Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Cigarettes, Sophistry, and David Hume

Ernest Partridge

December, 1967

Over the past few years, statistical, clinical, and experimental studies of the relationship between cigarettes and health have resulted in an almost unvarying succession of bad news to the cigarette smoker. Yet, with near-equal regularity, the spokesmen (“scientific” or otherwise) for the tobacco industry have replied with reassurance to the public. These responses have been both prompt and, by now, familiar in content. “or example, Mr. Timothy Hartnett of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (hereafter the TIRC) has insisted that "nobody has produced evidence proving that cigarette smoking causes cancer.”
1 Hartnett later charged that the 1957 disclosures by the British Medical Research Council, of the health hazards of smoking "represent opinions about a theory of cause and effect not confirmed by scientific experiments and widely challenged in the world of science.”2

In a New Yorker article describing his interviews with leading executives of the tobacco and advertising industries, Thomas Whiteside discloses a predictable agreement with the opinions of Mr. Hartnett and other spokesmen for the Council, John T. Landry of Phillip Morris is reported to have said “Nobody has ever shown anything conclusive about cigarettes and health -- lung cancer and all that. It just hasn’t been proved."
3 More tersely, from Mr. Robert B. Walker, the President of the American Tobacco Company, we hear that “the hypothesis about smoking (and health) has not been proved."4 And finally, Mr. Adolph J. Tiogo, the President of the Lennen and Newell advertising agency reminds us that “there is no proof -- no established proof -- of cigarettes being harmful."5

What, in fact, is the logical and the practical significance of these replies. In view of the sobering conclusions of the United States Surgeon General”s 1964 Report on Smoking and Health, what do these near-automatic responses by the tobacco companies and advertising offer the cigarette smoker in the way of reassurance and warrant to continue? Virtually none, it seems to me.

The sophistry of the TIRC might become more apparent if at first we ask them, and ourselves, a few basic questions: what is the meaning of a "causal connection" between smoking and these diseases, both to the research scientists, or again, to the TIRC? Must a necessary “causal connection" be proven in order to clearly demonstrate that cigarette smoking is a health hazard? Just what kind of evidence, if any, would satisfy the TIRC? In fact, can any scientific theory in principle pass the TIRC”s stiff standards of "proof"? And most of all, even if it is not “conclusive," how much weight does all of this evidence bear upon the practical question: Is cigarette smoking worth the hazard to my life and health?”

I propose to consider these questions, not from the point of view of science, but from that of Philosophy -- as a student of language, logic and scientific method. This approach seems particularly appropriate because the position of the tobacco industry appears to have been sophistical rather than scientific; seemingly exploiting popular misconceptions about scientific procedure, causation and evidence, and catering to the understandable desire of millions of smokers for easy reassurance.

The burden of the TIRC case seems to rest upon a challenge to the scientists to demonstrate "conclusively" (i.e. to "prove") a necessary "causal connection" between cigarette smoking and lung cancer and other diseases. The argument of the eighteenth century philosophy, David Hume, essentially accepted by most philosophers of science and working scientists, would seem to invalidate this challenge. From a carefully reasoned argument, Hume concluded that our conception of causation is derived from our experience of "conjoined phenomena" and not through our direct perception of necessary “causal connections.” Following Hume’s example; while we notice the wax melt as we heat it, we do not perceive the “cause” as such. We see merely the event of the heating followed by the event of the melting wax. As this experience is repeated, we then come to conclude that the heat causes the melting. Indeed, the invariable correlation of these events comes to mean the "cause.” Says Hume:

When we look about us towards external objects, and consider the operation of causes, we are never able, in a single instance, to discover any power or necessary connexion; any quality, which binds the effect to the cause, and. renders the one an infallible consequence of the other. We only find, that the one does actually, in fact, follow the other. . . . There is not, in any single, particular instance of cause and effect, any thing which can suggest the idea of power or necessary connexion."6

From our repeated experience of "conjoined” events, and our statistical and experimental studies thereof, we presume a “connection” to exist. Such is the basis of a scientific demonstration of causation as most scientists and philosophers of science will agree. And thus, this necessarily is the basis of the studies which have indicated a health hazard in smoking.

But perhaps the industry does not ask for a demonstration of a "necessary connection in Hume's sense; rather they ask for a thoroughgoing "scientific" account of the alleged biochemical changes in the cell that result from an exposure to certain components of cigarette smoke. If so, then we must apparently concede that this “clear connection" is not known, however important such knowledge might be to medical science. Nonetheless, this mystery does not invalidate the clear statistical evidence that cigarette smoking does increase the chances of contracting lung cancer or certain other diseases.

Consider an analogous case; Almost any child knows, by direct experience, that if his hand touches a very hot object, his hand will be burned. He knows this, although he has not touched every possible hot object. Yet only the physiologist begins to understand the complex physical-.chemical-neurological phenomena that attend this event, and in fact much mystery remains in this matter. However, this medical mystery in no way encourages the child to touch another hot stove. So too we may know very well that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer without fully knowing how this happens. But the analogy is incomplete; unlike cigarette smoking, no pleasure and no social approbation attends a burned hand. Moreover, no multi-billion dollar industry depends upon a public compulsion to be burned, nor are millions of dollars spent on advertising messages to daily persuade us to partake of that particular act of masochism.

