Category Archives: Aside

Blogiversary

by Carl V Phillips

It is one year today that we started this blog.  The mandatory basic stats for such a post:

  • 159 posts
  • Just under 90K page views
  • 985 comments

I was really hoping for 100K views, but disappointment is my penance posting almost nothing for two months of that.  Besides, I will just assume that the difference was covered by those reading on feeds or reblogs, or those reading more than one post when visiting the homepage. :-)

I do notice that some of the oldest posts, some of which are quite significant, accumulated less than 200 views.  I will try to do some archive revisits.

More important than the basic stats is that I think we have put the fear of Truth into quite a few people by calling them out on their lies.  Several of them got very quiet.  This blog is just one little corner of that effort, of course, but the combination of effective archiving and search (unlike chat networks), credibility, and being willing to directly confront the lies (unlike most other credible blogs) give it a unique niche.  And, yes, I have kind drifted away from focusing on the Lies, and I should probably make an effort to start back on them.  The archive project will help with that.

And who knows, maybe there will be fewer lies during the next year.

(kidding)

A really good day for THR (navel gazing)

by Carl V. Phillips

I am assuming that there is no one reading this who did not already see yesterday’s post, so I will not even include a link.  The release of Igor Burstyn’s paper was huge for THR, making clear that the apparent risk from vaping is not only lower than the anti-THR liars are trying to portray it, but probably even lower than those of us who are interested in the truth and familiar with the science thought.

On the same day, we won a victory in the fight against inappropriate e-cigarette bans and learned of an amazing success story about THR in a clinical setting (I am seeking permission to report that story here).  Small scale in comparison to the study, I realize, but it makes for a good day.  And at the even smaller scale and purely personal level, first thing yesterday, before writing the blog post and the release of the study, I did what turned out to be great interview on talk radio.

It all added up to me thinking, “this is one of the best days in the history of THR”.  Not top five, but I found I had a hard time pushing it out of the top ten.  As you might expect, that got me thinking about what other days should appear on such a list.

The top few on the list definitely include the release of the seminal Rodu and Cole paper (Nature, 1994) that was the first major science and ethical statement in favor of THR, and when Judge Leon prevented the US FDA from banning e-cigarettes here in 2009.  I am also inclined (though obviously biased) to include up there the appearance of TobaccoHarmReduction.org, published by my research shop at University of Alberta in 2006 and updated for a few years after that; we got more press about that in Canada than “World No Tobacco Day” (the day we chose to release it) did, and the website is the source of a huge amount of the current popular wisdom about THR, even among many people who got here later and have never heard of it.  (Like the 1994 paper, it is still out there but quite dated now, and yet still is often read — though I would recommend against citing it for any purposes other than historical analysis.)  I am also inclined (and obviously biased) to include the creation of CASAA near the top.

At that point, I decided to crowdsource it.  Any thoughts from biases other than my own?  What are the best moments?  It definitely does not have to be an identifiable day, but I am looking for the relatively concrete and not just general phenomena (i.e., the gradual appearance of e-cigarettes on the market does not count, nor the gradual success of THR in Sweden).

It would be great to include the introduction of specific THR products into particular markets, which does tend to involve a clear moment in time, but sadly most of those efforts flopped (maybe Camel Snus?).  One or more of the moves by big companies into e-cigarettes might prove important, but it is hard to tell now, and for similar reasons hard to be sure something like the founding of NJOY should make the list; in such cases, it is tough to say that something really made the world different, rather than merely being a matter of who edged out competitors that would have been almost exactly the same.

No political victory compares to 2009, but what are the candidates for the list? Defeating the proposed New York ban?  The original MHRA decision to allow THR to be an “indication” for use of a product would surly be high on the list, but for what has come later that seems to make that part of a larger picture that does more harm than good — so include it?  The granting to Sweden of an exception to the anti-health EU snus ban comes to mind, but since Sweden would presumably not have joined the EU without it, it does not seem to count.

What other research publications?  It is really hard to identify many individual publications that had much of an impact.  Rodu’s book from the 1990s or others by him?  There are a few candidates about smokeless tobacco.  The nascent research on e-cigarettes does not seem to offer candidates — there are good and useful studies, but no game changers other than yesterday’s.  I am partial to a few of my other publications, but I can’t say they made much of a splash at the time; my 2006 calculation about comparative risks is quoted constantly without people knowing they are doing so (“99% less harmful”), but it is hard to identify any “moment” for that one

Prominent policy opinion statements?  The first Royal College of Physicians report on the topic is a clear candidate.  (But please do not suggestion Clearing the Smoke — bleah!)  Was there an identifiable moment for Bates launching his backing of THR (I honestly forget — getting old)?  I can’t think of any clear “moment” for Godshall or Stimson, but maybe there was one.  (All three of you read this, so I demand answers!! ;-)  IHRA embraced THR for about five minutes, but we subsequently lost that fight, so no credit there.

