Disingenuous responses to straightforward questions

In yesterday’s post, in which I discussed the President’s Cancer Panel report on environmental toxins and cancer, I criticized one of the reactions to it, specifically that of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), even referencing a truly hilarious Daily Show clip in which Jeff Stier, Associate Director of ACSH didn’t exactly come off looking particularly good. (Let’s just leave it at that.) Apparently my criticism didn’t sit too well with Gilbert Ross, MD, the Medical/Executive Director of ACSH, because he actually showed up in the comments, apparently wounded that I would point out that ACSH appears to have a very distinct pro-industry bias. Part of what Dr. Ross wrote is, I think, worth repeating because it shows exactly what I mean:

I and my colleagues at ACSH are gratified that Orac reads our Daily Dispatch so assiduously, and we appreciate constructive criticism. Using terms such as pro-industry, however, detracts and distracts from objective fact-based discussion. We are pro-science and pro-consumer–when “industry” falls short of scientific validity, we call them on it: cigarette makers, homeopathic “healers,” and “dietary nutritional supplement” marketers have been our targets, among others.

See what I mean? I was actually simultaneously amused and annoyed because a response like that is the height of disingenuousness. It’s also strikingly similar to a response I once got from Jeff Stier in an e-mail exchange. This striking similarity in Stier’s and Ross’ responses to the charge of being “pro-industry” suggests to me that it is an agreed-upon talking point for ACSH personnel to wield like a talisman against charges of being scientific apologists for the interests of large corporations. It’s also an insult to the intelligence of the average sea slug because Dr. Ross and Mr. Stier know damned well what is meant a charge of “pro-industry” bias. Hint: It’s not favoring homeopaths, most supplement manufacturers (although admittedly supplement manufacturing is being increasingly done by big pharma), or even the tobacco industry. True, criticizing the tobacco industry is one area where ACSH actually gets it right. On the other hand, of late I do notice that ACSH seems to be less than friendly to studies documenting the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, even saying that proponents of indoor smoking bans have “gone off the deep end.” Indeed, Michael Siegel (whom I’ve blogged about before) seems to be a favorite of the ACSH.

Be that as it may, the industries I meant when I said “pro-industry” are, of course, big pharma, pesticides, agribusiness, chemical, and the processed food industries, to name a few. And, of course, it’s a good thing when ACSH criticizes smoking, unscientific alt-med quackery, and the anti-vaccine movement. Unfortunately, when it coms to virtually any other scientific issue of environmental exposures as potential causes of disease or health problems other than smoking tobacco, why is it that ACSH nearly seems to come down on the side of one of the aforementioned industries, in particular the chemical, processed food, agribusiness, and pesticide industries? Moreover, while supporting vaccines and attacking alt-med quackery (as ACSH does) are certainly correct on a scientific basis, they also just so happen to be positions that align with the aforementioned industries. Coincidence? I don’t think so, at least not anymore.

It’s not as though I haven’t wanted to give ACSH the benefit of the doubt over the years. On the surface, ACSH talks the right talk. Sometimes it even appears to walk the right walk. Indeed, I even used to cite it fairly regularly early in my blogging career. However, over the last five years, I’ve become more and more disillusioned. Consider it a maturing of my skepticism. In the beginning, I cheered ACSH because I saw it criticizing quackery and medical pseudoscience, but as I became more experienced–sophisticated, if you will–and looked into it more I noticed the distinct bias. As a counterbalance, to see if my perception of bias might be incorrect or overblown, every so often I perused the ACSH website, looking for signs of ACSH bucking the aforementioned industries. I failed every time to find any evidence that would tend to falsify my hypothesis that ACSH is hopelessly pro-big industry. In fact, because of this suspicion, I decided to issue a little challenge to Dr. Ross after his response:

Of course, I’d be more than happy to be shown to be wrong about this assessment of ACSH, but having perused the ACSH website over the last couple of years I have yet to find an example of ACSH standing up to one of those industries. Perhaps Dr. Ross could educate me and provide a few examples of ACSH standing up to big pharma, big agriculture, or the chemical industry.

