Tag Archives: proof

There is no proof (except when the authors wants there to be)

by Carl V Phillips

I finally have a few free minutes while others tinker with the document I have been working on, so I thought I would comment on something that struck me about a post from Chris Snowdon this morning.

In the post, Snowdon rightly ridicules the UK National Health Service for bragging about their programs to assist smokers who want to quit, which he points out reached very few people, with minimal success, and at rather great expense.  I found myself taking the thoughts one step further, and questioning whether even the claimed modest NHS accomplishments really occurred.

What struck me is that the anti-tobacco cadre who claim that this (and other similar smoking cessation programs) are a success is the same crowd that will deny clear evidence of THR success, based on such claims as “correlation is not causation; we do not know anything until we have randomized trials”.  As in, there is no proof that Sweden’s low smoking rate is due to substitution of snus, or that reductions in cigarettes sales that match increases in e-cigarette sales mean that e-cigarettes are replacing smoking.

In this particular case, there is apparently not even a correlation.  The NHS provided a service, and a tiny number of people who availed themselves of it quit smoking.  Did the success rate go up with intensity of effort?  It does not sound like it.  Did those in the system quit with a greater success rate than similar people not in the system?  Perhaps, but quite probably not — but NHS does not seem to have even tried to figure that out before declaring victory.

Of course, these tactics — believing anything that tends to support one’s position and denying everything that does not using made-up-on-the-spot rules about what evidence “counts” — are common across all dishonest activists.  The same tactics are used by those who wish to deny the health risks from cigarettes.  Hardly a day passes when I do not see these tactics used by spokespeople for some industry (including, I should note, the e-cigarette industry though, to my recollection, never in modern times by the major tobacco companies).

Here is the flyover takeaway message from this:  There is no proof in empirical science (i.e., there is no proof in the real world, only in constructed systems like mathematics).  We sometimes use the word to mean “overwhelming evidence”, of course.  But anyone who tries to make an argument about what is true in the world that hinges on the concept of proof either does not understand what they are talking about or are trying to mislead you.

Almost any data allows us to make some inferences about cause and effect.  But no data ever proves it.  Moreover, there are no simple recipes — analysis is required.  Some data are easier to interpret better than others, but data is not the same as knowledge.

When someone claims causation merely because the data shows one event followed another (as with the NHS), that is clearly not adequate analysis.  But at the same time, when someone just cries “correlation is not causation!!!” with no further analysis to explain why the particular correlation is apparently not causal, that is arguably even worse.  Don’t trust anyone who makes a habit of doing either one of these.  Anyone who does has demonstrated to you that they are not seeking to discover the truth, let alone to tell you the truth.