Number of the Month

June 2010

Nanny still with us and the zealots go marching on ... ...

If Britons thought that they had seen the back of authoritarian socialism with the change of government, they have another think coming. The almost universally loathed authority that goes by the Orwellian name of NICE has joined in with the campaign of the alcohol zealots.

Let it be made quite clear that there is no evidence – scientific, medical or any other sort – to support the “recommended” alcohol limits. It was plucked out of the air by a committee, a fact one of whose members has admitted. It is completely at variance with past research and is less than half of a credible safe limit.

The latest sortie follows the classical pattern of a zealot thrust, some features of which are

bulletAn arbitrary, non-provenanced and unreasonable “recommended limit” is set
bulletAttention is focussed on those who grossly exceed the limit
bulletThe principle of  All must pay for the sins of the few is invoked
bulletInvasion of privacy and loss of liberty are justified
bulletAn excuse is given for a general increase in taxation
bulletPrecious and overstretched health resources are diverted to facilitate harassment

By coincidence the lead letter in the correspondence columns of The Times is headed Why are we such poor performers? It lists about twenty areas of public concern in which the UK is bottom of the European leagues. Several of these are areas in which NICE should be active and it does not include others, such as the availability of drugs for cancer treatment. NICE is indulging in displacement activity. It is failing on all fronts, so it teams up with the zealots to try to gain some credibility. The medical profession has taken its thirty pieces of silver to abandon its Hippocratic oath and pass control of medicine to the bureaucracy; one result of which is that much of the population is without emergency care out of office hours.

When your bending author was recently in hospital following a near-death experience with pneumonia, a consultant asked “Did you really admit to drinking 50 units of alcohol a week?” The shocking thing was that they evidently expected people to lie about it. Lengthy research in a university medical library suggests that there is nothing unreasonable in this level of consumption.  It comprises a beer at noon, a gin and tonic at 6pm and a whisky and water at bed time, with a very occasional glass of wine with dinner. Each of these doses is fully digested before the next. There is no concentration of blood alcohol that could be remotely considered dangerous. Yet this is regarded as more than twice the “recommended limit.” Some sections of society (such as Oxbridge dons) spend their lives awash with alcohol, yet they are also known for the frequent celebration of ninetieth birthdays. This is not to deny that many drunkards are killing themselves (sometimes deliberately). Alcoholism is a frightening condition, which needs to be treated, but many substances are abused, including prescribed drugs, which does not create an excuse for depriving the normal population from their supposed benefits. Alcoholics will not reduce their drinking because of price rises – only their families will suffer.

These are the questions that doctors are recommended to ask their patients:

1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?

2. How many standard drinks containing alcohol do you have on a typical day when drinking?

 3. How often do you have six or more drinks on one occasion?

4. During the past year, how often have you found that you were not able to stop drinking once you had started?

5. During the past year, how often have you failed to do what was normally expected of you because of drinking?

6. During the past year, how often have you needed a drink in the morning to get yourself going after a heavy drinking session?

7. During the past year, how often have you had a feeling of guilt or remorse after drinking?

8. During the past year, have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because you had been drinking?

9. Have you or someone else been injured as a result of your drinking?

10. Has a relative or friend, doctor or other health worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?

A score is calculated based on answers given to help doctors identify which people are at risk of harming their health through drinking.

Note how these questions escalate. How long is this all supposed to take? GP clinics already customarily run late. It is typical bureaucratic naïveté to imagine that those at risk will tell the truth. But perhaps truth is less important than intrusion.

The newspapers always illustrate their articles exploiting these periodic scares with photographs of young people, usually women, reeling drunk along the streets. To blame this recent social phenomenon on alcohol is like witnessing a stabbing and claiming the cutler did it. Such people are using alcohol to express their contempt for society. Another set of zealots have conspired to remove all discipline in schools. Those who have not experienced discipline fail to learn self-discipline. The shock of a night in the police cells and being up before the magistrates in the morning would cure most of them, but this is no longer politically permissible, thanks to yet another bunch of  zealots and the political emasculation of the police force.

The March of the Zealots continued unabated.


Footnote: for those unfamiliar with the techniques of zealotry, it is worth noting that the so-called costs to the NHS are an example of the fallacy of the one-sided balance sheet. The greatest costs to the NHS are for the elderly. If people really are dying prematurely they are saving the costs of hip replacements dementia treatment etc. Fantasy death counts go right back to the start of the anti-tobacco campaign, in which the CDC produced horrific numbers of deaths by counting 70, 80 and 90 year olds as having died prematurely of their habit (together with other frauds).

