Number of the Month

August 2000

august, n, a circus clown of the maladroit type
Chambers 20th Century dictionary

Panic in the streets

August is traditionally the high point of the silly season and it certainly started with a bang. The month began with an outbreak of Mad Scientist Disease. MSD was only discovered a year ago by Simon Jenkins (Panic is now the plague: science committees now obfuscate and leave politicians running scared, The Times, June 6 1999) when it led to a ban that put the cost of contact lenses through the roof. Astonishingly it struck the same victim, one Professor Peter Smith, who is the Chairman of the committee that oversees the CJD Industry. Is this the mono-cluster that micro-epidemiologists have been looking for? CJD WARNING TO DENTISTS yelled a typical headline (in the Daily Express). The good professor said that all dental instruments should be sterilised thoroughly. Like all great works of art this scare opens more questions than it answers:

Who are these dentists who are NOT sterilising their instruments thoroughly?

How did other sectors of the scare industry (e.g. the HIV mob) miss out on this one?

Will the Government issue a ban on re-usable instruments? They have not had a really good ban for months and there are signs of serious withdrawal symptoms around Whitehall.

Will the EU and the USA take this lying down, or will their "BSE in sheep" scare provide an effective counterblast?

Human Rites

When in the chronicle of wasted time, we are called to give an account thereof in the day of judgment, the British Higher Education Quality Assurance Agency exercise will stand out as a monument to man's squandering of man. The skilled man-hours that went into this futile yet destructive exercise number many millions and the  pieces of paper generated an order of magnitude greater. The product was, of course, that love object of the Great British Bureaucrat, a League Table. Is League Table worship unique to the GBB or do other nations suffer the same inutile indignity? The media, of course, love it. University teaching is getting much better proclaimed the Daily Telegraph (August 2). If the sub-editor had been familiar with Brignell's  Law of League Tables, he could have written the headline before the exercise even started. If he had been familiar with the noble history of his own newspaper, he would also know of  Hutber's Law. Those who have an insatiable appetite for numbers can visit the whole sorry imbroglio here. As with most such exercises, anyone with any knowledge of the system could have made a pretty good stab at the rankings without doing any survey at all.

Special Relationship

There was a certain numerical reciprocity between Britain and America this month, when they became fascinated with each other's numbers. The American number that caused national protests was the price of motor fuel. This was observed with wry perplexity by the SIF-ridden British, who pay nearly four times as much and seven times the tax. The Americans, on the other hand, were impressed with Britain's achievements in crime statistics, the dramatic increase of which led to a number of  media articles and a drop in tourism. It is easy to get paranoid over media stories about other countries - I spent a week in Dallas recently and did not get shot once. There is a numbing inevitability, however, about the British figures. Community policing has been progressively withdrawn by successive governments and the diminishing police are themselves tied up in ever expanding knots of red tape. The courts seem to treat criminals with kid gloves and new EU human rights laws play havoc with conviction rates. 

Fear not! The Government has put LORD Birt in charge of crime. If he does the same as he did for the BBC, it should be on its knees in no time. Amazingly, he only needs one day a week for this task. If he were employed for five days a week, he could also eliminate poverty, disease, pestilence and, of course, smoking.

In Britain MAFF seeks to emulate the achievements of  the EPA, but it simply does not have the panache. You have to look in the Small Bites column of the Kitchen Garden magazine to find that MAFF has directed a seed firm to withdraw a herbal sweetener stevia, as the powdered form "could" cause impotence in "some" rats.

Scam today and scam tomorrow

The drip, drip, drip of propaganda for the global warming scam continues daily. Now it is going to cause an invasion of midges in Scotland (The Times, August 7th). Now that the nice Mr Gore has chosen a running mate who is a fellow enthusiast look out for the drips turning into a cascade. Reading the popular media it is hard to remember that over 17,000 highly qualified scientists reject the so-called evidence for global warming. If you need a reminder look here

Girl Crazy

There was a further shock horror headline in The Times of August 7th: Vegetarians are more likely to have daughters. There were pictures of Madonna and Linda McCartney and their daughters just to prove it. Researchers at the University of Nottingham studied 6,000 pregnant women, of whom one in twenty were vegetarians. Thus the Trojan Number 6,000 is reduced to 300 actual cases. It was found that the sex ratio of the births was 85 boys to 100 girls. At first sight this looks like a startling 15% difference, but this is just an example of the ratio scam. The  proportion is, in fact, 85/185 or 46%, which is only 4% away from the neutral 50%. If we plot the binomial distribution for n=300 and p=0.5, we can see the probabilities of getting various percentage proportions by accident for the said number of cases. In particular we can see just how overwhelming the proportion of 46% actually is.


Pretty ring time

It would not be a proper Silly Season without a crop circle story. For readers who live in countries that do not benefit from this type of annual alien visitation, these are circles and other shapes of various degrees of elaboration picked out in the pre-harvest fields by flattened stems, mainly in Wiltshire (for some pretty pictures search the web pages of The Times and the BBC for "crop circle", see media links). Many of the hoaxers responsible for these manifestations have confessed. A "researcher" funded by the Rockefeller Institute, however, has achieved his fifteen minutes of fame on TV and in the press by claiming that twenty percent of the phenomena are genuine, on the grounds that they coincide with minute variations in the Earth's magnetic forces. Colin Andrews, a former local government engineer has been investigating this with Rockefeller's money for 11 years (The Times, August 10th). It would be a shame to spoil his fun by citing the likes of Faraday and Maxwell, or pointing out that his numbers are too small by at least ten orders of magnitude. What a boon the sensitive magnetometer has been to the more creative reaches of science. It even aids the detection of ghosts.

