Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Stupid Arguments that Irk Me #1: Smoking Does Not Cause Cancer

Every now and again I am met with an argument that is so profoundly stupid, yet clung to by the arguer with such fervent devotion, that I lose my temper and refuse to speak with the arguer any further. Usually, this is after I’ve given them the chance to scrutinize their own logical fallacies, after which they once again repeat their stupid argument, as if it were I who did not understand. The champion of these arguments is of course, the existence of god in the absence of anything that proves otherwise, but as I bored of that one long ago, I will instead begin with a rather pig-headed argument I was accosted by last night, involving smoking and cancer.

I was at Social Girl’s home, you see, with her roommate and our friends, Muscles and Wheels. Muscles, (who is skinny as a twig – I can’t take credit for the ironic name – that honor belongs to Social Girl), argued against someone’s (?) assertion that smoking is linked with cancer, something I had hitherto expected could be accepted as fact, was wrong. Muscles argued that smoking cigarettes did not cause cancer, because if it did, smoking one cigarette would cause cancer. “That’s what causation means. Look it up in a dictionary,” he said, which is about when I lost my temper. While I agreed with him that causation did not equal correlation, the only decent rational point he made all night, I could not concede that the rest of what he had to say was anything less than the baldest of bullshit.

So I gave up on the argument in favour of playing some Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo instead, but I mulled it over in my mind, and drafted a proper response, which isn’t necessarily meant for him to read, but a means of sorting my thoughts out properly into words. The result is as follows.

Your argument contains two logical fallacies. The first is your assertion that something is not true, simply because the negative cannot be proven to be false. For instance, you cannot go claiming that there is no god, much to my chagrin, simply because we cannot prove that there is one. There may be no reason to prove that he exists, but that’s as far as you can go.

In the case of smoking, I will grant that we cannot prove the exact mechanism that leads to cancer, and thus, the most compelling evidence that we have at present are studies and statistics. While these studies do not prove causation, they do prove correlation, which is reason enough to examine further before we can confirm the positive. However, to say that this therefore proves the negative is just stupid. It is just as stupid as a priest saying that because I can’t prove that god does not exist, he therefore does, or that I cannot prove how the universe came to be, and that therefore the existing stupid theory is better than no theory.

Allow me to illustrate your fallacy with another analogy. For years, patients were dying on operating tables because of something invisible that we cannot see. We did know what was killing roughly half of our patients, but we theorized that something was indeed causing it, and we found later that proper sterilization of instruments and wounds reduced the number of these deaths to these invisible killers drastically. We call these invisible little monsters “germs” now, and even though we didn’t know then what we know now, we were not wrong in thinking they were killing our patients. They were indeed causing deaths. Just because we didn’t know how or why our patients were dying, didn’t mean that they weren’t. Lack of knowledge of fact does not equal lack of fact.

Your second logical fallacy is your assertion that, if smoking causes cancer, (and again, I think it is a well-known and well-documented fact that it does, but we can leave that for now), one cigarette would cause cancer. That is like saying that a minor laceration to your face will kill you, regardless of size, severity or number. If I cut you in the face, and then left you alone, it would heal, and you would be fine. You would be marred, but fine. If I keep cutting you, however, you will eventually die from your injuries. It is like the proverbial straw breaking the camel’s back. One straw will probably go completely unnoticed, but if you keep piling on straw, at a certain point, you will pile on the last straw, and kill your camel. An excess of something causing death does not equal the mere presence of something causing death. The name for this fallacy, which you’ve made twice in your argument, is “equivocation.” You can look that up on your own time.

So, I’m sorry Muscles, (well, no I’m not – you’re wrong, and I’m trying to help you out so that you don’t keep saying this and sounding so stupid in future, and more importantly, annoying me), but your argument is flawed, and you are wrong.

And that concludes my first rant, about stupid arguments.

1 comment:

Shadowthorne @ Ramzu Zahini said...

:) A very very long reply for something... I must say, you must never bother in the 1st place.

Idiots do grow on trees, and they fell from the tree of wisdom, littering the ground. But their ignorance makes us grow taller and mightier still :)

Forgive the disillusioned guy.