Orwellian language in anti-tobacco, an example

When Orwell's 1984 is invoked in the context of anti-tobacco and other drug wars, it is usually a reference to totalitarian control.  But a rather more specific use of "Orwellian" in reference to those is the twisting of language to make it impossible for people to use the language to question those in power.  This is a tactic that is carefully and intentionally employed by the tobacco control industry to prevent reasoned discourse (which they would surely lose).  I have been meaning to write more about it, especially in the context of "addiction", but for today, one quick example.

This article reports that grey/black market cigarettes now account for more than 1/3 of all consumption in the state of Washington, where per-pack taxes are extremely high (though hardly the highest in the world).  It points out (not in so many words) that such tax create an incentive to avoid taxes by buying "contraband" (i.e., untaxed) cigarettes.  There is no mention that this is further exacerbated by the fact that this tax is designed to be punitive and so people resent it.  (Average people -- unlike bankers and other millionaires -- typically pay their taxes without attempting to evade them, but when a law is perceived as being wrong and unfair, this changes.)

The punchline of all this is the statement in the article:
By the state’s estimate, illicit cigarettes cost Washington taxpayers a staggering amount of money.
Oh really?  Exactly how does not paying taxes cost taxpayers money?  And yet the Orwellian nature of the language around tobacco means that they can get away with that claim, unquestioned.

I realize, of course, that if forced to defend it, they would point out that it costs the state a lot of tax revenue, and that this needs to be made up for by raising other taxes.  But this just means the statement should be that the grey market "forces nonsmoking taxpayers to pay their fair share of taxes rather than offloading a staggering amount of that burden onto smokers."

It is obvious that, at worst, the impact on taxpayers (as a collective group) is neutral.  Of course, that assumes that tobacco/nicotine users are considered to be people, and people who are due the same consideration as everyone else.  The bottom line is that the language has been twisted so that taxes on cigarettes (etc.) are not treated as taxes, or burdens on people at all, so absurd statements like that quoted above pass without notice.

As if getting rich off of taxes imposed on poor smokers was not enough for CTFK...

A friend sent me a screenshot of a Google search of "Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids" which reveals an interesting twist on that organization's fund raising strategies:  the headline content for their website appears to be an ad for "generic Viagra".

Campaign for Impotence-Free Kids?

So either they are not satisfied to confiscate untold riches from the involuntary contributions of overtaxed smokers, and so are picking up a bit of extra revenue, or they are trying to encourage the creation of more kids so that they have reason to demand more funding.

I suppose there is a third explanation, that they are the victim of some kind of hacking, but I like my other theories better.  If you do the search soon, you can probably see the same result (it worked for me), though I have to assume they will fix it eventually.  But they will probably not discover it via this blog -- it is pretty clear that they carefully avoid reading anything outside of their echo chamber for fear of encountering legitimate criticism and troublesome questions.  And besides, they are probably busy right now, trying out their free samples of generic Viagra.

Agent-based model of THR adoption (and basic case for THR from City Health 2012)

I recently presented a talk on tobacco harm reduction at the City Health 2012 conference in London.  I believe that a video of the actual presentation and ensuing discussion will appear on their website eventually (and I will update this post to link to it).  In the meantime I recorded a voiceover version of the slideshow:

[I will suggest/request that anyone who wants to link to the video please link to this post instead.  I would like to encourage comments and discussion here, and will probably not monitor the comments on the youtube page itself.  Also, there is more background that might be useful.]

The heart of the presentation is a social dynamics model of how THR (e.g., switching from smoking to e-cigarettes) occurs in a community thanks to the education and communication of social norms that come from social interaction.  It starts out with a general overview of THR since many in the audience were not familiar with that.  If you are not interested in the overview, you might want to skip to about 9:30 and just see the presentation of the new model.  (On the other hand, I have been told that it is one of the better existing presentations about the core concepts and justifications for THR.  Not as good as what I presented at the Beirut IHRA conference, unfortunately, but I do not have a recording of that.  So you might want to view that part even if you already are familiar.)

