Number of the Month

February   2005

When it was really hot

Ardent number watcher Dennis Ambler found this account of the summer of 1540. No doubt the believers gathering in Exeter this month will make much of the summer of 2003, ignoring, or course, the dramatic and frequently fatal winter of the same year across the Northern Hemisphere, as recorded in part on these pages. In these days of Orwellian rewriting of history, the Mediaeval warm period has been swept away with one wave of a hockey stick: so they must have imagined it.

Intellectual Interlude

Number Watch has come under some criticism for not paying due respect to the academic way of life, allegedly because of its unsavoury obsession with numbers. In order to correct this, Numeric Towers has commissioned a series of lectures by eminent academics. Here is the first from Dr Pietro Punctilio, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Much Hadham.

 

I will take as my text, two versions of a traditional ballad of miscegenation  and violence. First half a dozen lines opening the British version:

A frog he would a wooing go,
"Heigh, ho!" says Rowley.
A frog he would a wooing go,
Whether his mother would let him or no.
With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach.
"Heigh, ho!" says Anthony Rowley.

 Then, the beginning of the American version

 A frog went a-courtin' and he did ride, M-hm, M-hm.
A frog went a-courtin' and he did ride
Sword and pistol by his side, M-hm, M-hm
He rode up to Miss Mousie's door, M-hm, M-hm.
He rode up to Miss Mousie's door,
Where he'd been many times before, M-hm, M-hm

Let us consider these versions in order. This first line introduces the protagonist and his intention – to wit, to woo. The second line is one of the most significant in the history of English Literature, a vital pre-echo. It introduces a mysterious stranger, the early appearance of a device that would later be used to create an atmosphere of dramatic tension by such great writers as Harold Pinter. This has been misunderstood by many commentators, such as Dr Evadne Pincushion, who devoted much of her working life to a series of essays on Who was Anthony Rowley? The importance of the stranger is not who he is, but what he says! As Chambers Dictionary reminds us, these two simple words form an exclamation expressive of weariness. Are we not forced to accept that this is an astonishing anticipation of the bleak landscape that would be occupied by great writers of the future, such as Samuel Beckett? Thus in one simple line the author has mapped out the whole of the best of twentieth century literature to come. The next line might be considered by the superficial reader to be pointless repetition, but it performs an important purpose as the hook upon which to hang the conditional clause that follows. It is hard for us to understand in these modern times the rôle that parental authority played in the life of the young in those days, but this very work was possibly one of the first to initiate the struggle that has resulted in the liberation of the young adolescent from the stultifying control of the family.

The penultimate line of this stanza is an extraordinary one that has given rise to a whole genre of critical literature. As Dr Rick Blaine commented, “Of all the menu items in all the restaurants in all the world, he picks on these.” Obviously, the selection of these three foods is the result of careful artistic choice, and not just a random tribute to euphony, as some have alleged. Roly Poly is a dessert dough pudding that has largely fallen out of favour, now that we are aware of the dangers of obesity. Gammon is the cured ham of a hog, which was popular before the discovery that red meat is carcinogenic. These two items, however, are there to form a gentle modulation towards the shock introduction of the symbolic vegetable, spinach. Again we marvel at the technique, which was to influence many future artists, such as the film director Alfred Hitchcock. Why has this traditional green become such a potent literary symbol? Is it that creations such as épinards a la crème so often disguise fraudulent substitution of the humble leaf beet for the real thing? Whatever the explanation, there is no doubt as to its symbolic power. The idea was plagiarised in the creation of a lengthy American literary series on the life and times of a Sailor Man, replete with the reprehensible violence endemic to that benighted nation; which all brings us to the American version.

