Number of the Month

May 2001

May, the time for balls

Now is the month of Maying,
When merry lads are playing.
Fa la la..

May 1st, Spring is in the air and the anarchists are on the streets. George W announces the birth of the son of Star Wars. Nasty old cynics observe that, while its father was a good scam to bring down the Soviet empire, the chances of the software ever working properly are infinitesimal.

The Times, in a major article and a top leader, notes that the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which cost £40 million, has introduced a number of unfortunate quirks into the nature of university research. A parochial matter you might think but, as The Times observes, a number of other countries are set on imitating it, from Continental Europe to South America and the Far East. Why they would want to imitate something so fatuous is a mystery until you realise that, though it is a nightmare for everyone else involved, it is paradise for bureaucrats.

The Times observes that, among the effects of this sterile process are:

Original research has been stifled

Vast amounts of trivial research have burgeoned

The writing of serious books has almost ceased

All research is now geared to short-term results and premature publication

A transfer market of “productive” dons has emerged

The crushing burden of paperwork has seriously damaged the overall research effort

Department can gain millions or die, depending on how well they conform to the norms

Nice of The Times to notice, but they could have read all this in Sorry, wrong number!, which went to press over a year ago.

The red menace?

A nice dilemma for the food freaks. Tomatoes have been produced that have increased levels of anti-oxidant compounds called flavonols. According to The Times these are “known” to lower the risk of heart disease, inflammation, cellular ageing and several cancers. Unfortunately, the wonder tomatoes are produced by Genetic Modification. Will the gullible masses be like the proverbial donkey, who starved to death because he was between two bales of hay and could not decide which to choose?


California, here we come

According to the Sunday Express (May 6th) London politicians want to follow the blueprint set out by California and pave the way for legislation making smoking in public places illegal across Britain. Trevor Phillips, Commissar of the London Soviet, has placed the issue at the top of the Greater London Authority health strategy.

It all goes to prove the truth of Hitler’s claim in Mein Kampf that “the broad mass of a nation will more easily fall victim to a big lie rather than a small one”. For the passive smoking campaign is based on one of the biggest lies in the history of junk science, the quintuplicately fraudulent “meta-study” by the EPA (see Sorry, wrong number! Chapter 15).

Just how will they enforce their diktat, install secret police like San Diego or just add to the growing army of state snoopers that infest New Labour's Britain? When you look at the reality, that London is the most violent and crime-ridden city in Europe, as proclaimed in a recent EU survey, it all takes on that dream-like (indeed, nightmarish) quality that so far has been mainly associated with the Dark State of Insanity.

 Jam tomorrow

Of course, modern politicians do not let a little thing like reality intrude upon their politically correct policies, especially when it involves numbers:

The Sunday Times, May 6th:

Prescott's M4 bus lane experiment is running on empty  

Rachel Dobson


THE great M4 bus lane experiment is proving an empty gesture, according to a survey: more than one in three of the coaches using it carry no passengers at all. 

Introduced with much fanfare by John Prescott, the secretary of state for transport, the system was supposed to ease congestion and cut journey times into London by reserving one of the three motorway lanes for buses only. 


Of the 111 buses surveyed by The Sunday Times over five hours and 50 minutes last week, 38 were empty and 37 were carrying 10 passengers or fewer; 15 were only half full and 21 were full. 


(The Highways Agency) is now considering introducing bus lanes on other motorways as part of a £40m scheme incorporating flexible speed limits

  Making waves

The weekly climate scare propelled University of Southampton scientists into their fifteen minutes of fame. The Sunday Times again:

Higher Atlantic waves make Ireland crumble

<name removed>

ATLANTIC waves that pound the western and southern coasts of Britain and Ireland have increased by 4ft, accelerating coastal erosion.

Oceanographers have found that the mean height of Atlantic winter waves has risen from 12ft to 16ft, and that the average height of the biggest waves has gone from 24ft to 33ft - a phenomenon they are blaming on changes in the world's weather systems.

An interesting statistical concept, the average of the biggest. Of course, it is in the nature of the statistics of extremes that such numbers will be highly scattered with a distribution skewed towards the large values. It would be more surprising if such numbers did not vary. It is also interesting to note that we are at the height of a larger than average sunspot cycle ( see A little thing they like to ignore in our links). Incidentally, another thing they like to forget is that sunspots were particularly sparse during the Little Ice Age.

