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When Scientists become Advocates

I happened across this editorial in the journal PLoS Medicine, and was disappointed. It describes a formal policy change regarding the papers they accept for publication.

While we continue to be interested in analyses of ways of reducing tobacco use, we will no longer be considering papers where support, in whole or in part, for the study or the researchers comes from a tobacco company.

This is a stupid position for a scientific journal to take. The editors are not being scientists, they are grandstanding and advocating instead of  being impartial and refereeing. In my mind the holding of this position calls into their question their scientific judgment. The willingness and ability to examine objectively evidence which might compromise an existing conclusion is the heart of the scientific frame of mind. Intellectually, this position is no different than the position of the Roman Inquisition about Galileo.  But the Inquisition at least bothered to read Galileo!

First, it is a needless. As they noted, very few papers are submitted which would in fact be rejected under the changed policy. They already have a well-defined policy around what they call “competing interests”. And certainly any reviewers of such research would themselves have a healthy skepticism toward conclusions counter to the prevailing wisdom.

Second, it ignores the possibility that good, useful work can come from tobacco funding. For instance …

  • Big Tobacco might fund research about possible beneficial uses of tobacco. Medical uses of marijuana are real and demonstrated scientifically.  Nicotine is a potent chemical, and the cigarette is a highly efficient nicotine delivery mechanism.
  • Big Tobacco might fund research around improving the safety of cigarettes through changing formulation or manufacturing methods.
  • Big Tobacco might fund research into the treatment of tobacco illnesses. It certainly has a compelling  interest in helping smokers live longer!

Third, science is not advocacy, and scientific journals are not about changing social policy or public opinion. Moralistic crusading has no place in a scientific journal. That the editors in question are willing to do such crusading in the journal does not reflect well on them personally or on their organization. They have apparently decided that all knowledge about tobacco and health has been obtained (“… the business of tobacco involves selling a product for which there is no possible health benefit.“). Further they draw conclusions about motivation (“Tobacco interests in research cannot have a health aim …“).

The PLoS Medicine editors are in effect doing what the clowns at East Anglia did. They are choosing to ignore research which might conflict with their values, and are biasing their publication against such research.

Shame on them for placing dogma above science. At least they have the courage to do it openly.

h/t Andrew from Center for College Affordability and Productivity, via a Quick Take on Inside Higher Ed.

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