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In the Vegetarian & Vegan News...
   Letter to the Editor | VegSource Interactive, Inc.

Robert Cohen and Integrity:
Summary Statement

Letter to the editor by Stephen Kaufman, MD
The views expressed in Letters to the Editor
do not necessarily reflect those of VegSource

June 12, 2002 -- I suspect a lot of people have been confused by the voluminous exchanges between Robert Cohen and his critics. In my opinion, the most important issue, Cohen's trustworthiness, has been lost among some tangential issues and angry exchanges. Cohen frequently analyzes medical reports and offers nutritional advice, which activists have accepted as truth (in part, I think, because of his compelling, dynamic speaking and writing style).

Can Cohen be trusted?

Stephen Walsh first questioned Cohen's analysis of the Hjartaker et al. report (www.vegsource.com/articles/walsh_openletter.htm) . Walsh could not understand how Cohen could make the remarkable claim that Hjartaker et al.'s data revealed the exact opposite of the authors' conclusions. Walsh suspected that Cohen had fabricated data as the only possible way that Cohen could arrive at the amazing statement that moderate or high milk consumption leads to a 6.4 times greater breast cancer risk than low milk consumption.

Specifically, Hjartaker et al. found that those who consumed "low" quantities of milk in combined childhood and adulthood had less than the expected number of breast cancers, given the numbers of women in the "low" group compared to "moderate" and "high" groups. For no apparent reason, Cohen claimed that the number of expected breast cancers in the "low" group was roughly equal to that of the "moderate" group plus the "high" group. However, this made no sense, because the number of women in the "low" group was far lower than those in the "moderate" plus "high" groups. With his evidently fabricated data, Cohen then concluded that the Hjartaker et al. group had perpetrated a fraud and that the number of breast cancers among low milk consumers was much less than the expected number.


 



Walsh asked Cohen to justify these calculations, and Cohen refused (on the dubious grounds that Walsh is an "infiltrator" and a "stalker"). I carefully reviewed the study, and it seemed clear that Cohen must have indeed fabricated data. Trying to be fair, I privately asked Cohen to explain his calculations, but Cohen initially evaded my questions and then cut off communication on the grounds that I had an "agenda."

Now convinced that Cohen had fabricated his data, I publicly challenged Cohen to explain his calculations. As I expected, he continued to obfuscate, claiming that his essay at notmilk.com clearly explains his analysis and demanding that those who question him answer unanswerable questions. These open exchanges encouraged other people, including vegan journalist Syd Baumel, to request an explanation. If Cohen could provide an explanation, it would have been easy to do so. He hasn't provided an explanation because he can't.

Why should we care?

1. Cohen has made many dubious scientific claims posted at his web set and distributed to his 4400 member (moderator only post) nonmilk@yahoogroups.com. Though he generally makes authoritative claims, they are in fact poorly documented (at best) and people must accept his claims largely on faith. His fabricated analysis of the milk/breast cancer study, alone, demonstrates that he cannot be trusted. The articles, letters, and e-mails regarding Cohen published at vegsource.com reveal a pattern of unfounded, misleading claims. Many of these dubious claims evidently serve primarily financial concerns, promoting his soy milk machine over competitors. (See http://www.vegsource.com/articles/061399.notmilk.htm and www.vegsource.com/articles/walsh_cohen1.htm).

2. Cohen portrays himself as scientific. Yet, the essays at vegsource.com and my own analysis betray the falsity of Cohen's assertion, written in response to the Walsh critique, that "The 1000+ columns that I have written contain real science, and my analysis of scientific fraud have continuously withstood the rigorous scrutiny of peer review." (www.notmilk.com/forum15.txt, 2/8/02 message "True Evil Is Exposed"; www.vegsource.com/articles/cohen/ "The Sad Truth About Robert Cohen").

3. Cohen has maligned Hjartaker and colleagues, claiming they are perpetrators of "THE FRAUDULENT STUDY OF THE CENTURY." In fact, Hjartaker et al. themselves readily acknowledge their study's limitations and advise caution in interpreting their data. Hjartaker kindly answered my questions about the study, and I have no reason to believe that she and her colleagues are not honest, decent people. However, Cohen goes farther than raise doubts that milk protects against breast cancer. He accuses the authors of fraud and says that their data shows that milk causes breast cancer. In fact, Cohen's claims are the fraudulent ones.

4. Cohen's campaign against Stephen Walsh has been ugly and false. Walsh is a dedicated vegan advocate who has raised valid objections to Cohen's writings. Cohen has responded with a vicious hate campaign (see, for example, www.notmilk.com/forum15.txt, 2/8/02 message "True Evil Is Exposed"), prompting some people to call for Walsh's dismissal from his position as a trustee of the Vegan Society.

5. We have no control over Cohen's private web site and e-mail list, but giving him 10 presentations at AR2002 (www.animalrights2002.org/schedule.html) tells the world that the AR movement stands behind him.

6. Fabricating data, particularly when done to denounce somebody's academic work, is sufficient grounds for dismissal from an academic institution (e.g., college, graduate school, teaching staff) and to be ostracized by colleagues. These are the standards of academia. If the animal advocacy movement is to be taken seriously by thoughtful, educated people, we must have standards of integrity. Similarly, we do not deserve the respect of anyone of who values truth in advocacy, truth in advertising, or journalistic integrity if we countenance dishonesty within our own ranks while denouncing dishonesty among our opponents.

I have had no axe to grind with Cohen. Prior to Walsh's revelations, I had some respect for Cohen's work (admittedly I had not examined it closely) and my few personal interactions with him had been pleasant. However, I now find his behavior outrageous. I'd like to think it's not just me. While I am academically oriented (I am an Assistant Clinical Professor at both Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and Northeast Ohio Universities College of Medicine and I have several published papers and a chapter in the ophthalmology literature), I think integrity should transcend the walls of academia. How can we hope to win the hearts of minds of thoughtful people if we don't show high standards of integrity?

I dread the prospect of Cohen being a prominent speaker at a conference for hundreds of young AR activists anxious to learn how to be more effective advocates for the cause.

Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.


Dr. Kaufman is a long-time animal advocate who runs the non-profit Justice for Animals Fund and the website BioSpirituality. He is medical director of the Christian Vegetarian Association, president of the Cleveland-area group Vegetarian Advocates, and co-chair of the Medical Research Modernization Committee. He edits Perspectives on Medical Research. He is an Assistant Clinical Professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and Northeast Ohio Universities College of Medicine.

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