Friday, September 30, 2016

Lessons for today

Why the Father of Modern Statistics Didn’t Believe Smoking Caused Cancer

Found at Jason Soon's tweets, a really interesting article about a brilliant but cranky statistician who chose to spend his retirement arguing against the medical establishment regarding their acceptance of the smoking/lung cancer causal link.

Two things about the story I wanted to note:

1.  I had never heard this before - one of the changes which researchers thought might have accounted for the rapid increase in lung cancer in Britain mid last century was something a bit hard to believe they ever took seriously - a rapid increase in road tarring. (!):
What was the cause? Theories abounded. More people than ever were living in large, polluted cities. Cars filled the nation’s causeways, belching noxious fumes. Those causeways were increasingly being covered in tar. Advances in X-ray technology allowed for more accurate diagnoses. And, of course, more and more people were smoking cigarettes.

Which of these factors was to blame? All of them? None of them? British society had changed so dramatically and in so many ways since the First World War, it was impossible to identify a
single cause. As Fisher would say, there were just too many confounding variables....

At the beginning of the study, Doll had his own theory.  “I personally thought it was tarring of the roads,” Doll said. But as the results began to come in, a different pattern emerged. “I gave up smoking two-thirds of the way though the study."
 (By the way, Doll is one of the researchers who confirmed the link with tobacco;  Fisher is the name of the statistic who went to his death disputing it was proved.) 

2.  The similarity with modern climate change contrarianism is clear and obvious.  A science consensus emerges and is widely publicised - a mere handful of credible scientists (well, I assume Fisher might have had some supporters) spend the end of their careers arguing that everybody else is wrong; it's not proved; it could be something else no one else has conclusively ruled out, etc.   Then cranky contrarians die, and everybody else gets on with what was always correct. 

The only pity here is that what's at stake for climate change is climate affecting billions.  At least Fisher was only harming himself and those who were silly enough to follow his arguments.

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