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In the Vegetarian & Vegan News...
   Stephen Walsh | Open Letter

Open letter to Robert Cohen
By Stephen Walsh

VegSource Comment: Dr. Stephen Walsh, a UK Vegan Society trustee, was introduced to me by vegan nutritionist Vesanto Melina RD last year. Since then we have published several of Dr. Walsh's articles on VegSource.

In December of 2001 Walsh approached me indicating he wanted to publish an "open letter" to Rob Cohen. Walsh had earlier sent a letter to Cohen that was highly critical of an article Cohen wrote, pointing out with great specificity what he (Walsh) believed to be serious errors and unfair accusations in Cohen's article. Cohen had not been receptive to and or interested in Walsh's criticism, as his response to Walsh (printed below) reveals.

Frustrated, and not wanting to let stand unchallenged what he perceived to be a highly inaccurate article, Walsh presented his analysis, and I agreed to publish it if Cohen continued to ignore Walsh's comments.

In the interest of fairness, I very recently wrote to Cohen asking if he would comment on this open letter before we published it, either to show where Walsh is all wet in his criticisms, or else maybe to acknowledge if Walsh has valid points, and perhaps edit the prominently displayed NotMilk.com article to thus improve its accuracy.

But Cohen refused to make any comments on the criticisms, instead expressing contempt for Walsh and threatening me personally. If I ran Walsh's open letter on VegSource, Cohen said, it would mean "war" and he would respond by "revealing [me] and many things that [I] do as being phony."

Uh-huh...

I would prefer it if Cohen would just answer the points, rather than ranting about how Walsh is suddenly an "infiltrator" and I'm suddenly a "phony," after I've hosted six websites for free for Cohen for years. It reminds me of a quote from Cicero, a first-century Roman statesman, orator and writer: "When you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff."

In the years we've operated VegSource, we've received plenty of comments and criticism, and we've always looked at it as a potential opportunity to improve ourselves and/or our website. It's a process of learning. Few people ever arrive at the status of "unquestionable authority."
                             -Jeff Nelson


An Open Letter to Robert Cohen by Stephen Walsh

I am making this exchange with Robert Cohen public in the interests of honest and effective vegan advocacy. The strength of veganism lies in compassion and in exposing the truth about the suffering, environmental damage and health risks associated with abusing animals for food. If leading vegan propagandists disregard truth, it greatly weakens the vegan cause.

I encourage all recipients of this letter to pass it on to other vegans and to contact Robert Cohen and ask him to respond properly to the questions raised in my letter.

Sincerely,

Stephen Walsh


 



(sections in red italics in the following are quotations from an article on Robert Cohen's website, www.notmilk.com):

29 January, 2002

Dear Robert,

As you know, I wrote to you in a personal capacity on 21 December, 2001, pointing out serious errors in an article you featured on your website. In my letter, I told you that if you did not respond and take action to correct certain glaring misstatements and defamatory remarks, I would make this matter public. Hence, I write this open letter.

I contacted you 10 weeks ago to provide you with a draft version of the Vegan Society briefing paper on milk and breast cancer. This briefing paper is now in official form and is available on www.vegansociety.com/briefings/milkbreastcancer.htm and www.vegsource.com/articles/walsh_milk_cancer.htm

I was disappointed to receive no constructive response to either this briefing paper or my later letter.

I am even more disappointed that 10 weeks later you are still displaying your article at www.notmilk.com/tomfoolery.html

In this article you launch a melodramatic attack on the paper by Hjartaker et al appearing in the September 15 issue of International Journal of Cancer, accusing the authors of this paper of producing "the fraudulent study of the century."

You make several criticisms of the paper to back this up:

1) 317 of the 48,844 women in the study got breast cancer (six- tenths of one percent), but the study actually began with 57,664 women. Why were the data from 8820 women eliminated? It turns out that 986 of those women had cancer too (11%). What does that indicate regarding the entire study?

The authors were simply following standard good practice by excluding people whose behaviour and recollection of their diet may have been altered by related pre-existing disease. In making this criticism you show ignorance of the basic principles of nutritional epidemiology.

2) Nine different categories of questions were asked of the 48,844 women regarding milk and other foods consumed. Only one question was asked regarding milk consumption as a child:

"How much milk did you drink as a child each day?"

Even the authors recognize how poorly they designed this so-called study. In the discussion section (page 891), they write:

"Our questionnaire included only a single question on childhood milk consumption... we do not know how well the question reveals real differences... although no significant association between childhood milk consumption and breast cancer incidence was found in our study, one may speculate on a negative association."

IS THAT REAL SCIENCE OR REAL BIAS?

It is real science. The authors did not find a statistically significant effect but they did find a tendency towards a negative association. They do not claim anything more than the data justifies.

[For the benefit of the majority of people, who will not have read the original paper, I have added some additional explanation of the background to the next point.

The key table in the paper was Table 4, which set out the number of cases of breast cancer according to three categories of long-term milk consumption. These categories were based on answers to a question about childhood milk consumption as well as answers to questions on adult milk consumption.

