Number of the Month

January  2003

A New Year

“Things can only get better”
The New Labour theme song.

It is a long time since a new year began with such an inauspicious outlook. Even the Great Leader’s message to the nation was an unmitigated lugubrious lament, behind which lay the sub-text “It’s not our fault.” The world scene, both politically and economically looks drear, but it is particularly so in Britain. Most significant is the slow death of liberty, the death by a thousand cuts. Informers against drink-drivers will now be paid £500. As in any military exercise it is most effective first to attack the weakest point. People are confused by the propaganda between drink-driving and drunken driving. The latter is a crime against humanity that deserves the strongest punishment. Drink-driving is a technical offence produced by the abuse of instrumentation and setting in the law of arbitrary numbers by officials who cannot bear to live with the sorites paradox. People entering pubs can now be subjected to arbitrary drug tests. If they do not cooperate they will be recorded as suspects and owners of bars will have their licenses challenged. The release of wartime records shows that 28 Gestapo were able to rule a million people by the use of denunciations.

Freedom from crime is one of the most important freedoms to most people, yet it has been eroded more than any other. You are now 25 times more likely to be mugged in London than in Harlem (according to The Mail on Sunday). Burglary is a crime that destroys people’s lives and many cannot face living in a home that has been violated. The Lord Chief Justice has decreed (everything is done by decree these days) that burglars shall not be imprisoned for the first or second offence. In crude number terms burglary accounts for 16% of the 5.5 million crimes occurring annually in England and Wales and it costs the country about £3 billion a year. 12% of burglaries are solved by police. So what was the body responsible for this abject failure up to? The Metropolitan Police put up posters inviting the public to shop anyone who made derogatory remarks about “what someone believes in”. Among those arraigned for this offence were a pro-hunting campaigner and a street preacher who failed to approve of homosexuality. Meanwhile Britain’s murder rate is the highest since records began a century ago. In New York it is at its lowest.

According to an Observer/ICM opinion poll 60% think the country has got worse in the past five years, while according to YouGov/Telegraph 54% would prefer to live abroad, rising to 83% among 16-25 year olds.

And then there are the EU directives, stealth taxes, pensions, a National Health Service that now has more bureaucrats than beds, but enough is enough.

At this season of good will it is only right to give recognition to some of the people whose unending efforts produce the numbers, a small proportion of which we are able to comment on. They include:

ASH, BMJ, EPA, CDC, CRU, FOE, WHO, Greenpeace, California, Harvard School of Public Health, Nature, SEAC, Tulane University, the Met Office, Hadley Centre, The New Labour Government (and especially the Chancer of the Exchequer, Michael (Nine-homes) Meacher and John (Two-Jags) Prescott), New Labour BBC, the London Times, New York Times, the Guardian, the computers of Imperial College London, The National Radiological Protection Board, <name removed> Nigel Hawkes, Paul Erlich, Glasgow University, Sir Robert May, Professor David King and many, many others.

We wish them all a preposterous new year.

We must not, however, forget the millions of ordinary people who contribute. Consider, for example, the energetic citizens of Birmingham; together with the millions of drivers locked in the traffic jams on the motorways surrounding that city, they have created the epitome of the Urban Heat Island. The evidence for global warming that is most often repeated is the temperature record for Central England. This is based a triangle of recording stations. Guess which city is at their centroid. Incidentally, Number Watch comments on only about one percent of the fanciful Global Warming stories that come its way, virtually on a daily basis. Otherwise it would rapidly become a single-issue site.

Poetry Corner

As part of our policy to raise the general tone, Number Watch is pleased to announce the appointment of a Poet in Residence. He is Walter de la Plage, Librarian at the Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop. His day to day duties involve maintaining computer hardware and software, but he is also widely regarded as one of the significant poetic voices of his day, mysteriously overlooked on the appointment of Poet Laureate. Here is the first of his occasional poems on great themes of the day.

 Ode to  the Right Hon Gordon Brown MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer

Hail to thee bleak spirit!
Stirred thou never wert.
I sing to praise thy merit,
Thy gravitas overt.

Some talk of Alexander
And some of Hercules
But I sing of Gordon Brown
A greater man than these.

Look at that William Shakespeare,
The bard of all the lays,
Just strung book titles together
And dared to call them plays.

