In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

A Rejoinder to the BSC

I hope that the Bolton Smokers' Club publish a swift correction of their false statements about me. (Edited: Tripp)

I hope that the Bolton Smokers’ Club publish a swift correction of their false statements about me. (Edited: Tripp)

After discussing the connection between smoking cigarettes and developing lung cancer, a commenter wrote on the Bolton Smokers’ Club blog about me: A Bit of an Altercation with an Anti-Smoking Vaper. This article fulminates with fallacies and falsities, some of which are about me personally.

Correlation and Causality

Firstly, the title says I am an ‘anti-smoking vaper’. Neither component of this statement is true. I am not an anti-smoker (in the sense meant by the author), as I have expressed in several articles against tobacco control advocacy (which were linked to the article’s author in a previous correspondence), and I have never used a nicotine vaporizer.

Secondly, I am accused of being “touchy” and “miffed”, because I corrected my title on a relevant subject. The first comment by this writer to my blog began:

Oh dear, Mr Masters.

It is a matter of fact that, shortly after WW2, there was a continuous and fairly substantial increase in the import of orange into the UK. At the same, there was a continuous and fairly substantial increase in divorces. Did the increase in the import of orange cause the increase in divorces, or did the increase in divorces cause the increase in the import of oranges?

That is a good example of why correlations do not constitute causation.

Correlations do not necessarily imply causation, but neither are all correlations plainly spurious.

I own this shirt. (Source: Shopify)

I own this shirt. (Source: XKCD)

It is stated: “Nothing on his site says that he has this doctorate.” This is untrue, as my About page reads: “I am a marketing analysis with a Mathematics PhD, and I am a passionate believer in liberty.” Also, I have written articles about my PhD.

The author persists:

the whole point of the McTear Case was that Tobacco Control had the perfect opportunity to ‘prove’ (on the balance of probabilities) that smoking causes lung cancer. They could not produce ANY evidence that it was so. They relied upon the ‘authority’ of the WHO and similar, which means relying upon epidemiology.

To me, reliance upon epidemiology is much the same thing as guessing that malaria is caused by ‘miamas’ from swamps.

In the McTear vs Imperial Tobacco case, it becomes clear from the reasoning provided by Lord Smith that he was not seeking to prove the causality “on the balance of probabilities”, despite his claims to be doing so. For such a standard of proof, the secondary forms of evidence — such as a robust and stable correlation between the two variables, found in varying countries — would not be dismissed. I note that the author rejects the supposed appeal to the authority of the World Health Organisation, but readily accepts the appeal to the authority of Lord Nimmo Smith.

Three Alternate Hypotheses

Given the correlation persists when the data is segmented by gender, geography, occupation, exposure to other risk factors, and other demographic dimensions, and is observable across different times and countries, the correlation is not simply spurious. We are left with three alternate hypotheses: the causal hypothesis, the reverse-cause hypothesis and the constitutional hypothesis. The reverse-cause hypothesis would suggest a cancer developed at age 50 could cause a person to smoke at 18, and so cannot be seriously proposed.

The causal mechanism — the inhalation of carcinogenic smoke — has been experimentally studied: the application of tobacco smoke-condensates to the skin of mice induces skin cancer. These carcinogenic findings are consistent with division of smokers by their proclivity in smoking, where heavier smokers are more likely to develop lung cancer, and lower propensity among former smokers for developing this cancer.

The constitutional hypothesis states there is a third variable which causes smoking and induces lung cancer. This hypothesis would have to explain overall changes in lung cancer mortality, the carcinogenic nature of tobacco tar and lower lung cancer mortality rates among those smokers who quit. An agent which matches these impertinent results, whilst causing lung cancer to an equal degree to which smoking cigarettes is currently believed to, has not been discovered, nor even been suggested.

Therefore, the hypothesis most supported by the available evidence is the view that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer.

The Stolen Concept

The author then write of epidemologist Richard Doll:

Finally, I have no trust in Doll at all. He was a communist and probably totally anti-capital, and therefore anti privately-owned big business.

