Chris Mooney is persuasive

Bob Carroll learns from Chis Mooney about the relative risk scam. He writes

I owe an apology to readers of this newsletter. In April 2004, I wrote the first of several commentaries on Penn & Teller’s claim in a Bullshit! episode that the EPA report was bogus that claims that 3,000 people a year die from lung cancer because of secondhand smoke. My initial research into the subject was inadequate and I agreed with P & T. I was wrong to do so. My position was laid out in Newsletters 41, 42, 44, 49, and 50. For the full retraction, see Newsletter 41, though I’ve posted corrections in each of those newsletters.

My error was the same one P & T made: trusting the standards of risk assessment as promoted by the tobacco industry (led by Philip Morris) and their Republican generals like Jim Tozzi.* While reading Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science, I came to realize that many responsible epidemiologists, including Jonathan Samer and Thomas A. Burke from Johns Hopkins medical school, do not believe that an increased risk of 100% or more from a pollutant is required before it should be considered relevant or significant for public health. In short, we’ve been hoodwinked by politicians, mostly Republican, into calling junk science ‘sound science’ and describing sound science as “uncertain” or “incomplete.” Real junk science is called on when convenient to make a case for “controversy” or “uncertainty”, as we are all well aware with regard to the promotion of so-called intelligent design.

The P & T episode called “Environmental Hysteria” is based on these same questionable standards pushed by Republican leaders for their corporate donors whose main interest is the deregulation of industries and products rather than public safety or health. This approach fits well with P & T’s libertarian philosophy but it is essentially dishonest and does nothing to promote the view of skepticism as healthy critical thinking. Instead, it seems to promote the view of skepticism as a way to throw dust in people’s eyes so they can’t see what’s really going on. Mooney calls this kind of “skepticism” contrarianism. It’s a good descriptive term. The function of contrarians is to muddy the waters, cause doubt and confusion, and promote the false notion that “sound science” is science where you can’t find a contrary view. The contrarian philosophy is Orwellian doublespeak at its best: Some of the best science available is labeled “junk science” because there are contrary views (both scientific and political).

You should read the whole thing because Carroll explains the issue carefully and also provides an excellent example of how to make a correction if you discover that you have made a mistake. But I can’t resist quoting this bit as well:

I’m going to reprint here some comments by Steve Simon that were sent to me after I posted a rant on the Vioxx ban last January. I relied for those comments, as I did for many of my comments on the secondhand smoke issue, on the work of mathematician John Brignell, who writes “In observational studies, [scientists] will not normally accept an RR [risk ratio] of less than 3 as significant and never an RR of less than 2.” I should have known better than to trust Brignell, since one of his main sources is Steven Milloy, whom I have debunked elsewhere. Milloy is a propagandist for businesses and industries that are hurt economically by government regulations on pollution, health hazards, and the like. He has made a career out of labeling good science as “junk science” by his contrarian methods of finding contrary studies or by applying contrary standards to studies already completed by those he opposes.

Brignell wasn’t too pleased:

the author of Number Watch has been the subject of one of those Animal Farm type revisionist attacks. … What use is a Skeptic’s Dictionary contaminated by Political Correctness?

Brignell dismisses Carroll’s evidence because it is contaminated with Political Correctness. This is a bit lazy—you’d think he could have at least used Brignell’s Law of Scientific Consensus.


  1. #1 ben
    November 23, 2005

    The second hand smoke issue is interesting and has lots of political implications. What do the studies cited at the end of Carroll’s piece that you linked say? In *Environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality in a prospective study of Californians, 1960-98* we find that
    >**Conclusions** The results do not support a causal relation between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality, although they do not rule out a small effect. The association between exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and coronary heart disease and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed.

    Was this a tobacco industry prodded study? Then we have *Involuntary smoking in the restaurant workplace. A review of employee exposure and health effects*. Only the abstract is available online without a subscription, but the abstract does give us
    >Levels of environmental tobacco smoke in restaurants were approximately 1.6 to 2.0 times higher than in office workplaces of other businesses and 1.5 times higher than in residences with at least one smoker. Levels in bars were 3.9 to 6.1 times higher than in offices and 4.4 to 4.5 times higher than in residences. The epidemiologic evidence suggested that there may be a 50% increase in lung cancer risk among food-service workers that is **in part attributable to tobacco smoke exposure in the workplace**. CONCLUSIONS–Environmental tobacco smoke is a significant occupational health hazard for food-service workers. To protect these workers, smoking in bars and restaurants should be prohibited.
    Seems like an awfully strong conclusion given the above. I’d sure like to see the entire article to see exactly why *there **may** be an increase **in part attributable to** smoke exposure in the workplace*.

    I do buy that second hand smoke is extremely detrimental to infants and children. But what are we to do? Ban smoking around children in any setting, even a person’s own home? I am certainly not in favor of banning smoking in bars and restaraunts, since any adult person may choose to go there or not, as a customer or an employee. Heck, why not ban smoking all together? Or force people to wear a plastic bag on their head while they smoke. Smoking is certainly stupid and a gigantic waste of resources. But why all the focus on bars? Why not focus on helping those who have no choice; the helpless kids in homes with smokers?

  2. #2 Ian Gould
    November 23, 2005

    “I do buy that second hand smoke is extremely detrimental to infants and children.”

    I’ve long been of the opinion that governments should be promoting smokeless tobacco products and nicotione gum as alternatives to smoking.

    If nicotine users aren’t harming the health of others; are paying for the health costs associated with nicotine use and are aware of the health impacts, the state has no justification for intrervening.

  3. #3 Read Greg
    November 23, 2005

    Wow! Carroll’s ability to re-evaluate the evidence and publicly and clearly admit a mistake is admirable.

  4. #4 JohnMcCall
    November 24, 2005

    “This approach fits well with P & T’s libertarian philosophy but it is essentially dishonest and does nothing to promote the view of skepticism as healthy critical thinking.”

    Not so fast. Of course it promotes a view of scepticism as healthy critical thinking — there are interests out there who’s professional and financial well being is helped by legitimate as well as questionable regulation. We should be skeptical — for instance, maybe Chris Mooney’s target book audience doesn’t like him writing well of P&T’s environmentalist screeds, YA THINK? What better way do defuse that issue for potential reviewers of his tome?

  5. #5 JohnMcCall
    November 24, 2005

    Clarification “doesn’t like him (Caroll) writing well of P&T’s…”

  6. #6 david tiley
    November 24, 2005

    Helping kids at home and banning smoking in bars is not an alternative.

    We should do both. Although banning smoking in food areas in pubs is probably a good compromise, and in Melbourne has led to a proliferation of street caffs with protected tables. There as a non-smoker I can hang around with my mates without ending up stinking of smoke.

    Personally I think my right to spit in public has been undemocratically denied by the removal of the spittoon. But now I am wandering off topic and encouraging people to sink into the familiar arguments about public smoking which I have just started. Hush my mouth.

  7. #7 Matt McIrvin
    November 24, 2005

    Carroll is a smart guy. His site’s generally well-worth reading and he came down hard on Milloy a long time ago. Like many people in the paranormal-skeptic community, he gave Penn & Teller way too much slack for too long because of their yeoman service debunking psychic charlatans, which as magicians they’re well-qualified to do. But he can ultimately tell when he’s wrong.

  8. #8 JohnMcCall
    November 24, 2005

    One more thing, the P&T show on the environmentalist movement was much more than the one assertion — and we all should know how fond we’ve become of using a (let’s say) “surgical sniping” to rebut a complex and multi-faceted post/paper/report/episode/series? Sound bite world or no, life and science just ain’t that simple!

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