Number of the Month

December 2003

They can’t see the connection

Story 1 (from The Times 2nd December)

Employers find more pitfalls in new legislation
EMPLOYERS phoning Peninsula, the employment law firm, for advice are put on hold to an appropriate tune — Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

With the number of new employment laws spiralling and employees becoming ever more litigious, business at the employment law firm, one of Britain’s biggest, is booming….But the firm recognises that employers, struggling to get to grips with the new laws being imposed upon them both from the UK and Europe, are not so happy.

This week sees the arrival of the latest batch of employment regulations with the introduction, yesterday, of new laws banning discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation — whether homosexuality, heterosexuality or bisexuality — and today, of laws banning discrimination on the grounds of religion.

Under the new laws, which will bring the UK into line with EU law, any employer who discriminates either directly or indirectly on these grounds faces being taken to a tribunal and it is vital to take measures to prepare.

Neither employers nor business groups dispute the worthiness of new regulations such as these. Their complaint, they say, is about the cost to them of the cumulative impact of a stream of new employment laws.

“There are at least five things employers can be taken to tribunal for now before they have even employed someone,” explains Michael Huss, director of employment law at Peninsula.

“These sex and religion laws, for example, extend to the interview process.”

For employers, these new laws are particularly thorny because, unusually, they cover perception as well as reality: “Because of this the scope for allegations is enormous,” says David Whincup, head of employment law at Hammonds, the employment law firm.

“An employee can take a case on the grounds that they feel the boss is being horrid to them because he thinks they are Catholic, for example.”

As with all employment law, the onus lies with the employer to educate himself about each new law and its implications, put in place the right procedures and ensure that they are followed out........


Story 2 (from the BBC 2nd December)

Norwich Union jobs move to India

UK insurance giant Norwich Union has told staff that it will cut 2,350 jobs in the UK and export the work to India.

Parent firm Aviva said operating costs in India were typically 30-40% lower than in the UK and that the move would also help it provide 24-hour services.

The Amicus trade union criticised the decision to move the jobs to India as "despicable" and vowed to fight it. ……..

Unions have warned that up to 200,000 jobs in the finance sector could leave the UK over the next five years as companies take advantage of cheaper labour costs abroad.

Advice for those thinking of starting a business in the UK



Horror story

One of the benefits of being a pessimist and a nasty old cynic is that you don’t get many unpleasant surprises but, unfortunately, when you do get one it’s a whopper. This is especially stark when you have been complaining for years that something is really bad and then you find that it is far worse than you could possibly have imagined. The Daily Telegraph has just published a series on the real state of Britain’s National Health Service, said to be the third largest organisation in the world. It is all summarised in an editorial that, in the circumstances, is quite restrained.

People are induced by the media to panic about a minor epidemic half a world away (SARS), when the greatest hazard they face is lurking in their local hospital.  Britons who are poor or uninsured face one of the biggest hazards of their lives when they are thrown into a filthy local hospital, crawling with managers and resistant staphylococcus aureus. There is something poignantly symbolic of modern times about a nurse who has a university degree but has not been taught to wash her hands between patients: this in the country that gave birth to Joseph Lister and Florence Nightingale.

At the heart of the problem is the relentless data-gathering that is the raison d’être of the modern bureaucrat. Hospitals are required to run two data systems, one to mismanage the institution and one to satisfy the teeming bureaucrats in the ministry. Could Orwell or Kafka have dreamed up a hospital system that has more managers than beds?

What does the Government do about it? It throws in more money, wrested from the taxpayer, to employ more managers.

If you think there is no connection between this story and those above, think again. It is the fear of exerting discipline, as did the old fashioned hospital matrons, that is killing people.

And the statistical fight back

The establishment riposte to the above criticism of the NHS was not long in coming. In fact, it came the next day in a Times article by our old friend Nigel (Thousands to die) Hawkes; and guess what! It took the form of reams of official statistics.

The figures, to be released today in a report by Sir Nigel Crisp, the NHS chief executive, will delight ministers, who have waited anxiously for signs that the massive investment in the NHS is paying off. 

The most impressive figures in his report cover the fall in patients waiting more than six months for an operation. When the NHS Plan was launched three years ago that stood at 264,370. In the next two years it fell by only 5.9 per cent to 248,690 in September 2002. In the past year that fell by 28.5 per cent, to 177,867. 

“We’ll hit the targets,” Sir Nigel said yesterday. “There’s still a long way to go, but people have done very well. We are seeing accelerating change in the NHS.” 

