Category Archives: Aside


From the blog of author (and one of the most insightful people in the world), David Brin: CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote to Error. Too bad it tastes so awful, to be on the receiving end…  so that most of … Continue reading

Can we agree not to make obviously incredible claims?

by Carl V Phillips

Related to the claim in my recent post that THR advocates stick to solid science, and are properly skeptical and critical, while anti-THR is grounded entirely in unabashed lies, I really hope THR advocates do not start citing making strong claims based on this report that:

One third of smokers say, in a University of Canterbury (UC) survey, they would use a nicotine electronic cigarette to quit now, if it was available.

I will grant that it is delightful to see anti-smoking sponsored research that might actually give some insight into how to reduce smoking (though note that this was funded by Murray Laugesen’s shop, not the ANTZ).  And there are probably some useful insights to be gleaned from the actual study results.  But not from that press release.  1/3??!  E-cigarettes are legal and widely available in a lot of places that are not terribly unlike New Zealand, and the successful smoking cessation they have facilitated is impressive.  But nowhere close to 1/3 of smokers are using them to try to quit.

A realistic estimate for e-cigarette uptake can be found by simply looking at the USA or the UK.   Indeed, I suspect that most NZers who really want to use e-cigarettes, like Canadians who wish to avoid the ban there, can get them if they really want.  So asking about actual usage would probably provide a better realistic estimate than this cheap-talk hypothetical.

There are ways to honestly interpret the results, and these are still undoubtedly pro-THR.  And that survey result was what it was, of course.  But reporting it without the realistic context as if it were a simple picture of reality is not a good choice.  The ANTZ frequently make claims that are this discordant with observed reality based on a survey result.  We must not.

My Alberta shop did a survey years ago that asked smokers about “hypothetical” low-risk alternatives (that were really understated descriptions of existing low-risk alternatives) and a huge number of subjects (most of whom had never actually considered trying the alternatives) indicated that they would try them.  Needless to say, we did not assert the conclusions that widespread adoption would happen if there were a change in the availability of products.  Rather, we examined the implications of the difference between the responses and the observed reality.

Similarly, if you want to estimate how people will actually respond to prices, you need to do what economists and marketers do (look at how people actually respond to prices), not merely ask them a hypothetical question and conclude:

if cigarette prices doubled, two thirds of smokers would quit

Real prices have doubled several times historically.  They more than double as you move from some places to others.  None of those show a 2/3 reduction in smoking.

Finally, I hate to laugh at pro-THR messages, but I could not help it when I read:

Smokers sampled nicotine electronic cigarettes and liked them 83 percent as much as their own brand on average.

Granted this is not nearly as funny as Snowdon’s ROTFL-level extended discourse on a particularly stupid ANTZ’s claim about something being “100% easy”.  But it was still LOL-level for me.  What the hell is liking something 83% as much?  (And notice it is not merely 80% as much, but a full 83%!)  Presumably there was some arbitrary scale in the survey, and the e-cigarettes scored .83 the level that own-brand cigarettes did.  But there is no cardinal scale of liking (other than the economic approach of trying to measure willingness to pay, which seems to have been absent), so while an ordinal list of the ratings of multiple products could mean something, it is silly to make the claim that they did.

Please, people, do not go telling the FDA or your local politicians that 1/3 of smokers plan to switch to e-cigarettes and that they are 83% as good as smoking.  Our goal is to make it clear that we are the reality-based side of this debate.

Zombies, clear colorful language, and scientific honesty (some observations by Krugman)

by Carl V Phillips

An aside (long, thanks to copious copy-and-paste, but breezy) before I get back to some recent Very Bad Lies that I have not covered.  As regular readers know, I consider Paul Krugman to be the day’s leading public intellectual, a top-level scientist with a clever wit, great writing style, and deep insight about many topics.  In particular, he is one of the most insightful analysts of public epistemology and rhetoric.  Catching up on weeks worth of blog posts, I thought there would be some value in recounting some of his observations on those topics that relate to this blog.  (Note that I will not try to explain the substantive background — you can trace that back through his posts if you want to learn the economic science and details of the policy fights — but focus on his assessment of public discourse itself.)

A few observations about types of lies:

He often talks about “zombie lies“, claims that…

remain part of what [every naive or politicized observer] knows to be true no matter how many times they have been shown to be false. Kill them, and they just keep shambling along.

