Thursday, July 06, 2006

COLUMN -- Talking science, but walking politics (updated)

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:13 AM |  

Thursday, July 6, 2006

"People don't want to think … They'll bless and follow anyone who gives them a justification for not thinking."
— Dr. Floyd Ferris, State Science Institute

Last week U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona issued "a comprehensive scientific report" that concludes, "There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke." The debate is "unequivocally" over. "The evidence is conclusive. Smoking bans are the only way."

The surgeon general says science has spoken, but he's not speaking science. It is leadership with an agenda that would shut off debate and call it "consensus."
"Nitpicking," you say. We're talking about puffing pariahs spewing poison. But what if the victims of policies based on nonscientific "science" were instead innocent children?

The surgeon general's political statement. If there is any doubt that the surgeon general's report, "The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke," is not a scientific document, consider this report language:

"This report uses the term secondhand smoke in preference to environmental tobacco smoke … . The descriptor 'secondhand' captures the involuntary nature of the exposure, while 'environmental' does not. This report also refers to the inhalation of secondhand smoke as involuntary smoking, acknowledging that most nonsmokers do not want to inhale tobacco smoke."

That is laughable as objective science. The attitude of the nonsmoker is irrelevant to the effects of the tobacco smoke he inhales. The surgeon general, however, is not testing a scientific hypothesis; he's justifying smoking bans irrespective of the data. The report is about creating the perception tobacco smoke is evil, not proving it.

Why should you believe hobby columnist Craig Westover over the U.S. surgeon general? You shouldn't. You should look at the data. But the report is a daunting 727 pages. Reporters on deadline don't have the time, and smoking ban advocates won't take the time, to read the whole thing. And the rest of us, says government scientist Ferris, simply don't like to think. That's what leadership with an agenda is counting on.

Denying the autism epidemic. In the late 1980s children were diagnosed with autism at a rate of about 1 in 10,000 live births. By the end of the 1990s, that rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control, climbed to 1 case in 166 live births.

One hypothesis is that thimerosal, a vaccine preservative that is 49.6 percent mercury, is a contributing factor to the autism epidemic. Additions to the immunization schedule over the same 10-year period nearly tripled the mercury exposure of a child in the first 18 months of life.

Public health leadership has responded with denial that an autism epidemic exists. The numbers, they say, simply reflect better diagnosis. They deny that thimerosal and vaccines are a contributing factor in autism.

In 2004 the Institute for Medicine issued a "conclusive" report stating, "The body of epidemiological evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism."

It recommended channeling funding into other areas of autism research. This after federal health officials recommended the removal of thimerosal from most childhood vaccines as a "precautionary measure" in 1999.

Science is subversive. The surgeon general's report and the Institute of Medicine report talk science but walk politics.

For example, the surgeon general in his public statements implies that even brief exposure to secondhand smoke puts one at risk of heart disease and lung cancer. That conclusion is not supported by the report, which indicates prolonged exposure before one is at a slightly greater risk than the general nonsmoking population.

The institute's report is based on five epidemiological studies that, aside from methodological flaws, assume a population with a consistent genetic base. Clinical research indicates a genetic inability to excrete mercury among a significant percentage of autistic children. The institute did not consider that and other "merely theoretical" clinical studies in making its recommendations.

Science is a subversive pursuit in which each new piece of evidence raises new questions, engenders more debate and motivates more study. However admirable political objectives, they are not justification for following along and not thinking, for not examining bullet-point conclusions in the context of data, for not questioning public policy based on polluted science.

By the way: There is no Dr. Ferris, and no State Science Institute. The quote at the beginning of this piece echoes from the dark world of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." It reflects a view of politically controlled science that is closer to reality than either the surgeon general's or the Institute of Medicine reports.

Think about it.

