Number of the Month

November  2002

Whose Money?

Apropos of last month's number of the month, a further plea for enlightenment. Whose money is it that is being offered to your bending author on a daily basis, though he "may" have a poor credit record? Most offers come from the land of the Mighty Dollar, where they don't seem to appreciate that .uk means that one does not live there. It seems unlikely that these pushers are risking there own money, so is there just another bunch of sucker share-holders out there, waiting to be fleeced?

Nature Notes

By Miss Deirdre Smallpiece

Unfortunately, Old Ned is not able to keep his promise to present a second edition of nature notes, as he is at present on a world cruise to celebrate the success of his organic smallholding. Fortunately, however, he has prevailed upon his neighbour to stand in for him.

I was very flattered when Old Ned asked me to stand in for him in writing some nature notes for you. To be honest I was somewhat astonished, as I had not realised that he was literate. However, he tells me that he has received many letters saying that his writings had made people see organic food in a whole new light, so he is obviously more a man of achievement than I had credited.

I cannot hope to emulate Old Ned’s knowledge of the countryside and its inhabitants, but perhaps I can make up for that with a more felicitous turn of phrase. Furthermore, I have an enduring love for all God’s little creatures and I would never think of eating one of them.

Dear Doctor Thanatos told me that he felt that some of my little ailments were exacerbated by loneliness and that I should have a pet. Much though I love the little creatures, they do tend to have some rather unendearing habits, don’t they? I sought advice on a pet that would be amenable to my little ways. My nephew, who is a microbiologist, suggested an amoeba. He gave me one, on a little slide, with one of his old microscopes so that I could watch it swimming happily about. This was not entirely successful as it exacerbated my eyestrain. Furthermore, I soon found that I did not have one pet, but dozens. While their method of (if you will pardon the expression) Reproduction is of a somewhat discreet nature, they still present one with the problem of finding a good home for the offspring, even worse than kittens. The Dear Doctor offered to give the whole family a home in his aquarium. I do hope they get on all right with his guppies.

Old Ned came up with the suggestion of a couple of earthworms. I agreed, with the proviso that they should be both boys. He provided me with a glass tank, filled with what he called the right stuff and two fine specimens. His charge was really quite modest. Unfortunately, they rarely surfaced; so they offered me little companionship. Even more unfortunately, I soon found that I had hundreds of the little creatures. Old Ned must be less sure than he thinks of his capacity to determine gender. The Dear Doctor said that they were hermaphrodites. How knowledgeable he is! With one look he was able to determine their species. I had to rely on the Colonel to offer them a good home. I am not too sure about his credentials as an animal lover. After all he hunts those dear little foxes and he angles for carp in the big lake, but he assured me that my pets would lead a useful life.

Eventually old Mrs Tidy solved the problem. She knitted me a Pooh and a Piglet in fine wool and stuffed them with environmentally friendly rags. Now when I go to bed I feel I am in touch with our little animal friends, without those little inconveniences that they cause us.

Isn’t that Global Warming a terrible thing! Such a nice young man from Friends of the Earth called at my door to explain it to me. Apparently, not only that terrible rain and the killer storm last month were caused by global warming, but so was the drought the month before. It is all due to a terrible substance called carbon that we release into the atmosphere whenever we burn anything. Ever since, I have felt too guilty to light my little fire. Many an evening I have sat in my little parlour, shivering, clutching my hand-knitted shawl around me, thinking of the awfulness of global warming. I just had to give the Friends a little money. It was the least I could do.

However, a charming young man from Green Peace came to my door a few days later. He cheered me up no end. He said he was very pleased with me, as I never allowed flesh to pass my lips and ate only organic food from Old Ned’s smallholding. He told me all about things called free radicals that eat away at the entrails of meat eaters. I have had nightmares ever since about little white roots roving around in people’s bodies, devouring them from the inside and giving them cancer. And what about those dreadful Frankenstein foods? Apparently they may cause all sorts of unknown diseases. I lost a lot of sleep over that, and had dreams of hideously deformed cabbages with bolts through their stems. Why does our Dear Young Prime Minister not do something to stop these wicked scientists? I just had to give Green Peace a little money. And I will write to the PM; after all I have been a regular donor since he turned Labour into the Nice Party.

