|This is a consolidation of six e-mails that Michael Mac Guinness sent
me during November (whilst I was overseas), in response to
my post in support of Ireland's proposed ban on smoking in public. This
included reference to a study in Helena, Montana purportedly showing a
close correlation between a smoking ban and a reduction in heart
Michael starts starts by chiding me for swallowing this study too
readily (I accept this !), and goes on to explain why he is
skeptical about the scientific relationship between ETS and harm to health.
Readers may make their own judgement.
From: Michael Mac
Sent: 1st, 4th, 5th, 5th, 22nd, 28th November 2003
Subject: ETS: Correlation, Causation and Helena, Montana
article on ETS (Environmental
Tobacco Smoke) and the Helena, Montana study, Steven Milloy has made a
dissection of the Helena study and includes a
link to the slide
presentation (pdf, 273 kb) of the study. It appears that in
this instance the authors may have been a little too quick to jump to a
conclusion, forgetting that correlation does not imply
causation! See also here.
I have never smoked
but have always been, and remain, extremely skeptical regarding the degree
of risk attributed to ETS. Unfortunately, in this area as in
others, there is a lot of selective study and reporting by activists
seeking to advance their agenda.
See a review of such studies here.
(Im an engineer, not an epidemiologist) is that the levels of increased
risk of lung cancer the studies attribute to ETS (about 20%, adjusted
risk ratio 1.2) is within a range where it could equally well be caused by
other factors not controlled for. I believe epidemiologists require
an adjusted risk ratio of 2 before concluding that causation is
demonstrated. Since even the studies quoted by proponents of the
smoking ban fall well below this threshold, the scientific basis for a ban
is insufficiently solid to justify legislative action.
I have been dismayed, but not surprised, that all of
the debate (in the media and for example the exchange between Frank at Internet
Commentator and Gavin Gavin's
Blog) on the passive smoking issue has uncritically or implicitly
accepted the contention by proponents of the ban that the science is
In fact, so far as I can determine, the science is
far from settled. Studies funded by tobacco companies reporting no
significant effect from ETS are routinely dismissed as biased. This may be
true, however it is unproven - but see later discussion of bias in
On the other
hand, an important component of the smoking ban proponents case, the US
EPAs (Environmental Protection Agency) 1992 525-page study,
Respiratory Health Effects of Passive Smoking: Lung
Cancer and Other Disorders, EPA/600/6-90/006F (December 1992) was
challenged in court (yes, by a tobacco company). The challenge was
successful in 1998.
The judge's findings
are worth reading in full. Key observations :
Rather than reach
a conclusion after collecting information, researching, and making
findings, EPA categorized ETS as a known cause of cancer in 1989.
EPA, Indoor Air Facts No. 5 Environmental Tobacco Smoke, ANR-445 (June
1989) (JA 9,409-11).
In conducting the
Assessment, EPA deemed it biologically plausible that ETS was a
carcinogen. EPAs theory was premised on the similarities between MS,
SS, and ETS. In other chapters, the Agency used MS and ETS dissimilarities
to justify methodology. Recognizing problems, EPA attempted to confirm the
theory with epidemiologic studies. After choosing a portion of the studies,
EPA did not find a statistically significant association. EPA then claimed
the bioplausibility theory, renominated the a priori hypothesis, justified
a more lenient methodology. With a new methodology, EPA demonstrated from
the selected studies a very low relative risk for lung cancer based on ETS
exposure. Based on its original theory and the weak evidence of
association, EPA concluded the evidence showed a causal relationship
between cancer and ETS. The administrative record contains glaring
In this case, EPA
publicly committed to a conclusion before research had begun; excluded
industry by violating the Acts procedural requirements; adjusted
established procedure and scientific norms to validate the Agencys
public conclusion, ...
An editorial in Investors Business Daily
on 29 July 1998 summarises
some of the findings.
Having read the whole
judgement (but not the original report), it is clear
that whatever adjectives may be used to accurately describe the EPAs
report scientific is most certainly not one of them. For some
reason, the adjective biased comes to mind, but surely
all, it was not funded by a tobacco company.
As noted above, I have always been skeptical of the alleged hazard of
passive smoking. In my reading, which extended to more than
website, as well as other issues I wanted to check out, I have come across no
evidence that I found convincing. The evidence that is available
demonstrates conclusively that many issue-driven (ie not big
tobacco or big oil) activists and researchers have few scruples about
manipulating and selecting data to ensure their papers will support their
pre-determined conclusions in order to advance their agenda, irrespective
of truth. On controversial issues a healthy skepticism is in order,
bias is not solely the preserve of the black hats.