The presentation speaks for itself so I will not try to summarize it here.  But to provide a bit more background on the modeling (and if this is confusing, just watch the video -- it is less technical than what follows, but still explains what you need to know):  There is an interest in predicting THR behavior, in part for obvious reasons, and in part because of a make-work exercise that the US FDA is imposing on anyone trying to promote THR.  As with any modeling of population dynamics, there are various methods available.

The simplest is to just project a trend by extending past numbers.  This is largely useless for anything that involves conscious choices by people, and utterly useless when there are emerging technologies involved.  Despite this, these are the models that are used when people make simplistic predictions about how many smokers there will be 20 years in the future, which others then report as fact.  Such projections about tobacco/nicotine use are perhaps slightly better than trying to project a trend about how many people will be using 11-inch tablet computers 20 years from now, but not much better.

Next simplest is Markov modeling, which basically divides people into different bins (smoker, e-cigarette user, non-user, etc.) and assumes that knowing how many people are in each bin is all you need to know to know about them to determine what happens in the next period (i.e., the next day or year).  This allows for much more robust modeling of some interacting influences, but under the hood, it is still based on projections of population level trends (e.g., what portion of current smokers will adopt THR as a function of how many have already done so).  Allowing for subpopulation-based trends is an improvement over just projecting graphs into the future, as it were, but at its core it is still just a version of that, with all its limitations.

Agent-based models are based on the recognition that the behavior of a population, when considering a decision-based process like THR, is really the aggregation of a lot of individual decisions.  Thus, such models are based on individual actors rather than just population percentages, and the population statistics are emergent properties of the actions of individuals.  The individual decisions are based on economic motives (i.e., considerations of costs and benefits) which are affected by various global factors as well as social interactions.  Individuals can be realistically modeled as having different preferences and other characteristics rather than being all the same.  The agent-based models also allows for social interactions at an individual level -- i.e., people can affect their neighbors and those they encounter, and the results of this may not be the same as treating everyone as if they just have the "average" experience ever period.

The model that we have created is about the simplest model possible that still captures the social dynamics, individual variability, and economic decision making that affects a population's adoption of THR.  It allows for THR adoption to be a social contagion, with someone's chance of adopting it being a function of how much of it they encounter, as well as global forces.  People learn (and their level of learning persists through time) and decide (based on individual motives).  This contrasts with a simple projection or subpopulation-based model, where the future is basically determined by the choice of a single function -- e.g., "P% of the population smokes and that is trending down at a rate of R, so next year the number of smokers will be...." or "if X people have adopted THR in period t, then D% of the rest will adopt it in period t+1, for a total of X+D".  As shown in the video, this produces population outcomes that are not just the obvious immediate result of the choice of those functions.

Update: I discuss some of the implications of this model in the context of anti-THR claims at the antiTHRlies blog.

Update (13 Nov 12): The "live" version of this (the presentation I actually gave in London) has been posted by the conference.  As is usually the case, it is a bit rougher than the studio version, but for those who are are completists (are there any Phillips completists? I doubt it -- I am not even one :-), there it is.  I think there are also some bootlegs, but I don't have them. Unlike most live versions, this one is a bit shorter (the studio version includes a bit more information).

Arizona's Banned Books List

Here's an alphabetical listing of the Arizona banned books list.  It is provided by J. Quinonez-Skinner of the Oviatt Library at CSU Northridge to indicate those books on the list that are proudly possessed by her institution.  It's not difficult to assess the political motivation behind the banning; note how many authors on the list are Latino/Latina and African-American.  Shakespeare, Thoreau, James Baldwin, Isabel Allende, and Sandra Cisneros are included.  Thanks to Gerardo Pacheco for informing me of this list.
See http://library.csun.edu/Guides/arizonabannedbooks/

