A Rationalist Approach to Risk Assessment

»I believe smoking bans are doing great damage, and not only economic damage. They promote intolerance, social tension and a ‘stool pigeon‘ culture. They ostracise a large and law-abiding segment of the population. They set a worrying precedent for all kinds of other social engineering. And they bring Nanny into Nightlife: the last place she belongs.«

Over at Plazeboalarm they celebrate (in German) an essay by Joe Jackson, Smoking, Lies and The Nanny State (PDF), and rightly so. He perfectly demonstrates a rationalist approach to risk assessment, which is based on fact rather than opinion and hidden agendas. He also demonstrates how real and unreal health risks can be abused politically and possibly lead to much worse an outcome even if the original risk fought was real.

Even though not everyone may agree with him, even if the factual basis of his essay were wrong (I didn’t verify his numbers yet), he reminds us of the virtue of skepticism. Even experts can be wrong. Terribly wrong, sometimes:

»It is has become ‘common knowledge’ that smoking is one of the worst things you can possibly do to yourself; ‘all the experts agree’. Of course, ‘all the experts’ once agreed that masturbation caused blindness, that homosexuality was a disease, and that marijuana turned people into homicidal maniacs. In the 1970s and 80s British doctors told mothers to put their babies to sleep face-down. Cot deaths soared, until a campaign by one nurse succeeded in changing this policy, which we now know to have claimed something like 15,000 lives.«

No matter how you feel about smoking, read his essay and try to grasp the many points he makes that are not immediately related to cigarettes and tobbacco but rather to rationalism and workable ways of running a society. A must-read for everyone. Conspiracy theories about the tobacco industry are not an acceptable excuse.