Number of the Month

September 2001

This is the dawning of the age of incompetence

As we have often observed in these pages, the primary causes of wrong numbers are many and various. They include such motivations as ambition, zealotry and sheer malice, but increasingly the fundamental source is just plain incompetence. A glaring example is such a white elephant that it is clearly visible from space. It is, of course, the Millennium Dome. In 1851 Prince Albert, the Royal Consort, organised the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace which stimulated a growth in industry, commerce, technology and national pride. In 1951 a Labour Government organised the Festival of Britain, with a Dome of Discovery that inspired a new generation to take up science and technology. In 2001 the dreaded dome squats by the Thames, a sorry and costly monument to the uninspired banality that lies at the heart of Government.

Britain seems to exemplify something that has gone wrong in the entire Anglo Saxon world. Is there anything that works properly any more?  Transport is a shambles. Patients lie on the floors of hospital corridors, hoping to be promoted to a trolley so that they can be examined to get on the waiting list to get on the waiting list for an operation. Foot and mouth disease ravages rural areas that were already decaying from neglect and millions of healthy and innocent animals are senselessly slaughtered to no avail. Professional people in all fields trying to do their best are trapped in a morass of bureaucracy and red tape.

The post-Murdoch media revel in triviality and untruth. Even the once great Times and BBC peddle pap from the blander reaches of the popular entertainment industry and, of course, copious dollops of the products of junk science. Lazy and inadequate journalists reproduce palpable nonsense without bothering to check its validity, leaving the field open to self appointed experts. Politicians were once men of great experience of the world, but now they are full-time professionals who know little outside their own coteries and theories. Spin doctors, fresh from university, distort, obfuscate and manipulate, until their own time comes for a safe seat awarded by the implacable party machines that reduce our elected representatives to automated ciphers.

At the heart of it all, of course, lies education. There is a mood of educational self destruction unique to the Anglo Saxon world that has prevailed for two generations. Read, for example, Alan Caruba’s four part series on the Subversion of Education in America with its extensive quotations from "The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America" by Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt. The least surprising headlines in Britain announced record passes in school exams for the nineteenth year running. A defector who resigned as a chief examiner let out the truth that we had all known, that grades were being deliberately debased by examination boards touting for custom among the schools. Young people are packed into tin pot universities, emerging debt-laden and touting worthless degrees. Semi-literate and almost wholly innumerate, they are doomed to be disappointed and a disappointment.  A more welcome resignation was by the leader of the organisation that was supposed to ensure quality control in British universities, but succeeded only in banishing traditional university style teaching and replacing it with polytechnic style training. Teachers in all grades are effectively studying for a Master’s degree in advanced form filling. We are now producing a third generation that has never known discipline or the love of learning.

So, we are doomed to be inundated with more empty scares and meaningless breakthroughs. More for Number Watch to cover you might think, but your bending author is suffering from a diminished boredom threshold and silly season fatigue. Giant tsunamis and other “end of the world is nigh” predictions might excite the tabloids, as does the umpteenth miracle cure for cancer, but they are inherently as dull as ditchwater.

 Lament for Lubbock

It is generally recognised among seasoned observers that the most outrageous example of statistical delinquency in this age of junk science was the so-called meta-study by the EPA on passive smoking. Of the five major statistical frauds in this study the most extraordinary was the elevation of the level of significance to an unheard of ten percent, and the most remarkable fact was that, after all this juggling and fiddling, the EPA could only come up with a pathetic risk ratio of 1.19.

It came as no surprise that this farrago of lies was taken up with enthusiasm in California, but it is something of a shock to find that it has been adopted as the excuse for a draconian restriction of the liberties of people in a state where you expect to find some horse sense, Texas. The story of how anti-smoking zealots stage-managed their coup is a remarkable one. It can be found at a new web site mounted by the free spirits of Lubbock County. Number Watch hopes that they get the fullest possible support from lovers of truth and freedom in their own state.

