Bad apple studies – pt 2 (and Josey Wales too)

Following from Part 1

There is something else that is special about the Winn and FDA studies.

Typically when one study becomes a standard citation it is an examplar of some sort. It either represents best some aspect of the ideas being expressed or it summarizes much of the knowledge acquired to date in the field. While these need not be perfect studies they should be of a fairly high caliber. They do not need to be universally accepted but disagreements will tend to centre on the interpretation of the results.

Just about anyone looking at the Winn and FDA studies conclude that they are methodologically unsound. And if you don’t trust the method how can you trust the results.

And yet they are presented as pillars of evidence.

Perhaps it is better to think of them as mantras.

They function quite well as articles of faith. Words repeated by believers.

Because these are so central to the ANTZ messages it feels as though we have to critically respond to them time and time again when in fact they are so poor that they should be ignored. Were it not for the timing, or their usefulness to anti-nicotine forces these studies would never have caused the slightest ripple.

And this is where we can easily claim the superior moral ground. We take these bad studies seriously enough to think about them, to accept them as possible evidence.

Both sides are guilty of assembling lists of references to support a particular position but one main difference is that pro-tobacco harm reduction researchers accept that studies not supporting their position exist. You won’t hear a pro-THR researcher denying that any study does not exist. On the other hand rather than doing the work and critically engaging opposing studies ANTZ will simply say they don’t exist.

One lesson we can all learn from this though is that as much as we like a particular conclusion or result we should remain critical.

I like both coffee and alcohol and will have an immediate reaction of “of course” to any popular report of either of them being beneficial and an “as if” to any report of them being harmful to health. I would like to think however that if I was professionally studying either that I would be critical of both pro and con studies.

And this is another reason these studies were taken up so quickly and became so persistent. They supported existing views.

While the health effects of chewing tobacco were not certain, the practice was seen as reprehensible as most people now see smoking. In films the dastardly villain might be a spitter, rarely the hero (though see anti-hero Josey Wales below).

If it is gross it must be bad for you. Winn played to popular sentiment. And the FDA study played to the folks who thought that anything that looked like smoking had to be bad for you (also the reason the exploding battery made such a news splash).

On some level we are all looking for substantial arguments against things we dislike but can’t really make a good case against. Its an understandable impulse but it is a luxury no one with any influence over public health should be allowed.

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