I owe an apology to readers of this newsletter. In April 2004, I wrote the first of several commentaries on Penn & Teller’s claim in a Bullshit! episode that the EPA report was bogus that claims that 3,000 people a year die from lung cancer because of secondhand smoke. My initial research into the subject was inadequate and I agreed with P & T. I was wrong to do so. My position was laid out in Newsletters 41, 42, 44, 49, and 50. For the full retraction, see Newsletter 41, though I’ve posted corrections in each of those newsletters.
My error was the same one P & T made: trusting the standards of risk assessment as promoted by the tobacco industry (led by Philip Morris) and their Republican generals like Jim Tozzi.* While reading Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science, I came to realize that many responsible epidemiologists, including Jonathan Samer and Thomas A. Burke from Johns Hopkins medical school, do not believe that an increased risk of 100% or more from a pollutant is required before it should be considered relevant or significant for public health. In short, we’ve been hoodwinked by politicians, mostly Republican, into calling junk science ‘sound science’ and describing sound science as “uncertain” or “incomplete.” Real junk science is called on when convenient to make a case for “controversy” or “uncertainty”, as we are all well aware with regard to the promotion of so-called intelligent design.
The P & T episode called “Environmental Hysteria” is based on these same questionable standards pushed by Republican leaders for their corporate donors whose main interest is the deregulation of industries and products rather than public safety or health. This approach fits well with P & T’s libertarian philosophy but it is essentially dishonest and does nothing to promote the view of skepticism as healthy critical thinking. Instead, it seems to promote the view of skepticism as a way to throw dust in people’s eyes so they can’t see what’s really going on. Mooney calls this kind of “skepticism” contrarianism. It’s a good descriptive term. The function of contrarians is to muddy the waters, cause doubt and confusion, and promote the false notion that “sound science” is science where you can’t find a contrary view. The contrarian philosophy is Orwellian doublespeak at its best: Some of the best science available is labeled “junk science” because there are contrary views (both scientific and political).
You should read the whole thing because Carroll explains the issue carefully and also provides an excellent example of how to make a correction if you discover that you have made a mistake. But I can’t resist quoting this bit as well:
I’m going to reprint here some comments by Steve Simon that were sent to me after I posted a rant on the Vioxx ban last January. I relied for those comments, as I did for many of my comments on the secondhand smoke issue, on the work of mathematician John Brignell, who writes “In observational studies, [scientists] will not normally accept an RR [risk ratio] of less than 3 as significant and never an RR of less than 2.” I should have known better than to trust Brignell, since one of his main sources is Steven Milloy, whom I have debunked elsewhere. Milloy is a propagandist for businesses and industries that are hurt economically by government regulations on pollution, health hazards, and the like. He has made a career out of labeling good science as “junk science” by his contrarian methods of finding contrary studies or by applying contrary standards to studies already completed by those he opposes.
Brignell wasn’t too pleased:
the author of Number Watch has been the subject of one of those Animal Farm type revisionist attacks. … What use is a Skeptic’s Dictionary contaminated by Political Correctness?
Brignell dismisses Carroll’s evidence because it is contaminated with Political Correctness. This is a bit lazy—you’d think he could have at least used Brignell’s Law of Scientific Consensus.