A couple of days ago I was referring to my copy of Smoking: The Cancer Controversy by Sir Ronald Fisher, published in 1959. The book opens with a letter he had written in 1957, which begins:

Your annotation on “Dangers of Cigarette-smoking” leads
up to the demand that these hazards “must be brought home
to the public by all the modern devices of publicity” . That
is just what some of us with research interests are afraid of .
In recent wars, for example, we have seen how unscrupulously
the “modern devices of publicity” are liable to be used under
the impulsion of fear ; and surely the “yellow peril” of modern
times is not the mild and soothing weed but the organized
creation of states of frantic alarm.

Sir Ronald Fisher did not live to see his worst fears realised. He died in 1962, at a time when the contemporary antismoking onslaught was only beginning to gather momentum. Over the subsequent 50+ years, we have witnessed exactly the unscrupulous, organised
creation of the state of frantic alarm of which he was so afraid. And the result is that hundreds of millions of smokers all over the world are now being subjected to intensifying persecution, as they are excluded from society, fired from jobs, evicted from homes, and refused medical treatment.

In fact, it might be said that we now live in an era in which the organised creation of states of frantic alarm is more or less the normal procedure with every matter of current concern. So people are now being terrified not just about cigarettes, but about all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes which do not contain any tobacco. And they are being terrified about global warming and climate change and acid rain and ozone holes, and countless other things. For example hurricane Florence, currently crossing North Carolina as a tropical storm:

Death toll reaches five in North Carolina as ‘horrific nightmare’ storm path sparks Tornado and surge warnings

It cannot be just a storm: it must be exaggerated to become an ‘horrific nightmare’ storm.

Another feature of our modern Age of Terror is that the supposed hazards about which we are all to be warned are always presented as matters of perfect certainty, about which a consensus of experts are unanimously agreed. It is one of the strange oddities of our time that even though the statistical arguments used to make the case that smoking causes lung cancer are necessarily probabilistic and uncertain, it appears to be the case that the only thing about which more or less everyone is perfectly certain is that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer. How is it that the branch of mathematics that deals with events of an uncertain or probabilistic nature has been able to generate such perfect certainty in the minds of a great many people?

Perhaps it’s that people cannot live with uncertainty. Perhaps they need to know, of any matter, that any statements being made about it are either categorically true or categorically untrue, and it’s not good enough to be told that some statement might be true. So the truthful statement that “Smoking may cause lung cancer (or may not)” has to become “Smoking most certainly causes lung cancer” before it becomes necessary that this incontrovertible fact “be brought home to the public by all the modern devices of publicity.” While the claim remains uncertain or probabilistic, decisive action cannot be taken. It needs to be made into a certainty before decisive and energetic action can be (and must be) taken, and the fact broadcast to everyone using all the modern devices of publicity.

Or perhaps it’s that some people can live with uncertainty, and some cannot. Over the past year I’ve been entertaining the idea that there is a natural cyclical process of global cooling and warming that generates ice ages and interglacial warm periods with almost clockwork regularity. Am I certain about it? Not at all. I also believe that the Chelyabinsk fireball of 2013 was a distant companion of asteroid 2012 DA14, which passed the Earth on the same day. Am I certain about that? Not in the least bit. Am I bothered about being uncertain? No. I’m very used to being uncertain. Uncertainty seems to me to be a fact of life with which people must live. There is uncertainty about everything, not just ice ages and asteroids. The best I can manage is a degree of conviction that waxes and wanes from day to day, and sometimes even from hour to hour. So I will most likely never become a zealot predicting an imminent ice age, because I will never be sufficiently certain about it to do so.

Others may have less compunction, however. And I can well imagine that all those zealots who now promote global warming alarmism with perfect certainty will soon be doing exactly the same with global cooling, as they effortlessly replace one perfect certainty with another.


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16 Responses to Certainty

  1. Bones says:

    Whether you like Jacob Rees Mogg or not, this article gives me reason to be optimistic.
    “Individual liberty overall creates a better society because, with all their errors, people make better choices for themselves than the State can make for them. The evidence for this exists in capitalist systems – they create greater prosperity than command economies. The success in recent decades of emerging markets, especially China and India, shows what can happen when the State lifts controls.”

