Why Ideology and Science Don’t Mix

By Lee Johnson Posted February 11, 2014

science and ideology


Groups like the American Lung Association – not to mention the vast majority of anti-vaping news coverage – would have you believe there is some huge dispute about the safety of electronic cigarettes.


Due to the recent emergence of the technology and the fact that most vapers are pretty young (so even if they were smoking definitively carcinogenic cigarettes, they wouldn’t get cancer for quite a while) there does need to be more research on e-cigarettes, but there is no serious dispute about their relative safety in comparison to cigarettes, and no reason to assume any risk to users or bystanders.


So why do we consistently see horrendously flawed pieces of research, vapid, unsupported statements about e-cigarettes and legislative actions taken to protect bystanders from a barrage of invented dangers? Because the anti-vaping movement, or more broadly the anti-smoking movement, is driven by ideology, and ideology is downright awful at science.




  • Science is differentiated from pseudoscience by Karl Popper based on the notion that science makes testable and falsifiable predictions.
  • Scientists driven by ideology – like Christian scientists – say stupid things like “the speed of light is decreasing” because they’re unable to admit that their ideological viewpoint has been clearly proven to be incorrect.
  • This same issue – in a less obvious form – is widespread in tobacco and nicotine research, shown by false findings that continue unchecked for decades.
  • Nicotine toxicity data is fundamentally flawed (with the lethal dose being between 10 and 20 times more than usually stated) and according to new research, second hand smoke exposure is not associated with lung cancer.
  • These mistruths were believed for so long because anti-smoking ideology drives public and even scientific thinking about nicotine and tobacco.
  • E-cigarettes are the latest chapter in this distortion of science by zealots, who conduct flawed research and even appear to specifically construct studies or misappropriate statistics to suit their pre-conceived ideas.
  • Opposition to e-cigarettes is based on a core, un-falsifiable belief that there is some component (that studies just haven’t found yet) that makes e-cigarettes as dangerous as combusted tobacco or proves they’re a gateway to smoking, or anything that conforms their anti-nicotine ideology.


The Scientific Method and Falsification


Virtually everybody knows the scientific method, but it’s worth repeating here, because rigorous adherence to this method is how we gain new knowledge.


The five steps can be summarized as: 1) observe the real world, 2) come up with a hypothesis to explain an observed peculiarity, 3) make a falsifiable prediction based on that hypothesis, 4) test it, 5) and then see if others can reproduce the results of your test. If your hypothesis is shown to be wrong, then you have to come up with a new hypothesis or alter your old one and see if that works.


Karl Popper, a philosopher of science, was interested in how we can separate true sense from nonsense dressed up as science, otherwise known as pseudoscience.


The answer he came up with was that making falsifiable predictions is the hallmark of true science. A scientific prediction – the speed of light in a vacuum is always 299,792,458 meters per second, and that is the fastest anything can travel – could be proven to be wrong pretty simply (by finding something that travels faster), whereas an unscientific claim – an omniscient and omnipotent deity created the universe – is impossible to prove wrong.


If you don’t find God beyond the clouds, it’s because he lives beyond the stars, and so on until supporters are left to claim that God exists in a dimension we can never experience, outside our universe, or wherever we can’t see.


Ideology and Pseudoscience


The problem with mixing ideology and science is that to successfully appraise reality you need to be willing to throw away that hopeless hypothesis, hold your hands up and admit you’re wrong, and then change your mind. The issue ideological people come up against is that if you run around claiming something in the absence of empirical proof, people correctly assume that you’re either fundamentally deluded or are simply lying. To try to convert people to your beliefs – or prevent people from sensibly abandoning them – you need to pretend that you’re doing science.


This is why there are things like Christian “scientists”; which is an oxymoron with the emphasis on moron. They grapple with issues like: if the universe was only created about 6,000 years ago, why can we see stars where the light has taken 13 billion years to reach us? The obvious answer, that the universe is much older than that, can’t be accepted by these people, and so they come up with vaguely scientific-sounding but absurd theories about how the speed of light has been getting slower since the creation of the universe, with no supporting evidence whatsoever.


