Monthly Archives: April 2017

Lying with literally true statements is the worst kind of lying

by Carl V Phillips

This is a reprise of points I have made here before, including in the mission statement of the blog. It was inspired by this recent post by Steven Raith in which he, a relative newcomer to the tobacco wars, describes his realization of just how often tobacco control’s lies consist of literally true statements. It is always nice to see people independently derive this observation, though I have been documenting that type of lie from “public health” (along with others) for most of two decades. Raith speculates that their use of such lies is increasing, but this does not seem to me to be the case; rather, once you become aware of the tactic, you notice it more. I will come back to the question of prevalence.

Lies include any communication that is intended to make the audience believe something the communicator knows is not true. Some lies are baldly false statements, like those that dominate POTUS’s lies. I have noted that this is a “welcome to our world” moment: Suddenly everyone found themselves trying to respond to falsehoods from the government that were so obvious that it is hard to get past just sputtering at them. This is exactly the government behavior that those of us in the tobacco wars and other drug wars have faced forever.

Lies also include many technically true statements that are clearly intended to make the audience believe something that is false. I find it useful to think of two main subcategories of these: First are statements that are the semantic equivalent of an optical illusion, which almost explicitly state the lie and trick the reader into reading in the lie. These are the statements that might cause a careful reader to react with, “I see what you did there.” An example is, “smokeless tobacco is not a safe alternative to cigarettes,” a statement that is technically true because it is vacuous (nothing is safe), but in intended to be read as “…not safer than….” Second are innuendo, where the true statement does not actually contain any version of the falsehood that it intentionally communicates, such as “smokeless tobacco contains arsenic.” The statement does not actually say “…and this makes it harmful,” but just counts on people’s scientific innumeracy to fill in “…and since arsenic is bad, anything that contains it must be bad.”

It is these innuendo lies that I personally despise the most. Not only do they seek to mislead people, but they intentionally take advantage of innumeracy that our supposedly-scientific agencies and organizations should trying to fight rather than embrace. Moreover, they tend to make that same innumeracy worse. The intended innuendo is that smokeless tobacco must be harmful because arsenic can be detected in it, but the equally clear message is that anything with any arsenic in it (i.e., vegetables and any organic matter) is harmful. This is perfect ammunition for anti-vaxxers or anti-biotech liars or all manner of anti-scientific activists.

[Random deeper dive points — please skip the next four paragraphs if you already think my posts are already too long.

There are further subcategories and cross-categories of lies, and I am not attempting anything close to a complete taxonomy. Presenting as True a claim that might be true, but is highly uncertain, is another classic tobacco control tactic. One version of this is misrepresenting a single result from a single study as a robust generalizable estimate. Of course, that is also done when there is overwhelming evidence that estimate is wrong, in which case it is simply an overt lie.

Some observers like to classify “lies of commission” versus “lies of omission”, but I find that distracting rather than useful. It roughly corresponds to the “literally false” versus “literally true” division I am emphasizing. But not quite; sometimes literally true lies involve some obvious omission of an important fact, but not always. More important, “commission” implies that other types of lies are not equally intentional acts of volition, which they are.

Not all literally false statements are lies; some are merely simplifications that are acceptable in context (“Earth is a sphere”) while a few are crafted to better communicate the practical truth than the literal truth would (a “I’m allergic to peaches” rather than “I have topical mucosal reaction which does not appear to be IgE mediated, and so is not actually an allergy, but produces the bad reaction of…”).

