More on the ecig advocates’ descent toward junk science

by Carl V Phillips

There is a cliché about certain types of institutional crimes, that it is not the act itself but the cover-up that causes the real trouble. The erroneous headline claim in the recent Public Health England (PHE) paper, that e-cigarette use is 95% less harmful than smoking, would generate nothing more than a fleeting rebuttal and represent nothing more than footnote to the history were it not for the equivalent of that cover-up. But some of the more serious commentators in the e-cigarette advocacy world, along with countless others, have rushed to defend the error. And I have found this truly scary.

For context on the subject matter, see my previous post, which you can follow back for more detail. The short version is that the PHE authors repeated what is just a made-up number (and not even a made-up number that is (a) plausible or (b) even supposedly a measure of comparative risk) that appeared in a junk science paper by Nutt et al., presenting it as if it were scientifically valid; this claim appeared in the headline under which PHE published the paper. For context on what I am responding to below, you can look at my twitter feed, at the comments others directed toward me. (I trust it is obvious that while Twitter is a great medium for announcements, quips, and simple observations, it does not offer a sensible way to try to have a conversation. Thus I mostly did not try to respond there, but rather wrote this post, which has a comments section that allows for better discussion. See the previous post for a good example of such conversation. Also, you presumably realize that this extrapolates to me not intending to “discuss” this on twitter in response to the next round of quips there.)

Why is it scary? For one thing, it is difficult to not fear where we end up a year from now, moving down this path. Pro-ecig advocacy’s relationship with science went from being way ahead of the legitimate science c.2008, to mostly highly serious and science-based c.2010, to the movement becoming so large that the science was part of the conversation but was mostly treated as a weapon c.2013. But even as that last bit occurred — as is almost inevitable when a mass activist movement forms — the serious opinion leaders remained anchored in a commitment to good science. But the recent events show that there are cracks in that anchor, suggesting we may be approaching the point where many other good and legitimately science-based causes took a permanent turn for the worse, becoming both less effective and less beneficial.

In addition, down the path of even the serious opinion leaders treating science as a mere weapon for a political cause lies disdain for any good science that does not benefit the politics. Sometimes a “bad” result is correct and represents useful information for consumers. But if the responses to every concern about a possible harm from e-cigarettes degenerate into knee-jerk rebuttals — and we are getting rather close to that point — then potentially beneficial knowledge will be ignored. When scientific claims are just weapons, the ability to detect whether a concern is legitimate tends to be lost to those within the cause. Consumers need accurate health information, not claims that are most convenient for advocacy, so that they can make informed choices that are best for themselves.

Even more information is lost to those outside the cause. Consider the various “healthy eating” movements, many of which contain bits of good advice for consumers. But the useful information is embedded in a corpus of junk science that exists to defend the cause against all critique. As a result, people either subscribe to a particular food cult, buying into a lot of misinformation, or dismiss everything they say, losing some good information. It becomes something like cheering for one sports team over another, as is common for impersonal political issues (e.g., macroeconomic policy, climate change). Similarly, there are legitimate concerns about childhood vaccines, particularly for some identifiable individuals, but anti-vaxxers and their junk science have so poisoned the well that there is little useful discussion or understanding of this point.

The following are responses to some of the claims I have seen over the last few days that the 95% claim was just fine. I have ignored the ones that were less cogent and I have tried to distill them down to their best essence.

“But we need to make such claims because….”

This is nonsense at multiple levels.

First, even if this were a valid response, it would only be a response to a statement that included “…and therefore we should….” But it is being presented as a rebuttal of the mere observation that the claim is junk. If someone writes “I concede that this claim is junk science, but we should endorse it anyway because…”, then perhaps they are being serious. But instead the implicit claim is often “we need to make such claims, and therefore the scientific criticism of the claim is wrong.” Um, no.

Second, what possible good can come from making up a clearly wrong number and pretending it is scientific when the truth is sufficient to make the point? It makes no sense. Is the target audience more likely to be persuaded by junk science that is easily debunked rather than a true statement that sounds pretty much the same to the audience? It is difficult to imagine why. Meanwhile, when the specific claim is debunked by those hostile to the overall message — and it has been already — it makes it much easier for those who are inclined to dismiss the entire legitimate message to do so.