And on and on and on ……

168 is the number – not 167 or 169. The spurious precision is only there to empress the ignorant and ill-educated, such as PPE graduates from Oxford . Barely had we time to absorb one thrust by the alcohol zealots than along comes the next one. It is the result of an “independent” study commissioned by the New Labour government. As we well know such reviews were put in place to give the required answer to put a gloss on yet another retreat under pressure from the EU bureaucrats. Note that the number of lives to be saved is up to 168, a range which includes zero. Your bending author was once breathalysed for committing the offence of parking outside a country pub owned by friends but found innocent: hence the reference to “criminality” in the following comments from Sorry wrong number! (2000):

It so happens that, being an academic, I had done a considerable amount of research into the threshold  for increasing probability  of accidents occurred. It happens to be exactly where the limit was set in the UK , 0.08%.

Let us consider one of the more thorough investigations, which was carried out by Kruger et al  of the University of Wuerzberg and was a refined version of an earlier study in Grand Rapids . In view of my confessed “criminality” in this area, I will not go into my worries about the statistical methods employed, but take them at face value. At least they considered drivers who had caused an accident and tried to provide a comparison with the general driving population, which are both rare in such studies. Going straight to the conclusions drawn from this investigation, with respect to the likelihood of accidents and BAC  (Blood Alcohol Content):

If no one with a BAC  greater than 0.08% drove, a reduction of 96% would result. Thus, if the legal limit for DUI (Driving Under the Influence) in Germany (0.08%) was an effective deterrent against driving with a higher BAC, this would mean that nearly everything that could be done to prevent alcohol -related accidents would have been accomplished. Thus, countermeasures directed at those persons driving at BACs higher than 0.08% can be expected to be most effective in reducing the number of accidents attributable to the effects of alcohol. In contrast, measures directed at drivers with BACs less than 0.08% cannot be very effective. At most, 4% of all accidents attributable to the effects of alcohol may be prevented.

Note that these percentages are of the total estimated to be due to alcohol , i.e. 10.8% of all accidents. Thus if all driving at above 0.08% were prevented it is deduced that about 10% of accidents would not occur. Acting below this threshold would prevent less than 0.4%, which is well below any reasonable level of significance .

The conclusion must be that the right threshold was chosen for the original legislation and any limit set below this threshold would be purely punitive. It saves no lives and satisfies only the SIFs . The person who has a pint while driving home from work poses no extra risk  to anyone. In fact the two studies mentioned above suggest that there may be even less risk at this level than in the general population. To be consistent the SIFs, who are addicted to marginal statistics  should insist that all drivers should have one drink before they start. Furthermore, there was a very strong relationship with age, and younger drivers were much more likely to have an accident due to alcohol  than older ones. In general, the driver at the legal limit is no more likely to have an accident than one with no blood alcohol, but above this the risk begins to increase rapidly. The research can never be done again because legislation is in place in most countries that prevents comparisons being made.

Those pushing for harsher legislation should think through the consequences. Of particular concern are rural communities. These days we have, more than ever, urban governments  for urban people. Country dwellers have had their railways and buses taken away by the politicians  and then find themselves under attack for driving the cars upon which have become so dependent. It is all very well telling them take a taxi or share a car, but those options are pie in the sky for many country dwellers. With the decline in the church, the country pub  is often the last cohesive institution in remote areas and it is heartbreaking to see some of these businesses being destroyed by policemen  lurking around them in the hope of improving their computer  ratings for arrests, without getting into the difficult business of catching burglars. 29% of English parishes now have no pub  and the proportion is rising. A rural pub closes down almost every day. A frequent comment heard when policemen are seen skulking around country pubs  is “When you get burgled they don’t want to know.” I am ashamed to say that I am one of the many people who no longer call in on my friends’ pub – not because I would be intending to commit an offence, but because I have a horror of the harassment and intimidation that goes with it. Once the local police  spy has your number in her book that is what you are in for.

I would not wish to leave this subject without a further reference to the members of pressure groups. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) began in 1980, after a 13-year-old girl was killed by a drunken driver who had several prior offences. This was an appalling crime that deserved to be punished by imprisonment with the key thrown away.

The rate of decline of country pubs has increased rapidly since those comments were written. The tobacco zealots have forced through their smoking ban and the alcohol zealots have provided “justification” for massive increases of taxation. But who cares about those country folk, anyway. They are only a bunch of old-fashioned conservatives. It is much more important to appease the EU bureaucrats; without, of course, actually appearing to do so.