…and a bit different

I’ve written several times about cockroach ideas in economics — ideas that you try to flush away, but keep coming back. (Are cockroach ideas the same as zombie ideas? Not quite, I would say; I think of cockroach ideas as misconceptions held because the people holding them are just unaware of basic facts, while zombie ideas are held by people who refuse to acknowledge contrary evidence).

Based on this, I would make the very rough observation that about 95% of anti-THR consists of cockroaches, engineered lies repeated by the tobacco control industry’s cadre of useful idiots because they actually believe them, and about 4.9% consists of zombie lies from people who know enough to know that what they are saying has been debunked, but pretend not to.  Oh, and the other 0.1% are lies too — just original ones that have not yet been debunked.  I know of no one who admits the truth about THR and then goes on to argue a reality-based position in opposition to it.

Some of the liars (in his world or ours) are definitely not unaware that their claims have been debunked.  There are influential people in the tobacco control industry who privately admit that they know they are lying about THR, but…

But they won’t change course; basically, they can’t, for careerist reasons. And that’s the story of a lot of what’s going on now.

Ralph Waldo Emerson understood this. The original version of his famous quote — I had forgotten this — reads:  A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

I don’t know about the divines bit, but the little statesmen thing is completely accurate. Suppose George Osborne were to admit that austerity isn’t working. What, then, would be left of his claim to be qualified to do, well, anything? He has to stick it out until something turns up, no matter how many lives it destroys.

Krugman sums it all up similarly in the previously quoted post:

The amazing thing is the way men who know neither theory nor the history of previous crises are utterly convinced that they know what to do in our current crisis; and how their confidence in their prescriptions has been unaffected by the fact that they have been wrong about everything so far. Of course, what’s even more amazing is the fact that these men are actually running things.

Moving from the leaders to the useful idiots (though some of the powerful policy makers are actually just useful idiots), why are there so many of them?  One explanation is “affinity fraud“:

I never heard the term “affinity fraud” until the Bernie Madoff affair hit the news. But once you hear it, the concept is obvious: people are most easily conned when they’re getting their disinformation from someone who seems to be part of their tribe, one way or another.

On the question of science claims and the inevitable errors that will result when you are doing real science:

OK, first things first: back when the crisis started, I did expect to see deflation, Japanese style, if it went on for an extended period. I was wrong — and I did what you’re supposed to do (but far too people actually do) when they’re wrong, which is to look for an explanation of your error that is consistent with the available evidence.

Can anyone give me a single example of some member of the tobacco control industry who admitted they got something wrong and tried to figure out why?  Ok, ok, stop laughing.  We all know that they do not even recognize the possibility of incorrect science, because for them sciencey words are just political rhetoric.  What they make scientific claims, they are not actually related to truth-seeking, so it would not even occur to them that they need to respond to evidence that they were wrong.

One of Krugman’s best running observations, in my mind, is his condemnation of naive observers who insist that in any debate, both sides must have some legitimate points and that compromise is possible:

self-identified centrists are sounding crazier and crazier, as they try to reconcile their fanatical devotion to the proposition that both parties are equally at fault

Setting aside the political specifics his world, this certainly rings true about the world of THR.  Anti-THR liars would be in trouble, even given their cadre of paid and unpaid useful idiots, were it not for the fact that so many more people insisted on believing (based on nothing but naive trust) that they cannot be basing their entire position on lies.  If one side of a debate is honest, scientific, and appropriately self-examining and careful, while the other side refuses to recognize even the most basic truths and will say anything that they think supports their cause, and then someone seeks “compromise” or “honest reconciliation of the opposing views”, where does that leave them?  It leaves them living thoroughly in the land of lies.  Spit the difference between healthy and cancerous, and you merely have a smaller tumor.

Here is a little snippet, just for some of my UK libertarian friends who hate most everything about the EU and Westminster, and yet for some reason really hate Krugman’s criticism of their failed macroeconomic policies (who should really read this post).  Notice that he does agree with you about about what “conservatives” in government are up to these days:

As long as the spending ends up lining the right pockets, and the undeserving beneficiaries of public largess are politically connected corporations, conservatives with actual power seem to like Big Government just fine.

On the use of clear and vivid language:

Partly I use striking and sarcastic metaphors to break through the complacency of officials. But I also, more broadly, have an Orwellian purpose — as in George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, which everyone should read.

