the gateway ajar for themselves in the future though: all it’ll take is a bump in the road (e.g. something in my mail I haven’t really checked out yet about strokes and vaping) for them to go flying back off their newly comfy seats to land back down under the grinding wheels.

          :/
          MJM
          P.S. In addition to the strokes thing, I know that SOMEwhere out there I saw something that raised a concern about “deadly nicotine” traces on the interior of car windows of vapers. NNK soon to follow? ::sigh:: Third hand vaping: the same “lick the windows for several trillion years” sort of scenario, but ripe to be lapped up by an uncritical scare-headline press nonetheless.

        • Carl V Phillips

          Hi, Michael. Anything more to add to the observation about “denormalization” being treated as hyperbole in 2003? I want to use that in a post I am working on now.

  7. Pingback: More on Tobacco Control’s “stop talking about us!” editorial | Anti-THR Lies and related topics

  8. Fully agreed on your “Truly pathetic.” analysis Carl.

    “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… Our role is to facilitate the processes of peer review, transparency and accountability which underpin the legitimacy and independence of academic research.”

    Objectivity and transparency eh? When Dave Kuneman and I ripped apart the Helena study in 2005 using some of the same techniques (verifiable public data bases, a data pool hundreds or thousands of times larger than Helena’s) the Tobacco Control journal was one of three we submitted it to. They clearly ignored our list of “recommended reviewers,” and, it seemed at least, may have gone directly to our list of reviewers we did NOT consider objective or competent enough to review our research. The original research paper as submitted to BMJ is at

    https://www.scribd.com/document/9679507/bmjmanuscript

    for any who re interested. The version submitted to TControl was somewhat shorter and tighter, based upon recommendations made by George Davies — the one reviewer we were given by the BMJ after three months of waiting — but it’s largely the same.

    The three reviewers Tobacco Control chose to give our peer reviews were all allowed to hide behind a curtain of total anonymity, with TC refusing to allow us any access to them for clarifications or aid in possibly improving our work. They were all virtually internet troll level wild attack pieces.

    So much for objectivity, transparency, and veracity, eh?

    (Carl, if you’d like to see the “high quality” of the peer reviews given by the secret panel of TC reviewers let me know. I *may* still have access to them in a zipped file or on a 3.5″ floppy, or alternatively DaveK may. Neither of us held them in much regard as you can imagine.)

    – MJM

  9. Pingback: Editors of Tobacco Control attack blogs: protecting science from cranks, or activism from science? | Anti-THR Lies and related topics

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