Tag Archives: logic

The CT Marathon, and seeking how to argue “do not believe anyone who says…”

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?

Kelvin Choi is a liar

by Carl V Phillips

A new ANTZ on the scene seems to be aspiring to be the new Ellen Hahn.  I supposed it is possible, given that he is at University of Minnesota that he aspires to the be the new Stephen Hecht, but that might be a stretch since Hecht seems to do somewhat useful bench science, and then just lies about the health and political implications.  Choi, by contrast, seems to be fully ensconced in the “public health” junk science paradigm.  Consider this recent abstract:

Objectives. We assessed the characteristics associated with the awareness, perceptions, and use of electronic nicotine delivery systems (e-cigarettes) among young adults. Methods. We collected data in 2010-2011 from a cohort of 2624 US Midwestern adults aged 20 to 28 years. We assessed awareness and use of e-cigarettes, perceptions of them as a smoking cessation aid, and beliefs about their harmfulness and addictiveness relative to cigarettes and estimated their associations with demographic characteristics, smoking status, and peer smoking. Results. Overall, 69.9% of respondents were aware of e-cigarettes, 7.0% had ever used e-cigarettes, and 1.2% had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days. Men, current and former smokers, and participants who had at least 1 close friend who smoked were more likely to be aware of and to have used e-cigarettes. Among those who were aware of e-cigarettes, 44.5% agreed e-cigarettes can help people quit smoking, 52.8% agreed e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes, and 26.3% agreed e-cigarettes are less addictive than cigarettes. Conclusions. Health communication interventions to provide correct information about e-cigarettes and regulation of e-cigarette marketing may be effective in reducing young adults’ experimentation with e-cigarettes. (Am J Public Health. Published online ahead of print January 17, 2013: e1-e6. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2012.300947).

Let’s set aside obvious problems, like the limited value for anything other than historical tracking of an awareness survey about e-cigarettes from 2010, or describing 20-something-year-olds as “experimenting”, as if they are children.  (Many of those crazy kids are also experimenting with buying houses, military service, and parenthood.)  Consider the core conclusion.  How can a simple cross-sectional survey of awareness and belief tell us anything about the effects of communication and regulatory interventions?  If you said, “I have no idea”, you nailed it.  It is a complete lie that the conclusion follows from the research.

And, of course, there is the little matter of which bits of information he wants to correct.  Does he want to help the 55.5% who do not realize that e-cigarettes help smokers quit?  Or is it the 47.2% who do not realize they are lower risk than smoking?  As you might guess, it is the ones who actually know the truth that he wants to “correct”.

(Note:  I trust my regular readers will recognize as subtle ridicule my use of three significant figures in reporting those numbers.  As anyone who understands sampling — and anyone familiar with my writing — knows that reporting that level of unwarranted precision is a bit of junk science in itself.)

There is some potential usefulness in the actual survey in terms of helping us learn about the rate of at which accurate knowledge of e-cigarettes and THR has spread.  However, what has no apparent usefulness are Choi’s thoughts and opinions, as evidenced by this interview.

I will skip past his first answer, a remarkably amateurish description of what e-cigarettes are, something that could be corrected by basically anyone who is familiar with the topic.  (But go ahead and read the whole interview if you are inclined to find unintentional comedy in ANTZ rantings — it is a good one for that.)  I skip that because it gets far worse:

There are a variety of reasons why e-cigarettes are unhealthy. First, they contain nicotine, which is a known addictive chemical. A recent study conducted by Vansickel and Eissenberg found that experienced e-cigarette users can obtain a significant amount of nicotine through e-cigarettes, which may be comparable to smoking cigarettes.

E-cigarettes deliver nicotine?  Who knew?  Glad we had that study (by the guy who originally claimed just the opposite and never admitted his error — but that is another story).  And the reason that they are unhealthy is that this chemical is addictive (whatever the heck that means), not because it is harmful.  Choi might want to ask for a tuition refund from whoever claims to have taught him about health.

Second, previous chemical analyses of the e-cigarette nicotine liquid found that some samples contain tobacco-specific cancer-causing agents and anti-freeze.

