Number of the Month

June  2004

The power of Junk Science

The average number of visitors to Number Watch is about 700 per day, modest by some standards but far more than the author expected at the outset four years ago. At the end of May, however, that number leapt to almost 4,500 per day. The reason was a leading headline on the web site www.junkscience.com regarding the announcement of the new Number Watch book. It is a remarkable testament to the scale of influence that Steve Milloy’s creation has achieved and to the editorship of Barry Hearn. It is also a ray of hope for those who still hold onto the ideas of real science in this post-scientific era of ours.

The heading above is, of course, ambiguous and also refers to the domination of junk science in the worlds of politics and the media. Whether it is Global Warming, health scares or dozens of other chimeras, the myths of modern man have largely replaced the logic of science in the popular culture. The media are quite brazen in the used of fallacious argument, chartmanship and other devices to bamboozle the public into accepting their chosen creeds, which are held with remarkable uniformity across the spectrum of publications and channels. Thus the ray of hope is but a small one, barely penetrating the fog and gloom of untruth that envelopes modern society. It is all the more remarkable that it is the World Wide Web that provides the main means to preserve the cause of scientific thought through the dark days of occupation and shelter the seed that might just some day flower into liberation and a rebirth of rational thought.

Oddly enough the place where your bending author first came across a reference to junkscience.com was an article in The Times by none other than our old friend Nigel (thousands to die) Hawkes. Which just goes to show something or other.

Footnote

Many thanks to those who have ordered the said book. Dispatching is expected to commence on or about June 4th.

1/6/4

D-day + N

How moving were the pictures of the last of the heroes of the D-day landings weeping for their lost comrades! The bravery and the slaughter are now moving from experience into history. Oldies such as your bending author, who came near to death from doodlebugs and V2 rockets, still have a very real reason for gratitude, but to the mass of the people it is only more real than the Hundred Years War because of the archive of pictures.

They made their sacrifice to save the world from tyranny, but as in all things the achievement has been diluted by the inexorable attrition of politics. The continent they fought to liberate is now ruled by a bunch of unelected commissars, most of them, like the British pair, categorically rejected by their own electorates. Government is by a bureaucratic machine so corrupt and riddled with fraud that it is quite incapable of producing a set of audited accounts. Billions of taxpayers’ Euros drain away by inefficiency, waste and fraud. Everyone involved is protected from prosecution for offences committed while in office. The Commissioner for the Environment, Mad Margo, is systematically de-industrialising the entire continent and returning its economy to the New Stone Age.

But, above all, it was for the precious concept of individual liberty that Britons, Americans and their allies endured that terrible ordeal. Protected by habeas corpus, free from the threat from double jeopardy, beneficiaries of centuries of  careful development of a framework of law and justice, they were the inheritors of a tradition that represents the best of a fair society. For the British, however, it has all turned to dust, surrendered by the pusillanimous politicians. Here is a short extract from the book Ten minutes to midnight by Phillip Day , Credence Publications 2003:

* Under British law, a law enforcement officer or the public prosecutor must place evidence before a court within 24 hours of a citizen's arrest, detailing the charges being brought against him or her. Under EU law, the police and prosecution have become one entity, and all proceedings may be conducted in secret. These measures have already been endorsed by British politicians.

* Under ECJ law, past offences committed by the accused will be raked up against him and used to justify why he committed the crime for which he is accused. Under British law, this information is only made available to the court after the verdict, in order to secure a fair trial.

* Under Article 8 of the Treaty of Amsterdam, members of the new federal 'Europol' are "immune from legal process of any kind for acts performed... in the exercise of their official functions." Thus, no Europol officer can be charged or brought to trial for false imprisonment, violence against a suspect, the destruction or seizure of private property , or harassment of any individual.

* Europol has been given powers to operate anywhere within the Eurozone, including Britain, with complete impunity. They have the power of summary arrest and extradition, in spite of existing British laws, which specifically prohibit such action. Under the power of international treaty, British law is superseded.

* Ironically, or perhaps not so, Europol's main base of operations is quartered in the old Gestapo headquarters building in The Hague. Eventually Europol will have thousands of armed officers able to operate throughout the Eurozone with complete impunity.

* Europol has been amassing records on hundreds of thousands of European citizens. None of this information is ever made public. Europol has the power, under EU law, to instruct British police authorities to investigate anyone in Britain the EU deems a danger to law and order.

 If you wonder what this all has to do with numbers, you haven’t been listening.

 7/6/4

Fraud!

100 is the amount in pounds sterling that was to be extracted from your bending author in a blatant attempted fraud. Thousand of people received similar demands and many of them paid up. When the fraud was revealed, the fraudsters announce that they would refund their ill-gotten gains, but only if individual victims put in a written request. The rest they would keep.

