Of Cigarette Ads and Squirrel-minded Columnists

April 30, 2008 by  

According to Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner:

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty wants to ban “power walls” – the large displays of cigarette packs found in corner stores.

Near the beginning of his column, Gardner refers to an April 23, 2008 editorial in Maclean’s magazine, which rightly trashed the plan as one founded not on science, but on “political symbolism”. Thus, when I read his column today, I initially thought it looked promising enough to merit my continued attention. I was wrong.

I’ll address the key problems with it one-by-one.

Gardner’s assessment starts off with his conclusion:

But this time, Mr. McGuinty is right. There are solid, empirical reasons to believe the display of cigarettes in corner stores promotes a habit that is the leading cause of preventable death.

In support of his assertion that a display promotes a habit, Gardner relates a finding that people from different social or economic circles in Norway tend to smoke different brands of cigarette, having different packages. Like wearing name-brand labeled clothing instead of unlabeled clothing, the carrying of cigarette packages allows others to make somewhat reliable inferences about the social or economic circle to which the holder of the package belongs. I cannot imagine that anyone finds such a finding anything other than obvious (Gardner calls it “startling”) but, more to the point, Gardner draws an illogical conclusion from that finding. He implies that the fact that some people favour one cigarette package over another is evidence that packaging causes them to buy cigarettes. That’s like saying: the fact that some people prefer a city packaged as “The Big Apple”, and others prefer a city packaged as “Hollywood North”, is evidence that city packaging causes people to live somewhere. The fact that different people prefer different brands of cigarette (for whatever reason) is not evidence that branding caused them to purchase cigarettes per se.

Continuing his case for a ban on cigarette displays, Gardner then turns to cognitive psychology and brain science:

Imagine there’s a squirrel in your backyard. Will it flee when you walk in? If it has never been in your backyard before, or if it has never seen you before, it will. But if it often spends time in your backyard and it has repeatedly encountered you, it may not be alarmed in the slightest by your presence. It may even be so bold as to run across your toes or take nuts from your hand.

This process, known as habituation, is the result of some very basic cognitive wiring in the squirrel’s brain. Like most animals, we have the same wiring.

(emphasis added)

No, we don’t. Man has neither a squirrel’s brain nor a squirrel’s mind (the first implies the second). Mr. Gardner’s column notwithstanding, the mind of a squirrel is not capable of composing a newspaper column. Unlike any other animal on earth, man’s unique and defining attribute is his capacity (if often unused) for rational thought. Unlike a squirrel, man does not and cannot survive on instinct. Just as squirrels lack the capacity to survive by making rational decisions, man lacks the capacity to live by instinct.

Pulling out all the stops, Gardner then turns to epistemology:

And so it is no surprise that researchers who study risk perception have found over and over that novelty boosts perceived risk while familiarity diminishes it. Displaying cigarettes prominently at the local corner store is a very good way of making them familiar.

Perception is an automatic processing of sense data. Risk, per se, cannot be sensed. It cannot be seen, smelled, tasted, heard or felt. Consequently, risk cannot be perceived. “Risk perception” is an invalid concept.

With his squirrel example, Gardner is erroneously equivocating amongst the conceptual (risk), the perceptual (e.g., seeing something entering yard), and the emotional (e.g., fear). That equivocation betrays an unwarranted Platonic or Behavioristic assumption on Gardner’s part: that, in the human mind, concepts are innate or can be created by an automatic, non-rational process.

Gardner continues:

…novelty boosts perceived risk while familiarity diminishes it. Displaying cigarettes prominently at the local corner store is a very good way of making them familiar…

Another core finding of cognitive psychology is that affect – emotions, whether experienced consciously or unconsciously – is far more influential than we realize. It’s particularly important to risk perception: Bad feelings boost perceived risk, while good feelings do the opposite.

Thus, according to Gardner, novel perceptions are automatically feared more, and that automatic fear in turn creates an automatic cognitive assessment that risk is high. Implying that the relation between fear and risk is automatic and unmediated by logical thought, Gardner is equivocating between between emotion and cognition. In other words, he is saying that concepts are formed not by a rational process of thought, but by emotion.

Gardner continues:

Another excellent way to create positive feelings is to forge positive associations…tobacco companies…put up a wall of cigarettes in a place where teenagers buy pop and potato chips and smiling parents treat their children to lollipops.

This is utter nonsense. On Gardner’s analysis, once those “positive associations” with cigarette packages are established, a wall of cigarettes will cause (even non-smoking) teenagers to buy pop and potato chips, and will cause (even non-smoking) smiling parents to treat their children to lollipops. Ought we then to ban the display of pop, potato chips and lollipops? Ought we to ban teenagers and smiling parents from variety stores? Surely, on the man-as-squirrel theory presented by Gardner, either of these measures would reduce the likelihood that people would build up “positive associations” with cigarette packages.

So, let’s get to “B.F.” Gardner’s summation:

If most people rarely or never encounter cigarettes, they will become strange. Positive feelings and associations will fade. Perceived risk will rise….Whatever the political symbolism involved, that’s science. And politicians are right to act on it.

Putting aside the issue of whether people will become strange if they rarely or never encounter cigarettes (grammar, I suppose, does not exist in a purely associative mind incapable of making rational choices): correlation is not causation, “empirical reasons” are no replacement for rational thought, and the science does not indicate that we are no better than squirrels at making judgments of risk.

I’ve got some suggestions for the Ottawa Citizen:

  1. Print Gardner’s columns much less frequently (Gardner’s political column is currently published three times per week).
  2. When you do print his columns, ensure that there is nothing but bad news and disturbing photos juxtaposed with them. Get rid of the babes in bikinis encouraging us to vacation in Mexico, and the news about the existence of a monthly Weddings insert.

That way, Gardner’s anti-rational assessments of the human mind, and his twisted support for violations of peoples liberty and property will be “denormalized” amongst the squirrel-brained; they will “become strange. Positive feelings and associations will fade. Perceived risk will rise.” We’ll all be a lot safer, as a result.


2 Responses to “Of Cigarette Ads and Squirrel-minded Columnists”

  1. Amlan Gupta on April 30th, 2008 5:00 pm

    I live in Ottawa and scan through some parts of the Citizen, particularly the op ed pages. In general, Dan Gardner’s columns are well thought out and researched. He usually attempts to put forward rational, objective arguments.

    Accordingly, it was very disappointing to read this article today. We need as many people as we can who will put forward rational arguments because we all know how thin on the ground such people are in the main stream media. I hope that Dan will get back on course.

  2. Debbie on May 29th, 2008 4:45 pm

    The cigarette display ban is just around the corner now, and according to the CBC only half of the 10,000 convenience store owners will be ready. Unfortunately, they have not found the ideal storage system to install in their store, and as a result those that are not compliant with the May 31st deadline will be subjected to penalty fees.

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