Yawn.  Yes, this PhD “researcher” cannot do any better than some random county public health nurse, citing the propaganda (rather than the actual scientific results) from the FDA.  Another tuition refund, please.  Oh, but wait.  Maybe that nurse could do better.  She probably would not claim that e-cigarettes actually “contain…anti-freeze” [sic], but merely “an ingredient found in antifreeze”.  The latter form of this is an example of lying with literal truths, of course, as previously discussed in this blog (did you know that breast milk contains an ingredient found in antifreeze?!! we should stop nursing babies immediately!).  Apparently Hahn Junior does not even realize that he is reciting propaganda meant to confuse people — he is among the genuinely confused.

Third, with the product being promoted as a cigarette alternative at places where smoking is not allowed, smokers may use these products to sustain their nicotine addiction, and may therefore be less likely to quit smoking

And another “problem” that is not an actual health risk from e-cigarettes.  That “where smoking is not allowed” pseudo-argument deserves a post or two of its own, which I will do that soon.  So today I will politely refrain from pointing out how utterly moronic it is.

And that is all he offers.  Not even a single claim of health risk.  Apparently he wants to keep people from “experimenting” with e-cigarettes because they… …um… cause no health risk at all.

Oh, but it gets dumber.  So much dumber.

I think the perception of e-cigarettes as cessation aids is of the greatest concern. First, this perception may drive young adults to use e-cigarettes when trying to quit smoking instead of proven-effective cessation treatments. To date, no studies have shown that e-cigarettes are more effective than proven-effective cessation treatments such as nicotine replacement therapy and counseling. Therefore, e-cigarettes may hinder young adult smokers from quitting smoking.

E-cigarettes are (correctly) perceived as being useful for quitting smoking?  Well, that is a dire concern indeed.  As for the claim they are not shown to be more effective than other methods that are “proven” to help a mid-single-digit percentage of smokers quit (to charitably take a best-case figure from the biased research on the topic), so what?  Even setting aside the fact that he is baldly lying about that — the evidence strongly supports the claim that e-cigarettes are more effective — how exactly do they prevent someone who wants to quit smoking from trying those other methods if the e-cigarettes do not work?

Anyone with a basic understanding about smokers and quitting — even at the casual layperson level of knowing actual humans who smoke or smoked — understands that most people who are interested in quitting try multiple methods.  How exactly can one method, even if he genuinely believes it is of no value at all, interfere with the others?  Does he really think that smokers are so dumb as to say “well, I wanted to quit and tried an e-cigarette, but it did not work for me, so I will just keep smoking because I have never heard of any other method I might try.”  Gee, if only there were some way to inform smokers that the powers-that-be think they should try NRT and counseling.  Someone should really get on that.

And if Choi really believes that introducing a new method of quitting will actually prevent the use of other options, does he rail against the introduction of new NRT products or counseling methods because they will keep people from trying the existing methods he thinks are actually “proven”?  I didn’t think so.

In short, either he has not even given enough thought to this topic to be considered even a generally aware layperson, and so is grossly lying about his expertise, or he is just making up lies because he wants a ride on the ANTZ gravy train.

Is there more?  Oh, yes, there is more.  It will have to wait until the next post.

Opinion surveys provide information about personal beliefs and behavior – only!

by Carl V Phillips

Why am I writing a post under a heading that is so incredibly obvious?  Because in the world of the tobacco control industry, even incredibly obvious truths are often ignored.

Survey research that asks people what they have done or experienced is often the only source of scientific data that addresses those questions.  Also, when we are interested in people’s personal preferences or guesses about something, some sort of survey is often the only way to find out.  The problem comes in when someone who does not understand science — or whose job description includes pretending to pretend to not understand — says, “hey, we use survey data as scientific fact when studying behavior and exposures, and opinion polls look similar to behavior and exposure surveys, so it must be that the results of opinion polls can be used as scientific data.”  Um, yeah.

