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No. 711:
Drug Pusher

Today, the law takes on the scientific method. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I watched my parents die of smoking. They were spared cancer. Instead, they died lingering deaths in old age as their lungs and circulatory systems broke down.

That's why I read Marcia Barinaga's Science magazine account of a recent court case with rising anger. It all began when the R.J. Reynolds company introduced "Old Joe Camel" in its cigarette ads. Several studies have shown that children and teenagers respond to that cuddly camel.

Then, in California, the R.J. Reynolds company distributed mugs and T-shirts with Old Joe on them. But they left off the Surgeon General's warning. For that they were haled into court.

The lawsuit against Reynolds used those studies of children to prove the warning should go with the symbol. So Reynolds went after the people who'd made the studies. They demanded access to their files. Finally, a Massachusetts appeals court upheld Reynolds's claim on the files of one Dr. Joseph DiFranza.

That was bad news for the scientific community. Our research files are thorough records of what we've done. We record our hunches and our untested hypotheses. We leave a trail of our own thoughts. We write down our mistakes and their corrections.

Well-kept files are very personal. The published paper contains only what remains -- only what we're sure of. That paper should be verifiable by anyone who wants to rerun the study.

So far, DiFranza has managed to protect the names of the children he interviewed. But, according to Science magazine, R.J. Reynolds might be after those names as well.

In the files, Reynolds found notes of DiFranza's hypothesis that Old Joe Camel makes an impression on children. Some results in the file didn't support the hypothesis. Those were results DiFranza dropped since they weren't statistically significant.

Next, Reynolds gave DiFranza's files to a friendly newpaper. The paper was very accommodating. "Study on Old Joe Ads May be Flawed," ran the headlines. DiFranza answered with cool reason.

Every scientist is biased toward his own hypothesis. That's why we have to design studies [that] counter that.

The appeals judge who found against DiFranza explained himself. He clearly felt badly about having let Old Joe Camel into the research files. The California case, he said, let the Reynolds company "get its nose under the tent."

Why didn't J.R. Reynolds simply rerun DiFranza's study? It would've cost far less than all those lawsuits. Reynolds spokesman Peggy Carter puts on a perfectly straight face and says:

... we don't do research on anyone under 18 ... because they can't legally purchase the product.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way all kinds of inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Barinaga, M., Who Controls a Researcher's Files? Science, Vol. 256, 19 June 1992, pp. 1620-1621.

I'm indebted to Miles Smith for several forms of useful advice on this episode.

For more on tobacco, see Episodes 10751182, and 1194, and for still more use the SEARCH function.