So much for the demand to exhibit the "necessary connection." Let us now examine the next challenge of the industry: "Are the results of these studies conclusive?" For practical purposes they apparently are. In an absolute sense, they are not, no can they be for these studies are the results of empirical research. But by the same token, the law of gravitation is not "conclusive” for all falling objects have not been examined, nor can we be absolutely assured that falling objects will behave in the future as they have in the past. As Hume observed: The bread, which I formerly ate, nourished me; . . . but does. it follow, that other bread must also nourish me at another time. . . ? The consequence seems no wise necessary."
7  Yet we refrain from jumping out of windows, albeit the law of gravitation is not "absolutely" certain. We retire at night confident of the "unproven" assumption that the sun will rise as usual in the morning.

We can carry this point every further: the Surgeon General’s conclusions are fallible, as in a sense they must be if they are to be at all meaningful. "Fallible," but not "false." By this I mean that a meaningful hypothesis must not only affirm, but it must deny as well. It cannot simply be true for every conceivably possible world, but must be shown to be conceivably false though actually true for the world of facts as encountered by the scientist. And so the Report must allow us to conceive of experiments that would render its findings false -- and it must be demonstrated that such conceivable refutations have not been borne out by investigation. Any casual reader of the report will discover that it meets this test of fallibility admirably. Of course, the list of possible refuting experiments can be extended forever. And though we employ several million scientists to study the effects of smoking for several generations, we cannot in principle deny the conceivability that the next study will refute the hypothesis. -- we must not deny it, if the hypothesis is to have meaning. In this sense, then, the cigarette-cancer theory is "inconclusive.

In this sense, Harvey's theory of the circulation of the blood, and Pasteur's germ theory of disease are also “inconclusive." But of course, in the work of science the point is commonly reached at which a theory is accepted as true beyond reasonable doubt.” The question of “fallibility" then becomes just another logical problem to the philosopher of science -- and another red herring for the sophist.

In response to such sophistry, one need only ask: “Just what sort of evidence would convince you of a “necessary connection" between cigarette smoking and lung cancer?" "What sort of demonstration would you accept as “conclusive”?" There seems to be little evidence that the TIRC is prepared to answer such questions in a manner that will not expose their sophistry.  If, then, they are unprepared at the outset to accept any conceivable "proof," what business have they in posing these challenges?

If it is to be granted that the evidence against smoking must, in principle, be logically “inconclusive," what practical difference does this make in view of the enormous statistical evidence from countless studies, of a concomitance of smoking to lung cancer and other chronic diseases? The theoretical difference between high probability and certainty should make virtually no practical difference. Only a few years ago, a boy survived a plunge over Niagara Falls. Thus we have clear evidence that such a mishap does not bring certain death. The hypothesis: ”If I am swept over Niagara Falls, I will be killed," is not “conclusive." Yet no sane person who values his life will casually swim in the Niagara River rapids above the Falls. Not even a sophist will carelessly expose himself to probable -- but not certain -- loss of life, simply because he has a "chance" of survival -- not if the danger is clear and present. The alternative to a “conclusive proof” of risk may be an “overwhelming probability:" A prudent person will respond to such a high probability of danger as if it were a certainty. This seems a clear point of immediate personal concern to every cigarette smoker. One may not expect to hear it raised by the TIRC

In summary, medical science is necessarily (though not entirely) inductive. From a controlled study of samples, the scientist arrives at conclusions concerning all cases. When his predictions are verified unerringly and rival hypotheses are refuted, we then have substantial scientific knowledge. This approach has supplied knowledge which is firm enough to warn us of many of the present hazards to our health. To ask any specific scientific inquiry to meet additional and impossible criteria of proof -- criteria that are ill-defined at that -- is to engage in clear and simple sophistry.

The fundamental standards of sound inquiry were well stated by Hume:

If we take in our hand any volume . . . let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No.. Commit it then to the flames; for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.8

On both counts, the Surgeon General's Report should not only be spared from the flames, but should be seriously considered by all cigarette smokers.

The TIRC argument that no "necessary connection” Has been found is, strictly speaking, correct. It is also trivial and irrelevant. The same argument would invalidate any empirical scientific law. Nonetheless, upon this astonishing conception of scientific method, they have established their strategy: (1) Take a seemingly reasonable request for "conclusive" evidence -- a request which, in fact, is vague and which is in logical and scientific principle, impossible to answer. That is to say, present a challenge which need never be -- in fact can never be fully met. (2) Broadcast the necessary ”failure" after each new item of evidence against smoking is released, thus suggesting that the whole enterprise is inconclusive and unproductive. A smoking public, eager for justification) and an industry eager to preserve its profits, will be over grateful.

As, to be sure, they have been.

Ernest Partridge
University of Utah.

PS (2012):  See also my "Is Science Just Another Dogma?"


1. The Consumers Union Report on Smoking and the Public Interest, Mount Vernon, New York, Consumers Union, 1963, p. 109. (My italics)

2. The Consumers Union Report on Smoking and the Public Interest, Mount Vernon, New York, Consumers Union, 1963, p. 109. (My italics)

3. Thomas Whiteside, "A Cloud of Smoke “ The New Yorker, November 30, 1963, p. 96.

4. Thomas Whiteside, “A Cloud of Smoke,” The New Yorker, November 30, 1963, p.105-6.

5. Thomas Whiteside, “A Cloud of Smoke,” The New Yorker, November 30, 1963, p.108.

6. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding, Chapter VII, Part I.

7. Hume, Enquiry... , Chapter IV, Part 2.

8. Hume, Enquiry... Chapter XII, 3.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .