Show Me the Documents

Why many activists prefer personal attacks to scientific debate.


A few years ago, when Vice President Al Gore provided ABC'sNightline with supposedly incriminating material on some "anti- environmentalists," he probably never guessed that Ted Koppel would allow the accused to defend themselves. Unhappily for Gore, global warming skeptics Fred Singer and Pat Michaels refused to acknowledge that their work was corrupted just because they received money from the Unification Church and the coal industry. Gore's campaign to discredit researchers who wouldn't back the administration's environmental agenda prompted this concluding on-the-air comment from Koppel: "There is some irony in the fact that Vice President Gore, one of the most scientifically literate men to sit in the White House in this century, is resorting to political means to achieve what should ultimately be resolved on a purely scientific basis."

Why do some advocates stoop to such tactics? Evidently, they believe their exalted ends justify repugnant means. And the shakier their science, the more venomous their invective. Consider Stanton Glantz, the University of California at San Francisco professor who spearheaded the crusade against secondhand smoke in California. In a 1995 appearance on ABC radio, he objected to published research questioning the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, charging its author with "aiding and abetting…efforts to kill people." Nevermind that the author, Dr. Julian Lee, is a distinguished thoracic physician who has publicly supported smoke-free workplaces and vigorously condemned the tobacco industry. Lee apparently crossed the line when he stated, "To achieve…a smoke-free society, it isn't necessary to invoke junk science."

Ad hominem assaults have become an indispensable tool for the perversion of scientific evidence by political activists–especially, it seems, among tobacco's foes. Anti-smoking activists like Glantz have too often been willing to sacrifice science to politics, with little regard for truth. I recently experienced an illuminating example of such misplaced zeal.

It started with an article by Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and at the time a board member of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR), the California activist group that Glantz co-founded. Titled "Responding to Tobacco Industry Attacks on the Scientific Evidence Linking Secondhand Smoke to Disease and Death," it was published on ANR's Web site last July. In the article, Siegel advised fellow scientists in the anti-tobacco movement: "Do not get into arguments with the industry about the scientific evidence. This is exactly what the industry wants. It wants to draw public health practitioners into a debate….Instead, the best approach is to expose the tobacco industry ties of the so-called scientists making the arguments."

Having set the parameters of scientific debate to exclude science itself, Siegel proceeded to follow his own advice. He cited a 1998 article from Regulation magazine in which mathematician Rosalind Marimont and I questioned official estimates of smoking-related deaths. "These authors," he asserted, "have strong connections to the tobacco industry….[ANR] can provide copies of tobacco industry documents which reveal the details of these authors' ties."

In an August 26 e-mail message, I challenged Siegel to produce ANR's "tobacco industry documents," adding that "I'm not aware of any such document(s) but, considering the legal exposure if your allegation is without foundation, I'm sure you'll be able to substantiate what you have written." Siegel responded that he "did not intend to make any personal allegations" but only to point out that the Cato Institute, my employer and the publisher of Regulation, "has received funds from the tobacco industry." When I rejected that explanation and again demanded the documents, Siegel conceded that "the way in which I wrote the article was very misleading, and could have been misinterpreted." He continued, "I therefore wish to apologize to you and to publicly retract the statement that I made that could have implied a personal tie between you and the tobacco industry."

Subsequently, Siegel asked ANR to remove the article from its Web site and discontinue any further distribution. He also requested that ANR post an apology and retraction, which would say in part: "I can see how my statement could have been misinterpreted to imply some sort of personal affiliation between Mr. Levy and the tobacco industry….In addition to publicly retracting any suggestion of a personal tie between Mr. Levy and the tobacco industry, I also publicly apologize to Mr. Levy for making the statement. In the future, I will be more careful in my writing when making any kind of statement that could be interpreted as a personal allegation."

In an August 27 e-mail message, I accepted the retraction and apology as "fair and reasonable" and expressed the hope that "we can continue the tobacco debate by focusing on substantive issues–even though you have advised your colleagues that impugning the character of their opponents is the safer and more effective course of action." When Marimont also insisted on an apology, Siegel added this statement to his proposed retraction: "Ms. Marimont has engaged in a career in science…for 37 years, and there is no reason to believe that her writings on smoking or any other issues were guided by anything but her best scientific judgment and professional integrity."