Not all literally false communications are statements. A question can be a lie. Or a glance. Or a lack of a glance: I had a dog who cleverly tried to lie to me about whether I had really tossed him a treat by letting it go past him without apparently knowing it; if I walked away rather than tossing him another, he would immediately turn and pick up the first one, aware of exactly where it was. More relevant, the act of citing a source in a paper can be a lie if that source is merely one piece of evidence that points toward the claim it is attached to, but is clearly not a sufficient basis for the claim.

end deeper dive]

Can something also be a lie if the person stating it actually does believe it? I would argue yes, and include other circumstances in my definition of lie for this blog. If someone has had every opportunity to learn the truth (e.g., tobacco control leaders who are confronted with the actual evidence), but they intentionally insulate themselves from it for political reasons, then their false claims (or innuendos) that contradict the truth are lies. If someone claims expertise on something that they do not really have (e.g., tobacco control’s useful idiots), but make statements as if they know what they are talking about, they are lying. Perhaps some might argue that they are only lying about their knowledge/expertise, and the statement is not itself technically a lie. But either way, they are lying. So if your layman brother says, “you should not switch to e-cigarettes — those things are worse for you than smoking”, chances are he is just a victim of propaganda, not a liar. But if @DrSJKelderMD tweets out that message, he is implicitly claiming expertise on the matter (despite also being a victim of propaganda) and that makes him a liar. (Of course, what either one of the should really be saying is “I read somewhere that…”, but that ability to accept that one’s “knowledge” is limited is beyond most people.)

Deception, not the literal truth of a statement, makes a bit of communication a lie. Some of our less insightful news media, notably including NPR News, have issued an editorial policy that they will not use the L-word to describe the claims of certain people in government because we cannot know for sure that they do not really believe the nonsense they are spouting. This is an utter fail for a couple of reasons. First, there are those I just noted: If there is clear evidence a claim is wrong, and that is available to the liar and within his ability to understand, then either he is unaware of it, making him a liar in his implicit claim he is knowledgeable about the matter, or is capable of making himself believe something he knows is not true, which is layers of liar and other pathologies of various sorts.

But there is a second, rather more important, reason why NPR et al. are wrong. It goes to the serious failure to understand the nature of knowledge that consists of putting claims in the bins {known, unknown}. If those are the categories, then everything about the material world falls into the second. This is the same error that appears in so many debates about interpreting study results — e.g., whenever you see someone (who clearly does not understand scientific knowledge) say “this is an observational study [or ‘cohort study’, or whatever] and so cannot prove causation.” No body of evidence can ever prove or let us to know (with certainty) anything about the material world. We only have degrees of confidence in a conclusion. So refusing to properly label a lie just because we do not know what is the speaker’s mind is a logic that precludes ever reporting any conclusion about anything.

So with respect to degrees of confidence that tobacco control (and “public health” more generally) statements are lies, the evidence is pretty overwhelming. They are constantly told, by people who are obviously expert, why their claims are wrong. They cannot not know. Those who genuinely cannot understand the truth are lying about being minimally competent to have an opinion on the topic.

In fairness our confidence that someone is lying should diminish as there start to be legitimate reasons someone might believe a claim. Arguably, it might also diminish if the claim is obviously wrong, but it requires serious technical expertise to understand why. But much of what “public health” claims is obviously and indisputably wrong, at a level that any undergraduate should be able to understand.

Consider especially the cases where they torture their phrasing of the lie so that their exact words are technically true. This is evidence that they actually do know the truth. Someone who asserts an obviously false statement might genuinely believe it (though still be a liar for the above reasons). Someone who carefully crafts a statement that communicates a lie, while still being able to claim that his statement does not violate the Administrative Procedures Act prohibition against false statements, is not making a mistake. Both the lie itself and the effort to keep from being sued for it are obviously intentional. That is the most evil kind of liar. There can be no question that his intent is to lie.

Of course, there is nothing novel or clever about this. Every teenager figures out how to lie with literal truths. “I got home before midnight, just like you told me to” (“…before sneaking back out”). “I was at work all evening, and did not go out partying with my friends” (“…they just dropped by at my break and we smoked weed in the parking lot”). Of course, a parent who figures out that the literal truth was really a lie is unlikely to be particularly impressed by the use of literal truth. And neither should those judging public health liars.