Just in case I have to repeat this five times (and I have a feeling I do), the scary problem is not the initial mistake, but the desperate response to defend it. It is my assessment, based on my knowledge of advocacy movements from the inside and via study, that the initial mistake is itself actively harmful. But even if you doubt that conclusion, it should be obvious it was not helpful compared to just substituting something accurate. So why man the barricades to defend the mistake? It reminds me a lot of the tobacco controllers’ code of omerta, to never criticize any anti-tobacco claim that anyone makes, no matter how wrong it is.

Third, if trafficking in junk science really were required to make our case, then we would face a serious ethical problem. This is not just because of the moral case against lying, though that is fairly compelling argument in itself. But if you need to lie to make your case, you should probably stop and ask yourself whether what you are trying to argue is actually right. As noted, this is moot in the present case because the truth can be used to make the same point even better. But the mere willingness to say that a junk science claim is needed suggests a rather scary degradation of ethics.

Fourth, the unstated premise is that trafficking in junk science would be good for the cause, so long as it is the right junk science. Oh, really? I cannot think of a single example of a cause like this (insurgent, narrowly focused, consumer oriented) where that was a good strategy. I suspect that most of those implicitly making this argument have little experience with such causes, either personally or by way of study. I am open to suggestions, but I cannot think of anything. I can, however, think of movements that foundered there, and reasons why we should expect exactly that to happen. Plenty of good and defensible causes have turned into fringe cults that no one outside the cult takes seriously because they pursued the junk science track.

Keep in mind that trafficking in junk science is an effective strategy for those in particular positions, but this does not generalize. It works great if you have a powerful echo chamber and are just using it to keep the useful idiots in line. The upsides (when they exist, unlike in this particular case) can outweigh the downsides when you have pet media, are a government, or otherwise have a very loud megaphone, and thus can just shout-down the debunking. Junk science is often very effective at attacking science-based insurgent movements. I trust it is obvious that none of these describe the situation for pro-ecig advocacy, though it happens that all of them describe the tobacco control industry’s situation. Wars are often asymmetric, and so adopting the enemy’s tactics can be a losing strategy. In this case, given the lack of a loud megaphone and only a tiny non-influential echo chamber which does not really need to be stoked, it is undoubtedly a losing strategy to mimic tobacco control’s dishonest tactics, even apart from the ethics of it.

It is worth noting that the anti-smoking movement started out science-based and honest. Almost all the reduction in smoking from its peak was caused by honest education. The morphing into the lie-based tobacco control industry came at the same time that they stopped succeeding at reducing smoking beyond the steady downward trend that was caused by the honest approach from past decades (not to say this is causal; it just points out that they clearly cannot be said to have become more successful when they started lying).

The modern success of tobacco control in keeping people smoking, by opposing THR, is attributable to them seizing power and money, not to some magical effect of their junk science. That is just fodder for their echo chamber. It is difficult to argue that the trafficking in junk science has itself made any difference in terms of policy: The American, Canadian, and Australian governments shovel out tons of anti-THR junk science to their people, while the Europeans and Asians basically just impose autocratic rules from on-high. Yet all of these places have e-cigarette bans or severe restrictions, either in place or in the pipeline. It is the power, not trafficking the junk science, that makes that happen.

“This is not using junk science to further a political aim”

This is really a subordinate point, but it bugs me enough that it gets its own entry. In response to arguments that it is simply never ok to employ junk science to further one’s political goals, there have been responses along the lines of “this is not political: this is an effort to correct widespread misperceptions.” Um, yeah.

If someone wants to argue that it is acceptable to use junk science to further a political aim, they can try to defend that. But claiming that this is not political is a truly awful step on the descent toward becoming a cult. If the goal is changing the world, then you are talking about a political act; that is what the word means. If someone genuinely thinks “this is not political because it is doing something good”, that is a serious problem. News flash: every political activist thinks they are doing good, including the ones who want to create the misperceptions you object to. As soon as your defense of what you are doing descends to the point of saying “whatever I do is fine because I am doing it for a good cause” — and “this is not political” claim is a version of that — there is a severe erosion of the barriers that normally provide a check against very unfortunate actions.

