Six bad arguments against criticism of misleading pro-THR claims

by Carl V Phillips

The title is a reference to this post by Lee Johnson, in which he did something that I often do (though seldom in list form): He pointed out a handful of arguments that are often made in vaping advocacy but that should be avoided because they are misleading or out-and-out factual errors. He dared suggest that even if you believe in a particular conclusion, not every claim that ostensibly supports your position is right. For his trouble, Johnson received (a little) well-deserved praise and (a lot of) very predictable attacks. What struck me — and strikes me every time I am the target of those attacks, but it was more clear from the outside — is that the criticism of him was just as patently invalid as the fallacious claims that he was debunking.

That particular kerfuffle has already faded away, thanks to the news-cycle proclivities common in this space (another problem in itself, though largely unrelated), but this is a recurring theme, so is worth some reflection. Following Johnson, I present the common arguments in six points.

1. But it is important for us to win this fight!

This most common retort comes in countless forms, all of which are ultimately strawmen. Occasionally the strawman is presented explicitly (“you should not care more about telling the truth than about our important cause”). Usually it is even worse than that, though, with the critics implying that it goes without saying that pointing out fallacious arguments is bad for the cause. What really goes without saying, however, is that when a pro-vaping or pro-THR commentator calls out bad arguments, it is not because he does not want to win the fight. Indeed, in most cases, the debunkers make clear that their motivation is that because the cause is valid and important, we should avoid making sloppy or easily-refuted arguments. The strawman response is like neocons who respond to critics of indiscriminate bombing — who argue that it creates more enemies than it kills — by accusing them of wanting the terrorists to win.

It is, of course, possible to argue that a particular false or misleading claim — or perhaps even wanton disregard for the truth in general — is more effective at persuading people than any truthful statement, and enough so that it compensates for the harm caused by trafficking in dishonesty. That is an empirical claim, and thus it could be shown to be true or, absent evidence, someone could explicitly argue that would be the case. Upon making that case, he would then be obliged to make an ethical case that the net tactical benefits justify being dishonest. But I cannot recall any such claim being asserted, much less supported.

It seems nearly impossible that a fallacious argument would persuade many people who could not be persuaded by the good accurate arguments instead (and if it were the case, it would mean someone was being tricked into supporting a cause they do not actually support). Meanwhile those of us pushing back against fallacious arguments argue there is a very good chance they will hurt the cause, by undermining the credibility of accurate claims and giving opponent easy debating points. Again, you do not have to agree with that. But it is a strawman to pretend that this is not the motive of those criticizing the use of fallacious claims, pretending that they are advocating sacrificing tactical advantage due to ethical concerns. They may well also have an ethical concern about trafficking in disinformation, but if they did not think the honest arguments were sufficient to support the cause, they would be on the other side.

2. But the other side lies all the time!

I have some bad news for you: The real world is not a symmetrical chess game. Tactics that work for one faction may be counterproductive for their opponents. This is especially true when there are power imbalances so great that one side can get hordes of people reciting claims that are easily debunked with evidence or are even clearly impossible. Rather than suggesting that the weaker opponent can get away with the same, this imbalance tends to mean that the weaker opponents will be shredded if they become strongly associated with a fallacious argument.

Once again, there is room to offer a substantive argument to the contrary. Perhaps some pattern of successful lies by the other side suggests that a particular fallacious argument in favor of vaping or THR is promising. But this is not what is usually claimed. Rather, the implicit premise of this objection is merely that the other side does it and ipso facto it is a good idea for us. That is clearly wrong.

Sometimes this protest is motivated by a justice ethics claim rather than a practical one — not “they do it and therefore it must be useful for us” but rather “they do it so we are justified in doing it”. But even setting aside the ethical dubiousness of that line of reasoning, it misses the point. Even if someone can make that ethical case (and good luck with that), it does not change the practical situation.

3. You are just giving ammunition to the other side.

Seriously? First off, as just noted, the other side does not restrict itself to accurate retorts, so it is not as if they need someone to do the analysis for them. More important, those bickering with the other side’s useful idiots on Twitter may not realize that there are both smart and clever people in Tobacco Control Inc., but there are. If a fallacious argument is substantive and seems to get some traction, rest assured they have figured out how to debunk it. Consider Johnson’s point about “generally recognized as safe” food additives not necessarily being safe to heat and inhale. Vaping detractors have repeatedly made that point, as well as using the naive “don’t worry, it is all GRAS” claims to justify the need for government intervention, because such claims suggest vapers have no understanding of what they are doing. If the point is trivial (as with Johnson’s examples of PG not really being used in asthma inhalers or the error in calculating the ratio of diacetyl in e-cigarettes and cigarettes), opponents will rarely bother to mention it, but that is not because they could not figure it out it is wrong.