Dr. Ross’ response was most instructive:

Unlike the large nonprofits such as AHA ALA ACS etc., ACSH has repeatedly pointed out how the FDA-approved NRTs for smoking cessation are by and large ineffective, and have campaigned for close to a decade for science-based approval of smokeless tobacco and (more recently) e-cigarettes as cessation aids/harm reduction products. As you know, ACSH’s credibility in the area of cigarette dangers is unquestioned. Big Pharma generously supports those groups and they–not necessarily of course having anything to do with funding–ignore and mislead about the facts on harm reduction. As you will of course agree, the problem of helping 45 million addicted adult smokers (in the USA alone) quit is a most important issue, given the one-year success rate of patches, meds., etc come in at less than 20%. Unacceptable–yet the official websites collude with Pharm to promote these drugs and state, “smokeless tobacco is not a safe substitute for cigarettes.” Of course it’s not! Tobacco abstinence is preferable–but nicotine addicts will get their drug: via lethal cigarettes, or 99% SAFER (not “safe”) snus, if given truthful information. Also, when the American Chemistry Council bought into the “let’s target chemicals” mantra from the EPA, we noted how off-base scientifically they were when they caved to the political zeitgeist, “going along to get along.”

I’m not so sure that ACSH’s credibility with regard to tobacco is still “unquestioned”–at least not anymore, given its apparently increasing hostility to the concept that secondhand smoke is an environmental health hazard, even to the point of printing editorials by pro-smoker activists Michael J. McFadden and David W. Kuneman (whom I’ve discussed more than once right here on this very blog), the former of whom is know for running a particularly idiotic website called Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains. As for e-cigarettes, the science isn’t in yet, and personally I remain agnostic about whether they are useful for smoking cessation, as the evidence thus far is profoundly inconclusive. Given how much the ACSH claims to champion science, I find it rather odd that it seems to be so high on e-cigs. In any case, as I’ve seen pointed out before, the FDA tried to regulate e-cigarettes and was slapped down. Consequently, it would appear that e-cigarettes are not regulated by the FDA, which puts them in the same category as supplements and herbal remedies, as far as I’m concerned. As for smokeless tobacco, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be regulated every bit as much as cigarettes, given that it can cause some incredibly nasty oral cancers. Yet Dr. Ross is promoting these and castigating the pharmaceutical industry for promoting pharmacotherapy. Actually, Dr. Ross’ example says a lot; he appears to prefer the unregulated or weakly regulated (smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes) over the heavilty regulated (pharmacotherapies). His “attack” on the American Chemistry Council is telling, too. The ACSH actually criticized the public relations organization for the chemical industry for siding with the EPA regarding chemical exposures! Apparently the chemical industry briefly became too “green” for him, and the ACSH is more pro-chemical industry than the chemical industry itself!

Most amazingly, Dr. Ross also said this:

We haven’t “taken on” Agribusiness’ pesticides, Orac, because in truth there is simply no evidence that the approved use of ag. pesticides/herbicides is a cause of human disease at typical exposures. Do you have evidence to the contrary? I assume you don’t advocate buying organic produce to avoid those “dirty dozen” pesticide-laced fruits and veggies. I also assume you’d not want us to attack safe and useful products, whose evidence of toxicity is lacking, just to gain cred from chemophobic zealots. Lastly, please note that numerous academic experts in relevant fields have taken the PCP report to task.

Wow. Not a single bit of evidence that pesticides can cause human disease when used as approved? Really? No evidence at all?

Bullshit, Dr. Ross. I call bullshit. I’m sorry, but there’s just no other way to put it. As Mark Crislip snarked last week, it took me all of 55 seconds to find several studies and links. Here is but a sampling:

There were many more. Given that background, one can perhaps reasonably criticize the state of the evidence. One can argue that most of it is correlation, without strong evidence of causation. One can reasonably assert that some of the evidence is rather shaky. (To me, though, at least some of it is more concerning.) Regardless of whether Dr. Ross and I disagree on the strength of the evidence, it is risible in the extreme to claim with a straight face that there is no evidence whatsoever when there is evidence linking human disease to pesticide exposure, and in some cases it is evidence that clearly justifies more research. To say that there is “simply no evidence” that the use of pesticides can cause human disease at typical exposures is not only simply not true but it’s so wrong that it immediately knocks my assessment of Dr. Ross’ credibility down several notches just on the basis of the pure burning stupid of that statement alone. Finally, don’t forget to note Dr. Ross’ use of a term like “chemophobic zealots.” Remember, this is a man who takes incredible umbrage when his organization is referred to as “pro-industry.”

