28 March 2012

How can you tell Simon Chapman is mucking about over his head?

March is coming to an end, and since this seems to be unofficial "make Simon Chapman regret his habit of saying really dumb things on Twitter" month, I figure I am running out of time to join the party.  It started out with blogs about some of Chapman's tweets, with an absolutely hilarious post by Chris Snowdon, followed by Dick Puddlecote a week later.  Meanwhile, Dave Atherton presented him with a barrage of direct tweets asking Chapman to defend some of his positions in the face of the evidence (Chapman offered no response, as far as I can tell, and I would guess had none).

For those who do not know, Chapman is the Worst "Public Health" Person In The World.  (Like Olbermann, I reserve the right to pick different "Worst Persons" later, but I find it likely that others will remain runners up.)  You can learn a lot more by searching for his name in Snowdon's blog, or mine, but to summarize:  He is the perfect storm of a card-carrying "public health" person who is harmful to both public health science and the public's health:  terrible at scientific/analytic reasoning, and freely promotes junk science; believes that top-down authority, particularly promoting prohibition, is the defining characteristic of public health; will make any sciencey claim that seems to support his political positions, regardless of the lack of scientific support; displays no apparent humanitarian concern despite working in a field that can only be justified by such; is the worst kind of gadfly (parachuting in to topic areas he clearly knows nothing about and making sweeping declarations as if he is an expert); and does not even seem to display much more scientific expertise on tobacco, the subject he has been working on for decades.

None of that would matter much (there are tens of thousands of teenage bloggers who are characterized by all but the last of those, after all, and some write much worse things than Chapman), but for his last characteristic:  He has been granted an inexplicable measure of authority over public health in his country.  Fortunately for 99.5% of us, that country is Australia, but we should worry about people even when they are a minority living in some remote shark-infested flooded desert.  Besides, there is the matter of the spillover via telecom.

[Aside:  I suspect some readers might be thinking, "Worst? But what about Stanton Glantz, who occupies a fairly similar niche and makes even more absurd pseudo-scientific claims."  I see your point, but I have become convinced that Glantz is actually an extended "bit", like Stephen Colbert -- someone playing a character by the same name that is a parody of an absurd group of people.  I mean, seriously, no one could actually believe what he claims to believe and be able to get through the day without some sort of custodial care.  Like Colbert, he has been asked to give sworn testimony while acting in character, and has some clueless followers who believe that the character is actually a real person making those claims.  So "Glantz" is not really in the running unless I turn out to be wrong about this.  Moreover, Chapman claims personal credit (i.e., blame) for the ban on low-risk alternatives to smoking in his country, making him the person responsible for the most pointless deaths of his countrymen since the guy who ordered the army to Gallipoli, and Glantz is never going to be able to touch that "accomplishment".]

Getting back to Chapman, I do not have quite the writes-itself quality material that Snowdon did (if you have not read his post, do so -- it is great) and I doubt I can come up with a phrase as catchy as Puddlecote's "Swivel-Eyed Loon", so the following (pictured) is what I have.  It is from just before "make Simon Chapman...month" began, and I have not experienced any cyberstalking from him since then, so maybe the project has already succeeded.  Still, I want to get in on it.

The background is that my government, specifically U.S. FDA's new tobacco regulation unit, has a badly misused Twitter feed.  Keep in mind that this unit of the government is not some third-rate "public education" operation at a county health department.  It has no mandate or expertise to engage in general public education.  Its role is entirely to regulate corporations, making supposedly science-based decisions and issuing top-down edicts.  Despite this, about 20% of its tweets from @FDATobacco are inane anti-tobacco statements, whose style suggests they are intended to target the many fifth-graders who are reading the feed.  (The latest one, at the time I am writing this, is "True or False: Every day, approximately 1,000 youth under age 18 become daily smokers."  That is the full content, down to lack of a question mark and the apparent failure to understand that such a statistic only makes sense if you tell us what population you are talking about.)

About 70% of the traffic from @FDATobacco seems to be thanking others by name for following the feed or for retweeting (funny, they have never once thanked me for any of my retweets -- it might have something to do with the fact that I usually add some analysis).  That leaves maybe 10% that is the actual legitimate activities of this taxpayer funded official government communications channel from an agency that regulates commerce, telling us about what is going on that relates to the intersection of FDA and tobacco.

By far the biggest story of this year in that intersection was the court ruling that blocked FDA's plans to put emotionally violent gory images (often mischaracterized as "warning labels") on cigarettes.  Funny thing: @FDATobacco completely ignored the story, while continuing to post the wastes of space I noted above.  I am fairly certain that most of my readers recognized the intention of my post: biting sarcasm about how completely inappropriate the FDA Twitter feed is.  I hope the subtext was clear, that our government's official communication channels should not be acting as a cheerleader for a particular political position, intentionally ignoring the important news that the government's ultimate authority in the matter has taken an opposing position.  When the agency's efforts fail, it should be reported by the agency; if whoever writes @FDATobacco does not like that, s/he should leave government and get a job in advertising.

So, let's look at the tweet that Chapman sent in reply.  Start with the last line.  I am not sure exactly what "your descent" means.  Tweets are necessarily terse, but he had some slack to explain with a few more words, so I suspect he did not really know either.  Perhaps he is pointing out that my first foray of any significance into the scientific field that he claims expertise in, epidemiology, won several awards and helped redefine the discussion among the real scientists in field about how epidemiology should be done and what is fundamentally wrong with it.  The next topic I pursued was an even more important problem in the field, in my mind, though it did not generate much buzz.  So, most of the directions I could go after my debut were indeed down.  I would be the first to agree that after 13 years, and efforts by me and others, what I tried to promote with that work is still an unfulfilled promise, and epidemiology has not improved.  And I have given up on pursuing improvement from within.