If the science is
unproven and/or if, as in this case, one of the pillars supporting
the case for taking legislative action is a fraud, then the policy and the
legislation are indefensible.
I dont like
tobacco smoke but so long as its not blowing directly in my face Im
not bothered. If they really want to ban something, my vote is ban
vinegar. The smell of it is revolting, I cannot abide it, it really does
turn my stomach.
Here are a couple of other links
that may be of some interest; plenty more if you do a site search for EPA
The 1998 ruling was, however, overturned on appeal in 2002.
But, as the
author of Numberwatch writes:
court did NOT overturn Judge Osteens findings that EPA had used
deceptive science to support a policy on environmental tobacco smoke that
it had adopted before it even began its study. It did not even address
those issues. Instead the appeals court ruling focused only on whether the
lower federal court had jurisdiction to review EPA actions in this matter
and found that it did not.
Ive read the
ruling in full. Numberwatchs statement is perfectly accurate.
Meanwhile, to link to a page
linking to a variety of studies, including the EPAs and a rebuttal of
the findings in the 1998 ruling, click on this here.
This last link is to the website of the
for Tobacco Control Research and Education referred to by Steven Milloy in
his rebuttal of the Montana report mentioned at the beginning of this
It also links to the following
(pdf, 127 kb)
Why Review Articles on the Health Effects of Passive
Smoking Reach Different Conclusions
Deborah E. Barnes, MPH; Lisa A. Bero, PhD JAMA, May 20, 1998Vol 279, No.
The principal conclusion of
this article is that, after controlling for various factors, it finds that
review articles written by authors with tobacco industry affiliations are
88 times more likely to conclude that passive smoking is not harmful.
Ive seen several reports about this article and reporting its
However, reading the article reveals a few interesting points:
Mean article quality was 0.36, meaning that the
average review article in the study satisfied only one third of the
criteria used for quality assessment. Low quality was expected to
correlate with a non-harmful conclusion, however it did not.
Mean quality scores overall were very low.
77% of articles failed to disclose sources of
funding. Affiliation to the tobacco industry was determined indirectly
by investigating the prior relationships of authors with
tobacco-affiliated organisations. There was no investigation of other
sources of funding, eg, anti-smoking advocacy organisations.
To support its conclusion regarding the influence of
tobacco affiliation, the article quotes other studies that have found
an association between conclusions of review articles and the
affiliations of the authors.
It appears to me
that the authors may have a blind spot.
While they do
note that it may have more general implications, it does not occur to them
that author affiliation may also affect articles that conclude that
passive smoking is harmful, and they do not examine this
possibility. In this context, the article itself was funded by the Robert
Wood Johnson Foundation, whose mission statement includes the
the personal, social and economic harm caused by substance abuse
tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs.
objective, but perhaps it is not a totally neutral, impartial,
disinterested entity in this area of research.
I find it
notable that the authors found that the articles were generally of low
quality regardless of the conclusion.
As an engineer, I associate low
quality with unreliability. I draw the conclusion from this article that
research on passive smoking is generally of low quality, is potentially
bias on both sides and is therefore utterly unreliable regardless of its
conclusion. I cannot see how low quality research can lead to accurate,
I am astounded that the authors do not appear to
consider the quality issue significant.
I havent had much
time to do any more research on the issue but came across ActivistCash.com.
Serious money available for pro-activist research. Accusing
tobacco-affiliated researchers of bias looks more and more like the pot
calling the kettle black.
I tried to find
some hard numbers quantifying lung cancer rates in non smokers.
Googling turned up a huge variation with lung cancer rates among
non-smoker anywhere between 4 and 27 times lower than smokers but I had no
way of evaluating either the reliability of the data or its
applicability to Ireland.
I did find the
National Cancer Registry Ireland report
(pdf, 165 kb) Cancer in Ireland 1994-2002
Incidence, Mortality, Treatment and Survival
but it doesnt
provide a breakdown of smoker and non-smoker lung cancer cases. I
could not find such a breakdown anywhere (in the limited time Ive had).
Bottom line, the more
I read, the more skeptical I become regarding the alleged dangers of
passive smoking. Case not proven.
become a crusade.
Michael Mac Guinness
Below are links are to
the Office of Tobacco Control(OTC)/HSA report
(pdf, 253 kb) on passive smoking dated December 2002 and
P J Carroll's submission
(pdf, 206 kb) dated 21 May 2003 to the HSA.