As before the protagonist and his intention are introduced, but there is the addition of a redundant and meaningless locution. Had the writer realised that the scansion had fallen short of the iambic pentameter to which he aspired? But then he gratuitously repeats it. Once it had been created, had the triteness of the pentametric form dawned on him, or is the second occurrence just a sort of literary appoggiatura for the following line? What would a skilful iambologist, such as the Great Bard himself, have made of the same material? The second line is a repetition leading to an unfortunate manifestation of the militaristic and firearm-obsessed milieu from which this version springs. Does this not foreshadow a pattern of behaviour that would one day lead to the invasion of peace loving countries in Asia? There follows a statement of the protagonist’s arrival at the door of the deuteragonist. This is shocking to readers from the old world, where such directness is, to say the least, uncomfortable. In the earlier version it takes the author several stanzas to reach this point in the dramatic narrative. Furthermore, the final line carries the suggestion that this is part of a repetitive behaviour pattern. Had an inappropriate relationship already been established before the narrative began? It would serve no purpose to dwell upon the mechanics of such a liaison, so we shall pass on to purely literary considerations. Now in the next verses…

 

(to be continued)

Photo opportunity

One of the most depressing pictures of the year was a photomontage taking up half a page of the Daily Telegraph of February 2nd. The night they put the fizz in into physics was the jolly sub’s merry headline. Many of the professional professors of panic who have featured in these pages were there – Professor Colin Blakemore, Professor Richard Peto, Sir Martin Rees, Sir John Krebs – as were the telly dons who make a nice living from the small screen – Dr Adam Hart-Davis, Lord Winston, Raj Persaud. In addition there were every female professor they could dig up, just to add politically correct authenticity to the event. It purported to be a party for the scientists to meet the media, but it was really just another show-biz bash. Alas poor science!

02/02/05

Responses to the above essay

Sir

I am shocked that you choose to publish that arrant charlatan Punctilio.  He does not know his trochee from his spondee. My mouse pointer will never hover over your entry button again.

Yours in disgust
Dr David Dactyl
Reader in Rodent-Ranarian Rhyming
Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop

Sir

It was sheer anti-Americanism posing as scholarship, and ignorant as well.

Elmer Q Aluminumstein
Associate Professor of Pentametric Poetry
University of Boot Hill

The editorial board have decided to abandon this experiment.

A tale of two conferences

One was a modest affair organised by scientists for scientists. Most participants were there under their own financial steam. The speakers were distinguished real scientists (as opposed to "climate" scientists), who presented evidence -  numbers, charts and photographs. The other was a lavish three-day politically-inspired festival. Such evidence as was presented was highly selective, though most of the claims arose from computer models

The ultimate irony is that the real scientists were subjected to a pre-emptive strike by the man who is supposed to be the nation's leading scientist, in the form of the crude and mendacious ad hominem attack that they were all in the pay of the US oil industry. The scaremongers, on the other hand, all really do make their living out of Global Warming. Global Warming pays the mortgage and feeds the kids. Without it they are on the streets and unemployable. The money is wrested (willy-nilly) from the taxpayer and handed over to them in lavish quantities. Benny Peiser  gives us an account up to the point where he withdrew under the pressure of  the depression that the proceedings induced. He showed more stamina than some of us by actually taking on the task.

Another irony is that the junkfest was organised by the people who cannot tell us what the weather is going to do to tomorrow. It so happens that in this particular week the forecasts have been even more of a joke than ever. The promised dry bright periods turned out to be uniformly dull with intermittent drizzle.

Alas poor science!

03/02/05

Q and A

A new reader of Number Watch, after a few complimentary remarks adds:

However, I'll admit to being concerned about (my interpretation of) your stance on global warming and was wondering if I could get some additional input from you.  Specifically:

1.  Do you dispute the possibility of *any* forward causal relationship between CO2 and temperature?  Or just the way that uncertaincies and other factors have been neglected from the public discourse?

  1. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but a minor one. It can only be made to look important by invoking feedback in computer models involving the major greenhouse gas, which is water vapour. If you put feedback into a large  computer model you can prove anything.

2.  Do you (in principle) resist any attempt to reduce CO2 emissions?  Or just those that have an unsupportable (via prudent risk analysis) price tag?  Or do you mainly object to Kyoto (which even many on the "left" agree is flawed).

  1. For the reasons given above, the motivation for reducing emissions has not been justified. The Skeptical Environmentalist, though astonishingly credulous in many ways, has demonstrated that the investment could be better placed (for example to give the world clean water and save millions of lives). Kyoto is absolutely meaningless, even if you swallow the whole of the global warming religious message. Use of the term “left” is significant – CO2 stands as a proxy for industry, which is the prime objective of Green attacks. Capitalism is mean and nasty, but it is still the least bad system that humankind has come up with. Environmentally, communism was much worse. If you had seen Frankfurt an der Oder from the Polish Bank in the 1960s, you would know what real pollution is, and perhaps understand the German Kyoto Hoax.