Tales of the unexceptional

I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand an end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
          Hamlet

Scare headline from The Times echoed throughout the media: North bears brunt of 30% increase in CJD.

vCJD is always a good bet for generating a scare from very small numbers. The latest is that people in the North of Britain are twice as likely to get it than people from the South; a nice example of the use of ratios with a little bit of rounding up. An interesting problem, in that the numbers of cases in the two areas are almost identical (45 and 46) and the different rates arise from the fact that the South has about twice the population of the North. The global rate for getting the disease over the period of its recognition is 1.9 per million of the population. On the basis of relative population, the expected division of numbers would be about 32 in the North and 59 in the South. Thus there is an excess in the North and a deficit in the South, both of 13. These differences are statistically significant, at least for epidemiologists, except that the risk ratios (1.4 and 0.78) would not be acceptable in most sciences. Anyway, in order to produce a good story, one was divided by the other to produce a new relative risk of 1.8, which was then rounded up to give the proclaimed doubling.

The subtext, of course, is that Northerners are prone to indulging in politically incorrect diets. This is not borne out by the surveys, as the Southerners are just as likely to go for naughty kebabs as the Northerners are to eat wicked pies. There are of course many real and dramatic differences between North and South.

As for the 30% increase, the figures given for the first eight months of this year are 17 deaths, while the total for the whole of last year are 28 deaths. At the risk of joining in the celebration of trivia surrounding terrible personal tragedies, I make that a decrease in rate. The sequence of numbers over seven years does suggest a rising trend (3,10,10,18,15,28,26) but there could be many explanations, particularly including improved awareness and diagnosis. Relative to the total population these numbers are tiny (about half the numbers dying from complications in pregnancy, for example) so what is the justification for generating whole page scares in the posh broadsheets, let alone the tabloids? There are simply not enough data from which to make any sort of reasonable extrapolation. In days of yore, the scientific era when professors did not issue press releases at the drop of a hat, they would have waited for more information before offering a reasoned scientific paper for refereeing.

The classical case of making a mountain out of a statistical molehill is, of course, the so-called Queniborough cluster. Here is a paragraph from the official report:

 The study showed that the relatives reported that the people with variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease were 15 times more likely to have purchased and consumed beef from a butcher who removed the brain from a beast compared with controls who purchased meat from outlets where cross contamination with brain material was not a risk. This result is statistically significant and is therefore very unlikely to be a chance finding.  (p = 0.0058 and the 95% confidence interval is 1.6 to 138.9) 

 The trouble with getting mixed up in epidemiology is that it destroys one’s sense of the absurd. Just imagine any other context in which people could say “This number is 15, but there is a one in twenty chance that it is either as low as one and a half or as high as one hundred times that”. You would be laughed off the pulpit.

A feel for numbers

One of the things that distinguishes a real engineer or scientist is the feel for orders of magnitude. Some proposals are self evidently silly without making any calculations at all. This month, school children all over Britain jumped up and down for a minute to see whether the effect could  be detected by seismologists. This was supposed to encourage their interest in science. Surprisingly nothing was detected. There was also a proposal to harness the seismic vibrations from road traffic to generate power. Like the proposal to put wind generators up in the sky (see March) this is so patently stupid to anyone with a feel for the laws of physics that is is hard to believe that it could be seriously suggested. The dire consequences of global warming, which is not actually happening, are now rehearsed on a daily basis in all the media. Even if the rise of the fraction of a degree being claimed had occurred, it could not possibly account for all the disasters being recorded. We really have entered the post-scientific age.