But Gordon of the honeyed tongue
Can prove that black is white,
That penury is prosperity,
That he is always right.

For he will ever say you sooth,
This great sage of our days,
Pluck triumph from disaster
With a simple turn of phrase.

So smooth, so sweet, so silvery, is thy voice
As could they hear the damned would make no noise
But listening to thee speaking in the house
No creature would stir, not even a mouse.

The beetle brow that jutties o’er
Dispatch box and the bench before,
The glittering eye that didst brood
Upon the Commons, dark and rude,
Command attention, control the mood.

Like the stout Cortez,
When with eagle eyes,
He stared at the Pacific,
Gordon claims the prize.
And he may say, with a delicate air,
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

How pleasant to know Mr Brown
Who has written such volumes of stuff.
Some say he is but a clown
And that enough is enough.

Some say he told such dreadful lies
It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes,
But who are they to criticise
One so gentle, calm and wise.

For young Gordon Brown is come out of the north.
For Scottish New Labour he sallied forth,
Bearing from the snow and ice
A banner with a strange device

Gordon, Gordon burning bright
Will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall his sword sleep in his hand
Till he has built bureaucracy
In England’s green and pleasant land.

For in his eyrie will he stay
And there he weaves by night and day
A magic web of colour grey
And as he weaves, so we must pay.

Who is Prudence, what is she,
That Gordon did commend her?
Did she lose her virginity
Or go out on a bender?
That denièd she might be.

When lovely woman stoops to folly
And learns too late that men betray
What calm can smooth her melancholy
What art can wash her guilt away?

For Gordon works in mysterious ways
His wonders to perform.
He is the firm foundation,
The calm at the eye of the storm.
He has an answer for everything
Formed in the form of a form.

Write to me only with thy forms
And I will fill in mine.
Leave but a gap within a box
And I will pay a fine.

The short and simple annals of the poor
Are now writ long on forms obscure.
They also serve who only stand and wait
(Inspectors, bailiffs, officers of state)
To pounce on those who submit late
Or fail to fill box eighty eight.

Higher still and higher
Shall our tax be set.
Talk not of the trade gap,
Don’t mention nation Debt;
While our savings, sad to say,
Are over the hills and far away.

Gordon Brown, in whom we trust,
Though our pension funds are bust,
All our preparations just
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,
Hear our prayer
And give us we pray
Our means tested benefits
Sufficient unto the day.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan his works in vain.
Gordon, his own interpreter,
Is sure to make it plain.

And as he passes by,
Magisterial, frowning,
We raise our right arms high,
Not waving, but drowning.

Another little change, forced on us by the need to find a nice little earner, is the acceptance of a small amount of advertising. This will only be in the form of small ads and will be unobtrusive.


FOR SALE One hypotenuse. Almost new. £5 o.n.o. Box 14

PERSONAL SERVICES Toxins removed while your wait. Also acupuncture, aromatherapy, chelation therapy, chiropractic, holistic medicine, homeopathy, hypnosis, joy touch, massage therapy, naturopathy, psychic surgery, rolfing and therapeutic touch. Branches at Highgrove and Downing Street. Box 10.

SPECIAL PURCHASE 1,500 army boots (left foot only) suitable for monopods. Box 17.


EC Directive No AB2003/MAD0968B/V56/LIG0/23/EEC

Clause 1

WHEREAS it has been observed that mature eels migrate from European rivers to the Sargasso sea, where they reproduce; and that the immature elvers return across the Atlantic ocean to European rivers in order to grow to maturity.

Clause 2

WHEREAS it is also observed that mature salmon migrate from the Sargasso sea to European rivers, where they reproduce; and that the immature smolts return across the Atlantic ocean to the Sargasso sea in order to grow to maturity.

Clause 3

This results in a great deal of unnecessary travel, incurring loss of stock and traffic congestion in various narrows around the European coastline.

Clause 4

It is hereby decreed that at appropriate times of the year (see appendix AB2003/MAD0968B/V56/LIG0/23/B/EEC) barriers shall be put in place across all river estuaries to prevent the said migration and force the migrants to mature and reproduce in the same location.

Clause 5

Any person found guilty of procuring, aiding or abetting illicit reproduction of said species shall be subject to a fine of €1000, which shall double on each subsequent offence.