3.  On several of the "green" sites, they attempt to refute the common points raised by skeptics (most of which also appear on your site).  Do you have a response to these?  Or know of a link that does?

  1. First, I would refer you to Langmuir’s Laws of bad science, particularly laws 4 and 5. Second, I suggest a reading of Karl Popper (perhaps followed by Locke and Hume). Experience of engaging with the believers is that it involves one in an infinite and sterile cycle of claim and counterclaim. Scientists of the older generation were taught to be sceptics, only now are they taught to be believers. You cannot prove any theory. Every scientific theory should be exposed to a continuous process of attempts at disproof.

4.  While googling on the subject, I ran across "realclimate.org".  A surface read seems to suggest that these guys are serious scientists with relatively conservative positions (relative to the standard "scare mongering").  However, they do seem to fall into the basic "CO2 -> global warming" camp.  Are you aware of this site?  What is your opinion of it?

 

  1. That particular web site would appear to be posing under a misnomer. It is more about computer models than the real world. Very little is known about the inter-reactions of variables in the real climate, which makes the modelling all rather a pointless exercise. The site seems to be largely inhabited by supporters of Michael Mann, who devotes a great deal of activity to preventing the publication of “poor” papers (being defined as those that disagree with Michael Mann). Such attempts at censorship have been going on for years. Mann’s Hockey Stick disregards the contributions of literature, history, art, entomology and even musical instrument making. It is based on the erroneous application of a method of linear algebra to systems (such as plant growth) that are demonstrably non-linear. According to his critics, who are pursuing the correct scientific method of attempting to disprove a theory and to determine whether results are in fact reproducible, he got his sums wrong. That continues to be argued, but his attempts to suppress criticism are an outrageous abuse.

Clarification

The online stats service has drawn attention to the fact that your bending author’s name has been taken in vain in a discussion group. To make things clear, this author does NOT

bullethide behind noms de plume,
bulletrespond to gratuitous insults,
bullettake part in ever-decreasing-circle discussions,
bulletcomment on the intellectual calibre of his attackers.

And a correction

Thanks to Sherlockian work by regular number watcher, John Baltutis, it turns out that our rude correspondent is correct and the first figure in the trends document was in error. By calculation, John determined that there was a left hand point missing in the plot and a subsequent search through the Number Watch archives gave a further clue in the name of the MathCad program, sine5slope.mcd. It appears that one of the quirks of MathCad is that, while it automatically inserts the zero value of an index in calculation, it does not do so in the plotting routine. By the time all the calculations and plots were done, your bending author had clearly forgotten that there were originally five points. This has now been corrected by including the point at the origin. Apologies are due to anyone inconvenienced by this error.

04/02/05

 By mistake

OK, hands up, bang to rights, etc. You commit a howler publicly and you don sackcloth and ashes, eat humble pie, face the flak (and mix other metaphors). Erroneously omitting (or including) a zero value in an index is one of the most common errors in scientific papers. It is also one of the most common in computer programming, resulting in frightened old ladies being threatened with the courts for a debt of 0.00 currency units. There are no excuses.

Having said all that, it is nonetheless an interesting error, in that not only the author, but several regular correspondents, could not see it, even after it had been mooted. A likely reason is that they are all professional users of applied mathematics, accustomed to plotting stimulus-response relationships. The point at the origin is always there (you cannot get a response from zero stimulus), even if it is approached asymptotically along one of the axes, but it is rarely marked. It was unfortunate that the point not shown in the plot was the very one that would be restored in the mind’s eye of seasoned experimentalists.

It was also a very modern type of error, one that results from not reading, learning and inwardly digesting all the small print of the software manual.

As we observed last August, the making and correcting of errors is one of the ways that science progresses. It is also a useful route for younger scientists to ease their way into publication. Most of us oldies got our earliest publications from the errors of our elders and betters. That does not make being caught out any more comfortable. In those ancient times it was also done without insult or triumphalism, but science, like cricket, is no longer a game played by gentlemen.

06/02/05

Remember this number - 17

Your cynical author was deeply moved by this opening paragraph from the Personal View column on the back page of the Daily Telegraph:

Headache, high temperature, the shakes, an enlarged spleen and two billion parasites in my liver – that's the price of travelling to Sri Lanka to cover the aftermath of the tsunami.

