Number of the Month

January 2001

 Any more for the bandwagon?

Any hopes that we would have a junk-free year were dashed on the first day. It looks as though the monocluster is going to be like the London bus. You wait for ages then a whole bunch of them turn up. Besides being about a sample of one, the story in The Times was a fine illustration of the post hoc fallacy.

Mobile may have 'caused tumour'

By David Charter Health Correspondent

A TUMOUR removed from the head of a former telephone engineer could have been caused by mobile phone use, his surgeon said yesterday.
Michael Edwards, a surgeon at the Friarage Hospital in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, called on other doctors to look out for growths in the saliva glands of frequent mobile phone users.
Mr Edwards reported the non-malignant tumour in the current issue of Laryngology and Otology. He found that. there had been only 21 similar tumours reported worldwide.
His report came just days after The Times disclosed that Vodafone would be sued in America by up to ten brain tumour victims who had used mobiles. The Government announced a £7 million research programme last month to try to establish once and for all whether there were long-term health risks. An earlier inquiry by Sir William Stewart, published in May, found no clear danger, but recommended a precautionary approach to their use, particularly among children.
Mr Edwards, who removed the growth from the unnamed 39-year-old patient, said: "I had never seen a growth like it before. We had to go in through the mouth to reach it. It was attached to the salivary gland. The patient told us that he was using the mobile phone against the same ear for an hour a day for four years.

A fishy story

300,000,000,000 to 1 is the dilution of the dreaded PCBs in farmed salmon that caused the first big food scare of 2001(The Times, and everywhere else, January  4th). This is the sort of number that is difficult for the ordinary human to comprehend. If you were able to count the molecules in a salmon once a second, you would find a PCB once every ten thousand years. The BBC described this concentration as "high levels" of man made toxins. What dilution would it require to be low level, for heaven's sake? The author of this scare, one Miriam Jacobs of Surrey University, was able to produce it because of advances in instrumentation, on this occasion under the auspices of the EPA (where else?) in Mississippi. Half a millennium ago, in the early beginnings of the rational era, which has recently come to an end, Paracelsus stated that poison was in the dose. In the new era such truisms have been forgotten. Even the most virulent toxin known to man (Botulism toxin A) would be safe at this concentration in the human body. You could tolerate the dreaded sodium cyanide at many millions of times the concentration. Nevertheless, the World Hysteria Organisation (WHO) has declared that these are the orders of magnitude that mark the limit  of safety.

Salmon farming is a damned nuisance. Its products are ragged fatty abortions, which contaminate the wild variety with lice, disease and genetic corruption. It is not, however, going to kill anybody. PCBs, dioxins and furans, which are notoriously found in all fish, have probably always been there. They are the natural products of combustion, and nature invented fire long before man.

Après ski on the rocks

Number Watch must hold its hands up and confess to complacency. Last month it congratulated itself on observing no activity among Global Warming scaremongers during the big freeze, thereby grossly underestimating human ingenuity. Scaremongers at Cardiff University are predicting catastrophic rock falls,  landslips and floods in Europe's most famous ski resorts (also The Times January 4th) because of the observed warming of the Permafrost. Nasty old cynics are unsurprised at this, as the earth is still warming up from the Little Ice Age in the time of of Paracelsus. They look forward to the time when the ice is back where it belongs, at the poles.

British is best

What a splendid achievement it is for a small country like the UK to produce the first three major scares of the year! The Americans (particularly Harvard and the EPA) must be seething. This success has not come about by accident. In Britain's new nationalised universities it has soon come to be realised that scares mean grants.

200 is also a number with special British significance this month. It is the age of the Union flag (see The 200th birthday we failed to celebrate by Magnus Linklater, The Times, January 4th). Britain's Scottish Socialist Government has declined to recognise the anniversary. It had decreed that the flag would not feature in its  archetypal Millennium Dome. A while back (The Daily Telegraph, October 17th, 2000) the offensively named Runnymede Trust let the cat out of the bag by proclaiming that British is a racist term. What would the reaction be in the USA if American were so declared? The Vice-Furniture of the trust, one Lady Gavron, further stated that "English is far more dangerous than British. English is much more racially encoded".

The English, once the most successful and creative mongrel race on earth, are now cowed and defeated. They are the only Britons not allowed their own parliament by their Scottish Government. Their once proud history is being officially buried. The same Lady Gavron (who purchased her title by dint of her husband's £500,000 donation to the Labour Party) also asserted that the hereditary peerage was "too Anglo-Saxon", thereby showing that she was unable to distinguish between Angles, Saxons and Normans.

Historical Note: Runnymede was where King John was obliged to sign the Magna Carta on June 15th 1215, granting rights to the Norman Barony. It did little for ordinary folk, but it paved the way for the Provisions of Oxford and the Mise of Lewes, by which Simon de Montfort  founded constitutional government and the rights that English speaking peoples enjoy throughout the world. Runnymede is also the site of the John F Kennedy memorial.

3D Animated Flags--By

Read all about it!

Here's a delectable seasonal headline from the Manchester Evening News supplied by Curmudgeon :

Shocking Rise in Drink-Driving

It turns out that the actual figures are these:

1999: 372 injury accidents, 63 positive tests (16.94%)
2000: 452 injury accidents, 78 positive tests (17.26%)

So the actual relative increase is a shocking 0.32 percentage points, while the absolute change is easily explained by the icy conditions last year. Never mind the numbers: it's the propaganda that counts!

A cocktail of numbers

Here are some numbers to savour in combination.

£200,000,000 is the money to be spent by the British National Health service in overhauling sterilisation equipment and providing single-use disposable instruments to avoid the risk of transmission of vCJD.

0 is the number of patients known to have been infected with vCJD by surgical instruments.

2 is the target for the number of months delay for cancer treatment after diagnosis that ministers hope to reach by 2005. At present people are waiting considerably longer than two months.

10 is the percentage by which cancer survival rates in Britain are lower than in Estonia, Spain and Slovakia, according to National Health Service (NHS) figures.

One third is the proportion or British hospitals that have officially been classed as “filthy” in a survey (The Times, January 6th).

5,000 is the approximate number of patients who die each year from infections caught after arriving at hospital. A further 100,000 suffer from illnesses caught on the wards at a cost to the NHS of up to £1 billion a year.


Anyone got a cure for a hangover?

$450 billion is the size of the American external deficit, which means that foreigners have been financing Americans by some $1,600 a head (William Rees-Mogg The Times, January 8th We had the bonanza, now for the bill) – a strangely evocative title to one who wrote some two years before “Nevertheless, however good the party, the time comes when you have to pay the bill” (Sorry, wrong number! Chapter 12). We are both, of course, dismissed as nasty old cynics and pessimists. The British financial press is oddly complacent about it all, even after Alan Greenspan showed distinct signs of nervousness. The official line is that Britain has a strong economy and will be immune to a turndown in the US. Whether that strength, based as it is on a service industry boom, is anything other than illusory remains to be seen. The cold-blooded dismantling of the nation’s food-production and manufacturing industries as a by-product of the Bank of England’s numerical monomania has yet to be paid for. Furthermore, many of the new industries are purely artificial side-effects of the cascade of social legislation (disability consultancy, for example, is a pretty good racket at the moment, but whether the large fees will be forthcoming from industry when the chips are down remains to be seen).

Interesting times are ahead. Will Britain’s Labour Government manage to get through the General Election before the price of the Clinton rave has to be met? Has Greenspan lost the plot, having uncharacteristically fostered the boom for so long? Companies, and not only the Internet ones, have been foolishly overvalued by the stock markets for years. Will the real cost of the EPA be bearable in an industrial recession? We shall see.