“The estimate is close enough to the real expert estimate”

This is actually false, and not in a harmless way. As I and others have noted, the affirmative claim that vaping causes 5% of the health risk that smoking causes is a claim that vaping is quite bad for you. Parsing that with the accepted propaganda about smoking, it means that about 1 in 40 vapers will be killed by vaping. That makes it worse than any other common behavior other than smoking — far worse than driving, worse than all but the most extreme overeating. Also keep in mind that estimates are properly interpreted as being point estimates with some uncertainty on both sides (in spite of the PHE authors reciting their claim as if it were exactly precisely right), which means this claim says that there is roughly a 50% chance the risk is worse than that. Defending that is not clever.

But if it were true, why source it to a made-up number — and one that does not even say what the PHE authors claims it did, even apart from it being just made up (see previous post) — and declare that to be a source of scientific information? Why not instead present this real expert estimate that is being referenced? (Note that I am not entirely sure what real expert estimate such claims refer to. The evidence-based expert estimate I am aware of is an analysis along the lines of: “The chemistry of vapor suggests that vaping is almost certainly only slightly worse for you than smokeless tobacco (which is our only measure of the effects of using nicotine without smoke). ST use appears to be about 99% less harmful than smoking, though it may be completely harmless or even beneficial. Therefore the risk from vaping is most likely in that same range.” Yes, it is possible that vaping is so much more harmful than ST use that it is 5% as harmful as smoking — as I noted in the previous post, some versions of it undoubtedly are — but this seems vanishingly unlikely for “normal” vaping. It is worth mentioning that the junk paper by Nutt et al. made up a number for the risk from ST use that are enormously higher than the number they made up for vaping. There is no conceivable scientific basis for making such a comparative claim, further emphasizing the worthlessness and of their made-up numbers.)

But most important, and here is the crux of all of this again, why would it ever be a good idea to man the barricades to defend the junk claim based on this? If a claim that is sourced to junk science is close enough to what the real science shows (which is not true in this case, but imagine some other case where it was true), then why defend the use of junk science, making the credibility of the whole message depend on defending the original junk source? Instead, push for the substantive claim to be based on real science. This might seem to entail a bit of short-run cost, due to not being able to uncritically embrace some particular publication, but it is far better in the long run. Moreover, it is not as if the particular publication will stand up to scrutiny, so the apparent short run cost is probably moot. It is better to get ahead of the inevitable criticism of the junk science that will come from those who wish to dismiss the entire substantive claim.  

“Just an estimate”

Some commentators have sought to excuse the reporting of a clearly inaccurate made-up number under the claim “the best estimate” by suggesting “hey, they said it was just an estimate.” But the word “estimate” does not mean “we are reporting something that is wrong.” It is a scientific term that refers to the best available scientific measure of a quantity (with an implication that we think it is a pretty solid measure), as in “the estimated speed of light in a vacuum”, or if clearly specified as such it can mean the specific measure that comes from a particular measurement effort, as in “the estimate of the increase in heart attack risk from nicotine consumption from this data and model is…..” The number reported by the PHE authors was neither of those.

Perhaps that observation gave you a sense of “where have I heard something like this before?” It is remarkably similar to the anti-scientific games played by those who deny the history of the planet and life by saying “evolution is just a theory.” Presumably if you are savvy enough to be reading this blog, you know the response is that a scientific theory is the best evidence-based understanding of a phenomenon that we have available, and moreover one that is well enough established that we are pretty confident about the core claim. But the anti-scientists think (or, more realistically, pretend to think, and try to trick others into actually thinking) that “theory” refers to a mere musing, as it is sometimes used in common language. In a scientific context, authors cannot just make up a story and call it a theory or just make up a number and call it an estimate.

“What they really meant was….”

If they really meant something different, why did they not say something different? If these same authors were previously on record as saying “at least 95% less harmful” and that is what they meant to communicate in this report, they sure picked a funny way of trying to do it. (Besides, that claim is also wrong, as explained in the previous post.) If they really meant to claim that their estimate was based on something more than the one junk science paper, why did they just cite it to that paper (along with mentions of  some commentary papers that included no attempt to construct a scientific estimate for this figure) and say nothing about any other basis for the number? In any case, saying they really meant something different is not a rebuttal of the observation that what they said was wrong, but an endorsement of it.