Of course, religions fundamentalists aren’t the only culprits, but they clearly show the issues with taking ideological beliefs into a scientific discussion, if you aren’t willing to abandon them if they’re shown to be wrong.


Ideology is characterized by being entrenched a given position, cherry-picking data to suit your ends and even fundamentally abusing the scientific method to produce tests that – on the face of things – appear to support your hypothesis.


The widespread use of these techniques by groups such as homeopaths has led the Rational Wiki to propose an alternative scientific method used by those who “cheat” at science:


  1. Pick a personal belief that you want to ‘prove’ is true.
  2. Make new observations or experiments, and note the results.
  3. Think up some clever way by which to shoehorn your personal belief to said results.
  4. Falsely claim that your personal belief predicts the particular results, and that the observations/experiment confirmed your suspicions.


Sound familiar?


Meet the ANTZ…


ANTZ Anti Vaping ZealotsThe anti-nicotine and tobacco zealots, or ANTZ, are a strange breed of ideological group. Perhaps their parents smoked heavily and died of cancer, or maybe their quitting smoking was contingent on the notion that tobacco or nicotine in any form is the epitome of evil, but there is no doubt that this ideology exists.


E-cigarettes are by far the best example of this mania from anti-smoking groups, since – despite significant and undeniable evidence to the contrary – they continue to deny the fact that e-cigarettes are safer than cigarettes.


E-cigarettes are a technology that’s on their side, offering people an alternative to smoking with the potential to save millions of lives around the world, but because they look like cigarettes, they can’t bring themselves to see the evidence for what it really is.


SEE ALSO: Top 10 Logical Fallacies of Anti-Vaping Zealots


No big deal, right? So what if some idiots hate everything that resembles smoking – doesn’t the evidence speak for itself? Well, not really.


Firstly, journalists are responsible for telling people about the evidence, and they are prone to parroting information from press releases, pursuing political goals and outright misunderstanding the studies they’re talking about.


Secondly, and more importantly, ideological attitudes are dressed up as science. The anti-smoking movement is an area rife with pseudoscience, where researchers appear to follow the alternative scientific method as opposed to the actual one. The ideologies spread like viruses, and infect both the public and scientific view of the issues.


Distorting the Evidence


The problem is very well illustrated by two particular stories relating to nicotine and smoking research. Second-hand smoke is a concern in the modern world, with smoke-free policies having become ubiquitous and the risks so routinely repeated that it’s impossible to avoid knowledge of them. Why then, has a recent, huge, study found no correlation between second-hand smoke exposure and lung cancer?


Apparently, the reason for this is that the evidence in favor of the harm associated with second-hand smoking was always incredibly weak. The studies that showed the strongest evidence of the association were performed using an extremely – and painfully obviously – flawed methodology. They were case-control studies, meaning that people who already had lung cancer but were non-smokers were specifically asked if they’d been exposed to second hand smoke, and then matched with people without lung cancer who served as the controls.


The problem is “recall bias,” in other words, if you have lung cancer but you don’t smoke, of course you’re going to remember that you were exposed to second-hand smoke. This is one reason they lie right towards the bottom of the hierarchy of evidence; the design just isn’t reliable enough.


The best forms of evidence are randomized controlled trials and systematic reviews of existing evidence, but it’s understandable that you can’t assign people at random to either be exposed to potentially carcinogenic second-hand smoke or breathe free. The next best thing is a cohort study, like the recent research on over 76,000 women finding no link between second hand smoke exposure and lung cancer. As Christopher Snowdon points out, similar evidence has been around for a long time, it just gets ignored because it threatens the overriding ideology. In fact, after the “dangers” of second-hand smoke were widely accepted by society, research pretty much stopped.


Even on the recent study, the authors pointed out “borderline” statistical significance for women living with a smoker for over 30 years, but Snowdon refutes this notion by pointing out that such a thing doesn’t exist. In this specific case, the imprecision in the figures and the fact the group’s incidence overlapped with the expected incidence of lung cancer in the “control” population means that it cannot be considered a significant result.