I used to take a little glass of British Sherry in the evening to help me get to sleep; but a very pleasant young man from Alcohol Concern called at my little cottage. He told me about the terrible consequences of just starting on the road to alcohol. Now, when I hear Old Ned and Old George stumbling along the road from the village pub past my cottage singing raucously, I fear so much for their futures. What sad lives they lead! I just had to give Alcohol Concern some money. If only the Dear Vicar could be so effective in his sermons!

Anyway, back to nature. I love to sit looking out of my little window at the birds and the butterflies carrying on their daily business. What happy, carefree little lives they lead! I don’t get out so much these days. My little inheritance does not seem to go so far as it used. Still, as Old Ned said after a rather unpleasant incident outside my little gate after closing time “Better out than in”. Lovely though our little animal chums are, they do have their embarrassing little ways that upset the smooth running of a household, so it is better to spy them through my chintz curtains. Now I must go to see the Dear Doctor about my insomnia and the aches in my bones. My visits to him do brighten up the day so, but he seems to be getting so tired these days, yawning all the time. He is so overworked. I offered him one of my little organic tisanes, but he declined. Professional pride, I suspect. Then I must get on with embroidering a hassock for the Dear Vicar. He relies on me so much to ease his burden. He is always saying that he really must not impose upon my time so much. Dear, silly man! Life is so busy; I don’t know where the time goes.

Rituals of the medicine men

The British Medical Association has long abandoned any relationship to real science, reflecting the fall of modern medicine as so dramatically recounted by James LeFanu. All the media dutifully reported the BMA’s latest call for a ban on smoking in public places. This arises from their latest report Towards a smoke free environment. It is all based on the usual non-science, such as relative risks of less than 1.3, a zero threshold assumption that would make tobacco unique in the annals of toxicology and the hoary old 4,000 chemicals, a feature tobacco shares with all living things. It is just pure PC propaganda with no scientific foundation whatsoever. The capacity of medical men to hold onto their cherished beliefs in the face of all the evidence never ceases to startle. A good example is all the nonsense they spout about cholesterol and low fat diets.

Talking of which, reader Dennis Ambler draws the attention of Number Watch to a kindred spirit in Dr Uffe Ravnskov, whose web site The cholesterol myths deals with the real science and exposes the nonsense. This demonstrates  once more that the web is the last refuge of true scholarship.

The headline grabber in the tobacco propaganda is the claim of 1,000 deaths in the UK from passive smoking; a good example of the form of Trojan Number we have dubbed the Virtual Body Count. It probably comes from the notoriously and grotesquely fraudulent EPA "meta-analysis" with pro-rata adjustment for population and the usual increment for luck.


Regular readers will have observed that Number Watch has a very low opinion of politicians, but the behaviour of British MPs over pensions stinks to high heaven. Two decades ago they allowed the Thatcher Government to break the traditional link between average earnings and pensions. This meant that people’s contributions went up with earnings, but their ultimate pensions did not. Under the present Government they have stood by while the Chancer carried out a disgraceful raid on people’s pension funds. The ultimate betrayal, however, occurred on July 23rd 2002, when MPs awarded themselves a generous increment to their own already generous pension arrangements. Meanwhile they have voted themselves greatly increased salaries, reduced hours and even longer holidays. As an example of PUTLIAR and DAISNAID it beggars belief.

All power then to the elbow of 68 year old George Baird, who earned a large splash on the back page of The Times Money section of November 9th with a story about his new web site Pensioners Awake. He rightly observes that pensioners, who have nine million votes, can eject a government on their own.