There are many fine things in that Orwell essay, but the section that has influenced me most is the one in which he takes a famous passage from the King James Bible and renders it in official-speak. The original:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

The rewritten version is

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

As Orwell said, the original isn’t just pithier and punchier; it contains vivid metaphors that convey the sense far better than just laying out the argument. Similarly, in reverse, rather than refer to

an economic view that has unfortunately retained considerable influence, possibly because it has a political appeal to some parties, despite extensive empirical evidence that appears to refute the proposition

why not just refer to it as a “zombie idea”? It’s not just shorter, it conveys the sense of what is happening much better — and it places the idea in question in the context of other zombie ideas.

Or as he put it more tersely:

Now, it’s true that I use picturesque language — but I do that for a reason. “Words ought to be a little wild”, said John Maynard Keynes, “for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.”

Skipping a bunch in that post about EU government cluelessness, he concludes:

And let’s be clear: this stuff matters. The European economy is in disastrous shape; so, increasingly, is the European political project. You might think that eurocrats would worry mainly about that reality; instead, they’re focused on defending their dignity from sharp-tongued economists.

Hmm, sounds a lot like the EU health ministry.

And finally, the crowning observation he finished that post about Orwell with:

Now, of course, some people get offended when you refer to their ideas as zombies. But if you’re worried about giving offense, you should be an official spokesperson, not an independent commentator.

Miss Manners is a liar

by Carl V Phillips

Yes, I have a backlog of several important scientific analyses to do here.  But sometimes, you just find something is just too funny to pass up…

H/T to Treece for finding this column about vaping by advice columnist Judith Martin who write under the pretentious “Miss Manners”.  Can an advice column even be considered a lie?  Or is she merely a bitch, to quote Treece’s tweet?  After all, newspaper columnists on any topic are rarely (though not never, of course) scholar-level analysts of their topic.  Still, when someone claims to offer expert advice, but then makes claims that are beyond that expertise or are personal pique disguised as expert analysis, that is a kind of lie.

The column in question was in response to the following very reasonable query about the not-yet-established etiquette rules about vaping in public.  (Note: given the eloquence of the question, I assume the questioner used the word “vape” and some bad editor changed it to the bizarre “e-smoke”.  Almost the entire profession of copy editors are a great example of people who often claim expertise that they do not have.)

Where is it impolite to e-smoke? Does modern etiquette differ from historical smoking etiquette, when it was common and socially acceptable to smoke? In particular, is it improper to e-smoke when giving a large speech?  I am quite fond of my electronic cigarette. It has a white light and cannot be mistaken for a real cigarette. It is odorless, but I exhale a visible gray vapor, which can be confusing to people who haven’t discussed it with me yet.

… I already use it during informal business functions (essentially any business function where it is acceptable to wear jeans). Does it hurt one’s public image if I e-smoke when I do speaking engagements? … Would it hurt my image if I were to e-smoke while giving an engaging and riveting talk? I’m already seen as a bit of a provocateur, but I don’t want to cross the line into gauche….

The reply begins with (and, for any reader who is too busy to bother to finish reading something that is obviously written by a moron, also ends with):

While sharing your interest in history, Miss Manners apparently reads more of it than you do. The smoky society you describe existed only in the middle decades of the 20th century; before that, it was not tolerated. In the preceding decades and centuries, smokers, also known then as gentlemen, did not smoke in the presence of nonsmokers, then known as ladies, without their express permission, which could be politely withheld. For the most part, the smokers did not even venture to inquire, but withdrew to smoking rooms and put on smoking jackets, so as to isolate the effects. When ladies began to smoke openly, the rules were regrettably abandoned. Even so, an occasional professor might have clutched his pipe, but it was not the rule.

Ok, let me see if I got this. Smoking did not occur in university classrooms before the 20th century because of the plethora of “ladies” in the room? Everyone who smoked before the middle 20th century had a smoking room and owned a smoking jacket?  Yes, apparently Miss Manners’s oh-so-extensive reading of history seems to consist mainly of Jane Austen novels.  (And her knowledge of English seems to not include first person pronouns, as is the case with a one-year-old learning to speak and reasoning “everyone calls me Miss Manners, so I should refer to myself as Miss Manners”.)

Needless to say, smoking customs have varied substantially across space and time, and things changed in the 20th century (rather early in it, actually) because of the growing popularity of cheap cigarettes.  She goes on to make a few more equally clueless and unintentionally funny pronouncements about the history of smoking, but I will move on.