Clause 6

Any riparian owner who fails to erect barriers at the said times in the said locations shall be deemed to be guilty under clause 5 above.


FOR SALE Right foot army boots. Over 1,000 available. Special discount for wooden legged sea cooks. Box 8.

TO BE DISPOSED OF Personal record collection. Long play. Slightly worn. Apply Head of Dept. CRU , Norwich.

EARN YOUR DEGREE by return of post. Just write a cheque for $10,000 made out to Vice Chancellor (personal account) and send to the Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop, Hampshire, UK.

Down under

I believe that political correctness can be a form of linguistic fascism, and it sends shivers down the spine of my generation who went to war against fascism.
P D James

It used to be a childhood joke that Australians lived upside down. Well, some of them do. Aaron Oakley has been cited by Number Watch as a sober commentator on events down there, but his latest example of stream-of-consciousness unconscious humour from one John Quiggin is such a delight that it deserves to be shared by the world.

Talking of John Quiggin, his evidence for the unreality of the Urban Heat Island effect is one of the most bizarre examples of desperate linear trend fitting in the canon.

Footnote: John Quiggin has responded.

Boxing the compass

A certain convocation of political worms

Believe it or not, according to the Political Compass, your bending author belongs to the Libertarian Left. Apart from the fact that the test is based on questions that themselves are products of value judgments and do not allow the answer "none of the above", the use of Cartesian coordinates by the innumerate is not something to be encouraged. The value of M Descartes' method in statistical applications depends on the ordinates and abscissae  being independent, which is the origin of the  mathematical concept of orthogonality. There is a self-evident correlation between political extremism and authoritarianism. Might not a better model for the political spectrum be a circle? If you start from the centre and move far enough to either left or right you come to the same point, roughly the one occupied by Hitler and Stalin. On the other hand it is a harmless bit of fun to take the test.

The voice of the establishment is heard in the land

The modus operandi of the medical correspondent of The Times, Dr Thomas Stuttaford, is to use any current event of popular significance as peg on which to hang a preachment about conventional medical nostrums. For example, on January 2nd, the death of a rock star, one Joe Strummer produced just such an essay. Among the familiar invocations we have:

Reducing overall cholesterol levels to under 5.0 mmol/l, and the low density lipoprotein to under 3, is now accepted as important by all but the most backward, out-of-touch doctors. Likewise, keeping the blood pressure low in all age groups — no allowances made for advancing years — is the accepted aim of both doctors and patients. 


Antioxidant agents — vitamins, other organic chemicals and minerals such as selenium — are found in fruit and vegetables and exert a protective effect on the lining of the arteries and may well prove anti-carcinogenic. The brighter the colour, usually the richer the antioxidants. Tomatoes contain lycopene which seems to be one of the more useful antioxidants and is also obtainable as Lyc-O-Mato capsules.

Much of this is so run-of-the mill that it is hardly worth a comment, but the tactic of labelling those who disagree as backward and out-of-touch merits a note. The cholesterol sceptics might be a tiny minority in comparison with the size of the medical establishment, but at least they appear to have the distinction of applying the scientific method as old-fashioned followers of the likes of Karl Popper would recognise it. This, of course, is the distinction. Science is simply passé as far as much of modern medical practice is concerned. Much more important is faith; not old fashioned faith, of course, but faith in the claims of the epidemiologists, which are almost invariably based on standards of statistical significance that we out-of-date scientists would reject out of hand. As for anti-oxidants and the sacred lycopene, let alone “may well prove” ‘tis bootless to exclaim.


OK, I surrender, yield, submit, cave in etc. Trying to ignore the Global Warming Myth is like trying to overlook the presence of a hippopotamus in your bed. Turned on the television for a bit of relaxation on Jan 3rd. The programme was Midsomer Murders, a rural detective drama series, entertaining but somewhat far-fetched in its depiction of rural Britain being decimated by rampant serial murderers. Following it, however, was a regional programme for West and Wales entitled Storm Warning. Far-fetched was not in it. The first of four programmes about Global Warming, it dealt with rising sea levels. Didn’t miss a trick! The whole of the Antarctic ice pack was going to melt; while “scientists” paraded their sophisticated computer models. Maps were produced of Southern England with great swathes under water. No mention of the Mediaeval Warm Period, when it was one degree warmer and England was the same shape as it is now. Every lie, fraud, subreption and deception in the Warmer's Handbook was there.

