Why education is like smoking

Embed from Getty Images

During my lifetime, attitudes to smoking have changed. 

It was always known to be bad for you. But when I first started to go to pubs, I would come back stinking of cigarettes and would have to wash my clothes. On the dancefloors of clubs, strangers would share smokes in the same way they might share their bottled water. 

Most of my school friends started smoking. We even had a smoking room at my sixth form college (for ages 16-18) where students could have a cigarette. Naturally, this was a much more fun place than the non-smoking common room and it heaved at every break time. 

Why did smoking have such a long, slow death? Why wasn’t it banned from bars and clubs – and schools – earlier? The epidemiological evidence was available throughout this time.

One reason is that we have very poor intuition when it comes to probability. I won’t try to examine the reasons for this but any maths teacher will be aware of how counterintuitive students find the subject. 

One argument that you frequently heard about smoking back in the 1990s – for example, from my smoking school friends – went something like this: “My grandfather smoked 20 a day and lived to 85.”

It confuses the possible with the probable. Smoking is essentially probabilistic. By smoking, you increase the probability of a whole host of nasty things happening to you but you don’t make any of them certain. Some smokers will get lucky. Many won’t.

You don’t hear this argument about smoking so much these days and I think that this is because the public has finally made a shift from pre-scientific thinking to scientific thinking about the subject. I’m not sure what finally did it but it’s taken a long time. The changes in law that we have seen are based upon this new understanding, even if we might argue that bans and restrictions do not necessarily flow from it. These are political decisions rather than scientific ones but they do seem to be underpinned by a better public understanding of the science.

However, the equivalent argument is alive and well in education. 

Education is also probabilistic. You can’t say for certain that a particular bit of teaching will lead to a certain consequence and so you play the probabilities. This happens at every scale from small to large and it is why I argue for a curriculum based upon what has proved useful in the past: that which has endured. This gives us our best chance of equipping students for their futures – in the broadest sense.

Yet we often hear stories about business people who did very well without much of a formal education. I was reminded to of this by a rant that was highlighted on twitter:

I wasn’t aware of who Jack Monroe is but they* appear to be some kind of famous cook. They make a point about practice testing for SATs that may be valid – there are plenty of schools where children are asked to do too many practice tests rather than focus on developing the underlying knowledge and skills that are being assessed (Daisy Christodoulou’s new book is good on this topic).

However, Monroe’s argument is something more than that. They have been successful with little formal education (although perhaps more than they give credit for when we consider that previous generations left school at age 12 or 14).

They are like the 85-year-old smoker. Yes, it is possible to do what they did but it’s not the best way of optimising your chances. For a start, Monroe’s path rules out all of the professions and so anyone following it can forget about being a surgeon or a lawyer. It rules out all those paths that require a university degree. For every captain of industry who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, I suspect there are far more who went to college.

To me, this kind of thinking suggests that, in the public realm at least, education is still in a pre-scientific stage. This is important because it implies that individuals are not yet empowered to make the best decisions about how education can work for them.

*I understand that this is Monroe’s preferred pronoun 


14 thoughts on “Why education is like smoking

  1. Liked that a lot, it is also an example of survivor bias clouding thinking which is also very common in educational leadership and many other fields. By focusing on the visible winners eg Jack and the aged smoker, we ignore all the nameless failures who also left school with few qualifications or smoked and died young. Nassim Taleb writes about a similar bias in how we view the wealthy.

    1. Yes. There is a similar phenomenon in the business literature known as ‘selection on the dependent variable’. A writer will research a number of successful companies to see what they have in common. However, without a comparison group of less successful companies, we don’t know which of these features are unique to successful ones.

  2. “They”? Blimey. So that’s what they mean by a pluralist society.

    It’s the same vacuous argument that’s made by, for instance, ex-Steiner students from affluent, educated, middle-class families (with groaning bookshelves in the living room) who airily declare, “look, I had no specific literacy training at primary school, and I can read fine”.

      1. No – actually to the general anti-traditional education (and particularly anti-phonics) attitude that tends to prevail among former Steiner school students.

  3. You don’t hear this argument about smoking so much these days and I think that this is because the public has finally made a shift from pre-scientific thinking to scientific thinking about the subject.