The present Chancer of the Exchequer seems to maintain the objective of getting as many people as possible on means-tested benefits and filling in complicated forms for the overweening bureaucracy that is his pride and joy. The pensioners have the means to dent his ambitions, if only they will exercise it. UK readers of Number Watch can help by printing copies of the web pages for pensioners who do not have internet access.

Alcoholic haze

New Labour BBC had a PC propaganda field day on its radio show PM on November 12th . The big item was Can a tobacco company really be socially responsible? Which among other phenomena allowed our Clive (Bates of ASH) to entertain us with one of his self-important effusions. However, much more satisfying for seasoned number watchers was the item Alcohol increases breast cancer risk. This carried the authority of no less a luminary than Sir Richard Doll, co-author of The causes of Cancer and always good for a rousing, if empty, scare. It transpires that one drink per day increases the risk of breast cancer by 6% and, furthermore, every extra drink increases it by another 6%. A relative risk of 1.06 is ludicrous even by the standards of the most fervent of epidemiologists. The Trojan Number of women in the study was 150,000, but we can deduce from risk estimates given that the number with breast cancer would probably be under 1,000. By the time you have divided them up into categories of drunkenness, you are talking about a couple of hundred in each, so the 6% would appear to be based on about 12 women.

Let us make the fanciful assumption that this figure is correct. In order to achieve a relative risk remotely acceptable to real science (2.0), a woman would have to consume twelve drinks every day of her life. Unfortunately, she would probably succumb to brain damage and liver failure, which would tend to invalidate the experiment.

 Last month, according to the BBC, smoking caused breast cancer. This month it is not a factor. Back in March it was deprivation. Going to the original press release, we find that the “research” is actually a "meta-analysis", involving the combination of 50 different studies. We are not told what else was dredged for in the data. The moral of the story is, of course, if you live a puritan life you will live forever, or at least until Dr Alzheimer comes calling, or you don’t die of boredom.

And the very next day

This happened:

Click to view full size

To appreciate the impact of the "research" we have to remember that the figure that created all these headlines is based on a Relative Risk of 1.06. Your bending author, in attempting to quantify the effect of publication bias wrote "Observing the literature in general, we know that they are all willing to publish a RR of 2.0 but almost nobody will publish an RR of less that 1.1" This is of course forgetting that almost nobody includes Sir Richard Doll, the Clown Prince of British Junk Science. What is very nearly the most insignificant statistical result ever published produced such comments as:

Shocking figures...A huge Cancer Research UK study...But the sheer size of the study... has allowed researchers to make the most accurate assessments of the risks (Daily Mail)

...urge the government to alert people to the dangers...this research underlines the crucial importance of 16 to 20 year old women taking on board the sensible drinking message (The Times)

...hailed as the final word on the role that alcohol and tobacco play in disease...The collaborative group reanalysed individual data from 53 epidemiological studies involving 58,515 with breast cancer and 95,067 without  (so Number Watch got that wrong, Sorry wrong number!) (The Guardian)

..(alcohol) accounts for 2,000  cases of breast cancer out of 40,000 new cases diagnosed every year (The Independent)

...Of every 1,000 women who drink an average of one small glass of wine a day there are an extra six to seven  cases of breast cancer (Daily Express)

...those who drank a glass of wine a day are 6 per cent more likely  than non-drinkers to develop breast cancer by the age of 80...(The Daily Telegraph)

Note the age of 80 in the final remark. The risk of this disease increases by 14,000 per cent between the ages of 25 and 80. Women are invited to panic over an extra 6%. We simple engineers have an expression "lost in the noise" that seems to cover it. Ignoring the age factor is Richard Doll's personal gimmick that gave rise to his whole book on The causes of cancer, which James Le Fanu so elegantly demolished.

Nasty old cynics do not accept the validity of the technique of the Meta-analysis, except in the most highly controlled and highly similar studies.

