Everyone sees this stuff gets promoted in mainstream media, they know it is fake, and it becomes impossible for people to trust anything. Even their own political side or field. People assume everyone is hyping results for attention if even their own side is.
Neither mouse studies nor epidemiology can show an effect in humans - you read that right - exploratory studies can only exclude effects.(1) But you'd never know that reading press releases. In this case a study of vaping in mice claims it has implications for human health, when it is nothing of the kind.(2)
The curse of Science by Helping Verb
Science media and anti-science activists both rely on what I call "Science by Helping Verb." If you remember your middle school English classes, those are things like "may", "might", "could" (if you donate $100 to Science 2.0 I will call you on the phone and recite over 20 of them for you, likely in under 6 seconds) and scientists use them to have an easy way out. Scientists don't like speaking in absolutes, they prefer an "on the other hand" option ready, and helping verbs do that.
Read also: Will Somebody Please Find Me A One-Handed Scientist??
Activists also love helping verbs because they can pounce on them; 'Should? Oh, so you are not sure that your weedkiller which your so-called science says only acts on a biological pathway in plants can't cause cancer in humans?!?!'
They use the precise language of science against science using modals.
There is a third group, people in trade groups or at universities, who want to get journalists to cover their work. They love helping verbs too, because they can "sell the sizzle, not the steak."
If "Our Stolen Future" is still invoked despite it being made up nonsense,(3) then use similar claims to get journalists interested.(4)
That is how we get studies in mice that claim in a press release title vaping "may" harm fertility in women even though the study itself had nothing to do with people. To give themselves an out they admit that in paragraph three, but not before telling us how huge the vaping epidemic is despite that fact the industry has less revenue than the gluten-free diet.(5)
In the actual study, mice were given nicotine vapor every day for about the mouse equivalent of 20 years. Well, days scientists were in the lab anyway. Mice babies had lower birth weight. Okay, that is data, and worth more exporation, but the scientists are not content with that.
They begin their paper conflating "tobacco" with smoking data, rightly noting that smoking during pregnancy is correlated to higher risk of developmental abnormalities. Yet it is not the nicotine that is the problem there, it is the 200 actual cancer-causing chemicals in cigarette smoke that cause poor health outcomes.
This seems like an odd thing not to understand, unless they choose to not understand it. It's like saying too much of any carbohydrates cause obesity-related illnesses when they mean too much added sugar. It's hard to take someone seriously if they made this mistake, and it's impossible to trust them if they conflated the two on purpose. In Sweden, for example, snus is a popular tobacco product, and Sweden has a fraction of the smoking-related deaths that Europe has due to cigarettes being more popular elsewhere. Yet Swedish women are in the top three for healthy baby outcomes in all of Europe.
Humans don't inhale 80 puffs from e-cigarettes per minute for 120 straight hours
If nicotine were the problem (in normal use, not exaggerated mouse studies) then there would be more bodies, or more birth defects, or something that we could see in Sweden after a century. Instead, their health issues are lower.
It was a problem in these mice for a simple reason - exposure. A mouse will live for around two years, which is why studies that go out that long are rare. Age is the biggest risk factor for a lot of disease which will confound results in them just as it would a 100-year-old human.
Let's say the mice would only live to a human equivalent 80 in those two years.
There is nothing wrong with this, you often want to accelerate dose, or use 5 orders of magnitude, to create what physicists call a boundary effect in the model. But they are suggesting human impact which means even if 2 mouse years is only 80 human years, these results are 40X for mice what they would be for humans. That means even if human and mouse biology were similar a human would have to be vaping for 120 hours straight. And then do it again every time the laboratory doors opened.
If people did that for 20 years it would be a scientific miracle not to have harm. But no one does that.
They predictably found that if nicotine vaping was used at human rights violation levels for decades, mothers took longer to get pregnant and babies were slightly smaller.
So, okay, if any teenage girls are determined to set a Guinness Book of World Records mark for most vaping in a single day for 20 years, know your risk of taking longer to conceive is higher.
But not in a meaningful way. P-values are fellow victims in the abuse that mouse models and epidemiology commit on science, we can't blame them. It's like blaming the gun if some sociopath with a mental health issue who adores Extinction Rebellion shoots up a place.
But I can even get a p-value=0.05 in proving coin flips will be heads yet they could only get .06.(6)
Despite this just being statistical wobble they still declare that nicotine vapor is probably an endocrine disruptor.
The seminal endocrine disruptor paper was not only retracted, it was scientific fraud
The new paper on vaping in mice is in the Journal of the Endocrine Society so you can imagine they make everything about the endocrine system. Scientists in the field probably enjoyed the attention of endocrine disruptor hype at first, but older scholars helped keep claims between the scientific lines - the key endocrine disruptor paper, published in Science ("Synergistic Activation of Estrogen Receptor with Combinations of Environmental Chemicals." Science 272:1489-1492 (June 7, 1996)), that set off the environmental fundraising craze was not only retracted after outcry from endocrinologists, its author was found to have committed scientific misconduct.