It’s undeniable that the reason it was given the imaginary quality of “borderline” significance by the researchers is because a completely null finding wholly contradicts the status quo. Like the Christian scientists claiming that light used to be faster than it is today to protect their young Earth conjecture, they feel like the conclusion they want to draw can be obtained if you squint enough while looking at contradictory facts. Forbes reports one of the researchers claiming that because only 4,000 participants hadn’t been exposed to second-hand smoke, it was hard to “tease out the difference.” If you’re trying to “tease out” a difference, it probably just doesn’t exist.


Another thing you often hear is how nicotine is the most toxic substance known to man. This is the sort of thing that anti-smoking zealots love, because they can say things like “nicotine is more poisonous than arsenic.”


Many sources of information still claim that 60 mg of nicotine is enough to kill an adult. These facts are accepted based on what toxicological sleuth Bernd Mayer refers to as “circular and often misleading references” which ultimately trace back to some dubious experiments from the 19th century. He cites evidence of people surviving after consuming considerably more than that, and points to reports of much higher blood nicotine levels measured in people who did die, ultimately suggesting that it would probably take more like 500 mg to 1000 mg to kill an adult.


The assumed toxic dose of nicotine has survived for over 100 years. Mayer’s article was published late last year, and although he cites other researchers questioning the figure in 1995 and 2005, it’s hard to think of such an extreme claim surviving in any other field of science for quite so long.


Again, it’s not an easy thing to test (you can’t risk poisoning somebody just to check a fact), but case studies throughout the 20th century should have led to widespread questioning of the accepted toxicity (particularly when based on such a weak source). But it seems like when smoking is concerned, the facts are just routinely hidden. People are just happy to repeat ultimately unsupported and fear-inducing statements without investigating any further, because it suits their ideology.


It’s hard to imagine a truly objective observer looking at the following toxicity doses for nicotine – dogs: 9.2 mg/kg, mice: 3.3 mg/kg, rats: 50 mg/kg, humans: 0.8 mg/kg – and not suspecting that something isn’t quite right. In fact, if you were a scientist in the field and were following the scientific method, you’d notice the peculiarity and investigate to see if there was a hypothesis which explained the discrepancy sufficiently well. When you found that there was none, you’d consider proposing one and testing it. You might investigate some dead ends, but you’d eventually stumble across the answer: the estimate is just wrong. This is how science is supposed to work; but something about nicotine and tobacco seems to slow progress somewhat, and that something is the over-riding anti-smoking ideology.


E-Cigarettes Are Just the Latest Chapter


Vaping e-cigs at New York City Council meeting to ban e-cig useRegardless of this, the anti-smoking zealots have won. They’ve already got smoking banned from public places, and most people are still unaware that the nicotine toxicity data is wrong. E-cigarettes come onto the market – a technology invented specifically to help people enjoy nicotine without the associated risks and hopefully quit smoking altogether – and the ANTZs’ knee-jerk response is fear, hatred and unsupported lies.


They’re fighting a hopeless battle because they’re literally incapable of distancing themselves from this ideological view and seeing the technology for what it really is.


The Rational Wiki quotes a particularly relevant line from Samuel Birley Rowbotham, referencing the famously deluded fictional “knight-errant” Don Quixote:


Quixotism is a folly when the energy which might have achieved conquests over misery and wrong, if rightly applied, is wasted in fighting windmills.


With smoking, the cases of rank distortion of evidence are few and far between, because smoking really is bad for you. With e-cigarettes and vaping, there are abundant examples of complete nonsense, in the form of stupid argumentslogical fallacies, and, worst of all, pieces of research which report unsupported conclusions or are arguably specifically designed to obtain them.


In short, e-cigarettes have divided the once unified anti-smoking researchers; some of them are smart enough to tell when something is on their side and the others aren’t.