But they can bring up even such trivialities when they want to portray pro-vaping arguments as inaccurate, scoring a quick debating point or building a more systematic indictment. That is the main concern of the in-house debunkers, that you give the other side ammunition when you make false claims, not when you debunk them. Consider the most fiercely attacked of Johnson’s points, about a popular cartoon that claims zero people have ever died from vaping. The claim is obviously false, for reasons explained in several of my Science Lesson posts from last year, in which I explained what “cause of a death” means. But even setting that aside, the cartoon’s claim is easily translated into, “vapers are trying to convince people that it is 100% harmless.” I trust I do not have to explain how much mileage the other side has gotten out of portraying that claim to be the bedrock of pro-vaping advocacy; it sets up the other side to imply that if they merely refute that claim, then their anti position must be right.

What strikes me even more about the “ammunition for the other side” claim is that it is made by people who do not seem to care when ammunition really is being provided to the other side. For example, those same critics often repeat the claim that vaping is 5% as harmful as smoking, which in addition to being just a made-up number (and thus sets up easy debating points for opponents) is a concession that vaping is still is quite harmful. Or consider the recent paper by Kozlowski and Sweanor which has been touted by a few vaping advocates, despite being an early contender for most harmful writing of the year for the THR cause. Those touting the paper seem to be awed by the its details about particular false claims (as if other people (ahem) have not been making the same observations, roughly weekly, for over a decade). But they miss the fact that the headline of that paper — that disinformation campaigns that keep people from learning about low-risk tobacco products can be thought of as a quarantine — is a gift to opponents. Not only is that a terrible analogy (the phenomena have very little in common) but imposed quarantine of people who pose an active infection danger is a very ethically-defensible and widely-accepted policy. If disinformation campaigns are really like quarantines, then they must not be clearly unethical or harmful.

It gets worse. The authors concede (inaccurately) that a case for disinformation can be made based on utilitarian ethics (it cannot) and by suggesting that the liars’ “moral” and “disgust” feelings provide ethical justification for lying (mistaking psychology or personal preferences for ethical principles). [For more details about these points this, see the discussion (mostly my comments) on my Facebook THR page.] The authors portray the issue as being a rights-based argument against disinformation versus other valid positions which support disinformation. While they express personal support for the former, that does not diminish the gift they (and those who endorsed the paper) handed to anti-THR liars. No one is ever going to say “see, even Johnson and Phillips agree that the GRAS and asthma inhaler claims are misleading” — what possible advantage could that offer them over just stating the facts? But I can definitely see them saying “see, even these vaping advocates agree that there is an ethical case for our disinformation campaign, and it is in a journal so every word must be true”, which could be quite useful for them given that their actions are actually unethical by any defensible ethical rule.

4. You are alienating supporters of the cause.

Have we all turned into Generation Snowflake? Should I have started this post with a trigger warning that by reading this you might encounter thoughts that differ from your own? (My god, that would get old fast. My sympathies to those of you who have stuck with university teaching.)

It is obviously a bad idea (for several reasons) to ridicule a newbie speaking up for vaping or THR when she repeats a trope that she heard somewhere. The same also goes for a random person doing that from the anti side; you never know when someone might be open-minded and genuinely misinformed, and thus persuadable. But simply impersonally pointing out an error is obviously much different from personal ridicule. When particular actors are identified with the erroneous claims it is almost always because they have intentionally tried to be opinion leaders. Anyone who publishes a journal article is asking for critical analysis (literally — peer review is part of the deal) and anyone making claims intended to persuade their readers is volunteering for a public response. If they are trying to be right but err, they should want to learn that. But if their attitude is, “you hurt my feelings by daring to suggestion anything I said was wrong, so I quit!”, is it really such a bad idea to alienate them?

In any case, it seems really unlikely to happen. What does seem likely, however, is alienating potentially valuable supporters by sinking into making nonsensical claims. I cannot count how many times I have heard a potentially useful ally (e.g., a real scientist) for some popular cause express strong sympathy for the cause while also declaring they would never speak up and risk being associated with some of the nonsense that is expressed. I could probably count twenty of those for myself alone. I should note that I do not believe vaping advocacy has reached the point of motivating that strong a reaction, but there is a serious risk of it getting there.

