A David and Goliath parable

David and Goliath stories have been around for a long time. It’s gratifying when justice is served and David slays his tormentor, as in the Biblical tale, but most often the little guy gets squashed. The latter is how I felt on October 23 when New York Times food writer Mark Bittman did a gratuitous hatchet-job on me. Yes, on me — a nerdy gray-beard who works in an eight-by-twelve-foot office at a university think tank and doesn’t even have a secretary.

Bittman’s column, “Buying the Vote on GMO’s,” contained flagrantly defamatory misrepresentations. I have been critical in print of Bittman’s opinions in the past, and I can only conclude that his column reflects personal animus and malice towards me — a quintessential hit-piece.

The underlying issue was my opposition — including a TV ad that I made — to a particularly insidious California ballot initiative, Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of certain “genetically engineered” foods. It failed every test for sound regulation — scientific, economic, legal and common sense — but I’ve written extensively about its shortcomings so there’s no need to rehash them here. Anyway, Proposition 37 was handily defeated, and good riddance.

The fact that Bittman joined the ranks of self-interested activists and yahoos on this issue as on so many others is nothing new and comes as no surprise. Neither does my disagreeing with the political persuasion of a Times columnist. But I found Bittman’s personal and mendacious attack on me — in the nation’s third-largest newspaper by circulation — shocking.

By far the most offensive allegation in Bittman’s column was, “Dr. Miller led a tobacco front group that aimed to discredit the link between cigarettes and cancer.” This is completely, utterly without foundation. It is not only defamatory but preposterous. As a physician, I detest cigarettes and the carnage wrought by smoking. In fact, I have written about the urgent need for government policies to reduce the risk from cigarettes. That article includes this unequivocal statement: “Tobacco is an inherently, irredeemably dangerous product.”

I have never worked directly or indirectly, with or without compensation, on behalf of the tobacco industry. In the 1990s I did join with other scientists in support of a group called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. Its stated mission was to debunk junk science. Bittman may believe it was funded in part by the tobacco industry; I wouldn’t know. But I never “led” the group or served in any leadership capacity. I never received any compensation of any kind from the organization or from a tobacco company or industry group. And I certainly never knowingly lent my name or support to any activity that questioned the linkage between cigarettes and cancer.

Bittman also alleges that I “was portrayed in a television ad as a Stanford University professor. (He isn’t.)” But the ad did no such thing. The original TV ad identified me as “Dr. Henry I. Miller, M.D.; Stanford University.” (To eliminate the redundancy, the “Dr.” was soon dropped.) I am an M.D. (University of California, San Diego) and I am a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution — my paycheck comes from the university, my office is there (next to the campus’ iconic bell tower), and I have a university ID card and email address. Because Stanford has a strict policy about not creating the appearance of endorsing political campaigns or issues, the general counsel requested that my tag line should clearly reflect that my affiliation is at the university’s Hoover Institution and that my title is for identification purposes only, in order to emphasize that I was not speaking on behalf of Stanford.

To that end, “Hoover Institution” was added, as was an asterisk to indicate that my affiliation was for identification only. In addition, the background of the ad was changed — electronically — from a university setting to a generic building. In other words, we took great care to avoid precisely the kind of false charge Bittman made.