Hands up all those who thought they would not meet their targets. You do not employ 270,000 managers to manipulate your data and then miss the targets. Of course, to understand official statistics you have to be familiar with the use of weasel words:

Operation numbers are up and there has been a huge increase in outpatient procedures, freeing beds to help to clear the waiting lists.

This translates as “We are solving the bed situation by not letting the patients into the beds in the first place.” No doubt the patients are grateful not to be exposed to all the filth and staphylococci, but they exchange that for the risks of not having trained staff on hand in the event of complications.

At the end there is a grudging mention of the report that triggered off the Telegraph series of articles:

Harriet Sergeant, author of Managing Not To Manage, carried out detailed interviews with staff across the NHS. She described an “obsessive desire for information” from the Department of Health.

One A&E manager said that her difficulties were not caused by violence, number of patients or problems with staff but by “the bureaucracy and the endless meetings”.

but no mention of the squalor.

Of pots and kettles

Incidentally, on the previous day there was the usual junk tobacco story:

WOMEN are twice as likely as men to develop lung cancer from smoking, scientists have found.

New research has suggested that gender can determine whether a smoker contracts the disease — which kills 80 per cent of sufferers within a year of diagnosis.

Hardly worth mentioning except for the identity of the person who delivered the justified criticism:

Other experts, however, were sceptical of the figures, which are based on 77 cases. Sir Richard Peto, of Cancer Research UK’s Clinical Trials Service Unit in Oxford, said: “This is a very small study and its conclusions may well be wrong. It’s simply not true that men and women who smoke have very different lung cancer rates.

Peto was the author, with Doll, of  the 1981 book The causes of cancer, which elevated the cause of junk statistics to new heights.


The Times Global Warming Myth Propaganda Machine seems to be running out of ideas. The headline is:

Global warming puts heat on tour operators 

but the story is the same old threat to the winter sports industry.

 Suffer and die. It's good for you!

The scaremongers are having a go at HRT, yet again. The banner headline on the front of the Daily Telegraph for Friday December 5th read:

Bone specialist quits in protest at curb on 'safe' HRT

Make no mistake about it; this headline marks a substantial victory for the scaremongers. Without a single relative risk of an acceptable level, the pundits have condemned millions of women to the miseries of the menopause, the agonies of broken bones and the risk of death as the result of fractures. The loony epidemiologists and their cronies manage to pack these committees and sit in cold judgment on the lives of ordinary people and the media lap up their foolish proclamations. We have seen it so many times, radiation that was not radiation for example (see Professors of Panic). As the caring medics, like Prof Purdie, and the real scientists withdraw from these farcical proceedings, so the divorce of the medical establishment from real science becomes firmer and the new puritans take control. Heaven forefend that middle-aged women should get some enjoyment out of their lives! This was also the week in which The Lancet called for smoking to be criminalized, inevitably on the basis of the imaginary body count of 1000 deaths from passive smoking.

 Here are some actual facts about osteoporosis:

bulleteach year there are 50,000 fractures of the distal forearm, 50,000 hip fractures, and 40,000 clinically diagnosed vertebral fractures 
bullet22.5% of women aged 50 and over have osteoporosis of the hip 
bulletprogressive bone loss over the years may amount to as much as 30-40% 
bulletas many as 20% of patients who survive a hip fracture may die within one year 
bulletthe average length of hospital stay for patients with hip fracture is 23 days 
bulletof those patients who do survive, more than 50% will be severely disabled—many of them permanently. Only one third of survivors regain full mobility 

Osteoporosis is a disease that will affect 50% of women by the age of 80. One in five women will die following hip fracture, and osteoporosis is directly linked to more than 14 premature deaths each and every day. These are real deaths, not theoretical body counts from statistically insignificant epidemiological surveys.


Meanwhile, back to the Lancet. It is, of course, one of the oldest ploys in the world. You get one party to put forward a proposal so outrageous that it makes your own extremism look moderate. The media fell for it hook, line and cliché, though of course, much of the reaction is disingenuous. The Times of December 6th had no fewer than three articles, one of which was an editorial. Naturally the zealots at ASH received maximum exposure. Denying that they wanted to do anything so extreme, they took the opportunity of repeating the big lie about 120,000 British deaths a year to back up their proposals for banning the sacrilege in public places. The stratagem allowed the lie to be inserted into every tabloid newspaper. There were at least half a dozen other groups of zealots, all trotting out the other big lie of 1,000 dying from passive smoking.

