The faculty at UCLA School of Public Health apparently voted to fire Prof. James Enstrom. I am not quite sure what the full story is yet, but those writing about it seem to think it is enforceable (however, I can tell you from experience that there are people who think they can subvert academic freedom and fire a faculty member because they do not like what he writes, but discover they actually cannot).
The claim is that Enstrom’s work was unsound, which I can assure you is not the case. Besides, anyone who pays attention can see that doing the worst imaginable junk science will not get you fired from a school of public health. This was obviously political. Enstrom’s recent foray into controversy had to do with outdoor air pollution, mostly associated with diesel engines (read the above link – it is quite a story). It seems unlikely, however, that anti-diesel people have the combination of firepower, egocentrism, and lack of ethics to bring about the firing of a senior academic researcher. While they undoubtedly played a part, I have to assume that this was substantially the long-sought revenge of the anti-tobacco extremists for him daring to publish good research that suggests that any health effects of second-hand smoke are trivial. He and I have both written about how his story epitomizes the anti-scientific attitude of the anti-tobacco movement and of public health researchers more generally. Universities and real academic departments consistently stand up for academic freedom and free scientific inquiry, and favor good research over bad, but public health programs have generally descended – in scientific quality and ethics – to the point where they might as well be the “health promotion” people at county health departments, or Mad Men.
One result of this action, I predict, is that it will become impossible to keep up the narrative that Republicans or the right in America are the ones at war with good science. Whatever you might believe about that generalization’s accuracy (it certainly never applied to public health where the junk science tends to come from the left), it is likely to be replaced by the story that, “under Obama, professors who dare challenge the liberal propaganda get fired”. I assume that enough Chamber of Commerce types follow Enstrom’s work that they will not overlook this event or its symbolic importance. It would be quite interesting to see UCLA or schools of public health in general get the full Fox News treatment.
I will follow the story, try to talk to Jim, and update this post.
Update (17 Aug – morning): The original ACSH email that broke this news (i.e., that went international the Bakersfield newspaper article linked above) now has a URL. Ben linked to it in his comment, but here it is again. Also, Chris Snowdon goes into more detail about why the information reported in the Bakersfield article is rather a smoking gun about this being more about the tobacco research than Enstrom’s current controversies. I will be talking to Enstrom as soon as it is morning in California. I will report more if I learn anything I can repeat.
Update (17 Aug – afternoon) A new article appeared in the Sacramento newspaper which does not even mention Enstrom’s previous work on tobacco. It attributes the vendetta against him entirely to him having a non-politically-correct position on diesel exhaust alone. This does not mean that is necessarily right, of course — note that Beate Ritz, the only one involved in the proceedings against Enstrom who did not refuse to offer any explanation, cited only the tobacco research. But it still might mean that I am wrong and California is so far gone down the anti-science road that scientific opinions that in multiple areas (not just tobacco and the usual hot-buttons), including the relative arcane study of particulate matter pollution, disagreeing with the political power will arouse censorship attacks.
Regarding Prof. Ritz, Enstrom mentioned that she is the one person involved with the purge who has the skills and potential for objectivity to weigh in on the research. I am attempting to reach her for comment through my own connections. She refused to respond to Enstrom directly and he asked me what I could find out. Unfortunately, as Geoffrey Kabat forcefully noted (scroll down) in a comment on the Bakersfield article, she apparently did not attempt to play that role. I will report her comments or her refusal to talk.
As for my conversation with Jim, he was not ready to go on the record with much information yet. But given the questions he asked me about my experience, it is pretty clear that this was every bit the blindside that some of the comments about it portrayed. He did not know this was coming and has literally a matter of days to figure out how to appeal it. He mentioned the connections to the usual suspects in tobacco (Glantz, ACS), but was more interested in discussing the context of his recent work, which seems to have a similar collection of dishonest actors. He offered the phrase “total hypocrites and just plain bad scientists” (this was generic about the type of people he is dealing with — he was not referring to anyone specifically).
He noted, in particular, the experience of the small and medium businesses (in transport, construction, etc.), getting slammed with these new health regulations — based on debatable science — and having no idea what to do. There are reports of the guys who run these firms just despairing and confused, trying to deal with the situation. My take on this is that even if the science were indisputable, this is clearly a horrible regulatory process, that disregards all the basic principles of ethics, transparency, due process, and incrementalism. The targets of the diesel regulations are not big pharma companies or some other entities that are used to dealing with arbitrary regulatory decisions and adjusting to them (and fighting them effectively if so desired). If there were a viable transition strategy in place, one that did not just heap the costs onto existing businesses and drive business to other jurisdictions, and the costs of transition were thus fully recognized, I have a feeling that genuine doubts about the science would be taken much more seriously. This seems to be a classic case of deciding that the way people have been doing things for decades is wrong, and thus any suffering they experience as a result of changing the rules should be counted as just dessert, a benefit of holy vengeance, not the real cost that it is.
Enstrom noted to me that he has been forced to sacrifice doing new epidemiologic research in order to be a watchdog for good government. Since good epidemiology gets ignored when it gets the “wrong” result, this is probably an efficient choice, and an impressively altruistic one, though the repercussions are pretty awful.
Update (18 Aug – very early a.m.) I exchanged messages with Beate Ritz through a mutual friend. She declined my invitation to correct or clarify anything she was quoted as saying, or to explain to the world or to Enstrom what she knows of what happened. I get the impression that she did not actually play any substantive role in this matter and wants her association with it to just go away. She is not in the same department (i.e., was not part of the vote) and does not play any role in the decision making. However, if it is really the case that she was not asked to weigh in it would mean that members of the faculty who (like her and just a few others) were best qualified to assess the substance of Enstrom’s work that was supposedly the basis for the attack were not asked to do so.
Chris Snowdon put a face to the irony of the claim that the basis for censoring Enstrom was that he drew conclusions beyond the results of his research. I notice that he, like I, could not really find words to follow that claim. Sometimes actually adding a punchline to a joke simply cannot be as funny as leaving the set-up hanging.
On a more serious note, I wonder if U.S. whistle-blower protection laws cover this matter. Enstrom clearly blew the whistle on some serious ethics violations by one arm of the state of California, and his employer is another arm of the state. And then, there is that whole free speech thing. I cannot begin to guess what the law actually says about such matters, but it would be interesting to find out what federal authority over the states (laws created to try to protect black people from oppression by racist local governments) might apply here.
Update (18 Aug – afternoon) To fully understand the ironic (to put it kindly) ramifications of how the firing was justified, and some of the politics of the California air pollution authorities, be sure to read Mike Siegel’s analysis.
A new newspaper article reports that 22 members of California’s legislature have written a letter demanding an accounting by UCLA officials.
There is a rumor (I cannot confirm) that the story has been picked up on national talk radio. Perhaps Fox News is indeed right around the corner.
(22 Aug) I have now continued this analysis here.