Tuesday 21 February 2017

Hey! Bloggers, Leave Our Junk Alone!

In an unintentionally amusing article yesterday, the Editor of the BMJ's Tobacco Control Comic Journal, Ruth Malone, along with no fewer than six co-authors has expressed irritation at their policy-driven rag being criticised.
As editors of Tobacco Control we are always pleased to see readers thinking critically about what they read in this journal and using the ‘Rapid Response’ forum to engage in constructive academic debate.
However, the growing use of personal blogs to criticise published articles has led us to reflect on appropriate ways of engaging in such debate and how we as editors should respond to comments made outside the ‘Rapid Response’ forum.
Now, if I've read that right they seem to be saying that criticism of the studies they publish should only take place on their website where it can be subject to posting rules and, presumably if they deem it necessary, censorship.

I've not tried to post a moody red-mist rebuttal to anything there but maybe I'll do so in the future if that is an invitation, not sure how long it would last though.
Tobacco Control provides a valuable forum for analysis, commentary and debate in the field of tobacco control.
Debate? This is the same journal which decided in 2013 to ban entire tranches of research simply based on who wrote it. You could devise a product which cured all known forms of tobacco-related cancer but if the wrong people were behind submitting the research, Tobacco Control would still refuse to publish it. The tobacco control industry strives incessantly to close down all dissent, with policies deliberately crafted to enable them to stick their fingers in their ears. Debate, my arse!
Despite careful review and selection procedures, no journal can guarantee that everything published is accurate, or that all readers will agree with the authors’ interpretation of findings. 
Recent comments posted on some personal blogs impugn the objectivity of Tobacco Control and its reviewers, questioning our motives and the veracity of peer review.
Well yes. Because Tobacco Control itself has judged the peer review process to be utterly useless. Here's what they said about it back in 2013.
Critics may argue—as many did when journals stopped publishing cigarette adverts—that publishing such research does not constitute endorsing its findings and that, as long as funding sources are fully disclosed, readers can consider that information and make up their own minds about the quality of the work. Peer review should prevail, goes this line of thinking: it’s not the editor’s job to make these kinds of judgments. 
However, this view ignores the growing body of evidence that biases and research misconduct are often impossible to detect, and that the source of funding can influence the outcomes of studies in invisible ways.
This, of course, does not stop the BMJ publishing glowing reports on, for example, the efficacy of pharmaceutical products - all {cough} thoroughly peer-reviewed - by people with COIs from pharmaceutical companies which make your eyes water.

As for "inpugn[ing] the objectivity of Tobacco Control and its reviewers", it's the journal itself which has thrown its objectivity and credibility in the gutter over the years. Here are just a tiny few examples.

How about the one in 2015 which declared, from a telephone survey of 8,679 smokers asking them if they had purchased illegal products (see the flaw in that, do you?), that there had been no increase in illicit tobacco following plain packaging. It won't surprise you that the career professional tobacco control industry authors had gerrymandered the illicit brands they chose for the study and that the data didn't fit their conclusions anyway. Incredibly though, they declared their research was more authoritative and objective than a conflicting one conducted by KPMG which involved the collection of 12,000 discarded cigarette packs across 16 different towns and cities covering 75% of the population, to see what was actually being smoked.

Or, consider the one a couple of months later that surveyed 723 flight attendants to find out if they had ever seen someone using an e-cig on a plane or in an airport. Unsurprisingly, quite a few had. The 'objective' Tobacco Control then leapt to the unrelated conclusion that "allowing e-cigarette use in smoke-free places undermines the denormalisation of cigarette smoking" and that "given the growing evidence around passive vaping (yes, really - DP) and air quality associated with e-cigarette use, banning e-cigarettes on aeroplanes and in airports is a needed step-forward for the protection of both passengers and crew.".

Or how about the detached and not at all unhinged Australian Tobacco Control editor who said this in February last year?

Or we could scroll on to September last year where this bizarre research was published by Tobacco Control.
Use of electronic cigarettes in smoke-free environments 
Only 2.5% of those who used e-cigarettes in smoke-free environments reported negative reactions from other people.  
CONCLUSIONS: E-cigarette use in smoke-free environments was common, suggesting that most e-cigarette users do not consider smoke-free laws to apply to e-cigarettes. Explicit laws should be considered if jurisdictions want to prohibit e-cigarette use in public places.
Don't forget the study in October, too, which claimed to have found a miraculous reduction in heart attacks and hospital admissions following a smoking ban in São Paulo despite the data showing quite the opposite.

And, to bring us bang up to date, the claim made in Tobacco Control this month that vaping is “a one-way bridge to cigarette smoking among youth". Never mind that the research actually showed that - out of 347 non-smoking youngsters - they could only find four who had vaped and then smoked up to two (yes, 2!) cigarettes in the following year, and not a single youth who had gone on to become a regular smoker.

We could go on and on. How impossible heart attack 'miracle' junk studies are routinely to be seen in Tobacco Control but studies saying that plain packs "do not change smoking behaviour" will not make the cut. How fantasy nonsense follows incompetent wibbling follows bare-faced lies into the pages of Tobacco Control, unstemmed by any meaningful peer review, immune to reality, and unhampered by shame or embarrassment.

Yet Ruth and her colleagues seem to be saying that these things should only be tackled in the sterile atmosphere of the BMJ's 'Rapid Responses' facility where they can decide which remarks to allow and which humiliating junk debunking to suppress. In fact, so irritated are they at individuals having their say without the control part of tobacco control being able to stop it, that their (rather predictable) response is to withdraw even further into their echo chamber. They've thrown the toys, spat the dummy, and now want their ball back.
As a result of discussion about these issues, the Tobacco Control editorial team has now established a policy that editors will not respond to external blog posts or social media messages about specific studies.
If you've ever tried to engage with a tobacco controller on Twitter, you might look at the length of your block list and piss yourself laughing that they claim to even bother responding on social media at all. But this seems to say that - with the intense amount of execrable bullshit they've been publishing of late - they are feeling the heat and officially removing themselves from the kitchen.

Yesterday's article, funny as it is, tells you quite a lot about the mindset of those at Tobacco Control. They like having the microphone; you are to be spoken to from on high, not to wrestle the microphone from their grasp and go doing your own thing. They do the telling, you do the listening, and if you want to criticise it must be done in the way they direct you to or you are not to be listened to at all.

It's never been about health, and the biased and deceitful pages of Tobacco Control have never been about truth. Objectivity? There's never been any. Credibility? Do me a favour.


Further reading on this subject here:

Editors of Tobacco Control admit they publish indefensible junk science - Carl Phillips
Tobacco Control Journal: There Can Be No Legitimate Discussion of Our Articles Without Our Permission - Michael Siegel
Denial of the Echo Chamber - Facts Do Matter
Hey Ruth. This one is for you. - Storm
Open Letter to Ruth Malone - Facts Do Matter (Guest)

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