Silicon enhancement 

Professor Kevin Warwick re-emerged  as Britain’s champion academic self-publicist (see August 2000). The Sunday Times again:

Professor set to 'control' wife by cyborg implant

Roger Dobson

SURGEONS are preparing to create the first husband and wife cyborgs: they intend to implant computer chips in a British professor and his wife to see if they can communicate sensation and movement by thought alone.


In the experiment Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Reading University, and his wife, Irena, will have silicon chips about 2in long implanted in their arms just above the elbow. Each chip will also have a power source, a tuner and a radio transceiver. They will be surgically connected to nerve fibres in the couple's arms.


 The fact that science can do something, however trivial, does not mean that it should do it. The logic of this risky enterprise has more to do with headlines than the advancement of knowledge. It might turn out to be a nice little earner for the compensation lawyers though, but then what doesn't?

Compare and contrast

An interesting number in a grovelling piece in the Sunday People, May 6:


You could write a whole book on the abuse of statistics in this list alone. Reason number 21 is:

AND the best reason for voting New Labour last time - and again - is having TONY BLAIR in charge

which contrasts nicely with an answer in the same paper's medical column:

THE UK now has the worst trains, food, roads and health care in the world. We have more crime than any other "civilised" country and our tax rates are rising fast.
Your wife is living in cloud cuckoo land. It is difficult to find anything British of which to be proud.

Straight from the horse’s mouth

If any one still doubts that the nationalisation and bureaucratisation of the British University System has led to a massive diversion of resources from real science and engineering into pseudoscience, they need look no further than the newsletter issued by the funding body, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSCR). With no trace of conscious irony they call this glossy production Engineering Matters. Issue twelve, dated April 2001, carries a banner headline Drive to boost research quality. It goes on:

A major reorganisation of support for Engineering within EPSRC will see more emphasis on the funding of larger projects. In a bid to improve the overall quality of research, all responsive mode applications will now be handled by the Engineering Programme (formerly General Engineering).

The new approach, which took effect from 1st April 2001, adopts a more strategic view of engineering research in the UK, concentrating on centres of research excellence and funding them over longer periods. One example of a centre of excellence is the recently opened Tyndall Centre, for climate change research, in Norwich.

In the bad old days, when Britain’s small research groups operated without bureaucratic domination and won far more than their share of Nobel Prizes, they did low quality things like splitting the atom and unravelling the double helix. In those primitive times, excellence was a description that was earned rather than being invested by bureaucratic decree. They did not have the advantage of glossy publications by spin-doctors to pronounce their instant excellence, or obedient media to broadcast their fantasies and scares to the waiting world. Since April fool’s day, however, such spurious activities will no longer be tolerated; for the next headline tells us:

Critical mass needed

"The goal is to build up a 'critical mass' of high quality research, based on large, multi-disciplinary projects that have more chance of producing benefits to society," explains Peter Hedges, IEP Programme Manager. "IEP in particular will focus on several key areas - sustainability, climate change, transport, energy, water, waste and resources, housing, air pollution, land use and healthcare. Research funding will be targeted into large, research consortia in order to allow research teams to be more strategic in their thinking and to develop centres of excellence in areas of strategic importance."

Moments of inertia

The British nation has gone into electoral torpor this month, which contrasts nicely with the ferment that the politicians and the media have been whipping themselves into. It promises to be the dullest election in history, and the reason is not hard to find. For the first time, all the leaders of the contending parties are professional politicians who, apart from token posts as barristers, management consultants and the like in their early careers, have no knowledge of the world outside their own fantasy environment of unfulfilled pledges, spin doctoring and the trading of insults. Time was when party leaders had been soldiers, authors, musicians, sportsmen, businessmen etc. Now they have been groomed from youth by the party machines into the bland apparatchiks that the nation finds so boring. Although wrong numbers will be issued daily by the party headquarters, Number Watch proposes to treat them with the contumely they merit.

There is one interesting number to look forward to, however, which is the number of abstentions. For the first time ever this promises to be the largest contingent, the norm in America but unheard of in the UK.

 Globally cool

Incredible though it may seem, Number Watch stands accused of not doing its bit for the planet in combating Global Warming. We have therefore added our contribution here.

Outbreak of MMC and RUTUS diseases

Two related diseases produced separate outbreaks in the UK on May 15th. They both afflict mainly scientists who have been deprived of headlines or research grants.

The Medical Research Council Prion Unit in London was the site of the cases of MMC (May, Might, Could). Scientists warned that the predicted size of the variant CJD epidemic may have been underestimated. According to the BBC:

Professor Collinge, who led the team that carried out the new research, warns that predictions may be "overly optimistic".

