A further vindication of Petr Skrabanek
Editor - Simon Mills has written passionately in support of his former teacher, the late Professor Petr Skrabanek (1), so wrongly accused by the press of having been in the pay of the tobacco industry. It is noteworthy that the ombudsman for The Lancet, the journal in which Skrabanek allegedly wrote in support of smoking, has published the results of a detailed analysis of his contributions to the journal from 1974 to his death in 1994, of which three from a total of 34 contributions were "tobacco related" (2).
I have examined these (3), and in none is there even a scintilla of evidence that Skrabanek could have been paid to write what he did. However, in "Smoking and statistical overkill" (4), the reader is given a taste of the incisive erudition laced characteristically with wit and humour, that made him not a few enemies. In it, he attacks the use of alarmist tactics by doctors, epidemiologists, the media and politicians, who manipulate and pervert statistics to scare the public. By way of many examples, he cites WHO's dire admonition that half a billion of the world's population will be "killed" by tobacco, which viewed from Skrabanek's sceptical perspective is that "even if everyone smoked, that would hardly put a dent in the world population, which is increasing by a million every four days." The use of large denominators can truly make the head spin: "For example, according to WHO over 100 million acts of sexual intercourse take place daily, resulting in 910,000 conceptions – 50% planned and 25% definitely unwanted – and in 356,000 cases of sexually transmitted diseases. Just in one day."
This paper also voices a passionate plea for the down-trodden of society (for me the foundation stone of Skrabanek's philosophy) – the ill and infirm, the poor, the uneducated, the eccentric lost in the bottomless sea of epidemiological statistics. His is a plea for the human rights of the disadvantaged of society, those who are in danger of being isolated as "pariahs" in the face of the seeming rectitude of "responsible" citizens. "Such polarisation can only speed up our descent into an intolerant, soulless, and dehumanised society." Let us remember that Ireland offered Skrabanek sanctuary from just such a society.
In short, the media stands indicted once again on the charge of failing to perform the basic research that should be the hallmark of journalism; had this been done, the unfounded accusations levelled at the late Dr. Skrabanek, would not have materialised.
Eoin O'Brien, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Medical School, Dublin,
My only conflict of interest is that of having been a friend of Petr Skrabanek. However, I held back from jumping to his defence until the Lancet ombudsman had published his findings, and until I had examined his writings more closely myself.
1. Mills S. Skrabanek dedicated his life to generating scepticism. BMJ 1998;317:351-352
2. Sherwood T. Ombudsman's second report, and tobacco. Lancet 1998;352:7-8
3. O'Brien E. A vindication of Petr Skrabanek. Irish Medical Times 1998, July 31st. p. 25.
4. Skrabanek P. Smoking and statistical overkill. Lancet 1992;340:1208-09
Competing interests: No competing interests