The perpetrator was one Bill Giles, the former BBC weatherman. He it was who was boss of the BBC weather service, which earned its place in the book The World’s Greatest Blunders (Sue Blackhall, ISBN 0 7064 3901 5). Many of us still remember the smiling face of Michael Fish on the evening forecast of Thursday October 15th 1987 as he joked “A women rang and said she heard a hurricane is on the way. Well, if you’re watching and waiting it isn’t.”

At 4 am the next morning the first to die were firemen Ernest Gregory and Graham White, as an 80 foot oak tree smashed their water tender. Several people died in their beds as chimneys came crashing through the roof. Fisherman James Read was fatally injured by a flying beach hut. Ships were sunk and crew drowned, a ferry ran aground, hundreds of roads and railway tracks were blocked. Over 170 trees lay across one 21 mile stretch of track between Tunbridge Wells and Battle. In the royal parks of London alone, 1,000 trees were lost. The town of Sevenoaks became oneoak. Losses exceeded £200 million.

The French Meteorological Department had issued a warning of high winds on the Tuesday. On the Wednesday Dutch Television viewers were warned of freak winds hitting the English coast in two days time. French scientists asked the British Met to issue a warning to radio stations, but this was ignored, as it was contradicted by their own computers at Bracknell.

Anyway, the said Bill Giles, the man who could not tell you the weather in eight hours time, is now the prize-winning darling of the after dinner speakers circuit and has established a company called Weather Index, which purports to predict the weather up to a century ahead. His really promising nice little earner, however, is spreading doom and gloom about Global Warming, of which the TV programme is only a beginning.

Meanwhile, back at that once-great scientific journal Nature, there is a letter entitled Fingerprints of global warming on wild animals and plants. One could go on for pages about this, another of those meta-studies. Suffice it to point out the similarity between the main figure and one of which it is almost a mirror image in the Number Watch discussion of publication bias.

 Students of the frantic search for global warming proxies will delight in this particular paragraph:

Potential biases

Apart from the problems inherent in summarizing information from diverse studies of numerous subjects and methods, potential biases in the data are also of concern in analyses like ours. We do not claim that all authors of studies in the literature we cite report all species they observe, and there may be a bias to report primarily those species that show change. Even if there were such a bias, however, it would have no influence on our claim of a discernible impact of warming on plants and animals, because our metric of investigation is what fraction of those species that exhibit change has changed in the direction expected with local temperature trends, not what fraction of all species has exhibited change. The only way that observer bias could influence our metric would be if there were a systematic bias among the scores of studies we examine for researchers to select as study subjects only species showing changes in the direction preconceived by the authors to reflect temperature change. In addition, these many authors would have to have deliberately and systematically suppressed reporting on those species that changed in directions opposite to that expected. We find this possibility of widespread and systematic biases far-fetched, and thus believe that the metric we use is adequate for examining in an unbiased manner the existence of a discernible climatic signal in the traits of many plants and animals.

In order to appreciate fully the magnificence of this claim, it might help to transport it back to the sixteenth century. The abstract of the paper might then go something like:

Your Holiness

We have performed a meta-study on the cosmological question and we find that virtually all published accounts agree with the Ptolemaic theory. There are a couple of dissenters, a fellow called Copper Knickers and his disciple one Galileo Galilei. The former is dead and the latter has recanted and is under house arrest for heresy. All the other papers we reviewed show trends in the expected direction, so you can rest assured that the Sun still rotates around the Earth.

Meanwhile also, the ratchet reporting of the weather continues virtually undisturbed. New Labour BBC, however, stepped out of line by reporting inclement weather  in the USA, where they have stopped dreaming of a white Christmas, but at least they managed to keep secret the disastrous events in China.

So, our intrepid British journalists ignored all this and pressed on with the propaganda. As it has been a bit wet this is all ascribed to global warming, but then under the HIWTYL principle so would a drought. <name removed> on January 5th Flood defences will be cut in worst-hit areas:

Flooding has inundated hundreds of homes around Britain in the past week, mainly in rural areas, and government forecasters predict such floods will grow in frequency because of climate change.

