Over the weekend, the Associated Press noted the approach of an important milestone: the 50th anniversary of the surgeon general’s “emphatic and authoritative report that said smoking causes illness and death – and the government should do something about it.”
As the article notes, the January 11, 1964, report was, in part, nothing new. A growing body of scientific evidence had been raising increasingly serious concerns about the destructive effects of smoking. But the tobacco industry had fought back, and effectively so, by raising doubts about the validity and conclusiveness of the research. Equally important to the persistence of the smoking habit, the industry spent millions of dollars on advertising, including advertising on that new and powerful medium, broadcast television, promoting cheery images of happy, healthy and successful men (and women) puffing away.
What was new was the process by which the report was developed and the strength of the conclusions it drew.
One of the tobacco industry’s favorite gambits was to accuse the authors of studies showing tobacco’s harmful effects of being biased against the industry. Quite possibly, some of them genuinely were “biased,” meaning that they had reached conclusions about smoking before conducting their studies. Some might even have been inclined to design their studies, or report their analyses, in such a way as to tip the scales unfairly against tobacco.
But such an attack on the authors, rather than the evidence, is a form of ad hominem attack, a logically invalid approach to argumentation. If the evidence is faulty, then it’s faulty . . . regardless of the character and motives of the author. If the evidence is sound, then it’s sound.
If one wants to challenge a study, in other words, then one should, in fact, challenge the study. One ought not to ignore the study and focus on the character of the author.
Of course, a wise reader (of anything, including this blog) pays attention to who the author is, what his/her credentials are, what sort of life experiences he/she has had that are relevant, where he/she stands on issues that are relevant, and where his/her funding comes from. Such information provides clues as to the likely quality of the analysis and the likely biases contained within it.
The power of U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry’s report in 1964 was rooted in his decision to assemble a diverse panel of experts to review the state of the science. To ensure that their conclusions would be respected, General Terry gave the tobacco industry the power to reject anyone he proposed for that panel.
So much for the industry’s ad hominem attacks.
When the report came out, it transformed the medical and public policy landscape. The percentage of the population that smoked decreased markedly (though millions still light up every day) and resulting deaths would decline as well. In terms of public policy, the overwhelming body of scientific evidence would both challenge and empower public officials to decide how, and how much, the government should combat a destructive habit. Among other things, it would lead to unprecedented governmental initiatives restricting commercial speech, not only to protect vulnerable children, but adults as well.
Because, in the end, we as a nation concluded that the science was sound, the public was at risk, and the government . . . our government . . . should do something about it.