It was by Roger Bate, who is a health economist with Africa Fighting Malaria. He has long campaigned for the rights of a large proportion of the world’s population not to be slaughtered on the altar of western environmentalism.

In a less important context, back in the last century, he was one of the few people who encouraged your bending author to publish Sorry, wrong number! and wearing a different hat found some money to purchase sufficient copies of the print run to cover the remaining shortfall in funding. The first guest paper published on Number Watch was a reprint of his article in LA Times on the Malaria Project.

The deadly legacy of Rachel Carson, brought to fruition by the EPA and enforced throughout the world was described in The Epidemiologists thus:

On June l4, l972, the Environmental Protection Agency's first Administrator, William Ruckelshaus, ignoring the advice of his scientific advisors, banned virtually all domestic uses of the pesticide DDT. Up to that point it had been regarded as the miracle chemical, conservatively estimated to have saved 100 million lives. It was virtually harmless to humans, requiring a huge dose to kill, but of course like everything else it produced tumours in specially bred tumour-prone rats at great concentrations. And then there was the Carson mythology that had given birth to the EPA. The Agency and its allies used their influence with international organisations to enforce the ban throughout the world. Some poor countries were actually blackmailed into banning it under threat of withdrawal of aid. As a result two and a half million people die of malaria every year, most of them poor children in Africa.

 Sri Lanka, in fact, anticipated the EPA by some years, under the influence of the sainted Rachel. The effect can be seen in this extract of the Time Line that serves as a frontispiece to The Epidemiologists:

1948 Annual malaria rate in Sri Lanka reaches 2.8 million 
1949 Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four
1954 Salk introduces first polio vaccine
1962 Publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
1963 DDT reduces annual malaria rate in Sri Lanka to 17
1964 DDT banned in Sri Lanka
1965 Bradford Hill’s Criteria
1967 WHO launches world-wide vaccination campaign against smallpox, which causes 2 million deaths per year

1969 Annual malaria rate in Sri Lanka reaches 2.5million. Man steps onto the moon

Brave campaigners like Roger have waged a campaign against the eco-imperialists and against the odds for some years. Smugly ensconced in their sumptuous offices in the WHO and other well-funded organisations, the world health establishment inveighs against obesity, passive smoking and other fripperies, while the malaria death toll rises to an total that makes The Holocaust look like a dress rehearsal. The director of the EPA went for the total ban on DDT, regardless of the facts that had been put before him. Poor countries were blackmailed into conforming on the threat of withdrawal of aid.

Perhaps the final insult to the bereaved and the survivors is the about turn, ten million deaths later, that part of the environmental establishment now seems to be engaged in. Nevertheless, thanks to the existence of people like Roger, there is still evidence of the existence of some humanity in humanity.

Footnote: Tim Lambert supplies a reference that is certainly well worth reading, which suggests that DDT was abandoned rather than banned. It is possible that the Government in Sri Lanka, when it decided its budget priorities, was unaware of the international hype surrounding Rachel Carson at the time, but whatever the motivation the result was the same.

07/02/05

Hit parade

Pardon, gentles all, the flat unraised spirit responsible for this unworthy web site is indulging in a little introspection. It is occasioned by attacks from a discussion group as noted above and an Australian-based web log noted for its personalised verbal assaults. This needs to be kept in perspective; the latest attack from the web log occurred at the weekend. On Monday it gave rise to 10 hits on the Number Watch site, but this is out of a total of 2,488 hits on the same day. For comparison a simultaneous and more favourable reference from another site produced 681 hits. This was http://www.jerrypournelle.com/index.html , an interesting site with a long pedigree that is well worth a visit. A mention on www.junkscience.com is always worth at least 1,200 hits.

This is not to say that a minority view is wrong, which would be falling into the trap of the consensus fallacy that is currently so popular. However, the gentlemen in question adhere to the Establishment view, so that constraint does not apply. Among other things, your bending author was accused of hiding behind pseudonyms to contribute to a web discussion group, maintained despite the denial above that so mystified some regular readers. That has now been resolved with an apology.