If you or I defrauded the public by issuing false invoices we would, quite properly, be sent to jail. Why is nothing being done about such a blatant crime? Because it was committed by an agency of Her Majesty’s Government, the Inland Revenue. They issued thousands of fines for late submission of the dreaded personal assessment tax return to people who had not been late at all. Many paid up out of sheer terror of the power and obscurantism of the organisation.

Such is Gordon Brown’s greed for funds to satisfy his ever-expanding army of bureaucrats that he leaves no scam unturned in the search for new revenues. With a general election in the offing there will be all sorts of attempts to fiddle the books to make the economy look healthy. Headline in The Times June 17th: Bank warns Chancellor to cut his spending. How economists can proclaim a vibrant economy of the basis of a mountain of personal and public debt is one of the mysteries of the dismal science.

Talking of fraud and elections, we British, including Number Watch, took a rather patronising attitude towards the Americans and their hanging chads. We had a simple foolproof system, or so we thought. The fool it was not proof against was our beloved Deputy Prime Minister, he of the two Jags and much celebrated in these pages. With the usual mixture of arrogance and incompetence that characterises the New Labour Government they decided to fix something else that ain’t broke in the constitution. Ignoring all advice, Prescott went ahead with an experimental postal ballot system, in the hope that it would stir apathetic Labour supporters into exercising their right to vote. As a result, the sacred secrecy of the ballot was destroyed and large scale electoral fraud became a feature of the British political scene. The now notorious Andrew Gilligan demonstrated how easy election fraud now is by obtaining seven votes in Britain’s most marginal constituency.  That, as they say, is only the tip of the iceberg. How many votes were dictated by domestic and religious tyrants, now that their subjects are not protected by the privacy of the ballot booth?

 And

Still on the subject of fraud, the major headline in The Times on the same day was Food giants shamed for ignoring salt health risk. The Salt SIFs are having a field day. We looked at the quality of some of their evidence back in February. The claim now is that:

Research has shown that 70,000 strokes and heart attacks, over half of which are fatal, would be prevented if the average salt intake were reduced to 6 grams a day.

Of course, “Research” shows nothing of the sort. It has become one of the classics of junk science – debased statistics, missing links, non sequiturs, trend fitting to random scatterings of points, ludicrously small study sizes (19!) and the endless repetition of nonsensical claims. Ministers and MPs are more and more becoming puppets with SIF groups holding the strings. Look how obediently the followed the script on the obesity campaign. It’s a mad world, my masters!

17/6/4

Speed cameras work! – the proof

 Some carping critics question the fact that speed cameras reduce accidents, so Number Watch has performed its own statistical survey to test the matter. This survey compared “before” and “after” statistics for the worst ten black spots out of one hundred possible sites. The results show a remarkable 35.5% reduction in accidents. Here is the complete table for all ten black spots:

 

Before

After

% reduction

20

13

35.0

29

12

58.6

18

13

27.8

18

11

38.9

17

11

35.3

16

9

43.8

15

9

40.0

15

17

-13.3

15

7

53.3

Average

reduction

35.5%

 

In all but one of the black spots there was a significant reduction in accidents.

You can’t help being impressed, can you?

 

Unfortunately, it is all based on an illusion. The table was created by the following procedure:

  1. One hundred pairs of random numbers were generated, all sharing the same average statistical properties (Poisson distribution with a mean of 10).
  2. The pairs were ranked in descending order of the first numbers in the pairs, the second number in each pair remaining unordered.
  3. The percentage reduction between the first and second number of each pair was calculated and all but the first ten pairs discarded.

 

All we have here is a demonstration of the principle of regression to the mean. It has been used unscrupulously by bureaucrats and their academic acolytes to justify just one of the many draconian forms of stealth tax that have recently been invented. If you start out selecting the largest of a set of random statistics it follows as the night the day that on average they will go down on the next measurement. The properties of order statistics have been well known and fully described for decades (see, for example, Contributions to order statistics, edited by Sarhan and Greenberg, Wiley 1962). There is no excuse for ignoring the established knowledge of over half a century.

In particular, one Benjamin Heydecker, who rejoices in the title of Professor in the Centre for Transport Studies University College London, persistently renews this deception, although its fraudulent nature has been pointed out to him over and over again. That is the way the professorate behaves in the post-scientific age.

For a full account of the way this fraud has been perpetrated and maintained over the years see Safe Speed.

22/6/4

Written out of history!

Another of those Orwellian moments! Remember Winston Smith? He was the protagonist in Nineteen Eighty-four, a humble clerk whose job at the Ministry of Truth was to rewrite history to match the current party line. Well his successors have been hard at it this month. Sir Austin Bradford Hill now officially never existed. His great scientific creation, the prospective study on the effects of smoking on a cohort of doctors has reached the stage of fifty years from its first publication. He it was who established the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. The party line now, however, is that he never existed. After the indignity of having his rigorous criteria for an epidemiological study given the Animal Farm treatment of reversal by addition (see The Big Liars) the only further thing they could do to him was to expunge him from the pages of history. All over the world, from the Telegraph in London to the Washington Times, there are celebrations in the media of the achievement of Sir Richard Doll in founding this study. Hill is only notable by his absence. In fact Doll was Hill’s assistant who simply carried out the experiment designed by the great man.

