Number of the Month

April  2004

The big push

The crescendo of propaganda by the worldwide anti-smoking zealots has now reached a climax. They grow increasingly shameless in their abuse of science and the statistical method. The relative risk is 1.15 for the claim that partners of smokers die earlier, and this is achieved by ignoring the glaring confounding factors that cigarette smoking is correlated with low social status and is a well-known response to stress. The only remarkable thing about the correlation is that it is so low.

Passive smoking blamed for deaths cries the BBC. Partners of smokers die younger yells The Times with a sub-heading that claims a cut of 15% in life expectancy (i.e. about eleven years) followed by an article from Nigel (thousands to die) Hawkes in the true style that we have learned to know and love. Passive smoking dangers revealed screams the AOL news page. This one came with the imprimatur of the Harvard School of Public Health, the home of junk statistics.

The other story, released at the same time and even more bizarre, comes from the Dark state of Insanity. The University of California tells us that people who live with smokers heal more slowly from cuts and bruises. How smokers harm healing trumpets The Telegraph.

As if it were all an unorchestrated series of events, we had the statement from Deborah Arnott of  ASH:

The case for a new law to end smoking in the workplace and in enclosed public places is now overwhelming.

Having conquered the lunatic fringe (California, New York and Ireland) they are set on world domination.

Monsters of the deep

Talking of the Dark State of Insanity – the land of earthquakes and wildfire is now trembling in fear over the threat posed by fluorescent Zebra fish. One misguided commissioner wants to lift the ban on these pets because his wife is an aquarium owner. Has he no conception of the danger to which he is exposing his fellow citizens? It's enough to make them split their Botox. In less advance parts of the world such creations would merely be remarked as a lapse of taste.

Oh, all right then

It was a mistake to raise the matter of the correspondent who established that π =3. Number watchers are a curious lot and there has been a demand to see the argument. The pdf file is available here (temporarily).

 On the other hand


 Required to prove π >3:
Consider a regular hexagon with a circumscribed circle.
Draw diameters to divide the hexagon into six equilateral triangles.
The inner angle of each triangle subtends an arc and a chord. Since a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, the arc is longer than the chord.
The arc is one sixth of the circumference and the chord is one half of the diameter.
Therefore the circumference is greater than three diameters.


Global average temperature

As a result of a discussion raised in Bizarre Science, your bending author has been consuming some of the few remaining brain cells on the question of whether the concept of a global average temperature is meaningful. The result of this maundering has been put in an FAQ.


You can't keep a good man down

Professor Richard Wiseman holds a special place in the affections of Number Watch, for it was he whose startling research kicked off the whole thing in April four years ago. No, he has not moved on to relativistic quantum thermodynamics; he is still plugging the old tune. His latest foray into the higher reaches of scientific thought is covered by the BBC (April 5th), recycling the birth month fallacy. Is your birthday linked to luck? asks the headline. Followed by  Are you born lucky? "Scientists" are trying to find out if your birthday determines how successful you are. You can even participate in the experiment on line.

This is what passes for research in our new universities.


Matters religious

Easter is a time for traditional activities. Your author has therefore been bending over the allotment, planting potatoes. Swift, Lady Christl,  Duncluce,  Anya, Maxine, Gabrielle; the poetry of the names adds to the pleasure of the physical activity. But there are of course other activities of a more religious nature that occur at this time of year. Being a chronic grower of vegetables, your bending author is a devotee of the Kitchen Garden magazine: not only for the useful tips but also for the accounts of the practices of the organic sect of the eco-religion.

For a start, they pay a hefty premium for “organic” seeds. What on earth can that mean? The mass of a cabbage seed is of the order of a milligram, while the cabbage it produces is of the order of a kilogram. If the seed was “contaminated” with say one percent of a deadly poison, the cabbage would contain about ten parts per billion of the dreaded stuff. There is no known non-living substance (even the most deadly, Botox, which Californian women inject into their faces) that can produce any symptoms at such a concentration.

Then there are chemicals. Impure chemicals they love, the impurer the better. In order to provide "potash" on their plots, they grow comfrey in one part and then bury it in another. Where do they think the potassium comes from? Spontaneous generation, fixed from the atmosphere like nitrogen or divine intervention? Every time they cut a cabbage they remove a proportion of the potassium and moving round the remains in the form of comfrey leaves will not replace it.

They live in fear of nitrates, regardless of the fact that their beloved legumes fix nitrogen into nitrates via ammonia, courtesy of their symbiotic bacteria. Excessive nitrate fertilizer use is an abomination, especially to those of us who find our relaxation by rivers, which become opaque owing to algal bloom. It could easily be solved by producing genetically modified plants that fix their own nitrogen (blasphemy, man!). This is the fear that led to the formation of PERV last year.

What they really love, of course, is shit; not just any old shit; it must be “organic” shit. It does not matter if it is suffused with botulinus spores, just so long as the animals providing it have not been exposed to “artificial” chemicals.

We must not, however, disregard the other branches of the eco-religion at this time of the year. The Global Warmers, but now we must call them Climate Changers as the mounting pile of non-evidence for any warming has produced a paradigm shift, are never far from the surface. On the Easter holiday Monday, The Times had religious texts on the front and the back. On the front page, the headline was Wrong kind of rain brings more crashes. Yes, believe it or not, the high priests of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, have put down climate change as the cause of an increase of motor car crashes. Only a nasty old cynic would suggest that it is an act of desperation under the threat of the disappearance of cushy jobs. On the back page is our old friend who writes the Weather Eye column (remember the chap who thinks that seasonal variation of day lengths is caused by the Earth having an oval-shaped orbit). Birds, apparently, are switching sides of Britain in response to the warming climate.