How do we know the 120,000 is a lie? Well, the British zealots are careful not to let you know how they calculate it, but pro rata it is 50% higher than the American figure estimated by the CDC, which has been comprehensively exposed as fraudulent. The figure of 1,000 is, of course, pure epidemiological fantasy, supported by not one iota of scientifically acceptable evidence.

Rising tension

Approaching mid December and the time of year when the palatial headquarters of Number Watch International are besieged by reporters looking for hints as to who are going to be the lucky recipients of the 2003 Numby awards. They are, of course, wasting their time. By tradition the distinguished Board of Electors goes into solemn conclave in a sealed building and has no communication with the outside world until it has come to a decision. This used to be indicated by a change in colour of the smoke emerging from the solitary chimney from white to black but, because of fears that this will add to global warming, it is now announced by a change in the colour of the bed linen traditionally draped on the sill of an upper window.

Some readers have wondered how the organisers of the award ceremony manage to achieve such a glittering attendance. Well, between ourselves, the simple trade secret is that they post a notice in the Resting Actors’ Club announcing that free snoek bagels will be provided, accompanied by brimming glasses of Chateuneuf de Middle Wallop and Schloss Uber Wallop Silvaner Spätlese Trocken.

Aliens cause global warming

Our man in Puerto Rico draws attention to a remarkably fine lecture at Caltech by Michael Crichton. He will forever be associated with his fictional invention of the “grey goo” nanobots, which were taken literally by such extraordinarily credulous notables as the British heir to the throne and the Astronomer Royal, but he says with great precision much of what Number Watch has been trying to say throughout its existence.

Incidentally Bizarre Science discovered another excellent piece by Owen McShane on the Kyoto fiasco.

The old grey goo is dead!

O.K., give up, surrender! It does have to be spelled out. With both proponents and opponents of Nanotechnology, for their  own nefarious purposes,  grossly exaggerating its potential; the grey goo argument simply refuses to go away. This was a fictional invention by Michael Crichton. It is no more going to happen than his Jurassic dinosaurs are going to roam the earth again. Here is the Number Watch  FAQ on the matter.

The Bible Cod

Here is a little seasonal gift for all those lost souls who have made BIBLE CODE by far the most popular search term in Number Watch.

 The junk scientist as hero

On December 16th Channel Five television in the UK broadcast a dramatisation entitled “Hear the silence” about the putative link between the MMR vaccine, inflammatory bowel disease and autism. It was what the critics like to call a powerful drama, packed with stock characters, or caricatures, the determined mother in a lone fight against the wooden and evasive medical establishment, the sceptical father who finally sees the light, the evil international drug companies and mysterious forces tapping ’phones and cutting off research funds. The climax, however, was reached when the hero from real life made his entrance, they stopped short of soft focus and a halo, but it was reminiscent of the scene in Olivier’s film of Richard III when the usurper Henry Tudor (played by the young Stanley Baker before he matured into the epitome of evil) entered in a golden glow to reverential music by William Walton. For it was none other than Andrew Wakefield (see Let the bandwagons role and The new lords of misrule). How this good, kind and wise hero contrasted with the cold villainy of the rest of the medical establishment!

There has already been a furore before the play was broadcast, with claims that it could cost lives. Wakefield’s former colleagues, featured here as cowardly turncoats, tried to undo some of the damage (MMR scare scientist warns of impending measles epidemic). Subsequent large scale studies had failed to find any connection between MMR and autism.  

It takes one back to an earlier example, here as reported in Sorry, wrong number!:

I had originally drafted a paragraph welcoming the forced retirement of an Aberdeen scientist who in August 1998 had prematurely published the results of a botched experiment by way of a scare story on a television programme. It seemed a small victory in the battle against of junk science. I had, however, reckoned without the combined power of SIFs and the media. Quite suddenly in February 1999 the scientist in question, one Dr Pusztai, became an overnight star and one of the most spectacular media feeding frenzies ever occurred. It is an exemplar of the whole genre. The trigger was a presentation by a group of twenty scientists made a presentation at the House of Commons. We suddenly had the junk scientist as hero. No fewer than twenty nine separate SIF groups combined to exploit the resulting furore. Politicians who tried to ride the storm were overwhelmed and panic legislation ensued. It was probably the most successful generated scare ever.

Who remembers Dr Pusztai now? But he served his purpose and the Frankenfood  scare rolls on with growing success. Number Watch holds no brief for the medical establishment, as a scroll through this page will show, but it is even less enamoured with solo scare mongers who put lives at risk in their search for glory.

