Playing chess with pigeons

pigeons and chessBy: Christopher Labos MD CM FRCPC

I get a surprisingly large amount of hate mail when I advocate for such “radical” things like vaccinations, water fluoridation, and suntan lotion (yes even suntan lotion).  Some people just flat out insult me but some try to re-educate me with their version of the “evidence.”

A similar thing happened this week with the release of a document from an organization called Action on Smoking and Health, which has as its main goal to lobby for tighter restrictions on cigarette sales. Their report focused on the growing use of electronic cigarettes in the UK, which has tripled from 700,000 to about 2 million in the past 2 years. It has shown that electronic cigarettes are a very popular product in the UK and that most people are trying them as a means to quit smoking.

I had several problems with these assertions. Firstly, the sheer popularity of a product doesn’t make it a good idea.  There was of course a time when combustible cigarettes were very popular too. So I got on Twitter and pointed out that this report doesn’t actually provide any new evidence on the long term safety or effectiveness of this product from a medical standpoint.

What happened next was quite amazing. A flurry of e-cig supporters descended upon my post and started offering up “evidence” that e-cigs will “millions of lives” and that I was in the pocket of the big tobacco companies and wanted people to keep smoking. I calmly pointed out that the two biggest manufacturers of e-cigarettes, blu and Vuse, are owned by Lorillard and Reynolds, two of the biggest tobacco companies. Consequently the biggest promoter of e-cigarettes is the tobacco industry (note that Jenny McCarthy, the great luminary of our generation, has become the spokesperson of blu). This sparked apoplectic rage on Twitter where many claimed that what I said wasn’t true and that they were “fighting 4 lives now & future.”

I was then presented with a reference that the Royal College has stated “E-cigarettes will save lives, and we should support their use.” I looked up the reference and pointed out that it was actually an editorial written by a single person not a professional endorsement from the medical community. I was told in response, “What ever you wish to call it, the meaning is plain, Huge Health dividends can be had with Ecigs.” At this point I realized that I was wasting my time and that logic can seldom overcome this degree of idolatrous zealotry.

I remembered a quote that I heard a while back. It is attributed to Scott Weitzenhoffer in a review on Amazon of Eugenie Scott’s book “Evolution vs. Creationism: an introduction.” The quote was “Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon — it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory.” Numerous versions of the quote now exist and is often applied to Internet trolls and most other groups who can never change their minds despite evidence to the contrary.

The astute reader will realize that I’ve never actually said what I think about e-cigarettes. I am reserving final judgment on the products, but I have some concerns. First, the widespread marketing so clearly aimed at children (why else would you make the product in cotton candy and bubble gum flavour) is unsettling. Second, while everyone is talking about these products as smoking cessation one company states “blu eCigs® electronic cigarettes are not a smoking cessation product … nor are they intended to treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition.”   The companies have to state this in order to be able to market and sell their product without restrictions or governmental oversight. They let Twitter make the health claims for them.

Sadly, it may take over 10 years before we have enough data to see if e-cigarettes actually do make people quit smoking, reduce cancer incidence, or have any health benefits. Until then I will remain cautiously skeptical, as all good scientists should.

Although I suspect my new found friends on Twitter, (who are seldom right but never in doubt, as Joseph Dobrian put it) will not be so circumspect in their assumptions and continue to claim that their product is the greatest thing since sliced bread. So as they fly back to their flock to claim victory and I pick up the dropping covered chess pieces lying on the floor, I have learned a valuable lesson about arguing with people on the Internet: you can’t win against someone who doesn’t understand the rules.


Christopher Labos MD CM FRCPC

Division of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health

McGill University

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