Is there really anyone out there (apart from California, of course) who believes that white wine improves lung capacity or eating chips gives you cancer? Such stories are greeted with either hilarity or uninterest by ordinary people in pubs. Yet the media keep trolling them out with Sepulchral headlines that ought to frighten the pants off anyone.
The trouble with peddling lies is that they eventually get found out. The British Chancer of the Exchequer, as usual, gave a bullish account of the future of the economy in his budget speech, promising top growth among nations, and the press followed suit. On track for buoyant Britain yelled the headline in The Times Business Section (May 2nd). Polls indicated that Brown was now top of the pops in politics. Three weeks later The Times headline was Brown blow as economy hits buffers: Britain slumps to bottom of G7 nations with zero growth. The reaction from the establishment was interesting. “These figures must be wrong!” claimed representatives from the Institute of Wet Fingers in the Air and other experts. If they are wrong, why do we keep paying for the upkeep of an Office for National Statistics?
Of course, if you really want a good long-lasting scare then you have to look ahead. It will be decades before the ordinary punters realise that they have been conned about global warming, by which time the scaremongers will have moved onto something else or they will apply the success story defence, as the millennium bug pushers did when no planes actually fell out of the sky because their clocks were wrong, just like the man on the train. Meanwhile, as records always increase with the logarithm of time, the increments must decline as 1/x, even down to as low as 0.04°C.
Why does nobody ever comment on the real threat that is hanging over us, national and personal debt? With the Bush Administration now flirting with protectionism and the Europeans spoiling for a fight, the vaunted recovery in trade might well not happen. Meanwhile the personal debt pushers operate with increasing frenzy and governments blithely ignore the mounting national deficits. As nothing in the real world can increase forever, the only result must be disaster. As with the Internet bubble, critics are simply ignored, but everyone will be wise after the event.
Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop
Faculty of Advanced Chemistry and Roadside Catering
A message from the Dean
It is with great pleasure that I announce the formation of our new Phlogiston Research Unit. I know that some cynics will say that it is just an attempt to create a nice little earner, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are doing this out of the goodness of our hearts and as a service to mankind. And it is certainly nothing to do with the fact that that other lot made a bit of a killing telling a load of porkies about the weather. Ever since that J B Priestly come up with his oxygen theory, people have been blind to the dangers of Phlogiston. I must admit I didn't know about it myself until last Thursday week. Now that we have assembled a fine body of staff to drive forward this thrusting new department, the world will know different. You have my own personal gold-plated, cast-iron guarantee of the academic excellence of this unit. And just to prove it, here is a list of the staff.
Head of Department: Professor Dame
Chief Administrator: Jason Nodule
Deputy Chief Administrator: Fogerty Flannel
Assistant Chief Administrator: Walter Bottle
Departmental Manager: Adrian Jobsworth
Departmental Accountant: Darren Cook-Booker
Human Resources Manager: Sylvester Nematode
Government Initiatives Response Officer: R Scrawler
Deputy Head of Department: Dr Algernon Sensicle
Assistant Head of Department: Maximilian Gastropod
Head of External Affairs: C D Merchant
Chief Press Officer: Benito Goebbels
Ministerial Relations Officer: Mz D Tearsheet
MP Relations Officer: Cilla Cohen
Response Unit (EU): A Gray, V Train
Press Officer (Times Newspapers): Belle Poitrine
Press Officer (BBC): Titus Bottom
Press Officer (Rest of the World): Gloria Stitz
Press Entertainment Officer: Tobias Cuvveridge
Copy Writer: E Stenders
Forms (Main section section): Lou Stool
Forms (Subsection subsection): Felicity Flange
Staff Recruitment Officer: N E Body
Equal Opportunities Officer: Millie Tent
Political Correctness Monitor: Mahatma Blomqvist
Alcohol, Tobacco and Obesity Policy Enforcer: O P A Tewser
Staff Morale Officer: Gladys Friday
Receptionist: Annie Bodice
Data Integrity Officer: Hugh Jerrors
Computer Modellers: R Alcock, N Bull
Computer Programmers: R Gloom, N Doom
Chart Adjuster: Heironymus Bosh
Forecasting Unit: D Zaster, V Grimm
Director of Research: Dr Marmaduke Throttle
Deputy Director of Research: Marcus Membrane
Assistant Director of Research: Colin Wobble
Researcher: A Dogsbody
Can it be? Heaven forfend! It even induced the BBC, of all organisations, to come with the headline Research claims ‘exaggerated’. This was meant to be a secret known only to a tiny minority outside the media and the scientific establishment (readers of Number Watch, Junk Science and other scurrilous sites in our Good Guys list). Now the cat has been let out of the bag by researchers at Dartmouth Medical School. It is fortunate that this is the sort of research that no one ever takes notice of, otherwise these rotters could have queered the pitch for a whole generation of post-scientific researchers. Among the journals whose press releases were investigated were:
Annals of Internal Medicine
British Medical Journal (BMJ)
Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)
Journal of the US National Cancer Institute (JNCI)
The researchers found that many of the releases did not give full statistical information with which to put the findings of the study into full context. Just 23% of the releases noted study limitations. And industry funding was acknowledged in only 22% of the studies that had received it.