  2. waltc says:

    Because the two greatest motivators of human behavior (usually bad behavior) are hatred and fear. Next comes threat, and the two biggest threats are fear of punishment and fear of banishment. Anti-tobacco uses all of them and uses them with the help of the most ubiquitous, panoramic propaganda-producing machinery that has yet been invented –stuff to make Goebbels turn green with envy.

  3. EG says:

    Nobody cares about ‘may cause cancer’ anymore. Everything is in that category. They must sound certain.
    Also I just thought of something. Warnings on cigarette packages are so big in relation to a package size. They are way bigger then real warnings on really dangerous chemicals for example. Even radioactive signs are not that obnoxious. That’s how you know it’s nonsense.

    • Rose says:

      No alcohol safe to drink, global study confirms
      24 August 2018

      “A large new global study published in the Lancet has confirmed previous research which has shown that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.”

      “They found that out of 100,000 non-drinkers, 914 would develop an alcohol-related health problem such as cancer or suffer an injury.

      But an extra four people would be affected if they drank one alcoholic drink a day”

      I have a glass of wine with Chritmas lunch every year and yet I still live.

      • Roobeedoo2 says:

        Well, they’re talking bollocks because our species has thrived on consuming alcohol. There were times in our history of civilization when it was safer to drink alcohol than water. So we did and now there’s more of us than ever before.

        *There is no safe level of alcohol” my arse!

        *Oh! That explains the Trannie mania, Clicky… /pats snout…*

  4. Philip Neal says:

    The strident certainty of anti-smoking propaganda is very reminiscent of the white propaganda in World War II, particularly the certainty that defeat was impossible. Part of the problem is that the smoking and cancer question was always seen as the province of the medical profession, and doctors like to project absolute confidence and cannot bear to be challenged.

    I am thinking of writing a website about Fisher’s career as a smoking sceptic, a smaller companion to The Burch Curve.

    • Frank Davis says:

      That would be a very valuable project.

      Somewhere in the The Cancer Controversy, Fisher wrote, in a single sentence, that he wondered whether the science of statistics would survive. I didn’t manage to find the sentence yesterday, but after I’d read it I wondered whether Fisher had realised, late in life, that statistics could be – and was being – abused, and this placed its continued use in jeopardy.

      I have a copy of Smoking Kills: The revolutionary life of Richard Doll, by Conrad Keating, which details his disagreement with Fisher, albeit from the point of view of a hagiography of Richard Doll. I could make this book available to you, should it be of interest or relevance..

    • legiron says:

      If you ever get the urge to make it available in print or eBook form, I’d certainly publish it.

  5. waltc says:

    Alvan Feinstein, of Yale, and the emeritus editor of the journal Epidemiology (if memory serves) made the same point about the bizarre abuses of statistics….And wasn’t there something…the Lalonde Doctrine?..that overtly instructed anti-tobacco social engineers of the necessity to at all times exaggerate and claim absolute certainty about their maybes?

    Meanwhile, you might like this piece on global warming and the Paris deal (and like this guy’s blog in general):

    “I don’t see a whole lot of difference between the consensus on climate change and the consensus on witches. At the witch trials in Salem, the judges were educated at Harvard. This was supposedly 100 percent science. The one or two people who said there were no witches were immediately hung. Not much has changed.”


  6. Rose says:

    After Frank pointed me in the direction of Sir Ronald Fisher (I had been studying Hueper), I tried to find in the chemistry what he’d seen in the statistics. There are a lot of articles in there including The Scientific Scandal of Antismoking
    By J. R. Johnstone, PhD (Monash) and
    P.D.Finch, Emeritus Professor of Mathematical Statistics (Monash)
    and THE SMOKING SCARE DE-BUNKED, by William Whitby
    https: //www.industrydocumentslibrary.ucsf.edu/docs/#id=gmpy0081

    Sir Ronald Fisher

    Searching my favourite Fisher quote last night, I found this –

    “Burch quoted the late Sir Ronald Fisher, regarded as the father of biostatistics, who said that the hypothesis concerning smoking and lung cancer may well prove to be a “catastrophic and conspicuous howler.”

    The Smoking Controversy : A Perspective [TI Publication] with references

  7. Frank Davis says:

    I was mentioning the hyping of Florence. Here’s a great example of fake news about it:

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