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This is a topic that I have kept well away from, because I have an obvious vested interest: “no pipe, no algebra”. But the topic does make an interesting example of the effect of political correctness on people who are otherwise impeccable in there attitude to evidence. Tim Luckhurst writes about this in The Independent (2 May, 2006).

“On Desert Island Discs in 2001, Sir Richard Doll, the man who proved the incontrovertible causal link between active smoking and lung cancer, said: “The effect of other people smoking in my presence is so small it doesn’t worry me.”

He was right not to fret. One of the largest studies of the health consequences of secondary smoking was published in the British Medical Journal in 2003. It tracked the health of 118,000 Californians over four decades in a rigorous attempt to identify a causal relationship between environmental tobacco smoke (the scientific term for secondary smoke) and premature death. It concluded: “The results do not support a causal relationship between ETS and tobacco-related mortality.” ”

The paper in question is ‘Environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality in a prospective study of Californians, 1960-98’, James E Enstrom and Geoffrey C Kabat 2003, BMJ , 326, 1057 . The publication was followed by a torrent of abuse, more
reminiscent of religious zealotry than of science. The responses have been analysed in an article in Public Understanding of Science (2005, 14, 5–23) by Ungar and Bray, ‘Silencing science: partisanship and the career of a publication disputing the dangers of secondhand smoke’ [ download pdf ].

I don’t know what the final answer will be about the risks of passive smoking, but as a pharmacologist, the higher levels of damage reported seem barely credible, bearing in mind that

“Reputable research shows that a non-smoker inhales between a 500th and 1,000th of the toxins inhaled by the smoker himself.”

It does seem that it is not only big drug companies, and deluded homeopaths, who are happy to distort evidence for their own purposes. Well-meaning zealots can do it too. That is just as scary.

“Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s 40-a-day cigar habit is held responsible for some of the greatest triumphs of British engineering. Unfortunately, it also represents an upturned middle finger towards the politically-correct mandarins of modern academia. With this in mind, Brunel University has removed the famous stoogie from a new, life-size statue of the eminent Victorian. The bronze is based on the National Portrait Gallery’s iconic photograph of Brunel standing next to the launching chains of his ship, the SS Great Eastern, in 1857. It was unveiled last week, revealing a close likeness, but – to the annoyance of Brunel fans, historians and the smoking lobby alike – no cigar.” The Independent , 18th July 2006.

Some scientific heros. Their longevity tells you absolutely nothing.

Transferred from the original IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page.

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