Professor Simon Chapman was kind enough to reply to my post yesterday, in the interests of balance here is a more prominent place for it.
“You clowns are such amazing researchers. So you’ve “discovered” this, eh! Only 14 years after it was published in the Canberra Times on April 21, 1997. Here’s my letter that was published the next day.
Alan Gale’s report and your headline (“Passive smoking results were doctored, documents say” (CT April 21) defames all the members of the NH&MRC’s working party in its claim that we
“massaged” research results and deleted those “which did not suit recommendations”. The ordinary reader, and especially our colleagues in public health research throughout Australia and internationally would be highly likely to form the view that we were scientifically dishonest and engaged in deceptive practices that should bring us into gross disrepute within our
Gale bases his claims on a fax I sent to other members of the group in 1995 where I raised two concerns about an early working draft chapter. First, I argued that “fractional” annual deaths (ie: death rates of less than one per age band) would prove difficult for journalists and the public to understand. When Gale interviewed me for the article, I put to him the simplest of questions that sought to test his ability as a journalist to decipher what “0.5″ deaths per annum meant. His struggled reply was incomplete, thus demonstrating my point. There are many perfectly correct ways of expressing the same data in more comprehensible forms, and my fax urged nothing more than that we should realise that the table would cause unnecessary confusion. I subsequently argued in the committee that we should recast the data in a more
understandable way (for example one death every 9 months).
His claim that this means we then “doctored” the data is grossly offensive, damaging to our reputations as researchers and wrong, as the publication of the final report will reveal. It
is standard procedure for all draft papers to undergo changes and editing. Often these are to improve clarity.
Second, I pointed out that our very conservative methodology estimated there to be some 93 annual deaths from ischaemic heart disease caused by passive smoking in Australia, whereas
a recent American estimate put the US figure at 62,000. Since then the US Environmental Protection Agency has published an 8 volume report (http://www.calepa.calnet.gov/) showing some 65,000 deaths. I advised the committee — correctly — that our report would be therefore “out of step with every international review’s conclusion on this subject”. Without offering a shred of evidence, Gale then implies that the committee somehow as a consequence of this then “deleted” or “doctored” material. In fact, the final report includes the same very conservative estimates which resulted from our only considering domestic (spousal) exposure data in people who have never smoked. We did not factor in workplace exposures, nor deaths among ex-smokers.
My fax rehearsed the sort of questions that we were likely to get from those who were familiar with the much higher US mortality estimates. If we had really wanted to “massage results to suit recommendations” why then would we have persisted in using our ultra-conservative methodology which was guaranteed to produce low estimates of deaths?
Significantly, Gale’s article was run in the week that two private member’s bills on passive smoking are due to be debated in the NSW parliament. The Canberra Times should know
I’m sorry if my posting on this list has caused any of you too much excitement. Just have a lie down. It should pass.