If they really meant something different, you would think the authors would be anxious to post a correction. Some commentators have suggested this can be found in a subsequent note by the PHE authors in which they seem to be trying to imply — without stating this as their purpose — that they were not basing their claim entirely on one junk paper. But if you look at their text, they say just the opposite. The have a couple of sentences about why we can be sure the risk from vaping is much lower than from smoking, but this is not in dispute and is obviously quite different from asserting a particular quantity. They then assert (without further methodological elaboration) that they are not aware of any new research, appearing after the number was concocted, that shows the Nutt et al. number to be wrong and state that it “remains valid as the current best estimate based on the peer-reviewed literature.” This is not a denial that they are just channeling the original made-up, clearly inaccurate, junk science claim, but an explicit confirmation of it. If they had any legitimate scientific basis for their number, they undoubtedly would have mentioned it in their note. Also — and I really hope this goes without saying — if you just make up a number and then observe it has not definitively been demonstrated to be false, this does not make it true.

“Subjective”

One of the authors of the original junk paper apparently tried to defend their “methodology” of just making up numbers on the basis of that all science is subjective, and some others have picked up on this. This is another word game. It is true that if you divide everything into objective and subjective, then all empirical work and scientific conclusion-drawing is subjective. It is done by people and includes countless human judgments. Indeed, when someone tries to claim that a scientific process is objective, or that some particular scientific process is suspect because it is subjective, they clearly do not know what they are talking about. However, the subjectivity of science is not license to just make stuff up.

As with “estimate” and “theory”, which imply a solid scientific basis for a claim, for a subjective process to be scientific some minimum standards are required. It is true that we cannot write down a set of clear rules and call it “the scientific method”; there is no such objective concept, which creates a lot of consternation for people who cannot handle complication. But that does not mean that any method of arriving at a number is as good as any other.

“But that report was great, and it is helpful, and the authors were so brave, and….”

What does any of that have to do with the issue at hand? Yes, the existence of the report is a good thing for the cause, and the vast majority of it is valid. Both of those would still be true had they not headlined it with a junk science claim. Both would still be true if others did not man the omerta barricades over that claim. Neither changes if someone agrees that the particular claim is not valid.

The fact that such non sequitur statements are made in response to criticism of a particular scientific claim is extremely disturbing. The apparent reason is the notion that we have to defend every single word written by “our team”, just like the ANTZ do. That is not a good place to be.

I assume that some of those making these “but…and…and…and…” claims are genuinely worried that this flaw is a threat to all the benefits that the existence of the PHE report offers. But it is not e-cigarette proponents challenging “our team’s” junk science that poses that threat. Opponents will run with it. They are running with it. This is the type of mistake that serious opinion leaders can easily get out in front of, conceding the flaw with a shrug and pushing the focus elsewhere. That can be done based on a moral belief that telling the truth matters or as purely a matter of political tactics. If it is the latter and you find a situation where defending some bit of junk science really seems to be tactically useful and can actually be pulled off… well, I am probably still going to argue the moral position, but you might have a case to make. But this is not that situation.

Instead, this is a situation that needlessly give opponents an opening to claim that the core scientific claims of the movement are junk science. That is not true, obviously. But since it also sends the signal that junk science will be tolerated and actively defended if presented in an important context, it also dramatically increases the chances there will be plenty more of it generated. This will make it even easier for opponents to claim that e-cigarette advocacy is not science-based. It will also dramatically increase the chances that consumers will not be able to trust their own advocates to provide accurate decision-relevant information.

A political movement that ultimately relies on scientific information cannot afford this. If sciencey talk is just used to rally the faction, then accuracy does not much matter. If the crux of the cause were, like many causes, about emotion or “morals” or zero-sum fights, then the sciencey stuff would just be window dressing and the details would not matter. Indeed, if this fight were grounded in freedom of informed choice, as I have suggested it ought to be, it might not matter so much (though I would still be deeply concerned about what this would do to the “informed” bit). But so much of the focus of this fight is selling scientific claims, so there is no room to allow the impression that the scientific basis of e-cigarette THR is fast and loose. Moreover, consumers need to be able to make informed decisions about their own lifestyles, but embracing junk science to try to manipulate the uninformed masses — even if it were an effective tactic — makes it likely that even relatively informed consumers will become immersed in bad information. The well-worn path of other insurgent consumer movements that turned to junk science suggests that this will result in most consumers making their decisions based on whichever cult guru they end up falling in with, rather than on real evidence.

