EVERY MORNING I ASK MYSELF how much crap there is in the newspaper.
Readers of yesterday’s Press and Dominion Post were greeted with a Clockwork Orange image from a cigarette package to illustrate a Ministry of Health press release dressed up as reporting. The headline said, “Warnings credited with smoking fall,” which was good sense on the part of the newspaper because it left the logical fallacy in the hands of the author of the press release rather than in those of the newspaper that was regurgitating it.
National Director of Tobacco Control – a job title that no doubt comes with a spiffing uniform – Ashley Bloomfield was noting that a “dramatic drop” in smoking rates has occurred since the introduction of compulsory gory photographs on cigarette packets.
The idea that because one event follows another the relationship must be causal is known to philosophers as the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. That’s Latin for “we just make this shit up.”
Bloomfield admits that it’s “hard to attribute specific drops … to specific interventions” but is confident, even without evidence, that the gory photographs are effective. Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a branch of the Ministry of Health, agrees with the Ministry of Health. They apparently have “anecdotal evidence” that the new warnings work.
I have anecdotal evidence that people think the warnings are a joke. I know a single male in his forties who regards children the way most people regard termites, who always asks for the “Smoking may harm your baby” packs. More tobacco-advertising-related wishful thinking.
I’m surprised there hasn’t been a huge increase in smoking amongst teenage boys – just so they can get the warning labels. “I’ll swap you a clogged artery and a gangrenous toe for the eye operation and the bleeding brain.” Kewwwl.
Given the Ministry’s statistics, the warnings may well have increased smoking; we just don’t know. Jamie Whyte, author of Crimes Against Logic, calls statistics “the chemical weapons of persuasion.” “Just release a few statistics into the discussion and the effects will soon be visible within moments: eyes glaze over, jaws slacken, and soon everyone will be nodding in agreement.”
Dr Bloomfield isn’t so much nodding in agreement as babbling in confusion. The same man who noted the “dramatic drop” in smoking over the last two years also notes, in a part of the press release not copied into the newspaper, that the drop in adult smoking, from 24.3% to 23.9%, is “not statistically significant”. I.e. it may not even be a drop – it may be so small it’s just a measurement error.
Indeed, if some recent research proves valid he should be exhibiting another symptom of chemical weapons poisoning: namely, crapping himself. Recent brain imaging research has suggested that seeing the warnings stimulates the desire to smoke rather than puts people off, presumably because the emotional brain lights up in desire for more nicotine far faster than the rational brain plods to the conclusion that it’s a bad idea because you might get a gammy toe in a few decades.
The brain imaging research is new and has plenty of critics but at least doing an experiment is a better approach than wishful thinking. Assuming that whatever you do is brilliant and guaranteed to work isn’t what scientists call “scientific”.
The hard science of cause and effect is slowly creeping into territory currently occupied by the social “science” of coincidence and reportage. The question is not how much crap is there in the newspaper, but when will they finally get too embarrassed to print it?
* * Read Bernard Darnton’s regular column ‘NOT PJ’ every week here at NOT PC * *