Respectfully request permission to write about something else.

 Something Else

Free energy scams crop up as regularly as migrating birds. The most popular form is one using pure water to produce hydrogen and oxygen then recombining them to create energy. The fallacy is that of conservation of energy. It take exactly the same amount of energy to tear two hydrogen atoms from an oxygen as you get back when you allow them to recombine. No more, no less. When you climb the stairs you convert your food energy into potential energy and when you slide down the banisters you get it back as kinetic energy, less the amount consumed in warming up your posterior. At the molecular level there are no frictional losses, but in a machine, as in trousers, there must be.

All pretty standard knowledge, except to a large number of suckers (and, of course, journalists). The latest such scam is impressively presented at the web site of Genesis World Energy. It has the usual hallmarks of the genre, impressive high-sounding jargon by people who do not even understand the difference between units of energy and power and, of course, obsessive secrecy.

John Lichtenstein has devoted a site to the machinations of the perpetrators. The unusual aspect of their scheme seems to be that they are aiming to con energy supply companies rather than the ordinary fool in the street. This has been done before. In Sorry, wrong number!, for example, a scam called the charge packet memory is described from first hand experience, and that one extracted substantial sums from some of the leading UK companies, despite the fact that it broke all the laws of information theory.

With suckers born at a rate of one a minute, there will always be those on hand to harvest them.

LONELY HEARTS? Contact box 23.
ANNOUNCEMENT Apologies to all those who responded to our offer and have not yet received their degree certificates. These need to be signed by the Vice Chancellor and we are temporarily unable to locate him. Ms Carrie Cann, Academic Registrar, Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop.

A proposition in logic

All editors are human.
Therefore all sub editors are sub human.

We can prove this by the popular method of induction, i.e. finding an example. Continuing our Australian theme, this example of a remarkable relationship between headline and text is nominated by Zev Sero.

LONELY KIDNEYS? Contact box 24.

The new inquisition

Isn’t it always the same? You make a little joke, like the one about Galileo above, and then something happens that turns it into horrible reality and you wish you had never said it. Unbelievably the twenty first century version of the auto-da-fé has begun in that most liberal of countries, Denmark. Bjorn Lomborg has committed the crime that religious fanatics abhor most, apostasy. With one of those ironies that abound in such travesties, a body calling itself “The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty” has condemned Lomborg and said his 350-page book “is clearly in violation of the norms for good scientific behaviour.” What arrant nonsense! Science progresses through the continual challenge of theories, not by the preservation of sacred cows. The Number Watch review of the book took exactly the opposite view. The weakness of the book, and the most damaging aspect, is that it leans to far towards the environmental religion.

Hans Henrik Brydensholt, the panel's chairman, said Lomborg did not make “thorough searches for all available sources ... including what goes against one's supposition. ...He used sources in favour of his own beliefs,” he said. Thus the poor unfortunate stands accused of the very crime of which the environmental establishment is guilty in the eyes of traditional scientific sceptics. Subreption is the very pith and moment of the environmental movement. If anything, Lomborg’s tome is overburdened with references.

Just in case anyone thinks Denmark is unique in this, LORD May of Oxford, whose pronouncements on the Global Warming dogma we have discussed, celebrated his 67th birthday on January 7th. In his annual address to the Royal Society, which used to be the fortress of British science, he expressed the hope that the debate on genetic modification would be dominated by a discussion of how to avoid the “Silent Spring”. Now there was a book that was clearly in violation of the norms for good scientific behaviour.

Deepest Sympathy

It behoves all of us to spare a moment to think of the thousands of ordinary Danish Scientists in their moment of shame. It could happen anywhere, and almost certainly will. Environmental Science, like sociology a generation before, was invented by universities faced with a recruitment crisis. There were just insufficient numbers of candidates emerging from schools with the qualifications to practise real science, so universities jumped on the available bandwagon and started recruiting into a debased form of science that had less rigorous requirements. There are now academic empires built up around professors in the subject and, as the New Inquisition shows, they are able to wield a disproportionate and distorting degree of power. You might well argue that universities are returning to their mediaeval roots, when theology was regarded as the Queen of the Sciences, but the decline of real science and its common language of mathematics must still be a source of profound regret to traditionalists.

