Daly

No matter how long you live on this planet, the shock of sudden death never seems to lose its potency. One moment someone is a vital presence that you are inclined to take for granted, the next they are gone. Daly was the epitome of a new phenomenon of the post-scientific age, a lone scholar with all the traditions of meticulous attention to detail and truth that the word implies, with limited means upholding the principles of the scientific method in the face of adversaries with vast resources. He usually won, but the establishment media ensured that the world never got to hear of it. He was the eternal small boy gleefully pointing out that the emperor had no clothes.

Number Watch has frequently carried tributes to the various contributions that Daly made to rational debate. For doing so it has come under attack from his adversaries, usually using specious ad hominem diversions. See this correspondence for example. He made mistakes, inevitable for the lone scholar, but they were vastly outweighed by his triumphs. He spotted the fiddled graphics, the unforgivably careless publication of contradictory numbers and the sheer failures of logic that go to prop up the eco-theological morass that is the modern substitute for real science.

Most of his admirers around the world never met him, but nevertheless held him in great esteem, simply on the basis of his writings. Forget all the pornographers, mass mailers and virus producers; one Daly is sufficient justification for the existence of the World Wide Web.

For those of us a world away from his beloved Tasmania, a fitting memorial would be to ensure that his writings remain accessible to us, and future seekers after truth, by ensuring that Still Waiting for Greenhouse stays on line as a resource for human kind.

 

Number of the Month

February 2004

Here’s a good one

When you burn carbon to release energy, you add two atoms of oxygen to each atom of carbon. In order to retrieve the carbon you have to remove the oxygen, which takes exactly the same amount of energy as you got out in the first place. Now read on…..

 The Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop is pleased to announce that the PRU has developed a Phlogiston Injection Transport System, which is guaranteed to put an end to the disaster of Global Warming. As has been its policy in the past it is allowing the public to take part in the commercialisation of the device, which was invented by the University's Professor of Feline Podiatry. So if you want to invest in the PITS contact the Dean directly.

Whitewash

Several overseas number watchers have asked what is happening at the BBC. The Chairman and the Director General have both resigned amid media frenzy. It was as a result of the Hutton Report into the suicide of a scientific civil servant. Whether the learned judge was disingenuous or simply naïf is difficult to say, but if he thinks that any politician worth his salt is going to leave a paper trail recording his darkest deeds he is seriously misled (Nudge, nudge; wink, wink; say no more, say no more. Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?). The responsibility for what happened lies firmly with the Great Leader himself. It was an indefensible act of hubris to appoint to the two leading positions in the BBC multimillionaire Labour donors; particularly as the previous Director General, LORD Birt, also a multimillionaire Labour luvvy, had reduced Lord Reith’s wonderful creation to the dumbed-down New Labour BBC that it is today. Faced with charmless bullying by Blair’s personal Rottweiler, Alistair Campbell, the two men had no choice but to assert their independence. It was the proverbial accident waiting to happen, as inevitable as anything in human affairs can be. In the judgement, all participants were totally exonerated except the BBC, which was roasted.

An interesting example of the twists and turns of establishment politics: it was the BBC that adhered to the New Labour creed along with other insider institutions, such as the Guardian and Independent and it was the New Labour Government that deviated by prosecuting the war to eliminate the tyrant.

What is the number in all this? It is 45, the number of minutes claimed by the Great Leader to be all that Iraq required to prime its weapons of mass destruction. The BBC through one of its less careful reporters questioned whether the Government itself believed this (did anyone?), leading to the exposure and subsequent suicide of his source.

Now the BBC makes great play of its tradition of neutrality. An interesting example occurred in a recent radio programme about, wait for it, global warming. On the surface it presented both sides, but there were subtle nuances. For example, Soon and Baliunas were given their say, but it was casually mentioned that they had resorted to funding from the dreaded oil industry in order to publish their paper. They were followed by John Selwyn Gummer MP, who was introduced as a Conservative with no axe to grind. Long term number watchers might remember Gummer from back in April 2001, who was pronouncing about global warming even then and who, it transpired, had quietly turned it into a nice little earner by setting up companies to build (would you believe?) windmills.

