Number of the Month

August  2004

Join the bandwagon and rays a laugh

 Yes folks, it’s time for the annual Silly Season Show! Opening acts include David (shoots from the hip) Blunkett <material removed>

Blunkett, the UK Home Secretary and always the first to leap onto any passing bandwagon, initiated the first big August headline in the Sunday TimesCompulsory lie tests for paedophiles. Of all the many things that come out of America, good or bad, why does the British Government have to seize on the loony ones? It is now well known that in Britain, as in America, there is a paedophile on every street corner, which necessitates children being confined to their bedrooms, playing computer games and getting fat. This is the perfect Silly Season story complete with all the ingredients, nutty professor (of Forensic Psychiatry), draconian powers and a bit of apparatus that has zero scientific credibility.

Apparently warnings have come from America that the “polygraph” is only 90% accurate. It would be refreshing to see any little teeny-weeny smattering of a micro-iota of evidence that it is even 9% efficient. It is the modern equivalent of the Malleus Maleficarum (the Hammer of Witchcraft). Of course we do not now even have the preparatory torture (stripping, threatening, binding, whipping and stretching on the rack or ladder) let alone the full torture (for which you will have to consult the original as you bending author is a little squeamish), but the scientific basis is just as secure.

The other story, on the inner pages of the same edition, is not quite as perfect. It has the nutty professor and the dodgy apparatus, but it does not have the draconian powers. However, a new marketing company is good substitute. It must have been complicated, as our Jonathan needed the help of an acolyte (Michael Fox) to write it. The headline goes Magnetic gun has a cure for headaches in its sites.

Scientists may have found a drug-free treatment for the common headache – using and electric “gun” to fire magnetic pulses into the brain.

The researchers are designing a device that can be kept at home and then used to fire soothing magnetic rays (sic) into the head when sufferers feel a headache developing. If the device went into widespread use it could deal a big blow to Britain’s £300 million a year market for headache pills.

Apparently headaches are caused by a wave of electrical activity spreading across the cortex. Studies have shown that after each neuron fires it undergoes a brief quiet spell. The theory is that hitting such cells with a magnetic pulse could prevent them sending a signal and so block the headache before it spread.

Hang on a minute! What happens to the brain if you stop the neurons firing? At best a knockout. And by what mechanism does a magnetic field do this, the Hall effect?

Magnetic rays! Doesn't it take you back to the horror comics and the stilted monochrome films at the Saturday morning picture show? But then you are probably not old enough. "Soothing" magnetic rays is a new angle. They used to be used to threaten the obliteration of the human race. Unfortunately, Maxwell's equations do not admit such a phenomenon, for good or ill.

For future reference the genius behind this reasoning is Dr Adrian Upton, head of neurology at McMaster University Hospital in Ontario. His marketing company is NeuraLieve. No doubt we shall hear more of both.

If you are really bored at some stage of the dog days of August, try looking at the first paragraphs for Augusts past in our archives. It might give an interesting perspective on the human condition.



Sanity pause

Amid all the ravings of a typical silly season, it is particularly pleasurable to welcome a new book that deals with real science and truth. Environment & Health: Myths & Realities is added to our reviews. Anyone who responds to the matter contained in Number Watch and its two associated books will appreciate this addition, as it is a scholarly work that adds flesh to the many concerns expressed in these pages and contains copious references to the original research sources that give the lie to much of the current dogma.

Back to the futile

It must be something special when number watchers from all over the world nominate it from a variety of media sources. The headlines shriek JUNK: Women who believe in long life bear sons claims New Scientist: Optimistic mothers have boys states the Guardian,

Women who believe they are going to live for a long time are more likely to give birth to sons than less optimistic women, a new study suggests. 

Researchers reached the strange conclusion after completing a survey of British women who had recently become mothers. They found that for every extra year a woman thought she was going to live, the odds of her firstborn being a boy increased significantly.

On the basis of a Trojan Number of 609 mothers, the study manages to exploit both the data dredge and the sex-ratio scam.

 Note the clues in the language: “among other questions” i.e. a data dredge. “the machinery of the body is subtly taking into account these kinds of contextual differences”, subtle being epidemiology-speak for implausible.

Particularly endearing is that “some believed that they would die as young as 30, while others believed they would be alive at 130.” People will believe all sorts of things, such as what they read in the newspapers, but what that has to do with the price of fish is less than clear.

Heir power can be unreliable

An interesting front-page banner headline in the Sunday Telegraph:

 Prince Charles: wind farms are horrendous

Can it be that the heir to the throne has suddenly begun to see sense? Has he even realised that hitching your wagon to irrational dogma can take you in directions that you would not have wished? Unlikely! He is simply a maverick among eco-theologians, who still clutches on to obsolete ideas such as beauty.