The OTC/HSA report is basically a review and
summarisation of the results of studies on passive smoking/ETS. The
referenced studies appear to have been taken at face value, there does not
appear to have been any questioning of data quality or study methodologies
or procedures. And usually that's fair enough. Normally
there should be no reason to for this type of report. However,
although the report makes quite a few references to the EPA's 1992 report,
there is no reference to the 1996 ruling vacating the report, nor to the
scientific/technical criticisms of the report raised in the case and
summarised in the judgement. As a bare minimum, given that the
OTC/HSA report is being used as a basis for legislative action and the EPA
report's status as a keystone document, it would surely be a reasonable
expectation that the OTC/HSA report would address the ruling and
criticisms even if only in the form of acknowledgement and rebuttal.
It is a curious omission.
In terms of timing, the OTC/HSA report was prepared
prior to conclusion of the EPA's appeal against to 1996 ruling. Both
were issued in December 2002.
The PJ Carroll submission is strongly critical of the
OTC report. People should read both, but I expect many will simply
disregard a tobacco company's position as being irredeemably biased.
I've had some thoughts on the issue of bias in
Bias may be suspected, however, it can only be
demonstrated by a thorough analysis of the conduct of the study including
the data collection/selection process and the procedures and methodologies
used in it. Bias may exist, but the results may still stand up to
critical scrutiny, or they may not. Equally, there might not be
bias, but critical scrutiny could expose fundamental errors in the conduct
of the study not picked up during peer review. Suspicion of bias
alone is insufficient grounds to dismiss a study. Innocent till
The following comment is issue-independent and may
(or may not) be applicable to many issues where the conventional wisdom
may not be quite the
It occurred to me that:
|One the one hand, researchers
who have a high expectation of having their work reviewed with
hostility or dismissed as being biased due to affiliations with
vested interests actually have a powerful external
incentive to adhere to high standards to ensure that their work will
withstand intense scrutiny. |
|On the other hand,
researchers working within a dominant paradigm and who expect their
results (or whose results are expected) to conform to the conventional
wisdom, and who are likely to have a high expectation of having their work
favourably received, are likely to be primarily dependent on internal
motivation to adhere to high standards and may be vulnerable to
don't rock the boat
Finally, one man's
vested interest is
concerned sponsor. It just depends which
side of the issue you're on.
to the current post
to place your own comments,
and to view the response of an
ETS expert in Ireland.
You can also write to blog-at-tallrite-dot-com
(Clumsy form of my address to thwart spamming
software that scans for e-mail addresses)
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Neda Agha Soltan;
shot dead in Teheran
by Basij militia
Good to report that as at
14th September 2009
he is at least
FREED AT LAST,
ON 18th OCTOBER 2011,
GAUNT BUT OTHERWISE REASONABLY HEALTHY
Atlantic Blog (defunct)
Broom of Anger
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Thinking Man's Guide
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My Columns in the
What I've recently
“The Lemon Tree”, by Sandy
is a delightful novel-style history of modern Israel and Palestine told
through the eyes of a thoughtful protagonist from either side, with a
household lemon tree as their unifying theme.
But it's not
entirely honest in its subtle pro-Palestinian bias, and therefore needs
to be read in conjunction with an antidote, such as
This examines events which led to BP's 2010 Macondo blowout in
the Gulf of Mexico.
BP's ambitious CEO John Browne expanded it through adventurous
acquisitions, aggressive offshore exploration, and relentless
cost-reduction that trumped everything else, even safety and long-term
Thus mistakes accumulated, leading to terrifying and deadly accidents in
refineries, pipelines and offshore operations, and business disaster in
The Macondo blowout was but an inevitable outcome of a BP culture that
had become poisonous and incompetent.
However the book is gravely compromised by a
litany of over 40 technical and stupid
errors that display the author's ignorance and
It would be better
to wait for the second (properly edited) edition before buying.
As for BP, only a
wholesale rebuilding of a new, professional, ethical culture will
prevent further such tragedies and the eventual destruction of a once
mighty corporation with a long and generally honourable history.
Note: I wrote
my own reports on Macondo
A horrific account
how the death
penalty is administered and, er, executed in Singapore,
the corruption of
Singapore's legal system, and
enthusiastic embrace of Burma's drug-fuelled military dictatorship
More details on my
nonagenarian Alistair Urquhart’s
incredible story of survival in the Far
East during World War II.
After recounting a
childhood of convention and simple pleasures in working-class Aberdeen,
Mr Urquhart is conscripted within days of Chamberlain declaring war on
Germany in 1939.