Surveys about opinions are, of course, evidence of what people think, which is interesting for answering some questions.  But those are questions about belief/knowledge/understanding/confusion, not about the physical world.  Some of you might recall that the whole “third hand smoke” scam traces back to a survey where random people with no expertise were actively tricked into saying they believe that it is a hazard.

There are methods of aggregating the opinions of people with some expertise to crowdsource a legitimate prediction about some event.  It only works with predictions, though, because it requires placing a bet on the outcome which are paid out when the outcome is determined.  This is how we determine the probability of a sports team winning a game and also has been used in some clever tools for predicting elections.  Those who respond to these surveys (other than with small self-entertainment bets that are not going to be big enough to affect what the crowd predicts) are self-selected people who think that they know enough to come out ahead on their bets, not just the average person on the street.  And, importantly, there is a punishment (losing the money you bet) for expressing an opinion that is uneducated, or that you know to be wrong — this is not cheap talk.

Contrast this with a recent “study” that used an opinion poll to “predict” the effects of plain packaging of cigarettes.  The “researchers” asked a handful of people in the tobacco control industry, presumably many of whom are directly invested in the plain packaging boondoggle, what will happen and reported the result as if it was a useful prediction.  Needless to say, the prediction of the effect of taking away brand logos by the people who have run out of useful things to suggest, was an absurdly large impact.

I would write more, but there is no way to usefully add to what Snowdon (who reported this story) already wrote about this, so give his very funny post a quick read.

The limitation of this survey is just the obvious point that the respondents are not only ridiculously biased, but they have absolutely no incentive to give an accurate prediction or to refrain from predicting if they lack confidence in their opinion.  The “researchers”, had they been interested in actually learning something, could have asked the respondents to place a bet, but did not.  Without a bet, there is no incentive to tell the truth because there are absolutely no penalties in the tobacco control industry for making incorrect predictions or scientific declarations that are clearly shown to be false.  It would be delightful to see ANTZ “researchers” and “experts” being held to account for lying and forced to do a Lance Armstrong, begging for forgiveness, promising (without credibility) to never do it again, and begging to not have to give up the hundreds of millions of dollars they swindled by lying.

Another recent example of dumb polling is more troublesome in its implications.  A media blast by the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies (Steve Schroeder must just be so proud of the “research” that is coming out attached to his name) claimed that it is a good idea to mandate a lowering of the nicotine content of cigarettes because a majority of random Americans were tricked into saying they thought it was a good idea by a survey.  (For more details, see this article, which unlike the usual churnalism includes good analysis by Michael Siegel and others.)  It turns out that this “majority” consists of forty-something percent, but we do not expect basic numeracy from tobacco control, so I will just move on.

What does this survey really tell us?  It tells us that the tobacco control industry’s efforts to confuse people about the source of harms and benefits from smoking have been rather successful, though surprisingly not quite as successful as one might have guessed.  Obviously it tells us nothing about whether such a policy would actually be a good idea by any measure.  It does not even tell us whether people really have this belief in any meaningful sense, or if they merely decided to agree with the statement while blasting through a survey.  Polling people about something they have never given any serious thought is unlikely to provide useful information, even if they have no incentive to be dishonest and even if they might know something about it. Even a poll of people asking them how far they could drive given the gas currently in their car is well within their expertise to answer, but their answers would not be very accurate.   They would just give a snap answer without bothering to go check how much gas they have, let alone calculate their mileage.

It is obviously worse when the question is well beyond people’s expertise.  We know, after all, that a majority (a term I am using like the Schroeder Institute people do, to mean “at least a substantial minority”) also believe, without any scientifically defensible basis whatsoever, that: we should not worry about the future because the gods are going to end life on Earth within our lifetimes; that it is healthier to eat “organic” foods; that screening mammography provides a major health benefit; that Iraq posed a threat to the US in 2003; that current-tech wind turbines are an environmentally friendly way to generate electricity; and that cutting government spending in an economic depression characterized by zero-lower bound interest rates.