You pays your money and takes your choice

Which empty scare Britons were invited to panic about on January 10th depended on which posh paper you bought. Readers of The Times were faced with a whole page of stories about Depleted Uranium and Leukaemia. Ignoring the fact that, as the word “depleted” implies, the stuff has had all the nasty bits taken out, victims and their lawyers, with the tunes of phantom cash registers ringing in their ears, laid siege to the Ministry of Defence. The same thing was happening in all the other countries involved in the Kosovo jaunt. The number to note is that the annual death rate from Leukaemia among Kosovo troops is 11 per 100, 000, whereas the annual death rate in the UK as a whole is 11 per 100,000. Other facts, which indicate that these individual tragedies have been elevated to a global farce, are presented by Zbigniew Jaworowski and Roger Bate here.

Meanwhile, readers of the Daily Telegraph were regaled with the headline

Long flights cost 2,000 lives a year

It turns out that this is based on a statistic of one person per month dying of Deep Vein Thrombosis just after arriving at Heathrow. Now one million people arrive at Heathrow each month, so the hit rate is one in a million. For the population in general each year venous thrombosis occurs in more than one in 1000 people, though the actual incidence is unknown as most cases resolve spontaneously. This is equivalent 83 per million each month. The average person therefore has about a three in a million chance of thrombosis each day, whether they fly or not. Thrombosis is the most common cause of death and the incidence increases with age, from 1 per 100, 000 people per year in childhood to nearly 1% per year in old age. Since about 600,000 hospitalisations for DVT result in 200,00 deaths in the USA, we can assume a one third mortality. Thus the chance of death is about one per million each day. If we regard “just after landing” as defining one day, we thus have a hit rate of one in a million.

Please do not read too much into the exactitude of the above numbers. They are just crude order of magnitude calculations, but it makes you think: unless you are a journalist or a compensation lawyer.

One small dent for mankind

The Telegraph has become almost unique in the UK by occasionally promoting common sense above scare stories. One of the saner writers is Robert Matthews, who contributes the following (Jan 14th):

FRESH doubt has been cast on evidence for global warming following the discovery that a key method of measuring temperature change has exaggerated the warming rate by almost 40 per cent.

Studies of temperature records dating back more than a century have seemed to indicate a rise in global temperature of around 0.5 ° C, with much of it occurring since the late 1970s. This has led many scientists to believe that global warming is under way, with the finger of blame usually pointed at man-made pollution such as carbon dioxide.

Now an international team of scientists, including researchers from the Met Office in Bracknell, Berkshire, has found serious discrepancies in these temperature measurements, suggesting that the amount of global warming is much less than previously believed.


Number Watch predicts that these results will be completely ignored by those running the scam.

Climb every molehill

The Times and Sunday Times persist in indulging in their fetish for league tables. On January 14th they published the first part of their Good Hospital Guide, 55 pages of densely packed figures with more to come. The lead statistic is the mortality index, normalised to 100 and adjusted for all sorts of variables to compare like with like. The variation, is in fact, remarkably small (standard deviation about 7% of the mean) which, as remarked in Sorry, wrong number! about a similar exercise, is less that the variability of the heights of my identically treated tomato plants. It is all just making a  mountain out of a molehill, i.e. journalism.

The problem with making adjustments is that the league table becomes a handicap race, which is a test of the handicappers rather than the contestants. If the handicappers have got it right all races end in a tie. As shown in Sorry, wrong number! in some studies the number of factors corrected for is greater than the number of excess people who are held to be significant.

On the positive side, the next day The Times came up with a new champion of sanity. Mick Hume identifies the current wave of nonsense as Guff War Syndrome. His final paragraph summarises the whole sorry imbroglio:

The result of all this is further to undermine public confidence in politics and science, weakening society’s immune system against future health panics. Meanwhile, the culture of “blame and claim” grows stronger, as litigious lawyers, syndrome-mongering medics and junk journalists encourage people to search for scapegoats for their problems. When professional soldiers start complaining that the Government has put their health at risk by sending them into a war zone (even when, as in Kosovo, they were not required to fight), there can surely be no doubt that Guff War syndrome is real and highly contagious.

Even The Independent had a headline: Better not to use a mobile. Stay off the cheese. And watch out for deep-vein thrombosis. But are too many warnings damaging our health? 

