William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Headline: We Used Terrible Science to Justify Smoking Bans. Amen: We Did

When they used to tell me I would shorten my life ten years by smoking, they little knew the devotee they were wasting their puerile word upon—they little knew how trivial and valueless I would regard a decade that had no smoking in it! —Mark Twain

Flabbergasted is the word we need. Or, if you hail from the Land Without Combs, gobsmacked. Taken aback—taken way back—and floored make acceptable substitutes.

For these words describe the emotion one experiences while reading “We Used Terrible Science to Justify Smoking Bans” in the magazine Slate, which is not on anybody’s list of traditionalist or even moderate publications.

All I want to do here is point to the article, which is long and has a wealth of observations. Including, if you can believe it, this one at the end.

While science can inform, though not fully determine, the boundaries of where people are allowed to smoke, the debunking of the previous decade’s heart miracles should provide some grounds for humility.

This is right. An admission scientism is not the way, and another admission of previous, wild over-confidence, a state brought about the misuse of statistics.

There are people who strictly deprive themselves of each and every eatable, drinkable and smokable which has in any way acquired a shady reputation. They pay this price for health. And health is all they get for it. How strange it is. It is like paying out your whole fortune for a cow that has gone dry. —Mark Twain

The story in brief: there was weak statistical evidence that second-hand smoked caused heart disease. But weak second-hand evidence provided by statistics cannot discern cause. The evidence that was once thought strong was gradually whittled down until it became clear that second-hand smoke—such as a man smoking a cigar on a windy beach—was not going to kill scores of women and children.

Yet puritanical “activists” wanted smoking banned altogether. Most of these tolerant, freedom-loving activists were not on the right of the political spectrum. Consider the same people who wanted to ban “second-hand” cigarette smoke generally supported smoke from other substances. A sort of political tremor and mini-moral panic swept the land and smoking was banned everywhere, even where it couldn’t possibly do any harm, like in parks and beaches. It became so idiotic there was even talk of “third-hand” smoke. Yes, really.

The heady effects of banning—I mean the bureaucratic satisfaction of non-appealable regulations well passed—folks began banning vaping, which produces no second-hand smoke. But it looks like smoking, and appearances count. And once you loose a bureaucracy, nothing but its violent dismantling will cause it to cease regulating.

So here we are, with anti-smoking zealots still with gleams in their eyes, and along comes this Slate article. It is smart money to bet against the article having much good effect, but it is not wrong to hope it does. Here are reasons for that hope:

And now that the evidence has had time to accumulate, it’s also become clear that the extravagant promises made by anti-smoking groups—that implementing bans would bring about extraordinary improvements in cardiac health—never materialized…The updated science debunks the alarmist fantasies that were used to sell smoking bans to the public, allowing for a more sober analysis suggesting that current restrictions on smoking are extreme from a risk-reduction standpoint…

In the paper’s admirably honest commentary, the authors reflected on the reasons that earlier studies, including their own, had overstated the impact of smoking bans. The first is that small sample sizes allowed random variances in data to be mistaken for real effects. The second is that most previous studies failed to account for existing downward trends in the rate of heart attacks. And the third is publication bias: Since no one believes that smoking bans increase heart attacks, few would bother submitting or publishing studies that show a positive correlation or null effect. Thus the published record is likely unintentionally biased toward showing a larger effect than truly exists.

It goes happily on. But allow me to remind that these studies cannot discover cause. It is always an outside assumption of what is causing the noticed reductions and increases, because why? Because the thing said to be doing the causing is never measured on individuals! Repeat that out loud, to yourself and the nearest stranger. Asserting cause in these cases is always by fiat or direct assumption—which is cheating.

Raise your hand if you remember the epidemiologist fallacy. Here’s an example with PM2.5, which is also said to be a deadlier killer than that shark in Jaws. Read more about the fine subjects in Uncertainty: The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics.


  1. Hmm, anything yu want to know about grooming…you know who to ask.

  2. Casper Wyoming has a smoking ban because a true believer demanded it. It was repealed and said individual returned to demand it again, finally getting it re-instated. She would return from the grave to demand it if necessary. It was never about health—it was about the zealot winning at any and all costs, including driving decades old business out of business. She did not care about anyone but herself. Zealots never do. She did not care about facts. Zealots never do.

    (Interestingly enough, there was talk of repealing the ban again this year. This time, business owners said “No”. They had already adjusted, re-adjusted, and then re-adjusted. One more time was insanity as far they were concerned. Plus, I really think they believed the zealot would never, ever give up, so until there’s no chance of a return, why bother?)