This is a crystalline ad hominem fallacy, just as labelling me “touchy” was. Sir Doll’s political views do not render his research false. Also, in his criticisms of the Doll study:

What other ‘bad habits’ did that Elite avoid? Where did they live? To what extent were they exposed to smog and war?

This statement suggests that the Doll paper had failed to consider other risk factors. By what means can other risk factors be determined? If smoking cannot be declared a risk factor due to confounding factors, and those factors cannot be declared so due to the confounding effect of smoking, then this is a fallacy of the stolen concept: a grand shell game of intellectual evasion.

The Signal and The Noise

It would seem that the only research that would satiate these evident demands would be a series of controlled studies, each lasting several decades, where one group must never smoke, whilst varying groups must smoke tobacco to a preset regular degree. Such studies would be grotesquely unethical, which is why they have not been performed.

No study is without flaws. We live in an imperfect world, with imperfect humans, collecting imperfect data. We must seek the signal masked by the noise. Data analysis does not end on the proclamation that ‘correlation is not causation’. Data can be segmented; further research can be conducted; more studies can be analysed. I would be happy to amend my views on the relationship between smoking cigarettes and developing lung cancer if new evidence arises, or the nebulous third variable is discovered.

However, I hope that the Bolton Smokers’ Club publish corrections of their erroneous statements about me, and that this happens swiftly. A liberal society is one where people are free to fulfill their lives, especially when personally accepting dangers unto themselves.

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3 comments on “A Rejoinder to the BSC

  1. junican
    February 28, 2015

    Dear Anthony (if I may be so bold), I post as ‘Junican’, but you may call me “Jamesdarling” if you wish, for “James” is my given name.
    Some time ago, I researched the incidence of lung cancer as it existed around 1950, 1960; although I wrote a post about that subject, I cannot find it off-hand. I compared the figures from 1950, 1960 to today’s figures (around 2010).
    Since ‘heavy’ smoking’, and smoking of untipped cigarettes, and smoking of ‘strong cigarettes (eg. ‘Capstan Full Strength’), plus whatever ‘additives’ tobacco companies, at that time, chose to adulterate the tobacco with, was a consequence of two world wars, it is hardly to be expected that there would not be massive confounders in any calculations based upon the incidence of smoking.
    Were doctors in the Doctors Study immune from the effects of war and deprivation?

    I cannot be certain, since I have lost the figures, and it would take a long time to recreate them, but the fact is that lung cancer mortality has not fallen in line with the reduction in smoking prevalence. It has fallen somewhat, but that could be explained by earlier diagnosis and better treatment.

    ====

    I do not say that smoking is is not a contributory factor to lung cancer and all the other things. I merely say that the anti-pleasure gang in the WHO are mistaken, if they think that longevity is the be-all and end-all. If you look at the mortality statistics, vast numbers of very aged people (80+) succumb to pneumonia all at once. At that sort of age, human bodies fail drastically in one way or another.

    ====

    The Doll ‘Doctors Study’ failed on many grounds. It assumed that all doctors were equally ‘healthy’, despite many of them being involved in two world wars and the deprivations thereof.

    ====
    Finally. the epidemiology does not justify persecution.

    • Anthony Masters
      February 28, 2015

      I used to participate in formal debates, where it was suggested to refer to other debaters by their positions: this makes the debate less personal, and so less heated. It was not meant as an insult, but intended to clarify I am discussing ideas, not the person expressing them.

      Was that research published anywhere (online, perhaps)? I would be interested to read it, though I note that article would be classified as epidemiology.

      “The fact is that lung cancer mortality has not fallen in line with the reduction in smoking prevalence.” It is not a requirement for the correlation coefficient to be one, and there would be a delay on lung cancer mortality.

      There are criticisms of every study. Its deficiencies have been answered by later studies. There is a persistent fallacy in this debate that to criticise the Doll paper is equivalent to uprooting the entire association between smoking and lung cancer, or even the whole field of epidemiology.

      “The epidemiology does not justify persecution.” Nothing justifies persecution: that’s why it’s called persecution. Moreover, there is a distinction between making an empirical claim (smoking tobacco is a cause of lung cancer) and a political claim (tobacco control is a positive idea).

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