Snow wonder

There are few sights more comical than the British trying to cope with a powdering of snow. The whole nation grinds to a halt. The media, of course went overboard. The Times in particular had half the front page and a whole inner page devoted to it. In fact, it lost its rag to such an extent that it forgot its own self-censorship rules by including an article on the Urban Heat Island effect, which is not supposed to exist in the canon of environmental theology. Anyway, London’s duvet, as it is coyly called, failed to protect the capital on this occasion and it had to face the disaster of a whole couple of inches of precipitation. They even got round to noting that a few hundred people had died of cold in Russia and Poland. No mention, of course, of the thousands dying in China, India and Bangladesh, all countries being pressed to join the jolly Kyoto club. People are also dying in Northern Europe. In Finland, where green politics have wrecked the power industry, they are having to import power from Russia. Electricity prices had trebled in Norway, and two Oslo pensioners were found frozen to death in their flat. The Baltic has the greatest ice coverage in decades and ships are trapped by ice in Russia.

It's only weather, of course, but a strange silence has fallen over the Global Warming propaganda.

Failing children

That strain again! it had a dying fall.
Twelfth Night

 One of the consequences of the tyranny of numbers is that nothing is believed until some professor or other has churned out statistics on it. School examinations made the front page of The Times on January 13th with the headline GCSE pass rate hides failure in most important subjects. It transpires that results in English, science and mathematics are somewhat underwhelming. Surprise, surprise!

As an example of the second corollary to Brignell’s law of league tables in Sorry, wrong number! the basing of league tables for schools on five passes at C grade was selected and it was pointed out that all schools immediately switched maximum support to those who might just scrape the target. Three years later, the learned professor looks at his statistics and remarks that “teachers could be concentrating on getting teenagers to pass any five subjects at grade C and above to help their school’s overall pass rate in the exam league tables.” What you measure is what you get!

 On the editorial page is a trenchant column in the much welcome Thunderer slot (It even has people like Philip Stott from time to time):

Question 1: why do we teach this noxious drivel?

 Here we go again. One day we’re told by ministers and the teaching unions that educational standards have never been higher. The next, out come figures showing just how dreadful those standards really are. The latest, published today by Professor David Jesson, show that in last year’s GCSEs only 39 per cent of 16-year-olds managed even a grade C pass in maths, English and a science subject..........

Nasty old cynics will have heard it all before, but it is still worth reading. With the ghastly example of the Dark State of Insanity before it the British Government still went ahead and adopted almost every bit of Californian claptrap, and even invented some of their own: would you believe “ethnomathematics”? This last invention came from the London University Institute of Education, which brought back a memory. Almost half a century ago your bending author was required to attend a short course at that venerable institution on “How to teach” , which meant enduring some of the worst lecturing experienced in a lifetime. Unfortunately, the teaching of teachers has descended into such an abyss of banality and nonsense that the children would be better off with "unqualified" teaching assistants.

 Domestic announcement

Number Watch has joined the Paypal system, so the book of the web site may now be bought internationally by credit card.
Also, the few eccentrics who think that Number Watch is worth preserving might wish to note that there is now an electronic bowl for alms at the entrance.

Who killed liberty?

However ghastly the story you produce about Britain and Europe, those damned Americans always have to come up with something bigger and better. In response to our opening remarks this month about the slow death of liberty, reader Andrew Gilchrist points out a story that almost, but not quite, beggars belief. 

If there are any Number Watch readers in Northern Virginia, can they enlighten us as to whether anyone passed a law against having a quiet drink in a bar? With all those fee-chasing lawyers around, has anyone challenged the Gestapo? Don't know about you, but your bending author is going out for a drink while it is still allowed.

Mean tricks

Correspondent Paul Smith raises an important issue with regard to clusters that Number Watch in its deliberations has completely overlooked, what he calls Regression to the Mean.