A dying fall

Yet another Incredible Shrinking  Forecast! Do you remember AIDS ("soon there won't be any Americans left") and Global Warming. Now the CJD industry has scaled down its estimates of the total numbers likely to die from the disease. It was once 500,000 and has now shrunk to 6,000 (The Times, August 10th). There have been 70 such awful tragedies so far, but we can take comfort from the universal law of forecast shrinkage. As someone said - Time is a great healer.

Food for thought

It was not a matter of whether but when the Great Food Scare of this Silly Season would eruct. The fifteen minutes of fame scroll of honour goes to two geniuses working for the FDA, Daniel George and Daniel Sheehan. Soya linked to cancer and brain damage yelled the front-page headline in the Observer (August 13). What a stroke of brilliance to pick on what is one of the most popular foods in the world! Of course, in the rational age, which finally came to an end some twenty years ago, it would have been noticed that all the millions feeding on the stuff did not show any extra unusual symptoms at all. Anthony Barnet, Public Affairs Editor for the Observer should receive a special award for a sentence that epitomises the age of junk:

Although soy is thought to protect against breast cancer, some studies show that chemicals in Soya may increase the chances of breast cancer which uses oestrogen type hormones for growth.

Which brings us to a thought for the month from George Orwell's 1984:

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.

Education! Education! Education?

Those outside Britain, who might think that comments on its educational system are a parochial matter and of no general interest, are wrong. They should take it as a terrible warning as to what can happen when centralising bureaucrats and politicians seize hold of this vital area of national culture. Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools has only just noticed the disaster that has overtaken what was once the finest university system in the world (The Sunday Times, August 13th). Now on offer are degree courses in subjects such as knitwear, beauty therapy, media studies and golf course management. Well, at least it keeps the young people off the streets, even if it splits no atoms or decodes no helices. A more detailed (and depressing) analysis is given by Duke Maskell (The Education Swindle, The Spectator, August 5th). He is publishing a book early next year with Ian Robinson, The New Idea of  a University. Forgive me if I do not read it. I seem to get depressed so easily these days.

Harvard in Danger

The ancient foundation of the University of Harvard has been widely acknowledged as the premier home of junk science, mainly thanks to its School of Public Health, which was awarded the Junkman's Pennant with twice as many points as runners up Tulane. But watch out Harvard! The new micro-epidemiology movement that has arisen in Britain threatens the throne. Not satisfied with the micro-cluster, they have now invented the micro-dredge. Harvard's famous Nurses Health Study involved a data dredge among 370,000 registered nurses and came up with all sorts of wonderful statistical associations.

The Department of Cybernetics at Reading University was a quiet, conventional, respectable academic department until the arrival of Professor Kevin Warwick. Remember him? He is the one who had the silicon chip embedded in him, but rumours about the bolts in his neck are completely without foundation. Anyway, his dredge involved a mere 200 students (front page, The Daily Telegraph, August 14th). He asked them to take part in 10 activities and eat or drink five products before taking IQ tests. Swatting, listening to classical music and drinking orange juice were bad, while eating peanuts and watching television were good. Hidden within this modest article were a number of scientific breakthroughs: not only was such a small sample necessary, but IQ can now be measured to within one point. Furthermore, IQ is all you need to pass exams and actual knowledge does not count. It is therefore disappointing that the paper's own editorial on the subject was less than fulsome. If Great British Achievements receive such a lacklustre coverage in our own press, how are we ever going to compete with the likes of Harvard?

Carry on dumbing down

The number of the month has to be Eighteen. Yet another terrible warning to the world from the British education system. Eighteen is the number of years for which the number of passes at A-level (the British school leaving and university entrance examination) has increased annually. It all began in1982, a very significant year, as readers of James LeFanu or this author will know. Until then A-level passes had remained absolutely stable. That year marked the end of the age of rationality and the beginning of the great centralisation, as chronicled by Simon Jenkins (again). Of course, those dreadful cynics and pessimists seek to deny the self -evident truth that this generation of students is twice as bright and hard working as its predecessor. They have the audacity to suggest that changes in the examination system itself might be the cause. They cite all sorts of trivial observations, such as:

    The examinations are now modular, so that students can bone up on a section of the syllabus then forget it.

    The large coursework element means that authorship cannot be authenticated. Parents and teachers (who are now paid by results) might even be slightly tempted to lend a hand.

    Large chunks of syllabuses have been removed or can be avoided, so that universities have had to revise their first year syllabuses because entrants cannot perform, for example, the most elementary mathematical analysis.

    Industrialists are increasingly complaining about the declining level of knowledge and of verbal  and mathematical skills of school leavers.

In the Panglossian world of politics, such comments are derided as dross. As The Times (August 17th) reports:

Baroness Blackstone, the Education Minister, congratulated this year's candidates, saying: "No doubt there will be those, as usual, who seek to devalue these results. They are wrong - these results reflect real achievement. Young people understand that good qualifications are increasingly important to their future careers and they work hard to achieve good results."

It has been calculated that by the year 2010 there will be no failures at all, which will, of course, remove the necessity for having any examinations and the great egalitarian society will have been achieved. Perhaps it is just as well that Britain has had the foresight to close down its manufacturing industry.



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