    I am surprised Slate would dare carry such an article. Probably they won’t again—I expect backlash.

  3. As I said in one of my old newsletters, through some fissure, the second-hand smoke of Satan has entered the Church. In this case, however, the danger is real and verifiable. Its other name is the “spirit of Vatican II,” and it has coalesced to a previously unknown degree in the person of Francis.

  4. I like smoking bans, but I am not surprised that the science was being stretched, just from considerations of human psychology; of course the science could be stretched, and of course, given the mien of the people involved, it would be.

    I like smoking bans because wafting about odiferous smoke in public places, is obvious bad manners. Some may find the odour pleasant. I can’t stand it. Smoking in public is just as disrespectful as playing your personal preference of music for all nearby to hear.

  5. Those interested in this aspect: “Because the thing said to be doing the causing is never measured on individuals! ” might want to read my essay along these lines titled “What Are They Really Counting?” found here ==> https://wattsupwiththat.com/2015/12/05/what-are-they-really-counting/

  6. As I have pointed out before, the EPA study that claimed exposure to secondhand smoke caused 3000 cases of lung cancer a year didn’t measure any exposure. People were asked questions about their exposure and a numerical value was assigned to their answers. This is simply a fallacious attempt to turn qualitative data into quantitative data. What is really funny is that the same people that demonized tobacco smoking, and smokers, are now claiming that marijuana smoke contains no carcinogens and is harmless.

  7. Sheri is confused (“I am surprised Slate would dare carry such an article. Probably they won’t again—I expect backlash.””)
    But that’s not her fault.
    She trusted Briggs’ presentation.

    The article is exactly the sort of thing one expects from Slate, and its ilk. So, why would Briggs present that as something “flabbergasting” from such a source?

    WHAT THE SLATE ARTICLE IS REALLY ABOUT is interceding on behalf of smokers who are an oppressed publicly humiliated, “shamed,” minority special interest group, the public at large should accommodate. Here’s what they say about it:

    “The cost of these policies falls almost entirely on people who smoke, an increasingly put-upon minority of the population. Rarely are their preferences consulted.”

    Citing a study, they go on:

    “Importantly, while study participants expressed considerable felt stigma in relation to their smoking, they also recounted numerous instances of overt censure and discrimination. Smokers’ experiences in Vancouver raise important questions about the value and ethics of denormalisation strategies. Should a liberal state ever be complicit in shaming its citizens?”

    …and then go on some more:

    “While science can inform, though not fully determine, the boundaries of where people are allowed to smoke, the debunking of the previous decade’s heart miracles should provide some grounds for humility. It may be neither feasible nor desirable to set back the clock and permit smoking everywhere, but laws in a liberal society can accommodate the rights and preferences of smokers and business owners far better than they do now.”

    When you read in a magazine having a well-recognized Leftist political orientation asserting that a given group, smokers, are an oppressed minority victim group subjected to humiliating public “shaming” such that broader society should make potentially unhealthful accommodations … is that really “flabbergasting” or “gobsmaking”? Of course not. That’s just the sort of story one expects from Slate – nobody familiar with that on-line magazine or other such Liberal mouthpieces can possibly be “taken aback” much less “floored” by that outlook. But those quoted words are what Briggs selected to set up the reader to reach very incorrect conclusions (aka Sheri as what is undoubtedly a representative example).


    Slate ignores real science showing smoking bans DO beneficially contribute to numerous beneficial outcomes, and instead picks a couple of sensational benefits (reduced heart attacks & lung cancer) that didn’t work out so it can basically say: Smoking bans didn’t work…so they should be abandoned — and quit shaming smokers! Slate ignores the ample evidence of many other beneficial contributions.

    This is an example of the classic switcheroo:
    I can’t refute Policy A
    So I’ll refute look-alike, but different, Policy B
    and then Claim ‘A’ is refuted.

    Of course, that’s BS … but people fall for it all the time because of slick manipulation.

    Read the Slate article, note Slate references “groups” — then follow its link to its sources–those groups are identified, and they’re political special interest activists. Slate does NOT cite any credible science, instead they cite what those “groups” presented as justification for smoking bans. That justification is the result of those groups taking real science and politicizing it — they made sensational propaganda to sell the policies supporting their cause. The actual science hedges; not so with propaganda. Science is not propaganda (the latter also known as “making things up”). Though very different, the inattentive reader is lulled into perceiving the propaganda as credible science.