That should have put an end to this episode, but it did not. After ANR pondered Siegel's retraction and apology, Peter Hanauer, the group's co-founder, wrote back to him, in an August 31 e-mail message that Siegel shared with me: "Mike…we do not want to post ANYTHING on our web page that can be construed as an apology or as backtracking from the position taken in the paper you wrote….Given Levy's long history of attacking ETS [environmental tobacco smoke] science, it would be a mistake to state anything that would give him credence [sic]. So, we have decided to remove your name from the paper…and we will post an addendum to the effect that an attempt was made to censor it….ANR must put its political credibility ahead of what you consider to be your scientific credibility."

Thus, an organization purportedly dedicated to advancing the scientific debate over secondhand smoke has conceded that politics, not science, is paramount. ANR's own board member asked that an article he authored–and acknowledged to be potentially libelous–be withdrawn from publication. ANR responded by republishing the article, with the author's name redacted, and this statement in its place: "Robert Levy…has attempted to censor this article by making a veiled threat of legal action against the original author….We have acceded to the author's request to have his name removed from the article."

When I wrote once again on September 16, this time directly to ANR, asking for copies of the "tobacco documents," ANR's executive director, Julia Carol, replied, "We provide documentation as a courtesy to the public, reporters, policy makers, etc. We do not extend this courtesy to the tobacco industry or [its] allies….If you find [what we have said about you] to be the least bit offensive then I suggest you change the work you do."

Reluctant to heed ANR's counsel, I've made no plans to switch jobs. Quite the contrary, I intend to continue promoting objective scientific inquiry, on tobacco- related issues and others. For its part, ANR is a confessed enemy of science, committed only to political orthodoxy, intoxicated by its anti-smoking agenda, unwilling to defend its assertions on their merits, yet ready to malign anyone with the audacity to dispute them.

Indeed, ANR's tax-exempt foundation has gone so far as to develop an "enemies list" of groups and individuals that ANR believes are secretly working for Big Tobacco. A 1996 version of the list included such critics of the anti-smoking movement (in ANR's view, "allies of the tobacco industry") as Loyola College economist Thomas DiLorenzo, City University of New York marketing professor Jean Boddewyn, and REASON Senior Editor Jacob Sullum. Funding for this project came out of a $1.2 million grant from the California Department of Health Services. As a result of the state's Proposition 99, the money came from increased cigarette taxes that were supposed to support community education programs. Until the Los Angeles Daily News broke the story in December, California taxpayers were under the illusion that their dollars were sponsoring information campaigns on smoking and health. But as Steve Thompson, vice president for government affairs at the California Medical Association, bluntly told the Daily News, "This is politics, not education."

According to the Daily News, the ANR Foundation used state revenue from Prop. 99 to monitor people who spoke on tobacco issues at city council meetings, and even to investigate a federal judge in North Carolina who had criticized the Environmental Protection Agency for its report on secondhand smoke. At least one of the "enemies" struck back. After ANR wrongly accused John Nelson, a spokesman for former California Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, of being on the tobacco industry's payroll, Nelson complained and the foundation apologized. "It's terrifying to think that there is this group out there receiving state funding, scurrying around trying to identify people at city council meetings, and then putting together an enemies list," Nelson said.

On its Web site, ANR denies using taxpayer money for what it calls its "database," even while insisting that "it is completely appropriate for the Department of Health Services to use the tobacco tax revenues generated by voter-approved Proposition 99 to counter pro-tobacco influences in our state." And ANR's method of "countering" its opponents, as usual, is to tar them as paid lackeys of the cigarette companies. In light of that habit, Ted Koppel's admonition to Al Gore applies with special force to ANR: "The measure of good science is neither the politics of the scientist nor the people with whom the scientist associates. It is the immersion of hypotheses into the acid of truth."