Words from the Echo Chamber

It’s always nice to put finger to key and put some thoughts out into the virtual world isn’t it? I could, and often have, gone on for quite some length (especially when ranting) about a particular topic, but what good does it actually do? After all, I’m only “speaking” to like-minded folk right? What is commonly referred to as the “echo chamber” – indeed, most of those that read my words are either vapers, smokers or just plain ol’ libertarians who are, to put it mildly, fucked off with state interventions in our lives.

Thing is, when I started this here blog, only a few read it. Think my first ever post attracted something link 8 or 9 views over the course of a month. Now I often reach triple digits. Why? God alone knows, I just put down in writing what is on my mind. Nothing more, nothing less.

It is, of course echo chambers that I want to write about this time. Y’see, our ever so benevolent malevolent professor land-whale has imagined some scientific journalist slight and has decided to have a whinge. Why? Well, mostly because he was trying (key word there) to debunk (another key word) some science.

OK, you can pick yourselves up from the floor now. I know. Stan and science. Two words that really don’t belong together.

See, Stan wrote (or should I say co-authored, the poor man still uses crayon for pity’s sake) a paper in Tobacco Control a supposedly “premier journal” on the subject. All about smokers (of course) and how the “hardening” wasn’t so much a hardening, but a softening. Confused yet? You will be. By crunching some numbers in a multitude of different ways, Stan came up with this “theory” that the smoking rate is declining and it’s not because of any interventions such as NRT, vapour products or therapy or any of that. No Stan thinks that smokers are giving up “because they actually want to” – these “hardcore smokers” are finally doing what Stan and the Tobacco Control Industry want them to. Because science. Yeah.

Thing is, other scientists took a look at Stan’s masterpiece and promptly took it to pieces (and rightly so, I’ve not read anything that vaguely resembles actual science from Stan – if anyone has a link to a non-debunked paper from Stan, I’d be delighted to read it – just for the giggles) and published a response. In Addiction. Stan is obviously nonplussed by this as he writes:

The fact that Plurphanswat and Rodu sent their paper to Addiction was unusual because normal scientific procedure would have had them sending a letter to the editor of the journal that originally published the work (Tobacco Control)

Awww, what’s the matter Stan? Didn’t want to leave your Tobacco Control echo chamber?

Well, being the big, bad, brave scientist (cough) that he is, he gathered up some allies and drafted a response…. which was promptly rejected, and here’s what Stan the Man (snork) thinks of that:

Addiction rejected our response because we would not delete the first two points and limit our response only to the statistical issue.

In other words, the journal said “keep to the science old boy, there’s a good chap”. After all, when challenging a fellow scientist’s paper that is the done thing right? This is how science is supposed to work (in an idealistic, romanticised world) – state a point, get that point challenged (by science not opinion), discover, learn and grow. I know, this is the “public health science” which really doesn’t deserve to be a scientific field.

So what was Stan’s main point? Other than possible statistical fudgery (something he’s stellar at on his by the way)? It wasn’t the science. At all.

There is a longstanding pattern of tobacco industry-funded experts writing letters criticizing work that threatens the industry’s position, first described in 1993 by then-JAMA Deputy Editor Drummond Rennie.[6] Rodu and various co-authors have written several such letters.[7-10] Another similarity to past efforts is industry-linked experts submitting critiques of a paper published in one journal to another,[11-15] which is also the case here, with this critique of our paper published in Tobacco Control being published in Addiction. One would have expected any criticism to have been published as a letter in Tobacco Control.

Addiction requires “full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest, including any fees, expenses, funding or other benefits received from any interested party or organisation connected with that party, whether or not connected with the letter or the article that is the subject of discussion.” As with another investigator supported by the tobacco industry,[16] the conflict of interest statement Plurphanswat and Rodu provide may not truly reflect the extent of Rodu’s involvement with the tobacco industry. For example:

• Rodu’s Endowed Chair in Tobacco Harm Reduction Research at the University of Louisville is funded by the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company (US Tobacco) and Swedish Match North America, Inc.[17]

• Rodu is a Senior Fellow at the Heartland Institute, which has received tobacco industry funding.[18-20]

• Rodu is a Member and Contributor to the R Street Institute, which has received tobacco industry funding.[19,21]

• Before moving to Louisville, Dr. Rodu was supported in part by an unrestricted gift from the United States Smokeless Tobacco Company to the Tobacco Research Fund of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.[8]

• Rodu was a keynote speaker at the 2013 Tobacco Plus Expo International, a tobacco industry trade fair to discuss “How has the tobacco retail business evolved; where was it fifteen years ago, where is it today and where is it going”.[22]

• Rodu has worked with RJ Reynolds executives between at least 2000 and 2009 to help promote industry positions on harm reduction, including specific products.[23-26]

The substance of Plurphanswat and Rodu’s criticism is that the statistically significant negative association between smoking prevalence and quit attempts and the positive association between prevalence and cigarettes smoked per day both become non-significant when more tobacco control variables are included in the model (state fixed effects, cigarette excise taxes, workplace smoking bans and home smoking bans). The problem with including all these variables is that it results in a seriously overspecified model, which splits any actual effects between so many variables that all the results become nonsignificant. The regression diagnostic for this multicollinearity is the Variance Inflation Factor (VIF); values of the VIF above 4 indicate serious multicollinearity. For the United States, adding all the other variables increases the VIF for the effect of changes in smoking prevalence from 1.8 in our model for quit attempts to 16.7, and from 1.8 in our model to 17.9 for cigarettes per day, respectively. Plurphanswat and Rodu’s model is a textbook case of why one has to be careful not to put too many variables in a multiple regression.

The Plurphanswat and Rodu criticism misrepresents our conclusions. We did not argue that drops in prevalence caused increased quit attempts and reduced consumption; we simply present the observation that, as prevalence falls, quit attempts and consumption fall or remain constant, which is the exact opposite of what the hardening hypothesis predicts.

So once again, Stan didn’t like that someone challenged him, and instead of being all sciency and stuff to rebuff the claims he resorted to – how shall I put it – playing the man, not the ball. Compared to the claims on statistical insignificance (which only totally 177 words out of the entire 655 word response, a smidge over a quarter of it) the majority of the response was all about conflict of interest. Oh well.

Sorry Stan, but:

I am truly sorry that you have declined for a second time to accept the journal’s offer to publish the key scientific part of your letter

How many does that make now?