Phony Science and Public Policy
by Walter E. Williams (more by this author)
Posted 04/11/2007 ET
The public has become increasingly aware that the science behind manmade global warming is a fraud. But maybe Americans like bogus science in pursuit of certain public policy objectives. Let’s look at it.
Many Americans find tobacco smoke to be a nuisance. Some find the odor offensive, and others have allergies or asthma that can be aggravated by smoking in their presence. There’s little question that tobacco smoke causes these kinds of nuisances, but how successful would anti-smokers have been in a court of law, or public opinion, in achieving the kind of success they’ve achieved based on tobacco smoke being a nuisance?
A serious public health threat had to be manufactured, and in 1993 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepped in to the rescue with their bogus environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) study that says secondhand tobacco smoke is a class A carcinogenic.
Why is it bogus? The EPA claimed that 3,000 Americans die annually from secondhand smoke, but there was a problem. They couldn’t come up with that conclusion using the standard statistical 95 percent confidence interval. They lowered their study’s confidence interval to 90 percent. That has the effect of doubling the margin of error and doubling the probability that mere chance explains those 3,000 deaths.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) said, “Admittedly, it is unusual to return to a study after the fact, lower the required significance level, and declare its results to be supportive rather than unsupportive of the effect one’s theory suggests should be present.” The CRS was being kind. This kind of doctoring of research results would get a graduate student expelled from a university.
In 1998, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer released the largest ever and best formulated study on ETS. The research project ran for 10 years and in seven European countries. The study, not widely publicized, concluded that no statistically significant risk existed for nonsmokers who either lived or worked with smokers.
During the late ’90s, at a Washington affair, I had the occasion to be in the presence of an FDA official. I asked him whether he would approve of pharmaceutical companies employing EPA’s statistical techniques in their testing of drug effectiveness and safety. He answered no. I ask my fellow Americans who are nonsmokers: Do you support the use of fraudulent science in your efforts to eliminate tobacco smoke nuisance in bars, restaurants, workplaces and hotels?
You say, “Okay, Williams, the science is bogus, but how do we nonsmokers cope with the nuisance of tobacco smoke?” My answer is that it all depends on whether you prefer liberty-oriented solutions to problems or those that are more tyranny-oriented.
The liberty-oriented solution has to do with private property rights, whereby the owner of property makes the decision whether he will allow smoking or not. If one is a nonsmoker, he just doesn’t do business with a bar or restaurant where smoking is permitted. A smoker could exercise the same right if a bar or restaurant didn’t permit smoking. Publicly owned places such as libraries, airports and municipal buildings, where ownership is ill defined, presents more of a challenge.
The tyranny-oriented solution is where one group uses the political system to forcibly impose its preferences on others. You might be tempted to object to the term “tyranny,” but suppose you owned a restaurant where you did not permit smoking and smokers used the political system to create a law forcing you to permit smoking. I’m sure you’d deem it tyranny.
The public policy debate on smoking has been settled through bogus science. My question is, how willing are we to allow bogus science to be used in the pursuit of other public policy agendas, such as restrictions on economic growth, in the name of fighting global warming?
Dr. Williams is a nationally syndicated columnist, former chairman of the economics department at George Mason University, and author of More Liberty Means Less Government