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.