Address to the Commonwealth Club of California (1985) by C. E. Chávez (Not sure if this is the book with the text from the address)
The Anaya Reader (1995) by R. Anaya (CSUN)
The American Vision (2008) by J. Appleby et el. (Ordered)
Black Mesa Poems (1989) by J. S. Baca (CSUN)
Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya (CSUN)
Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1999) by G. Anzaldua (CSUN)
By the Lake of Sleeping Children (1996) by L. A. Urrea (CSUN)
Cantos Al Sexto Sol: An Anthology of Aztlanahuac Writing (2003) by C. García-Camarilo et al. (CSUN)
Civil Disobedience (1993) by H. D. Thoreau (CSUN)
Codex Tamuanchan: On Becoming Human (1998) by R. Rodríguez (CSUN)
Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing up Latino in the United States (1995) by L. Carlson & amp;O. Hijuelos (CSUN)
Crisis in American Institutions (2006) by S. H. Skolnick & E. Currie (CSUN)
Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (2001) by R. Delgado and J. Stefancic (CSUN)
C-Train and Thirteen Mexicans (2002), by J. S. Baca (CSUN)
Curandera (1993) by Carmen Tafolla (CSUN)
Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology (1990) by H. ZinnTable 21: American History/Mexican American Perspectives, 1, 2 (CSUN)
The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea (CSUN)
Dictionary of Latino Civil Rights History (2006) by F. A. Rosales (CSUN)
"Does Anti-War Have to Be Anti-Racist Too?" (2003) by E. Martínez Article (Online Article via Color Lines)
Drink Cultura: Chicanismo (1992) by J. A. Burciaga (CSUN)
Drown (1997) by J. Díaz (CSUN)
Feminism is for Everybody (2000) by bell hooks (CSUN)
The Fire Next Time (1990) by J. Baldwin (CSUN)
Healing Earthquakes: Poems (2001) by J. S. Baca (CSUN)
House on Mango Street (1991), by S. Cisneros (CSUN)
Infinite Divisions: An Anthology of Chicana Literature (1993) by T. D. Rebolledo & E. S. Rivero (CSUN)
Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea (Ordered)
Justice: A Question of Race (1997) by R. Rodríguez (CSUN)
The Latino Condition: A Critical Reader (1998) by R. Delgado and J. Stefancic (CSUN)
Let Their Spirits Dance (2003) by S. Pope Duarte (Ordered)
Like Water for Chocolate (1995) by L. Esquievel (CSUN)
Live from Death Row (1996) by J. Abu-Jamal (CSUN)
La Llorona: Our Lady of Deformities (2000), by R. Garcia (Ordered)
Loverboys (2008) by A. Castillo (CSUN)
The Magic of Blood (1994) by D. Gilb (CSUN)
Martin & Meditations on the South Valley (1987) by J. S. Baca (CSUN)
Message to Aztlan: Selected Writings (2001) by Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales (CSUN)
Mexican American Literature (1990) by C. M. Tatum (CSUN)
Mexican White Boy (2008) by M. de la Pena (CSUN)
New Chicana/Chicano Writing (1993) by C. M. Tatum (Ordered)
Nobody's Son: Notes from an American Life (2002) by L. A. Urrea (CSUN)
Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert (1995) by O. Zepeda (Ordered)
Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2000) by P. Freire (CSUN)
A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present (2003) by H. ZinnCourse: English/Latino Literature 7, 8 (CSUN)
A Place to Stand (2002), by J. S. Baca (CSUN)
Puro Teatro: A Latino Anthology (1999) by A. Sandoval-Sanchez & N. Saporta Sternbach (CSUN)
Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years (1998) by B. Bigelow and B. Peterson (Ordered)
So Far From God (1993) by A. Castillo (CSUN)
Suffer Smoke (2001) by E. Diaz Bjorkquist (CSUN)
The Tempest (1994) by W. Shakespeare (CSUN)
Ten Little Indians (2004) by S. Alexie (CSUN)
Two Badges: The Lives of Mona Ruiz (1997) by M. Ruiz (CSUN)
Voices of a People's History of the United States (2004) by H. ZinnCourse: English/Latino Literature
5, 6 (CSUN)
When Living was a Labor Camp (2000) by D. García (CSUN)
Women Hollering Creek (1992) by S. Cisneros (CSUN)
Woodcuts of Women (2000) by D. Gilb (CSUN)
The X in La Raza II (1996) by R. Rodríguez (Ordered)
Yo Soy Joaquin/I Am Joaquin by Rodolfo Gonzales (CSUN)
Zapata's Discipline: Essays (1998) by M. Espada (CSUN)
Zigzagger (2003) by M. Muñoz (CSUN)
Zoot Suit and Other Plays (1992) by L. Valdez (CSUN)
Zorro (2005) by I. Allende (CSUN)

Nobel Peace Prize curse?