Finally, to Raith’s suggestion that the tendency of tobacco control to lie with literal truth seems to be increasing, I have to say no. It is, of course, impossible to really apply any precise measure to this. Which statements should we count? Every last utterance by some useful idiot, or only the more faux-authoritative statements? Who do we count as faux-authoritative? How do we weight a lie by CDC that gets reprised by a hundred idiots at local health departments versus a lie by the Truth (hahaha) Initiative that is broadcast on television? Statistics are fairly meaningless for things like this, and anyone who suggests otherwise is, well, lying. (This morning on the radio, I heard the claim that anti-semitic incidents had increased by 86% since Trump took office. Just ponder how incredibly stupid this precise statistical claim about an ill-defined and difficult-to-document collection of events is.)

That said, I think in terms of chronicling the lies of tobacco control, I am probably the best excuse for a lie-o-meter that we have. I have been carefully observing and documenting their lies and methods of lying for the course of the 21st century. My observation is that out-and-out false anti-THR lies were more common at the start of the century than they are now. But thanks to badgering by Brad Rodu, me, and a few others, the leading liars were forced to back off of those. So for a decade or more, technical truth lies have been predominant. When some novelty emerges, like they whole phenomenon of e-cigarettes or a single new junk “study”, we tend to see an increase in the literally false lies. But there is a drift back to an equilibrium where most lies are the “optical illusion” or innuendo type.

So someone who has focused only on the lies about e-cigarettes, from the time that tobacco control started lying about e-cigarettes, will probably have noticed an increase in the prevalence literal truth lies. But the mix of public health lies overall — about smoking, ETS, smokeless tobacco — has been pretty consistent. Literally true lies are the norm. Thus it is important to recognize that they are clearly worse than the literally false ones.

What is peer review really? (part 9 — it is really a crapshoot)

by Carl V Phillips

I haven’t done a Sunday Science Lesson in a while, and have not added to this series about peer review for more than two years, so here goes. (What, you thought that just because I halted two years ago I was done? Nah — I consider everything I have worked on since graduate school to be still a work in progress. Well, except for my stuff about what is and is not possible with private health insurance markets; reality and the surrounding scholarship has pretty much left that as dust. But everything else is disturbingly unresolved.) Continue reading

Real implications of the RSPH “sting” of ecig vendors

by Carl V Phillips

So apparently there is a UK organization known as the Royal Society of Public Health which presumably had some importance back when the East India Company was not just a retail brand. And apparently they did some secret shopper research of vape stores for purposes of generating publicity for themselves (like a retail brand would). The main payload was the breathless observation that half the shops did not interrogate the customer about their smoking status before selling e-cigarette products to them, and that most of the rest did not refuse to sell upon learning the faux-customer was playing the role of a nonsmoker. The RSPH then portrayed this as a violation of a largely-nonexistent “code of conduct” and managed to get this non-story all over the press in the UK.

I write that so dismissively — about the organization and the research — for a reason. This was much ado about nothing (as Paul Barnes entitled his post about it, which you can read for more of the basic details; see also Clive Bates’s post in which he dismisses it as a “cheap publicity stunt”). But despite this just being a blast of silly throwaway junk — what we observers of the public health industry simply call “Friday” — blogs and Twitter just lit up about it.

Part of the heightened reaction, as compared to all the other bullshit press releases, can be explained by the strange British obsession with anything containing the word “Royal”. Partially it is because the core failure — the notion that legal retailers of a consumer good should be policing their adult customers to see if they were “the right kind of people” — is something everyone can spot the flaws in; it is not some arcane matter of sample selection bias or confounding. So, for example, we can observe that no retailer ever checks to make sure an adult customer is a smoker before selling her cigarettes. This also makes it particularly easy and fun to satirize. (Incidentally, if a retailer in the USA discriminated in the way RSPH demands, refusing to sell to a potential customer because of his nonsmoker status, there is a good chance it could be successfully sued.)