Yes, I know that the qualifications for being an advice columnist consist mainly of knowing where to place each fork when hosting a dinner for Hapsburg royalty.  But come on!  If she were truly the expert in etiquette that she claims to be, she would realize that arbitrary social conventions from the past were whatever they were.  A half century ago in the US (and in many places still today) when smoking in many public places was not considered to be bad manners, it was not bad manners.  That does not change based on what people think about it now, even if it was causing some harm.  That is the whole nature of manners, after all.  Surely anyone even a little bit expert on the topic understand this concept.

Moreover, if you are only qualified to answer questions that are relevant to 16th century European nobility and other people who own smoking jackets, do not presume to offer history lessons about the other 99.999% of humanity.  Nor should you try to offer advice about normal people’s legitimate concerns.

Oh, but she does.

You ask about your public image. To those who recognize electronic cigarettes, you would appear to be someone struggling to give up smoking and therefore relying on a crutch. We have come to the point where that is considered pathetic, at best.

While I do not receive salary to offer advice about etiquette, I will go out on a limb here and suggest that characterizing the quarter of the population who are not happy to be be bereft of smoking/tobacco/nicotine as “pathetic” qualifies as bad manners.  Perhaps her extensive readings of the history of smoking managed to miss a few minor details, like the fact that many people find quitting to be extremely unpleasant.  I am sure I do not need to explain to my readership how moronic it is to characterize someone who has quit smoking using e-cigarettes as “struggling to give up smoking”.

So far, the self-appointed manners expert has attacked her reader’s personal choice as a “crutch” but has not offered any useful advice about manners.  Does she get to that?  No, she finishes with:

But not everyone does distinguish the real from the imitation, particularly at a distance from a speaking platform. Such people would not consider you pathetic, you may be relieved to hear: They would consider you evil. The now-accepted rule against smoking near nonsmokers is perhaps the most dangerous one to break. People will excuse heinous crimes before condoning that.  But here is the crushing part: Everyone will be thinking “He’s smoking,” rather than paying attention to your riveting words.

Yes, according to Miss Manners, smoking in public puts you in the Jerry Sandusky category.  I realize that some of the ANTZ liars that we write about here probably do actually hate smokers more than they hate child molesters, but even if someone is personally biased as to think smokers are evil, how is this observation useful?  Writing things like that apparently leaves readers thinking “she’s a clueless bitch” rather than reading her riveting advice about manners.

Oh, except there is no such advice offered, and that is unfortunate, because it is an area worth exploring.  Manners is not about the inherent worth of an action (and thus whether or not it is “pathetic”), nor about presentation skills (and thus not whether it might or might not affect that).  There is room for differing views about whether it is impolite to do something that offends people’s irrational or hateful prejudices, but an honest expert would point out the tension.  Instead, Miss Manners Maven offers an assessment that is solidly at the extreme of that debate and is basically analogous to, “if you are gay, it is bad manners to tell a story about your domestic situation when giving a talk, because there are many people who think your lifestyle is evil and your unwillingness to convert to being straight is pathetic, and so your story will distract from your talk.”  After all, many people consider being gay to be worse than, say, murdering a gay person, and it would be oh-so-impolite to let such people know that you think they should go f— themselves.

I will conclude with the assertion that as an observer of the human condition, and frequent speaker, I believe I can offer much better manners advice than Miss Martin does, and so will answer the question:  Vaping when giving a presentation is somewhat more obtrusive than drinking coffee during the talk, but rather less obtrusive than snacking.  When presidents and people in similar positions give televised or large-room talks, they avoid any such distraction unless they absolutely need to take a sip of water.  Most professors, however, would not hesitate to go through a large coffee during a talk, just as professors and news-readers used to smoke while presenting.  On the other hand, it is generally considered impolite to engage in the somewhat more obtrusive activities of eating, taking medicine, or tending to bodily discomforts while giving a talk, and if someone knows that he will need to do that, he will actively apologize for it.

Falling in between those, vaping is not physically much more obtrusive from sipping coffee, but does not disappear into the background because it is still unusual.  Stepping that far beyond what it typical is not generally considered gauche, except by a few people who care deeply about the placement of forks.  But it does mean that if you vape in front of an audience, you will be known as “that guy who vapes when giving a talk”, just as someone might become known as “that guy with a ponytail”, or “that guy who always wears a suit when most everyone dresses casual”.  The questioner self-identified as a provocateur and seems to want to be known for vaping, so that seems to be ok.  (I personally vape during talks sometimes, but that it because I am talking about vaping, so it is a bit different.  Still, it gets noticed — e.g., see one of the comments here.)