A random thought while waiting for a program to run.  I know I am late to this topic, but this only just occurred to me:

Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize.

He responded to this honor by continuing to fight multiple wars, jumping into another one without congressional approval (whatever you think of its value, that is the truth of it), keeping the illegal Guantanamo prison running without major changes, and initiating the worst campaign of assassinations / "extra-judicial executions" (via drone strikes) ever perpetrated by the United States.

The EU won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Perhaps it is time to re-fortify the Maginot Line.

The Windows (Activate Me)


activate me
actuate me
abbreviate me
accumulate me 

abdicate me
abrogate me  

accelerate me
adjudicate me 

aspirate me
assassinate me 

berate me
backdate me 

bedmate me
bifurcate me 

boilerplate me
bloviate me 

bombinate me
breastplate me 

binucleate me
birthdate me 


calibrate me
create me 

capitulate me
concentrate me 

carbondate me
celebrate me  

cheapskate me
castigate me  

cogitate me
checkmate me 

desecrate me
devastate me 

decorate me
defoliate me 

dedicate me
digitate me 

delegate me
defibrillate me 

domesticate me
defenestrate me 

educate me
elongate me 

emanate me
emancipate me 

escalate me
enumerate me 

exaggerate me
explicate me 

excoriate me
elevate me 

fabricate me
fascinate me 

flagellate me
fecundate me 

frustrate me
fragmentate me 

fixate me
formulate me 

fornicate me
floodgate me 

germinate me
generate me 

gesticulate me
glaciate me 

gyrate me
gravitate me 

graduate me
granulate me 

gestate me
guesstimate me 


hallucinate me
hibernate me 

hydrate me
housemate me 

hyphenate me
humiliate me 

habituate me
habilitate me  

herniate me
homophonate me 

                       imitate me
                       illuminate me 

immigrate me
indoctrinate me 

implicate me
impregnate me
                        incinerate me
incorporate me 

inoculate me
inebriate me 


lactate me
lacerate me 

laminate me
legislate me 

liberate me
levitate me 

locate me
lineate me 

luxuriate me
lubricate me 


mate me
medicate me 

mutate me
menstruate me 

moderate me
mistranslate me 

motivate me
miscreate me 

militate me
ministrate me 


narrate me
necessitate me 

nominate me
notate me 

nucleate me
negotiate me 

navigate me
nauseate me 

nameplate me
numerate me 


orate me
orchestrate me 

officiate me
operate me 

ordinate me
outskate me 

ovulate me
overrate me  

oblate me
obfuscate me 


palpitate me
palliate me
penetrate me
permeate me 

perpetuate me
playdate me 

populate me
postulate me 

predicate me
proliferate me 

radiate me
recreate me 

regulate me
replicate me 

resonate me
reticulate me 

rotate me
ruminate me 

reiterate me
reinstate me 


sedate me
saturate me 

separate me
syncopate me 

speculate me
sophisticate me 

simulate me
subjugate me 

sublimate me
syndicate me 


translate me
truncate me 

terminate me
template me 

tessellate me
tablemate me 

triplicate me
triangulate me 

tolerate me
tailgate me 

uncrate me
understate me 

ululate me
update me
undulate me
ulcerate me
umbellate me
umbilicate me 

underrate me
urinate me
vibrate me
violate me 

vacate me
validate me
ventilate me
variegate me
vociferate me
vitiate me
vindicate me
venerate me

Stanton Glantz declares that hospitality workers' exposure to ETS is not "involuntary"

[Note:  This is a spinoff of this post at the anti-THR Lies blog, but (a) was slightly off topic for that blog and (b) deserves its own post.  See the other post for complete background.]