Adult vapersDr. Stanton Glantz was a researcher on a cross-sectional study which looked at Korean adolescents, and although the study was merely a snapshot of tobacco use at one period of time (which means there is no hope of determining cause and effect from it), still claimed that it proved “e-cigarettes are a new route to smoking addiction for adolescents.” Dr. Michael Siegel was so aggravated by this misrepresentation of the findings that he asked why they even bother to do the studies, “If we are going to simply conclude what we want to conclude, regardless of the ability of the science to reach such a conclusion, then what’s the point of doing the research in the first place?”


His satirical end-of-year post echoed this, and fits well with “the pseudoscientific method” from earlier, “The purpose of tobacco control research is to demonstrate preconceived conclusions. If the research does not support those conclusions, make up some excuse or draw those conclusions anyway.”


The core of the anti-vaping movement is based on one core premise which is impossible to falsify: “because they look similar to cigarettes, there is something, somewhere in e-cigarette vapor that is going to do serious harm to users, and we only don’t know what it is yet because they haven’t been researched enough.”


You might offer a systematic review of existing chemical studies, showing the contents of vapor as recorded by numerous objective assessments, or toxicological evidence of no harm to cells, but the response is the same, “they could still be dangerous because we still don’t know enough.” It seems scientifically-minded to say we need more evidence, but in fact, the only way you could possibly show this repetitive, God-is-somewhere-you-can’t-see style argument to be untrue is by thoroughly investigating every element of every possible way e-cigarette could cause harm. They have no evidence of harm in support of their view, just the irrefutable and therefore unscientific hypothesis that “there is a serious risk we’ve just not uncovered yet.”


Conclusion: Ideology Corrupts Science and Infects Public Thinking


Whether it leads anti-smoking groups to continually claim that there isn’t enough evidence of the relative safety of e-cigs with all the impotent determination of a climate change skeptic or drives respected researchers to just pretend that their data supports their intended conclusion, the anti-smoking ideology will continue to be a barrier to the acceptance of vaping. Their views infect news coverage and have been influential on public policy, but the more and more these ideas are refuted, we see something rotten at the core of tobacco control research.


A fabricated study is more than a bit of statistical trickery for legislative strong-arming. It’s a news headline, one picked up by smokers – perhaps idly considering quit attempts with e-cigs – who read something like “e-cigs contain as much formaldehyde as cigarettes” (without learning that the methodology in that piece of research was criminally unrealistic), decide to continue smoking and go on to die of a related illness.


If we want smokers to not die, journalists, ordinary people, politicians and researchers need to see “evidence” presented by biased sources, outright unsupported statements and flawed pieces of research as what they are: ideology dressed up as science.


Also read:


  • catvapes

    This is an excellent article, Thank you for taking the time to think it out and write it. This is something people who read anti-e-cig articles should post a link to in the comment section if there is one.

  • Josh Lewis

    I enjoyed reading the article. Thanks for sharing. Anti-smoking groups and many city councils are just assuming that ecigs are a major threat which needs to be curbed. Whereas they do not have any solid evidence to support their assumption. This is doing no good to anyone.

  • keith stammers

    Stanton Glantz was a failed aerospace engineer so what authority or knowledge he has over tobacco control or Electronic cigarettes I do wonder, other than his research was financed by the Pharmas to promote their products and eliminate competition. The flat earth society will always exist, trying to justify their bogus beliefs and stave off their imminent redundancy. Keep in mind half these anti tobacco lobbies and tobacco harm reduction pretenders probably got their qualifications writing a bogus thesis if they admitted it was false at this stage they would be stripped of their credentials and would have to return to employment at KFC serving family buckets of chicken to obese ex tobacco harm reduction employees.

  • Spazmelda Whee

    This is one of the best summaries of this issue that I have read. Excellent job! Have you considered submitting this to any media outlets?

  • Lee Johnson

    Thanks everyone! It would be great to get this (or something similar) in a media outlet, yeah, because I do think this is the type of thing people really need to know. These people are either liars or are incredibly incompetent. In either case, people need to stop listening to them. The real challenge is picking apart the issues with studies and actually researching the topic properly, which I guess many journalists just don’t really bother to do, and they ultimately educate a large proportion of the public on issues like this.