There seems to be a web equivalent of Gresham’s Law in discussion groups. They start out with high ideals and standards, but as new members invade, the progenitors leave and standards fall. Typically the content of such groups becomes replete with repetition, hyperbole, catachresis, shifting-ground, non sequiturs and downright mindless abuse. This author, once established as a non-contributor to such groups, was then accused of being a puppet master, doing so through willing acolytes. While it is flattering to be considered of such importance, this is no more than the product of a fervid imagination.

Among the charges in the web log were that the author is not an epidemiologist, so not qualified to comment on epidemiology, and that he is innumerate for suggesting the relative risks of 1.5 are unacceptable for observational studies. The first is like saying you have not committed mass murder therefore you are not entitled to write about crime. Critics of observational studies have included great scientifically inclined epidemiologists, such as Alvan R Feinstein, Sterling Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Yale. The also great R A Fisher would have no truck with them at all. The second accusation is typically hyperbolic. An innumerate person would not even be able to begin discussing a concept such as risk ratio. There is a substantial body of opinion outside mainstream epidemiology that is critical of such lax statistical standards. Correspondence to Number Watch confirms that many professional statisticians are appalled by what is going on. Besides which, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The book The Epidemiologists begins with some examples of the many completely contradictory headlines generated by popular epidemiological studies.

To crown it all, the web log critic tries to end with a ringing quotation from Hamlet and even gets that wrong.

Finally, with reference to the remarks above, here is an observation that seems to have been true from Roger Bacon through Galileo and Einstein to the present:

Brignell’s law of consensus

At times of high scientific controversy, the consensus is always wrong.

09/02/05

Oh what a lovely scare!

It was a classic – the scare that launched a thousand words. A “cancer causing” dye has been found in over 350 food products, which were hastily withdrawn from supermarket shelves. The Times of February 19th had it on the front page, plus three others and an editorial. Of course, cancer-causing means that mice, specially bred to sprout tumours at the sight of a lab coat, responded to tens of thousands times natural concentrations by, wait for it, sprouting tumours. Dramatic headlines saturated the media, while the BBC gave full blast on all channels. There is, of course, no recorded case of the stuff ever having caused human cancer. After dilution in one of those revolting supermarket convenience meals, the exposure for any individual is tiny. This is just one of the hundreds of substances banned by the EU as a “precautionary measure”. The cost of the mass withdrawal (about £100 million) will be borne, as always, by the public through their insurance premiums.

Professor David Barron added the following PS to his comment on the matter

One of the proscribed products is "ASDA Onion Gravy".
I've got a pack of this in the cupboard. Tomorrow I shall purchase some sausages so that I can live dangerously.

Credits

This scare was brought to you by EU Productions, directed by “Mad” Margot Wallström, with a cast of thousands (of mice, deceased).

Footnote: apologies for the understatement in the opening line above, gross even by Number Watch standards, which was picked up by Junkscience.com. Put it down to an excessive attachment to quotations.

20/02/05

Dyeing thoughts

Why do people want their food dyed? What is wrong with brown chilli sauce? The eyes seem to take precedence over the taste buds. In supermarkets you see, for example, tomatoes that look magnificent, uniform in size and colour, but offering a tasting experience akin to that of wet blotting paper. Yet the seed catalogues are full of exciting varieties that are so easy to grow and wonderfully flavoured.

By one of those strange coincidences, your (literally) bending author was involved in a dye question on the same day as the break out of the great scare. I have borne the cross of arthritis for about a quarter of a century. Initially, greater than the physical pain was the forced withdrawal, not only from half a dozen sports, but also from playing the guitar and the piano. However, in the past year the pain and immobility made me almost a housebound cripple and even forced a reduction in computer time.

Perhaps it was lack of faith, but I tried without success glucosamine sulphate, cod liver oil, physiotherapy, osteopathy and short pulse short wave diathermy. Interesting the latter – what is the point of diathermy without the therms? Furthermore, the dosage of radiation to the brain was considerably higher than from a mobile phone. Opportunity for a scare?