 

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19 responses to “More on the ecig advocates’ descent toward junk science

  1. Some points for those in the Twitter debate about the PHE update and CVP’s response to it…

    Carl is a scientist. He likes to protect the science. You may think he’s a bit snotty, but he wants to protect the science (imagine having seen it kicked around and pissed on for decades, like him). He’s a scientist so for him it’s all about the science.

    The debate is about the science of health, but it is unlikely that debate will ever have anything but the tiniest influence on the laws that affect THR except at local level.

    Nothing affects these laws at federal level (eg. at EU and US Fed level) – only money. The laws are bought & paid for, so forget about influencing them. The propaganda just camouflages the various moves. You can accept the laws or challenge them, you can’t change them. If challenges fail then there is a 30-year wait till the old system collapses. The black [health] market will flourish until that time is up (20 years to go @2015).

    It’s always like that and there are about a hundred blueprints for it. You cannot fight the money and the power, so relax and enjoy it. We’re heading for a ride back to the English 17th century, when smuggling was a national pastime and everyone condoned it, and supported it when they could. When you have an evil government*, you organise the fightback and don’t waste time or effort screaming and sobbing. It passes, with time.
    * Please don’t tell me the EU isn’t evil – it is a vast, stinking cesspit of corruption and exists to take what is yours, including your health, when it pays.

    I don’t agree with anyone in this debate, anyway. It’s a sideshow. Anyone who wants to save lives in the next 20 years should be (a) fundraising for legal challenges, or (b) organising workarounds for the import and sales controls coming, to keep the safer products available on the street. Arguing is fun but won’t achieve anything. One thing I support Carl on is that these people operate using the wedge principle: they lie through their teeth telling you it won’t go any further than their moderate suggestion. When they have that in place, they move on to the next step. Then they eliminate the problem by laws or simply taxing it out of contention. Don’t expect vaping to survive long once they have their first laws in place and enforced – expect it to go the same way as Snus, one way or the other.

    The old packhorse convoys through Rye won’t work this time round, something else needs organising. Fight for your rights or die – simple as that. Just don’t think whining will get you anywhere, the EU and its friends just laugh and count the money. Ker-ching. They’ll make around $20 trillion from you in the next 20 years @$1 trillion a year, so for chrissake stop thinking a bit of whingeing will have any effect.

    • Carl V Phillips

      Just to clarify, because it somehow seems to have gotten lost: I am a scientist, but I am also a strategist. This presentation about my horror at the turn things are taking is motivated by maybe 10% integrity and 90% strategy. The defense of the error is self-defeating. Yes I talked about sciencey points regarding “estimate” and “subjective” and whatnot. But the core of this are the bits where I point out that down this path lies failure, a word which refers to the politics, not the science.

      • If it’s all about tactics, then hammering the few friends we have in the establishment looks a bit daft to me. As much as I love your extremely sharp and competent dissections of junk science, with this rant I just don’t get what it is good for, what is it trying to achieve.
        PHE writes an exceptionally supportive report, in which they use a not-so-perfect study and convey a number to the public that they cannot know with the certainty they appear to claim. So what? It won’t wreck “our” credibility because PHE are not “us”. They are not vaping or THR advocates, they are a public health body. The strategic value of the 95% figure is precisely that it doesn’t come from vaping advocates, but from an official public health authority. The best estimate from (supposedly) impartial experts. Having all these things in an official report puts a lot of force to our case.
        And yes, PHE look at vaping solely in the context of smoking cessation, not consumer choice. We might decry that. But then again, they are not consumer advocates, they are a public health body. They are not interested in consumer choice, and it is kind of not their job. All they care about is whether ecigs lead to less smoking. Would be rather surprising if a public health body issued a report in which they vigorously defended the consumers’ freedom to choose to smoke. Advocates do that, public health bodies don’t.
        In all respect, and I really appreciate what you do, but I think in this case you just got off the rail. We won’t get any better service from the public health establishment than the PHE report. Why pick on that one, of all the flawed studies you could find? And yes, I fully agree — we shouldn’t lie. No need to. Will harm us. Scientifically, I think you massively overblow your case, but that’s another matter. Strategically I am just baffled.

