Scientific Illiteracy in Anti-Smoking Ad

no smoking photo
Image by mag3737

As I was watching TV in my hotel room the other night, I caught one of the latest commercials by the truth anti-smoking campaign. While I’m no fan of smoking, I found the ad to be offensive, because of the stunning lack of credibility.

I’ll let you judge the ad for yourself first, than add my comments:

In general, smoking is linked with lower educational attainment. Which…usually means you’re going to earn less. It’s one of the many, many factors that contributes to your employment opportunities. And it’s only one characteristic that contributes to something called the “smoking wage gap.”

Which is a hugely complicated issue, and, yeah, we’re only focusing on a small aspect of it, because focusing on a small aspect lets us actually focus on something we can change.

But because of that wage gap, young smokers can miss out on up to $10,000 per year.

$10,000 per year!

This is one of those statistics that is factually correct, but also completely irrelevant. Unfortunately, we now live in a society where this level of scientific dishonesty is considered “smart”.

The ad even admits that the fact that smokers earn 20% less, in general, than non-smokers is a complicated matter, and they are only focusing on one small part of it to make it easier for anyone who doesn’t want to think through the whole issue. They’re encouraging you to be dumb while encouraging you to get “the truth” about smoking. Nice.

The fact, though, is that if you quit smoking, or don’t start smoking, you will not be gaining $10,000 per year. You’re not suddenly going to get a higher level of educational achievement either. If you stop smoking, you will stop smoking. That’s it.

People who smoke don’t earn less money because they smoke. There is no causal relationship between smoking and earning, but it appears that having a statistic with a convenient relationship has become the standard by which we measure an idea now, no need to show that one causes the other.

But really, even without studying the data, can’t we easily assume that smoking is a bad decision? People who make bad decisions are more likely to smoke, perhaps because they lack education! They are also more likely to make other bad decisions, and some of those decisions will result in earning less money. Stopping smoking would be a good decision, no doubt, but it wouldn’t magically undo all those other decisions.

But that would require some thought, I guess, and the folks at truth don’t want to bother us with all of that. Just stop smoking so you can make more money. It’s like magic!

I realize that I’m ranting about an ad that encourages people to stop smoking so it’s not really going to hurt anyone if they follow the advice in the ad, but it’s the larger picture that truly bothers me. So many decisions are made politically, culturally, and personally, based on statistics like this one, with no deeper understanding of what is underneath the surface. Think, for example, of a statistic like this one, which I completely made up while sitting in a coffee shop:

Students at elite universities are 50% more likely to drink specialty coffee than the rest of their age group. 

Kids, here have more latte! Public schools should be putting in espresso machines! Welfare recipients should get Starbucks cards for their children! Pumpkin Spice Lattes alone will lead US students to massive increases in standardized test scores!

Or, maybe students at elite universities have more disposable income than most of the other people in their age group, and spend more on coffee, as opposed to what they drink somehow leading to academic success.

See how drawing the wrong conclusion can create lots of problems?

OK rant mode off… 😉


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