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… and on …

Of course it is always the tobacco zealots who are in the van when it comes to inventing spurious propaganda. Their latest wheeze is broadcasting the fact that the number of heart attacks fell in the year after the smoking ban was introduced. There are two elements to this particular statistical fraud. The first is a fallacy which is an extreme form of selection bias. In a stream of noisy annual data the next sample can be either higher or lower than the previous one. a priori, the case of it being the same is an event of zero probability, though in heavily quantised data, such as those involving only integer numbers, it can happen. In the application of selection bias to this particular case, there are mutatis mutandis two equal possibilities – it goes in the “right” direction or the “wrong” one. If it goes in the right direction a press release is issued, otherwise the result is ignored.

The secondary fallacy is that all other things are not equal, as in the ignoring of all possible other processes that might influence a trend. In this case there is a strenuous campaign to persuade GPs to medicate for the reduction in blood pressure and also to treat where appropriate with anticoagulants.

Oddly enough, while the main newspaper report follows the party line, as so often The Telegraph web site blogs contains a more thoughtful treatment. Lo and behold, the trend has been a decline over several years. If it were not, why are the Government putting so many resources into the campaign? The statin scam may be considered irrelevant.

So, as usual, the announcement is nothing less than a deliberate lie, but no doubt it will work and that is all that matters in the conjoined worlds of politics and journalism.


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That Laffer curve

Number Watch has frequently made scathing remarks about the application of elaborate mathematical equations to economic data that are too diffuse to justify them and has often been lambasted for it: see here, for example. But our adverse comments do not apply to the Laffer curve, which is highly relevant at the moment.

The Laffer curve is not just a hypothesis that can be, as some left wing commentators suggest, debunked: it is a mathematical necessity.

Consider a function y(x) which has the following properties:

The independent variable x lies between two bounds. Let us call them x=0 and x=100 for convenience.

The continuous function y(x) is non-negative between these two bounds.

The function y(x) is zero at the bounds: x(0) = x(100) = 0.

We discard the trivial case of y(x) = 0 everywhere.

We do not have to appeal to the theorems of elementary algebra. It is common sense that y(x) must exhibit a maximum somewhere in the range (0,100).

In the case of the Laffer curve x represents the percentage rate of tax and y represents the total tax take. It is clear that the relationship has the properties above. If x = 0 there can be no tax taken. If x = 100 there can also be no tax taken (unless you allow the proposition that people will work for nothing, which has not been relevant since the abolition of slavery).

There are a couple of riders to consider

We have not, of course, eliminated the possibility that more than one maximum occurs. We can invoke Occam’s razor to deal with this, though it would not be consistent with reasonable human behaviour for the take to go down and then rise again as the tax rate increases.

This model is a mathematical ideal and does not take into account that many other processes are simultaneously occurring in the complicated non-linear and multivariable world of economics.

The fundamental result, however, is inescapable. If you keep increasing tax rates you must reach a point at which the total tax take begins to decline.

The mechanisms by which such a decline is effected are many and various and are largely anecdotal.

As an example, consider the experience of the UK during the Chancellorship of Dennis Healey, who allegedly vowed to tax “the rich” until the pips squeak”. Whether he ever made that remark is moot, but the results of his actions are not.

This author was a young(ish) academic at the time and was bemused to find himself sitting round a swimming pool with a bunch of private businessmen (it was a summer party for parents whose children were in the same class at school). The main topic of conversation was “amusing ways of wasting your company’s money to avoid making a profit”. The effects were, however, much wider than that. A subterranean cash economy sprang up almost overnight.  There were two prices for almost everything; the invoice price and the much lower cash price. Even the local vicar was known to inquire whether there was a cash reduction. A basically honest society was corrupted forever.

You can see other phenomena in modern times, such as mobile businesses upping sticks to move to Dublin or Geneva , where the corporation tax rate is lower. No doubt there will be many other less visible manifestations after the forthcoming inevitable rises in taxation rates due to the barmy policies of Gordon Brown. How any political leader on the right side of the sanity boundary can expressly believe that cancelling a tax increase is “taking money out of the economy” is beyond normal understanding.

Funny business, politics!


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Number of the month – 40,000

Think of a number

Banner headline on the front page of the Daily Telegraph:

40,000 deaths a year due to junk food, says health watchdog Nice

So hamburgers kill twenty times as many people as road vehicles. Ordinary people with no scientific expertise are openly laughing at the extravagance of the latest claim, but they do not matter: it is aimed at the ruling class of Oxford PPE graduates, who are much more credulous. At least the old-fashioned, scare-mongering, control-freakish zealots, such as the CDC and the EPA, paid us the respect of going to the trouble of developing elaborate statistical frauds to justify their assertions. This lot, arrogant on their lofty perch way above the seething masses they seek to hold inescapably in their grasp, just think up a number double it (several times) then publish it as the scary truth.