The total number of women considered was 47,747, and the total number of breast cancer cases during the study was 311. Taking the authors' figures above we can work out how many women were in each category.

The risk of breast cancer for the low-milk consumption group was therefore 42 cases divided by 5,231 women in the category, that is 0.00803. The risk for the moderate-milk consumption group was 254 cases divided by 39,057 women in the category, that is 0.0065. The risk for the high-milk consumption group was 15 cases divided by 3,459 women in the category, that is 0.0043. The relative risk is calculated by dividing the risk in each category by the risk in the low-milk category. For the moderate-milk consumption group this is 0.0065/0.00803 (0.81). For the high-milk consumption group this is 0.0043/0.00803 (0.54).

What you do below, Robert, is to claim the authors of the study can’t read their own paper and that the low-milk group has a lower risk of breast cancer than the other groups. You reach this conclusion by pretending that half the total group were in the low-milk consumption category and the other half were in the moderate- and high-milk consumption categories combined. Based on this, you say that the expected number of breast cancer cases in the low-milk category was half the total (156) and the expected number of cases in the other groups combined was also half the total (155). As there were 42 cases in the low-milk category and 269 in the moderate- and high-milk consumption categories combined, this gives your claimed “true” relative risk for moderate to high-milk consumption of 269/42, that is 6.4 or 640%.

This is nonsense as there is absolutely no reason to suppose that half the total group were in the low milk category. This appears a bizarre and arbitrary assumption on your part.]

3) TABLE 3 reveals the incidence rate ratios of breast cancer according to milk consumption as a child and as an adult.

Based upon population statistics supplied by the authors, the expectation of breast cancers for low-milk consuming females was 156 cases out of 311. The actual number of cases was only 42.

The expected number of cases of breast cancer for the moderate- and high-milk consumption group was 155 cases. The actual number of cases of breast cancer for the milk drinkers was 269.

In other words, the authors mis-read their own data.

Women who drank a lot of milk as children developed more cases of breast cancer than notmilk users. How much more? A factor of 640%!

This is the core of your claim that the paper is fraudulent and is an unmitigated piece of nonsense. You arrived at your figures above by arbitrarily and incorrectly assuming that half the study population were in the low-milk consumption group and half were in the medium- and high-milk consumption groups combined. Based on this fanciful assumption, one would indeed expect 155.5 cases in the low-milk group based on the total of 311 cases in the table of age-adjusted cancer incidence.

In my briefing paper, I reconstructed the number of individuals in each group (using data in the paper by Hjartaker et al) as 11% low-milk, 82% medium-milk and 7% high-milk. I then summarised the expected vs observed number of cases, after adjustment for other risk factors. Your figures for observed cases in the low-milk group are slightly different than mine (42 vs 36) as you used the age-adjusted incidence, not the multivariate-adjusted incidence.

"Only by using a combined measure of childhood and adult milk intake was a statistically significant protective association found and this was only just significant (RR=0.51 "high" milk intake vs "low" milk intake, with full adjustment for known risk factors). 11% of the overall group was in the low-milk category. This category had 36 cases of breast cancer against an expected 29, based on the average risk for the whole group. 7% of the group was in the high milk category. This category had 13 cases of breast cancer against an expected 20, based on the average risk. There was little difference between the age adjusted and fully adjusted relative risks, indicating that any interactions between milk consumption and known risk factors, such as age at menarche, did not have a large effect on the observed risk."

Your claim based on assuming that 50% of the population studied were in the low-milk group is nonsense as only 11% of the population were in this category.

You owe the authors of this study an apology and bring shame on the vegan community by your arbitrary, nasty and unfounded accusation of fraud.

4) The authors bring their biases to the discussion by writing (page 892):

"Calcium intake, however, has previously been investigated with cancer risk, especially of colon cancer..."

As discussed in the milk and breast cancer briefing paper -- there is good evidence for the view that milk consumption does modestly decrease colorectal cancer risk, though there are much better ways of achieving this reduction in risk.

Nonsense such as your "tomfoolery" article brings the vegan community into disrepute. It sows confusion among vegans seeking to understand the truth so as to promote veganism effectively.

You do the vegan community a profound disservice by such behaviour. Vegans - like everyone else - should be fair. I strongly encourage you to do the right thing and correct or remove your article and apologise to those people you unjustly accused of fraud.

If you are prepared to try to work within the constraints of facts, I would be happy to help you produce material based on sound science. There is no need to exaggerate or invent in order to show that the dairy industry, which causes much animal suffering and environmental damage, is at best unnecessary for human health and at worst harmful. Distorting to overstate this case only serves to weaken the credibility of all vegan advocates, and ultimately to weaken veganism.

yours sincerely,

Stephen Walsh


Robert Cohen's only reply to Walsh to date:

I have no idea what you're talking about.

I do not like your tone, or your agenda.

I hope that nothing is lost in the translation when I tell you to go and have carnal relations with yourself.

Robert Cohen


 
 
 

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