Perhaps that was what he was trying to say.  But I kinda doubt it, given that he is not part of the scientific branch of the field, did not contribute to the attempted revolution I was part of, and seems to be thoroughly ensconced in the "part of the problem" side.

So what did he mean?  Did he think my criticizing the FDA was a descent?  That seems like a strange claim, since the aforementioned debut paper used as its main example an indefensible FDA decision.  Could it be the fact that I am criticizing someone?  Part of the reason epidemiology is so bad is because the non-scientists in the field have an attitude that you should never criticize anyone's work (I am not kidding).  But I have never hesitated to criticize, coming from a scientific background, so there is no trend.

It is unclear, but my best guess is that the claim reflects Chapman's activist zealot mentality, which often manifests in assuming that people in "your" group must agree with you on everything, and refusing to consider that they might have a good reason for not doing so upon finding out otherwise.  In this context, I speculate, he incorrectly assumed, when he followed my early contributions, that I agreed with him on everything, such as favoring emotionally violent labels on cigarettes.  But he interpreted this tweet as being a declaration that I now disagree with his goals, which is the zealot's only basis for judging someone.  Thus, descent.

That takes us to his first sentence.  Setting aside the very incorrect implication that we are on a first-name basis, consider the claim.  I sounded happy?  I am not sure it is possible to sound happy in 140 characters without using words that explicitly declare happiness.  Surely if I had just posted the "Judge blocks..." headline, there would be no basis for a claim about sounding happy.  So it must come from the "Hey @FDATobacco...." part.  But, of course, what I expressed there was my dis-happiness with the high school intern or secretary who controls the @FDATobacco feed (I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the problem is that the agency is simply not taking it seriously), for their abuse of government authority.

Chapman's misinterpretation of that is a perfect example of what makes him such a bad excuse for a scientist, and not because he misinterpreted (though I am still really not sure how that "you forgot" construction could be interpreted as happiness).

A scientist/scholar would have read and understood the actual analyses of opponents of his position, particularly people he presumes to pick fights with, rather than just their feeds.  Had he done so, he would surely have been aware that I have repeatedly argued that those graphic labels are bad public policy for numerous substantive reasons.  The last of the above links is to the testimony I offered about FDA's plans which made the same core arguments used in the judge's ruling.  Indeed, some of the phrasing in the ruling is so familiar that I suspect that one of the judge's clerks must have read that or something else I wrote and used some of it in drafting the ruling, which is gratifying.

Thus, my tweet could convey no information about my happiness about the ruling, because anyone familiar with my work would already know I was happy about it.  It was a defense of freedom of speech, a repudiation of pseudo-science, and a push-back against perverse "public health" measures that are designed to harm people who are choosing to do something unhealthy rather than to help them.  Chapman's behavior suggests that he does not care about any of these, but before he presumes to criticize me, he ought to be aware that I do.

Moreover, even allowing for his failure to understand the sarcasm I was conveying to/about the author of @FDATobacco, someone who thinks scientifically would have automatically wondered about the meaning.  There are plenty of ways to express happiness, and I employed none of them.  But apparently it never occurred to him (like it automatically would to someone who thinks scientifically), "wait a minute; my immediate impression of this does not add up; there is something I am not understanding."  Leaping to the conclusion that I was expressing happiness might be another result of his activist mentality:  If everything is measured only in terms of whether it is good for The Cause or bad, and there are no complications other concerns in the world, then someone must either be expressing happiness or sadness about a policy decision.  Of course, if I had more data, I could perhaps do better, and might well figure out that my guess is wrong.

I wonder if Chapman has ever expressed that last thought.

I am tempted to say something about watching Chapman's descent, but I think perhaps he has acted this way since I first became aware of him, and I just did not notice it at first.  A big difference is that he has gained power, and thus his folly is clearer.  And really terribly harmful.  I do not mean some abstract point about his behavior harming the science itself (though it does) or parochial point about his content-free personal attacks on people who are doing good science that he does not like; I refer to harm to the welfare of lots of people.

Oh, and of course the answer to the question in the title is the internet-age variation on the old canard about how you know a politician is lying:  "His fingers are moving."


  1. It seems possible you could be under the misapprehension that your Twitter correspondent is capable of logical thought processes. Or, any mental process classifiable as 'thought'. This seems a painful and ultimately fruitless approach. I prescribe a dose of uplifting and rewarding therapy such as an episode of American Idol or Ugly Betty, all far more relevant to life today than the crooked* rantings of a second-rate government agency seat-filler. Oh yes, Alcatraz looks promising as well.
    * Crooked in terms of logic, of course.

    Let's not worry too much about the proclamations of minor bureaucrats and anti-qualified advisors. They may well be responsible for needless deaths but surely they are pragmatists: they know the population is too large anyway, and the deceased paid handsomely for the privilege. This, surely, is the consumer's right.

    Save the saveable - other approaches lead to madness; or a job on a government agency. Same thing really.


  2. Also, Australia is more than just sharks. You forgot to mention all the venomous creatures that seem to inhabit that country :)

    Now I'm going to get hate mail from my friends Down Under.


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