Anyway, back to the plot. The Guardianistas at the BBC had adopted a thinly disguised anti-war stance in their reporting, even down to characteristic BBC sneer, which does not appear in the scripts. This enraged the Government, which was having a troubled time trying to sell the war to its own supporters, and triggered the whole debacle. There was bound to be blood on the carpet (tragically, as it turned out, quite literally) and the final casualties were the two BBC top bosses and the hapless reporter.

To give the BBC staff their due, they do not realise that they are biased. They are virtually all from the Guardian-reading classes and, in fact, most of the BBC recruiting is done through the advertising columns of that newspaper; so they think that their left-leaning, politically correct posture is actually middle of the road.

The BBC (which, despite all this, is still the finest broadcasting service in the world, and by a long way) was unjustly saddled by the judge with the blame for the whole affair. In reality it was a bitter family squabble, with all sides equally to blame. It just goes to illustrate the futility of the legal process, with punctilious sifting through thousands of documents and testimonies, yet unable to see the wood for the trees.

The ultimate tragedy is that the independence, or even the very existence, of the BBC is now under threat. After the judgement, it folded and made the most abject of apologies. SPINELESS yelled the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror. It is the result of having a pusillanimous Board of Governors, selected from the Great and the Good, who only normally serve for decorative purposes.

Those who have the patience to trail through the evidence might come to the opinion that the judge carefully weighed all the evidence and came to a logical conclusion. On the other hand, they might consider him a servile old buffoon who avoided all the crucial questions that might embarrass the political establishment and hit the target carefully prescribed by his brief.

They might accept that Alistair Campbell has been proven to be pure as the driven snow. Alternatively, they might find him to be a foul-mouthed bully-boy who does the bidding of his employers (including Robert Maxwell) come what may, and who almost single-handedly  has induced the condition of total cynicism about politics that suffuses contemporary British culture.

They might wonder how this huge legal edifice was constructed from one unscripted remark out of the millions of BBC news items, one that went out at 6.07 in the morning, together with the one of dozens of bullying letters that went without response. That is simply a measure of Campbell's black art of spin. You only need to find one weak point in the enemy's defences and pound it with your strongest artillery. 

They might wonder how a Prime Minister, whose memorial will be the wreckage of his country's most precious possession, its unwritten constitution, wrought out of centuries of travail, managed to inflict yet further damage by wriggling out of yet another self inflicted crisis. 

Which brings us to:

With one bound he was free

In the same week the Great Leader squeezed out of another jam. His proposals on university fees were vehemently opposed by a significant section of his own party. After a lot of trimming, hedging and dealing, the resulting bill was such a mishmash that it achieved nothing except a monumental constitutional change with regard to taxation.

An individual will now be taxed according to how much his parents used to earn. A self-made multi-millionaire from a low income family will pay back less for his university degree than one of his wage slaves who had the misfortune to have middle income parents. This is just one of a series of ideological assaults on middle Britain that increase its burden of taxation, overt and covert. Almost weekly there is a new announcement of an imposition on middle-earners. In the same week, for example, it was decreed that court fines would be dependent upon income; no burden on the rich, but a further disaster for the man in the middle. As always it provides further income to the Treasury, while not looking like a tax, and is backed up by machinery such as speed cameras and the growing army of wardens granted ever-increasing authority.

Some of the proceeds of the new taxes will go as danegeld  to the ruling country, Scotland, where, unlike the English, they are allowed to have their own Parliament, yet are allowed to vote in these new taxes that do not apply to them. Alas for our precious constitution!

You can say that again!