Writing in JAMA, lead researchers Dr Steven Woloshin and Dr Lisa Schwartz said: "A number of authors have criticized the accuracy and balance of the news media in reporting on medical science. As a direct means of communication between medical journals and the media, press releases provide an opportunity for journals to influence how the research is translated into news. Our findings suggest journals could make more of this opportunity”. They called on editors to adopt a more rigorous approach towards the way information is presented in press releases.
They said: "The public and many physicians often learn about new medical research through the news media, rather than medical journals. We think that journals can and should do more to enhance the quality of medical reporting."
The same researchers have also criticised the medical press for its reporting of stories from scientific meetings. They say that in many cases journalists report on research that is still at an early stage, but present it as though firm conclusions have been drawn. The researchers analysed 252 news stories written about a total of 147 research presentations from five high profile scientific conferences that took place in 1998.
They found that 25% of the studies were never subsequently published in a scientific journal. They said: "Scientific meetings are intended to provide a forum for researchers to present new work to colleagues. Frequently, the presentations represent work in progress. Unfortunately, many projects fail to live up to their early promise; in some cases, fatal flaws emerge. Press coverage at this early stage may leave the public with the false impression that the data are in fact mature, the methods valid, and the findings widely accepted. As a consequence, patients may experience undue hope or anxiety or may seek unproved, useless, or even dangerous tests and treatments.
PS Note the tailpiece in the original article:
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Veterans Affairs or the United States Government.
The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.
The strange symbiosis between New Labour BBC and the Guardian newspaper gets weirder by the week. The BBC does virtually all its recruitment via the advertising columns of the Guardian, thus ensuring the sinistral political purity of its staff. It must have been one of the misjudgments of the century when they both opted to take a snide line towards the death of an old lady. She was the centenarian Queen Mother and the people gave their opinion when over a million turned out to pay their respects at the funeral. To them she was the embodiment of the indomitable British spirit when they stood alone against the Nazi might. The BBC, at least, saw the error of its ways and gave fine coverage of the Queens Golden Jubilee, when the nation expressed its gratitude, admiration and love for the monarch. How fortunate we are not to have a politician as Head of State! Particularly that politician. The Union Flag was everywhere. This was the national symbol banned by New Labour from its archetypal Dome, which it has just at last managed to give away after a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money went down the drain. Imagine the reaction if the American government tried to ban Old Glory. The republican Guardian maintained its carping even down to tasteless and scatological anti monarchist cartoons.
The incestuous relationship, however, took an even more bizarre turn when prime time on the BBC’s flagship channel was given over to a “drama” co-written by the editor of the Guardian. The basis of the Fields of Gold had already been repudiated by the scientific expert consulted by a Guardian journalist (not, note, by the BBC). When it was finally broadcast on June 8th and 9th, it proved to be the crudest form of scare-mongering based on pure scientific nonsense. It was, of course, lavishly and realistically produced in the traditional BBC style, but nothing could disguise the poverty of the writing.
