Thursday, 22 January 2009

NOT PJ: Smoke and MRIs

BernardDarnton This week in his regular column, Bernard Darnton has scientifically calculated the amount of bullshit in the newspaper -- and finds it’s increased by 76.29% since records began!

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 * *


Anonymous said...

I make alternative warnings for my old man to slip under the plastic on his cigarette packets - a picture of a sexy chick in a bikini with warnings like "CAUTION: smoking makes you so sexy you'll score babes like this and possibly knock them up." or "WARNING: Smoking improves my size - stand back, I'm not sure how big it's gunna get."

Yes, it's petty and infantile.

Anonymous said...

Its a proven assertion that smoking causes statistics. But that aside, I have long felt that journalism these days would appear to be little more that "cutting & pasting" press releases without any thought.

Anonymous said...

It is a violation of property rights when the state commands tobacco companies to put warnings on the packets, i.e. the packets are the property of the tobacco companies and the state has no right to tell the companies what to do with their property.

I've specifically asked smokers about those pictures and they say that they know smoking is bad for them but they carry on regardless.

Another thing that the nanny state bleats about is drink-driving.

I recently analysed how much state propaganda was in a NZ Herald article on drink-driving; one could be forgiven for thinking that the NZH is a state organ:

As a classical liberalist I believe that drink-driving should be legalised:

Anonymous said...

Kiwipole : ...I believe that drink-driving should be legalised.

I usually consumed about a 6 pack heineken, before driving up from Whangaporoa to Auckland at some weekends to watch a game of rugby either super-14 or NPC during the season. I always stayed on & party in the city before heading home at 1 am or later, really wasted, but hey I am a good driver when I am drunk especially when I have consumed about 20 bottles by the time I am making my way home.

Hey Kiwipole, if you want to prove your point about legalizing drink driving, then perhaps you can come for a ride to Whangaporoa with me when I come up to the city for a super-14 game, next month (Feb). We can party after the game till dawn and you can witness how responsible my driving is, when I take you for a ride on the northern motorway into whangaporoa.

What do you think?

Anonymous said...

kiwipolemicist said... As a classical liberalist I believe that drink-driving should be legalised

A brilliant example of idealism and common sense parting company. Your belief is ridiculous in the extreme.

It's akin to me stating I should be able to go about firing a machine gun, aiming a couple of inches about people's heads, simply because I'm a really good shot and am not causing any injury until I hit someone. Yours is a view foolish beyond words.

Anonymous said...

Kurt: a response to your comment can be found here:

Marcus: the whole point is that people should wear the consequences of their actions if, as a result of choosing to do something stupid like drink-driving or aiming two inches above someone's head, they harm the person or property of someone else.

It's all about personal responsibility for actions, rather than having the state deciding which activities are or are not permissible.

As I said in the post linked to above, legalisation does not equal condonation, except to those proles who are used to the state dictating their actions.

Anonymous said...

Kiwipolemicist, I constantly bemoan the lack of personal responsibility in society these days, but this is not ALL about personal responsibility for actions at all - it's also about the likelihood of an action to cause harm, and preventing harm before it occurs.

What you're not acknowledging is that there are TWO sets of rights in this situation... the right that Person A has to drive drunk as long as he doesn't cause harm, opposing the right that Person B has to not be killed by a drunk driver.

Technically, I guess, this will always mean the state will be trampling on somebody's rights. So whose rights are going to be defended? It sure as as hell shouldnt' be the drunk driver, who has made the personal decision to act in a way that could lead to serious harm, if not death.

As I intimated before - idealism and common sense aren't always good bedmates.

mc2 said...

I am going to have to agree with Marcus here, the trick about it is whose right takes ascendancy when two peoples rights collide.

My right to live, and your right to drink and drive.

Yes personal responsibility is important and should be emphasized more, but my (and any other person's) right to live (which underpins such ideas as thou shalt not murder) should not be able to be overcome in any circumstance.

Similar arguements can also be made along these lines for speeding (our roads are not autobahns and have not been designed for driving at high speeds) and smoking in public (although I personally think that businesses, such as the Cigar Bar, should have been able to apply for exemptions to that)

Peter Cresswell said...

I don't intend to directly join the conversation on drink-driving, except to observe that if you find that two people's rights are (apparently) in opposition, then you will find that you have incorrectly defined the rights in that situation.