NICE is a socialist construct – a committee that is given power of life and death (and pain) over its fellow citizens. It exercises arbitrary and haphazard control over the work of skilled clinicians. Two years ago it banned drugs for certain sufferers from rheumatoid arthritis, only to reverse its decision recently. Two years of pain to no purpose.  Some think that their growing intrusions into private lives constitute mission drift or simply extending their remit, but there is also an element of displacement activity to distract attention from the general opinion that they are doing a lousy job. They are part of that insidious socialist framework of controllers, who aim to achieve command over every aspect of the citizen’s private life: and they have made great strides in this direction over the past decade. Imagine the outcry there would have been twenty years ago if snoopers were to demand control over children’s school lunch boxes. Now it is officially accepted as quite normal, though not by some parents who still hold onto the delusion that they live in a free country.

There is no such thing as junk food. Diets are either varied and balanced or they are poor. There is, however, plenty of junk statistics, especially in the world of epidemiology. Most of the food health scares come from small observational studies without controls and randomisation. The worst of them come from data dredges and a leading source for quack dietetics is the Harvard Nurses Health study. With their debased standards (particularly levels of significance) epidemiologists can produce results to order. Remember how saturated fats were the deadly enemy? Now they are almost forgotten as the diet fashionistas move on to trans-fats. The diet industry maintains momentum by creating an atmosphere of hysteria. A huge army of officials, journalists, advisors etc live off the ever changing fads and fashions. Something is arbitrarily designated a wonder food or a deadly poison by some "expert" and immediately there is an outpouring of almost identical articles across the media.

Naturally, the salt fanatics are to the fore. Despite the existence of a mass of contrary evidence compared with their own paltry efforts, they have hawked their arbitrary and totally unjustifiable “recommended limit” with such zest that the political and media establishment accepts it without demurral. 

Now here’s a funny thing. All those 2,000 odd victims of road crashes had names, addresses and post-mortem reports, yet none of the putative 40,000 victims of politically incorrect diets have any of those things. Epidemiology is strikingly successful and consistent in maintaining the anonymity of its victims.

The recent decline of the Telegraph has been dispiriting. The turgid wittering of Geoffrey Lean is given great prominence and space, while Louise Gray constantly digs up scares of past and present. There are still a couple of fine writers of the sceptical persuasion, but Christopher Booker tends to get downplayed and James Delingpole is largely confined to the blog section. Time was when scientists and journalists shared a commitment to scepticism, but both have largely abandoned this in conformity with the norms of the new establishment. Nevertheless it is astonishing that a once respected newspaper can make a front page banner feature of such self-evident twaddle, allying itself to the fascistic would-be controllers of the minutiae of everyday life of the citizenry.

A child who has an innocent bag of potato crisps in its lunch box is now likely to have it confiscated. The makers of these crisps are marketing an illusion. They sell what are basically sealed bags of air with a small amount of potato cut into very thin plates, fried and hence randomly shaped in such a way as to make the pack look full. A typical small pack contains about 35 grams of edible material. A potato tuber about the size of a tennis ball weighs of the order of 250 grams, though water content varies greatly between varieties. The second most important ingredient is sunflower oil, once a favourite of the dietary zealots, which represents about a third of the total weight. The remainder is seasoning, which comprises things like milk lactose, citric acid from sugar beet molasses, yeast extract and various (often unconvincing) flavourings. All pretty harmless, indeed beneficial, though the salt zealots will rear up in horror at the half gram of salt, which is a vital nutrient and a major contributor to pleasantness of taste (evolution’s way of ensuring that we get enough and homeostasis takes care of any surplus).

A hamburger with onions is a highly nutritional food item as part of a varied diet. Of course, if you ate nothing but hamburgers or crisps you would become ill, but the same would happen if you ate only apples or cabbage. The snoopers into children’s lunch boxes and other dietary matters are simply looking for symbolic deviations from the latest dietary fads and fancies. They are among the storm troopers of authoritarian socialism. Children, bless their hearts, simply save their eating for pleasure for after school hours, while the majority of adults, being perversely untrendy, ignore the peremptory command “You vill obey orders at all times!” and make up their own minds.

Long live the human spirit!


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