Monday, 4 October 2021

Anti-alcohol cranks call for academic censorship

The psychologist Mark Petticrew has got it into his head that the rather dull health information charity DrinkAware is covertly promoting binge-drinking and drinking while pregnant while also downplaying the risks of alcohol. He has been banging this drum for four years now, producing several studies based on cherry-picking and misrepresentation. Most recently, he resorted to trawling through DrinkAware's Twitter feed crying 'bias' whenever a tweet wasn't as overtly anti-alcohol as those sent by temperance groups. 

The mini-literature he has built up serves no purpose other than to sustain his theory that everything the alcohol industry touches (for it is they who fund DrinkAware) is evil. It is all rather pathetic, but nothing is too trivial to be turned into a peer-reviewed study in the world of 'public health'.

This little saga has reached a new low with two of Petticrew's fellow cultists publishing their own 'study' defending their mate and condemning DrinkAware for having the temerity to respond to his daft accusations. Drinkaware and two other organisations had responded to the first of his articles in the journal that published it, pointing out some of the many inaccuracies and sleight of hand. Incidentally, that article was titled 'How alcohol industry organisations mislead the public about alcohol and cancer' because this is gotcha journalism we're dealing with, not serious academia.

The new study is one of most petty pieces of navel-gazing I've ever come across in a journal. They looked at three of Petticrew's articles and eight of the responses from DrinkAware and the other 'social aspects organisations' (SAOs) he attacked. They then look at four replies from Petticrew and his colleagues.

Why? Essentially to adjudicate. They decide that Petticrew was basically right and the SAOs were basically wrong. Crucially, they enshrine their biased opinion in a peer-reviewed publication that campaigners can wave around.

To make this sound slightly more like an academic exercise and less like score-settling, they describe their methodology as follows:

The analysis began with the first author, who was not immersed in the scientific literature in question, identifying the series of claims and counterclaims before the second author applied his reading of the debates

The second author is Jim McCambridge, a bona fide fanatic who is obsessed with the alcohol industry and is about as far from a disinterested third party as can be imagined. 

The two authors go through the accusations and rebuttals as if they were having an argument on a message board, shouting 'straw man' at the SAOs and accusing them of not responding to the main point. 

...there is a refusal to engage with the arguments made by Petticrew et al.

.. This response largely ignores Petticrew et al.’s attention to context and audience

.. The responses by SAOs raise narrow questions of content accuracy, rather than engaging with the overall findings of the articles

And so on and so forth. It is rather tedious and childish.

It is only when you get to the discussion section that the purpose of the study becomes clear. Aside from establishing that their pal is right and his opponents are wrong, their real beef is with industry-funded organisations being allowed to respond in journals at all. 

We argue that these controversies are scientific in location only, being published in peer-reviewed journals.

.. The forum is important. These replies become scientific artefacts, legitimated by publication in the scientific literature, a resource to be used in subsequent disputes as we see in the later responses of both Drinkaware and Éduc’alcool. In the future, it will be possible to write, “previous papers by Petticrew and colleagues have been heavily criticized,” attaching several references to add credibility to such claims, just as Sim et al. (2019) use Larsen et al. (2018). 

It is not hard to see an element of projection here. This should have been a blog post, not a study. The only reason it has been published as a study is so it looks respectable and can be cited.  

It is key to remember here that whereas the audience for a genuine scientific controversy includes other scientists in the field, the audiences for a counterfeit scientific controversy are people outside the field (e.g., the public, policy makers, journalists). These audiences cannot be expected to possess the tacit knowledge, obtained by socialization in the research community, that would allow them to discriminate between sources and to identify genuine disputes between scientists. 

The responses from the SAOs were all published in the Journal on Studies of Alcohol and Drugs or in Drug and Alcohol Review. These are the journals Petticrew published his studies attacking the SAOs in the first place (which is obviously why the responses were published in them). The Journal on Studies of Alcohol and Drugs is where this study has been published. If the readers of these relatively obscure journals don't have the "tacit knowledge, obtained by socialization in the research community" then who does? 

The editor of this journal obviously doesn't think it is a 'counterfeit scientific controversy' and he probably doesn't want to get sued, which might have been the SAO's second option. So he gave the SAOs the right to reply. Given the severity of the accusations and the shaky grounds on which Petticrew made them, it was the least he could do.

The arrogance of the authors is extraordinary. How dare they decide what is real controversy and a fake one? Who are they to decide who has the ability to understand a simple back-and-forth in relation to studies that are so basic that none of them involved more than scrolling through a website?

The replies, printed in peer-reviewed journals, thus operate as public relations exercises given legitimacy by being located within the scientific literature

You can probably guess what comes next. That's right, it's a none-too-subtle call for censorship. 

It is appropriate for journals to consider why they publish this kind of content, which adds to the burden of doing work in this area, manufacturing doubt about (and distracting attention from) important scientific issues, in part by facilitating attacks on published research and researchers. These organizations can write what they like on their websites, but why should journals publish such harmful material?

"Harmful material"! These people are dangerous cranks. Write that up and turn it into a 'study'.

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