Britain usually gets the weather that America experienced a week before, generally and fortunately in a rather attenuated form. The Al Gore heat wave hit Britain on the evening of Wednesday January 28. For one period of about half an hour there were conditions that few of us had experienced before. The blizzard, accompanied by continuous thunder and lightning, reached such force that one feared that the windows would not survive. It was made all the more poignant by a piece that had appeared in the regular Times back page section that morning, Weather Eye, which frequently manages to get in a plug for the global warming myth. After a review of just a few of the casualties around the northern hemisphere of yet another killer winter, it end with this little paragraph:

After the bitterly cold winter of last year, this recent freeze may be giving Americans the illusion that global warming is not worth worrying about.

A sort of appeal

If any regular number watchers have been tempted to make a modest donation to the cause, now would be a good time to yield to the temptation. The second book in the Number Watch series (The epidemiologists: have they got scares for you!) is almost ready to go to press and the publishing is a costly business. Unfortunately the truth is a minority interest, so publishing it is not the path to wealth. Several number watchers have made donations, one or two quite generous, which have helped the existence of the web-site to continue. The begging bowl can be found on the index page.

1/2/04

Feng shui phooey

We have not had anything from the dark and bankrupt State of Insanity lately, so here's a good one picked up by JREF.

Abandoned

The long running saga of minuscule studies implicating HRT in breast cancer continues. The latest one to stir up the media involved 174 women taking HRT, the result being divided by that from a similar number not taking it. Anyone who thinks that you can get meaningful information from such numbers is either born stupid or an epidemiologist. HRT 'Increases risk of breast cancer relapse' yells The Times; and yes, it is our old friend Nigel (thousands to die) Hawkes. Ol' Thousan's certainly has a way with words and in a short paragraph can sum up the state of modern epidemiology:

The Stockholm trial had shown much more positive results than Habits, with some evidence that HRT might protect against breast cancer. But when data from the two trials were combined, the net effect was negative. As a result, both trials have been abandoned.

Breast cancer fears force doctors to axe second trial screams the Telegraph. The BBC was positively circumspect: Confusion over HRT breast advice. Is this the new humble BBC? Or is it simply cowed?

The abandonment of trials as soon as the results drift into a region of "significance" is becoming a new scandal in the tortured history of modern epidemiology. It makes a nonsense of any a priori standards of significance, even the lax ones of epidemiologists.

Scientific expertise

Another masterly quote from the Times Weather Eye column for February 3:

More importantly, daylight is now increasing rapidly. Because the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is oval-shaped, the hours of daylight change very slowly near the winter solstice. But now we are gaining almost three minutes’ extra daylight each day until the spring equinox — and that means more solar heating and the first signs of spring.

3/2/04

Enterprise

Number Watcher John Lichtenstein has notice that someone is offering a signed copy of Sorry wrong number! on Amazon UK at a considerable premium. Considering that this has been on offer from this site to UK readers at no extra cost and free postage, this is a remarkable example of the entrepreneurial spirit. Not wishing to be accused of discrimination, we now offer the same facility to overseas purchasers. Simply send an e-mail at the same time as your PayPal purchase.

Touching to know that one's signature is worth all of £6, and not even dead yet!

The long arm of the law

Talking of Sorry wrong number! (and if we don't nobody else will), if the editors of the Daily Telegraph had read it, and particularly the bit about Brignell's law of league tables and its corollaries, they would not have been so astonished as to plaster the front page with the headline Primary league tables 'failing pupils!.

OK, for all those who are too mean to help out an ageing and penurious professor emeritus by buying his book, here is the law:

All measures used as the basis of a league table always improve.

Corollary 1
All other measures get worse to compensate.

Corollary 2
What you measure is what you get.

5/2/04

Nothing less than world domination

It is quite clear that many of the correspondents to Number Watch fail to understand the brilliant strategy behind the British Government’s education policy. The aim is to corner the market in Media Studies. When the Great Global Media Studies Crisis comes, as come it will, other nations will find that they are faced with a monopoly supplier that can name its own price. Now, admittedly, we will have no plumbers or electricians, but our Government has a solution for that – immigration. If we can attract enough immigrants, and Britain accepts more pro rata than any other nation, then it stands to reason that some of them must be plumbers and electricians, likewise engineers and physicists.