A rather more important question for THR advocates, however, is not arbitrary manners but manners as tactics.  If you have a lot of credibility or goodwill with those around you and you let them see you vaping, it is definitely good for the cause.  This applies when you are just hanging out at a pub, or when the floor is yours at a talk.  But if you are in a situation where the happiness of polite society depends on everyone trying to minimize their impact on those around them, then it is not a good idea.  Examples of this include most times when you are surrounded by people who are not interacting, such as when waiting in a queue, or when in the audience in the same room where that talk is taking place.  In many such situations, the rules of manners say that most anything that gets you noticed is impolite, and the reality is that it ends up reflects badly on whatever accoutrement is contributing to that notice, whether it be an electronic device, children, or an e-cigarette.  Needless to say, it is bad tactics to be impolite in a way that causes that to happen.


by Carl V Phillips Dick Puddlecote just posted a nice analysis of the annoying tendency of cannabis users to attack tobacco (and alcohol) use and users, motivated in part by a misguided notion that by joining the attack on other … Continue reading


Just a quick aside today.  I only just noticed the hilarious “warning” message on the shopping page US Government Mandated Warnings for Americans:  Depending on the month, this product can cause mouth cancer, can cause gum disease and tooth … Continue reading


Just a quick aside:  I was just noticing some examples of the common ANTZ practice of responding to justifiable ridicule (about anti-THR lies or their general tobacco prohibition campaigns) by suggesting the existence of criticism is evidence that their critics … Continue reading

Other harm reductionists have to deal with extremists too

by Carl V Phillips

A quick aside today, though one that ought to be very interesting to those who are aware that the “traditional” harm reduction community — those focused on illicit drugs and sex — have generally refused to support THR.  You might know that a few of us worked for years to try to make THR part of the agenda for the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA — which recently changed its name to HRI, but everyone still seems to think of it as IHRA).  This effort was led from the inside of that community by Gerry Stimson, arguably the dean of harm reduction (at least one of a very small number of people who deserves that title), and from the THR side, mostly by me and my shop.  There are definitely many in that harm reduction community who see the value of THR and support it, but not enough.

As far as I am concerned, the fight to join forces is over and lost, and I have no intention of wasting more time on it.  It seems that the people who speak up for and try to protect the health junkies and prostitutes — err, sorry, I mean IDUs and sex workers — think that smokers are just not worthy of the same consideration.  Punishing those other behaviors and letting people suffer needless risks is unacceptable, but somehow they find it acceptable to just tell smokers they must quit or die.  Besides, the tobacco/nicotine industry is evil and should just be shut down — apparently in contrast to, say, the heroin industry.

Ok, in fairness it is not quite that simple, though it is remarkably close to that.  It is very frustrating and disappointing trying to deal with those people, so I have to admit a bit of schadenfreude in running across this post that points out the frustration of defenders of harm reduction approaches for sex workers.  They are unhappy about feminists who take an extreme anti-sex-work view that tends to interfere with rational, practical, harm-reducing, freedom-respecting approaches.

Those “radfems” (which I gather from the comments is their version of “ANTZ”) seem to be operating from the ANTZ playbook.  The post, written as a parody guide for the anti-harm-reductionists tells those extremists,

The feminist movement really is in a pickle these days. It used to be a given that things like prostitution, pornography and stripping were bad, but nowadays there’s some resistance to these time-honoured notions. Women are increasingly coming out as sex workers and demanding rights. As feminists seek to shut down strip bars and criminalise clients, those women are complaining not just that they’ll lose their livelihood, but that they’ll be at increased risk of abuse and violence if their industries go underground! You can’t let such trivial concerns get in the way of your crusade, so below are some handy tips for discrediting these pesky meddlers. Remember: being an actual sex worker doesn’t entitle her to speak about sex work!

The post goes on to invoke familiar claims like: no one really wants to do this; everyone involved is just a victim and a dupe, no matter what they think; it is all about greed and profit; and the mere appearance of this in society is more important than the actual outcomes.  It also include tactics for creating biased “evidence” and making sure that policy makers pursue purity over concerns about people.

It is truly amazing how closely this resembles the world of ANTZ and their anti-THR efforts.  Read it (trust me — if you read this blog, you will find it worth a few minutes of your time), and I think you will agree.

And because of that, it is all the more pathetic that THR is opposed by so many of the same people who experience frustration like that in other areas.  It just goes to show…  well, show something about human nature.  I am too tired to figure it out right now.