Environmentalists have still cited his retracted paper ever since, even though it contained no real data. It was all fabricated. The science community caught that. To-date, the non-monotonic dose response (a u-shaped curve - harm at trace levels and at high doses but not in-between) has never been found in a single compound, and yet activists will pay charlatans like Paul Fagan (he lies about his lab's credentials, which they don't mind) to find trace doses of chemicals so they can raise money scaring people about them.
But older scholars who are skeptical of environmental hype eventually retire. As we have seen with other claims that have an air of "truthiness", younger scholars get less skeptical over time. Rachel Carson is now accepted by young academics who have either never read her book or at least questioned her supernatural claims the way scientists did when "Silent Spring" was published. That BPA has been cleared of endocrine disruptor hype will not matter 20 years from now, once Conagra took it out of Manwich cans, young academics of the future will believe they must have been doing something wrong having it preventing food spoilage at all.(7)
Activists will persist in a way that scientists cannot. Arnold's endocrine disruptor paper, Seralini's GMO rats and cancer claims, and Wakefield's vaccines cause autism paper, are all invoked over and over by groups opposed to science despite being retracted for cause. Environmentalists simply wave the magic wand of Science Is A Vast Corporate Conspiracy(8) and phthalates is a scary sounding chemical name to the public anyway so people say 'better safe than sorry.'
If FDA outright bans e-cigarettes because of mouse studies, surveys, and epidemiological tricks, future scholars might believe it was valid. But the internet did not exist in the same meaningful way back then. It is harder to create "Livestock's Long Shadow" fabrications and have them stick now. Scientists can debunk them on Twitter now in a way that mainstream media did not in 1996.
Universities refuse to take responsibility for this because it is happening everywhere - but more often in their press releases
Scientists don't get a free pass on this. If they try to wave their hands and say they had nothing to do with these press releases, then they need to take ownership for how their reputations are being damaged.
In this press release, the corresponding author concedes it's in mice but also then states that vaping is not safer than cigarettes, which is in defiance of literally every health body in the world. Other scientists should be calling that out now the same way scientists called out endocrine disruption hype 30 years ago.
This is clearly done for attention and though universities hype results most often, trade groups, government agencies, and in this case the journal itself also puff up boring claims, NASA trots out that some statistical wobble an astronomer detected may have "implications for life on other planets" just about every other month.
So it would help if scientists put a stop to it before the press release goes out, rather than having to clean up cultural messes later.
But since this is a membership society for endocrinologists, maybe they are all for hype. It would mean they are a lot less valuable than they were 30 years ago, when they stood up to exaggeration and framing, but that may just be the way it is.
Science 2.0 receives no money from any tobacco or tobacco device company, nor any pharmaceutical company. I am simply against cigarettes and want consumers to have choices in how to either reduce harm or quit. And while I have never smoked cigarettes nor marijuana nor vaped nor drank a Red Bull or Jack Daniels, I argue that consenting adults should have choices in how they behave recreationally. And vaping is the least risky of all the products I just noted.
(1) However, enough epidemiology can create weight of evidence. We did not subject humans to double-blind clinical trials in smoking experiments for decades.
(2) This is not about defending vaping, I don't want kids vaping any more than I want them drinking Red Bull or eating McRibs but if an adult wants to quit smoking, the evidence is clear it's the best way to go. And if consenting adults consent to recreational use, I can't criticize them unless and until there is real evidence showing it is harmful. Not sloppy correlation like someone's homemade vape device blew up in their pocket or someone died so everything has to go.
(3) It certainly worked. Claims that a "chemical cocktail" do something magical that pesticides can't do alone are restated once per week on Facebook, despite no validity.
(4) Toxicologist Fred vom Saal made his career on seven mice for each of various doses of two chemicals. One was bisphenol A (BPA), which at the time of his claim had been used for decades to line cans safely with no difference in sperm counts in men.
(5) The CDC has taken hyperbole to such a level that if it doesn't data they get from states, I am skeptical of their claims and you should be also. Or else you can believe 500,000,000 Chinese people have a ticking "prediabetes" time bomb because of their A1C level while activists insist Chinese people are healthier because of acupuncture and herbs,
(6) It's been done. Do 61 coin flips 10 times in a row and you will get heads enough times that if that is the only data you want, you will have a p-value=0.05
(7) “The total hormonal activity of the synthetic modulators we receive from industrial activity is 40 million times lower than that from the natural components of foods we eat” - Texas A&M University toxocologist Stephen Safe back then.
(8) They assume because EPA banned DDT it must have been harmful but a politician overruled the science community to do that, and it is not banned worldwide because the science has never shown it.
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- It's Not The Nicotine: US Teens More Likely To Vape For Flavorings
- We Don't Have A Teen Vaping Crisis In The US
- Myth- Light Cigarettes Deliver Less Nicotine To The Brain Than Regular Cigarettes
- E-Cigarettes: Better Than Smoking But Still Have Risk