The engineering department that trained your bending author annually produced more electrical engineers than the whole country does now. Quite right too! Who needs engineers when there is money to be made selling insurance and computer games? And then there is tourism. Where else in the world would tourists want to go when they want to see giant wind turbines and housing estates, without the necessity to walk over all those nasty hills and vales covered in beastly grass and trees? Well now they have the benefit of thousands of graduates in tourism, who can direct their enjoyment.

So let’s have less carping and more appreciation for those who are thinking ahead on our behalf.

6/2/04

Evidence!

One of the noisiest SIF groups in the UK recently has been CASH (Consensus Action on Salt and Health). They held a National Salt Awareness Day which hit all the media and included presentations in parliament. Leading SIF, Professor Graham MacGregor, head of cardiovascular medicine of St George's Hospital Medical School, claimed back in November that an immediate cut of 10 per cent in salt in the average diet would save 5,800 lives over the next year and is unhappy that this is not being forced upon manufacturers, and he has been repeating this virtual body count ever since. "Where is your evidence?" we sceptics cried. Well, CASH have now published it on their web site, and a delectable item for number watchers it is. Not only is it based on that most dubious of constructions, a meta-analysis, it also depends on a creative bit of line-fitting that will delight collectors. On this basis they are now claiming reductions in the virtual body count of over 50,000. The data are actually of blood pressure and excreted salt, so it requires a further creative leap to convert this to dietary salt and bodies. Just look at the Trojan Numbers:

The best way to study the dose-response relation between salt intake and blood pressure is to look at the blood pressure responses to several levels of salt intake for a long term. So far, there are only 2 well-controlled trials that studied 3 salt intakes, each for 4 weeks. One is our double-blind study in 19 patients with untreated essential hypertension, and the other is the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH)- Sodium study,18 in which 79 untreated hypertensives and 116 normotensives were studied on the normal American diet, and 81 untreated hypertensives and 121 normotensives were studied on the DASH diet.

Despite the overwhelming nature of  this evidence from well-controlled studies on as many as 79 people, it is inevitable that some number watchers will prefer to listen to infidels such as  Gary Taubes. There is no pleasing some people.

11//2/4

Footnote: The very next day, several number watchers from across the pond drew attention to their benighted nation's contribution to the great debate. There was a time when the word "report" meant something more than a tract of vapid propaganda.

Talking of which, the salt freaks have nothing on the tobacco fanatics when it comes to twisting the entrails of science until it expires, which brings us to the following.

 

The BIG liars

The BMA, long separated from anything approaching real science, has come up with a "report" on, wait for it, smoking and fertility. Not only is it a long winded PC rant, full of the most egregious excesses of the debased statistics that characterise modern epidemiology, but they manage to sully the name of one of the few great names of that branch of science, Sir Austin Bradford Hill. Having taken his name in vain at the very outset, they publish an appendix containing his seven principles by which epidemiology should be conducted, but they add a cavillation to almost every one that completely reverses its intent. Such arrogance! How dare they? One tries to maintain an air of detached amusement at the activities of these politically correct pseudo-scientists, but producing such a travesty of the work of a great man is way beyond the pale. It induces a feeling of impotent anger that they have the ear of the media and the politicians.

It would unbalance a number of the month column to include even a highly abbreviated account of the absurdities in this "report", so it is included in these pages in the form of an FAQ (well, sometimes you have to anticipate the questions before you get overwhelmed). 

12/2/4

which brings us to -

Familiar?

Anyone who got as far as reading to the bottom of the FAQ linked above, might have found something familiar in the way the BMA reversed the meaning of Bradford Hill's seven rules by a process of addition. Here is why:

Benjamin felt a nose nuzzling at his shoulder. He looked round. It was Clover. Her old eyes looked dimmer than ever. Without saying anything, she tugged gently at his mane and led him round to the end of the big barn, where the Seven Commandments were written. For a minute or two they stood gazing at the tatted wall with its white lettering.

'My sight is failing,' she said finally. 'Even when I was young I could not have read what was written there. But it appears to me that that wall looks different. Are the Seven Commandments the same as they used to be, Benjamin?'

