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Wednesday, 18 December 2013

When Science Proves Uncomfortable

I think its interesting how certain sectors of activism make a big point of pointing to "the science" to back up their views; often in distinct reaction against opponents that distrust or reject mainstream science.  All well and good, but what's troubling is that it often seems to me that these groups are almost as likely (but more hypocritical about it) to use "the science" as a kind of make-believe fetish-of-convenience.   They will point to good science that supports their agenda, bad science that supports their agenda, make-believe non-science that supports their agenda; and will create a wall of disbelief when it comes to real science that ends up being impractical for their agenda.  They try to discredit the sources, even if the sources are utterly legitimate peer-reviewed data, sometimes even the very sources they embraced and held up when it seems to support their positions.

No, in this particular case I'm not talking about climate change, though certainly this argument can be posted to "big environmentalism" (note: NOT "Radical" environmentalism, that's a boogey-man, you can't claim that someone is a "radical" when they're smack-dab in the center of the environmentalist movement and get all kinds of prominence as a supposed representative of the movement).  In a post on my old blog I already handled that topic, making a long list of predictions of disaster (supposedly, though not so much factually, backed up by "the science") made by utterly mainstream environmentalists (including the U.S. government's "science czar" or major spokesmen like David Suzuki) which turned out to be completely wrong.   Its interesting how major media dedicates a lot of time each spring over the last several years, to talking about how the Artic Ice is "predicted to be completely gone" this summer, but rarely mention when that doesn't come to pass (and in fact, the latest data collected by the Cryosat-2 satellite has confirmed that artic ice has expanded considerably this year).

This time, what I'm talking about is Second-hand Smoke.  It was the claim that second-hand smoke had a significant link to lung cancer in non-smokers that gave the Anti-tobacco lobby the power it needed to push extreme anti-smoking laws all over the world; laws often so draconian that they seem petty and punitive, not just to stop people from smoking in government-spaces, or to take away the right of owners of private restaurants or bars to allow or disallow smoking in their businesses, but to the point of forbidding smokers from smoking outdoors in the open air on patios, or even forbidding smokers from smoking indoors in tobacconists or smoker's clubs where no non smoker ever has cause to step foot. There's nothing 'reasonable' about that, and the only reason these sorts of laws managed to garner sufficient support was because of the claim that "the science" proved that even the tiniest particle of second-hand smoke could cause cancer in non-smokers.

This was always hogwash. It reached points of utter absurdity, like the suggestion that someone even walking past a smoker in the open air for one second would be subject to heightened cancer risks.  It came from "policy statements" rather than studies.  But even the more plausible claim, that spending significant amounts of time around smokers (say, working in a restaurant where smoking is permitted, or living with a smoker) could lead to increased cancer risk, was supported by bad science.  The studies conducted to "prove" this went about starting from the premise that it must be true, and then finding figures to support that truth.  The only significant studies that claimed to support this notion, invented first in the minds of anti-tobacco lobbyists, were done by looking FIRST at non-smokers who had lung cancer and then trying to find correlation in their cases with smoking-environments.  That's "logical fallacy 101" right there.

Well now, as of a few days ago, the results of a major study (the largest ever) on the subject of second-hand smoke has been presented to the public. In this study, a sampling of over 76000(!) women was conducted.  Its credentials are impeccable: it was done by Stanford University, and the findings have been published in the Oxford Journal of the National Cancer Institute. And the findings were startlingly clear: it found "found no link between the disease (cancer) and secondhand smoke".

I'm betting most of you have seen this NOWHERE before now. While major media, spurred on by lobbying group press releases, has never failed to report on any nonsense on the subject, they have remained pointedly silent about this finding. It just doesn't fit "the narrative".  The stonewalling is happening right now, and should the subject be pushed by those few groups who may have an interest in pushing it, look for ridiculous feats of mental contortionism to try to explain away why it was still justified to engage in a massive campaign of persecution of property rights and personal liberties, and to continue to do so in the future. All of a sudden, "the science" doesn't matter.

Ok, so in a way, this might also be about environmentalism too, and all kinds of other things.  Because fundamentally, it has to do with the fact that people tend to have a hard time distinguishing between actual "Science", self-styled "spokesmen" who are not scientific so much as using science as an ideological tool of convenience when it suits them and discarding it completely when it doesn't, and media bias.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Rhodesian + Image Latakia

1 comment:

  1. Saw it in Forbes yesterday.

    And one of the Discover science blogs I read.

    Still though, a some of the data on second-hand smoke dealt with the non-smoking spouses of smokers. There are confounds in the data that are harder to tease out thus the large population sizes.

    I have not read the entire article. I'll do it when I get into work tomorrow and have journal or PubMed access.