All the stock characters of left wing demonology are there. Politicians, industrialists, medics, scientists and policemen are all corrupt and venal. Politicians OK, but everybody? There is the debauched, gourmandising old-style reporter, who provides a contrast to the mineral water drinking heroine, pure as the driven snow. The offered hero is an organic farmer manqué, who has been deflected from the paths of righteousness by a father corrupted by Government subsidies. Naturally, they copulate healthily.
No cliché is left unturned. “You’re off the story,” says the editor, in one of the more original lines of dialogue. Bet you’ve never heard that one before.
If it had come from any other source, the script would never have got past first base at the BBC, which despite its precipitous drop in standards has maintained a vein of the original quality. There are all the regulatory convolutions of plot, with the hero turning out to be the villain, misguided but well intentioned, giving him a chance to insert a series of rantings about the evils of GM trials. The Prime Minister intervenes to suppress the story, making him the ultimate villain. Naturally, the drunken old sot of a reporter becomes the ultimate hero who sacrifices himself to save the world and dies amid the burning DNA. As the image of the fields of burning GM crops faded, with an ominous spike of wheat emerging from the ground, the BBC inserted an announcement of where on its web site you could find locations of GM trials. Incitement or what?
The irony is that this has been aired just as the Great Leader has discovered science and realised the economic damage that green mythology can inflict. He is now in the uncomfortable position of embracing GM with one arm while warding off Global Warming with the other.
It is a strange world, when the remnants of what was once its finest broadcasting service uses drama to propagate the most insidious pseudo-scientific propaganda. It cannot be claimed to be ordinary science fiction when it purveys all the latest hype of a vocal lobby. If you have tears, prepare to shed them for the glory that was the BBC and the grandeur that was The Guardian.
Riding the green tiger
was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger.
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside
And the smile on the face of the tiger.
Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society, complained about the BBC inciting eco-terror on the website associated with its drama Fields of Gold (The Times June 11th). Number Watch can hardly disagree when it made the same point on the day of the broadcast. Lord May described the drama as a “ludicrous piece of alarmist science fiction”. An apt description, one is tempted to observe, of the joint statement issued by international research bodies (see Weasel Science, which gave rise to the Number of the Month for May 2001). This was instigated by Sir Robert May. Yes, the very same before his apotheosis. In the New Labour order of things knighthoods are now reserved for the likes of pop singers with depraved lifestyles.
Like his political masters, his lordship likes to think he can pick and mix between real science and green mythology. This is a dangerous pastime, like partially approving of Hitler because he made the trains run on time. Either you practise real science (and in particular look at all the evidence, without suppressing any that is inconvenient) or you don’t. Militant propagandists are dangerous bedfellows for those who claim to adhere to the scientific method.
Orwell that ends well
Britons, never will be slaves
James Thomson 1700-1748
Part of an anthem sung annually, without apparent irony, at the "Last Night of the Proms"
By 1985 people were saying that George Orwell got it wrong. The only thing he got wrong was the date. Sometimes the headlines in one edition of a newspaper seem to sum up the state of a nation. Here are some headlines from the Sunday Times (June 16th) – not exactly an anti-Labour publication. After all it is controlled by Rupert Murdoch, who sponsored the Government in the first place.
Reported crime rose by 6% in the year to March 2002. So much for the slogan “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.”
There seems to be a new law in operation – the law of silly names. At one time school examination boards had names like University of London or Oxford and Cambridge. Like everything else under Thatcherism, examinations were put up for sale. A board called Edexcel has been riddled with incompetence ever since it won the franchise. At least the Post Office is abandoning its expensive conversion to Consignia before it finally goes down in flames. Just think of the number of corporations with silly names that have bitten the dust of late.
The Chancer of the Exchequer has been going on about tax havens for years. Now it emerges that the ex-communist General Secretary of the Labour Party lives in a one million pound house owned by a Leichenstein trust that he controls.
