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Smoking out the difference between proof and evidence

Very right wing think tank seems very confused over the meaning of words – or is simply just at it

The Adam Smith Institute is in the media today with the claim that there is no ‘evidence’ that UK Government plans to require all tobacco products to be sold in plain packaging will do anything to reduce the rate of smoking. This leaves me intrigued. Has this eminent think tank just got confused over language, is is intentionally misleading or is there really not a single person anywhere in human history who has ever looked at the impact of packaging on sales?

The question is important because apparently the Institute would like us to know that there is no evidence to support the policy. None at all. It just came from nowhere, almost at complete random. Indeed, the idea is so out-there that it is entirely disconnected from any form of intellectual endeavour ever.

But I suspect this claim is a bit disingenuous, and it seems to me to hinge on an attempt to confuse us with semantics. What seems to be happening here is that the concept of ‘proof’ (sufficient evidence or argument to demonstrate the truth) and evidence (anything which can play a part in determining the truth or otherwise of a proposition). So on the one hand, if they mean proof then the Adam Smith Institute has some answering to do because there simply has been no ‘proof’ of any of the agenda it has pursued over the last 30 years. There is some evidence in favour of rampant privatisation – but then there is plant evidence against, and I would challenge anyone who would make the bold claim that the case is ‘proved’ categorically in favour (and probably not against). But on the other hand, if they mean evidence then the statement is wrong. There may not be sufficient evidence to ‘prove’ that unbranded packaging will reduce smoking but I am aware of empirical research on the impact of packaging and branding on consumer behaviour so there is at least some relevant evidence. Indeed, do the report authors hope that just after claiming there is no evidence it goes on to provide a range of bits of evidence (which is to say evidence against, but still evidence).

This is just shameless manipulation of public opinion and does not merit the implication that somehow it is the result of intellectual pursuit. This is just mealy-mouthed PR passing itself off as real thinking. No policy can be ‘proved’ in advance but at the same time I can think of no policy which comes along with no evidence at all to support it (and also to give reasons to oppose it).

This is just another corporate cover for corporate abuse of public health. Branding and advertising is in large part about persuading us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t. Free market advocates believe it is a god-given right for corporations to influence us in this way.  But it isn’t. We have the right to stop powerful corporate interests from manipulating people into activity which costs society millions and millions of individuals their lives. If the Adam Smith Institute is to trade as a think tank then it should at least demonstrate sufficient intellectual rigour to differentiate between evidence and proof. Assuming that it isn’t seeking intentionally to mislead.

Robin McAlpine