        • Carl V Phillips

          Oh come on. Please read what I am actually writing before you criticize. No one is hammering the original authors and their error. This post that you are commenting on is about the “cover up”, not about the initial error — this is highlighted out in the first sentence and explicitly noted five times (guess I should have done ten). You do not know what this was trying to achieve? Even though the post states repeatedly that this is about my concern that this advocacy movement is going down a self-destructive path.

          And, no, it will not wreck our credibility that one report contains an erroneous number; it would not do so even if CASAA wrote that report. But again, that is not anywhere close to what I said. Please read it again. This is about the urge to embrace and defend the error.

          Recall: “This is the type of mistake that serious opinion leaders can easily get out in front of, conceding the flaw with a shrug and pushing the focus elsewhere.”

    • Chris. I didn’t get that “It’s all about the science”, the takeaway for me was a tactical one. The message I got was that Vaping advocates are not able to do/say the same things as TC. Abandoning the science is just one aspect.

      You can not ‘save’ any lives. Prolong them maybe. I am and have advocated, as you well know, that freedom of choice is important. It is this that is being abandoned. If someone wants to take a riskier path, who am I to stop them? I can provide information, and if I do it should be accurate, but the choice is theirs. Take it up a level and argue there. Vaping, per se, is only one part of this.

      You are probably right in what you say. Let’s wait 20/30 years and it will all cycle back round, though in the past there was not the communication media we have now. So maybe ‘it is different this time’?

      Anyways, how do these thing recycle? People start speaking out, ethically, morally and yes scientifically, to elicit political change. How is it possible to even make a case when all you are left with is junk?

      • Hey Westy. Agree that using junk is a bad idea, but the propaganda war is a dirty war. Truth (aka science) is the first casualty. Sorry, sounds a bit twee… It would be nice if we could remain as the epitome of perfection but even if that were so, it seems unlikely that we’d make any gains as a result. Look at how effective the first real propaganda score we’ve had yet has been. It works. Not sure where you stand on this (unclear from your comment) but on balance I feel that any win is a good win, especially in the propaganda war. A clean, tidy, fair war? No such thing. Keep the high ground morally by sticking to the facts? Yeah but we’ll be the most truthful corpses in the boneyard.

        Agree with you that lives can’t be saved, per se, but it’s how we describe an extension of life past an adverse intervention. Example: you dive into a river and ‘save the life’ of a woman who fell in while struggling with an errant child on a bridge (or whatever). Did you actually save her life? No, she will die anyway, and maybe tomorrow. But her family will thank you for it. Maybe the child fell in instead, and as you are the only swimmer present, you dive in and save her life. Did you really save any life? No, the child will die anyway, someday. But her family will consider you saved her life. If I passed out on the street and fell in front of a bus, but someone pulled me clear just in time, then I’d feel they had saved my life.

        This argument appears to be a matter of semantics – if someone gets an unexpected extension of life past an event that would have ended it, we describe that as ‘saving life’. So if you help someone avoid shortening their life by, say, eight years, then it would commonly be described as ‘saving their life’. Rightly or wrongly – who knows. It’s a simplistic approach but maybe simple is best a lot of the time. It certainly is in the propaganda war :)

        The timescale to defeat of the old system: maybe it might be different in the communication era; but I think the key is money and power, and these are universal. The last example we can look at is McLean’s demolition of the old cargo shipping system and how that changed the world (it massively changed the UK for example, although for some inexplicable reason many people have never heard of McLean and blame it all on Thatcher). I wrote extensively on that here: http://www.ecigarette-politics.com/blog/the-impact-of-technology-change.html

        That was only a few years ago and it took all of thirty years. I don’t see any highly likely way pressure can fix things before the 30-year gap expires, which gives us another 20 to go as ecigs have been around for 10 so far. It would seem to require a very large number of people putting a lot of pressure on their MPs / reps etc. Small concessions are a different matter, there could be some horsetrading on minor details, but that isn’t really the big picture: the money is all on blocking THR. However, big changes can fracture that progression: a successful challenge to the EU law; or Brexit; etc. If any of those major path changes occur then the timescale could well be shortened. Here’s hoping.