In a recent blog post, Stanton Glantz, one of the most prolifically dishonest proponents of banning smoking everywhere, regardless of private preferences, declared "OSHA PEL is not an appropriate standard for involuntary exposure".  He was arguing that OSHA workplace standards for chemical exposures are irrelevant to determining the acceptable level of environmental exposure from electronic cigarettes.  In so doing he was grossly misrepresenting the arguments he was responding to (see the Lies post), but his statement, per se, was a valid one.

Funny thing though:  The trouble with being willing to say anything to further one's political aims, regardless of whether it is honest or accurate, is that you eventually contradict yourself.  Few people have the intelligence and intellectual discipline to lie all the time that without tripping themselves up.

You see, the logic of what Glantz said (note: I provided a link to a definition of "logic" in case Glantz reads this and is not familiar with the term) is that in a job setting, someone is there voluntarily.  They are accepting the exposures in the workplace as part of what they endure by working (alongside spending their time and energy, etc.) but are getting compensated for (i.e., paid).  Workers in unpleasant or hazardous environments do indeed make more money than comparably-skilled workers in clean and easy environments.  That is perfectly reasonable.

But Glantz's main crusade, and the main topic of his lies (search the archives here or the Lies blog post for more details), is banning smoking anywhere he can.  To justify banning smoking in bars -- private places where people gather voluntarily -- he and his ilk claim that the workers need to be protected from their "involuntary" exposure to smoke.  Any non-idiot will immediately realize that employment in a bar is obviously not involuntary.  And guess what?  Apparently Glantz himself recognizes it.  He recognizes that workplace exposures are different from involuntary exposures to passers-by, and it is normal and acceptable to allow workers to accept possibly health-affecting exposures and demand whatever wage premium that warrants.

In short, Stanton Glantz just declared that the entire stated justification for banning smoking in pubs and other private gathering places is false.

I will go ahead and pre-respond to his obvious first response to this (or what would be his first response if he actually read beyond his own echo chamber):  He responds that an exposure in, say, a chemical plant is different from an exposure to vaping because chemical manufacture is "necessary" while vaping is not.  This fails for several reasons.  Economics easily shows that concepts like "necessary" are inherently nonsense.  Moreover, a particular level of exposure in a plant could always be reduced (and thus is not "necessary" in a different sense).  Moreover, there is a simple factual point:  If Glantz had some expertise in public health, he would know that among the worst jobsites for exposure to the types of chemicals he is fretting about are not chemical plants, but beauty salons and auto body repainting shops.  These hardly seem any more "necessary" than e-cigarette use.

If he has any further response, other than to sputter and insist -- with no basis other than his personal pique -- that e-cigarette use is somehow different from beauty salons, I cannot think of it.  Assuming no response is forthcoming, I encourage everyone who is interested in the smoking ban issue to cite Glantz's statement as a retort anytime someone tries to justify smoking bans in private gathering places with some version of, "but think of the workers! won't someone please think of the workers?"

Tobacco control gets another failing grade in economics

This failing grade adds to their already underwater marks in epidemiology and philosophy, to say nothing to their ethics which would simply get them thrown out of school.

A few stories about tobacco smuggling came across my desk this week including these two that were sober and balanced, as well as this "reefer madness"-esque one from the Daily Mail.  The latter described the detection of contaminants in black market cigarettes as (emphasis added) "Fake cigarettes made from human excrement, asbestos, mould and dead flies".  (I think a "mould" is some kind of British house pet -- not sure.)  I hate to complain about the newspaper that gave me a smile by calling me one of the US's most distinguished epidemiologists, but what can you do.

Those reminded me that I had meant to comment on this post by Chris Snowdon, following on his and my previous posts on the subject of the interaction of taxes and "plain packaging".  Snowdon's post quotes a prediction:  Because the Australian "make cigarette packages ugly" initiative was unlikely to have much effect on consumption, but that the tobacco control people had staked their meager reputations on there being an effect, they would probably do something like raise taxes at the same time so they could claim that the packaging had an effect.  And guess what has been proposed?

