A new paper tries to "suggest" that a silent killer may be among us - particulate matter so tiny you need an electron microscope to detect it, left behind on furniture by smokers who sat there at some point in the past. Even movie theater seats. And then vapers may be doing the same thing, with nicotine.

This particulate matter, inference goes, jumps from their bodies onto seats, where it waits for you to perch, then leaps onto your body, worms its way through your skin, enters your organs, bioaccumulates, and causes cancer.

Of course, it's all epidemiological nonsense with no plausible biological mechanism, about as scientific as osteopath Joe Mercola claiming his supplements will prevent coronavirus. It uses terms like "suggests" and phrases such as "linked to" to create a veil of scientific legitimacy, but that is like saying a math paper in arXiv claiming time travel is possible is the same as particle physics.

At a time when we are told to trust disease epidemiologists, others in epidemiology are producing rubbish about miracle foods (diet X linked to longevity!) and chemicals (Chemical Y linked to cancer!) so it has to be difficult for the public to know what to trust.

AAAS is doing its part to make sure that confusion remains. 

AAAS is an increasingly stodgy, conservative (in the sense of cultural progress, not political, if any Republicans work there they don't admit it) nonprofit drifting downward. Instead of being a neutral force for public good, they are lurching farther out of the mainstream. Scientific American also had this plight. They see that and so their new Editor-In-Chief, while overtly east coast progressive, at least cares about reaching all people regardless of political party. Canceling blogs that were increasingly batty, more social justice anti-science activism than what should be in a publication with Scientific in the name, was a step in the right direction. 

AAAS is doing the opposite. It increasingly wants to gain a larger share of one narrow demographic. But that demographic - journalists who will cover any new 'study' that is anti-chemical or pro-supplement because that is what their subscribers want to read - don't represent America. Especially not now, when *gasp* chemicals are flying off store shelves as people realize that the all natural organic certified holistic shade tree grown alternatives to science don't work. Clorox and Lysol do

The AAAS Eurekalert service is a profit center for their company, it lets anyone who wants to send out a press release pay a fee and they send it out in their newsfeed. Some journalists even confuse the press releases with actual studies and use them as sources, which is probably touted as a selling feature. The money is in sending out content for others, not their own, which has a separate mailing list for articles, but on occasion they give themselves a freebie. 

Someone figured that this thirdhand smoke business was attention-worthy enough for their allied journalists that this merited a separate release.(1)

Obviously smoking is bad, it kills people. This is long established. I need to clarify that because when the cartoon characters pretending to be journalists at New York University Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute get a chance to undermine the arm of science media that isn't attacking scientists, they do it, so I don't want them quote-mining this to claim I am for cigarettes when my whole career has opposed smoking. But third-hand smoke lacks even the logical foundation - it's still smoke - that made secondhand smoke worth studying, yet found no deaths.(2) Which means it is simply ridiculous belief in particulate homeopathy.

Sure, PM2.5 is used by weatherpeople in California who want to create concern about air quality in the world's cleanest air, it hasn't ever harmed anyone. The only basis they use is that real smoke, or smog, will always contain small micron particulate matter too, but it's only logical in that 'all cows are animals therefore all animals are cows' way - it's bad logic.

The paper then engages in the "Decades of research have demonstrated" inference repeating other statistical claims about Volatile Organic Compounds but, just like with small micron particulate matter, it waves away common sense by ignoring dose. Such as claiming that the presence of formaldehyde, listed as one of the worrisome Volatile Organic Compounds they could detect, means pathology is probably occurring. Yet they are unable to show anything of the kind, nor do what want to - it is much easier just to write a paper claiming a link without doing any science. Formaldehyde is naturally occurring and the levels they detected are not harmful, it's only harmful at high doses - in Korea they even use it in beverages. As in all things, the dose makes the poison. And yet they bastardize the language of science, such as 'there is no known safe level to mean any trace is harmful. That is not what 'no known safe level means', it simply means that with variance in biology some people will get harm at certain levels but there is no clear line for what that level is.

That is the opposite of scientific critical thinking.

It is simple scaremongering, as is using "pollutants from tobacco smoke remains a health hazard, especially for infants and children" when instead of smoke they mean particulate matter and trace chemicals at minute levels that can't be harmful. They insist third-hand smoke particulate matter "has been identified as part of this health threat" without sourcing that at all.

What's next? Just as the smoking cessation community will predict; third-hand vaping particulate matter - "we identify thirdhand vaping as a key area for future research."

AAAS, you are in business to make money, so I understand why you will take anyone's money for a press release and wash your hands of any scientific responsibility. But you didn't do that here, this is under your brand despite the Yale epidemiologist behind the study.

You can do better. You need to do better. Change is happening, and when you lose the trust of the public, it will take a long time to get it back.


(1) This is different than their other releases, which are paid for by universities or other companies. Like this one from today, which says Binghamton. Why is AAAS promoting a paper and then listing Yale as the media contact?

Weirdly, their stock disclaimer still says that AAAS is not responsible for the content in an AAAS press release.

(2) In claims that it causes cancer the same way smoking does. Obviously it causes respiratory problems for people at risk the same way strong perfume or coronavirus is going to be riskier for people with preexisting conditions. It's why I always thought "non-smoking sections" in restaurants were ridiculous, but opposed outright bans and argued OSHA should create a ventilation standard rather than driving bars without patios out of business. The comprehensive study (39 years) showed no one had died due to second-hand smoke. I know science is uncomfortable when it reaches conclusions we don't like but picking and choosing which solid papers to accept or deny is the hallmark of activism, not reason. Though the authors of the definitive work on second-hand smoke were pilloried by activists, that was because after the Master Settlement fines related to the harms of smoking, they turned to all smoke, and then to nicotine, as a way to create new lawsuits. That is fine for lawyers, but not what science should be doing.