Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Looking for the Truth in a Pack of Lies

You know, I’m a big fan of the truth. Not the brutal, unvarnished truth like what AJ Jacobs did with his experiment in Radical Honesty, which he wrote about for Esquire back in 2007, and I definitely believe in lying in order to pull off a successful surprise for someone. I’m a big fan of the practical truth, the reasonable truth, the truth that’s not used in a hurtful manner.

Along with this goes the fact that I’m not a big fan of lying…except as I mentioned before, for the sake of pulling off a surprise party, or sparing someone’s feelings…or their life. And I have no problem with being “economical with the truth” from time to time. With this in mind, I really don’t need to tell the Nazis that I’ve got Anne Frank hiding in my attic (although I know of some people who believe that their obligation to always tell the truth would take them to just such extremes).

But what I hate most of all is lying in support of the truth…lying in support of something we think is good. I can’t buy this. I firmly believe that our noble goal should be able to stand on the truth, and not on outright lies or even a little bending of the truth. This is for both practical and philosophical reasons. One of the practical reasons is that if the people you’re trying to convince of your truth discover a lie, not a mistake, but an outright lie, in your argument, then they’re likely to dismiss everything else you’ve said.

And this is why I have a problem with so much of what we’ve said as we’ve tried to prevent people from smoking.

Yes, I know that smoking is a nasty habit. I know that it can kill you. But I also believe that hyperbole isn’t the way to get people to stop.

Let me start by taking a look at one of the best-known lies used in trying to fight smoking. This was the argument RJ Reynolds must be marketing cigarettes to children because more children recognized the “cartoon character” Joe Camel than Mickey Mouse. Even if this were true, it wouldn’t mean anything. Why? Because it’s quite possible that more children recognized Mr Clean than Mickey Mouse. Did that mean that Procter and Gamble is hawking cleaning products to children? I doubt it. And I don't recall seeing kids flocking to help their parents scrub that floor because Mr Clean made it look cool. But here’s the kicker…the actual situation was that more children recognized Joe Camel than the stylized Mickey Mouse outline logo for the Disney Channel. That’s something completely different, and when you ask yourself how many children got the Disney Channel at home, you can see where the problem…and the lie is.

And once you know about that lie, you start to wonder what other lies are being told in an effort stop smoking.

Then there’s the big lie…the lie that we non-smokers don’t realize is a lie, but that many smokers do. But wait, maybe this isn’t really a lie, perhaps while it’s an inaccuracy that’s simply not true. However, because many smokers know that this simply isn’t true, they don’t listen to us.

What is this lie? The “fact” that smoking causes lung cancer.

“Now wait a minute!” I hear you saying. “It’s an established fact that smoking causes lung cancer. So how can that be a lie?”

Very simple…it’s as much a lie as saying that crossing the street causes people to be hit by cars. Yes, had Johnny not been trying to cross the street, he wouldn’t have been hit by that Buick, but there isn’t a direct one-to-one correspondence between crossing the street and getting run over. Most people who cross the street don’t get hit. The same applies to smoking, and the smokers know it.

I was curious about this, so I checked it out on Wikipedia, and while roughly 80% of lung cancer deaths can be attributed to smoking, it’s not true that 80% of smokers get lung cancer. Instead, its occurrence in smokers is “only” about 14%. This means that 86% of smokers don’t get lung cancer.

So smokers aren’t deluding themselves when they say that their great-aunt Sally smoked all her life until she died in her sleep at age 92. In fact, my grandfather was a smoker, and died at age 86. Similarly, my father was a smoker, and died at age 80. As a result, when they hear us say that “smoking causes lung cancer,” as if there were a direct one-to-one correspondence, they tend to roll their eyes and ignore us, because they know it’s not true.

Then what is truth? The truth is that smoking increases your likelihood of getting lung cancer tenfold, from 1.4% to 14%. The truth is that smoking is a major factor in a number of other diseases, such as heart disease, emphysema, and stroke. Oh…and for you guys out there, it’s a key factor in erectile dysfunction. But again, while it greatly increases the likelihood of developing one of those problems, it is not a direct one-to-one correspondence. Many people…most people…do indeed cross the street every day…even in Midtown Manhattan…without getting hit by a car.

But…and here’s the important difference…you have to cross the street to get places. It’s a necessary risk. On the other hand, there is absolutely no reason why anyone needs to smoke.

Besides, as I learned when I was 19, kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray.

And that’s the truth.

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