But here is the thing:  Camouflaging the lack of effect of the packaging with a simultaneous tax increase only works if there is room to drive down consumption by increasing taxes, and it seems unlikely that this is the case.

The possibility of consumers switching to a black or grey market is the "competitive discipline", as it were, that keeps the government from further raising the price.  It is similar to any market situation where a producer would like to raise its prices but cannot because of the discipline imposed by competition.  In this case, the government acts as a near monopolist in a sense -- they can increase the price on all legal market cigarettes and capture the monopoly rents (profits) for themselves -- but not quite:  They still have an imperfect substitute to compete with in the black market.

Now I realize that many readers might not quite follow all of that, but you probably get the gist of it (and there is more explanation in my previous posts).  The thing is, the people making government policy need to thoroughly understand things like that -- and if they do not, they need to at least hire a second-semester economics student to explain it to them.  But apparently economics students have ethical standards that prevent them from working for Big Tobacco Control, because the tax proposal that Snowdon cited seems to be grounded on serious ignorance of some fairly unambiguous economics.

As I mentioned in the previous posts, there is general agreement that plain packaging will tend to drive down consumers' willingness to pay for premium brands, driving down the prices.  This will then make the cheaper brands less competitive and so the prices of those will be driven down also.  The distinction between any brand and black market product will also be reduced, so more consumers will be inclined to switch to the black market.  This will put additional downward price pressure on the legal market to reduce switching to the much cheaper black market.  But since most of the price of cigarettes is taxes, if the adjustment in price relies entirely on manufacturers cutting into their net revenue, it will likely not be "enough".

What do I mean by "enough"?  Well, there is a tradeoff in setting prices between making more profit and driving customers away.  Let us be charitable and assume that the government is not merely interested in making monopoly rents from cigarette sales, but genuinely want to drive down demand too.  Their tradeoff, then, is keeping prices high to lower demand (and capture revenue), but not so high that they tip too many people into the black market (at which point they lose all revenue, lose the ability to regulate at all, increase profits of organized crime, etc.).  It seems safe to conclude that the current taxes are set pretty close to what is considered the optimum for that tradeoff -- some consumers are driven into the arms of the competition, but not too many, and this cost is just balanced by the benefit (as defined by government: income and demand reduction) of having the price as high as it is.

So if the black market becomes relatively more attractive, as is expected with ugly packaging and the loss of premium brand cache, then to keep prices at the optimal level, they will have to come down.  Since the manufacturers make so little of the total profit (the government makes most of it), it is almost certain that the adjustment that manufacturers will make in prices to keep their profits maximized will not lower prices nearly enough to maintain the optimal tradeoff from the government's perspective (it would require running some numbers to calculate how far short the change will fall, but it seems likely that it would be substantial).  So too many consumers will be driven to the black market, and a lower price would be better to optimize the government's tradeoff described above.  Thus the government, which collects most of the profit and has the most room to adjust, needs to adjust their per-unit profits (taxes) down too to fulfill their goals.  Of course, this will not happen.  The result will be "too many" people switching to the black market (again, from the perspective of the government's preferred tradeoff between the advantages and disadvantages of higher prices).

Thus if they raise taxes, the prices are going to be even more "too high".

The result of the camouflaging tax increase will indeed be lowered consumption of legal cigarettes, providing faked support for what was dishonestly predicted by tobacco control.  But there will also be an increased shift to the black market, increasing the effect that was honestly predicted by everyone else.  Indeed, there is a good chance that total consumption will increase:  Once someone crosses the behavioral barrier ("tipping point") to start buying their cigarettes from the black market, they do not have much difficultly continuing to do so.  And since they are then paying a much lower price per unit, this quite likely results in them consuming more.  Moreover, the greater the market penetration by the black marketeers, the more likely they will become the first choice of new smokers.

