A story that can’t be true

by Walter Olson on October 20, 2010

We know it can’t, because Mayor Bloomberg has assured us that smoking bans don’t cut into restaurants’ business. [Saginaw News via Fountain; Vassar, Mich.]

{ 5 comments }

1 Mark Phaedrus 10.20.10 at 2:59 pm

I have to confess that I’m a bit confused. Isn’t this the site that quite properly ridicules people for filing lawsuits based purely on post hoc ergo propter hoc and sample sizes of one — such as ‘My child had an illness after getting vaccinated, therefore the vaccine must have caused the illness’? So how is it that when one bar suffers a decline in business after a smoking ban is passed (and during a devastating economic downturn), you’re trumpeting this as evidence that the smoking ban is hurting business?

2 John David Galt 10.20.10 at 10:53 pm

I wondered about that too. And of course, New York now has the trans-fat ban and the paté ban, both more likely to drive me away than the smoking ban.

I liked bars better when they allowed smoking, too, but let’s be above the logical fallacies our opponents commit.

3 Walter Olson 10.21.10 at 11:53 am

Fair enough. The relevant background, for what it’s worth, is the hearing at which Bloomberg told an incensed crowd of waiters and other restaurant people that (in effect) they didn’t know their own interests, since his experts had assured him that smoking bans didn’t cut into bar business. Even at the time, that assertion was well refuted by experience from other states, and to the extent that the mayor was asserting the universal absence of an effect, collecting individual (as well as statistical) examples of that effect might not be pointless.

MP: you’re free to assume if you like that the Cheek-Warner-Colosky family has misunderstood why their business fell off so sharply, but their likely sources of information on that topic — it sounds to me as if if they can and do talk to their customers directly — seem to me to go beyond the unadorned post hoc inference available to the vaccination family.

4 DensityDuck 10.21.10 at 12:38 pm

Just in case you’re still intentionally confused: Bloomberg said “never”, which means that a sample size of one is all you need.

5 Mark Phaedrus 10.21.10 at 3:46 pm

Fair enough, Walter.

The reason this story surprised me is that you clearly know how to make a excellent case to support your views. Overlawyered’s coverage of the CSPIA has been stellar, precisely because it’s taken case stories and woven them together with other data to present a really solid picture of the damage that the CSPIA has been doing to small businesses.

In contrast, the problem with this story isn’t just that it’s based on a single anecdote; it’s not even a good single anecdote. The smoking ban isn’t even the focus of the story; it’s a couple of paragraphs to set the background for a story about fish. So at best we have a few sentences of third-hand information — a reporter saying what the owners said about what their customers may or may not have said. At worst we have an owner’s hunch uncritically reported as flavor text for a larger story and then relied on as fact.

I have no real feelings one way or the other about smoking bans; I don’t smoke, and I avoid smoky places, but I think we get into real trouble as a society when we start banning everything that we dislike. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if smoking bans did have an adverse impact on restaurants, especially places like the Vassar Liquor Bar that tried to create that sort of atmosphere. Pretty much everything I’ve heard from both sides of the issue has been a parade of anecdotes, and I’d love to see someone give a solid picture of the overall effect. I’d encourage you to do it; you clearly know how.

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