Saturday, August 21, 2010

Enstrom (and science) under attack . . . again

In 2003, a study published in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) declared no association was found between secondhand smoke and lung cancer or chronic heart disease mortality among non-smokers.

The findings of James Enstrom and Geoffrey Kabat were highly controversial because they contradicted the existing consensus (the popular view) that secondhand smoke caused lung cancer and chronic heart disease. In fact, the study was greeted as heresy by anti-smoker crusaders.

The BMJ was flooded with letters from anti-smoker activists criticizing the journal for publishing the study. Enstrom and Kabat were assailed because their research had been completed with funding from the tobacco industry. Treated as traitors to the cause, they were attacked on a personal, rather than a scientific level. The relative merits of the scientific evidence presented by these two reputable and respected researchers were barely discussed.

So fierce was the attack on Enstrom and Kabat that it prompted two researchers, Sheldon Unger and Dennis Bray, to write a paper entitled “ Silencing the Science”. They concluded that scientific debate is being stifled for political motives rather than the advancement of science.

And, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that Unger and Bray have a solid case; that legitimate research is being suppressed when it does not conform to commonly held theories. In fact, there is evidence that some research is being squelched, not by contesting its scientific validity, but by ad hominem attacks on those who conduct the research.

Some scientists appear fearful of publishing or otherwise expressing public opposition to the general consensus for fear of retribution from vindictive colleagues who will not tolerate dissenting opinion.

For example, in May of this year, Professor Phillipe Even, former president of the reputable Necker Research Institute in France, publicly expressed his doubts about the real harm of secondhand smoke, saying: “Clearly, the harm [of secondhand smoke] is either nonexistent, or it is extremely low.”

When asked why he had not spoken out earlier, Professor Even noted: “As an official, dean of the largest medical faculty in France, I was given the obligation of confidentiality. If I had deviated from official positions, I had to pay the consequences.”

And, the consequences can be severe: loss of research funding, character assassination and loss of reputation, difficulty having research published and even dismissal from employment. If well-respected scientists like Professor Even can be intimidated into remaining silent on such matters, it suggests that significant pressure is being brought to bear to stifle legitimate scientific debate to advance political goals.

Recently, Professor Enstrom was dismissed from his position at UCLA School of Public Health; a position he has held for 34 years. Officially, his firing had nothing to do with the 2003 study by he and colleague Geoffrey Kabat on the alleged hazards of secondhand smoke. The primary reason given for his firing was that his research was “not aligned with the [Environmental Health Sciences] department's mission” to explore the relationship between environmental exposures to toxic air contaminants and human health.

Enstrom published a paper in 2005 that showed no evidence of premature deaths in California due to exposure to PM 2.5, microscopic specks of particulate matter thought to kill thousands in California each year. CARB (California Air Resources Board) is in the process of setting stringent regulations covering diesel exhaust for the trucking industry. The rationale for the regulations is numerous studies which claim PM2.5 from diesel exhaust is life threatening.

Once again, Enstrom's research conflicts with the commonly held (popular) view. And, once again, he is under attack for publicly iterating those views. In his own defense, Dr. Enstrom stated: “My work isn't about being politically correct, it's about honest research and being faithful to the science."

In an article on his blog, Dr. Michael Siegel of Boston University School of Public Health, notes: “Dr. Enstrom was denied the opportunity to present his side of the story to the faculty. He was not permitted to present his research on fine particulate matter and mortality. He was not permitted to testify in his own defense. This is a breach of both due process and justice.”

In fact, several who have written articles commenting on this case have noted that a secret vote, taken among faculty members in his department, resulted in Enstrom's removal.

But, it should not be forgotten that Enstrom has been under attack since his 2003 study on secondhand smoke was published in the BMJ. Despite his strong anti-smoking sentiments, he has been branded a lackey of the tobacco industry and efforts have been made to have some funding sources (yes, the tobacco industry) refused at UCLA.

And, there was a rather telling comment from one his colleagues.

Beate Ritz, a leading air pollution scientist at UCLA, has apparently admitted that she hadn't even read Enstrom's latest report on air pollution. But, based on his 2003 findings that second-hand cigarette smoke doesn't kill people, she said she knows him "for letting his interpretations go beyond the data and his personal biases to be strong enough to not allow for a balanced and appropriately cautious interpretation of the numbers."

It is neither unfair, nor unreasonable to suggest that Enstrom's 2003 study on secondhand smoke was partially responsible for his dismissal; that some petty dictators were simply waiting for an excuse to punish Enstrom for breaking ranks with the anti-smoker element at UCLA and the wider academic community.

I know what you're thinking. Just why in hell should anyone give a rat's ass that some highbrow research scientist got the sack? The political machinations within the scientific community don't mean jack to the man in the street.


Scientific research is increasingly being exploited by special interest groups and politicians as the basis of public policy formation. This is especially true in the case of public health policy. And, if the science isn't open to debate; if legitimate research is dismissed simply because it doesn't conform to popular theory, then society as a whole suffers.

And, if pressure, no matter how subtle, is being applied to researchers to tailor their findings to popular theory as espoused by those with power and influence, then the science becomes corrupted; scientific credibility is diminished.

Bad science results in bad public policy. And that affects everyone. Ask any smoker as he/she stands outside, exposed to the cold and damp, to enjoy a fag.

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