by Carl V Phillips
Last Friday, CASAA Board members Gregory Conley and Karen Carey, joined by about 20 other vapers (including many long-time CASAA members), testified at a Connecticut (CT) legislature hearing about a bill that would ban vaping wherever smoking is banned, including in e-cigarette stores. The organization of the day’s testimony (on two dozen different bills) was such a mess that they did not get to testify until after midnight (though, we complement the committee for taking time to hear out every witness who stuck around that long, unlike some panels we have had to deal with). I comfortably watched this from a distance, going to bed, four timezones to the east, before they even started testifying, and woke up in time to chat with Greg as he made his way back to the station to catch the earliest train home on Saturday morning, having long since missed the last train of the night.
Feeling a little guilty for not being there, I figured I had to devote a blog post to the lies they had to deal with.
But what to say? I tend to focus on the more complicated and technical lies from ostensibly respectable ostensible experts. It is a pretty boring post when the message is just, “the Connecticut Academy of Family Physicians claimed in their testimony that e-cigarettes are as harmful as smoking [which they did], and this is a lie.” Much more interesting — and potentially beneficial — is to try to figure out how to communicate the broader message, “these guys made this obvious false claim, which we can easily show to be wrong; if you have any sense, you will ignore the rest of what they said too.”
Sometimes this is not so critical. The Family Physicians only made two or three other points about e-cigarettes in their testimony (warning: the links to testimony open pdf or video files — and are really painful to view) that could all be addressed directly if a direct response was ever needed.
But what about, say, the testimony from John O’Rourke, Program Coordinator for CommuniCare’s tobacco cessation program (which appears to be a company that sells smoking cessation services, getting most or all of its money from the government whose policies it is trying to influence (surprise!)). They make scores of claims about e-cigarettes, one after another. A very few were accurate. Many were technically correct but presented in ways that are intended to mislead. Some were speculative — possibly true, possibly not — but were presented as if they are established facts. A few were easily-refuted falsehoods.
Trying to produce an itemized response to such piles of crap would be hopeless; it is easy for someone to throw out lies, expending just a few seconds per lie, but it takes quite a while to refute even the most obviously false. Moreover, there are so many tobacco control industry people like this out there that they can collectively fling their lies at 10,000 times the rate that we can respond. A war of attrition is a sure loser.
What to do? One tempting response is to just fling back (hopefully just truths, for they are also able to challenge any lies or errors), but that still leaves us buried by the weight of numbers. The best hope is to convince sensible readers/listeners that if someone’s claims include statements that are obviously false, it is wise to assume that some or perhaps most of the rest of what they say is also lies, and it would be best to just ignore them.
For example, that tobacco control company’s claims included blaming “marketing” for the increasing popularity of e-cigarettes and “To the spectator, there is no difference in appearance of someone smoking a cigarette and someone using an electronic cigarette.” These are obviously blatantly false and it is easy to convince someone of that (so obvious and easy that I will not spend the words here). Renee Coleman-Mitchell of the CT Health Dept claimed that e-cigarettes should be banned until current CDC research on them is complete (as far as anyone knows, CDC is doing no such research; the logic is dumb anyway, but the easy response is about the clear factual lie). Pamela A. Mautte, on behalf of another government-funded company, claimed as part of their effluent that e-cigarettes taste just like smoking (which they went on to contradict) and that nicotine users cannot monitor their own usage.
Some anti-THR liars are clever enough to avoid easily refuted lies, but most are not. They are either so clueless as to not know what lies are easy to refute or have an arrogant (though not entirely inaccurate) belief that they can get away with anything. So they make some claims that can be shown to be false in just a few sentences. The key, then, is explaining to people that they should not believe the rest of it either. You might think that would be easy. It seems like it should be obvious. But scientific exchange and most other human interaction is built on trust, and our natural tendency is to trust.
I know that when I am casually reading something for information on a topic, and have enough expertise to spot some clear errors but not enough to be sure about the rest of it, I just stop reading. I realize that some or all of the rest of what I might be “learning” is probably also wrong, and I do not want to risk accidentally adding false “knowledge” to my worldview. Notice that my approach is not to just decide to be skeptical as I keep reading. That does not work because I have the same programming that most of us do — to believe what we hear/read until educated otherwise.
So the question is how to convince people to withdrawal that trust entirely. It ought to be possible. How can it not be possible to convince many (not all) people to not believe obvious liars? But as you might guess from my lack of a concrete suggestion, I am not sure how to do it. I tend to resort to the obvious simple plea, which is not sufficiently successful: point out that someone has made numerous errors in their claims and I do not have time to respond to them all, but I can point out and refute a few examples. I usually do not assume that the reader will get the next step, and so make it explicit: do not believe the rest of their claims either, because a lot are equally wrong and the author clearly does not know what he is talking about.
How can we do that better? I will keep thinking about it, though I do not expect any great insight in the next few weeks that I overlook for many years. Any suggestions?