Of course, as the black market increases in market share, both the legal industry and Big Tobacco Control will be scrambling to get their pet media outlets to publish scare stories about that nasty black market product, and this alliance might get some traction with the message.  But ultimately, the forces of economics always win -- millions of people acting in their own interests are a force that a few people acting against those interests can do little to stop.  Not until they get to the point of have troops on the street and a tenth of the population informing for the secret police, and that is still a while off, even in Australia.

Vintage Contemporaries Fiction

There's an interesting new site established by Sean Manning to commemorate  Lorraine Louie's cover designs for the Vintage Contemporaries fiction series.  Authors including Richard Ford, Thomas McGuane, Joy Williams, Jill Eisenstadt, Richard Russo, and Jay McInerney comment on their Vintage Contemporaries books and cover designs.  The design prototype for the series was Raymond Carver's books in the series, including Cathedral.  The link is: 

Unhealthful News 219 - Why the news is so unhealthful

Two interesting articles just came across my desk (both h/t @themorrigan1972).  One is a study that shockingly! revealed that a lot of the hype in science news reporting has its origins in the hype in the paper's abstract or press release.  This is a good summary of the study.

Unfortunately, there is some suggestion that this lets the news writers off the hook.  But it really offers them no excuse.  Are they really going to argue, "oh, gee, it seems like someone is putting out information with hype and spin -- what can I, a mere newspaper reporter, working as a paid employee whose job it is to understand and communicate useful information, possibly hope to do about that?"  Nope, I am not buying it.

This new study is not really news to anyone familiar with modern science publishing.  No health reporter has any excuse for not already knowing about the tendency toward hype.  Would you expect political reporters to just blindly repeat everything candidates claim without running a reality check based on at least some basic knowledge of public policy.  Ok, bad example.  But presumably you do not want that, even though you expect it.  How about this:  Do you expect tech reporters to just blindly repeat Apple's press release rather than actually evaluating their new toy?  Smart expert reporters know how to deal with inevitable hype.

Of course, hype is not quite inevitable in health research press releases.  When the obvious hype would be politically incorrect, it is mysteriously absent.  Consider this story of ongoing research that points to the conclusion that the flu shots from one or more years actually increased the risk of at least one strain of flu (in particular, the nasty one that everyone was worried about).  The message from the study author is:
the findings should not deter people from getting flu shots
Huh?  It is perfectly fine to say something like "we are still not sure of this, and some data does not support the claim" (true) or "the benefits of the vaccines still outweigh the costs" (might or might not be true -- I suspect that this researcher has no idea one way or the other -- but at least it is not absurd).  But "should not deter"??  Of course it should deter.  However good you thought the idea of getting a flu shot was before, you should think a bit less of it now, which should make you a bit less likely to get it.  Such deterrence is the only rational reaction to the news.

Just imagine a study of a consumer behavior that the public-health-industrial-complex opposes which finds sliver of a hint that the behavior was a tiny bit more harmful than previously believed.  You can bet that they would be insisting that was a definitive reason to avoid the choice.  (Or course, you do not have to imagine that.  You can instead read our new "Anti-THR (tobacco harm reduction) Lie of the Day" blog.)

But if, instead, a study finds evidence to suggests that the H1N1 vaccine may well have caused rather than prevented cases or H1N1?  Well don't worry your pretty little heads about that -- just trust us.

Health and other science reporters need to be able to see through the hype and not over-report things.  But they also need to apply a bullshit filter in the other direction too.

Unhealthful News 218 - The blind polling the blind: WSJ on IWTs

No UNs for a while, but I have two right now.  The next one will be based on my current series at the Anti-Tobacco-Harm-Reduction Lie of the Day blog (which you have probably already seen if you are interested in THR, but if not, check it out).  Today's is based on this article/poll in the Wall Street Journal which asks readers their opinion about whether the government subsidies for "alternative" electric generation, which are the only reason for anyone builds industrial wind turbines (IWTs), should be continued.  The rumor is that a reporter plans to write a story about the poll.