For once Benjamin consented to break his rule, and he read out to her what was written on the wall. There was nothing there now except a single Commandment. It ran:

 

ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL
BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL
THAN OTHERS

After that it did not seem strange when next day the pigs who were supervising the work of the farm all carried whips in their trotters. It did not seem strange to learn that the pigs had bought themselves a wireless set, were arranging to install a telephone, and had taken out subscriptions to John Bull, TitBits, and the Daily Mirror. It did not seem strange when Napoleon was seen strolling in the farmhouse garden with a pipe in his mouth - no, not even when the pigs took Mr. Jones's clothes out of the wardrobes and put them on, Napoleon himself appearing in a black coat, ratcatcher breeches, and leather leggings, while his favourite sow appeared in the watered silk dress which Mrs. Jones had been used to wear on Sundays.

13/2/4

Quiggin again

Sticks and stones
May break my bones,
But names will never hurt me.
Children’s proverb

 It was January last year that John Quiggin came to the attention of Number Watch. Well here he is again, with a somewhat less than temperate attack on Steve Milloy.

Two considerations of relevance seem to come to the fore in this debate. One is the question of verbal assault, while the second is the relation (if any) of science to politics.

There are three forms of verbal assault:

  1. Invective
  2. Ad hominem attacks
  3. Calumny

The first of these is a rhetorical device used to reinforce an argument. It deals with the words or acts of a debating opponent, but not his person. At its worst it can be inflated and meaningless but at its best (as used by the great orators such as Winston Churchill) it is persuasive and relevant.

The second is a logical fallacy. In soccer terms it is playing the man and not the ball. The opponent might well be a murderous rapist in the pay of the Adolph Hitler Restoration Fund, but this does not mean that a particular argument he advances is wrong.

The third is name-calling, a vacuous marshalling of irrelevant or untrue accusations designed to undermine the standing and hence the credibility of the opponent. It is topical in the US presidential election process. The fact that a candidate might or might not have inserted parts of his person into places that are deemed improper is irrelevant as to whether he is capable of performing a particular rôle.

An example of the emotive use of words in a scientific debate is labelling someone as an X-denier, X being a proposition that the arguer favours. On the surface this is an accurate description of the opponent’s position, but words come with emotional baggage: in this case it is the pre-existence of the term holocaust-denier. We had seen the films; some of us who are old enough have spoken to witnesses; yet some so-called historians attempted to refute the occurrence of historical events. Anyway the cliché got a bit tired, so they coined a new term –  contrarianism.

All real scientists are X-deniers or contrarians, if X is a scientific hypothesis. It is the scientific method, as laid down by the great Karl Popper in one of the most significant philosophical works in history (The logic of scientific discovery, 1934). It is impossible to prove that a hypothesis is true, but possible to prove that it is false. The concept of falsification is at the heart of science. It is an unfortunate fact, as revealed by the most casual glance at any scientific journal, that very few scientists actually employ the method. Almost invariably they put up a hypothesis then scrabble around for observations that support it.

For a political animal it is almost impossible to conceive that anyone would make a statement that is unsullied by political motives. This brings us back to John Quiggin, in a piece on The Junkman, Steve Milloy, which tells you more about the attacker than the attacked. He is offended by “party-line” science sites that have proliferated in the “blogosphere”. Most of these, apparently, promote some combination of

bulletglobal warming contrarianism 
bulletozone layer contrariarianism 
bullet

shilling for the tobacco industry, and 

bulletboosting creationism

It is inconceivable to him that anyone could be motivated by a simple desire to confront bad science. The first two involve the questioning of hypotheses, which is proper scientific conduct. Heaven knows what the third means. It seems to involve an obsolete coin, a shepherd’s hut or a heap of grain, but presumably it is the hoary old ad hominem argument that “all our opponents are in the pay of the fuel, tobacco, automobile or chemical industries”.  They might be, though it seems a trifle improbable, but that does not invalidate their argument. As for the fourth, how far fetched can you get? Creationism as a scientific hypothesis has nothing going for it and it is not worth sacrificing the brain-cells to attempt to falsify it. Those of us who read junkscience.com every day cannot recall its editors ever subscribing to creationism. The nearest was a rather balanced view by Milloy in an essay in journalism. In fact, junkscience.com is about much, much more than those shibboleths of the new establishment. Most of it is about unnecessary scares created from debased statistics, something Milloy is eminently qualified to debate.