As with the previous points, there is room here for making an actual argument. Perhaps a particular bit of debunking really does create a great risk of alienating people and the fallacious argument stands little chance of alienating anyone. But the simplistic assertion is once again indefensible; avoiding alienating people is, in fact, one of the main reasons debunkers worry about fallacious arguments.

5. We have to keep it simple so people get the message.

There is no reason that simple messages or even soundbites need to be wrong. Of course it is often impossible to capture all the nuances and uncertainties of a point in a simple message. That is what references to longer reads are for. But simplified — even down to the point that the statement is technically wrong if read as if it were precise — is quite different from blatantly false or utterly unsupportable. If a point cannot be accurately communicated in a soundbite then just leave it out of the soundbites: The whole premise here is that the target audience if offering only limited attention, and since there is plenty to say that is accurate and persuasive, just make some other point instead.

6. You are just criticizing and not offering any alternatives.

I was sorely disappointed when Johnson felt pressured into adding a series of “say this instead” paragraphs after each of his debunkings. There are volumes written on what is useful to say. There might be nothing similar to a particular debunked claim that can be accurately claimed. But so what? As I just noted, there is no reason that any particular point needs to be made. Tacking a half-assed proposed “solution” on to every observation of a problem is a behavior of public health people that I ridiculed in my previous post. Making a case that there is a problem and making a case that something is a good fix for it are entirely separate exercises that require equal depth and attention. Doing one does not mean you should do, or even could do, the other.

This list of attacks that are strawmen or otherwise misguided does not mean there is no possible argument in favor of making a fallacious argument, of course. The fact that some pro-vaping arguments are fallacious does not mean there are not good pro-vaping arguments, after all. However, the difference is that I have not found any of the anti-debunking arguments/attacks to be convincing. In this post, I was not identifying a few bad facile arguments amongst the good, but rather was characterizing just about every attack I have ever seen.

Perhaps a little bit of substantive argument can be found in the heated debates about the controversial titular claim of the “A Billion Lives” project. The claim — that vaping could save a billion lives over a century — is clearly false. This is both because the original Tobacco Control claim it is based on — that a billion people will die from smoking over the next century is nonsense (it is on that above-linked list of impossible things that tobacco controllers believe) — and even more so because most smokers will not be able to afford e-cigarettes anytime soon and only a minority of smokers seem to find them to be an appealing substitute. On the other hand, it is a catchy title and kind of a cute ploy to use tobacco controllers’ own junk claim, which they therefore cannot turn around and attack. On the other other hand, a different title could have been catchy (so really how much better was it than some alternative?) and the ploy, when used that way, endorses the junk claim. (It is a slick argument when you can say “well if you really believe that then you must agree that…”, but it is different to actually endorse the claim.) However, that endorsement, along with the endorsement of the “most smokers want to quit” trope (another on my list of the impossible things tobacco controllers believe) and claims about the harm from ETS that are associated with that project have alienated smokers’ rights advocates and created hostility toward vaping advocacy.

Ultimately, I believe that endorsing those fallacies was a rather harmful choice. But at least there have been arguments that could be beneficial. These contrast with the facile soundbite attacks on debunking that I noted above.

I get the impression that some of the facile attacks are motivated by people believing the portrayal of scientific thinkers common in formulaic fiction, that they are oblivious to the realities of politics and communication. Based on that cartoon fallacy, if a scientist is suggesting it is unwise to make a particular claim, he must just be some ASD savant who only understands that the claim is false, but is ignoring what value it might have. But to the contrary, when he is an advocate for the cause, he has probably thought it through (usually far more thoroughly than his critics) and concluded that the value is actually negative. It is true that serious scientific thinkers often choose not to bother with politics and communication, and also that within real scientific discussions we play by the rules of truth-seeking (e.g., if something is wrong, you just say it is wrong) rather than those of diplomacy. But the same skills that make someone a good scientist usually make them good at analyzing politics and communications, if they choose to do so. For tactical claims, as with simple factual claims, just because something feels like it ought to be true does not mean that it really is.

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9 responses to “Six bad arguments against criticism of misleading pro-THR claims

  1. Thanks very much for this, Carl!

    I was quite naive in expecting mainly support for a bit of well-intentioned debunking (although I did get a lot of support as well as the criticism), but as you’ve argued here I think most of the points raised against my post were pretty weak.