Even more ironically, the limelight is shared by Sir Richard Peto. Doll and Peto wrote the book The causes of cancer which was a travesty of the rigorous epidemiology laid down by Hill and marked the final decline of the whole discipline into sophistry and fraud. There is no doubt that Hill would have been horrified at the way his protégé cast aside his rigorous approach, for he spent much of his later life in bewailing the rise of poorly controlled studies. There is a full account of Hill’s contribution and Doll’s subsequent reneging in The Epidemiologists.

23/6/4

ITMA2

When the distinguished panel nominated Michael Mann for the title of Man of the Year in the most recent Numby awards, it chiefly took account of his contribution to lemming economics by providing the main evidence on which the global warming myth and Kyoto were built. His had been a dominant figure in each of the last four months of Number Watch for 2003, from ITMA to the award itself. Among his contributions to the propagation of wrong numbers was the application of linear algebra to a self evidently non-linear system, thereby wiping out the mediaeval warm period and the little ice age, so giving birth to the infamous hockey stick. He further distinguished himself by making strenuous efforts to prevent the publication of any papers critical of his own.

Now a new paper by Willie Soon and his colleagues has revealed yet another contribution by this fecund author to the art of creative mathematics. In three papers by Mann and others of a period of two years, the estimate of the warming trend rose mysteriously from 1 to 2.5 ˚C per decade, yet all three estimates were based on the same data.

Any reader who has perused our FAQs will be familiar with the Window Problem and its consequences, particularly as manifested in the Uncertainty Principle. This is concerned with the difficulty of representing the properties of a signal if only a finite block of data is available. A consequence, particularly in the fitting of linear trends, is that virtually nothing can be gleaned from the few points at the beginning or end of the block. In our discussion of smoothing of data, there was a specific warning about trying to make deductions from the few points at the beginning of the sequence. It was an unfortunate omission that the same injunction applies to the few points at the end of the sequence, but you cannot anticipate every fiddle that people are going to try on.

What Soon has pointed out is that Mann had not only tried to make deductions from the few points at the end of the block but he has performed the mathematically outrageous trick of padding out the signal, not with the average as we suggested in the FAQ with an accompanying health warning, but with an estimate of the trend.

This is a mathematical form of the verbal fallacy known as begging the question, in which the premises include an assumption of the correctness of the conclusion.

But there is more! Not only was this contortion applied illegitimately to the few points at the end of the block, but then the slope of the apparent trend was taken to provide the notorious claim of 2.5 ˚C per decade. Taking the slope (or differentiating) is a process that increases the high frequency noise, or errors (for the cognoscenti, the Fourier Transform of the operation is ) thus undoing any advantage provided by the smoothing process.

Never underestimate the importance of the sort of work that Soon and his colleagues have been carrying out in this context! One of the great problems with the post scientific age is that everyone wants to be Albert Einstein (or in the case of The Epidemiologists, Hill and Doll). They want to be the ones who make the great breakthrough and their increasing desperation leads them to stretch the scientific method until it breaks. Also, in order to get the necessary grants, they have to produce results that satisfy their political and bureaucratic masters. Where self-deception ends and deliberate fraud begins is a moot point, but there are ominous signs for the future of science. The process of peer review has always been open to abuse, but large-scale attempts to censor scientific discussion are a menacing throwback to the times of The Inquisition.

The integrity of science is guaranteed by the ordinary foot soldiers, who strive to ensure that claimed results really are reproducible. So, to paraphrase the words of Ecclesiasticus:

Now let us praise non-famous men

Number of the month 2.5

In view of the above, there is no choice but to nominate 2.5. Michael Mann's fabrication is turning into the most influential wrong number in human history. If the madness continues (and particularly if the US election goes the wrong way) we are heading for one hell of an economic depression.

26/6/4

Footnotes

A brown envelope arrived from the Inland Revenue. Ah! This must be the long overdue rebate. Not a bit of it. It was yet another fraudulent demand for £100 (see Fraud above).

The statements about Europol quoted from Phillip Day above have been challenged by Roger in the Number Watch Forum.

A timely summary of everything The Epidemiologists is all about occurs at the top of the front page of The Sunday Times of June 27th. The headline <material removed> is Mobile phones can cut a man's fertility by a third. The Trojan Number of men in the study is 221, divided into two groups. The short article contains the words can, could, may (four times) and, of course, more research will be needed. The relative risk is somewhat greater than 0.7.

The speed camera debate was enlivened by one Richard Brunstrom (see Heroes of our time) in the Sunday Telegraph of the same day. The burglars' friend delivers a typical tirade against motorists and for profit.

Index

 

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