Bernard Levin – magnificent in defeat

Whether you agreed with him or not (and nobody could possibly agree with him all the time) you could not disregard Bernard Levin. Annoying, opinionated, savagely ironic, he aroused ire and even hatred in those he subjected to verbal castigation. He was not without courage, facing a live and often hostile TV audience, sitting alone on a stool in the studio of the groundbreaking satirical programme TW3. In his maturity he wrote an elegant and acerbic series of columns for The Times, in which he warned of the diseases gnawing at the vitals of our society.

It was Levin who coined the term SIFs (Single Issue Fanatics). He saw the dangers long before the rest of us. Who would have thought that one day they would be running our lives? A life long non-smoker, for example, he was vehement in the defence of smokers against the growing oppression. Sad to say, the great intellectual powers clearly began to wane in his sixties and he gradually withdrew from public life.

Oh, the irony! A great intellect brought down by Alzheimer’s just when we needed it most. He was a vital part of the satirical wave that swept away the establishment of the McMillan age. How effective his barbs would have been against Blairism and the New Labour Establishment, which is an order of magnitude more absurd than its predecessor.

For those with access to The Times there is a reproduction of one of his most characteristic essays on August 10th in which, 30 years ago, he railed against the rising tide of euphemism. That was yet another battle that was spectacularly lost in the era of Political Correctness and the Nanny State.

He used the English language with a craftsmanship and style that is all but gone in the age where Mr Gates’ grammar checker tries to force everyone to write like Ernest Hemingway in staccato sentences. If the occasion demanded a long sentence, Levin gave it one. In fact, he was in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest ever to appear in a newspaper. In the age of dumbed-down education, few adults can cope with more than one subsidiary clause. He was derided by fellow journalists, especially by the sputniks of the growing new establishment, for his style as well as his opinions. We shall not see his like again. Unfortunately!

There is a full obituary in the Daily Telegraph.


Polly math

In the annals of all the nonsense of our age (otherwise known as The Guardian) every now and then there appears an example of the genre so egregious and extreme that it takes one’s breath away. Such was the piece by Polly Toynbee of Friday 13th August entitled Countryside Alliance.  It is a hate-filled, mouth-foaming tirade, packed with chimeras, imaginings, argumentum ad hominem and non sequiturs. Fellow Labourite, Philip Stott, makes a brave attempt at analysing and answering the main points in his Envirospin Watch of the same day. There is, however, no analysing pure religious fanaticism. There is zero likelihood that Polly, or indeed any ordinary reader of the media, is going to be allowed to read the following.

Game, set and match

The scientific argument about the global warming myth is now over. The dénouement is summed up in a paper Settling Global Warming Science By Patrick J. Michaels, S. Fred Singer and David H. Douglass. The religious argument, as we have seen above, will, of course, be unending.


Born under the sign of Cancer

Man, my Lord, is a being born to believe

It would not be a proper Silly Season without the regulation manifestation of the birth month fallacy. This time it is cancer and just for a bonus they thrown in left-handedness as well. Since only the Trojan Numbers are given, it is not possible to demonstrate the extent of the folly, but we have done all that with anorexia. The article itself is an item for collectors of unadulterated fatuity.

Prisoner of faith

How far will passive smoking fascism go? Now a Virginia woman has been jailed for ten days for smoking in the presence of her own children. In the two books associated with this web site, the poverty of evidence and the downright fraud relating to Environmental Tobacco Smoke have been examined in detail. As with Global Warming, the facts have no relevance, it is only the beliefs that count.

When the present generation of oldies were children, the air in public places such as cinemas was thick with tobacco smoke, while childhood asthma was comparatively rare. Now public smoke exposure among children is virtually unknown, while asthma is commonplace. Yet in this case breathing difficulties are anecdotally cited by a vindictive ex-spouse and accepted by the court.



How appropriate that the UK’s school leaving exam results should be published at the height of the silly season. The pass rate at A-level, having stayed constant for decades, began to rise in 1982 and has risen every year ever since. The difference was that before 1982 the exams were run by independent universities. Then the Thatcher government began to exercise control and created companies that competed for entrants. Now, in the days of New Labour and spin, the absurdity of the situation  in which virtually everybody passes is being covered up by exploiting the straw man fallacy. Just as criticism of EU policies is deflected by attacking non-existent xenophobia, so protests about the educational dumbing-down are met with accusations of unfair attacks on hard-working students. On the contrary, the critics complain that the students are overworked by being put on a chain gang of perpetual coursework.

One of the major criticisms of course work is that it is a cheat’s charter. There is no guarantee that it is the student’s own work.  So what is the Government going to do now that it has complete control of the system? It is going to introduce a 4,000 word essay as the main part of the process – more hard work for  teachers, parents and other advisers.

