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“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than dogmatists to prove them.  This is, of course, a mistake.  If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.  But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.”[1]

So spoke Bertrand Russell, a well respected philosopher.  Whilst smoking has nothing to do with philosophy or flying teapots, the point he made most certainly does.  What he is saying is that firstly, it is up to people with the claim to prove it, not those opposing the claim to disprove it, as a negative cannot be proved i.e. it cannot be proven smoking is not harmful, thus it is down to those who believe it is harmful to prove as much.  Russell then makes an equally important point: just because something cannot be disproved does not instantly make the claim true.  In other words, if someone like Stanton Glantz were to say “you cannot prove smoking is not harmful, therefore it is” then people would rightly tell him that is wrong.  However, because the anti-smoking crusaders have built up an impressive catalogue to prove smoking is harmful, everybody agrees that it is – despite the fact that hardly anyone of the public has actually read the studies, and despite the fact that they are entirely bogus. 

More perplexing is that when scientists emerge and say they are bogus or smoking has not been solidly linked to disease, people get up in arms and protest about how stupid that person is – but how would they know, without assessing the evidence for themselves?  All they are doing is believing the side with the loudest voice. 

One thing that I am aware of is that many people believe that smoking is harmful otherwise there would not be warnings on the packets.  Well, in part they are right – the warnings are on the packets because it is a commonly held belief that smoking is harmful, and there is a huge fuss about getting people to stop.  Then again, there are plenty of other things without health warnings that perhaps should have – for instance, cars do not come with a warning that a crash could paralyse or kill; junk food does not come with warnings of how it could damage health; alcohol, as of yet, does not have a warning stating the many problems abuse could lead to (though there are plans to get a government health warning on alcohol products). 

[1] taken from Dawkins, R 2006 The God Delusion Black Swan Books

This is a chapter sample.  The full chapter is not available to read online
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Chapter 12: Government Health Warnings on Tobacco Products