The extra information tells us that the studies involved were actually control studies with an average of  1100 cancer cases compared with 1800 controls. This brings in a whole host of other potential vagaries, particularly if some or all of them were data dredges.

The gentle art of subreption

One of the few writers on medical affairs who adhere to the principles of good science is James Le Fanu, much admired by your bending author, as the frequent references in Number Watch to his landmark book attest. Recently in his Telegraph column he has taken on the myth of the low salt diet. Like the Cholesterol Myths, this is maintained by a process of completely ignoring the overwhelming contrary evidence. As observed above in Rituals of the medicine men, the medical establishment sails on, peddling its foolish nostrums, completely oblivious of the nature and methods of real science. Fortunately, there are still a few voices in the wilderness speaking up for the lost ideals of science-based medicine.

Any more for the bandwagon

Which organisation will be next to come up with a global warming scare? If you have not produced one, you are not in the swim. Soon it will be the turn of the Mothers' Union or the Philatelic Guild, but this month it is National Trust and the Royal Horticultural Society. Their effort made all the media headlines, such as the Daily Telegraph's Is this the end for the English country garden? By Charles Clover, Environment Editor.

Most of the global warming nonsense in the UK can be traced back to a paper by Sir Robert May. After five years it is about time this effusion received some commentary, so at great risk of  being impaled upon traitors gate, your bending author has modestly submitted Sir Robert May annotated

Brussels sprouts health scare

And Aaron said, let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief.
Exodus, 32, 22

Aaron Oakley's Bizarre Science "Blog" is one of the few of that genre worth a regular read. His latest scoop (November 25) is a follow up to the Belgian health scare about Coca Cola. It is now reported in a scientific publication as an example of "mass sociogenic illness". That, of course, can be said about nearly all health scares propagated by the media, but it is quite unique for one to be recognised as such. Perhaps there is hope for the future of science after all.

Question of the month

Professor David Baron asks:

A Wessex Electric operated by South West Trains takes about 0.75 Megawatts from the supply. How many windmills is that?

We referred the question to wind expert Dr Diogenes Gastritis of the Phlogiston Research Unit at the Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop, who replies:

That is about one windmill, as long as it is a big one and, of course, the wind happens to be blowing. We at the PRU, however, are working on a more advanced technological solution, the Sailtrain ®. We have a gaff-rigged 0-4-2 locomotive currently on test on a section of the former Sprat and Winkle Line, which runs close by our campus. On the drawing board, however, we have a square-rigger, which should be considerably more powerful and might even be able to pull a carriage in a gale. As you might imagine there are one or two small technical problems to be solved. The first is – what happens when the wind fails to blow? Here we have taken a leaf out of the book of that great inventor Sir Clive Sinclair and will provide a set of pedals for each passenger. An added bonus is that our Obesity Monitoring Unit calculates that this will reduce the national overweight by 27.3580 %, almost overnight. The second problem is posed by tunnels. At the moment passengers experience a short delay while the masts are lowered. This will ultimately be overcome by excavating the tunnels to a greater depth.

Even further into the future is our 4-4-4 Quinquereme, in which passengers will be arranged in five tiers and will have access to an ingenious arrangement of rods by which they will be able to assist the motive force. This will be to their financial advantage, as they will be able to save on expensive gymnasium fees.

This will all of course be subject to the success of our grant applications to the Office of Science and Technology. However, in view of the evidence of climate change produced by the monitoring centre on the roof of the laboratory boiler room, we are confident of success. Our computer models show that, unless we put a stop to the build up of phlogiston in the atmosphere due to excessive combustion, Britain will soon become like Madeira. Then where would we go for our holidays?

Number of the month 0.23657

Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.