It is, however, too much to hope that the media and the compensation lawyers will be deflected by these minor bouts of sanity.


In the authoritarian socialist state of the United Kingdom, not only do we have a growing army of snoopers, we now have them acting as agents provocateurs (The Daily Telegraph January 16th). In February last year a trading standards officer visited Mr Thoburn's stall in Southwick Market and told him that two of his scales weighing only in imperial measurements were illegal. Mr Thoburn was given 28 days' notice to convert them but failed to do so. On March 31 trading standards officers revisited the stall and stamped the scales as not fit for trade. After further warnings, Lynda Hodgson, an undercover consumer protection officer, paid 34p for a bunch of bananas at the stall on July 4 which had been advertised at 25p a pound.

Shortly afterwards, two trading standards officers, accompanied by two policemen, seized three scales, one of which was later returned to Mr Thoburn. His counsel will argue that the Weights and Measures Act 1985, under which goods can be sold in imperial and metric weights, takes precedence over European directives, even though they have been incorporated in British law.

It is an extraordinary illustration of the state of modern society that, at a time of rising violent crime, policemen can be found to arrest a head teacher suspected of slapping a pupil or even a set of scales.

The song is ended, but the threnody lingers on

It is typical of environmental lobbyists that they like to have their cake and eat it. The terrified shriek of small birds in the grasp of talons is becoming commonplace  in English country gardens. I have made a similar observation to the following correspondent to The Times:

Sir, You report (News in Brief, January 9) that farmers are to be encouraged to join a government-funded scheme to halt the decline of the song thrush, which is now on the red list of endangered species.
Last year I could see several thrushes on my lawn; now I am lucky to see one. A pair of sparrowhawks carried off at least four of them. Amongst other birds I have seen killed are blackbirds, collared doves, starlings, greenfinches, chaffinches and house sparrows, as well as numerous members of the tit family straight off my birdfeeders.
A partial solution to halt the decline in the song thrush and other songbirds might be to cull the over- protected and rapidly proliferating population of sparrowhawks.
Yours faithfully,


Harvard hits back

The Europeans cannot have it all their own way. When it comes to junk science there is no place like Harvard. The BBC text headline dutifully reported the latest outcome from the data dredge known as the Harvard Nurses Health Study. It appears that women who regularly eat fish four times a week had a 27% smaller chance of having a stroke. All the junk characteristics that we have come to know and love are there – the Trojan number of 80,000 in the study, though only 0.7% of them had strokes, reliance on self reporting, and a ludicrously small risk ratio. What we are not told is how many women ate fish four times a week. Do you know any? If you do, did they have a minnow or a shark?

The truly amazing thing with epidemiologists, however, that puts them beyond us ordinary mortals, is that on such flimsy evidence that are not only able to identify fish as the saviour, but are able to home with unerring accuracy on n3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Amazing Holmes! Commonplace Watson.

Regular readers of Number Watch are likely to enjoy a new alternative to the predictable sludge that is modern journalism. It is called Spiked and is to be launched by Mick Hume (see Climb every molehill, above). The science section looks particularly promising. Surfing the web is like panning for gold. Most of the time you get muck, but just occasionally you get a nugget. This is a nugget.

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark

As CNN broadcast around the world images of darkened industrial facilities in Silicon Valley it was difficult for habitual observers of the doings of the State of Insanity to suppress a little bit of schadenfreude.

Administration officials were working through the weekend on a long-term plan to rescue Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Southern California Edison, both on the brink of bankruptcy. The companies could not increase customers' bills to cover rising costs because deregulation imposed a price freeze. Politicians were busy passing the buck with their usual alacrity. Gov. Gray Davis blames deregulation, which was pushed by his predecessor, but former Governor Wilson blames it on stringent state laws that created "a hellish, nightmarish process for anybody trying to build a new power plant of greater than 50 megawatt capacity."