Here endeth the lesson.

A superb specimen

 Above we paid tribute to the oh-so-aptly-named Professor Wiseman. Well his research has borne fruit. Not only is it a fine illustration of the birth month fallacy, but it has produced an example of Chartmanship that is worthy of a place in any national museum of art. On the left is the Times version of the results. Note the subtlety of technique, particularly the suppression of the zero and the stretching of the aspect ratio into a tall rectangle. You can’t help being impressed. Before you get too carried away, however, have a look at the same data presented below with a square aspect ratio and the zero restored.


The BBC was much less creative, relying on a library picture of babies in a maternity ward, but they made up for that by making hay with the numbers. What it all boils down to is that people born in May are less than 7% more likely to feel lucky than the average, while those born in October are 5% less likely. Impressive or what?

A nice traditional journalistic touch was the citing of four examples each of summer born and winter born people. What about the other millions? The celebrity cult is so strongly established in the British media that they cannot even report a bit of run-of-the-mill junk science without introducing these dubious examples of people who are mostly famous for being famous. And what about hapless wretches such as your bending author and Yankee Doodle Dandy, born in July but condemned to being just averagely lucky? It’s a hard statistical world.


Another fine specimen

Number watcher Bill Kinney found this excellent example of the sort of mindless correlation that passes for modern epidemiology. You only have to read the title to know what to expect – Antepartum Dental Radiography and Infant Low Birth Weight. In classical style the authors ignore several glaringly obvious confounding factors. A fine Trojan Number of 1117 shrinks to 21 and then 10 who actually form the study and the small numbers are reflected in the wide confidence intervals. A neat bit of creative imagination in the suggested mechanisms rounds off a first class offering.

 More smoke and mirrors

But you cannot beat the anti-tobacco lobby when it comes to imagination. This one was found by seasoned number watcher Dennis Ambler. Half an hour in a smoky pub could trigger heart attack is the headline in the Independent. That exposure gets you less nicotine than you get by eating a potato. Since the infamous multiple statistical fraud by the EPA in its “Meta-study on Environmental Tobacco Smoke” there has been a scramble among epidemiologists to associate passive smoking with everything from dental caries and bad behaviour in children to infertility and premature death in adults. There is not a single respectable indication of statistical significance in any of them and what they really establish is that passive smoking is completely harmless. But once the EPA had broken the dam with a relative risk of 1.19 at a significance level of P<0.1, anyone could prove that anything causes anything; and they do.

 Mail shots

To finish this month a couple of those giant headlines that are the customary feature of the Daily Mail front page:

DOES TAP WATER HARM OUR BABIES? appeared on April 21st. With a macabre echo of the EPA scare that killed thousands of Peruvians in 1991, the “Committee on Toxicity” produced this one while assessing the work of “experts” at, of all places, Imperial College, London. Is there nowhere in academia that is unsullied by epidemiology? No numbers are given but just read some of the words – the information suggests there might be a small risk of an association between birth outcome problems and chlorination by-products in water… these results have added to the feeling that there might be a relationship. A previous study in Norway was quoted that produced a relative risk of 1.14.

Just one week earlier the headline was HRT: WHO CAN YOU BELIEVE? Modesty forbids giving a direct answer to the question, but they could have read Dangerous and destructive nonsense or Of human frights. The latest bit of epidemiology has cleared HRT of the accusations in some of the scares, but only after more than half the 1.7 million users in the UK have abandoned it.

The inside story, headed HRT confusion must be ended carries a side panel with a summary of some of the scares:

  July 2002: Alarm raised by  U.S. National Heart and Lung Institute, which said women on combined HRT for five years had a 26 per cent higher risk of breast cancer and a 29 per cent increased risk of heart attack.

September 02: Cancer  Research UK warns HRT does more harm than good. Trials suggest women more likely to contract a life-threatening disease than be protected against one.

May 03: U.S. scientists warn  combined HRT could increase the risk of Alzheimers.

August 03: Study of a million  British women finds taking combined HRT for ten years doubles risk of breast cancer.

October 03: Norwegian  researchers claim women taking HRT could face double the risk of asthma or hay fever.

December 03: Government Committee on Safety of Medicines bans doctors from using HRT as a main treatment against osteoporosis.

March 04: Women on oestrogen-only HRT are warned they face an increased risk of strokes in the Women's Health Initiative study.

April 04: U.S. experts say the risk of breast cancer from oestrogen-only HRT may be much smaller than feared.

 Why did epidemiologists combine to mount their attacks on this particular therapy. Was it the knowledge that the scares would guarantee big headlines around the world? Was there even an element of  Puritanism in the fear that mature women might be enjoying the continuation of their femininity?

Just to demonstrate its own resistance to junk science, that edition of the  Daily Mail also contained the following headlines – 3 million eggs may contain toxic drugs trace, How soya could help men beat cancer, Can music jog you brain into top gear? and (yes, its that man again) Were you born lucky? complete with chartmanship and examples of celebs.

Number of the month 850,000

This is the number of British women who have abandoned HRT as a result of the series of health scares.





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