The argument goes something like this. Consider some attribute that varies at random (body temperature, blood pressure etc.). Professor Charlatan measures this attribute in 1,000 different patients (or, indeed, one patient on a thousand different occasions). One of these measurements will inevitably be larger than any other. By the theory of the statistics of extremes, the most likely value for this is the one at which the (cumulative) distribution has a value of 0.999. Professor Charlatan prescribes a cure (herbal tea, Feng Shui reorientation of the bed, cholesterol reduction etc.). If the variation of the attribute is purely random, the probability that an apparent cure is effected is the same 0.999, i.e. practically a certainty. The professor’s reputation is enhanced, he makes lots of money and everybody is happy.

Paul applies this rather tellingly on his web site about speed cameras. The problem is, of course, that some accident black spots are random and some are genuine. Your bending author lives near a point on the A303 where the dual carriageway becomes a single one. The sound of ambulance and polices sirens, as well as helicopters, is heard what seems almost daily across the fields of Blackmoor Vale. Nevertheless, much of the speed camera activity is pure flummery and the incitement by offering police forces part of the profits is an absolute disgrace.

The principle of regression to the mean goes a long way to explaining how quack cures continue to exist and maintain the support of people like wives of prime ministers and heirs to the throne. It is also one of the reasons that real science demands a mechanism and not just statistics.

The Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop wishes it to be known that it has no connection with this university.

Digital distortion

But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them

Back in November 2001 Number Watch displayed the headline Fingers out!, only a month after Return of the Finger Prince. This was, of course, again premature. A year later saw the Return of Finger Man. Now, just when we thought fingers were dead, back they come with a vengeance.

On a personal note, thanks a bunch fellers. Not only did your bending author have to put up with early onset of the hereditary form of finger arthritis known as Hebeden’s nodes, not only did he have to give up the guitar and piano, not only did he have to put up with the dropping and breakages (including the zoom binoculars and a favourite hand-engraved drinking glass), but he is now going to die from heart disease.

It is all, of course, based on the usual miasma of marginal statistics, this time from the University of Kuopio in Finland. The Relative Risk was a pathetic 1.4. Nice Trojan Number though, more than 7,000 people. Mind you, by the time you take into account how many actually died, the number of excess deaths from heart disease among the differently-fingered was about 148.

The media, naturally, loved it. The Times came out with all the clichés – such an association has not been previously reported…however, further studies are needed to confirm the association etc.

Just for luck the “researchers” threw in another of the clichés of modern admonitory medicine. People who were obese were more than twice as likely to have the condition. Another personal dig. Your bending author is both fat and arthritic, shortly due to celebrate the ninth birthday of his left hip. The arthritis, however, came before the fat. As with many people excessively addicted to sport, this had to be abandoned because of joint pain and inflexibility. The actual diagnosis of arthritis came years after, but the symptoms came first.

Another thing this tells us is that the “research” was actually a data dredge, but they don’t tell us how many factors they looked at before the found a “significant” association.

A year ago Number Watch warned that obesity is the new tobacco and advised  - watch out for dutiful epidemiologists “proving” that it causes every known ill of mankind, as do tobacco and alcohol. By February the bandwagon was already rolling and had already found 12 stories. Since then the bandwagon has become a Juggernaut, which was an incarnation of Vishnu, beneath whose car devotees were supposed to immolate themselves. Would that some of the gurus of the post-scientific age felt inspired to join them.

The Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop would also like it to be known that it has no connection with this university either.

WANT TO BE AN ELECTRICAL ENGINEER? So you should. The world is waiting for your skills. People’s lives could be in your hands, especially if you work in areas such as aircraft control, elevator control, constant patient monitoring etc. However, at some universities you might have to wait a whole 13 months to get your degree or even as much as 18 months. Only at the Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop can you get your degree by return of post. Don’t delay! Why deprive the world of your skills any longer?

Whom the gods would destroy…..

The number of the month last August was 200,000, which might, or might not, be the annual number of asylum seekers entering Britain. This month the media were full of stories about the consequences of this number.

Asylum seekers from Algeria were found to be manufacturing the deadly poison ricin in a flat in Wood Green North London rented by a London council.

A policeman was killed in Manchester during the arrest of a related gang of terrorists in Manchester.

Country hotels for terrorists was a headline in the Western Daily press. New companies formed to live like jackals and hyenas off the leavings of New Labour Political Correctness are buying up country mansions and hotels for the purpose of housing asylum seekers. Not only is this accelerating the demise of British pubs, which were already closing at a rate of one a day, but village people find they have the sort of neighbours they did not expect. This story provided the front page header for the Sunday Times. <name removed>. Has the steam gone out of Global Warming?