New York

The unspeakable evil that has overtaken New York this month dwarfs everything else and makes our day-to-day concerns seem trivial. It demonstrates the power of irrational beliefs. The suicide killers have been convinced that they hold a place in paradise attended by 72 virgins. What can one say? Perhaps Americans will now cease to luxuriate in concerns about imaginary dangers and concentrate on real ones. The American Red Cross, for example, has been turning away blood donors who have travelled in Europe on the grounds of an infinitesimal risk of vCJD. Europeans have long marvelled at the negligent attitude of American airports to security. We have lived with the threat from random murderers of innocents, such the IRA, and accept the unwelcome infringement of our liberties. America must now face the fact that isolationism is not an option. Indiscriminate slaughter is not just something that happens elsewhere.  A nation that is fundamentally great and good, despite the blemishes that have been rehearsed here as much as elsewhere, has the power to rise and challenge the forces of darkness that have always been an unwelcome travelling companion of humankind. There is no point in going on unless we adhere to the belief that truth and justice will prevail.

The aftermath

When a hugely traumatic event occurs there are many reactions, some of them quite bizarre. The impact on Number Watch during the week following the New York terror was that the rate of hits on the site more than doubled. The increase was almost entirely from surfers looking for information on such matters as Nostradamus, the Bible Code and Numerology. With regret such visitors must be informed that Number Watch has nothing to say on these matters. Some propositions are so stupid and puerile, when they are not downright fraudulent, that this author has no intention of expending his diminishing stock of brain cells on them. Admittedly many of the things dealt with here are also stupid and puerile, but at least they are posing as some sort of science. See the Skeptic’s Dictionary and its references for a more than adequate treatment.

It seems implausible but, at the height of the rescue workers trying to deal with the carnage, some buffoons actually raised the asbestos scare. Not only was this, to use a favourite word of the Politically Correct, inappropriate, a plausible case can be made that this scare had been responsible for the number of deaths being considerably higher than they might have been. I do not diminish the inevitably fatal variety of cancer caused by asbestos. Many years ago I lost a close friend and colleague to it, but he had experienced many years of exposure in the Dublin docks, which are the sort of conditions that produce the disease.

 Back to the Futile

The British Government launched another attack on the family car, this time based on a remarkably vague study on particulate pollution. The press mostly seized on the upper limit quoted of 4.1 million life-years that could be saved. The Times settled for one million. We remark above on the peculiar facility epidemiology has for tolerating wide ranges of estimates, but the ratio between the highest and lowest in this case was a startling 586. Imagine such a tolerance in any other field “This job might cost you seven dollars, but it might be four thousand”. A more encouraging report in the press asserts that many people, particularly the young, take absolutely no notice of stern admonitions that the life style they enjoy will shorten their lives. Basically, they don’t give a damn about losing a few months of senile decay.

With governments like this who need enemies?

Two of the most vital branches of the economy of any healthy nation are the manufacturing and farming industries. British governments have treated these sectors with neglect for decades and as a result they have gone into decline. New numbers out suggest that this neglect has been transmogrified into positive malevolence.

Head line in The Times (September 24) – Climate change levy costs engineers £200 million a year. In another time and place it would beggar belief that, for the sake of a piece of scientific nonsense dreamed up by political zealots, a sovereign nation would deliver another hammer blow to an industrial sector that is so crucial.

Back in February our number of the month, under a heading Mad, mad, mad!, was the number of animals needlessly slaughtered in the Foot and Mouth scandal, a mere 15,000. It now stands at an unbelievable 3,876,000. But there is more! The Government’s own Countryside Agency estimates rural losses at £5 billion, but if you take into account all rural industries this is likely to be a gross underestimate. Even the European Parliament condemned the incompetence displayed. A whistle blower from DEFRA (risking, would you believe, prosecution under the Official Secrets Act) suggests that officials dealing with the disease were actually guilty of spreading it.

Where the Luftwaffe failed the British Government has succeeded.

