Monday, 30 November 2009

Political credibility vs. scientific credibility

I was reminded of the following story by Michael Siegel who mentioned it today on his blog. I was going to include it in Velvet Glove, Iron Fist but left it out for reasons of space. It is an interesting example of how the anti-smoking movement responds to criticism.

In 1998, Robert Levy and Rosalind Marimont wrote an article questioning the oft-cited estimate of 400,000 smoking-related deaths per annum in the USA. Levy and Marimont gave several reasons why they believed this to be an exaggerated figure.  

Only nine years earlier, the Surgeon General's estimate had been 335,600. The US population had increased during that period but nowhere near as sharply as the supposed number of tobacco deaths; a number which was based entirely on estimates rather than death certificates. Over the same period, it was claimed that one quarter, then one third, then one half, of all smokers died as a result of their habit.

Levy and Marimont evaluated the figures from the Surgeon General, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Centre for Health Statistics and concluded that: 

"To be blunt, there is no credible evidence that 400,000 deaths per year - or any number remotely close to 400,000 - are caused by tobacco."

This was not the kind of talk that gladdenned the hearts of anti-smoking activists, nor did Levy & Marimont's assertion that "the campaign against cigarettes is not entirely honest" make them any friends in tobacco control. 

But by the 1990s, ad hominem attacks on anyone who did not toe the anti-smoking line were the first line of defence for Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) and, in a counter-attack, Dr Michael Siegel - a senior member of the ANR - wrote an article which included the following statement:

"Robert Levy and Rosalind Marimont released a report (issued by the CATO Institute) attacking the CDC and its estimate that smoking causes 400,000 deaths each year. All of these authors have strong connections to the tobacco industry... Robert Levy works for the Cato Institute, which receives financial support from the tobacco industry and Rosalind Marimont is with the National Smokers Alliance which also receives tobacco industry financial support. 

(Note: Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights can provide copies of tobacco industry documents which reveal the details of these authors' ties to the tobacco industry.)"

Levy did indeed worked for the Cato Institute which, like a number of libertarian organisations, had been given tobacco industry grants in the past. But neither Levy nor Marimont had ever personally received any money from the tobacco industry and Levy replied to Siegel:

Dr. Michael Siegel,

Yes, I accept your offer to "provide copies of tobacco industry documents which reveal the details of [my] ties to the tobacco industry." I'm not aware of any such document(s) but, considering the legal exposure if your allegation is without foundation, I'm sure you'll be able to substantiate what you have written and broadly disseminated over the Internet.

I look forward to your prompt response.

Robert A. Levy

Michael Siegel replied:

Dear Mr. Levy:

I did not intend to make any personal allegations about your ties to the tobacco industry, and certainly did not ask you to provide copies of any documents. (I'm not sure who made such a request - perhaps it came from Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights). The only statement that I made was that the Cato Institute has received funds from the tobacco industry. This was information that was provided to me (with what I believe is adequate documentation) by Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights.

Nevertheless, I will not disseminate inaccurate information. Please let me know if it is not true that the Cato Institute has received funds from tobacco companies, because if that statement is not correct, I will have it corrected immediately.

Michael Siegel

This response did not satisfy Levy who replied:

Dr. Siegel,

You did indeed make personal allegations about my ties to the tobacco industry. In your recent article, in the very next sentence after you mentioned me and Ms. Marimont, you noted that "Americans for Nonsmokers Rights can provide copies of tobacco industry documents which reveal the details of these authors' ties to the tobacco industry." That verbatim statement couldn't be clearer; it says, explicitly, that I have personal ties to the industry and you can prove it.

Now I insist that you forward a copy of the relevant documents. I'm afraid that your e-mail has it backwards. It is you that must provide supporting documents to me, not vice versa.

I await your documents, or a published retraction and apology.

Robert A. Levy

Siegel replied:

Dear Mr. Levy,

By stating that the authors mentioned in the article had ties to the tobacco industry, I did not mean to suggest that you had a personal affiliation with the tobacco industry. I simply meant to suggest that you have ties to the industry in the sense that the organization you work for has received funding from the tobacco industry. However, I can now see how misleading my statement was.

I realize now that the way in which I wrote the article was very misleading, and could have been misinterpreted. I therefore wish to apologize to you and to publicly retract the statement that I made that could have implied a personal tie between you and the tobacco industry in some way other than the receipt of funds from the industry by your organization.