 If you would like to savour some confusing numbers, see the chronology of the crisis, and perhaps someone could explain how the companies were simultaneously overcharging their customers AND going bankrupt. What does "deregulation" mean in modern English? How long will it be before the same thing happens in the UK (which based its system of deregulation on that of California, as you do)?

Meanwhile the UK appears to be sinking into further chaos, with the entire communication system all but broken down. The railways have long given up any pretence of  maintaining a system of timetables. The motorways are blocked by traffic jams caused by overdue maintenance work. The postal system is simply unbelievable. Books from Number Watch to Amazon and orders from potential customers to Number Watch disappear from view within the postal system for up to a month at a time. On the health front, people are walking around with untreated tumours, waiting to get on the waiting list to get on the waiting list.

Never fear! Our parliamentarians are on the ball. In mid January their two major debates were on a ban on the hunting of vermin and a ban on the advertising of tobacco. Our masters do like their little bans. They are so much more heart-warming than actually getting on with governing the country. If you think all this is nothing to do with numbers, you must be new. Welcome.

Dealing with an actual number, in one of the debates Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary,  produced the quote of the month “Tobacco advertising and sponsorship is based on a big lie". In the previous sentence he told MPs that tobacco companies had to replace 120,000 customers killed every year by smoking. Oh yeah? How about some evidence?

Hold the front page!

Every day there are banal stories based on silly numbers that are so vacuous that they are not worthy of remark, but when one appears on the front page of The Times, which used to be the newspaper of record, perhaps some comment is called for. We find (January 25th) that "scientists" at the University of Bristol have shown:

How water on the brain can scupper quiz hopefuls

The actual story comes from the New Scientist, which used to be a respectable scientific journal:

QUIZ show contestants should refrain from taking nervous sips of water. Simply drinking water at the wrong time can impair our mental performance, say British researchers.
Experimental psychologist Peter Rogers and his colleagues from the University of Bristol asked 60 volunteers to rate how thirsty they felt. They then tested their reactions with a task that involved pressing buttons in response to prompts on a screen. The volunteers either drank nothing before the test or had a cupful (330 millilitres) of tap water, chilled to 10 °C.

People who were thirsty at the beginning of the test and took a drink performed 10 per cent better than those who drank nothing. But the "hit rate" of those who weren't thirsty to start with dropped by 15 per cent after a drink.
Drinking too much water might affect your ability to drive or perform intellectually demanding tasks, says Rogers. "If your performance is changing by 15 per cent, that's quite a big effect," agrees psychologist Nick Neave of the University of Northumbria in Newcastle.
Rogers thinks that the temperature of the drinks might explain part of the effect. "We like our drinks hot or cold. The body has to divert resources to deal with the local cooling effect in the gut."

Now we could do one of our little simulations or probability density plots, as we have done with previous stories of this ilk, but really, what's the point? Don't you just love the precision of the 330 millilitres and the 10 °C? We have sixty people divided into three separate groups, i.e. about twenty in each. If you think that you can get significant results from such tests on a sample of twenty you have reached the wrong web site.

What is more relevant in these enlightened days is the motivation for "researchers" to embark on a particular project. The fact is that quizzes are in the news in the UK. One is based on the new BBC culture of  gratuitous rudeness and the other on the ITV cultivation of phony drama. In the new university system brownie points are obtained for hitting the headlines, so you go for what is in the news. What would Newton, Rutherford or Russell have made of it all? Worry not! Nowadays they probably would not have been appointed in the first place.

Independently indefatigable 

The Independent continues its drive for world domination in global warming scares. The latest headline (January 26th) is a classic:

Britain to suffer from 'El Nino' storms

When you read the story, which is taken from Science and concerns observations on the North Atlantic Oscillation, you find that there is no evidence at all to justify the scare headline. In fact the quotation is:

British researchers are wary of saying that NAO trends are definitely due to global warming. "We would question whether we can yet tease out the natural variability from human-caused effects," said Rob Allan, a climate scientist at the Meteorological Office's Hadley Centre. "The trouble is that we only have about 100 years' worth of observations, so it's difficult to separate out the human effects from natural variation." Latest research suggested that the NAO may vary over a period of 60 to 80 years, he said.