The other defence is the old cry that “there is no evidence”.  Anyone who has had the misfortune to teach the products of the system over the last two decades does not need evidence. Skills that were once taken for granted, such as simple algebraic manipulations, are now largely absent in the “highly qualified” intake of universities. It is a phenomenon that is not confined to Britain, as regular readers of will know.

There is now a record number of students at “university”. More than half of them are wasting their time and money – and everyone else’s. It is just part of the Government’s strategy for hiding unemployment. They simply rename it. Other names include "disability pensioners" and "public service workers". Higher education has become a grown up version of child minding.

For the first time ever, graduate starting salaries have begun to fall. A degree (like a professorship) is now something virtually without meaning. As Shakespeare’s Richard III put it in the days before political correctness “Since every Jack became a gentleman, there’s many a gentle person made a Jack.”

Real, vital subjects, such as physics, are on the verge of disappearance.

Whom the gods would destroy….


Smoke screen

Another phenomenon that inevitably occurs in the silly season is an increase of outpourings from anti-tobacco zealots posing as scientists. Smoking more toxic than car fumes screams the BBC headline about an “experiment” which is just about as barmy and full of non sequiturs as you can get, to say nothing of downright lies.

Another story on the same day was Young smokers' heart attack risk. We have to accept that there is a strong association between smoking and heart disease, since it was established by a true scientist, Sir Austin Bradford Hill, in the days before PC and the descent of epidemiology into farce. There is no discussion these days of possible confounding factors, such as the fact that tobacco is a great stress reliever and smoking is often a symptom of exposure to stress, while heart disease is also associated with stress. Furthermore, five times a small number is still a small number.

A blatant piece of vacuous propaganda came from SwedenTobacco Smoke Toxins 'Poison Air'. The main trick here is to ignore the first principle of toxicology, which has been known since the time of Paracelsus half a millennium ago. The poison is in the dose. Everything is both poisonous and benign – arsenic, water, cyanide, oxygen – they are all poisonous in a sufficient dose and also harmless in a small enough quantity. All the clichés are there – tobacco contains over four thousand chemicals – so does the human body and every other living thing.

The objective of all the propaganda is to establish that passive smoking kills people. All the evidence is that it does not (if you strip out the gross statistical frauds practised by the likes of the EPA).

A contributor to the Number Watch Forum asks “what are the dangers of smoking?” We will now never know. Thanks to Hill we know that heavy cigarette smoking is very strongly associated with lung cancer and heart disease, but since his time the subject has become a political football and science has been substituted by chicanery. As shown in Sorry, wrong number! many studies indicating benefits of smoking have simply disappeared. The essay by Woodrow Wyatt quoted in that book cites considerable evidence of beneficial effects of smoking in stress-related disease, Parkinson’s, dementia, osteo-arthritis, Alzheimer’s etc. PC censorship means that the principle of the ratchet is applied to all research and reports on tobacco – result are only allowed to point in one direction. Wyatt also rightly says “that passive smoking may be dangerous is a preposterous joke”. If Wyatt offered his essay today, it simply would not be published.

Heavy cigarette smoking might be foolish, but folly used to be a human right. The campaign to condemn passive smoking as dangerous is based on misdirection, statistical malpractice and cold-blooded lies. It is a purely political phenomenon practised by those who get their kicks out of pushing other people around.


Having read the above piece, number watcher Ian Reid draws attention to a Guardian article entitled Pollutants cause huge rise in brain diseases. Note that it offers no actual evidence of a connection to pollution, which is on decline everywhere. Note also that the rise has not occurred in Japan. Japan happens to be the country most reluctant to give up smoking.



With reference to there being no evidence of the decline of examination standards, the following appeared in the print version of the Daily Telegraph, but not the on-line version:

Standard of A-level maths'has slumped'



THE standard reached by students achieving the top grades for A-Level maths has declined dramatically, according to a 15-year study by York University.

Six lecturers have been employed to teach the basics of the subject to students who come in to study electronics after achieving A or B grades for A-Level.

The same 50 maths questions were given to students between 1985 and 2000 and though the numbers recruited to the course with A and B grades increased, their average test scores dropped from 78 per cent to 42 per cent.

Ken Todd, the electronics lecturer and admissions tutor who ran the tests, said they revealed "alarming gaps in basic knowledge". He added: " A student with an A today will, on average, obtain a score on our test that would have placed them near the bottom of the cohort 15 years ago."

The average score of students with A grades dropped from 70 per cent to 60 per cent, while those coming in with a B grade declined from 62 per cent to 40 per cent.

