Fake Science Gets Smoked—and What It Means for Climate Change

Cast your mind back to the late 1990s, when trial lawyers and state attorneys general were after the tobacco companies for what resulted in the “Master Settlement Agreement” by which the tobacco companies agreed to pay tribute of billions of dollars to the states for decades to come in exchange for relief from the uncertainty of endless private and public litigation. I think it was a great deal for Big Tobacco (how do I know? Just check tobacco stocks since the agreement was struck), and I teach this episode to students as an example of “how the sausage is made” in real politics in the U.S. (especially the lingering constitutional question of whether this agreement violates the Constitution’s state compact clause of Article I, section 10).

In the middle of all this political maneuvering, the Clinton EPA came out with a finding that “second-hand smoke” was nearly as bad for you as first hand smoke, which merely reinforced my view that you should always get your smoke first hand: why take chances? However, like the “social cost of carbon” calculation of the Obama EPA used to justify their so-called “Clean Power Plan,” the EPA depended on some statistical latitude that the late Justice Scalia would rightly have called “jiggery-pokery.” In one sentence, the EPA relaxed the standard test for statistical significance in order to generate their “finding.” Because the standard statistical test found little or no effect from second-hand smoke. Hey—when there’s billions of dollars in tobacco money to loot at stake, what scientific rigor among friends? How convenient that the government would come out with such a finding at a key moment. I’m sure it was just a coincidence.

This kind of statistical exactitude is over the heads of most Americans and all mainstream media journalists, so the EPA got away with it, just as they are trying to get away with the “social cost of carbon.” (Aside: The Trump Administration ought to commission an OMB study of the “social cost of bureaucrats.”) When scientifically literate observes tried to blow the whistle on the EPA’s relaxing of standard tests of statistical significance, the anti-smoking lobby called the critics “tobacco deniers,” a prelude to linking climate skeptics to “tobacco deniers,” which is quite wrong, though the media rolls with it, naturally.

This is all prelude to a terrific story at Slate that demolishes the second-hand smoke thesis. Slate. Let that sink in. It’s a long story, detailing how one semi-anecdotal “Helena study” of a spurious correlation was used to justify anti-smoking measures around the world, but turns out to be total crap.  Kudos to Slate for this.  It’s a long story and you should read the whole thing if you can, but here are some extensive excerpts:

We Used Terrible Science to Justify Smoking Bans

By Jacob Grier

. . . When the Helena study and its heirs were originally published, a few scientists noted that the results were wildly implausible and the methodologies deeply flawed. So did a handful of journalists, including Jacob Sullum writing for Reason (to which I am also a contributor) and Christopher Snowdon in England. Yet their criticism was generally ignored. Studies reporting miraculous declines in heart attacks made global headlines; when better studies came along contradicting those results, they barely registered a blip in the media. As Jonathan Swift said in an apt aphorism, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.” Too late to help smokers banished from public life.

There were good reasons from the beginning to doubt that smoking bans could really deliver the promised results, but anti-smoking advocacy groups eagerly embraced alarmism to shape public perception. Today’s tobacco control movement is guided by ideology as much as it is by science, prone to hyping politically convenient studies regardless of their merit and ostracizing detractors. . .

Read the whole thing, which is devastating to the anti-smoking advocates.

No serious person thinks smoking is not bad for your health. But the overreach on second-hand smoke is a perfect case study of what happens when an issue become badly politicized. There were no “smoking deniers”—just  some scrupulous people who noted scientists and policy makers were cutting corners, but who got slimed for doing so. That’s what so-called “climate deniers” are doing today, and the same thing is going to become apparent about the climate change cabal someday, and for the same reasons. This is why I have complete contempt for the “climatistas,” even if warming turns out to be a serious problem. The issue doesn’t deserve the mountebanks who have perverted the science and policy of the whole domain.

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