But I also think the widespread reaction to this silliness, even among those who recognized it was just a publicity stunt, reflects a gut-level feeling that there is something more nefarious here than the surface level reaction implies. Since I try to point out the forest that is hidden among the trees (or should I use the royal “amongst” today), I will point out three deeper issues here. As I often do, I am trying to make a case that just responding to attacks like this at the level of their specific merits, even when the response is that they have no merits at all, is a fail. It is a terrible strategy to treat research like this as if it were fundamentally legitimate but merely flawed, as if it exists in isolation, and as if it were the work of decent ethical people who merely erred. That remains true no matter how effectively you eviscerate it on the surface. Continue reading

LA Times editorial about dishonest public health (ok, not really)

by Carl V Phillips

I have already noted on this page the “welcome to my world” feeling of the press and others complaining about the Trump administration, and its deluge of disinformation and dumb policy proposals, fueled by both unforgivable ignorance and ideological extremism. When newspapers and pundits complain about this, I often find myself thinking, “gee, why don’t you exercise these critical skills when you report on the issues I work on?”

Example:

(For those who might not know why that was fake news and want to learn, see this.)

Today the Los Angeles Times published a scathing critique of Trump and his administration, “Our Dishonest President”, which is getting an enormous amount of attention. Actually, I (and those tweeting that it pulls no punches) probably overstate that a bit; let’s call it “scathing by the standards of insider elites who seldom say anything that is brutally honest, no matter how much it needs to be said.” Anyway, several parts of struck me as just so “welcome to my world” that I thought maybe I should rewrite it a bit. What I came up with appears below. You might not fully appreciate just how similar to the original it is reading them serially, so I have also posted a marked up version that shows all my edits to the original.

The latter is a bit of a pain to read, of course; if you choose to read just the clean version below, know this: Every single sentence is from the original work that I am criticizing and parodying, pointing out their hypocrisy in not offering similar scrutiny elsewhere (just a little note there for LAT’s copyright enforcers :-). No sentence has been omitted. My version of every sentence maintains the theme of the original (but re-aiming it, of course).


OUR DISHONEST PUBLIC HEALTH ESTABLISHMENT

a parody and critical political commentary by Carl V Phillips, based on a work  By THE TIMES EDITORIAL BOARD

It was no secret for years that many in tobacco control and similar branches of U.S. public health are narcissists and demagogues who used fear and dishonesty to appeal to the worst in people. (The Times, however, and in common with every other major news outlet, has allowed this to pass without seriously criticizing it; it never called them unsuited for the job they do, and certainly never said that a particular policy would be a “catastrophe.”)

Still, nothing prepared us for the magnitude of this train wreck. Like millions of other Americans, we clung to a slim hope that public health activists would turn out to be all noise and bluster, or that the people around them in universities and governments would act as a check on their worst instincts, or that they would be sobered and transformed by the awesome responsibilities of influencing policies that have huge effects on people’s lives.

Instead, about two decades into the time of extreme activist public health — and who knows how much time to go before they are stopped — it is increasingly clear that those hopes were misplaced.

Public health social activists have taken dozens of real-life steps that, if they are not reversed, will continue to rip families apart, lower people’s welfare, in many cases actually harm public health, and profoundly weaken the quality of American public education.

Their attempt to ban e-cigarettes for millions of people who had finally quit smoking and, along the way, enact a massive transfer of wealth from tobacco product users to the government and cigarette manufacturers might still be stopped. But they are proceeding with his efforts to grant further arbitrary powers to the government’s regulatory agencies and bloat their budget.

These are immensely dangerous developments which threaten to weaken the moral standing of our government and real public health, imperil freedom and reverse years of slow but steady gains by marginalized or impoverished Americans. But, chilling as they are, these radically wrongheaded policy choices are not, in fact, the most frightening aspect of the ascendence of this brand of “public health”.

What is most worrisome about these people are these people themselves. They are so reckless, so petulant, so full of blind self-regard, so untethered to reality that it is impossible to know where their policies will lead or how much damage they will do to our welfare. Their obsession with fame, wealth and success, determination to vanquish enemies real and imagined, craving for adulation — these traits were, of course, at the very heart of their David-Goliath-myth outsider campaign; indeed, some of them helped them secure the power they have today. But in a real position of power, they are nothing short of disastrous.

