Ad Hominem Science

I thought this quote, via Reason, from anti-smoking advocate Michael Siegel is representative of how many pseudo-scientific advocacy groups work today:

In the 20 years that I was a member of the tobacco control movement,
I was led to believe that there were only two sides to any anti-smoking issue:
our side and the tobacco industry side. Therefore, anyone who disagreed with our
position had to be, in some way, affiliated with the tobacco industry. I was
also taught to respond to their arguments not on any scientific grounds or on
the merit of their arguments, but by simply discrediting the person by attacking
their affiliation with the tobacco companies.

As I have found out over the past two decades, there are a lot of
individuals who disagree with a number of positions that the anti-smoking
movement has taken (interestingly, now I find myself to be one of them). And not
all of these individuals are affiliated with, or working for the tobacco
industry. As individuals who are not part of a tobacco industry campaign, these
people are entitled to express their opinions and their arguments really deserve
to be addressed on their merits. At very least, anti-smoking organizations and
advocates should not attack these individuals. Attacking their arguments is
legitimate, but attacking the individuals, in these cases, is not.

Take this statement, substitute global warming for anti-smoking and oil industry for tobacco industry and the statement still works just as well.

Update:  For another example, see the debate over child seat efficacy at the Freakonomics Blog.  A couple of researchers studied data on injury rates of kids in car seats vs. kids in seat belts, and found little incremental benefits of seat belts.  Note their desire to find the truth under the numbers:

What is more puzzling to me is why my results and Heaton's both suggest very
little injury benefit of car seats, but the medical literature often finds 70%
(!!) reductions of injuries with car seats relative to seat belts. We find
reductions that are an order of magnitude smaller. They use very different
methods -- surveying people in the weeks after crashes for instance -- but still
it is really a puzzle. Which is why, when you read my paper, I am extremely
cautious in interpreting the injury findings.

I hope that the medical researchers, Heaton, and I can all work together to
try to make some sense of the conflicting results being generated by these
different methodologies to resolve this important question.

Seems like a reasonable scientific attitude.  Now (via Marginal Revolution) here is the response of a child seat "activist" to their findings:

Their [Levitt and Dubner] conclusions stand in stark contrast to the existing
body of scientific data that support current child restraint recommendations,
and are, in our opinion, irresponsible and dangerous....We hope that this
misleading article does not cost a child his life.

In other words:  Open scientific debat = killing children.  Levitt and Dubner must work for Haliburton.  Levitt has an update to the whole debate here.

  • http://politics.lel-hosting.com/ Matt

    Of course, it would be even better if those who _are_ affiliated with the tobacco industry could be extended the courtesy of replying to their arguments, instead of simply attempting to vilify their character.

    But I guess that would be too much to ask for, from an activist.

    (Fortunately for me, I can be as politically incorrect as I like, since I have no ties to any controversial industry. :) )

  • http://duanegran.com/blog/ Duane Gran

    I agree wholeheartedly that we need to remove ad hominem attacks from our discourse, and politically active people can often be the worst offenders, but in the case of the tobacco industry it is almost laughable how far the industry will go to cover its tracks. The executive staff of the six largest tobacco companies seem to be the last people on earth who won't admit that nicotine is addictive. While some claims by the anti-tobacco contingent may be inflated, there are core critiques that the tobacco industry dodges with brazen posture.