    Sadly, not true.

    The pendulum has swung all the way to the other side. What people tend to think today is that smoking is nearly toxic.

    Ask people how dangerous “second-hand” smoke is, for example.

    The reality is that it is bad for small children and those with lung issues, but isn’t cancerous (there is no tar, after all) and isn’t actually very dangerous at all for adults. Very annoying and I hate it, but that’s different from actually dangerous.

    After all, heavy smokers don’t just die instantly, and without the tar, nicotine and most of the chemicals there isn’t that much to hurt you. It is basically as dangerous as any other smoke, such as a fire.

    Yet many people will insist that second hand smoke is toxic, and get quite angry when you disagree. If you say that the second-hand smoke scare was wildly exaggerated to get non-smokers to vote away the rights of smokers, they tend to go a bit troppo on you.

    1. I am pretty sure second hand smoke is dangerous. Do you mean that it’s risk has been overblown?

      This was the most useful information I could find in 10 minutes as it makes direct comparisons between groups and explains were the information comes from. I have obviously not rigorously checked it.


      A 20% increase in lung cancer is not vast but neither is it insignificant. If you could show that this relative risk is actually quite low (using some other examples), you would be backing up your argument. At the moment it seems hard to see why the consensus is wrong.

  4. Here in NZ I call this ‘The John Key Effect’. John Key came from a state house background, brought up largely by his mother. He went on to earn millions as a currency trader for Merrill Lynch and won three elections to be Prime Minister.
    He is held up an example of the fact that anyone from a disadvantaged background can go on to be incredibly successful.
    My point is that the reason he is so widely quoted as a success story is precisely because very few people with his background have this rags-to-riches life. If all it took was hard work to be a success then far more people would be successful and his story wouldn’t be atypical.
    I think that, along with Branson, Bezos, and all of these mega-successful people, there has also been an element of luck that could not have been predicted.

    1. Rags to riches stories are rare as are riches to rags.

      What isn’t anecdotal is the data which demonstrates accumulated improvements in economic circumstances by most immigrant groups in the countries they move to.

      This a slow process that takes place over generations and is consistent over time and location (See Sowell’s Intellectuals and Race).

      Yet the reasons for the improvement are dismissed and ignored because it is a politically convenient narrative to suggest that poor people are victims of circumstance/discrimination/oppression.

      There will always be an element of luck but even this can be taken into account when observing while some individuals/groups do better or worse in the education system.

  5. I’m not convinced that the diminished prevalence of smoking today has much to do with a greater grasp of science than a generation or two ago. In fact, I think the general public’s scientific understanding of the effects of smoking is no greater today than back in the 70s. What has happened has been a huge movement that coerced with unpopular laws and swayed with massive social pressures and behavioural programming. I have never been a smoker and have always disliked it as a dirty and health-harming habit, but I lived through this “revolution” and still wonder at whether what we have gained has been worth the cost to liberty and social health of our society. If it were a matter of the public being better informed then the laws and social programming would not have been necessary — smoking would likely for the most part have continued because of the addictive nature of the habit, but it would have died out over time. The “scientific knowledge” of society, if that is what we must call it, is simply the result of a relentless campaign, not of education, but of indoctrination. Nowadays it seems the majority in society has “the right opinion”. That is not at all the same as having accurate scientific knowledge.

    1. Why do you think smoking would die out? Alcohol use has not.
      The liberty argument is a red herring. Smoking by its nature is shared viscerally with the people around you. Segregated area in public spaces are extremely impractical to do fairly.

      Judge Dredd used to have a joke around futuristic smoking. You could do it as long as you wore a mask which prevented anyone else from receiving it. While silly it made a point.

  6. Interesting fact that you can smoke and go to school for your whole life and not get anything done. The shift from thinking of school in a scientific manner is indeed a brilliant topic and one I’d like to research more on. I’m going to college now and weighing out the pros and cons of how far to continue my education is questionable and hard to make. Whether I should go for a B.A. or an M.A. are hard decisions. I have just started a blog and would greatly appreciate it if you would follow me or check out my blog. Either way thank you for your inspirational writings. And I hope to hear more. -bel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s