So that is my brainstorm.  Should be enough to get some thoughts flowing.  Your turn.

Aside

If I gave into my urge to cite every parallel between the experience of fighting for THR and Paul Krugman’s fights to get us out of the economics depression — against hoards of powerful and fact-averse opponents who become even … Continue reading

“We were wrong about this” trANTZlates into “we were still right, just for another reason”

by Carl V Phillips

An aside that does not relate to THR, but provides a rare opportunity to observe how the ANTZ act when they have to admit one of their claims was wrong.  It is exceedingly rare because no matter how badly the ANTZ bungle their data or analysis, and no matter how clearly it is refuted, they never admit they made a mistake.  They are not, after all, real scientists; they are marketers who ape science to support their propaganda.  But in this case, a newspaper retracted the data so they had to respond.

A letter to a Japanese newspaper was supposedly from a six-year-old, telling the heartwarming story of talking a merchant into letting her buy cigarettes as a present for her grandfather, the only product that he really cared about.  This story sparked condemnation by the usual suspects about how screwed up Japanese society must be that a young child would be allowed to buy cigarettes for any reason, and that Something Needs To Be Done About It.

It became apparent that the letter was a hoax.  So the ANTZ naturally expressed relief that the world is not such a terrible place.

Ha! just kidding, of course.  What they actually did was publish a commentary in their pseudo-journal official party newsletter, Tobacco Control, that acknowledged the hoax but repeated the conclusion.  They interpreted the fact that the letter was considered a heartwarming story was evidence that Japanese society was screwed up and that Something Needs To Be Done About It.

Yes, life sure is easy in the ANTZ hill.  Not only do you take all the money you could ever want from smokers, providing job security as long as you dutifully recite the party doctrine, but no matter what the data shows, there is never a need to rewrite your conclusions.

In awe of CASAA

by Carl V Phillips

A purely personal aside today.  Some readers of this blog may not appreciate what a truly amazing phenomenon CASAA is.  I write this in praise of my colleagues in this all-volunteer organization, claiming no credit for myself for yesterday’s accomplishments (though obviously I helped out where I could).

Yesterday, CASAA’s efforts succeeded in defeating an anti-consumer regulation of e-cigarettes in Oklahoma that was backed by both anti-THR activists and a major tobacco company.  It seems safe to conclude that the defeat was caused by the efforts of the CASAA legislative team.  At the same time, CASAA organized vapers to testify at hearing in a million-person California county (where I lived for a few years) about restricting use of e-cigarettes, as well as a state government hearing in Rhode Island.  And at the same time, we managed to respond, in time for a hearing that evening, to an apparent plan for an out-and-out ban in a city in Massachusetts that no one even knew about until that afternoon.  (You can see our calls to action page for more details about these.)

In Rhode Island, we also won a victory, with the proposal being tabled for further research (though in theory could be brought back up before the session is over).  Massachusetts turned out to be a false alarm — action was not actually imminent — but we are now on it.  The California county turned out to be one of the very few losses we ever suffer in the US (these stupid local boards are designed to handle little town matters but end up with enormous power over large populations with no democratic accountability, making it hard for the people to fight the public interests like we can at the state level).  It was a very impressive day for our all-volunteer organization and its thousands of supporters.

During the course of my career, I have been part of prestigious universities, I have run major research projects, and I created and ran what was the largest tobacco harm reduction research and education organization that existed before CASAA (the remnants of which I merged into CASAA last year).  I have also spent most of my life working in various areas of advocacy for the downtrodden, fighting those in power.  I mention to make clear quite how strong the following statement is:

I have never been more proud to be part of an organization as I am to be part of CASAA.

’nuff said.

Aside

From the blog of author (and one of the most insightful people in the world), David Brin: CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote to Error. Too bad it tastes so awful, to be on the receiving end…  so that most of … Continue reading

Can we agree not to make obviously incredible claims?

by Carl V Phillips

Related to the claim in my recent post that THR advocates stick to solid science, and are properly skeptical and critical, while anti-THR is grounded entirely in unabashed lies, I really hope THR advocates do not start citing making strong claims based on this report that:

One third of smokers say, in a University of Canterbury (UC) survey, they would use a nicotine electronic cigarette to quit now, if it was available.