    I had no idea Glantz was a failed aerospace engineer – that’s quite a career change! Big Pharma funding is definitely part of the issue, but I suppose undeclared conflicts of interest are a pretty hard thing to stamp out. In a way, though, all people need to learn to do is evaluate these claims before taking them on board. That’s easier said than done, though, as Keith Stammers said – “the flat earth society will always exist.”

  • Mag01

    “With smoking, the cases of rank distortion of evidence are few and far between, because smoking really is bad for you.”

    There is a major problem with vapers. Many seem to believe that anti-tobacco just started lying when e-cigs came on the scene. Now, really, what do you think is the probability of that? Vapers, just like many smokers, need to learn a lot more about history and the peculiarities and dangers of moralizing zealotry. The actual history of antismoking is one of incessant, pathological lying. The only interest of zealots is to get bans instituted – by whatever means, and then to maintain bans – by whatever means. Indeed, there are risks associated with smoking. But in the hands of antismoking fanatics/zealots and their exclusive reliance on highly inflammatory language the risks are typically peddled out of context and in many instances are incredibly distorted.

  • Mag01

    I have a few comments of historical importance awaiting moderation. Thanks.

  • Peem Birrell

    Unfortunately my own subject, statistics, has provided the ideologues with a methodology (meta-analysis) which allows them to dodge refutation by falsification, and they certainly use it – not just on tobacco but alcohol and other ‘everyday hazards’.

    • Peem, people who know statistics can attack them effectively when they use those stats to lie though. That new ETS study where they claimed there was a finding of “borderline significance” showing the threat of secondary smoke is a great example. The “borderline significant” figure contained 1.0 within the confidence interval. As a statistician you KNOW that that’s a lie, true? Shouldn’t statisticians everywhere be jumping up and down on them about that?

      Keith and Lee: all through the 90s most people believed Glantz was a full medical doctor. The people on early internet usenet groups who claimed he was just a mechanical engineer were laughed at and accused of being Big Tobacco plants. It wasn’t until his CV was plainly available for everyone to see on the Web that his “Dr.” status began to be seriously and widely questioned. Unfortunately, by that point, he’d started bringing some very serious money into the University he worked at. Somehow, quite coincidentally I’m sure, the University decided to bolster his credibility by granting him a “Professor of Medicine” position despite his lack of an MD. Did tens of millions of dollars in past, present, and future grants play any role in that decision? I can’t really say I’m familiar enough with the university politics to have any weighty opinion on that sort of thing, but I’d certainly have my suspicions.

      – MJM

      • Lee Johnson

        That is insane – thanks very much for sharing! I know this type of thing happens in all fields, but it seems so disgraceful from academic institutions – “Oh what, this guy? Yeah, he’s not a real doctor but we pretend because he makes us money” – I don’t know about university politics either, but no matter how awful you are at mathematics you can see that 2 + 2 = 4, so I’m pretty sure we can safely assume they are corrupt assholes.

      • btw… to avoid confusion: I’m sure the University itself knew his status/credentials, but folks who just read news articles about him generally just saw the “Dr.” appellation without any qualifications attached to it. He’d actually taken a postgraduate course or two in the mechanics of heart valves or somesuch so some articles simply referred to him as a “Cardiologist.” See


        from 1999, and, more recently, from 2013:


        – MJM

  • Alan Selk

    “Opposition to e-cigarettes is based on a core, un-falsifiable belief that there is some component (that studies just haven’t found yet) that makes e-cigarettes as dangerous as tobacco”

    “E-cigarettes are by far the best example of this mania from anti-smoking groups”

    There is some real doubt as to wether e-cigs are the best example of the ideology driven agenda of the ANTZ. The best example is smokeless tobacco. The misinformation on smokeless tobacco has been going on for decades to where it is an excepted fact that smokeless tobacco is just as risky as smoking. Even among e-cig advocates there is the false idea that vaping is significantly less harmful then smokeless tobacco (or even slightly more harmful then vaping).

    The first quote above is a good example of the author falling for the lies of the ANTZ by saying “as dangerous as tobacco” instead of “as dangerous as smoking”. It is a very common tactic of the zealots and the author has fallen for it.