Footnote: A reader points out that this is one of those occasions when the epidemiologists were the good guys, as was the Guardian, which produced a first class article by Ben Goldacre on the subject. Credit where it is due and damnation to Channel Five, who will have deaths and deformities on their consciences, if they have any.


I believe for every drop of rain that falls a flower grows
Graham, Shirl, Drake and Stillman (yes, it took four of them!)

It was three years ago (December 2000) in the first year of Number Watch that we discovered the phenomenon of the sceptic who believes, but number watcher Ray Futrell has discovered a new and equally exquisite example. The second half of this diatribe must be one of the finest exhibitions of credulity in the canon.

There is, of course, a more sinister interpretation, that failure to believe is a mortal sin that should not go unpunished. Time was when it was the duty of all scientists to be sceptical. Now that religion, in the form of the new eco-theology, has re-established its grip, we might all have to recant like Galileo or face dire consequences.

Old faithful

It is reassuring that there is still some constancy in this changing world. Nigel (thousands to die) Hawkes has come across a new vCJD scare and introduces it in The Times of December 18 in his own inimitable style:

Thousands at risk of vCJD from blood transfusion

THOUSANDS of people who have had blood transfusions since 1996 could be at risk of developing the human form of “mad cow” disease.

Blood transfusions have been identified as a potential route of infection for variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), for which there is no treatment or cure....

The third annual Numby Awards

The Balls Pond Road was in seasonal festive mood with lights flashing red, green and amber. They were, however, outshone by the powerful lights erected by the TV crews. Next year they have promised to bring cameras. Distinguished participants milled about in the foyer leading to the stairs up to the glamorous assembly rooms above the Takeaway Kebab, removing waterproofs and bicycle clips. The air was filled with the sounds of air kisses, “Mwaagh” and “Daahling”.

The master of ceremonies for the occasion was Old Ned, emeritus environmental correspondent for Number Watch. He had become bored with his retirement, brought about by unexpected wealth from wind farming, and he is now taking a degree in Chat Show Hosting at the Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop. The presentations were made by Baroness Eckerslyke, Junior Minister for Truth and Stuff.

The Baroness began by noting that one of the recipients for the 2002 Numbies had been her distinguished colleague, Gordon Brown, and she emphasised that his achievements had not stopped there. He has managed to fund the vitally needed extra managers in the public service, yet has only had to impose a 50% increase in taxation with only sixty individual tax increases that people scarcely noticed.

Thanks to endowments by external organisations, there were two new awards to be made this year. The first was endowed by the Brotherhood of the Holy Environment and it will be known as the Unknown Soldier Award. All the great religious faiths of the world depend not on the prominent prophets or the globetrotting archbishops. No, it is the common foot-soldiers who spread the word. The award goes to a correspondent to the Blackmore Vale Magazine about the proposal to beautify the Vale with a giant array of religious icons. The judges described it as “a short piece, but one in which every word is redolent of meaning”:

Wind turbines

(Copy of letter sent to Somerton and Frome MP, David Heath}
 I am fully in support of any means possible to stop the planet's destruction and reduce the demand on fossil fuels that are creating green-house gasses.
These turbines will in the future, be looked at with the same affection as we look at Stonehenge today and be of far more use in saving our children's inheritance.
As a Liberal MP I expect you to actively support their erection. I would hope you can voice opposition to the narrow minded and selfish attitude to opposition.
The only way to save the Vale for our children and their children is build turbines and not look at the immediate selfish view of a very narrow minority. Without turbines in 100 years plus there will be no Vale to save. Only a desert.
Please note I will see the turbines from my home as my home overlooks the Blackmore Vale.

J MelIor, Shaftesbury

 The second of the new awards has been sponsored by the IPPC (not to be confused with the IPCC, which is quite different – well, actually not all that different – well a bit different – well not very different at all – but different, anyway). IPPC is the Institute for Propagation of Political Correctness, who have donated the Conformity Cup in addition to the coveted Numby. This was shared by the twelve presidents of medical institutions who, in a letter to The Times, called for the abolition of smoking in public. The citation noted their single mindedness in concentrating on the 1,000 theoretical (only nasty old cynics say imaginary) deaths from passive smoking and not being deflected by such trivial considerations as the 5,000 real corpses resulting from infections contracted in festering state hospitals.

 There was little doubt about who would receive the two top awards. In fact the leading bookmakers had stopped taking bets by mid summer.