 Bulls, bears, scapegoats and other animals

In recent years some of the silliest numbers have come out of the financial markets. Shares have been traded at yields and price/earnings ratios that would have been considered ludicrous in the past. In the case of many of the dot-coms these numbers were nought and infinity respectively. The inevitable correction, which was being brought about by recession, has been accelerated in the aftermath of the New York disaster. Shares are now trading at numbers that would have been considered reasonable on a historic basis. Other silly numbers have been the salaries and bonuses awarded to themselves by City fat cats, even those of proven incompetence. Another ironic outcome of the disaster is that it has provided an excuse for actions that would have been politically impossible, such as the massive job cuts in industries that were already living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. The hysteria of the markets, which lurch from absurd optimism to equally absurd pessimism, poses a serious threat to the whole world. At least the European Central bank has partially woken to the fact that there is a serious problem, though not, of course, the Bank of England, who still seem to be content to leave it all to Greenspan, while they indulge in their numerical monomania about inflation. Now they will not be called to account for their dereliction because the terrorists have given them an excuse. In Sorry, wrong number! it was predicted that "Of course, when the time comes to pass the buck "unexpected" external influences will be to blame." Little did we know that the influences would be so dire.

The rapacious carrion feeders gather

Picture from Kenyabirds.

One of the more nauseating but inevitable sequels to a major catastrophe is the congregation of interest groups seeking to exploit the event for their own ends. Steve Milloy notes the nuclear control brigade and the public health lobby, while Bob Carroll picks up a typically tacky piece of  coincidence-mongering by Uri Geller. One of Geller's statements is particularly erroneous - Remember that zero is not a number. In fact, it was through the realisation that zero is a number, by the likes of the 9th century Hindu mathematicians Mahavira and Sridhara or the great eleventh century Hebrew scholar Rabbi ben Ezra, that mathematics was able to develop beyond primitive mensuration. Nevertheless, Uri Geller is a very rich man, while your bending author is a poor one, so there must be a moral there somewhere.

Number of the month – 6,000

The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition, if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt.

John Philpot Curran

All other numbers pale into insignificance compared with the death toll in the WTC outrage. What this has in common with most of our, somewhat less portentous, monthly numbers is that it is based on a lie. The lie is the one told to naïf young men that they will secure a place in paradise as the reward for throwing away their lives and committing fearful atrocities against the innocent. Characteristically, the fanatical old men who told the lie seem reluctant to take up their own reservation for celestial favour.

As we state on our home page, the prime purpose of these columns is to nail the various lies that are chiefly propagated by means of wrong numbers. There is no discontinuity between the small lies and the big ones, but a continuous spectrum. The small-time epidemiologist might stretch the bounds of statistical significance to achieve publication and preferment. The Harvard School of Public Health dredges data to create alarm or false confidence in dietary foibles, thereby nourishing vast and spurious industries. Statistics are distorted and manipulated in the search for notoriety and influence. The EPA elaborates this to the sort of massive fraud that was its so-called meta-study into passive smoking, an assault on the very integrity of science. Data are carefully selected to prop up spurious politically inspired theories such as global warming or Frankenstein foods. The scare-mongers institute a ban on DDT that results in millions of deaths or the ban on asbestos that killed the Challenger astronauts and, probably, some of those in the twin towers.

The disaster has, perhaps, brought to an end a period of bureaucratic complacency punctuated by a series of false alarums and excursions, a pursuit of various chimeras and bugbears, while armies and intelligence services have been allowed to wither in favour of self-generating domestic regulatory bodies. Whether such good can come out of so monstrous an evil remains to be seen.

No words can dilute the pain of those left behind, the horror of the witnesses or the imagining of last moments of the victims. This author’s earliest undimmed memory was of hearing the faltering of the ram jet engine of a V1 weapon, the terrible silence, then the swish of its wings overhead. It landed on the Dagmar Arms pub in Tottenham and destroyed hundreds of homes. The crushing effect of the blast and the ensuing deafness, for what seemed like hours, are something one lives with to the end of one’s days. Over half a century later the frozen image of the shattered windows coming into the room like a giant bubble is still the stuff of recurring nightmares. Many of our friends and neighbours were never seen again; some lived but were never again fully sane. One can try to imagine the terror experienced by so many people at the behest of a few evil men, but the reality is much, much starker. Holding such memories gives a strange perspective on the triviality that seems to dominate our everyday lives.

Requiescat in pace.

 

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