    There is a difference between being a electronic cigarette advocate and supporting tobacco harm reduction. By implying that tobacco is the problem the vaping community is really no better then the ANTZ to the nine million of so ST users in the US.

    • Lee Johnson

      I completely agree with you that there’s more evidence of this type of thing for smokeless tobacco, and by saying “as dangerous as tobacco” I didn’t intend to insinuate any danger from smokeless tobacco – I assumed it would be implied that I was referring to smoking. The low smoking rates and the lack of increased oral cancer rates e.t.c. in Sweden are more than enough evidence of the benefits of smokeless tobacco, not to mention the research published on the topic. However, the quantities of nitrosamines in e-cigarettes are considerably lower than in smokeless tobacco, so (even though smokeless tobacco obviously isn’t dangerous, and nitrosamines are still in tiny quanities) it does seem *more* ridiculous in this case (and also, it’s an e-cig website so the focus is inherently there). I don’t think a lack of verbal precision constitutes falling for zealous propaganda, and I very much support all forms of not only tobacco harm reduction, but harm reduction overall.

      • Alan Selk

        It is a common tactic of zealots to go into a anti-smoking rant exposing the dangers of cigarettes, and then finish up with saying tobacco kills x number of people. It is used so often it is hardly noticed. Its part of the lie that all tobacco products are equally harmful. It’s a lie that keeps on killing.

        It is not at all clear that when you say tobacco you mean smoking, especially when the exact wording comes out of the tobacco control industry on a daily basis. Using the excuse that this an electronic cigarette blog is weak at best. It is not a question of some type of politically correct wording, it’s a question of being part of the lie or telling the truth.

        • Lee Johnson

          I completely see your point, but who are you opposing here? I’m on your side! I’ll happily make changes to the article to clarify, if it really does come across as “being part of the lie,” but given the content of the rest of the article, you would hardly assume we’re being taken in by zealous lies.

          In a way I really struggle to see the problem here, if I’m honest. It’s very much like using the word “that” to refer to a specific object because both participants in the conversation already know what’s being referred to. You don’t need to be precise about every single thing, because given the context (note that at no point in this article did I so much as mention smokeless tobacco) you can easily work out what is being referred to. I think because you’re aware that the wording comes from the tobacco control industry regularly, you’re seeing the same message contained here when it actually isn’t there, or at very least was wholly unintended.

  • Brilliant!

  • Beautifully done! :)

    And yes, the creation of there being a “huge dispute” about “the safety of e-cigs” is very, very much the same kind of nonsense that we see from the Antismokers about such things as thirdhand smoke poisoning people (Or even giving them breast cancer!) Stanton Glantz seems to be a firm believer in the concept that if you keep saying something, no matter how ridiculous it is when first said, that it WILL eventually become accepted as truth if you’ve got a large enough microphone and enough money to fuel the mega-speakers.

    To some extent Glantz and his ilk are correct: their campaigns over the years have convinced America that smoking in movies addicts half our youth, that low cigarette taxes (only 300% or so) addict half our youth, that lack of enforcement or implementation of properly set age laws (at 21) addict half our youth, that candy-flavored cigarettes addict half our youth, that glitzy packages with pretty colors like red, blue, and green addict half our youth, that allowing smoking in bars and restaurants addict half our youth … etc. Add up all the halves and anyone with more than a kindergarten education should get the idea that perhaps someone’s telling a little fibby… but they don’t. People, sadly, seem to just hear what’s repeated over and over to them in the media and articles like this one have to fight to get even a hundredth of the same exposure.

    The point Mag makes in his posting is very sound: Vapers need to study the tactics that have been used against smokers, see how and why the lies have worked in getting smoking bans passed, and see what tools Free Choice activists (aka “smoker activists”) have (unfortunately belatedly) developed in fighting them. Vapers have an organizational base and energy and belief that they can prevail that too few smokers have nowadays, but the two groups, working together, can fight more effectively than either group can alone.

    Spazmelda’s recommendation is a good one: do all you can to get this spread around!

    – MJM