The paper takes the opportunity of repeating the lie that an "international panel of scientists" have stated that global warming is accelerating. It is doing nothing of the sort and the IPCC contains no scientists. It is a bunch of so-called green politicians and bureaucrats who have hijacked the UN's policy making forum and buy their scientific advice from "scientists" who are willing to toe the party line (you know, the sort of people who have left California in the dark, and in more ways than one).

Big Brother is watching you!

One of the  themes of Sorry wrong number!, which has been a recurrent feature of these pages is the growth of the army of state snoopers. Should you think this is just a bit of personal paranoia, have a read of part of an e-mail from, whose excellent technology makes this site so easy to maintain:

We received an e-mail from a customer this month asking how the new RIP (Regulation of Investigator Powers) Bill affected him in relation to the service we provide and what our standpoint would be if asked to install equipment. For those who don't know (after all it didn't get much coverage outside of  the Internet Press) the new Bill, which is now law, allows the authorities (read police, MI5 etc) to place snooping devices on Internet lines of communication in order to eavesdrop on the activities of Internet users. These will be linked to a new centre in MI5 headquarters. This is apparently being done in order to counter the increasing use of the Internet by the criminal fraternity; however there are many parts to the bill that could land innocent users in hot water.

My particular favourite is this. If I encrypt a message and send it to one of you, and I am later asked to provide the decryption key to the message, but can't find it, I have to prove to the court that I lost it. Let me say that again - I have to prove to the court that I lost it. The premise of "Innocent until proven Guilty" has been turned on it's head -If I can't find it I can be locked up for two years.

So what is our standpoint? Well, we are left with little choice - we must comply with any legal request or warrant delivered by any legally empowered authority. While we may not (and do not) agree with many parts of the new law, as law abiding citizens working at a UK based ISP we have no choice in the matter.

We will, of course, continue to exercise our right to free speech (for as long as we are allowed to keep it) and express ourselves at the ballot box.



Version: PGPfreeware 6.5.3 for non-commercial use <>qANQR1DBw04DHGdXNNJ9JocQEACzpP2twnA8aQyAMLhjDltW4fpIC8Qg9HAWmHX4r2f5dRV+8a7Bg9AmzA+IOrBlKOxOdjDp9nDquUB15+dNwFFrGuNGj0m/+ckaQBPe














- now, if only I knew where I left that decryption key....

Another British breakthrough - the gravitation of shadows

From the Daily Telegraph January 29th:

THE phases of the moon may have an effect on the health of animals and humans, according to vets.
Ailments seem to increase during the full moon and some farmers believe that this is a hazardous time to carry out routine operations. Parasites also appear to become more active.
Correspondence suggesting that folklore about the full moon may contain a grain of truth is building up by the week in the pages of the Veterinary Record, the official scientific journal of the profession. John Hoare, a vet from Lyme Regis, Dorset, said yesterday: "I am not surprised that the moon affects animals - and people for that matter. After all, we are mostly made up of water and the moon affects the tides."


First number of the month of the year

1,083 is the number of full-time staff the British Government has working on media relations, publicity campaigns and advance planning of ministers’ announcements, compared with 760 in 1997. The largest rise has been at the Department of Health, whose communications directorate has grown from 84 to 151 people. It includes 48 press officers, nine staff in a communications planning unit, a 27-strong campaigns division, and 45 people working in corporate communications (The Times, January 22). Add this to the cocktail of numbers above.

There is a new principle of political gyroscopic stabilisation: If the system is getting out of control increase the spin. All this might not seem strange to Americans, but these people are civil servants who, until now, have always been expected to be politically neutral. The Prime Minister's Press Secretary, Alastair Campbell (who operates under the nom de guerre of Sources close to the Prime Minister) broke all precedents by launching a political attack on the opposition party's policies. This is not only illegal from one who, as a civil servant, is paid £93,000 a year by the taxpayer,  it is (in the words of the late great comic Frankie Howard) wicked to mock the afflicted.



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