Anyway, the next thing was NSAID. The relief was almost instantaneous, and within days I was back digging the allotment that I had been forced to let run to wilderness, in preparation for the new year of growing vegetables, including those wonderfully flavoured tomatoes. There seem to be a price to pay, however, which took the form of exacerbated asthma and sleep-disturbing outbreaks of urticaria. As a last resort I took to reading the scare leaflet that comes with the pills and noted that they were dyed with E110. Looking it up, I discovered on the internet the following information:

E110
Sunset Yellow FCF, Orange Yellow S, FD&C Yellow 6

A synthetic 'coal tar' and azo yellow dye useful in fermented foods which must be heat treated. Found in orange squash, orange jelly, marzipan, Swiss roll, apricot jam, citrus marmalade, lemon curd, sweets, hot chocolate mix and packet soups, trifle mix, breadcrumbs and cheese sauce mix.
It appears to cause allergic and/or intolerance reactions, particularly amongst those with an aspirin intolerance. Other reactions can include gastric upset, vomiting, a rash similar to nettle rash and skin swelling.
It is one of the colours that the Hyperactive Children's Support Group recommends be eliminated from the diet of children.
Whilst being a commonly used colour in the UK, its use is banned in  Norway and Finland.

When I had the original allergy tests some thirty years ago, I was advised to avoid aspirin and yellow hay fever pills. I also discovered that there was a brand of the same drug that was dyed with yellow iron oxide. I have today changed to this form and am uncharacteristically full of hope. But if they have to dye the pills at all, why choose a known, if rare, allergen, when there is a very common mineral with the same effect?

The difference between the two cases is that allergy is known to be caused by very small doses of relevant substances, while cancer is not.

In the village store all the gossip was about how everyone had thrown away their Worcester sauce. Just imagine the dilution that had occurred, first in the preparation of the sauce and then in the addition to their tomato juice.

End of anecdotal rambling.

21/02/05

Chilly saga

At last a break in the pattern of mild westerlies that has established itself over Britain in the last few winters, and freezing easterlies raise the possibility of eradicating some of those pests and diseases that have been successfully over-wintering, especially since Mad Margot banished most of the cures. One pest that we might expect to retreat is the global-warming journalist. No such luck; he is more robust than that. It is quite extraordinary just how parochial the proxy pushers can be. People might be suffering and dying in the cold across America, Russia and China (or even India), but in Britain a couple of early crocuses and the odd stray migrant bird immediately offer proof of global warming. Anyway, our old friend of The Times Weather Eye, Paul Simons, while being obliged to note the change, ends his piece with:

These days, global warming has scuppered the chance of truly big freezes. 

Ho hum.

Chilli saga

Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph has suffered one of those occasional outbreaks of common sense that make it almost unique in the British media. In a side column to the full page splash continuing the saga of the dye in the chilli powder, we find:

 Contradiction, hype and a question of risk
By David Derbyshire

Nice to see a finishing comment from Frank Furedi – another rare phenomenon, a sociologist with common sense.

From Runnymede to Ruddy Mad

800 years ago, the signing of the Magna Carta, was a substantial step in the development of the precious unwritten constitution that has been one of Britain’s greatest assets, and which the New Labour Government has been busy unravelling over 8 years. The final blow is the proposed new legislation that will empower politicians to imprison people on their own whim, specifically banned in the great charter.

The Government have got themselves in a mess by unthinkingly adopting legislation (mainly inspired by the EU) that takes away the liberties of which the nation has been so proud for almost a millennium. In particular the Human Rights act has been an unmitigated disaster across the board. They simply cannot understand that one man’s human right is another’s human wrong (or, as in this case, millions’).

The British taxpayers, for example, find themselves obliged to keep at great expense a Muslim cleric and his family – a man who openly preaches the violent destruction of his hosts. He should be in jail for life in Jordan, but he cannot be extradited because that country maintains the death sentence.

Election blues

Talking of New Labour, they seem to have been overcome by a bout of unnatural modesty. Warming up to the forthcoming election, they claim that, among many other accomplishments, they have achieved low interest rates in the UK. Why so coy, when they have achieved even lower interest rates in Europe and the USA?

It really is going to be an even more depressing election campaign than usual. The Great Leader is working up a head of steam. We have been accustomed to Tony doing sincere, which is emetic enough, but Tony doing humble is just too much to bear.

With any luck, the electorate will realise that, while there is no party worth voting for, there certainly is one worth voting against.

23/02/05

Nanny Watch

It is not often that a web log turns up that is worth recommending, but regular number watcher Ray Futrell came up with this one. Nanny Know Best by Ken Frost powerfully and amusingly illustrates the products of much of the numerical nonsense that has been covered in these pages.

