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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes)the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 41

May 5, 2004

An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup. --H. L. Mencken

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

Since the last newsletter, I added two items to the What's the Harm? page, one about testing faith with rattlesnakes (the snake won) and the other about a young "psychic" and an old scam.

I posted two items on the Mass Media Funk pages, one about psychic detectives and the other about recognition for a great science teacher in Michigan.

I updated the entries on Charles Tart, Noah's Ark, and Transcendental Meditation.

I posted Suburban Myth 69, that Darwin admitted that it was impossible to explain the origin of the eye by natural selection.


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.

Contrarians would probably want a minority report that admits that cotinine levels might be elevated because of eggplants and other edible nightshades.

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:

Fact: The study found a Relative Risk (RR) for spousal exposure of 1.16, with a Confidence Interval (CI) of .93 - 1.44. In layman's terms, that means

• Exposure to the ETS from a spouse increases the risk of getting lung cancer by 16%. • Where you'd normally find 100 cases of lung cancer, you'd find 116.

• The 1.16 number is not statistically significant.

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:

The World Health Organization has estimated that tobacco could kill as many as 10 million people per year (globally) within two or three decades [Tobacco or Health: A Global Status Report (Geneva: WHO, 1997)], and the total number of tobacco deaths in the 21st century, world-wide, could be as high as a thousand million [Robert N. Proctor, "Tobacco and the Global Lung Cancer Epidemic," Nature Reviews Cancer, 1 (2001): 82-86.].*

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.

Over a period of 11 years, Doll and Hill ["Smoking and Carcinoma of the Lungs: Preliminary Report," British Medical Journal, September, 1950] found 7 lung cancer deaths per hundred thousand men per year among non-smokers, but 166 per year among heavy smokers. This is 24 times as many! For heart attacks the corresponding figures were 599 for heavy smokers and 422 for non-smokers. While these figures do not look nearly as dramatic, the effect on heart disease is perhaps more important. Apparently there were 166 - 7 = 159 excess deaths per hundred thousand per year from lung cancer and 599 - 422 = 177 excess deaths per hundred thousand per year from heart attacks that might be ascribed to smoking.

But look at the figures from another angle. What Doll and Hill reported was that annually 99,993 nonsmokers out of every 100,000 people escape death from lung cancer as opposed to 99,834 smokers per 100,000 who are so lucky (subtracting seven nonsmoker deaths and 166 smoker deaths from 100,000 respectively). When we divide the smaller number by the larger number, we get a smoking vs. nonsmoking “survival factor” of approximately 0.998. This, remember, is on an annual basis and over a lifetime it would be more like 0.92.

What this means is that, while a person who smokes may indeed incur a 24 times greater risk of dying from lung cancer than a person who doesn't smoke, the smoker also has 99.8 percent of the nonsmoker's chance of not dying from lung cancer. But only the "24 times as likely" risk was considered by the surgeon general. Why?" These are the questions raised by Don Oakley in his book Slow Burn.

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:

On secondhand smoke: The link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer is indeed weak, though not nonexistent. But that issue itself is a diversion. The link to asthmatic attacks is indisputable and to cardiovascular problems quite strong. A good, balanced view is available from the leading debunkers of junk science in America, the American Council on Science and Health. If you want a reasonable assessment of secondhand smoke, check them out at

Paul Mulshine 

Again, the link is "weak" depending on what standard you use.


A nurse in my brother's [hospital] ward said last week that lately they are seeing a lot of lung cancer in current and former bar and casino workers, including non-smokers, local to Olympia, Washington. It seems to me that secondhand smoke must necessarily be a danger for those with a lot of exposure, just as breathing diesel smoke is for truckers. Indeed, it would be unprecedented for known carcinogens to have no effect in the relatively high doses such workers would have, although it would be expected that such exposure would be less dangerous than actual smoking. There was a lung cancer study among nonsmoking nuns in Cleveland some years back, where industrial pollution was identified as the cause of their lung cancer.


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 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:

Note: The Fumento page posts reports that use the Republican/tobacco industry standard.

Keep up the good work, Denise Dickeson


The EPA has posted its response to the critics. The EPA has posted its report on secondhand smoke. A summary of the report is also posted.

Some other studies of interest; see especially the first item in the list:

  1. STEVEN J. MILLOY The “Junkman” Exposed December 2003
  2. Tobacco industry efforts subverting International Agency Research on Cancer’s second-hand smoke study
  3. Asthma and Indoor Environments (Secondhand smoke contains more than 4,000 substances, including over 40 compounds that are known carcinogens.)
  4. Environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality in a prospective study of Californians, 1960-98
  5. Public smoking ban may cut heart attacks: study
  6. Passive smoking and risk of coronary heart disease and stroke: prospective study with cotinine measurement (Exposure to secondhand smoke may increase the risk of coronary heart disease by 50 percent to 60 percent.)
  7. "Involuntary smoking in the restaurant workplace. A review of employee exposure and health effects," by M. Siegel, JAMA Vol. 270 No. 4, July 28, 1993.
  8. "A Tobacco-Specific Lung Carcinogen in the Urine of Men Exposed to Cigarette Smoke," by Stephen S. Hecht, Steven G. Carmella, Sharon E. Murphy, Shobha Akerkar, Klaus D. Brunnemann, and Dietrich Hoffmann, The New England Journal of Medicine Volume 329:1543-1546, November 18, 1993, Number 21.
  9. "Environmental tobacco smoke and cardiovascular disease. A position paper from the Council on Cardiopulmonary and Critical Care, American Heart Association," by AE Taylor, DC Johnson and H Kazemi Circulation, Vol 86, 699-702, 992.
  10. "Passive smoking and heart disease. Mechanisms and risk," by S. A. Glantz and W. W. Parmley, JAMA, Vol. 273 No. 13, April 5, 1995.
  11. Passive Smoking by the Cancer Council of South Australia.
  12. Lung cancer and passive smoking, British Medical Journal


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 As proof that subliminal messaging is an established technology he cites the following:

Proof? One highly publicized study by guru Dr James Vicary, involved flashing the phrases "I want popcorn" and "Drink more coke" for just 100-milliseconds in front of a movie audience. Nobody "saw" the messages, but during that sitting popcorn sales shot up 57.8% and coke sales rocketed 18.1%. And that was just with one message.

Yep. That same old line about Vicary is still being used. As I write in my entry on the subliminal:

Even though the claim has been shown to be a hoax, and even though no one has been able to duplicate the event, belief in the legend lingers.

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.

Our product isn't "bogus", we have a lot of customers finding genuine use for it. I take your point however and we all have individual viewpoints.

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.


Sai Baba

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:

Newsletter 40 is immeasurably offensive to all humanity.

Even if every word of your slanderous attack on that icon of spirituality were true, which I do not believe, still you have revealed your own anti-human mind-set in your unjustified attack. What you have presented ... would not stand in an American Court of Law, and your newsletter is not such or any other type of court where such cases need to be presented.

Your newsletter is not the place to practice the equivalent of Pat-Robertson -fundamentalism.

Please remove my name from your free newsletter e-mail list.

Randolph Rothey

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 main obstacle in reaching the others was the impermeable blind-faith, closed system of belief, fundamental to the whole path. Even those dearest to us would predictably launch a counterattack on our own validity….I should know. I had done the same with others who fell away. (Lord of the Air pp. 316-317)


New Translation

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.


Upcoming Talk

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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