I have therefore asked Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights to post on the internet site the following retraction and apology:

Retraction and Apology
Re: "Responding to Tobacco Industry Attacks on the Scientific Evidence Linking Secondhand Smoke to Disease and Death"
Michael Siegel, MD, MPH
August 27, 1999

In a column dated July 19 and entitled "Responding to Tobacco industry Attacks on the Scientific Evidence Linking Secondhand Smoke to Disease and Death," I unintendedly suggested that Robert Levy (who works for the Cato Institute and issued a report regarding CDC's estimate of smoking-attributable mortality) has a personal tie to the tobacco industry.  

I did not intend to imply any kind of personal tie between Mr. Levy and the tobacco industry, other than the fact that he works for the Cato Institute, which according to Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, has received tobacco industry funds. I can see how my statement could have been misinterpreted to imply some sort of personal affiliation between Mr. Levy and the tobacco industry.

In particular, I had stated that "Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights can provide copies of tobacco industry documents which reveal the details of these authors' ties to the tobacco industry." With respect to Mr. Levy, I intended to imply only that ANR has documents showing that the Cato Institute received tobacco industry funds. However, I can see how what I actually stated may imply a personal connection. I regret this and I publicly retract the statement.

In addition to publicly retracting any suggestion of a personal tie between Mr. Levy and the tobacco industry, I also publicly apologize to Mr. Levy for making the statement. In the future, I will be more careful in my writing when making any kind of statement that could be interpreted as a personal allegation. Again, my profound apology to Mr. Levy."

In addition, I have asked Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights to remove the article from their website and to discontinue any further distribution of the article.

Again, my profound apology. I can only assure you that I will never make this type of mistake again.

Michael Siegel

Satisfied with this retraction Levy agreed to drop the matter:

Dr. Siegel:

Thank you for your prompt response.

Your "Retraction and Apology" is fair and reasonable and I accept your offer to have it published. Assuming that Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights does indeed comply with your request to, first, post the "Retraction and Apology"; second, cease distribution of the underlying article; and third, remove that article from their Website, I will consider the matter closed.

Unless I hear otherwise, I will expect your "Retraction and Apology" to be posted within a week. Meanwhile, I will leave it to Ms. Marimont, who is copied on this e-mail, to contact you if she requires additional language in order to resolve her similar and equally justified grievance.

Perhaps we can continue the tobacco debate by focusing on substantive issues -- even though you have advised your colleagues that impugning the character of their opponents is the safer and more effective course of action.

Robert A. Levy

That would have been the end of the matter were it not for the subsequent involvement of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, who viewed any retraction as a sign of weakness in the face of what it considered to be tobacco interests. They denied Siegel's request to have the offending article removed from their website and, powerless to do any more, Siegel sent Levy the response he had received from Pete Hanauer, who had co-founded the group with Stanton Glantz:

Mr. Levy,

Per your request, this is the email I received from ANR refusing to post my retraction and apology.

Michael Siegel

From: "Hanauer, Pete"
To: "''"
Cc: "''"
Subject: Levy, et al
Date: Tue, 31 Aug 1999 13:58:51


After further discussion with Julia and receipt of more input from other Board members, we have concluded that the possible "clarification" that you and I discussed is simply not feasible. There is a strong concensus [sic] that we do not want to post ANYTHING on our web page that can be construed as an apology or as backtracking from the position taken in the paper you wrote. 

More specifically, Julia has convinced me that, given Levy's long history of attacking ETS science, it would be a mistake to state anything that would give him credence. So, we have decided to remove your name from the paper, as you originally stated to me that you wanted to do, and we will post an addendum to the effect that an attempt was made to censor it. Julia will be sending you a copy of that. I realize that your views on the matter are heart-felt and sincere, and that mere removal of your name from the paper, without more, will not be entirely satisfactory to you. 

But at this point ANR must put its political credibility ahead of what you consider to be your scientific credibility. As I stated to you earlier, you are being much too hard on yourself and perhaps after some time passes you will feel more comfortable with the notion that the paper was accurate and that you really had nothing to apologize for. You have done far too much good on this issue to let this one incident deter you from further strong advocacy, and I hope you will continue to be a valuable asset to the movement.

Of course, if you wish to discuss this further, I would be happy to talk to you.


The attack on Levy and Marimont's work remained on the ANR's website with the following appendum:

Robert Levy, one of the authors mentioned in the article below, has attempted to censor this article by making a veiled threat of legal action against the original author. While we have acceded to the author's request to have his name removed from the article, ANR stands by the full content of this article, which remains as originally written.