        • Carl V Phillips

          Chris, You frequently assert that we just have to lie, we just have to!!! But you have not responded to the challenge I presented, to name a single similar advocacy cause where a shift to lying with junk science resulted in net gains. I am not sure what magical advantages you think result from abandoning credibility. You merely repeat your unsupported assertion it is helpful.

          If you can offer any such example or reason for the generic case, I would then like to see your argument specifically for reciting and defending a junk science claim that is (a) easily debunked, (b) not in any apparent way more compelling to the target audience than the truth would be, and that (c) actually makes a worse case for the cause than telling the truth would have been.

        • Hi Chris, it depends on your strategic aims.
          For example:-
          TC Aim: Get everyone to quit all tobacco products:-

          Tobbaco–>(NRT)*–>Quit
          or possibly
          Tobbaco–>(Ecig)–>(NRT)*–>Quit
          * () indicates optional though obviously promoted.
          The preferred first pathway is under threat and being defended, which can lead to the emergence of the second as the new preferred pathway. The ‘95% Claim’ helps the TC Aim via the second pathway. As you can see, even if Ecigs are accepted (or possibly forced onto a ‘hard core’ population) and tobbaco ceased (made illegal?), all that happens is Ecigs replace tobbaco at the start of the path and the TC Aim continues on track possibly renamed the NC Aim (The original quit smoking aim already seems to be being replaced by quit nicotine) since you have already conceded that e-cigs are harmful.

          Alternate Aim: Social acceptance of Vaping amongst a choice of nicotine products
          Tobacco:Snus:Snuff:Ejuice.
          At first sight it might seem ‘the claim’ is advantageous. However it conflicts with the TC Aim. Snus is banned in the EU (except sweden) despite it’s apparent safety. Even after the PHE report, Nottingham Council has banned e-cigs as part of their [no] smoking policy. A safety claim hasn’t helped whether the claim is accurate or not.

          In this scenario the relative numbers using each type of product can adjust if accurate information is provided. There is no need to coerce. stigmatise or denormalise with there attendant negative consequences. This also fits more closely with your cargo analogy.

          By using the ‘95% Claim’, which is not robust, you score a pyrrhic propaganda victory and lose the war. You will be abandoning a principled, ethical stance and any further attempts to influence will be either extremely difficult or outright lost and with them the Alternative Aim. Therefore was it worth it and do you have an example of where this tactic has worked? What are your specific strategic objectives?

          Saving lives: On a population level this may have some merit. On the individual level not so much. If I encourage someone to switch. have I saved a life? I have no way of knowing, yet you seem to suggest I have. For example, see McTear case.

  2. I thought that I’d better read the Nutt et al report so I did. I see now what you mean (I think!).
    It looks to me as though Nutt told his selected experts what each person’s role was, in the sense, “Hi, George. Can you be the one to dig out the info about the costs to families of smoking? Yeh, we need to be able to compare the different costs of pipe smoking, e-cigs – like what I emailed you about. Better look up the studies and make a list. We only have a couple of days, so keep things brief and to the point”.
    Well, something like that.
    I should imagine that all the figures were collected beforehand and put through the computer program.
    Nothing wrong with that, is there?
    What is wrong is that the results were claimed to be ‘solid’, when in fact they were almost certainly wide of the mark. It’s a bit like saying that pi is “22 divided by 7”. That is OK for primary school maths, but not OK for manufacturing parts for a space shuttle. Actually, as you point out, the Nutt report is actually probably worse than that! The Nutt report seems to suggest that “22 divided by 7” is indeed the precise value of pi. And it is that sort of implied precision which leaves that report open to ridicule.

    Well, that’s what I think…..

  3. Pingback: The Public Health England Report and the Lancet Criticism | Bolton Smokers Club

  4. The thing is it’s a done thing. Not sure what we gain by attacking it from our side other than giving the antz clues how to attack it more?- unless you are hoping Carl that they will be lenient with us because we too see its flaws? I hope it spurs on those that can to do some proper sciencing on it to back up the message

    • Carl V Phillips

      This post was about the answer to that question, the reasons for not supporting bad claims. I gave six or eight of them.