In a classical piece of political misdirection, the Government sought to divert attention from the shenanigans at Westminster by forcing members of virtually powerless parish councils to declare all gifts over £25. As a result they are “resigning in droves”, seeing it as yet another attack mainly on rural communities.
This is a subject that produces more e-mails to Number Watch than any other. From all over the world people report that speed cameras are being used as a source of revenue with no regard for safety issues. Well, Britain’s politicians want even more.
The newly part privatised air traffic control system rejoices in a number of unique features, such as unreadable screens and computer glitches. 250 incidents have been logged since the start of the year.
Just when you thought it had been squashed by a proper consideration, up come another lot from Dublin, with, would you believe, the same number of cases as in the original scare, namely 12.
This farce has run and run throughout the press. It involves an allegation that the Great Leader sought to increase his profile at the funeral of the Queen Mother with a presidential style walkabout. The Government tried its usual tactics of spin and bullying, but came up against an unfamiliar type of opponent with guts and integrity. He is a palace official known as Black Rod. The Government media machine after a lot of sound and fury withdrew in confusion.
The most Orwellian story of all. Known as the Big Brother Bill the Government’s latest wheeze is to grant itself powers to access the communications data of all British citizens. Not just the police and security services, which might just be excusable, but seven Whitehall departments, all local authorities and 11 other organisations. There are now an estimated 1.5 million CCTV cameras monitoring the British people. As a little side issue, doctors will face a £5000 fine for trying to protect the privacy of their patients.
Footnote from The
Times, the following day: Snoopers' charter delayed until autumn
Controversial proposals to allow public bodies access to phone and e-mail records have been put on hold until the next session of Parliament at the earliest, it emerged today.
(apparently the government feared opposition in the Lords. Coincidently, it also announced further action to hasten the emasculation of that house.)
How is this for a truly Orwellian title – NICE. It is the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. Sounds inoffensive enough, but it is actually a committee charged with rationing drugs. Treatments that are available all over the civilised world are denied to British citizens. They don’t ban them all; for example a drug that has proved highly effective in eye disease is made available, but only after the patient has lost the sight in one eye. Because of the activities of NICE, pharmaceutical companies are withdrawing their trials from Britain and are taking them elsewhere. Anyone wanting say Oxaliplatin, believed to be effective for colo-rectal cancer, can only get it in Britain by going private for about £20,000. The chances of surviving for less than five years with this disease in America have fallen to 38%. In Britain it is 60%. Britain’s health service has become the epitome of the sort of constipated, centralised, bureaucratic nightmare inevitably created by authoritarian socialism. Like the rest of the public services it is plagued by auditing, initiatives, league tables and general political interference.
Footnote (added by Bruce Phinney) It is far more than only Orwellian: it is found as a central idea inC.S. Lewis' science fiction trilogy "That Hideous Strength" in which the major plot concerns the N.I.C.E. (the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments), written during WW2 at Oxford. It was an organization of politicians, engineers, and second-rate scientists, in league with literal devils or demons, to subvert and take charge of all of England, with the permission and active cooperation of the government. It was to combine criminal justice with social planning and the elimination of undesirable 'types' such as pub owners and pubs, ensure that only 'correct' news was published, and so on, along with fixing permanently British sanitation problems. One of my favorite books.
Meanwhile, at the Sunday Telegraph of the same day:
Just 6% of reported crimes end up with someone being convicted for the offence. That is the startling conclusion of the Audit Commission. It is another tale of mass incompetence, with many cases failing through sheer inefficiency. Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.
While discussing the disaster of carcinogenic (not to say explosive) chips and crisps last month, Number Watch remarked on the poor rate of closure of rural pubs achieved by this Government, a mere one a day. Well, the Government had come up with a new scam that should put this right. According to the campaigning Christopher Booker, a new licensing scheme to be run by local authorities, involving, of course, a vast new bureaucracy, will replace the magistrates’ license that costs ten pounds. Authorities will be able to impose draconian requirements (such as smoking bans) with no appeal and levy fines of £50,000 with loss of licence.