    This part perfectly sums up what my intention was:

    “Meanwhile those of us pushing back against fallacious arguments argue there is a very good chance they will hurt the cause, by undermining the credibility of accurate claims and giving opponent easy debating points.”

    I’ve actually put together a response to the criticism/follow up post which I’ll be publishing tomorrow or this weekend which treads similar ground.

    Anyway – thanks again, I appreciate the post and the support in general!

  2. The problem as I see it is that our (lay folks’) target audience is not scientists, and when we ask scientists for good sound-bite alternatives, we get non-soundbite alternatives, in fact, we get NOTHING we could say to a lay person who doesn’t know what all those scientific caveats mean. In essence this is partly a matter of translating between languages. When a scientist says ” we have not found a reason for undue concern” a layperson would say “it tested as safe as restaurant air.’ AND IT WOULD MEAN THE SAME THING. I’ve been known to submit up to 4 tries for a sound bite, and EVERY SINGLE ONE gets shot down. If we go to other sources for the good sound-bite alternatives, and use them, they show up later on scientists’ blogs of what not to say and why. And we do need sound-bite answer to EACH thing the prohibitionists say, because in every hearing I’ve been to, after we’ve had our say (and so have the prohibitionists) at least one legislator behind the big horseshoe table goes to Google, gets a pop-up paid-promoted lie from the prohibitionists, and gives it as his or her reason to vote against us. ​ ​ We never know what the search will cough up, so we need answers (sound bites) for everything, other than the true answer, which is “our opponents are lying [unprintable]s” What a lot of us lay people are looking for is the equivalent of the pick-a-restaurant rule we have at work and also in my family: Anybody who vetoes the choice ​in play ​immediately becomes responsible for offering up an acceptable alternative. Otherwise, ​ we’d all go hungry that day.

    • Carl V Phillips

      There are a couple of things there. Starting with the end, no, sorry, that rule is unrealistic to ask for. Anyone who can trace references and read moderately critically can discover out that the “5% as harmful as smoking” claim is bullshit. Not very many of them have the capability to provide a solid a realistic alternative.

      The real problem that you identify has nothing to do with figuring out how to spout instant bullshit. If you wanted to do that at a hearing, nothing is stopping you. Oh, but it is not going to help. You have identified a serious tactical problem with our side’s approach to this, trying to fight a war of attrition against the other side’s bullshit. It is not possible to fight a war of attrition against bullshit. You seem to have some vision in mind that if you just had a better script that would work. But you said it yourself: The other side pops up lies. There can be no script for responding to them. People who need a script to be able to respond to junk science claims are simply not going to be able to respond. They need to stick to set-piece presentations and personal testimonials. Trying to play give-and-take is like the scene in an action movie when someone with no martial training is handed a gun by the hero and told to do something; they succeed in the movies, but in real life they would not even be able to figure out the safety was on.

      (A little hint: The guy who pops up some excuse is not going to vote your way in any case. He is not a swing vote. So turn the tables and ridicule him by asking if he believes everything that pops up when he does a web search, and assuming not, why he believes that particular claim. Then play their game and attack the credibility of whoever said it.)

      Anyway, back to the point. Your fantasy of having some way to win the war of attrition is just that, a fantasy. We are not going to get any closer to that by embracing fallacious claims. But by embracing those claims, we will undermine the more tactical battles that have a chance of winning.

      • mark entwistle

        It appears that this post circles back to what is becoming a recurring theme. Lay advocacy does itself no favours by getting embroiled in very technical arguments. In so doing it risks handing initiative to opponents, meets them.on their terms and presupposes that the anti argument has anything to do with truth seeking.
        The truth for lay advocates, imo, resides in the fact we know in ourselves we feel better for our choice to vape, and that that choice I being restricted causing harm to existing vapers, (applies equally to any smoke free users and smokers) without any real justification. We would do well to hold in mind that tobacco control is part of wider “public health” and build a consensus if our own about the direction of the broader movement. Something along the lines of “they came for smoking (and snus in Europe) they are all but there with vaping, they will come for alcohol, food and contact sport. If people want to have any choices as consumers in twenty years time, they need to act now.
        Tho approach leaves the science to the scientists, promotes the personal advantages of vaping and calls out “public health” for what it is. It also side steps the antis getting to frame the debate.