  5. Carl: no doubt it looks as if I condone lying. After all, I do condone counter-propaganda and that may involve some economy with the truth. However I’d prefer to stick with the facts, and try to do so whenever possible.

    What PHE do is nothing to do with us. Elements of the Public Health industry such as PHE are not consumer-related in any way. As part of that industry, and party to its perverted objectives, it will try to use vaping to restrict/ban smoking, and then when that is partly achieved, they will move on to vaping and restrict/ban that in turn. They use lies and the wedge principle to move things along, so nothing else can be expected.

    So if they suffer from some in-fighting and start biting each other, while merrily throwing around a few porkies that happen to suit us, it’s a win for the consumers – for a change. They cannot get away from their habit of lying, their methodology that is based on lying, and their devotion to and worship of lying: it is the core of their being and they can’t survive without it. If they lie to each other and cause a fracture within their ranks, so what. It’s just more Public Health lies and nothing to do with us.

    We all commented on it last week, gratefully, and gave thanks for the win. No amount of praise for some of their lies makes us liars. What should we do, then? Refuse to accept the win? Point out that what PHE say is just as much rubbish as what comes out of Cali? Many of us did that. Luckily it had no effect and the papers just went with the headline. Actually they went with something not even in the report: some tosh about prescription ecigs, from a press conference, which is about as big a fantasy as you can get without signing up for a christmas panto called “Jack and the Magical Medical Ecig”.

    When we start lying blatantly like them is when there will be cause for concern; but we hardly need to, after all. We only need to use the facts, and they do all the lying for us. Divide and conquer works just fine, so let them have at it.

    • Carl V Phillips

      This is mostly not about the morals of lying, whatever one’s view on that. I agree with your point that the problem is that even generally well-meaning people who are immersed in the “public health” tradition have a hard time even realizing what constitutes rubbish or porkies (you blokes have some great words). I also agree that the infighting aspect of this is a bit amusing in its own right.

      However, my concern remains that advocates are accepting the claim (as per the previous posts) and even more so, that they are defending it (as per this post). And I disagree on the “no amount of praise” point: endorsing a lie is lying. Obviously refusing to endorse the one lie does not mean refusing to endorse the corpus of useful and true statements it was embedded in. It is not about the initial wave of press, but our core response to it.

      The last bit is exactly my point. And yet I have seen other good causes that had the truth on their side descend into lying blatantly, and it cost them their credibility. But the thing is, this does represent “start lying blatantly like them”. It is not about the magnitude of the lie (as I noted, this is actually a lie in the wrong direction!), but the unapologetic and definitive tone of the expressions of defense of it, and the expressions of defense of the defense. That is the “cover up” that causes the real problems.

  6. Carl is there no way of scientifically saying, smoke is very bad for you – has the intrinsic risk ‘scale’ of a elephant and in comparison , smokeless and tobaccoless products have a risk scale of a mouse I.e even if it turns out that the mouse might be a fat mouse, it is still very small next to the elephant.

    • Carl V Phillips

      Spot-on. Of course, I am one of the few who has actually tried to calculate the actual quantification there (as opposed to those who misuse numbers as if they were just that metaphor). And I think there is some value in that certainly. But, yes, I recognize that focusing on that quantification does more harm than good in many contexts. For example, it is pretty hard to talk sensibly about the relative size of different mice when your methodology is to compare each to an elephant and use that as your measure. There is also the problem of the continuum myth, which is favored by major tobacco companies and some regulators because it is convenient for them: There are really only elephants and mice in this picture (with just a few stray dogs and buffalo — pipes and such), but the X*|elephant| scale makes it easy to trick people into thinking that X varies across [0,1] rather than really being, basically, {0,1}.

      As you might guess from all that, I might run with this idea.

      As for the matter at hand, X=.05 is not a mouse, like vaping really is, but a wolf or least a good sized mastiff — still pretty dangerous even if it cannot just squash you under foot.

      • On reflection, a comparison using two placental mammals -creatures that under the skin- have much in common , is itself not the right metaphor . It could be better to use , a elephant and sparrow, such are the fundamental intrinsic differences between smoke ;combustion and vapor; boiling , No?

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