I was trying to think today whether I’d ever seen smoking do anyone any harm.
It certainly doesn’t seem to have done me any harm. I’m on zero medication these days (aside from whisky and cigarettes). Pretty much the only medication I’ve ever been on has been sleeping tablets, which I stopped taking when I discovered seven years ago that I didn’t actually need them to sleep (and probably never had needed them). It’s been four years since I last had a cold. Or even a headache. The only time I’ve ever been in a hospital was for about one night after having an operation for a mild hernia which I’d had for years, but hardly ever noticed. Physically I’m pretty fit. Everything’s in working order. There are just a few old injuries that I have to keep an eye on, like my dodgy right knee (from jumping out of a window at school), my occasionally aching right elbow (slightly split from coming off a motorbike), my lower left rib injury (from sitting cross-legged with my chest on a bed working at arms length on a computer), and of course my permanently broken heart (courtesy of Cathy, Alexandra, Evita, Frances, Sloopy Girl, and about fifteen others).
I’ve done pretty well, all told. But not really any better than any other smoker I’ve ever known. My 60-a-day father never seemed to get sick either. And I don’t remember ever going round to see any of my smoking friends, and have their wives/girlfriends lean out of the window and say, “He’s laid up in bed, I’m afraid. He’s been smoking non-stop for the past few days, and it’s finally got to him. You know how it is, don’t you?” No, I don’t know how it is. Nor do I know anybody who has ever smoked themselves to death. I’ve never been to a funeral where everyone knew that it was the deceased’s 50-a-day habit that had driven him to an early grave. Nor do I even know anybody who knows anybody who has been made ill by smoking.
So I’ve never seen smoking do anyone any harm. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada. That’s my own personal experience. Smoking, in my opinion, is one of the safest pastimes there is.
It’s much safer than swimming. People who go swimming are in danger of drowning. When I lived in West Africa, three members of the crew from a visiting Royal Navy ship drowned on a beach I knew, sucked out from the shore by a tide rip.
It’s also much safer than driving cars or riding motorbikes (see above) too.
I tell you what’s dangerous. What’s really, really dangerous about smoking isn’t the act of smoking itself. The real danger lies in lighting the damn things up, or stubbing them out. I’ve burned my fingers, my lips, and my nose lighting cigarettes. And singed my eyebrows numerous times. All with little gas lighters that have been left in the sun, so that instead of getting a one inch flame out of them, I’ve gotten a 12 inch blowtorch. Or how about the cheap gas lighter that I bought a few months back, whose flame wouldn’t go out after I lifted my thumb off its mechanism? Or those special matches whose flaring heads detach themselves from their matchsticks, and land six feet away on carpets, newspapers, or woolly jumpers? And then, of course, I’ve burned nearly all my fingertips stubbing the things out, usually when I accidentally press down hard right onto the burning coal. And there are those occasions when you think you’ve stubbed out a cigarette but you haven’t really, and about five minutes later the other fifty butts in the ashtray have re-lit themselves. I once had to pull over in my car after it started to fill with smoke after one of those re-lights. It’s one of the main reasons why I always keep bottled water in my car. It’s not just in case I get thirsty: it’s to pour into the ashtray.
The dangers of smoking are really no different from the dangers of flying: it’s the brief takeoff and landing which are the most dangerous, not the long cruise in between.
No, if it was purely a matter of personal experience, nobody would think smoking was anything other than harmless. And in fact that’s how more or less everybody thought for the past 400 years. Until, that is, the epidemiologists came along.
The 1950 London Hospitals study by Richard Doll and Bradford Hill had a study group of 649 lung cancer patients, and a control group of 649 other hospital patients. Of the 649 lung cancer patients, only 2 were non-smokers (which fact in table IV was reproduced in Richard Doll’s obituary 50 years later, as if it were all that mattered). But in the control group there were only 27 non-smokers. So in the entire sample of 1298 patients, only 29 patients were non-smokers. The study was therefore conducted using a population almost wholly (98%) made up of smokers. And it should have been no surprise that 98% of patients suffering from any malady whatever would have been found to have been smokers. But no, the researchers looked instead at the 29 non-smokers (p. 742):
It will be seen… that the very small proportion of those with carcinoma of the lung who have been non-smokers (0.3%) is most significantly less than the corresponding proportion in the control group of other patients (4.2%).
This ratio – 0.3/4.2 – is the basis for the claim that non-smokers are 14 times less likely to get lung cancer than non-smokers, and that smokers are accordingly 14 times more likely to get lung cancer than non-smokers.
In this case, the number of patients, N, in the study doesn’t matter. In this case N happens to be 649, but it might just as well have been 64,900 or 64,900,000. For to obtain the ratio, 2/N is divided by 27/N, so that N cancels out, leaving just 2/27 or 1/13.5. The only numbers that matter at all here are the 2 non-smoking lung cancer patients and the 27 other non-smoking hospital patients – 29 patients in total. They only needed 29 people to get this result. Read the original study here.
Yet this single study trumped 400 years of personal experience by millions of smokers.
Personal experience doesn’t matter any more. Your experience doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters these days is the opinion of experts, which is invariably cloaked in impregnable numbers – like 649, 27, and 2 – that seem to exert a hypnotic effect upon their readers, reducing them to awed silence.
Exactly the same applies in the case of global warming. It doesn’t matter whether you or I think that, in our experience, the climate hasn’t been getting noticeably warmer. The only people whose opinion matters are the climate scientists who are the experts in this field. And according to their calculations, temperatures are set to rocket over the next 50 – 100 years.
One might add that, in a world where only the opinion of experts matters, it is entirely inconsequential whether the peoples of Europe do or do not want to merge into a European superstate. Political experts know better than they do. And only their opinion matters, of course.
But genuine science is based on the empirical – experienced – facts. To the extent that scientists build models of the real world, those models are only accurate to the extent that they conform with the real world, and accurately reproduce it. But increasingly we are living in a world where the epidemiological, climatic, and political models which our various ‘experts’ employ bear little resemblance to the reality they are supposed to reproduce. Theirs is increasingly a fantasy world, becoming ever more disconnected from reality.
The simple truth of the matter is that none of the ‘experts’ are really experts at all. They have no idea whatsoever what causes lung cancer. They have no real idea how the Earth’s climate works. And they have even less idea how to organise human societies.
You wonder how they ever managed to get to where they did? I bet that Barack Obama’s interpreter at the Mandela funeral said that he was an expert at sign language. And I bet that absolutely everybody believed him, including the president’s Secret Service guard. He blagged his way into the job. That’s how they all do it. Obama included.
Not entirely off topic, via ZeroHedge, here’s Rick Santelli’s epic rant earlier this year about another ‘expert’: Fed chairman Ben Bernanke. Well worth watching purely as a piece of performance art.