Although the activists’ policies are, for the most part, variations on classic real public health positions, they become far more dangerous. Many people, for instance, support restrictions on where you can light-up and educational efforts to encourage healthy eating, but modern public health’s cockamamie tobacco “endgame” fantasies and impracticable campaigns to change human nature turn presumptuous and pushy policy into appalling imposition of an extremist minority view.

In the days ahead, The Times editorial board will look more closely at this, with a special attention to three troubling traits: [Editor’s note: …and so I suspect I might do this again. –CVP]

1. Shocking lack of respect for those fundamental rules and institutions on which our government and scientific community is based. They have repeatedly disparaged and challenged those entities that have threatened their agenda, stoking public distrust of essential institutions in a way that undermines faith in science and democracy. They have questioned the qualifications of scientists and the integrity of their analyses, rather than acknowledging that politics must submit to the rules of nature. They have clashed with their own honest experts, demeaned consumers and questioned the credibility of anyone who does not share their politics. They have lashed out at bloggers and other journalists, declaring them “industry shills,” rather than defending the importance of a critical, independent free press. Their contempt for the rule of law and the norms of government are palpable.

2. Utter lack of regard for truth. Whether it is the easily disprovable boasts about the miraculous effects of smoking bans or the unsubstantiated assertion that soda taxes improve health, they regularly muddy the waters of fact and fiction. It’s difficult to know whether they actually can’t distinguish the real from the unreal — or whether they intentionally conflate the two to befuddle the public, deflect criticism and undermine the very idea of objective truth. Whatever the explanation, they are encouraging Americans to reject facts, to disrespect science, documents, nonpartisanship and the mainstream media — and instead to simply take positions on the basis of ideology and preconceived notions. This is a recipe for a science-free power struggle in which differences grow deeper and rational compromise becomes impossible.

3. Scary willingness to repeat conspiracy theories, misleading memes and crackpot, out-of-the-mainstream ideas. Again, it is not clear whether they believe them or merely use them. But to cling to disproven “alternative” facts; to retweet celebrities with nothing useful to contribute; to make unverifiable or false statements; to buy into discredited conspiracy theories first floated on fringe websites and in deranged University of California blogs — these are all of a piece with antivax or miracle-cure claptrap that, but for some quirk of fate, these same individuals might now be peddling to come to political prominence. It is deeply alarming that a supposedly respectable and science-based movement would lend credibility to ideas that have been rightly rejected by every honest expert who has looked closely.

Where will this end? Will public health moderate their crazier positions as time passes? Or will they provoke a permanently destructive loss of faith in real science and health advocacy? Or, alternately, will the system itself protect us from them as they alienate more and more allies, step on their own message and create chaos at the expense of real public health goals? Already, the approval rating for their policies, among people who really know about them and the alternatives, has been hovering in the mid-30s, a shockingly low level of support for rules that are ostensibly intended to benefit the public. And that was before the new “war on sugar” that is bleeding over from the UK.

Fifteen years ago, it was not yet time to declare a state of “wholesale panic” or to call for blanket “non-cooperation” with the public health activists. Despite plenty of dispiriting signals, that is still our view. The role of the rational opposition is to stand up for the rule of law, the scientific process, and the role of institutions; we should not underestimate the resiliency of a system in which laws are greater than individuals and voters are as powerful as presidents. This nation survived John Harvey Kellogg and Carrie Nation. It survived bloodletting therapy. It survived Prohibition. Most likely, it will survive again.

But if it is to do so, those who oppose the reckless and heartless agenda must make their voices heard. Protesters must raise their banners. Voters must turn out for state and local hearings. Members of Congress must find the political courage to stand up to them. Courts must safeguard individual liberties. State legislators must pass laws to protect their citizens from meddling. All of us who are in the business of holding leaders accountable must redouble our efforts to defend the truth from their cynical assaults.

Science-based policy is not perfect, and it has a great distance to go before it fully achieves its goals. But preserving what works and defending the rules and values on which it depends are a shared responsibility. Everybody has a role to play in this drama.