Field of Science

UC Davis muzzles professor for speaking out about excessive PSA testing


When UC Davis announced a seminar on men's health back in October 2010, it sounded like a typical educational event.  But UC David professor Michael Wilkes investigated and learned that the seminar was primarily a sales pitch about the prostate specific antigen (PSA) test, and that its main message was that men should get tested regularly beginning at age 40.  However, the weight of scientific evidence suggests that regular PSA testing is not a good idea, and it may do more harm than good, as I wrote recently.  In a major report issued earlier this year, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that men should not get routine PSA screening for prostate cancer, stating explicitly that
"the benefits of PSA-based screening for prostate cancer do not outweigh the harms." 
Prof. Wilkes, an expert on prostate cancer screening, came to the same conclusion almost two years ago.  In response to the UC Davis seminar, he and USC professor Jerome Hoffman wrote an opinion article for the San Francisco Chronicle.  They made basically the same argument that the USPSTF made in their lengthy, thoroughly researched report: that the PSA test often does more harm than good.

The story would end there, if not for what UC Davis then did to Prof. Wilkes.  Within a few hours of the publication of the newspaper article, the Executive Associate Dean at the UC Davis medical school informed Wilkes that he would be punished in two ways.  First, he would lose his position in the doctoring program, and second, he would lose the funding support for a Hungarian student exchange program that he organized.  Dr. Wilkes, it is worth noting, was recruited to UC Davis from UCLA because of the innovative program in doctoring (how to be a doctor) that he developed.

Apparently the Executive Associate Dean (where do they get these titles?) was angry over what Dr. Wilkes wrote in the newspaper.  He later admitted that he read Dr. Wilkes' article just before he wrote his threatening email.  All of this is documented in a report issued this past May by the UC Davis faculty Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility (CAFR).  Many additional details were reported on UC Davis Professor Jonathan Eisen's blog in June.

When challenged about these threats, the university lawyer David Levine said, in essence, what threats?  My goodness, he said in a letter to Wilkes, I'm just giving you a few helpful facts:
"I am simply pointing out that there are numerous errors of fact in your article, that they were injurious to the University interests and reputation and thus potentially actionable under the law of defamation."
But heavens no, we're not threatening to sue you or anything like that.  Just pointing out some things that we're sure you will want to know.  The university's lawyer's explained further, in a letter to CAFR this past February, that
"The administrative action … was simply to provide information to Dr. Wilkes regarding … the potential legal exposure for broadcasting false information that is injurious to reputation."
I'm sure that Dr. Wilkes found all of this information very helpful.

This summer, the UC Davis faculty senate voted 52-0 that the university had violated Prof. Wilkes' academic freedom, and called for the university to apologize and withdraw its threats, which UC Davis has not yet done.  An academic freedom watchdog group, FIRE, wrote to UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi with the same requests.  Chancellor Katehi replied in a letter, dated July 17, that she and Provost Ralph Hexter have "assembled a small team of independent subject-matter experts" to review the case, and that they will have more to say by August 31.

What the heck do you need a committee of experts for?  Even if Prof. Wilkes' article was wrong (and it's not - he is spot-on accurate), he has every right to express his opinions.  So it doesn't really matter if PSA testing is good for you or not.  Yet after almost two years, UC Davis still has not withdrawn the threats made by its lawyers and by its Executive Associate Dean against Prof. Wilkes, and by extension against any other professor who might disagree with something the university is doing.

At this point, merely withdrawing the threats is not enough.  Chancellor Katehi should clearly and unambiguously affirm Prof. Wilkes' right to speak his mind, and she should also punish the Executive Associate Dean, the university counsel, and any other administrators who have been involved in this outrageous assault on free speech and academic freedom.  Otherwise they or others might very well just do it again, the next time they read an Op-Ed piece that annoys them.

2 comments:

  1. So much about freedom in an autocratically controlled system.

    This story somehow reminds me of Ken Follet's Third Twin. But Ken Follet's story is really good fiction whereas your story is real.

    A university is a top-down controlled hierarchical system, right. Universities when created in medieval times inherited structure from institutions that worked that time, monasteries and the the royal court for instance. Universities still work like a feudalistic estate, even though today they allow for some features of democratic control. This is mere veneer.

    Thank you for this vivid example.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The actions of the Executive Associate Dean (where indeed do these titles come from?) are fully illustrative of the lack of critical thinking among the supposedly well-educated. The “world of woo” is full of PhD’s and even a fair amount of MD’s.

    ReplyDelete

Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="http://www.fieldofscience.com/">FoS</a> = FoS