 With age comes forgetfulness. Your bending author occasionally has lapses of memory, which in deepest rural Wiltshire are known as CRAFT moments (Can’t Remember A F****** Thing), including forgetting why he took early retirement in order to write a book called Sorry, wrong number! It is therefore salutary to be reminded. Such a reminder comes in the form of a robust attack on Sir Robert May annotated by one James S Dunkelow Jr ([email protected] ). While it is deeply gratifying to get a rise out of the establishment, it is difficult to let such obfuscation pass without comment. By the way, the allusion to four year olds is unconsciously apt, as the original remark was a deliberate quotation from the English tradition of pantomime, which would be quite impossible to explain to an American.

If I hadn't read Professor Brignell's impressive bio, I would have thought his commentary a hoax similar to Alan Sokal's dirty trick on the journal Social Text, intended to bring disrepute to all the climate sceptics that fell for it. Much of his commentary/annotation of May's white paper has the flavor of the 4 year old's rebuttal, "'Tis not", and most of it is too vague to be subject to fact checking. At one point, however, (commenting on a paragraph of May's discussing climate in Central England) he writes:

"Why choose Central England? It is one of the most populous places on Earth (as shown by the photograph of the UK at night). It has more people, homes, factories, vehicles and concrete per unit area than almost anywhere. There are accurate surface temperature records for hundres of rural sites around the world. They show no warming. Neither do the satellite or balloon measurements [underlined in the original]. The most obvious characteristic of Central England is that it is the epitome of the Urban heat island. Why not choose: ... [and there follows a list of approximately 300 sites around the world]. From the context, the reader might reasonably assume that all of these sites "show no warming".

As it turns out the "climate sceptic" reader who was sceptical enough to actually check a few of them would be disappointed. I checked fourteen of them, chosen more or less at random (with the exception of a handful I already had in my files):

Fairmont, Minnesota -- 1885-2000, trend = +0.23657 deg F per decade, statistically significant (henceforth abbreviated StatSig); 1970-2000, trend = +0.78253 deg F per decade, not StatSig.

Fort Scott, Kansas -- 1842-2000 (with some lacunae), trend = +0.16828 deg F per decade, StatSig; 1970-2000, trend = +0.10798 deg F per decade, not StatSig.

Sedan, Kansas -- 1885-2000, trend = -0.01719 deg F per decade, not StatSig; 1970-2000, trend = +0.50092 deg F per decade, StatSig.

Laramie, Wyoming -- 1870-2000 (with lacunae), trend = -0.03470 deg F per decade, not StatSig; 1970-2000, trend = 0.42645 deg F per decade, not StatSig.

Snoqualmie Falls, Washington -- 1900-2000, trend = +0.04444 deg F per decade, not StatSig; 1970-2000, trend = +0.53657 deg F per decade, StatSig. 

Death Valley, California -- 1912-2000, trend = +0.19671 deg F per decade, StatSig; 1970-2000, trend = +0.21946 deg F per decade, not StatSig.

Santa Cruz, California -- 1870-2000, trend = -0.05284 deg F per decade, not StatSig; 1970-2000, trend = +0.40004 deg F per decade, not StatSig (actually, close to statistical significance at 95% level).

Colfax, Washington -- 1890-1993, trend = +0.16200 deg F per decade, StatSig; 1970-1993, trend = +0.23310 deg F per decade, not StatSig. 

Eagle Pass, Texas -- 1850-2000 (with lacunae), trend = +0.06204 deg F per decade, StatSig; 1970-2000 (with lacunae), trend = +1.13666 deg F per decade, StatSig.

All of the above data from the Idso's website <> (note the units of deg F).

The following data is from the GISS website, <> (not the units of deg C). Debrecen, Hungary -- 1853-2000, trend = +0.015445 deg C per decade, not StatSig; 1970-2000, trend = +0.195484 deg C per decade, not StatSig.

Pecs, Hungary -- 1951-2000, trend = +0.01587 deg C per decade, not StatSig; 1970-2000, trend = +0.380927 deg C per decade, StatSig.

