The “In” Thing To Do

Most parents have confronted their children’s insistence to do or to have something based upon the popularity of that something, but we would not expect such behavior from scientists.

Or should we?

In this era of bashing authors for having taken a shekel or two from industry to support their work, how are we to identify and evaluate other non-financial biases that afflict science.  Anti-industry zealots write as though money were the only error-inducing incentive at play in the scientific arena, but they are wrong.  In addition to vanity, egotism, grant-mania, prestige, academic advancement, scientists are subject to “group think”; they are prone to advancing scientific conclusions that are the “in thing” to espouse.  Call it herd-think, or Zeitgeist, or the occupational medicine mafia; error creeps in when scientists reach and defend conclusions because those conclusions are the “in” thing.

Finding examples and admissions of scientists falling into error to align themselves with popular voices on controversial issues is, however, not easy.  One of my favorites was reported in the context of the federal government’s predictions of the United States’ cancer toll expected from occupational use of asbestos.  In 1978, then Secretary of Health Education and Welfare, Joseph Califano, announced the results of a report, prepared by scientists at the National Cancer Institute, the NIEHS, and the NIOSH, which predicted that 17 percent of all future cancers would be caused by asbestos.  This prediction was based largely upon the work of Dr Irving Selikoff and colleagues, who studied heavily exposed asbestos insulators and factory workers.  Tom Reynolds, “Asbestos-Linked Cancer Rates Up Less Than Predicted,” 84 J. Nat’l Cancer Instit. 560, 560 (1984).

Within a few years of the report, the scientific community realized that it had been duped.  How did so many high-level governmental scientists fall into error?  Selikoff’s prestige was great.  (Califano’s speech occurred well before the scandal of Selikoff’s infamous seminar organized by plaintiffs’ lawyers to showcase plaintiffs’ expert witnesses for the “benefit” of key state and federal judges.  See Cathleen M. Devlin, “Disqualification of Federal Judges – Third Circuit Orders District Judge James McGirr Kelly to Disqualify Himself So As to Preserve ‘The Appearance of Justice’ Under 28 U.S.C. 455: In re School Asbestos Litigation (1992),” 38 Vill. L. Rev. 1219 (1993).)  Scientists, however, should be evidence-based people, and not make important public pronouncements, likely to generate widespread public fear and concern, on the basis of someone’s prestige.  There was more to this error than the charm and reputation of Irving Selikoff.

By the time of the Califano report, the misdeeds of Johns-Manville had become well known among the scientific community.  Little attention was paid to the role of the U.S. government in promoting the use of asbestos, and its failure to warn and to provide safe workplaces in its naval shipyards.  The imbalance in reporting led scientists to enjoy a “feel good” attitude about reaching conclusions that exaggerated and distorted the scientific data to the detriment of the so-called “asbestos industry.”  In 1984, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported the phenomenon as follows:

“Enterline [an epidemiologist who published several studies on asbestos factory workers and who interviewed for the story] said the government’s exaggeration of the asbestos danger reflects a 1970s’ Zeitgeist that developed partly in response to revelations of industry misdeeds.

‘It was sort of the “in” thing to exaggerate … [because] that would be good for the environmental movement,’ he said. ‘At the time it looked like you were wearing a white hat if you made these wild estimates.  But I wasn’t sure whoever did that was doing all that much good’.”

Tom Reynolds, supra at 562.  The “in” thing to exaggerate; who would have thought scientists ever did that, much less acknowledge it.  The Califano report caught its scientist authors red handed, and there was not much they could do about it.  The report’s predictions were debunked by leading scientists, and the report’s authors confessed to having tortured the data.  R. Doll & R. Peto, “The causes of cancer: quantitative estimates of avoidable risks of cancer in the United States today, 66 J. Nat’l Cancer Instit. 1191 – 308 (1981). 

What is memorable about the incident is that the report was motivated by the desire to “wear a white hat,” not by lucre.  The lesson is that the current focus on “conflicts of interest” is little better than an excuse for ad hominem attacks, and that everyone would be better off if the focus were on the evidence.

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