Regular readers will have noticed that Number Watch often quotes the views of people in pubs. This is because they are the last refuge of us, the politically incorrect. In true Orwellian tradition the “culture” minister, Tessa Jowell, said that this would mean “very significant reductions in bureaucracy and cost.” Oh yeah? In practice, it will mean that complying with the rules will average £5,000, enough to force many smaller (i.e. rural) pubs out of existence.
There are two basic theories of history – the conspiracy theory and the cock-up theory. One of the wonders of Global Warming is that you get both. Here is a piece that appeared in The Times (June 18th):
change may force Alaskan villagers to leave
RESIDENTS of a remote Alaskan village perched precariously on an icebound island are considering abandoning their homes because rising temperatures are making the icepack unstable.
According to government statistics, average temperatures have risen by 5C (40F) in summer and 10C in winter since the 1970s. “There can no longer be any doubt that major changes in the climate have occurred in recent decades in the region, with visible and measurable consequences,” concluded a report published last month by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
There was a lot of other doom-laden emotive guff that need not concern us at the moment. The magic formula EPA should suffice. Does our indefatigable journalist realise what he has actually written? A rise in average temperature of 40F would be astonishing. Alaska would become a sub-tropical paradise.
The error, of course, is in not understanding the distinction between absolute temperatures and increments of temperature. A rise of 5°C actually represents a rise of 9°F. It is a temperature of 5°C that is equivalent to a temperature of 41°F.
The fun, however, does not end there. The intrepid news hawk actually lifted the whole story from the New York Times, and they made it up.
The actual facts are given by Dr Gerd Wendler of the Alaska Climate Research Center. The 40°F turns out to be of the order of 1°F. Close enough for journalism, you might think.
How are the mighty fallen! The Times was once the world renown newspaper of record. Now it cannot even plagiarise accurately. Oh Rupert, Rupert, what hast thou done?
Grateful acknowledgements to Miceal O'Ronain for his usual scholarly research. He adds:
I have verified the accuracy of the ACRC number and obtained identical results, using data from a NOAA web site. The big surprise is that since1978, Alaska has been cooling not warming!
As the cooling trend for 1978-2001 shows, the exceptional event described by Dr. Sue Ann Bowling , whichoccurred in 1976-77, has had a profound impact on Alaskan climate. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation , which could be related to the temperature event described by Dr. Bowling, recently reversed phase after 25 years. It should be interesting to observe the impact of this phase change on Alaskan climate.
PS for anyone new to Number Watch. Quotations from journalistic numbers in any of the pieces above do not constitute an endorsement for accuracy. Quite the contrary!
Number of the Month 9/5
A ratio that is too difficult for a Times reporter (not to say his sub-editor) to understand must be worth recording.
They never give up 1
A group of 29 “experts”, well actually epidemiologists, met under the aegis of the WHO to consider the effects of tobacco with a particular emphasis on passive, secondary or, now, involuntary smoking. Hands up all those who would expect them to come up with a politically incorrect conclusion. They now say smoking increases the risk of stomach, liver, cervical and kidney cancers as well as one type of leukaemia.
The media got the main message – now it’s definite, passive smoking kills.
Dr. Patricia Buffler, an epidemiologist at the University of California at Berkeley (there’s a combination to conjure with) was one of the working group experts.
"What is new is the systematic way the evidence was compiled, reviewed, debated, leading us to a conclusion that was unanimous, that involuntary smoking does cause cancer in the non-smoker," she said.
Britain’s Daily Mail, among others, yelled – Now it’s definite, passive smoking increases the risk of cancer by 20 to 30 percent. Now, as readers of Number Watch must be tired of reading, a relative risk of 1.3 is way below what would be considered acceptable in real science.
There are many reasons for this reluctance. The primary one is that in real science it is found that RRs of less than 2 are frequently contradicted, those between 2 and 3 are sometimes contradicted, while those above 3 are rarely contradicted.
In this particular case, however, we need to cite only one of the many reasons, which is publication bias. This occurs because negative results are almost never publicised. We usually state this by inference, though there have been researched articles on the subject, but sometimes epidemiologists themselves let the cat out of the bag.