I guess my challenge will remain unanswered. Since Dr. Ross apparently couldn’t handle it, I perused the ACSH website again, as I haven’t looked at it in a while. Let’s see. There was criticism of the U.S. for “importing” the E.U.’s more restrictive chemical policies, a paean to a Cato Institute conference about the “war on carcinogens,” and an attack on a movie entitled Food, Inc.

Then there was this:

There she is, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, President and Founder of ACSH herself, going on and on about “chemophobia,” which she refers to as an “emotional, psychiatric problem.” What was that about Dr. Ross being upset when the ACSH was characterized as “pro-industry”? Talk about hypocrisy, particularly the part where ACSH claims to be respectful and not to engage in name-calling. Yet, here the leader of the ACSH is characterizing her ideological foes as having a psychiatric disorder (i.e., as mentally ill), while overstating the case by saying that the President’s Cancer Panel’s conclusions have “no basis whatsoever” in fact.

Give me a break.

Once again, I have to call bullshit. One can criticize the evidence in some cases as weak or just correlation without sufficient evidence of causation, but to say that there is “no evidence whatsoever” is thermonuclear burning stupid, far more akin to simplistic political talking points repeated ad nauseam by pundits like Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter than to anything scientific. I don’t know too many scientists who would say there is “no evidence whatsoever” for something like environmental effects on health. They might find the evidence unpersuasive, but they don’t deny that there is any evidence whatsoever. That’s pure propaganda, not science.

One thing Whelan said that I actually more or less agree with is that the mere finding of chemicals in the blood, urine, or other bodily fluids at low levels does not necessarily mean that there is a problem or that they are causing a health problem. However, the converse is also true. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t causing health problems. When enough strands of evidence are suggestive that these chemicals might be a problem and that there is a plausible biological mechanism for harm, it is entirely reasonable to to be concerned and urge more research, which is just what the PCP’s report did. In contrast, Dr. Whelan appears to be all about shutting down research. She’s also grossly exaggerating when she says that “all mainstream health organizations” have come out to say that the PCP report is “terribly distorted.” So far, all I’ve seen is the American Cancer Society doing that, and, as I pointed out yesterday, its criticism was actually fairly mild, with a surprising level of agreement between the ACS’s very own report on environmental influences on cancer released last fall and the PCP’s report.

One other thing I notice missing from the ACSH message. Notice how the ACSH concentrates virtually exclusively on chemicals, in fact bringing up BPA at every opportunity. There’s no mention of the alarm bells in the PCP report about the risk from cancer due to radiation used in medical imaging tests (which I myself have blogged about for mammography and CT scans), radiation and chemicals from military sources, and natural sources like radon gas. It seems rather odd that ACSH focuses like a laser beam on one part of the report, and that part is the part about pesticides used in agribusiness and industrial chemicals used in plastics manufacturing, like BPA. Why is this? One wonders, one does.

It’s clear that the ACSH has a message. Its message is that chemicals made by industry aren’t harmful, that they are just like natural chemicals (which is sort of true but also quite irrelevant), and that it’s a waste of time to study unknown interactions between environment and health because it “diverts attention” from known causes of cancer. Apparently Dr. Whelan thinks that scientists can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. After all, the two are not mutually exclusive. We can certainly concentrate on smoking and other known exposures that cause cancer while at the same time investigating the contribution of environmental exposure.

In the meantime, when it comes to the ACSH, I’ll stand up and take notice when I see it criticize big pharma for publishing fake journals or the chemical industry for something not related to tobacco. ACSH may be on the side of angels when it comes to, for example, vaccines, but that happens to be a position that is shared by the pharmaceutical industry. In other words, other than when it comes to the evils of tobacco, when the ACSH takes the right side of a position it appears to be mainly because for that issue the position of the relevant industry happens to be correct.