Don Rubin published an article in 2002 on “The ethics of consulting for the tobacco industry.” Here’s the article, and here’s the abstract:
This article describes how and why I [Rubin] became involved in consulting for the tobacco industry. I briefly discuss the four relatively distinct statistical topics that were the primary focus of my work, all of which have been central to my published academic research for over three decades: missing data; causal inference; adjustment for covariates in observational studies; and meta-analysis. To me [Rubin], it is entirely appropriate to present the application of this academic work in a legal setting.
I respect what Don is saying here—I don’t think he’d do this sort of consulting without thinking it through. At the same time, I think there are a couple of complications not mentioned in his article.
1. Don writes, “When I was first contacted by a tobacco lawyer, I was very reluctant to consult for them, for the standard ‘politically correct’ reasons…” I think this is a bit glib. “Political correctness” refers to attempts to restrict speech or ideology that is deemed offensive. Tobacco companies, on the other hand, actually make cigarettes, which actually do give people cancer. Now, I’m not saying that it’s immoral to work for tobacco companies, or to supply cigarettes to people who want them, or even that it’s immoral to advertise cigarettes or whatever—but to dismiss this as “political correctness” minimizes the issues here, I think.
2. Later in the article, Don presents the ethical dilemma as whether to give testimony that is scientifically valid but supports cigarette companies. In his article, he makes a convincing case that, in his analysis, the facts did not support the claims made by the anti-tobacco lawsuits.
I would tend to accept Don’s reasoning that, once he has studied the issue, it is ethical for him to call the science as he sees it, even if that means he is supporting tobacco companies in a lawsuit. (If I had close personal experience with lung-cancer victims—or with tobacco farmers—this would probably affect my views on this, but that’s another story.) However, there’s another decision point that Don didn’t spend much time on, which is his decision to work on the problem at all.
Setting aside any questions about the morality of working on the tobacco case, there is still the “opportunity cost” argument: what would have Don done if he had not worked so hard for years on this problem? Perhaps he could have made further strides in the theory of statistical modeling and causal inference, or perhaps he could have been working on an application with direct benefit (for example, collaborating with psychologists or drug designers on improved therapies or treatments). Given his involvement in the case, it is appropriate that Don did his best job as a scientist, but this still raises the question of whether he should have been involved at all.
Just to be clear: I don’t think that Don was immoral in working on this problem. In one of his books, Bill James said, “I’m not a public utlity” or something like that, and, similarly, Don should have the freedom to work on problems as he sees fit. I am not at all criticizing his ethical choices. I’m just commenting on his published article on the ethical choices. My impression from talking with Don is that he did make some progress on causal inference in the context of the tobacco study, and that one reason he worked on the topic is that it gave him the opportunity to think seriously about these problems. As I once noted, the most advanced statistical methods are often used in low-stakes problems and so it is good to see some of the most modern methods of causal inference used in this high-stakes dispute.
In any case, this article would be a great discussion-starter for a course on statistics in public health or social science. Ethical discussions in statistics can get into ruts (for example, questions of the morality of randomized clinical trials), and this article looks at a slightly different ethical dilemma that can face statisticians.
I’m curious what Chad would think of Rubin’s article. (Here’s my earlier discussion of Chad’s work on ethics and statistics.)