By all means let us have a measured scientific debate, even an exchange of invective, about some of the claims being made in the name of science, but “I'm disinclined to engage in the kind of contact with slime” and “unethical and intellectually bankrupt charlatans” hardly represent the language in which it can be successfully conducted.

Afterthought: A is able to call B a charlatan. B holds a B.A. in Natural Sciences from the Johns Hopkins University, a Master of Health Sciences in Biostatistics from the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, a Juris Doctorate from the University of Baltimore and a Master of Laws from the Georgetown University Law Center. The qualifications of A must be pretty impressive. Wonder what they are.

 16/2/4

Answer: (From Bob Bateman) BA (1st Class Honours in Mathematics) , Australian National University. BEc (1st Class Honours in Economics), Australian National University,  MEc Australian National University, . PhD, University of New England

Second afterthought: Why do people nowadays have so many degrees? In the bad old days, most people made do with one. Those going into research took a PhD, or a Master's if they were not quite good enough.

Answer (from Nick Barron) Why do people nowadays have so many degrees? Well, surely it's obvious; global warming.

Quiggin responds

Dear Professor Brignell,

Judging by your obituary for John Daly, you are someone who observes the standards of civilised decency regarding the recently-departed, and would be offended by gratuitous and repeated violations of those standards. I can only assume, therefore, that in attacking my post on Steve Milloy, and in my particular my reference to "contact with slime", you didn't follow the links to this story: 

http://www.gristmagazine.com/muck/muck101899.asp

Unless you endorse the behaviour described there, I'd appreciate a retraction.

Sincerely

John Quiggin

Reply

If Milloy made those remarks, and I have to assume that he did, though the evidence no longer exists, he was guilty of a serious lapse of taste (and worse, of kindness). When death occurs, and it is the one thing we can be sure of, those who grieve are entitled to some consideration. I regret that I did not follow the link through. I got as far as the title Muckraker and decided not to read on.

Having said that, I do not withdraw my comments, for the following reasons:

Two wrongs do not make a right.
The attack was also directed at "many of the similar party-line science sites".
I disagree with much of what Milloy writes (for example, I dismiss the gun lobbying as a unique American quirk that is a leftover from history) but on the scientific issues raised in the chain of links I believe he is largely correct. I certainly did not find the critique devastating.
The tobacco connection is used repeatedly as an ad hominem vehicle in the links. In Sorry wrong number! I wrote of that industry's "contemptible programme of lobbying, prevarication and obfuscation" but I also wrote of the EPA metastudy on ETS as "the biggest statistical fraud ever". One side was blackmailed by legal force into revealing its secrets, while the other was allowed to keep them. History is written by victors, but not necessarily scientific truth.
As far as Dr Rall is concerned, I believe that he did a great deal of harm to science and the common good with his grotesque exploitation of the concentration fallacy, as in the Alar scare. I do not believe that death bestows instant sainthood.
The nub of my argument is about what constitutes the scientific method and I remain proudly contrarian. 

I trust that the debate will continue in a civilised manner.

Footnote (in response to further correspondence)

SHORTER OXFORD DICTIONARY

Charlatan 1618 [= Fr. charlatan – It. ciarlatano, f. ciarlare babble, f. imit. Base *char- as in Pr. charra; see CHARADE] 1. A mountebank who descants volubly in the street; esp. an itinerant vendor of drugs etc. –1771. 2. An empiric who pretends to wonderful knowledge or secrets, esp. in the healing art; an impostor , a quack –1680. Also as adj.

 ST MATTHEW

And why beholdest thou the mote in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye.

