Robert Todd Carroll
May 5, 2004
In this issue: A few new items and updates; more on the EPA's claim that 3,000 deaths from lung cancer each year are due to passive smoke (including an update and revision posted on October 29, 2005); the syllabus for my new course on Critical Thinking About the Paranormal and the Occult; subliminal quackery; Young Earth dinosaurs; Sai Baba has a defender; the Skeptic's Dictionary to be translated into Russian; and dates for my talk on "The Scientific Evidence for the Paranormal."
Changes in the Skeptic's Dictionary or Skeptic's Refuge
Secondhand smoke (notice: the following section has been edited by the author of this newsletter)
Update: July 31, 2008. A new study on this issue has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine. See Reduced hospitalizations for ACS following smoking ban in Scotland and Back into the secondhand smoke fray, this time with a Scottish brogue! (Orac of Respectful Insolence)
UPDATE: The material in this section was published on May 4, 2004. On October 29, 2005, I added comments because I now believe the original material was wrong. My updated comments are in red. -s/Bob Carroll
UPDATE: June 28, 2006. The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke - A Report of the Surgeon General (2006) is available online. Executive summary. Full report. Contrarians will probably have a field day with claims such as the following: "In 2005, it was estimated that exposure to secondhand smoke kills more than 3,000 adult nonsmokers from lung cancer, approximately 46,000 from coronary heart disease, and an estimated 430 newborns from sudden infant death syndrome." U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona says: "The debate is over. The science is clear: Secondhand smoke is not a mere annoyance, but a serious health hazard." Contrarians will probably not be impressed with this claim about methodology:
Initial chapters were written by 22 experts who were selected because of their knowledge of a particular topic. The contributions of the initial experts were consolidated into 10 major chapters that were then reviewed by more than 40 peer reviewers. The entire manuscript was then sent to more than 30 scientists and experts who reviewed it for its scientific integrity. After each review cycle, the drafts were revised by the scientific editors on the basis of the experts’ comments.
In the last newsletter, I mentioned that Penn and Teller were challenged at James Randi's Amazing Meeting 2 last January regarding their Bullshit! episode that claimed the studies on secondhand smoke were bogus. I said I'd look into it. I did and P & T are right. No, P & T are wrong about the study being bogus. (I'm not the only one who thinks so.) They are right, however, in claiming that: Almost everybody who claims that the scientific evidence supports the claim that passive smoking causes 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year cite a single source: our own Environmental Protection Agency's 1993 report. [Penn admitted they were wrong about the claim that the evidence did not support the danger of secondhand smoke. Watch it on YouTube.]
The EPA's data show no significant link between passive smoke and lung cancer. This is true only if you accept the tobacco industry's claim that an epidemiological study should demonstrate an increased risk of 100 percent to be significant. Even after lowering the standard from p=0.05 to p=0.1 (i.e., from a one in twenty to a one in ten chance of a spurious correlation), they were still able to get a relative risk of only 1.19. This number is significant according to epidemiologists Jonathan M. Samet and Thomas A. Burke of Johns Hopkins university. According to John Brignell, "risk ratios of greater than 3 are normally considered significant. One might even stretch a point and go down to 2, but never lower" (Sorry Wrong Number, p. 129). John is pushing for a standard even the tobacco industry might marvel at. The standard of a risk ratio of 2 or higher was pushed for the tobacco industry by Jim Tozzi, the force behind the data quality act, an act aimed at promoting the republican plan for the deregulation of America. If the tobacco industry had its way, it would be impossible to ban just about any environmental toxin, not just secondhand smoke. (see Chris Mooney's The Republican War On Science). Yet, the EPA has not backed off. Neither has the World Health Organization (nor should they), which published a study in 1998 that concluded: "Our results indicate no association between childhood exposure to ETS [environmental tobacco smoke] and lung cancer risk." The WHO study also noted that there was only "weak evidence" for a risk of lung cancer from spousal or workplace ETS. Yet WHO put out a press release that contradicts their own conclusions. The website I link to for comments on the WHO study claims the following:
It may not be statistically significant but it does not support the claim that the WHO study contradicts its own conclusions, nor does it support the claim that the study indicates no association between passive smoke and risk of lung cancer. [The results could be "consistent with risks considerably higher than generally accepted - the upper bound of the 95% confidence interval is a relative risk of 1.44 - whereas the generally accepted range is 1.1 to 1.3."* To see to what lengths the tobacco lobby and their frontmen will go to in their effort at discrediting studies, see this article from Lancet.] Here's another statistic from WHO that might interest the reader:
There have been other studies on secondhand smoke but the evidence goes against the EPA, which likes the work of Elizabeth Fontham, whose data has been questioned for treating ex-smokers as non-smokers. If there is a causal connection between passive smoke and lung cancer, it is a very small contributing factor. Again, that claim depends on which standard you use.
