It looks a bit like science, but really isn’t

I am currently teaching a computational modelling course. This is assessed via a couple of reports. These student reports should cite references to back up their statements. For example if they are using a particular algorithm, they should cite a reputable work that describes that algorithm. The work should be a textbook, a peer-reviewed paper, or a good Wikipedia article – I think many Wikipedia articles are of a high standard, so one would be fine. Citing an article in The Sun newspaper would probably not be acceptable.

However, the tobacco firm Philip Morris International has lower standards than I do. Indeed, I hope and expect that a large majority of our students also have much higher standards than this large multinational company. The UK government is deciding whether or not to make it compulsory for cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging, i.e., in packaging without the fancy branding. Unsurprisingly, Philip Morris are against this. Their submission to the government is here.

Their reference 9 has attracted some attention — it is dodgy piece of work that Philip Morris got a couple of academics to do, presumably in order that they can cite it in submissions like this and so give the submission a veneer of respectability. But several references are to articles in The Sun. They cite a Sun article to back up their claim that “Criminals have welcomed the prospect of standardised packaging.” I have to say that I don’t think a newspaper exposé can really be used to back up a sweeping statement about what criminals do or do not welcome.

Now, Philip Morris are absolutely entitled to argue their case and make submissions to our government. They can object all they like. But the submission attempts to argue that the introduction of plain packaging would have bad consequences. It does so in a way that is similar to how this is done in scientific publications or good student reports, i.e., by citing sources to back up claims. But these sources look, in my opinion, pretty pitiful.They are several Sun articles, some work by a pair of academics, and a report by KPMG. Both the academics and KPMG were paid by Philip Morris. Frankly, when a multinational can’t cite sources in line with simple rules that students typically find easy to learn, you do rather suspect that the company is deliberately trying to mislead us..

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