The study, which was backed by the Higher Education Academy, the organisation funded by universities, and reported in today's The Times Higher Education Supplement, supports growing complaints from lecturers in maths and engineering over the decline in the standard of work demanded by the A level.


A red herring that won’t go away

Sometimes one’s allies in a cause can be more troublesome than one’s opponents, such as the Skeptical Environmentalist, whose blithe acceptance of all the fatuities of epidemiology and global warming did more harm than good. A similar situation occurs with attacks on the concept of a global average temperature. Despite efforts in the FAQ earlier this year, this has again appeared in Bizarre Science (August 27th). So let’s have another go.

If an electrical engineer needs to determine the amount of electric charge in an isolated sphere he can use Gauss’s law and measure the electric field strength normal to the surface and integrate (sum) it over that surface. If, however, he merely wants to know whether the charge has changed he can measure the voltage (potential) at every point of the surface and average it. If the average potential has increased then the internal charge has increased. He has taken the average of a potential. It is useful and it is meaningful. What is not useful or meaningful is the average charge.

If we want to determine whether the total amount of heat in a sphere has changed, it is equally reasonable to average the temperature (potential) over the sphere. Although the specific heats of all the materials in the sphere may be non-uniformly distributed, they do not change in time (each molecule, electron etc. will increase its kinetic energy according to the amount of heat received). Unfortunately, this is all complicated by the potential energies known as latent heat, but it does not affect the argument. If the average temperature over the sphere has increased it is reasonable to suppose that the total heat within it has increased. Note that, because of latent heat, the inverse of this is not necessarily true, since we can supply heat to produce a change of state without a temperature increase occurring. As in the electrical case, the average potential is meaningful and useful. It is average heat that is without meaning.

To argue that something cannot be averaged because it is not countable is the converse of the truth. The total charge or heat in a body is (theoretically) countable, but the average is meaningless.

Whether you can actually measure the average in a non-linear, non-stationary system such as the weather is another matter.

Oh dear!

Sometimes one’s allies in a cause can be more troublesome than one’s opponents, such as here

Which brings us to:

Mea Culpa

 He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.
St John

Of course, we can all make mistakes. A kindly reviewer of The Epidemiologists on Amazon UK found a real Lulu:

There is, however, one unpardonable sin. Being an electrical engineer, Dr Brignell has no excuse for mangling one of the few equations in his book: the diode equation!

Yes it’s true, and there is no one else to blame. The explanation, but not an excuse, is that, to help non-technical printers, the familiar version, which your bending author has been writing on blackboards for nearly half a century, was changed to the single line format, and the author was less than careful with the bracketing. Ironically, the printers scanned the equation and put it in as a picture.  



The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything.
Edward John Phelps

Mistakes are part of the scientific process. Scientists make mistakes, others correct them. Pointing out mistakes has always been an invaluable introduction of young scientists to the world of publishing. In the past, this normal process has usually, but not always, occurred without rancour or triumphalism. When you are caught out in an error (and who in a long career has not been?) the only proper response is to admit it’s a fair cop and put things right. Though this has all changed now that science is mixed up with politics and the new eco-theology, it is pleasing that Ross McKitrick has done just that and assumed responsibility. This error, though regrettable, represents a negligible set back for the pro-science side of the debate, but it will be treated as a propaganda coup by the more hysterical elements in the blogosphere.

There is a whole world of difference between making an innocent mistake, as in this case, and flouting the basic rules of mathematics, as Michael Mann and company have consistently done, to say nothing of arrogantly dismissing the evidence from history, art, entomology etc. McKitrick also did the right thing in publishing the code, rather than keep it secret as is more often done, in the knowledge that it would be pored over by obsessives looking for flaws. On the whole, however, it would be better if sceptics steered clear of computer models.

Sceptics  (and do not forget that up to a generation ago all scientists were trained as sceptics) have been sucked into a trap in which they are arguing about minutiae.  The climate sceptics newsgroup, for example, is all about the details of climate models, when the crucial argument is whether modelling is valid at all in the present state of knowledge.


Number of the month 1.4

1.4% is the published rate of inflation for the UK economy. It is a number almost completely without meaning, because the definition of inflation has been changed to exclude the things that really matter to ordinary people, such as the cost of maintaining a roof over one’s head. Michael Gove summed it up nicely with a Times headline (31st August) It’s a wonderful world if you have Gordon’s knack with numbers.

It was a principle established by the Thatcher government over unemployment – if the number is embarrassing, change the definition of the number.

The true rate of rise of cost of living for householders is 13% per annum, somewhat discrepant compared with the published one, and is needed to pay for Gordon’s ever-growing bureaucratic army.

How apt our poet’s tribute to Gordon has proved to be!



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