Penn & Teller had somebody do the math. There is a 25% higher risk of dying of lung cancer from being regularly exposed to passive smoke. For those regularly exposed to ETS, the death rate from lung cancer is 1 in 80,000. For those not exposed, it is 1 in 100,000. Looked at another way: For every million people exposed to ETS, there will be 12.5 deaths from lung cancer; for every million people not exposed to ETS, there will be 10 deaths due to lung cancer. This is statistically of no significance. Again, the claim that the statistic is of "no significance" depends on which standard you use. [See episode 5 of their DVD: Bullshit! ]
I no longer have much faith in what John Brignell writes, so take the following with a grain of salt.
Speaking of John Brignell, he sent me a draft of a chapter of a new book he is about to publish. I hope he doesn't mind if I quote a few paragraphs. They indicate how easy it is to manipulate statistics.
As I note above, I no longer have much faith in what John Brignell writes. It now seems obvious why a responsible reporter would invoke the 24 times greater risk: it more accurately represents the risk than does Don Oakley's legerdemain with numbers. See also Tim Lambert on Brignell & Milloy.
Here is what some of you had to say on the passive smoking issue:
reply: Another study might be of interest: Mortality from Cancer and Other Causes among Airline Cabin Attendants in Germany, 1960–1997. These folks worked when smoking was allowed on airplanes, yet they didn't seem to suffer any noticeable effects from the smoke. Of course, maybe the air was circulated and filtered better on planes when smoking was allowed, and maybe that's why passive smoke didn't seem to harm the cabin attendants.
I admit it, I'm a devoted reader of skepdic.com. In today's SD newsletter, you brought up secondhand smoke. I follow another Web-site for science-related research. I found these articles to be compelling and easy to understand: http://www.fumento.com/susmoke.html
Note: The Fumento page posts reports that use the Republican/tobacco industry standard.
Keep up the good work, Denise Dickeson
Some other studies of interest; see especially the first item in the list:
Also of interest is this blog piece by Mark Chu-Carroll.
Ireland's Health Minister Michael Martin is quoted as saying in regards to Ireland's recent ban on all smoking in pubs and restaurants: "You are looking at anything up to potentially 150 lives a year directly affected by passive smoking." I think I can safely say that there will be many more than 150 lives "directly affected" by this law.
Finally, California Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, D-South Gate, has put a bill before the legislature that would make it a crime to smoke in a private vehicle while children are present. Opponents say the bill goes too far in attempting to police personal behavior. Supporters say it's a crucial step in protecting children from the damaging effects of secondhand smoke.
For the record, I don't smoke and am looking forward to the smoke-free pubs when I visit Ireland this summer. But it disturbs me to see laws passed that make their case by misusing good science. In any case, like my friend Larry Lynch, I'll believe it when I see it!
Course in Critical Thinking about the Paranormal and the Occult
Check out the syllabus for my new course.
Quackery of the Hour
Robert, the Customer Service Manager for an outfit selling "subliminal software," recently contacted me about joining his affiliate program and exchanging links. I'm always interested in honest ways to make more money, so I checked out his website Subliminal-Power.com. As proof that subliminal messaging is an established technology he cites the following:
Yep. That same old line about Vicary is still being used. As I write in my entry on the subliminal:
I guess Robert didn't take the time to read my site. He did, however, respond to my e-mail telling him that his product is bogus.
To paraphrase Dilbert: Since when is ignorance a viewpoint?
For those creationists who are offended when they hear a park ranger describe a canyon as millions of years old or who cringe at the thought of their children hearing an adult person describe a dinosaur as having gone extinct before humans had evolved, Dinosaur Adventure Land in Pensacola, Florida, is just for you. Here you can get junk science lessons as well as fortune-cookie type lessons in Christianity, all for the price of admission to the Young Earth theme park. It was featured recently in The New York Times.
I generally don't bother with petitions because I don't think they are useful. They just make the signers feel like they've done something. But, in a moment of weakness, I agreed to forward a request in my last newsletter for signing a petition that calls for an investigation of the child molestation charges against the god-man Sai Baba.
I received the following in response to the request:
What can I say? "Offensive to all humanity"? Offensive to Randolph, yes, but does he consider himself the representative of humanity?
Anyway, I suppose it is possible that the 27 or so testimonials published on the Internet of abuse by Sai Baba are all fabricated. It is possible that the book Lord of the Air by Tal Brooks is all a lie. It is possible that the testimonial in the letter I posted from Dennis J Hanisch in newsletter 40 is fabricated. But, what are the odds?
Perhaps the best response to Randolph is to quote from Tal Brooke as he explains why the followers of Sai Baba would not be likely to believe his accusations against the master:
The first foreign rights to translate The Skeptic's Dictionary have been sold by my publisher John Wiley & Sons. It looks like some folks in Russia will be able to possess the first print translation of the book.
I'll be giving a public lecture on "The Scientific Evidence for the Paranormal" at 7:30 PM on May 14th in Mohr Hall at Sacramento City College. Copies of The Skeptic's Dictionary will be available for $18.
I'll be presenting the same talk in Dublin, Ireland, on June 24th.
One pundit commented that this should be the shortest talk in history. Another asked me at a recent presentation on "Enlightenment Hoaxes" if it was true that skeptics sleep better at night because they have less to think about.
I don't know. I'll have to think about it.
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