    Nowhere in the Slate article is ANY credible/real science cited. None. Instead, a highly selective illusion of scientific foundation, where none exists, is presented to justify a Liberal Cause.
    Thus Briggs’ reference to it is curious, but only briefly; note this remark:

    “An admission [of] scientism is not the way, and another admission of previous, wild over-confidence, a state brought about the misuse of statistics.”

    Briggs’ can’t miss the opportunity to use the same propaganda Slate uses to bash science (but, alas, cannot quite get to “scientism”). And therein lies another ulterior motive….

  8. Ken ==> Do you have ANY science to back up your strident screed?

    The question is about the science…..and the science stank and still does.

    Junk Science cobbed together to foster a desired public policy — the desired policy comes first, “science” is produced to “support” it — or in this case, to make it seem absolutely necessary.

    I don’t smoke now, haven’t for 35 years, and I prefer no-smoking restaurants.

    But I really really object to awful, stinky, bad, poorly done and over-hyped science being used to force social change.

  9. Kip ==> RE: Do you have ANY science to back up your strident screed?

    Do you have ANY science to back up your strident screed?

    Having asserted that a particular policy was based on poor science, you can no doubt also provide evidence that such poorly conducted science was used to justify what is in actuality an unsupportable policy. At least, I’m assuming you wouldn’t have the hypocritical gall to make unsubstantiated assertions while demanding more from others on exactly the same theme.


    I had no problems looking on-line finding numerous examples of physical studies, real-live experiments involving flesh & blood humans, that measured the effects of tobacco smoke on humans, directly or 2nd-hand ingestion. Because there are numerous such studies readily available (and much more via journal subscriptions).

    Here’s one that, after a tedious intro, describes particular adverse effects measured on the circulatory system: http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/111/20/2684 (e.g.: “SHS has immediate effects on endothelium-dependent vasodilation, which is manifest clinically in 15 to 30 minutes. Using the coronary flow velocity reserve, a clinical surrogate measure of endothelial function, Otsuka et al showed that 30 minutes of breathing SHS (at levels comparable to those in a bar) impaired endothelium-dependent vasodilation in coronary arteries of nonsmokers almost to the same extent as seen in habitual smokers.”
    — if that doesn’t convince one of the deleterious effects of tobacco smoke, probably nothing will).

    That, and others involving actual experimental studies (a casual internet search yields numerous results), refutes Briggs’ implied comments about empirical data being the sole basis (“…the thing said to be doing the causing is never measured on individuals! “).

    There’s ample factual experimental measurements of numerous toxins/carcinogens found in tobacco smoke, both second-hand and direct. I did some checking about hormesis effects of tobacco smoke, second-hand or otherwise. None of any repute. So we can pretty much rule out any beneficial effects from low doses. If anyone can find hormesis benefits from tobacco smoke via ordinary exposures I’m sure we’d all be interested to read about that!

    That such established toxic chemicals are there, and being inhaled, is certain. Is there any doubt they cause harm? Not really.

    Kip & I agree on one thing, “really really object to awful, stinky, bad, poorly done and over-hyped science being used to force social change.”

    That begs another, related, issue. Suppose the original/early studies that led to smoking bans were no more than empirical … and only much later did objective evidence prove various cause-effect relationships? Was that so bad? Is application of the adage, “if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then its probably a duck,” something to be avoided entirely on principle until objective proof is provided?

    In other words, how much empirical evidence is enough? That would be situation-ally dependent.

    Empirical evidence often enough is more than enough to convince the vast majority of people–correctly–to do or not do certain things, despite having zero understanding of exactly why. Ancients, for example, observed that the tallest object was the one usually–but not always–struck by lightening, and devised safety precautions accordingly (e.g. if caught on a plain in lightening conditions to lay flat). Guests at a resort or convention, on hearing that people are getting sick from eating the salmon at the buffet will, almost to a person, avoid the salmon; chances are, if such word is out the resort will pull that from the menu. Such observations leading to such policies, empirical data with zero science, are sensible.

    Briggs, and it appears your(?), views are to dismiss all findings and safety precautions pending objective proof. That, and trash-talk the evidence in the meantime.

    But I bet neither of you would choose the dish rumored to cause illness, much less insist if the provider pulled it from the menu on such evidence to serve you a portion if that’s what you normally liked.

  10. Ray: “What is really funny is that the same people that demonized tobacco smoking, and smokers, are now claiming that marijuana smoke contains no carcinogens and is harmless.”

