Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

Pauline Esther Phillips was an American advice columnist who answered letters to the San Francisco Chronicle using the name of Abigail Van Buren. Writing gossip columns was her job, and she knew almost as much about statistics as your nail technician. “Dear Abby” statistics are awash in ignorance and presented ass-backwards. They’re statistics provided by numerically disadvantaged people who wouldn’t know a fact if you hit them over the head with it. 

Last week the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece that has Harry Anslinger grinning in his grave

They included the oft-cited statistic so old it has whiskers:

This is a textbook example of fearmongering, the term for deliberately spreading frightening rumors to sway public opinion. The long-ago discredited gateway theory” was built on that single completely wrongheaded statistic and as a result, many uniformed people believe marijuana use unfailingly leads to heroin addiction.

The premise is that people who use mood-altering substances progress through a linear sequence of stages beginning with socially and legally acceptable psychotropics (caffeine, alcohol and nicotine), then cannabis, then heroin. Following that rationale, it is easy to see most heroin users can be said to have begun their addictions by using caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, making them gateway drugs, too.

Few call for the banning of caffeine or nicotine, but 100 years ago the United States banned the drinking of alcohol

As most people know, one of the unintended consequences of Prohibition (1920-1933) was the growth of organized crime. Most people do not know, however, the other unintended consequence was the passing of a law that made cannabis illegal.

Proselytizers are those who attempt to convert others to their way of thinking

Some are willing to spread misinformation to achieve their ends, none more so than Harry Anslinger, head of the Bureau of Prohibition.

With the upcoming repeal of the 18th Amendment, Harry got himself appointed as the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Knowing his vast prohibition bureaucracy would no longer be necessary, he needed a new demon to pursue. He chose cannabis because it was used mostly by two groups unlike to put up much of a fuss: ethnic minorities and jazz musicians. After getting some how-to advice from famed yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst, Anslinger set out on a fearmongering campaign.

With such notorious propaganda films as Reefer Madness, now a cult classic, Anslinger lied to Americans, claiming that “marihuana is the most violent drug in the history of mankind” and blamed it for causing insanity, sex crimes, and murder. A diehard racist, Harry also claimed it made what he called the “degenerate races” (blacks, Hispanics, and Filipinos) “forget their place in society and think they’re as good as white men.​”

Axe-grinders are those who have strong opinions based upon ulterior motives

Take Parents Opposed to Pot, for example, a well-meaning organization whose philosophy is clearly stated in their name. According to their website, the gateway hypothesis cannot be denied because the math demonstrates a connection between marijuana use and heroin use. Yes, there is a connection between the two, just as there is a connection between heroin use and the use of soft drinks, potatoes, telephones and toothpaste. A wonderful example of unintended irony, their site has an entire section devoted to what they call the lies and propaganda promulgated by anyone who doesn’t see things the way they do.

Gateway drugs

For the gateway drug hypothesis to hold any water, cannabis use must lead to heroin use more often than not, so let’s do some simple division and see for ourselves. Readily available data indicate about 25 million U.S. adults smoke marijuana and about 1 million are heroin users. This means only about 4% of marijuana users use heroin, which completely contradicts the marijuana-as-gateway-to-heroin argument. Statisticians know if you want to determine cause-and-effect, you put the cause (the independent variable) first and the effect (the dependent variable) second. When you do this, you see that 96% of cannabis users do not use heroin. A favorite example of the ludicrousness of selling correlation as causality is Marriage Causes Divorce.

After all these years, the erroneous conclusion that marijuana use leads to heroin use remains all the evidence statistical illiterates believe they need to conclude causality

You would hardly expect the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal to be lacking in numeracy, the mathematical equivalent of literacy. But no one sensible person maintains the “gateway theory” leads nearly every cannabis user into heroin addiction.

The crucial takeaway for users of information is this – the people who control the flow of information in most organizations know so little about what constitutes correlation and causation that they draw upside-down and ass-backward conclusions just like Abby and the WSJ – and you are unaware they’re doing it. 

A friend bought a motorcycle

His mother had read most motorcycle accidents occurred during the first six months of ownership. Unaware that those accidents were not related to the calendar (correlation), but to the new rider’s inexperience (causation), her advice to him was to put it in the garage and not ride it for six months.

Want to look at old things in new ways, see the commonplace in more detail and hear complicated subject matter explained in simple terms?

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