Termination: This threatens to turn into one of those interminable nit-picking competitions that clog the blogs. Any further comments to the forum please.

Dénouement 

This was the lead story in Number of the month exactly two years ago:

Let the bandwagons roll

Media hysteria is on a high at the moment. The big story in the UK is the “MMR causes autism” scare. A number of correspondents have noted the silence of Number Watch on this matter. The only reason is that, as yet, there are no numbers to get a handle on. The author of the scare, one Dr Wakefield, blew his credibility at the outset in publishing by press conference a result based on just twelve cases. The subsequent contributions seem to combine the post hoc fallacy with ad hoc theorising. Unfortunately for the population at large, his opponents, the UK government, have also blown their credibility with their inept handling of such disasters as BSE, CJD and Foot and Mouth. The chattering classes are the ones who are opting out of the vaccination programme and, as a result, the first outbreaks of measles have occurred in widespread locations. What these people tend to forget is that it is not only their own families’ health they are playing with. An infected child is a danger to the likes of unborn children and vulnerable adults.

The story rebounded this month with a vengeance. Revealed: MMR research scandal yelled the Sunday Times banner headline. It was their investigative journalism that unveiled the whole new can of worms. MMR Doctor: I stand by my research on autism link said the Sunday Telegraph. Lead researcher defends MMR study bleated the BBC.

Dr Theodore Dalrymple says it all in a column inside the Telegraph: We do enjoy a good health scare. He scores direct hits on the holier-than-thou Lancet, which all number watchers will enjoy. He has long been a hero of your bending author, who wrote in the Health Scare section of Sorry, wrong number!:

The odd one out is the last book, a slim volume by an English doctor, Theodore Dalrymple, MASS LISTERIA: THE MEANING OF HEALTH SCARES. The few lines quoted from this provide the most magnificent, succinct and accurate summary of the whole phenomenon:

Health scares play an important part in the mental economy of modern man. They allow him to believe that, were it not for this or that pollutant, he might be immortal, while explaining the anomaly of death. And they do something more: they provide him with that most indispensable of creatures, a scapegoat.

While it is necessary to avoid the trap of falling into the ad hominem fallacy of assuming that the source of funding itself invalidates a research conclusion, there is something of an extra dimension to this case. The protagonist, only three months ago feted in a television drama (see Junk scientist as hero) concealed a contract with that modern scourge of society, a personal injury lawyer. Not only was his minuscule sample non-random, but it was actually contaminated. 

Credit where it is due; as Liberal MP, Dr Even Harris points out in a Sunday Times comment column, our normally weak and vacillating Government stuck to its guns on MMR, and has emerged with honour. Also, it was epidemiologists who scotched the claims with full scale studies.

Where, one wonders, will children damaged by outbreaks of the three diseases in question turn for compensation?

22/2/4

Number of the month Nine

The number this month simply has to reflect one of the most shocking incidents in the global drift away from science. The Orwellian rewrite by the BMA of Sir Austin Bradford Hill's criteria for causation represents a truly momentous landmark in the retreat of our society into a primitive belief system based on mumbo jumbo. Here are all nine criteria. Hang them on the wall and teach them to your children, before the PC censorship does away with them altogether.

1. Strength (is the risk so large that we can easily rule out other factors?)

2. Consistency (have the results been replicated by different researchers and under different conditions?)

3. Specificity (is the exposure associated with a very specific disease as opposed to a wide range of diseases?)

4. Temporality (did the exposure precede the disease?)

5. Biological gradient (are increasing exposures associated with increasing risks of disease?)

6. Plausibility (is there a credible scientific mechanism that can explain the association?)

7. Coherence (is the association consistent with the natural history of the disease?)

8. Experimental evidence (does a physical intervention show results consistent with the association?)

9. Analogy (is there a similar result that we can draw a relationship to?)

Actually, it is moot point as to whether they do establish causation (try applying them to the question "Does fertiliser cause tomatoes?") but they do define correct scientific epidemiology.

26/2/4

Index