That fact in itself suggests a certain innumeracy:  Put out a self-administered survey on a highly contentious issue, and you get a measure of which side can better inspire their supporters to bother with the survey -- not exactly an interesting or easily interpretable quantification.  In this particular case, the edge currently goes to the industry, which is not too surprising:  They have legions of paid flacks some of whom are probably sitting around voting and re-voting all day.  After all, there is only so much time they can spend pretending to be ordinary citizens writing pro-IWT comments on every single newspaper article that appears on the subject, and it does not appear they do much else.

On the opposition side, those who are most highly motivated are those concerned with the terrible health effects of IWTs, but they are not so likely to have all day to spend rigging a poll result.  In this case, the most highly motivated on each side -- paid on one side, concerned citizens on the other -- are joined, respectively, by the useful-idiot enviro lefties who mistakenly think that IWTs are "green" and many of the WSJ's regular readers, who might stumble across this page, and who generally opposed the government trying to pick winners.

What makes this health news is the lack of mention of health -- no mention that the most adamant opposition to IWTs comes from those of us who care about public health (or those who care about their own health if they are at risk of having them cited nearby).  I suppose that the only "people" that the WSJ cares about are the ones who are actually corporations, or who are rich enough to be able to insulate themselves from health hazards like IWTs.  The short article leading into the poll describes as the entire reason for opposition as:
Critics want to scale back or eliminate the subsidies, arguing that renewable sources have had decades to get established but still aren’t cost-competitive with conventional energy.
That is all.  The single argument they present is not even one of the many good arguments.  It is either extremely naive or a strawman.  If IWTs actually were a good thing (producing moderately efficiently, while being clean and not hurting a lot of people -- which they fail on all three counts), and yet remained permanently a bit more expensive than less clean options, the subsidy would be justified.  We do not expect every actions that provides net social benefits to also provide net private benefits (well, at least those of us who realize that Atlas Shrugged is a work of fantasy, though remember, we are talking about the WSJ here).

The correct argument along those lines is something like, "the subsidies are not encouraging innovation and leading to much better technologies; rather, they are just paying for mass installations of the current bad tech which is extremely inefficient and harmful".  To explain it in terms the WSJ should understand, the current system is like "welfare queen" entitlements, that create incentives for people to continue to live in a socially costly way; it is not at all like the goals of Clinton welfare reform which tries to provides subsidies that move people toward becoming producers rather than leeches (someone who has read Atlas Shrugged more recently than I will have to tell me if I got the terms right).

But what interested the policy analyst in me enough to write about this is actually none of those points, but the form of the survey.  It did not just ask "subsidies: good or bad?".  It offered four answers: they [subsidies] should be increased; they should remain the same; they should decline; they should be eliminated.  Yeah, right.  I wonder how many people responding to this (other than the ones who are paid by the energy industry companies that are lining their pockets with the subsidies) could even tell you how big the subsidies are, or more important, describe it in some useful metric (even if they can recite the number, no one has any intuition for what "X billion dollars" really means, after all).  How is someone who has no understanding of the scale supposed to make a judgment about whether they are too high or low?  More to the point, since those who support the subsidies are in control of the government right now, presumably they have set the level of subsidies based on what someone thinks is not too high and not too low, based on what the marginal dollar causes to happen.  How can the WSJ possibly think that its respondents -- among those who generally favor the subsidies -- have any idea whether the marginal dollar is well spent or not.

Of course, as you would expect if most of the votes are indeed coming from paid industry flacks (who are usually not the brightest bulbs on the tree), almost all of the responses that favor the subsidies say they should be higher.  Presumably most of the industry's useful idiot "greens" are doing the same thing.  They have no idea how big the subsidies are and how badly the marginal dollar is wasted (even as measured from the perspective of those who like the industry and the subsidies), but they want more more more.  I wonder if they would change their minds if they were told that the subsidies would be paid for by a highly regressive tax (which is basically and accurate description of the situation)?

Anyway, if you happen to click over to the story, please click the "eliminated" response and make a tiny little stand for people's health over corporate welfare leeches.