We have the utmost respect for the truth and no respect for bullies, and will not stop speaking one to appease the other.

Levy then made another request to ANR, asking to see the supposed documents that linked him to the tobacco industry. ANR's executive director Julia Carol replied:

"We provide documentation as a courtesy to the public, reporters, policy makers, etc. We do not extend this courtesy to the tobacco industry or [its] allies...

If you find [what we have said about you] to be the least bit offensive then I suggest you change the work you do."



Unknown said...

And, unbelievably, the same scenario is being played out in the Climate Change debate. How do these people get away with it?

Is there no ending to all this???

Rollo Tommasi said...

For the sake of completeness, you really also ought to mention that Marimont & Levy’s article was absolutely worthy of criticism. In fact, it was systematically torn to shreds by Elizabeth Whelan of the American Council of Science and Health:

She said:

“Levy and Marimont fail to present a scientifically sound and convincing argument that the estimate of 400,000 annual smoking-related deaths is a specious, statistical gimmick….The authors might well heed their own advice when they criticize federal officials for "tainting science to advance predetermined ends." By straying from the most basic epidemiological principles in their arguments, and by touting opinions that masquerade as facts, the authors have themselves strayed far from science.”

A damning indictment of Marimont and Levy’s work. And an entirely justifiable critique too, with no ad hominem attacks involved.

Dick Puddlecote said...

"We have the utmost respect for the truth and no respect for bullies"


And it looks like you've stirred big pharma's payroll into action again, Chris. Must be hurting. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Actually, the context of the article in no way calls for including Elizabeth Whelan's criticism. It would be a complete distraction from the article's point, which isn't the veracity or worthiness of Levy and Marimont's piece, but how ANR made a misleading allegation about Levy, and how they responded when asked to correct it. WS

Anonymous said...

Siegel's original assertion that Levy had "ties" to the tobacco industry (since CATO received funding from the tobacco industry, and since Levy worked for CATO to advocate on behalf of tobacco companies) is accurate.

If Levy had a winnable case, he would have filed it.

Anonymous said...

Following your logic, Levy doesn't mean a word he says because CATO receives tobacco funding and CATO pays Levy. What a wonderfully sophomoric world view.

Meanwhile, anti-tobacco activists have no such influences and are pure of heart? Please.

Odd that this blog entry should attract defenders for ANR. Is it because ANR was so obviously guilty of bad behavior that people feel compelled to comment? Yes, of course it is. Mr. Snowdon didn't even need to add additional commentary; the quoted exchanges speak for themselves.

Ann W. said...

Interesting conclusion from anonymous at 20:29 reminds me of when I requested a copy of a PSA from the Ontario Heart and Stroke Foundation but before they would release it to me they requested the following:

"With all of the Foundations tobacco creative I just need to ensure it is being used for its intended use.

I have enclosed a declaration for your review. Could you please sign and fax it back to me"


1. The Foundation can be assured that I received no benefit of any kind whatsoever from the tobacco industry.

2. Neither I nor any for-profit or non-profit corporation that I am involved received/have received any money, benefit, service, accommodation or favour, directly or indirectly, either (a) from any corporation or other entity that produces, distributes, manufactures, markets or promotes tobacco or its use, or (b) from any corporation, entity or individual that promotes the interests of such corporations and entities.

AND I make this solemn declaration conscientiously.

Christopher Snowdon said...

Anon 1 (WS): I agree. An article can go in an infinite number of directions. A decent article - especially on a blog - keeps to the point and tries to make it concisely. Rollo likes to go off on tangents. It's sort of his trademark.

Anon 2: Litigation is a very time-consuming and expensive business and not everyone is that litigious. Siegel himself could have sued the various people who have accused him of taking tobacco industry/e-cig industry money in recent years but chooses not to. Siegel is happy enough to denounce them on his blog, just as Levy was able to do in the pages of Reason.

Anonymous said...

What an uncomfortable professional position for Dr. Siegel. Clearly. Levy is giving him no breathing room--"even though you have advised your colleagues that impugning the character of their opponents is the safer and more effective course of action."

So, with tail between legs, and no rebuttal (which speaks volumes regarding Dr. Siegel's personal character), Dr. Siegel attempts to remedy the situation. He even offers his limited power to have the article in question removed entirely. This is a response typical of any credible writer who finds a significant flaw with his or her thesis. A proper piece, in it's entirety, requires a careful examination of the facts when formerly presented. No careful writer in the world wants to put information out into the world with their name on it without credibility, especially when the lives and reputations of others are involved.