I will grant that it is delightful to see anti-smoking sponsored research that might actually give some insight into how to reduce smoking (though note that this was funded by Murray Laugesen’s shop, not the ANTZ).  And there are probably some useful insights to be gleaned from the actual study results.  But not from that press release.  1/3??!  E-cigarettes are legal and widely available in a lot of places that are not terribly unlike New Zealand, and the successful smoking cessation they have facilitated is impressive.  But nowhere close to 1/3 of smokers are using them to try to quit.

A realistic estimate for e-cigarette uptake can be found by simply looking at the USA or the UK.   Indeed, I suspect that most NZers who really want to use e-cigarettes, like Canadians who wish to avoid the ban there, can get them if they really want.  So asking about actual usage would probably provide a better realistic estimate than this cheap-talk hypothetical.

There are ways to honestly interpret the results, and these are still undoubtedly pro-THR.  And that survey result was what it was, of course.  But reporting it without the realistic context as if it were a simple picture of reality is not a good choice.  The ANTZ frequently make claims that are this discordant with observed reality based on a survey result.  We must not.

My Alberta shop did a survey years ago that asked smokers about “hypothetical” low-risk alternatives (that were really understated descriptions of existing low-risk alternatives) and a huge number of subjects (most of whom had never actually considered trying the alternatives) indicated that they would try them.  Needless to say, we did not assert the conclusions that widespread adoption would happen if there were a change in the availability of products.  Rather, we examined the implications of the difference between the responses and the observed reality.

Similarly, if you want to estimate how people will actually respond to prices, you need to do what economists and marketers do (look at how people actually respond to prices), not merely ask them a hypothetical question and conclude:

if cigarette prices doubled, two thirds of smokers would quit

Real prices have doubled several times historically.  They more than double as you move from some places to others.  None of those show a 2/3 reduction in smoking.

Finally, I hate to laugh at pro-THR messages, but I could not help it when I read:

Smokers sampled nicotine electronic cigarettes and liked them 83 percent as much as their own brand on average.

Granted this is not nearly as funny as Snowdon’s ROTFL-level extended discourse on a particularly stupid ANTZ’s claim about something being “100% easy”.  But it was still LOL-level for me.  What the hell is liking something 83% as much?  (And notice it is not merely 80% as much, but a full 83%!)  Presumably there was some arbitrary scale in the survey, and the e-cigarettes scored .83 the level that own-brand cigarettes did.  But there is no cardinal scale of liking (other than the economic approach of trying to measure willingness to pay, which seems to have been absent), so while an ordinal list of the ratings of multiple products could mean something, it is silly to make the claim that they did.

Please, people, do not go telling the FDA or your local politicians that 1/3 of smokers plan to switch to e-cigarettes and that they are 83% as good as smoking.  Our goal is to make it clear that we are the reality-based side of this debate.

Zombies, clear colorful language, and scientific honesty (some observations by Krugman)

by Carl V Phillips

An aside (long, thanks to copious copy-and-paste, but breezy) before I get back to some recent Very Bad Lies that I have not covered.  As regular readers know, I consider Paul Krugman to be the day’s leading public intellectual, a top-level scientist with a clever wit, great writing style, and deep insight about many topics.  In particular, he is one of the most insightful analysts of public epistemology and rhetoric.  Catching up on weeks worth of blog posts, I thought there would be some value in recounting some of his observations on those topics that relate to this blog.  (Note that I will not try to explain the substantive background — you can trace that back through his posts if you want to learn the economic science and details of the policy fights — but focus on his assessment of public discourse itself.)

A few observations about types of lies:

He often talks about “zombie lies“, claims that…

remain part of what [every naive or politicized observer] knows to be true no matter how many times they have been shown to be false. Kill them, and they just keep shambling along.

…and a bit different

I’ve written several times about cockroach ideas in economics — ideas that you try to flush away, but keep coming back. (Are cockroach ideas the same as zombie ideas? Not quite, I would say; I think of cockroach ideas as misconceptions held because the people holding them are just unaware of basic facts, while zombie ideas are held by people who refuse to acknowledge contrary evidence).

Based on this, I would make the very rough observation that about 95% of anti-THR consists of cockroaches, engineered lies repeated by the tobacco control industry’s cadre of useful idiots because they actually believe them, and about 4.9% consists of zombie lies from people who know enough to know that what they are saying has been debunked, but pretend not to.  Oh, and the other 0.1% are lies too — just original ones that have not yet been debunked.  I know of no one who admits the truth about THR and then goes on to argue a reality-based position in opposition to it.

Some of the liars (in his world or ours) are definitely not unaware that their claims have been debunked.  There are influential people in the tobacco control industry who privately admit that they know they are lying about THR, but…

But they won’t change course; basically, they can’t, for careerist reasons. And that’s the story of a lot of what’s going on now.

