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Society for Epidemiologic Research (SER) Presidential Addresses

SER Presidential Address Stresses Key Role of Criticism

“T here is never any good justification for restricting scientific criticism,” warned outgoing SER president Kenneth Rothman in his address at the society’s recent meeting in Chapel Hill. Dr. Rothman sounded this warning because the SER and other organizations of epidemiologists have been asked to consider adoption of a code of ethical conduct to help prevent alleged abuses by epidemiologists engaging in review or criticism of epidemiologic work. Letters and articles on the topic have also appeared in the Epi Monitor over the last few months. According to Dr. Rothman, “...a call for ethical conduct may be a coded call for a stifling of criticism.”

Value of Criticism

Dr. Rothman’s views on the subject appear to stem from his underlying conviction that progress in science depends entirely on successful communication, and that criticism plays a central role in such communication. Using an analogy, he noted that “like DNA, scientific communication consists of two complementary strands, the reporting of results and criticism. Criticism is essential to scientific progress. It serves as a touchstone for separating scientific ideas that should be discarded from those that are good enough to serve us a while longer... The central role of criticism in scientific communication demands of scientists that they both accept and give criticism responsibly. Accepting criticism responsibly requires that we take it for its substantive value, and not as an assault on one’s intelligence or judgement. It requires that we distinguish the substance of criticism from whatever we might imagine to be the motives, characteristics, background, or agenda of the critic. Scientific criticism should always be offered in the same spirit, as a substantive issue and never as a personal attack or to further preferred social or policy positions.”

Ethical Code

In referring to the proposal to formulate a code of ethical conduct, Dr. Rothman noted that such a code would presumably proscribe as unethical any criticism in which the motive of the critic or the sponsors of the criticism were questionable. He stated that “it is particularly inappropriate to attempt to stem criticism based upon a presumption of the motives of the critic... whatever the motive of a critic, if the criticism is valid it should be addressed.”

Rothman concluded by noting that “the process of conjecture and refutation, which is Karl Popper’s description of how science proceeds, governs a natural ethic for scientists (BMJ December 24 - 31, 1983)... and forms the ethical code that applies for epidemiologists and other scientists. My worry is that the call that we have heard for a new code of ethics runs counter to these principles, and is itself therefore unethical. Any code that requires of a criticism a merit badge of proper motivation before it be allowed to surface is anti-scientific.”

Published July 1985 

Postscript  2000

            These remarks, which suggested that we focus on the substance of criticism and not the motives of the critic, were made before political correctness had become a major social force. Looking back, it appears that I need not have worried so much that epidemiologic criticism would be muted. Fortunately most epidemiologists have the courage and independence to speak their minds on the issues that interest them.  Nevertheless, the stifling of opinion did become a problem. Notably, the New England Journal of Medicine has enforced a punitive conflict-of-interest policy that includes blacklisting some authors on certain topics. Their policy has scarred innocent victims (for example, see Manson JE: Adventures in scientific discourse. Epidemiology 1997;8:324-327 and Rothman KJ, Cann CI:  Judging words rather than authors. Epidemiology 1997;8:223-225.)  This draconian policy shortchanges both readers and authors; it signals that the concerns that I voiced in 1985 were real, although they took root outside of epidemiology rather than within the field.


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