UNIVERSITY OF OTAGO AGAINST THE NATIONAL BUSINESS REVIEWThe University of Otago complained about what it said were misleading statements in a story in the September 20, 2002 issue of The National Business Review (NBR) headed “Statisticians say ads’ aims justify the lies.”
The Press Council has upheld the complaint.
The story referred to a report produced for the Ministry of Health by Professor Alistair Woodward of the Department of Public Health, Wellington School of Medicine, University of Otago and Dr Murray Laugesen of Health New Zealand, Auckland, “Deaths in New Zealand attributable to second hand cigarette smoke”.
There are three major parts to the complaint.
1. The Otago University deputy vice-chancellor Dr Ian O Smith said claims in the story by reporter Nick Smith that the report had been thoroughly debunked by colleagues were incorrect. Dr Smith said the statisticians quoted were dissatisfied with the way the results had been used in publicity campaigns but did not question the scientific quality of the original report, whereas the story cast doubt on the value of the research.
2. The complaint also said the story implied incorrectly that Professor Woodward and research fellow Dr Simon Hales supported false advertising. But they did not say “ads’ aims justify the lies” as stated in the headline, said Dr Smith.
3. The headline is derived from the story. But, Dr Smith complains, “Nick Smith inserted his own words in quoting Woodward and Hales’s letter to NBR (September 20) and completely changed the meaning. The letter said: ‘Sure, the exact number of deaths is uncertain, but that is not a good reason to do nothing.’ In Nick Smith’s story, this appeared as ‘[Criticising false advertising] is not a good reason to do nothing’.”
It is essential to outline the sequence of events here. In the issue of NBR the week before (September 13) there had been a story “Lobbies use flawed statistics to woo public” which set the scene. It claimed statistics from academic papers were being misused in public-good advertising, particularly relating to Ministry of Health and Ministry of Transport campaigns over deaths from smoking cigarettes and road accidents, respectively.
The September 13 story rather confusingly mixed up the health and transport issues, but various academics were quoted and in part had this to say (emphasis added):
‘Christchurch medical school associate professor of biostatistics Chris Frampton …said the advertising campaigns ignored the uncertainty inherent in statistical models based on observational studies. Smoking, passive smoking and pollution were bad for people but it was intellectual dishonesty to make claims about death rates of such magnitude with absolute certainty he said. Yet the public advertisements authoritatively state the death rates as fact.
Auckland medical statistician Patricia Metcalf said while the passive smoking report acknowledged its flaws, the advertising campaign was “not telling the truth.” She agreed the advertising campaign was an offence against intellectual honesty but said the health ministry report conceded it had made a number of assumptions when arriving at its annual death rate of 388.
Factors difficult to quantify- stress, poverty, diet, housing - were ignored or resulted in assumptions that were conjecture, Dr Metcalf said. “I don't think you can tell that [second-hand smoke kills 388 per year] from this,” she said
Massey University associate professor of statistics Steve Haslett said the passive smoking report “is useful but not definitive.” … the report had not been peer-reviewed and its own authors highlighted the many uncertainties contained in the findings…
.… Dr Metcalf : “It's got to do with the people in Wellington and how much importance they attach to these things, how much these people are campaigning for…”.’
There is a bullet-point by-line reference at the end. With a touch of bravado that suggests the writer is not a neutral party, it states “* Nick Smith is an unrepentant smoker.”
It is clear from this article itself that the authors of the report on deaths from second-hand smoke in New Zealand stated first that there were “many uncertainties associated with this calculation”, as the abstract of their paper says, and fellow academics acknowledged this, while deploring the way the paper’s conclusions were used in advertising.
It was in response to this article of September 13 that a letter from research fellow Simon Hales and Professor Alistair Woodward appeared in NBR, September 20, under the single-column banner Right of Reply. It is from this letter that the article complained about appears to have originated.
The letter defended the reports criticised in the September 13 story, and acknowledged that the figure of 400 deaths per year resulting from air pollution and slightly less than that number from second-hand smoke were “not precise estimates but they provide a reliable guide to the size of the problem.” The concluding sentence was “Sure, the exact number of deaths is uncertain, but that is not a good reason to do nothing, which seems to be what Mr Smith suggests.”
The editor was short, sharp and tardy in his defence of the article complained about (published eight months ago), disagreeing that there were factual errors or that an apology was required. Referring to both articles of September 13 and 20, and to subsequent letters, he said he felt the matter had been argued sufficiently and let (sic) it at that.
However, it is relevant that the further letters about the September 20 story published in the October 4 issue of NBR were corrective. One from the deputy-director general of the public health directorate, Dr Don Matheson, made it clear the Woodward-Laugesen report was peer-reviewed, contrary to the claim in the story.
He also wrote that the Ministry of Health which commissioned the report was satisfied that it did not have statistical errors and had not used an incorrect formula for population-attributable risk, both claimed by the September 20 story.
Ironically, it is from NBR's own reporting that the September 20 story is shown to be flawed. It is clear in the September 13 story the statisticians quoted are principally discussing, and responding to questions about, advertising uses of the Woodward-Laugesen report. The follow-up story fudges this.
Where the Woodward-Laugesen report is criticised by Dr Metcalf, it is as one academic advancing another viewpoint about a paper’s findings, a normal difference of opinion rather than a “debunking”.
Where square brackets conventionally introduce an exact reference which is not indicated or clear (typically a proper name where a pronoun may be ambiguous) in the September 20 story the phrase introduced – “Criticising false advertising” - is certainly not the original wording which occurred in that sentence – “Sure, the exact number of deaths is uncertain”. This is clearly inaccurate.
Equally the confusion in the September 20 story between the academic reports themselves and the advertising in which they are used contributes to the unhappy result. “Sure, the exact number of deaths is uncertain,” the pair say of the intellectually dishonest advertising, according to the NBR story. It is clear the pair (Woodward and Hales, in their letter, Sept 20) were actually referring to academic reports and their own research, not the advertising.
The egregious opening paragraph of the September 20 story compounds the issue. “Anti-smoking and pollution advertisements that promulgate lies or half-truths are acceptable, say statisticians who produced the data.” This is the opposite of what those quoted actually said. Nor were the statisticians who were quoted as criticising (not accepting) the advertisements the authors who produced the data.