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Academic ethics and social science

- February 27, 2008

Tim Lambert “points to”:http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2008/02/just_how_many_astroturf_groups.php (and excerpts) a “recently published article”:http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6VBF-4RRD36G-2&_user=10&_coverDate=02%2F29%2F2008&_alid=692073310&_rdoc=5&_fmt=summary&_orig=search&_cdi=5925&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_ct=352&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=1198180f5883bd692637451ffe7623c1 suggesting that many social scientists (including a couple of well-known political scientists) did research on the social importance of smoking that was paid for by the tobacco industry.

ICOSI created a subcommittee, the Social Acceptability Working Party (SAWP), to develop measures to combat the social cost and passive smoking issues. SAWP’s initial chairman was RJR’s VP of Public Affairs, who also served on the TI Communications Committee. George Berman, a former PM employee who started a consulting firm, helped organize and direct SAWP (Senkus). …AWP members had already identified and approached social science academics (Berman) who were sympathetic to industry positions and agreed to participate (Pepples): Richard Wagner (professor of Economics at George Mason University), Robert Tollison (former economic consultant to the US Treasury Department and professor of Economics at Texas A&M and later George Mason University), Robert Nozick (professor of Philosophy at Harvard University), Sherwin Feinhandler (sociologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School specializing in cultural anthropology of tobacco, alcohol and drug research), Peter Berger (professor of Sociology at Rutgers and later at Boston College), Aaron Wildavsky (Chairman of Political Science Department and Dean of the Graduate School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley), Edward Harris (a political scientist at South Connecticut State University), and Martin Gruber (finance expert at New York University). … A February 1980 SAWP progress report on the SC/SV project states that the academics would be commissioned to conduct “cross-cultural research” to “emphasize the social importance of smoking” (Goals of SC/SV), find ways to reverse the research describing the social costs of smoking, and “support the view that smoking is ‘normal’ behavior, a view that many social scientists would defend if given the information to do so”. Other activities included participating in academic conferences nominally sponsored by third (non-tobacco) parties and organized in ways that would minimize evidence of industry backing (Marcotullio). …

A preliminary promotion plan for Smoking and Society prepared by PM Management Corporation (Cory) kept tobacco companies out of sight: “Most of the PR [for the book] should come from the publisher (the most credible third party).” PM proposed especially promoting psychologist Hans Eysenck’s claim in the book that “Genetic factors, not smoking, may make smokers susceptible to smoking related diseases — a concrete alternative to the tired defense that the smoking-health link ‘isn’t proven'” (Cory, 1986a). PM also suggested emphasizing anthropologist Sherwin Feinhandler’s claim that “Smoking plays positive social roles in the normal give-and-take of getting along with others” because Feinhandler provided “something positive to say about smoking that doesn’t raise the health issue”.

… In 1988 Tollison and his George Mason University colleague, economist Richard Wagner, published Smoking and the State: Social Costs, Rent Seeking and Public Policy concluding that clean indoor air laws impose significant economic costs upon society and that government efforts to regulate public smoking were coercive, arbitrary intrusions into private life. The preface stated that there was a “continuing controversy within the scientific community about the effect of smoking on the health of smokers and nonsmokers,” even though the US Surgeon General had by then issued 19 reports linking smoking with disease. A single line in the preface says the book was produced under a grant from the TI.

I’ve been trying to think through the ethics of this, and I’m not convinced (with a couple of caveats – see below) that social scientists who do this sort of thing are culpable in the same way as actual scientists (or people like Steven Milloy) who generate arguments or data that they likely know to be false for the purposes of clouding debate. That is – I don’t think that it is intellectually dishonest for someone like Tollison who disagrees with a wide variety of social regulations to accept money for a project that seeks to target one subset of those regulations. To the extent that Tollison et al. were putting forward a specific version of the general public choice case against regulation, they were raising issues that may have some value. It’s perfectly legitimate to argue that anti-tobacco legislation harms individual choice etc. The correct response for people like me who might vigorously disagree with Tollison et al’s’ arguments is to do just that – vigorously disagree with them, and point out what we might think is wrong about them. They aren’t _scientifically illegitimate_ arguments in the same way that deliberately bogus studies that suppress inconvenient statistical findings are. The same applies of course to studies funded by left wing crowds such as the Russell Sage Foundation, or Soros or whoever – provided that the researcher says who she got the money from, is honest in reporting her findings, and is prepared to change her mind if the actual data points in politically inconvenient directions, the source of the funding doesn’t matter very much. It may well be that the right wing or left wing researcher in question _isn’t_ prepared to change their mind – but that’s not something that can be deduced from their willingness to accept the funding in the first place.

This said, there are two important caveats. First – Tollison and Wagner’s claim that there was “continuing controversy within the scientific community about the effect of smoking on the health of smokers and nonsmokers,” was a misleading statement on something that they didn’t have any relevant expertise on, and that furthered a quite deliberate aim of the tobacco lobby (to further the impression that there was scientific debate, doubt and uncertainty over this issue). Whether Tollison and Wagner were unwitting dupes or willing participants in spreading this nonsense, it would certainly give me pause regarding other pronouncements of a similar nature that they might make. Second, disclosure of the sources of funding is important. It sounds as though the Tollison/Wagner book had some disclosure; albeit one might have liked more. Other parts of this campaign seem to have involved more clandestine action, and to the extent that involved social scientists connived at this, I think they were at the least toying with behavior that was unethical and unprofessional.