Ralph Waldo Emerson understood this. The original version of his famous quote — I had forgotten this — reads:  A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

I don’t know about the divines bit, but the little statesmen thing is completely accurate. Suppose George Osborne were to admit that austerity isn’t working. What, then, would be left of his claim to be qualified to do, well, anything? He has to stick it out until something turns up, no matter how many lives it destroys.

Krugman sums it all up similarly in the previously quoted post:

The amazing thing is the way men who know neither theory nor the history of previous crises are utterly convinced that they know what to do in our current crisis; and how their confidence in their prescriptions has been unaffected by the fact that they have been wrong about everything so far. Of course, what’s even more amazing is the fact that these men are actually running things.

Moving from the leaders to the useful idiots (though some of the powerful policy makers are actually just useful idiots), why are there so many of them?  One explanation is “affinity fraud“:

I never heard the term “affinity fraud” until the Bernie Madoff affair hit the news. But once you hear it, the concept is obvious: people are most easily conned when they’re getting their disinformation from someone who seems to be part of their tribe, one way or another.

On the question of science claims and the inevitable errors that will result when you are doing real science:

OK, first things first: back when the crisis started, I did expect to see deflation, Japanese style, if it went on for an extended period. I was wrong — and I did what you’re supposed to do (but far too people actually do) when they’re wrong, which is to look for an explanation of your error that is consistent with the available evidence.

Can anyone give me a single example of some member of the tobacco control industry who admitted they got something wrong and tried to figure out why?  Ok, ok, stop laughing.  We all know that they do not even recognize the possibility of incorrect science, because for them sciencey words are just political rhetoric.  What they make scientific claims, they are not actually related to truth-seeking, so it would not even occur to them that they need to respond to evidence that they were wrong.

One of Krugman’s best running observations, in my mind, is his condemnation of naive observers who insist that in any debate, both sides must have some legitimate points and that compromise is possible:

self-identified centrists are sounding crazier and crazier, as they try to reconcile their fanatical devotion to the proposition that both parties are equally at fault

Setting aside the political specifics his world, this certainly rings true about the world of THR.  Anti-THR liars would be in trouble, even given their cadre of paid and unpaid useful idiots, were it not for the fact that so many more people insisted on believing (based on nothing but naive trust) that they cannot be basing their entire position on lies.  If one side of a debate is honest, scientific, and appropriately self-examining and careful, while the other side refuses to recognize even the most basic truths and will say anything that they think supports their cause, and then someone seeks “compromise” or “honest reconciliation of the opposing views”, where does that leave them?  It leaves them living thoroughly in the land of lies.  Spit the difference between healthy and cancerous, and you merely have a smaller tumor.

Here is a little snippet, just for some of my UK libertarian friends who hate most everything about the EU and Westminster, and yet for some reason really hate Krugman’s criticism of their failed macroeconomic policies (who should really read this post).  Notice that he does agree with you about about what “conservatives” in government are up to these days:

As long as the spending ends up lining the right pockets, and the undeserving beneficiaries of public largess are politically connected corporations, conservatives with actual power seem to like Big Government just fine.

On the use of clear and vivid language:

Partly I use striking and sarcastic metaphors to break through the complacency of officials. But I also, more broadly, have an Orwellian purpose — as in George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, which everyone should read.

There are many fine things in that Orwell essay, but the section that has influenced me most is the one in which he takes a famous passage from the King James Bible and renders it in official-speak. The original:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

The rewritten version is

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

As Orwell said, the original isn’t just pithier and punchier; it contains vivid metaphors that convey the sense far better than just laying out the argument. Similarly, in reverse, rather than refer to

an economic view that has unfortunately retained considerable influence, possibly because it has a political appeal to some parties, despite extensive empirical evidence that appears to refute the proposition

why not just refer to it as a “zombie idea”? It’s not just shorter, it conveys the sense of what is happening much better — and it places the idea in question in the context of other zombie ideas.

Or as he put it more tersely:

Now, it’s true that I use picturesque language — but I do that for a reason. “Words ought to be a little wild”, said John Maynard Keynes, “for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.”

Skipping a bunch in that post about EU government cluelessness, he concludes:

And let’s be clear: this stuff matters. The European economy is in disastrous shape; so, increasingly, is the European political project. You might think that eurocrats would worry mainly about that reality; instead, they’re focused on defending their dignity from sharp-tongued economists.

Hmm, sounds a lot like the EU health ministry.

And finally, the crowning observation he finished that post about Orwell with:

Now, of course, some people get offended when you refer to their ideas as zombies. But if you’re worried about giving offense, you should be an official spokesperson, not an independent commentator.