From then until the
Japanese are deservedly nuked into surrendering six years later, Mr
Urquhart’s tale is one of first discomfort but then following the fall
of Singapore of ever-increasing, unmitigated horror.
After a wretched
journey Eastward, he finds himself part of Singapore’s big but useless
Taken prisoner when Singapore falls in
1941, he is, successively,
part of a death march to Thailand,
a slave labourer on the Siam/Burma
railway (one man died for every sleeper laid),
regularly beaten and tortured,
racked by starvation, gaping ulcers
and disease including cholera,
a slave labourer stevedoring at
shipped to Japan in a stinking,
closed, airless hold with 900 other sick and dying men,
torpedoed by the Americans and left
drifting alone for five days before being picked up,
a slave-labourer in Nagasaki until
blessed liberation thanks to the Americans’ “Fat Boy” atomic
distraught and traumatised on return to Aberdeen yet disdained by the
British Army, he slowly reconstructs a life. Only in his late 80s
is he able finally to recount his dreadful experiences in this
There are very few
first-person eye-witness accounts of the the horrors of Japanese
brutality during WW2. As such this book is an invaluable historical
“Culture of Corruption:
Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies”
This is a rattling good tale of the web
of corruption within which the American president and his cronies
operate. It's written by blogger Michele Malkin who, because she's both
a woman and half-Asian, is curiously immune to the charges of racism and
sexism this book would provoke if written by a typical Republican WASP.
With 75 page of notes to back up - in
best blogger tradition - every shocking and in most cases money-grubbing
allegation, she excoriates one Obama crony after another, starting with
the incumbent himself and his equally tricky wife.
Joe Biden, Rahm Emmanuel, Valerie Jarett,
Tim Geithner, Lawrence Summers, Steven Rattner, both Clintons, Chris
Dodd: they all star as crooks in this venomous but credible book.
ACORN, Mr Obama's favourite community
organising outfit, is also exposed for the crooked vote-rigging machine
This much trumpeted sequel to
Freakonomics is a bit of disappointment.
It is really just
a collation of amusing
little tales about surprising human (and occasionally animal) behaviour
and situations. For example:
Drunk walking kills more people per
kilometer than drunk driving.
People aren't really altruistic -
they always expect a return of some sort for good deeds.
Child seats are a waste of money as
they are no safer for children than adult seatbelts.
Though doctors have known for
centuries they must wash their hands to avoid spreading infection,
they still often fail to do so.
Monkeys can be taught to use washers
as cash to buy tit-bits - and even sex.
The book has no real
message other than don't be surprised how humans sometimes behave and
try to look for simple rather than complex solutions.
And with a final
anecdote (monkeys, cash and sex), the book suddenly just stops dead in
its tracks. Weird.
A remarkable, coherent attempt by Financial Times economist Alan Beattie
to understand and explain world history through the prism of economics.
It's chapters are
organised around provocative questions such as
Why does asparagus come from Peru?
Why are pandas so useless?
Why are oil and diamonds more trouble
than they are worth?
Why doesn't Africa grow cocaine?
It's central thesis
is that economic development continues to be impeded in different
countries for different historical reasons, even when the original
rationale for those impediments no longer obtains. For instance:
Argentina protects its now largely
foreign landowners (eg George Soros)
Russia its military-owned
businesses, such as counterfeit DVDs
The US its cotton industry
comprising only 1% of GDP and 2% of its workforce
The author writes
in a very chatty, light-hearted matter which makes the book easy to
However it would
benefit from a few charts to illustrate some of the many quantitative
points put forward, as well as sub-chaptering every few pages to provide
natural break-points for the reader.
This is a thrilling book of derring-do behind enemy lines in the jungles
of north-east Burma in 1942-44 during the Japanese occupation.
The author was
a member of Britain's V Force, a forerunner of the SAS. Its remit was to
harass Japanese lines of
command, patrol their occupied territory, carryout sabotage and provide
intelligence, with the overall objective of keeping the enemy out of
is admirably yet brutally frank, in his
descriptions of deathly battles with the Japs, his execution of a
prisoner, dodging falling bags of rice dropped by the RAF, or collapsing
in floods of tears through accumulated stress, fear and loneliness.
He also provides some fascinating insights into the mentality of
Japanese soldiery and why it failed against the flexibility and devolved
authority of the British.
The book amounts to
a very human and exhilarating tale.
Oh, and Irwin
describes the death in 1943 of his colleague my uncle, Major PF
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