The last couple of weeks have offered a fascinating and educational experience for those of us who attempt to interject legitimate science and thoughtful ethical analysis into the politicized world of tobacco research. It was enough to inspire me to write my first blog entry.
In case you missed it, a scandal erupted when a huge amount of email from climate researchers was leaked. The email revealed the behavior of the faction that promotes the dominant theory, that anthropogenic global warming poses a major threat that we need to address immediately. These researchers-qua-political-actors endeavored to ignore and denigrate research that does not support their theories — done without even addressing the accuracy or validity of that science — and attempted to mislead the public about their own findings.
What is fascinating, in case it is not obvious, is that a simple word-substitution algorithm would make the whole thing read like an expose of the anti-tobacco extremists’ behavior in attacking tobacco harm reduction, denying the benefits of nicotine, condemning low-risk products, overstating the effects of second-hand smoke, and trying to bully anyone who challenges them.
John Tierney provided a good concise overview of the “smug groupthink” that has already been revealed from this enormous collection of information. Adding a bit of narrative element to the story (foretelling a book-length version?), Tierney describes how, on the email list for the researchers who support the dominant theory and politics, one researcher was expressing concern about the quality of some data while the others focused their discussion of how to protect data from legitimate legal requirements to share it (read: how to make sure that no one who does not already agree with their conclusions gets a chance to re-analyze the data).
There is also this revelation: “When a journal publishes a skeptic’s paper, the scientists e-mail one another to ignore it. They focus instead on retaliation against the journal and the editor, a project that is breezily added to the agenda of their next meeting”. The usual strategy appears to be to attack anyone whose research threatens the orthodoxy as being on the payroll of industry, whether or not that is true, without even considering whether the science might be right. As Tierney put it, “Contempt for critics is evident over and over again in the hacked e-mail messages, as if the scientists were a priesthood protecting the temple from barbarians.”
Probably the most interesting reported scandal, which you may have heard about, related to the hockey-stick-shaped graph that was widely touted to the public and policy makers. It purported to show a sharp increase in global temperatures over recent decades after centuries of relative constancy with a downward trend. It turns out that the real inconvenient truth about this graph was that the recent uptick was based (without any acknowledgment or explanation) on a different data source than the rest of the graph; had the graph just used the one data source it would have showed no increase.
It all sounds strangely familiar, huh?
But here is the most interesting part to me: An educated layperson — say someone with a degree and who reads the news, but with no special expertise in the topic — could be forgiven for not knowing there was any honest scientific disagreement about the particulars of global warming. Similarly, an educated layperson could be forgiven for not knowing about the great potential of tobacco harm reduction, the fact that nicotine is a beneficial drug with very minor health risks (so long as one is not inhaling smoke), and that environmental tobacco smoke does not pose the dire threat that is currently fashionable to claim and is actually quite difficult to link to substantial disease risk. (This forgiveness does not extend to experts who know better but are intentionally misleading people, nor to the many clinicians or “public health” spokespeople who pretended to be experts while merely reciting the conventional wisdom they read in an anti-tobacco pamphlet. Such people are liars of one sort or another and are a threat to the already shaky validity of public health science, and should not be forgiven for either.)
So, as an educated layperson on the question of global warming, I read about this revelation and realize there is more to this science than meets the eye. I see the smoking gun that we have been lied to, and that people who present themselves as legitimate scientists are acting more like marketers. I am also aware of the research that shows people want to believe. E.g., most people, when reading a newspaper account of topics they know something about, rate it as fairly inaccurate and misleading, but then assume the story on the next page they have no expertise on must be completely accurate. But even for me, my gut reaction is to assume that most everything I thought I knew a month ago is still right. I seek consolation in the embarrassed researchers’ defensive claims (see, e.g., the explanation for the aforementioned data change in Tierney’s column and the comments following Tierney’s blog, which also contain additional damning observations).
In short, even I have to work hard to force myself to realize that politics may be trumping science and that I should reevaluate what I thought I knew. This does not mean, of course, that we should assume that the opposite is true. That would be like concluding that smoking is not so bad just because propagandists have overstated how bad it is and repeatedly lied about low-risk alternatives. The key is that the core message is probably still the best supported theory, but it may be that lot of details with great practical importance may have been lies and we need to stop assuming all the orthodox claims are true.
I am interested in epistemology, work hard to think like a good scientist and philosopher, am familiar with the research on practical epistemology, and have personally experienced a case where the orthodox “researchers” have hidden truths and misled the public. But I still want to cling to what I believed before. It seems entirely possible, of course, that the global warming orthodoxy is correct on all points of substance in spite of the fact that the anti-tobacco orthodoxy is lying to the public about harm reduction and other topics. After all, there has been no evidence presented to suggest that climate scientists write papers that systematically ignore the weaknesses of their data and methods, or that journals will publish almost anything that supports the orthodoxy regardless of its scientific weakness, while censoring heterodox studies that are methodologically of much higher quality.
Thumbing through a climate science journal and seeing what seems like careful science offers a breath of fresh air for those of us who usually must read public health journals. But my gut inclination to believe them in spite of the recent scandal has nothing to do with reviewing the accuracy of their core claims — I could be misled by what might be faux-careful-science outside of my field just as easily as a layperson could be taken in by the junk science in public health journals. No, I am just another victim of the well-known psychological tendency to not want to admit doubt about something I thought I knew.
So, what hope do we have of educating victims of the wealthy and aggressive anti-tobacco (anti-nicotine, anti-electronic-cigarette, etc.) propaganda machine about the truth?
I am not going to mull that question over for five minutes and glibly suggest solutions (I will leave such behavior to people writing the worthless “policy implications” paragraphs for their health research study papers). But I would like to try to clarify the question: If you, reader, are a proponent of tobacco harm reduction, then you are probably concerned with freedom, human welfare, and protecting highly-vulnerable people from the abuses of powerful institutions. Thus, there is probably a good chance you were disposed to be sympathetic to the “we need to do something about global warming, soon” position. So please read a bit more about the recent revelations and then introspect about whether your urge is to continue to believe exactly what you always believed. What would it take to sway you from that? Is there any particular revelation that gave you an anchor of skepticism that did not just fade away? Were you left with particular “but what about…?” thoughts whose answers might have swayed you more? (Having thought about these, please drop me an email or post a comment — I am seeking to learn more.)
Of course, this exercise does not work if you already thought there were holes in the orthodox position on global warming. In that case, your reaction is probably to not feel, at a gut level, that anything has been revealed because it is all old news. Those of us with expertise know that the anti-tobacco extremists are willing to lie to the public, damage the validity of health science, and do whatever they can to destroy anyone who reveals truths they find inconvenient.
I get the impression that there are honest scientists who question some of the global warming orthodoxy that would say the same thing about their antagonists. What could those honest scientists say to me, an educated and very interested layman, that would help me see the world as they see it? And is there anything they could say to someone less invested in epistemology?
-Carl V. Phillips