        • Carl V Phillips

          Yes, that is definitely a potentially viable strategy. Indeed, it is the one I would advocate, which means it is critical for any of the special interests (vapers, smokers, etc.) to quit being so high-and-mighty, alienating, etc. I am in a discussion on Facebook now that started with someone expressing resentment that harm reduction analogies (“it is like clean needles”) liken smokers to IDUs, which was insulting. (Face. Palm.)

          Of course, this does not mean there are not other strategies that look potentially viable, and I could be wrong about which one is most promising. But as you said, it is difficult to see that lay advocates trying to discuss science is a viable tactic. That does not mean everyone, of course, and is not about credentials. I have seen quite a few advocates who started with nothing more than a core-classes-level background in science bring themselves up to speed on the science in their area, becoming scientific experts and researchers. But it takes a lot of work (and it might be that some people are just not “wired” to be able to do that, no matter how much they try). Most people who fancy themselves as being very involved in this area seem to just really just read for entertainment, not enlightenment. Only a tiny fraction ever read this blog (or Brad’s) except when I post something that is pure entertainment, which gets 10x as many hits as average. This post and the last one, along with most that delve into understanding the science, get far fewer than average (this post and the last one are running at about 1/3 of average hits). There is simply no way that they are going to be able to hold their own in a scientific discussion, even if the other side is just making stuff up.

          I just had a flashback to a Dilbert cartoon, where the boss (who is a pure administrator who understands nothing about the engineering he supervises) is creating a schedule for one of Dilbert’s projects. Upon coming to a complex arcane sounding step, he gives it one day in the timeline, reasoning that since he has no idea what it means, it must be easy enough. Sometimes I feel like the “just simplify it for us!” messages are like that. As if we could prepare someone to hold a conversation in Spanish without understanding Spanish, just by preparing an intro-class-level script: “if you hear ‘como esta?’ then say ‘bien, gracias’ — and don’t worry about the missing accent marks and upside down ‘?’ — you can get by without those.”

          Ok, enough venting. Circling back, “Karyyl” started this thread, and she is among those who does read and tries to seriously understand. So I sympathize with the frustration in her case. And I will admit that no one has done a great job of empowering the few hundred people in her position, trying to fight on the ground with the science claims as a tool, and trying to do them right but without quite reaching the point of being a scientific expert. I would like to think that what I have been doing for a decade is sufficient for that — and it has clearly empowered a layer of advocates, but not every layer of advocates. I just haven’t been given the opportunity to do more, and it is not exactly the most fun thing for a scientist to do — almost all of us would rather drill down on a single point than write an intro textbook. There is also a certain frustration that comes from knowing that even having done that, far more people would still be reciting the simplistic crap coming out of the pockets of pro-ecig advocacy in UK universities — so why bother?

          Ok, so much for not venting. I’ll stop for now.

        • mark entwistle

          The specialist interest division, is I think, related to the misuse of science issue, in so far as it indicates that many people are unaware of what they are ultimately involved in. I am aware that there is a great risk of generalising here but, inconsistency and not understanding the game that is being played are big obstacles. With regard to enabling lay advocates to use the science, it is possible to a point, but as you say some of the antis will be more skilled and for the rest the science is an irrelevance other than as an appeal to authority to add weight to a political stance. In both case the only real impact tou can have is to change the nature of the debate. The science, done properly is only going to be effective with “swing voters”. So I guess as much as anything lay advocates need to understand their limits with the science and no when engaging with it is appropriate and when other strategies have more traction.

  3. natepickering

    7. “E-cigs are saving millions of lives!”

    • Carl V Phillips

      I assume that is an amendment for Lee’s list, and not mine. It actually does not seem like a terrible claim. It is borderline and one of those that needs to be recognized as a simplification and not taken bright-line literally, but not totally wrong. Interpret it to mean “enough people are using ecigs now that 2 million or more of them will have their lives substantially extended as a result of doing that rather than smoking, which they would be doing otherwise.” Ballpark estimate that you need 4 smokers switching to ecigs to substantially extend 1 life. It is probably a bit high to claim that 8 million who would not have otherwise quit smoking have switched to ecigs, but only a bit. You could add back in a bit of benefit from those who have partially switched.

      Anyway, I am guessing your point was “don’t say that phrase unless you are willing to travel down that sticky path that I just laid out”, which is probably wise. In some sense, it relates to the comment thread about lay advocacy.

      • natepickering

        Yes, and that, generally speaking, claims about saving lives should exist more in the “pulling an infant from a burning building” sphere than in the “substituting Behavior B for Behavior A may moderately increase your lifespan” sphere.

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