 The Woman of the Year award was this year donated by the Sisters of the Abbey of St Rachel of the Silent Spring. In giving the award to Margot Wallström, the distinguished panel concentrated less on her wonderful religious inspiration and more on her enormous single-handed efforts to return Europe to the glories of its past. Thanks to her, Europe can once again become the labour-intensive agricultural monoculture that it was in the glory days, unsullied by the scars of modern industry. Not only that, but European traditions, such as the great plagues that swept through the continent at regular intervals, can be restored. The first of the new Great Plagues of Europe (affectionately known as Margot’s Murrains) was so aptly timed, affecting turkeys on the build up to Christmas and fostered by just one of hundreds of bans of chemicals instituted by the European Commissioner. It all just goes to demonstrate what one obscure politician can achieve when untrammelled by the constraints of democracy. Without her, it is extremely doubtful whether Europe could have come anywhere near achieving its target of zero economic growth.

 The Man of the Year award was also much of a forgone conclusion. The citation paraphrased The Bard:

 Why, Mann, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about to find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings. 

Mann achieved fame by the creation of the famous Hockey Stick, which the IPPC adopted as its leitmotiv. Thereby he banished from history both the Mediaeval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age, despite all the evidence from art, literature, entomology and other disciplines. The Hockey Stick became the main prop for the Kyoto, treaty, so Mann can rightly claim to have had more effect on the world economy than any individual since Adolf Hitler.

When upstart underlings had the temerity to challenge his dicta he reacted with the magisterial certainty of the true mullah, pouring scorn, with the aid of no fewer than thirteen acolytes, upon the journal that allowed such heresy to pass into the public domain. Thus he was able to confirm the return of science to its proper place denied since the time of Galileo as the hand servant of true religion. Indubitably a man of global and historical significance, he is clearly worthy of the highest award available to the distinguished board of judges for the Numbies.

As is the usual practice, the base of the statuette was engraved with a quotation from one of the world’s great works of philosophy. In this case, the chosen quotation was “The truth is out there”. Unfortunately, our engraver started out with a choice of lettering that was too large, so the last word had to be omitted, but the sentiment was still adequately expressed.

In contrast, the more dubious award for Party Poopers of the year goes to McIntyre and McKitrick of Ontario. Despite the just opprobrium visited on the earlier heretics, they had the audacity to try to repudiate Mann’s revelation and (worse) to do so by attempting to reproduce his own methods. This is not only considered very unsporting in establishment circles, to say nothing of lese-majesty, it is also forbidden for the unordained to meddle in such mysteries as applying the methods of linear algebra to highly non-linear systems.

 In her final address, the Minister expressed her disappointment that the major awards had gone to foreigners. After all Britain has one of the most productive state-controlled number-generating industries in the world. Nevertheless she was obliged to concede that true merit must be recognised.

The streets of Islington, the spiritual home of New Labour, had fallen into a dank and sullen silence, but it was suddenly broken as the assembly room doors were flung open and the milling crowd spilled out onto the pavement. Briefly, gay mirth filled the air, and from within could be heard the sound of the Over Wallop Silver Band playing their final number, the new hit single from the wonder boy  band, The Plonk, “Don’t they know we’re having sex for Christmas?” The crowds slowly drifted away and gradually the streets returned to their habitual nocturnal somnolence. A gentle drizzle bathed Islington Green. Was it imagination or did the site of the long gone Collins Music Hall echo with the faint sound of hollow laughter from generations past?

Number of the month - One 

This is the total number of mad cow cases reported this year in the USA. It will be interesting to see how much general panic, bureaucratic incompetence and media hype it induces, compared with the British effort. There will also be the seizure of the opportunity for pursuing a trade war (a couple of dozen countries have already banned American beef) and the thinly veiled schadenfreude exhibited by the Brits, who had their turn on the receiving end. It is also another neat little windfall for Stanley Prusiner, whose nice little earner looked as though it were going to fall flat. The New York Times was remarkably sane about it all.

Other numbers to savour (from The Times of  December 28) as this story develops are the 348 million steaks sold in American restaurants per year and the 352,000 Big Macs sold yearly to the 1,045 inhabitants of Irwindale, California. No doubt they will show the stoical fortitude that is the hallmark of their state and carry on eating.

Number of the year - 137

This is the total number of vCJD deaths recorded ever. It was meant to be millions, but something went wrong somewhere. It all but destroyed the British beef industry. If this is not exciting enough how about the total of 774 deaths ever from SARS? That caused a temporary economic collapse in south east Asia. For a really boring comparison consider the 20 million deaths from influenza in 1918 alone. The important thing to remember is that Panic Sells Papers.


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