L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

03 December 2008 Blog Home : December 2008 : Permalink

Passive Smoking and Other Junk Science

I am, personally, for the most part in favour of the various smoking bans that have been enacted around the world. The reason for this is that I don't smoke (often) and I absolutely hate the smell of stale smoke that used to adorn my clothes whenever I went into a bar, restaurant, train carriage etc. full of smokers. As an anarchist libertarian kind of person I think that the smoking bans have gone too far but I don't object much because, entirely selfishly, I benefit from them.

However, as DavidA at the Devils Kitchen points out, these bans have been successful because some pretty appalling abuses of the scientific process by anti-smoking zealots. It is therefore, I think, time for me to reconsider my postion because similar junk science is on display in areas like climate change (CO2 etc.) and road safety (i.e. drink driving, speeding) where the efforts are likely to impact my quality of life without in fact providing measureable benefit to society at large. I'll come back to the climate change and road safety thing at the end, first I want to highlight the way the anti-tobacco bigots have twisted science.

Take this press release about the reduction in heart attacks in Scotland after the smoking ban:

A University of Glasgow study has found a 17 per cent fall in admissions for heart attacks in the first year after the smoking ban came into force.

The evaluation, led by Professor Jill Pell from the University’s BHF Cardiovascular Research Centre, found that after the legislation came into force there was a 17 per cent reduction in heart attack admissions to the hospitals.

This compares with an annual reduction in Scottish admissions for heart attack of 3 per cent per year in the decade before the ban.

It says the quality of air in pubs is now equivalent to that found outdoors.

Exposure to second-hand smoke north of the border is down by 40 per cent among adults and children, the study added.


Unfortunately the way that 17% number was gathered was by using an approach to the raw data which reminds me of various estemed climate scientists. If you read the background the number was obtained by something very similar to the following sentence:

The number of pears harvested in 2008 was 17% less than the number of grapefruit harvested in 2007 on the other hand, the number of apples in 2007 was equivalent to a reduction of 3% per anum in consumption of kiwi fruit since 1998.

If you actually compare oranges to oranges you get a graph like this one:

(Source VelvetGoveIronFist / ISD Scotland)

This is apparently not an isolated incident and people who complain about this kind of junk face unpleasant consequences:

[...]Siegel's defenses of epidemiologic evidence, which anti-tobacco advocates preferred to ignore or misrepresent, resulted in him being "excommunicated" (there is really no other word that captures it) from the anti-smoking activists' inner circles.

The situation described in the article by James Enstrom [2] has gone even further, representing not only a bastardization of epidemiologic research by anti-tobacco advocates and an excommunication of a long-time member of the anti-smoking research club, but a concerted effort by political activists to destroy the career of a scientist because of one result that appeared in his data, which he chose to publish rather than suppress or alter to be more politically correct.

Moving on to road safety etc.

A couple of years ago I blogged about speed limits and how some fairly basic examination of road accident statistics showed that the correlation between speed limits and fatalities was slim to none. There was one comment in which a lady wrote about how some speed driving nutter killed her only child because he was driving too fast in spite of the speed limit. Her point was that the situation described was precisely that where I was proposing tha there be no speed limits and thus the implication was that there would be more such accidents. I am not so sure.

The first pont to recall is that "Anecdote is not the singluar of Data" and thus arguning by anecdote is likely to lead to bad policy. The second point to recall is that some people drive dangerously (drunk, speed etc.) no matter what, while others don't. The really dangerous drivers don't seem to be particularly deterred by speed/alcohol limits but continue to drive like nutters no matter what.

This is the point that all the nanny-statism fails at. If I drink a pint of beer (instead of half a pint) or if I drive 50mph in a 40 zone at 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning I may be strictly speaking breaking the law, however I'm not likely to be a danger to myself or anyone else. The chances of my having an accident are not notably reduced from what they would be if I drank just the half pint or drove at 39mph. However the chances of someone who's drunk 5 pints or driving at 80mph having an accident is high. The people who drive with 5 pints in them at 80mph are not the ones who will be deterred by a change in the speed limit or a reduction in the permissable blood alcohol percentage. Thus these changes impact safe and law-abiding drivers but do not in fact make the roads notably safer because it is the scofflaws who are the bad drivers not the law-abiding drivers.

The problem is that, just as with the anti-smoking lobby, the road-safety lobby press for limits that don't have an effect and they justify them by resorting to similar levels of "science by press release" and bogus statistics. They are not the only ones of course and someone tends to benefit greatly from the laws these nanny-staters get passed. It would be utterly fascinating to see who benefits from the passive smoking junk science, the road safety junk science and so on.

Take the French swimming pool law. This law requires every pool owner in France to either block access to their pool or have a pool alarm to detect when a child falls in. Even at best this would prevent no more than about 30 deaths by drowning each year (on average there were about 30 drownings a year so this assumes that all the pool related deaths in the years prior to the law being passed would be prevented). Statistics regarding fatalities seem to be very hard to come by, but subsequent deaths appear to be around 20 so the investment by about a million pool owners in alarms fences etc. at a cost of at least a thousand Euros each has prevented no more than about 10 deaths a year. In other words this law has caused an investment in France of at least a billion Euros and saved 10 lives. It is of course hard to put a value on a single life but €100 million seems to be a bit high. One wonders whether it might have been better to spend that €1 billion on something else such as research into cancer treatments where it would probably end up saving rather more lives. However sales of swimming pool alarms, fences, covers etc. have been enormous and one wonders whether a pool equipment trade association helped sponsor some of the research...

PS regarding Nanny statism - this version of the Battle of Trafalgar deserves rereading