24/02/05

Rocket science?

Rocket fuel found in US breast milk yelled the headlines. The attention of Number Watch was drawn to the perchlorate scare by Laer Pearce, author of Cheat-Seeking Missiles.

This appears to have all the hallmarks of an Instrumentation Induced Scare based on the Dosage Fallacy. Previous examples of IIS include dioxins in salmon. Because of advances in instrumentation, we are now able to measure concentrations of less than parts per billion of chemical species, a long, long way below the levels at which any known toxin has an effect.

First, the naming of parts. “Per” is a prefix suggesting a higher state of oxidation that normal (e.g. hydrogen peroxide). “Chlor” indicates the presence of an atom of Chlorine. “-ate” tells us that there is lots of oxygen (four atoms). The latter is the significant reason for its production for rocket engines, because it is an efficient way of storing oxygen, just like the nitrate in gunpowder. Perchlorate ions do not exist on their own, they are salts of perchloric acid  (HClO4), so there is a positive ion in association (ammonium, lithium, potassium etc.)

 According to the EPA, small scale tests on human subjects suggest that there is an effect of inhibiting iodine uptake in the thyroid with the threshold at a dose above 0.007 mg/kg (bodyweight)/day, over 14 days. There is also epidemiological and rodent evidence that can be dismissed for the usual reasons.

The usual questions occur.

There is the “ozone-hole” question – how do we know it was not always there, before we developed the instrumentation? The human metabolism produces an enormous range of chemicals, some of which have a function and some of which are by-products. It would not be at all surprising if the odd perchlorate ion occurred somewhere in the process, as the requisite atoms are there in abundance. Equally, why should we suppose that the stuff was not always in our water supplies?

Then there is the corpus delicti question – where are all the children suffering from, say, hypothyroidism? The scaremongers seem to be involved in a game of Cluedo in which the necessity to locate the body is waived. As with all such scares, the promoters cannot produce a single sufferer from the putative cause.

What will the reaction be? Will American children have to start taking seaweed with their Ritalin?

26/02/05

Number of the month – 1,000

As the Irishman said when asked for directions “If I were going there, I would not start out from here.” Or as another cliché has it – it is easier to get into a deep hole than it is to get out. Or how about – a stitch in time saves nine?

The “official” figures now admit that more than 1,000 people are dying of MRSA in British hospitals. This is a problem that needed to be tackled immediately, the first time it appeared. That it would happen was an inevitable prediction of the theory of evolution.

It has all been known and inevitable for years. For example here are quotations from each of the two books associated with Number Watch:

There are some disturbing possibilities. For example, MRSA, a highly resistant staphylococcus, has so far been confined to hospital wards, where it can be dealt with by ward closure and isolation. 

………

Remember that this is in the nation that gave birth to Nightingale and Lister, and one that was invited to panic over a “calculated” 1,000 deaths from passive smoking. Real people are dying in their thousands, but the Government is too preoccupied with imaginary deaths to do anything about it. Millions are spent on hectoring the population about too much smoking, drinking and eating, while 300 people (and rising) every day are catching horrendous diseases in the government-controlled hospitals that are supposed to cure them.

The first of these quotations was naively optimistic. Overpaid, target-obsessed chief executives throughout the health service have neglected the elementary life-saving precautions in order to maximise patient throughput. As a result, MRSA infection has been increasing in the UK faster than anywhere else in Europe. To use yet another cliché, this is a very difficult genie to get back in the bottle.

Why has it happened here? It is because the British electorate installed a Government of relatively young professional politicians who had never run anything. They actually believed that their admonitions and targets would achieve results. They have learned nothing from their experience, and have simply set yet another target to “halve” MRSA (i.e. condemn only 500 people a year to death).

Now the Sunday Times reports that hundreds of new born babies are catching the disease. What is the reaction of the Department of Health – it has commissioned a £140,000 study into the problem.

Millions of pounds are spent withdrawing products that are almost certainly harmless and the bureaucrats are going to spend a paltry sum on a study! Meanwhile, hundreds more will die and thousands will suffer from something that was entirely predictable.

It’s a mad world, my masters!

Footnote: aftermath.

28/02/05

Index