    Can you supply the name of one such person? I’d be interested, so I can make fun of him. If you can’t, then you’re wrong about what’s really funny.

  11. Ken ==> You have brought up a good example of what is wrong with SHS science. Barnoya and Glantz (2005) is a review study — that means that they dredged through all the other actual studies to see if they all agreed about how bad SHS is. It is not a surprise that they — lo and behold — found that the studies, designed and paid-for to find adverse effects of SHS, did find adverse effects. Their conclusion reflected in their title “Cardiovascular Effects of Secondhand Smoke — Nearly as Large as Smoking” is so-far beyond the actuality as to be a mockery of itself — a mockery of the dangers of tobacco smoking. A first-year clinical researcher would point out that the “nearly as large as smoking” violates the first principles of biological research — the dose response relationship — which would lead the first-year student understand that either there is something wrong with the experiment or the effects are not due to the hypothesized “cause” after all but due to something else.

    This discussion is NOT about smoking or SHS. It is about a failure of science — it is about poorly done science finding doubtful relationships, false “causes” and fantastically inflated “risks” — not just in SHS research, but in nearly all biological risk assessment.

    There really is a lot of good reading to be had in this topic — the failure of medical research to find reliable truth on this subject — as to Why, How, What Went Wrong.

    Start with John P. A. Ioannidis who recently pointed out “most research findings are false for most research designs and for most fields”. Further, Ioannidis states simply: “Claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias”. [ http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article/asset?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0020124.PDF ]

    SHS research is one of those fields that has been found, on more considered reflection, to be “simply [an] accurate measure… of the prevailing bias”.

    No one thinks that breathing tobacco smoke (or pot smoke or cooking fire smoke or forest fire smoke or diesel smoke) is good for people’s health. People with asthmatic children should not smoke [period], not even in their own homes.

    But the science used to force societal changes in public smoking policies was and is , for the most part, extremely biased in its design and produced results and conclusions that are simply false — like the “finding” of Barnoya and Glantz (2005).

    For more on John P. A. Ioannidis see:


  12. Food for thought from today’s Nature – http://www.nature.com/news/winston-churchill-s-essay-on-alien-life-found-1.21467 They write that an old essay shows that Churchill “reasoned like a scientist”. I’d say it shows that he reasoned like a scientist who doesn’t understand that all probability is contingent and doesn’t understand that replacing “given thats” drawn from observations with “given thats” drawn from flights of fancy is a mug’s game.

  13. I am pretty sure that the rise and fall of western civilization correlates better with the prevalence of tobacco use. Somebody write me a grant!

  14. All I have for evidence is personal experience. When I have to breathe cigar or cigarette smoke for more than a second or two, something happens in my throat and I end up with terrible sore throat and cough for several hours. Heck, I can’t even take a short ride in a car that has been smoked in before, without coughing for the remainder of the day.

    This experience appears to happen to many folks, I’m not the only data point. Using my powers of induction, “Second-Hand Smoke” is bad for you.

    Now, I’m not saying that we need the government to intervene, I’d be happy to let the cigar smokers have their armpit-stink lounges to themselves, and the dive bars to the chain-smokers. But have some public decency and keep your disgusting habit to yourself.

  15. Breathing smoke is good!

    Much like arguing for more fossil fuel consumption, this would fall under the category of, “WTF is wrong with you?”


  16. Deception is the cornerstone of consciousness fueled by simple
    repetition…., just ask the snake.

  17. Lee Phillips,
    I believe there was a study that concluded that there was no evidence marijuana smoke caused cancer, but I can’t find it.

  18. As a smoker, one of the frustrating things about the bans is not that I can’t light-up where I like, but instead the seemingly singular focus on tobacco smoke.

    For instance, one friend who insists I go outside to smoke (I respect her wish) has no problem filling her house with smoke from incense sticks – odd that her complaints about my habit rest on the health effects, not smell.

    Or that I am liable to be fined for walking past a park while burning less than 1g of tobacco, yet the owner of the house next door to the park can burn several hundred kg of wood in a slow combustion heater during winter and face no sanction – even if they burn treated pine (deliberately loaded with known poisons like arsenic)

    Or that having been prevented from smoking inside the cafe, I am confronted by complaints about “ruining the experience” of outdoor dining and “endangering peoples health” when I want to smoke outside next to the busy road – carcinogenic diesel fumes 24/7 are fine, apparently, as long as no-one smokes.

    A little sense of proportion, please…

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