One of the many beautiful mathematical results associated with the Poisson distribution for rare events, which governs most of these studies, is that the measure of spread (standard deviation) as a proportion of the mean is equal to the reciprocal of the square root of the expected number of cases. In a typical published epidemiological study they will expect ten and get thirteen (surprisingly often the numbers are smaller). This is joyfully published as a significant result, when it is just about what you would expect. What is not published is where the expected number is ten (by comparison with the population at large) but the result is a politically incorrect seven.
This process is known in statistics as censoring. Because of publication bias, virtually all numbers below the expected value are censored. It follows that, even when there is no real effect, the published relative risk is always around the standard deviation as a relative increment to the mean; some number below 1.5. This effect was demonstrated by modelling in Sorry, wrong number!
The notorious EPA metastudy on “Environmental Tobacco Smoke” came up with the RR of much less that 2, and even that required several clear frauds.
What all these results actually show in real scientific terms is that passive smoking is innocent of all charges.
They never give up 2
Fresh fear over mobile phones bellows New Labour BBC. It transpires that human cells were subjected to “mobile phone radiation” in vitro. Well, it makes a change from nematodes. Again, as regular readers will be tired of hearing, if there were the tiniest increased probability of any disease among the 40 million Britons who use mobile phones, the relevant hospital wards would be overwhelmed with cases. They are overwhelmed, but by bureaucracy not new upsurges of disease.
They never give up 3
The BBC again trumpets – Children of men exposed to radiation while working at the Sellafield nuclear plant have twice the normal risk of developing certain types of cancer, research suggests.
Reading down story we find the actual number of Leukaemia cases was 13, from which we deduce that they expected about 6.5 cases, so followers of dear old Poisson would not be at all surprised. This one was originally dreamt up by one Martin Gardner (a Martin Gardner, not The Martin Gardner) who was, embarrassingly, an epidemiologist at the University of Southampton.
The moral of all this is that, as with global warming, if you repeat a lie often enough, a majority of the punters will end up believing it.
They never give up 4
There was a bumper crop on page 7 of The Times on June 26th. Fruit and veg can beat Alzheimer’s, Aspirin may cut cancer risk, but the big headline was reserved for Vitamin boost for young criminals cuts offence rate. The Trojan number was a miserable 231 who were divided into two groups. Those who were fed the supplements committed 23.6% fewer offences (whatever that means) than those given the placebo. The saving grace was the suitably wry comment in the Times third leader for the day.
They never give up 5
It’s becoming a whole new sub-genre. The usual sort of junk science is presented and a conclusion reached by methods that would not be accepted in real science; usually a Relative Risk of less than two, but with other frills added to taste, such as the anecdotal evidence from a vaguely worded questionnaire, as here. Now, however, they add a call for draconian legislation to curb the rights of ordinary citizens to do the politically incorrect. The distinction between science and propaganda has simply been abandoned. Last month it was drinking on planes (see Clots). This month they are back on the passive smoking kick and a call for a ban on smoking in public places, on the grounds that it causes heart attacks among the innocent. Beware Greeks bearing statistics. It is a variation of the old Kawachi claims, which were so deftly demolished by the Junkman. The RRs vary between 1.26 and 1.46. Oh dear!
Since we have had to repeat it so often, it is important to emphasise that the absolute minimum RR of 2 is not just an invention of the sceptics:
In epidemiologic research, [increases in risk of less than 100 percent] are considered small and are usually difficult to interpret. Such increases may be due to chance, statistical bias, or the effects of confounding factors that are sometimes not evident .[Source: National Cancer Institute, Press Release, October 26, 1994.]
An interesting side issue is that there are significant RRs hidden in the depths of this paper, but they were obviously not considered sufficiently exciting in a PC context to be worth abstracting. There is another real jewel in there; you can reduce your risk of a heart attack from passive smoking by having an academic education. The Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop has already adopted a new slogan – our degrees can seriously undamaged your health.