Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Timeless Knowledge from an Insightful Mathematician


I recently read on X (Twitter) a tribute to the book, “A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper,” by John Allen Paulos. 

The author is a professor of mathematics at Temple University, and his bio, here, is impressive.  The book, still in print and available on Kindle, was originally published in 1995.  More importantly, it remains relevant today, especially, as the reviewer put it, if you want to “become smarter and a better consumer of information who will not fall into [the] many traps of the media.”

I don’t recall having contact with Paulos, but his tome includes these two insightful paragraphs:

“More than 400,000 Americans die annually from the effects of smoking, but there is some intriguing evidence that the number could be drastically reduced by the widespread use of smokeless chewing tobacco.  Professors Brad Radu [sic] and Philip Cole recently published a note in Nature in which they claimed that the average life expectancy for a thirty-five-year-old smokeless tobacco user would be fifteen days shorter than that for a thirty-five-year-old smoker.  This is in contrast to 7.8 years lost by smokers.  The authors estimate that a wholesale switch to smokeless tobacco would result in a 98 percent reduction in tobacco-related deaths.

“Since a small amount of tobacco lasts all day, tobacco companies would likely oppose smokeless chewing tobacco.  There has already been strong opposition to it from some antismoking groups because of an increase in the risk of oral cancer (which is much rarer than lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease).  I suspect that another reason is a certain misguided sense of moral purity – not unlike opposing the use of condoms because, unlike abstinence, they’re not 100 percent effective.  If the numbers presented here are confirmed, however, recommending a switch to smokeless tobacco for those smokers (and only those) who can’t quit would seem like sound public policy.”

Paulos has a knack for interpreting numbers, and he understands the “misguided sense of moral purity” that has dominated tobacco policy – and killed millions of smokers – for nearly 30 years.



*Nota bene: Phil Cole and I never claimed that a “wholesale switch” to smokeless would result in a 98 percent reduction in smoking-related deaths, as that would not have accounted for residual deaths from former smoking among those switchers.  Rather, we based the 98 percent reduction on the following premise: “If, instead of smoking, smokers had used smokeless tobacco.”  It is a subtle but crucial distinction, but it does not detract from the huge risk reduction available to individual smokers who switch.


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