H/T Emily Wieja, I spent about about an hour this morning watching this video, and trying to look inside Chris Snowdon‘s right ear. Eventually, quite late on, I saw what I wanted to see, as he swung his head to the left to fully reveal it. No, he didn’t have an earphone in his right ear. I’d already established that he didn’t have one in his left ear.
And that was the explanation why much of what he was saying was almost completely incomprehensible. He was listening to Emily with loudspeakers rather than earphones or headphones, and the sound from the loudspeakers was reaching his microphone, and then coming back out of the loudspeaker, perhaps after a round trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts and back. We were listening to feedback.
I’d had the same problem with Emily when we did a trial run for my interview about 3 weeks ago, when my loudspeakers started feeding back through my microphone just like Chris Snowdon’s was doing. And my online Skype chats with other people (readers of my blog) a few years ago had been bedevilled with the same problem. You simply can’t understand what people are saying. Judge for yourselves:
Nevertheless, it wasn’t all completely incomprehensible. Here’s a transcript of what was for me the most interesting exchange:
Emily Wieja: In 2010 you took part in an online debate about the question of whether lung cancer is actually caused by cigarette smoking, because I think this is very much the cornerstone of how the modern antismoking history begins, is really with the scientific discovery that firsthand smoking – that is, the smokers’ smoking – is doing great harm to themselves and causing lung cancer, and do you still believe this to be the case?
Chris Snowdon: Yes, absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind about it. I took part in the debate because Frank Davis was becoming sceptical about that, because he’d been following for several years the many lies and misrepresentations of the Tobacco Control lobbying, and he’d started believing that it was all a lie. I don’t believe that. There’s no doubt in my mind at all that smoking causes lung cancer and several other diseases. I took part in that because it was interesting to go back to the original studies, which I guess a lot of people simply take it for granted , rather than bothering to look at the original evidence, and the evidence was as I thought, and for me the most compelling part of the evidence – if anybody still has any doubt of this – which I did? have in 1964 when with the Surgeon General’s report, is you can now see over the course of the last 50 or 60 years, you can see the rise of smoking among men, and later on …., and you can see the rise of lung cancer … starting with women, There seems to be no other possible explanation for that.
Emily asked this question because I’d drawn her attention to the CATCH debate on my Livejournal blog back in November 2010. And it was interesting to have it confirmed that Chris Snowdon is as convinced today of the smoking hypothesis as he was back then, perhaps even more so: “There is no doubt in my mind about it.”
And I remain as sceptical as I was back then, and perhaps even more so. In the passage above Emily speaks of “the scientific discovery” that smoking causes lung cancer. I think that if the debate were to be repeated today, I’d argue that there was never any such scientific discovery, because there was no science whatsoever involved. And there was no science involved because you can’t do science with questionnaires. Science is only ever done with accurate measuring devices like rulers, scales, and clocks. Questionnaires are not accurate measuring devices. Rulers and scales and clocks can be carefully calibrated. How do you calibrate questionnaires to ensure their accuracy? You can’t.
This is something that ought to have been brought home to a few people by the complete failure of opinion polls in the UK and USA to predict either Brexit or Trump. It was also something brought home to me by my own ISIS survey of smokers, when, looking at my own responses to its questionnaire, I was rather surprised at the answers I’d given 6 months earlier. The truth of the matter is that people’s opinions in any matter change from month to month, and from day to day, and even from minute to minute. They’re weathervanes. And you can even read their changing dispositions on their faces as they smile or laugh or scowl or raise their eyebrows in surprise.
And there is always some degree of doubt in my mind about absolutely everything. I’m never completely and entirely convinced or certain about anything at all. The debate, whatever it is about, is never over. Certainty is something that can only ever be approached, but never actually reached. I’ll concede that it is possible that smoking causes lung cancer, but I now think that possibility is almost vanishingly small. Yes, it’s true that the incidence of lung cancer rose in tandem with the prevalence of cigarette smoking. But there are plenty of other possible explanations. I was reprising one of the best ones only yesterday: the Fallout Hypothesis. For just as smoking was growing in prevalence, so also were radioactive materials appearing in growing quantities throughout the world. And diesel trucks. And any number of other entirely new products and technologies. The list of possible suspects is a very, very long one. Tobacco, like Lee Harvey Oswald, is most likely just the patsy. Yes, he was present in the Texas Schoolbook Depository in Dallas when JFK was shot dead outside it on 22 November 1963. I used to believe that Oswald did it – everybody did back then, didn’t they? -, but I now prefer the Storm Drain conjecture. Am I completely convinced by this novel conjecture? No, not at all.
Anyway, I think Emily Wieja should invite Chris Snowdon back onto her show, and this time ensure that he listens on earphones rather than loudspeakers, and ask him how it is that he manages to have absolutely no doubt on this matter, when most of the rest of us are filled with doubt about more or less everything, including what day it is today.
For I have absolutely no doubt that it would be an enthralling discussion.