Marrakech, Morocco -- 1924-2001, trend = -0.04951 deg C per decade, not StatSig; 1970-2001, trend = +0.536634 deg C per decade, StatSig.

Valentia Observatory, Ireland -- 1898-2000, trend = +0.014695 deg C per decade, not StatSig; 1970-2000, trend = +0.233952 deg C per decade, StatSig.

Sachs Harbor, Canada -- 1955-1985, trend = +0.278554 deg C per decade, not StatSig.

So what is the bottom line here? None of the four negative trends (i.e., no warming) are statistically significant. None of the negative trends are for the last three decades (1970-2000). Eleven of the 23 positive trend (i.e., warming) are statistically significant. We can further test the idea that these fourteen sites "show no warming", as claimed by Brignell, using the sign test. Independent of statistical significance or not, if the true trend were zero (no warming, no cooling) we would expect about half of the trends to be positive and half to be negative. The probability of getting 23 positive and 4 negative trends, under the assumption of no warming, is well below p = 0.01 (the z-score is approximately 3.5. Where did Brignell go astray? It would appear that he simply copied John Daly's list of meteorological stations that "show no warming". Indeed, if you click on the station names in Brignell's "annotation" of Robert May's white paper, John Daly's naked graphs, with no trend calculated and no grid lines to help the viewer put together an "eyeball" linear fit to the data are what pops up.

Of course, readers in this forum should be well aware that balloon records do, in fact, show warming, and that satellite records show strong and statistically significant warming north of 20N. Further, the Angell radiosonde data set, "validates" the surface temperature record at least as well as it validates the satellite record.

Great tragedy of science -- beautiful theory -- ugly fact. Perhaps the Brignell "annotation" will not achieve the status of one of the "climate sceptic" sacred texts.

Being a simple engineer, YBA likes to deal in pictures.  First is the one presented as the convincing evidence of global warming by the establishment:


Second, and arbitrarily, the first in Dunkelow’s list as showing a statistically significant trend:

Bit of a difference, isn’t there? We are invited to believe that there is a “statistically significant” trend of +0.23657 deg F per decade in the second case. Five significant figures, for Heaven’s sake! In the bad old days good men were drummed out of engineering school for less. We are not told how statistically significant, e.g. a P value. Novelists are allowed to use the description tall in describing a character, or in this case a story, but scientists are supposed to say how tall. In fact, a later parenthesis suggest that the chosen level is 95% or P=0.05, acceptable to epidemiologists but not used much in real science.

Let’s face it; the Earth probably is warming. It ought to be, as it is still a degree cooler than it was a thousand years ago. The two vital questions are (a) Is it possible to see it in the numbers? (b) Is it man-made? Science has come to accept that some things might be there but remain invisible, especially since the establishment of the uncertainty principle. A medic, seeing the first chart, would probably diagnose that the patient is running a fever and would prescribe treatment, but would he do so in the second case?

The fact is that the first chart is deliberately designed to mislead by the process of subreption. That is why it was chosen long ago as our prime example of advanced chartmanship. It uses a carefully chosen start point, ignores most of the available data and ignores the vital forcing variable (solar radiation) in order to pin the blame on the chosen victim (industrialisation).

The second chart shows nothing. Trends in statistical data are never zero. Counting the number of positives is really scraping the bottom of the barrel (did it myself once, but that was in a long forgotten PhD thesis, and before enlightenment). A good rule of thumb in such cases is If you can’t see it, it ain’t there, or as Lord Rutherford put it:

If your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment.

While in quotation mode, here is one from Andrew Lang (1844-1912) that seems rather apt:

He uses statistics as a drunken man uses a lamppost – for support rather than illumination.

 Number Watch is in danger of turning into a single issue site, so while global warming  is where the big liars lurk, it is perhaps time to give it a rest.

See also comment by Frank R Borger in the Number Watch Forum (11/30/02). It is labelled No Subject, which seems somehow apt. In response to correspondence there is also a FAQ on trend fitting.



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