The problem is that for all but the first two of those, policies have conformed to the opinion of that majority (or “majority”) that is unmoored by the facts and the science.  What distinguishes the first two from the others?  For all of the others, the rich and powerful people profited by keeping people ignorant and getting them to believe, and thus support, something that is false.  While the tobacco control industry is not nearly as rich and powerful as those who have profited from the mammography, wind turbine, and Iraq War boondoggles, they differ only in degree, not in their willingness to foster ignorance to support their cause.  So there is little doubt that they will use the cultivated ignorance to further their agenda.

Reducing nicotine content reduces the benefit of smoking a cigarette while not reducing the harm.  The same would be true for adding some harmless but foul-tasting chemical to the cigarettes.  The main difference is that the latter option would almost certainly cause people to smoke less, while everything we know suggests that lowering nicotine content will cause people to smoke more.  If people had been polled about a proposal to add the foul chemical to cigarettes, it is likely that a smaller “majority”, maybe 25%, would support that too — because they basically favor prohibition, and that would be roughly equivalent.  But no one would mistake that for scientific evidence that the policy would have a positive impact on the world.  Whatever someone might think of the ethics of intentionally lowering the quality of cigarettes to discourage smoking, it seems that the dumbest possible way to do it is in a way that makes people want to smoke more.  Make no mistake, reducing nicotine is benefit reduction, not harm reduction.

[Aside: It is worth noting that while all the evidence suggests that substantially lowering the nicotine content would increase harm, this does not mean that substantially raising the nicotine content would reduce harm.  So much of smoking behavior is habitual (and many people seem to smoke enough that at the margin their nicotine receptors should already be saturated) that it is not entirely clear that higher nicotine would reduce total smoking, unless accompanied by some other change like making the cigarettes shorter ("same great nicotine with only half the stick").  But at that point, why not just advocate replacing some of someones daily cigarettes with smoke-free nicotine?  That would have the advantage of encouraging a complete switch, as well as avoiding several obvious downsides.]

To sum up, there is a lot to be learned about perception, propaganda, and ethics from looking at results of surveys like this.  But there is nothing useful to be learned about science or science-related policy.  That finally circles my thinking back to a survey from 2003 that is a large part of why I was inclined to address these points.  It is still cited as if it actually represents an estimate of the risk of smoke-free alternatives, a practice I have repeatedly criticized but apparently never posted about.  But this is already enough for the day, so I will try to come back to that.

Aside: Something is always worst

posted by Carl V Phillips

I recently found myself making a brief comment in a conversation about anti-tobacco activism, asking (not for the first time, as you might guess), by what right do those people presume to tell others how to live their lives?  These people have convinced themselves not just that such nannying is a legitimate and even worthy cause, but that it is so worthy that it trumps every rule of ethical behavior, such as honesty (thus the need for this blog).  By what right?

Based on the content of their monologues, I am fairly certain that if faced with that question (if those people ever entered into conversations outside of their echo chamber), the answer would often be based on the claim, “it is the leading preventable cause of death”.

I would be really interested in hearing the answer to the follow-up question, “by what right do you presume to tell others that they must avoid the leading preventable cause of death.”  But setting that aside, as well as the fact that the this “leading preventable” claim is inherently nonsense, let us just accept their logic:  If something is the leading preventable cause of death, then it warrants all manner of expensive, utility reducing, and civil liberty destroying interventions.

Now imagine that they succeed (or, if you prefer a realistic scenario, that THR succeeds) and smoking is dramatically reduced, and so use of tobacco and nicotine is no longer leading.  The activists will be loath to admit this has occurred, ending their gravy train, but posit that at some point they will have to.  After all, they keep claiming that day is just around the corner.  Once that happens, something else is the leading preventable cause of death and, by their logic, warrants the full-blown attack on welfare and freedom.  That is the way superlatives work: even if nothing is all that bad, something is still worst.

In all the arguments about the “slippery slope”, in which the anti-tobacco activists claim there is no such slope while others observe it is playing out just that way, the activists protest that there is no such risk because there is something unique about their current cause.

It is the worst.

They do not seem to realize that by making that very quasi-argument, they are undermining their own claim of uniqueness, and thus the logic (such as it is) of their own answer to the “by what right?” question.