"This study reminds us that we cannot be complacent about the potential risks to public health posed by BSE," says Professor Collinge.

"We cannot rule out an epidemic that evolves over decades."

It was Birmingham that saw the outbreak of RUTUS (Round Up The Usual Suspects). According to Teletext

Scientists are to study whether air pollution can trigger heart attacks.
The British Heart Foundation is funding research into how pollutants such as carbon particles and sulphur dioxide harm people's cardiovascular health.
Researchers from the University of Birmingham will use cutting-edge equipment to study the effects of different pollutants on the heart.

Cutting edge equipment sounds a bit drastic, but Nasty Old Cynics will recognise the Case of the Missing Link, observing that the heart is reached only through the blood stream, that carbon is the most dominant element in the diet and that sulphur is also present in most foods.

Watch out for the main symptom of RUTUS, a severe rash of marginal statistics.

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Red Cross Blues

Regular correspondent Brad tells us of the latest risk assessment coup in the USA:

As an avid reader of Junk Science you must have noticed that they are excluding people who have lived in Europe for more than 6 months from the blood donor pool. This seems like a classic case for inclusion in Wrong Number.

For them to exclude me from the donor pool for the potential of having vCJD is ludicrous. I spent 10 months in Germany from 1985 - 86. In order for me to be infected the following had to happen. 

1. A cow with MCD had to be killed and included in packaging.
2. This meat had to make it to the continent.
3. It had to get to the store where my host family bought their meat (since my host family used local butchers for their meat this is highly unlikely).
4. My family had to buy the tainted meat.
5. Now the more exciting part. There has to be a link between tainted meat and vCJD.

Since there are only 90 cases (as taken from your site) of vCJD, it seems that the potential of me having vCJD is exceedingly small. If they are excluding me, they should probably exclude everyone. The Red Cross said "if one person contracts vCJD, then we will have difficulty responding why we didn't do anything."

I want to strangle them...

Weasel Science

In Toad of Toad Hall, A A Milne’s dramatic adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s wonderful Wind in the Willows, Badger ventures the opinion that one of the jurors is not a rabbit. “I’m a different kind of rabbit” pipes up the juror, who is in fact a weasel. The joke, not lost on the children, is that he has identified and damned himself by leaping to his own defence.

This month no fewer than 17 national science academies including, to its eternal shame, the Royal Society of Britain, issued a joint statement supporting the global warming theory. They have never done this before. The major theories of science that changed the world (Relativity, Evolution, Quantum mechanics etc,) survived the process of sceptical examination that is central to the scientific culture and method without exciting such support. Why? Could it be that this is a different kind of science? It is certainly a new phenomenon that a theory, the evidence for which is to say the least underwhelming, should receive the backing of the world’s scientific bureaucrats.

This last word is the key. Time was when the scientific establishment comprised real scientists. Now that science has been politicised and bureaucratised, science is controlled by people whom the politicians recognise as scientists but academics recognise as politicians. The top of the tree is now reached by toadying to the bureaucrats whose fingers are on the purse strings. This guarantees large grants, large research groups and your name on lots of publications.

All honour to the US National Academy of Science, which was alone in refusing to sign this tacky piece of mythological humbug.

Number of the month

In view of the above the number of the month just has to be 17.

Just for the record, here is the roll of dishonour:

 Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Caribbean, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, New Zealand, Sweden, Turkey and the UK.

The whole Farrago was instigated by one Sir Robert May, of whom number watchers might like to know more.

Sir Robert May is an Australian, who is President of the Royal Society (the UK National Academy of Science) and Professor of Zoology at Oxford University and Imperial College. Originally Professor in Theoretical Physics, University of Sydney, he became transmogrified into a zoologist and became Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government and Head of the Government Office of Science and Technology (1995-2000). He is said to have the ear of the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He is a man of strong views. He strongly argues that we're causing global warming and should do something about it. He also strongly argues that GM has great benefits, and we should stop being hysterical about it.

He was responsible for the dramatic report that convinced the British Government that the terror of global warming was upon us. This report was rather selective in its coverage. It completely omits, for example, the effect of the sunspot cycle or the occurrence of the Little Ice Age, from which the Earth is still warming. It also relies on IPCC surface temperature data that purport to show global warming in action and ignores other data such as satellites and sonde balloons (or indeed the better regulated US surface data) which tell a different story.

In other words – paleface speak with forked tongue. To cap it all he put himself up as one of Tony Blair's so-called People's Peers and was selected to serve among the rest of Tony's cronies in the upper house of Tony's new model parliament. All in all, he is the ultimate establishment figure.



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