Update: You can’t ask for better support. Here’s the lead from a Star Tribune editorial on the surgeon general’s report --
It's probably a safe bet that few people would consider the new U.S. Surgeon General's report on secondhand smoke to be a "must read" this summer. Yet downloading even its 27-page executive summary ( would be a great eye-opener for anyone who: smokes in the presence of a child, works in a smoky restaurant or bar, spends any time at all in smoke-filled environments or simply lives in a state -- like Minnesota -- that has no comprehensive smoking ban covering restaurants and bars.
That’s precisely the point. That’s what people with a smoking ban agenda are counting on. Read only the executive summary, and one gets a very slanted misrepresentation of what is actually in the report. If the folks at the American Lung Association were really concerned about public health, that should alarm them.

Not all of surgeon general’s report is bunk. As I’ve written before, there are some very good studies with statistically valid result indicating inhaling secondhand smoke poses a significant health hazard for infants and young children. The report cites these studies. That information should not be taken lightly. But when it is framed by a ridiculous claim, its importance is compromised.

“There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke” is not just an idiotic and unscientific statement. It is damaging to the objective of reducing the number of people that smoke and especially those that smoke around infants and children. If that were really true, what justification is there for NOT immediately making smoking completely illegal, anywhere?

Well, there are political issues and civil rights issues and we just can’t ban smoking in private homes and . . . .that’s all crap. We ban use of marijuana in homes. We ban the use of legal products like certain types of fertilizers in homes. We can ban any product that is a certified danger to public health. If there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, then there is no morally justifiable reason for not banning smoking in homes and around young children. To do otherwise is irresponsible.

And doing otherwise is what the surgeon general recommends. What are his recommendations? I’ll let Dr. Michael Siegel, a 20-year tobacco control researcher that supports smoking bans but is intellectually honest about the misrepresentations in the surgeon general’s report, take that one.
This primary message [in the report] of the communications about the findings of the report [ostracize and isolate smokers and make them social pariahs] seems, at least in my eyes, to contradict the very title of the report: "The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke."

If secondhand smoke exposure is involuntary, then people do not have a choice about avoiding it. If people are able to heed the Surgeon General's advice about staying away from smokers, then is it not true that their secondhand smoke exposure is not involuntary at all?It occurs to me that you can't have it both ways. You can't propose as a solution to the problem that people stay away from smokers and at the same time try to convince us that exposure to secondhand smoke is involuntary. If people can avoid it by staying away from smokers, then is it not voluntary? If simply avoiding the smoke is the appropriate solution, then isn't the problem actually one of voluntary exposure to secondhand smoke?The materials accompanying the Surgeon General's report are laced with advice to the public to avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.

The brochure that accompanies the report instructs people how to protect themselves from the hazard discussed in the 727-page report. And the advice given is: "do not breathe secondhand smoke." "Visit smoke-free restaurants and public places." "Ask people not to smoke around you and your children." "Do not allow anyone to smoke near your child." "Use a smoke-free day care center." "Do not take your child to restaurants or other indoor public places that allow smoking." "Teach older kids to stay away from secondhand smoke." "Choose restaurants and bars that are smoke-free." "Be very careful not to go where [you] will be around secondhand smoke.

"If this is the appropriate solution to what is cast as being a devastating public health problem, then isn't the title of the report misleading? Doesn't this advice cast secondhand smoke exposure as being largely voluntary? If you can choose to avoid it, then you're not involuntarily exposed.My point here is that, once again, the communications surrounding the report are inconsistent with the report itself.

If the solution we are proposing to the public is that they should "stay away from smokers," then isn't the problem one of voluntary exposure, and what we're trying to do is to shift the decision that people are making from one of being around smoke to one of avoiding smoke? Then why title the report "involuntary exposure to tobacco smoke?

"I'm not arguing here either that secondhand smoke exposure is truly voluntary or that telling people to avoid secondhand smoke is inappropriate. I'm simply pointing out the inconsistency of the communication to the public in light of the title and findings of the Surgeon General's report.
And that’s the point. Just reading the executive summary as the Strib recommends, and you get a misrepresentation of what the data within the report indicates. Ironically, that hurts the very objective that smoking ban proponents claim to support -- public health.

Update: A previous post on the political nature of the IOM report.