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?


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

  1. I often argue to people using FDA lies to that scare them into avoiding trying the e-cig alternative by showing them all the previous lies made by the FDA about everything from GMO food, fluoride in drinking water, letting harmful drugs on the market only to be recalled after research shows they’re dangerous, hormones and anti-biotics in meat (and dairy), aspartame, etc. I try to show that the FDA is not a public health advocacy group, but is instead sponsered by corporate interests, not science. The history of the FDA proves who they are, and it should be fully exposed so people will “know the enemy.”

  2. Pingback: The CT Marathon, and seeking how to argue “do not believe anyone who says…” | vapeforlife

  3. Pingback: The CT Marathon, and seeking how to argue "do not believe anyone who says..." | Tobacco Harm Reduction |

  4. 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.”

    Their lies are their weakest point. Every time you expose one you automatically cast the rest of what they say into doubt. If you can take a piece of multi-sound-bite testimony like you described and send the councilors/reps a brief but forceful piece by piece expose of the lies, it should have an effect. See what I sent to Philadelphia’s City Council seven years ago when I got hit with a similar serial liar:

    That sort of multi-claim soundbite argument is, I believe, called a “Gish Gallup” on the Internet and is slammed as bad debating form. But at least on the Internet it can be defeated by step by step analysis. In person, operating within time slots, it’s harder but can still be done if you really know your stuff.

    Make notes of each point/lie that’s made. Then, when it’s your turn, say, “Mr. X made 17 different claims in his five minute testimony. If Council would give me 3 minutes to explain why each one was a lie I’d be happy to. Since you probably won’t give me that I’ll start from his last one and work my way backwards till my time is up: you’ll just have to believe me when I say I can keep going as long as you’d allow.” And then try to demolish the lies in reverse order in just a minute or two apiece till they look like they’re about to hit you with their mallet and then finish up with the reminder, “I could do that to EVERYTHING he said if I had the time here. NOTHING he said should be accepted as true.”

    And if at some point you get hit with a study that you CAN’T immediately debunk? Well, James Randi wasn’t ALWAYS able to debunk every psychic he went to — e.g. there’s no way he could PROVE that Madame TuTu didn’t hear dead voices in her head — but he was able to expose every psychic who *could* be exposed, and thereby cast pretty strong doubt on Madame TuTu and her ghosty ears.



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  6. It was interesting to read the above post,but the message I got from it was how do you get the liars to accept the truth.My only humble suggestion,which you would have thought of already is for a roundtable discussion with learned participants on a live TV program,beamed live nationwide.Let the public make up their minds,and lets see how things go from there ❗

    • Devinna, the live nationwide approach would be GREAT… if anyone had the money for it, which none of us, either those fighting the Antismokers on smoking bans or those more recently fighting them on antivaping activity. Plus, at least on the smoking ban front outside of a few hotspots like NOLA at the moment, it would be hard to draw a nationwide audience of listeners who’d be interested enough to plop down ready to listen to a full roundtable discussion. Sure, we’d draw our supporters and we *might* draw a few of the real “liars”… but neither of those is our audience: for us to have an effect we need to reach out to the passers-by, those who are mildly affected by and vaguely interesting in the bans, but who, for the most part just sort of mildly assent to “prevailing opinion” and “the experts” because they’ve never noticed anything substantial out there challenging them. Every time we can convince such a 55- or 65-percent-leaning passerby to listen to us long enough to hear a single popular lie thoroughly smashed… we move them. And with a bit of luck we move them to stick around long enough, either in an interview or on a news board or within a blog posting, that they then see another, and another, and another lie successfully challenged we move them from being an “Innocent Anti” toward being a Neutral or even being a “Smokie Symp” as the Antis might refer to the group if they began growing large enough to be a threat.

      The trick is to reach out to enough of those passers-by with a sexy enough message that they stop to hear it long enough to get moved on the spectrum… and to accomplish that reaching-out with no funds. The Vapers at this point may have the organisation and enough funding to get in front of slightly more powerful microphones than the smoking “Free Choice” activists, but for the most part their message is simply one that’s being heard as “We’re not as bad as smokers.” and until you’ve gotten your audience to accept the fact that they may have been lied to about the totally Satanic nature of smokers, they’re not going to find that argument particularly compelling.

      The Antis like to attack the tobacco companies as “Merchants Of Doubt” — which they were — but think about why the tobacco companies, with the best advertising brains of Madison Avenue behind them, chose that approach for their campaign: they did it because it was effective. In their case they may have done it with a lot of lies, but it worked — at least for a good number of years. In our case we don’t need the lies, but that just makes the approach all the stronger: once you can show that the Liars are indeed “The Liars” on any front, then you weaken their message on all fronts. That’s why the Smokers need to support the Vapers, and it’s also why the Vapers need to support the Smokers. Both are being unjustly attacked as killing the innocent women, children, and pure-hearted-‘n-lunged who are, in reality, not being killed at all outside the fantasies of the Antis. Yes, the argument can be made that concentrated long-term exposures to high levels of tobacco smoke would likely be more damaging than similar concentrated long-term exposures to vapors — but the reality is that neither is damaging enough in the normal decently-ventilated levels that would be commonly encountered today to be a
      “threat” to anyone today other than that micro-percentage who feign or feel the wisps of either to be a “trigger” for the anxieties that can bring on something like an asthma attack.

      Expose the lies in either battle, and you ultimately support both battles — as long as you’re not simultaneously taking pot shots at your companions in the trenches.

      – MJM

  7. It’s a real Catch 22 situation isn’t it ❗

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