Asylum seekers have been disappearing from “secure camps” at an alarming rate. The Daily Mail (January 20th) estimates that at least twenty are terror suspects. An Algerian refugee leader believes that up to 100 known terrorists have entered Britain as asylum seekers in the past two years.

A Taliban soldier, who last year was shooting at British soldiers, was granted asylum because he feared persecution from the western backed government.

Stolen passports are freely available for purchase. Arrests are frustrated by human rights lawyers.

British patients have been turned away from medical practices they have used all their lives (so that priority can be given to asylum seekers) some of them over eighty years old. Many of them now have to travel miles for medical services that were available on their doorstep.

Anti-terrorist police who burst into the Finsbury Park mosque in north London early on January 20th found weapons including a stun gun and hundreds of suspected forged or stolen passports, identity and credit cards.

 As we said in August "Mad, or what?"

Could not have put it better

This from the National Review Online

In August 1999, English farmer Tony Martin shot dead a burglar who had broken into the isolated farmhouse where Martin lived. Martin was convicted of murder, later reduced to manslaughter. His bid for parole was just turned down. The parole board gave the following reasons for turning down Martin's request. (1) He is "a danger to burglars." (2) He is "not up to speed with the 21st century" and thinks that "things were better 40 years ago." (3) He has refused to feign remorse. I have not made this up.

There is a Tony Martin support group.

 Regressive education

No sooner do we mention the phenomenon of regression to the mean (see Mean tricks above) than a prime example hoves into view. It is in the annual vacuous exercise of school league tables. What has become a classical technique for making statistics tell the opposite of reality produces the headline to accompany the twenty small print pages in The Times supplement.

The Added Value scam was first introduced in the evaluation of universities. The post-Thatcherite government, in order to fiddle the statistics for participation in university education, decided to destroy the polytechnics and turn them overnight into universities. The results of this are just beginning to be felt, with stories in the media of graduates signing up for courses as plumbers or electricians, whose salaries are going through the roof as they become a rarity in a world dominated by practitioners of meejah studies and the like. That government was also the big pusher of league tables, and there lay the embarrassment. The new universities, by any reasonable measure, were grossly outperformed by the traditional ones. The solutions was to invent Added Value. The idea was, if you could recruit someone who could hardly write his name and then award him a first class honours degree, you had performed a great service by adding value.

Apart from naked debasement of standards, the statistical principle behind this technique is, of course, regression to the mean. If you recruit at a high level of attainment you can expect high results, but on average there will always be a drift towards the mean, i.e. downwards. Likewise, if you recruit at a low level, you can expect low results, but there will again be a drift towards the mean, i.e. upwards. The more time you allow, the greater the effect.

So this is what gave rise to The Times headline The great divide over selectionthe latest performance tables are sending out conflicting messages about the merits of grammar schools. The grammar schools clearly outperformed the comprehensives in absolute terms and also in early added value terms, but after 14 the added value for comprehensives was higher.

There is an extra factor in these statistics, which is the onset of puberty, a cause of enormous changes in the academic performance of many individual pupils, and therefore a factor enhancing the regression to the mean. Another factor is that the distribution of marks is bounded, i.e. you cannot get less than 0% or more than 100%, so there is always more “room” to move towards the mean.

So, surprise, surprise, the comprehensives, though down in absolute terms, dominate the Added Value league. You can bet your sweet bippy that the latter will be the statistic rolled out by socialist politicians, who are still vindictive towards the grammar schools, though relatively apathetic about the really privileged independent schools.

On the other hand

The Daily Telegraph, on the same day working from the same data, came up with the headline: Grammar schools top for 'added value'. You pays your money and takes your choice.

Honey, I shrunk the statistics

Oh dear! Don't tell us that those nasty old cynics have been proved right yet again. The ten million deaths once projected for vCJD  have shrunk according to  The Times to a couple of hundred. Is this the end of the CJD scare? goes the headline. It just joins the list of what was called (in Sorry, wrong number!) The incredible shrinking statistic (e.g. US Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala Soon because of AIDS we might not have any Americans left.”). CJD has produced richer material than almost any other topic in these columns, including the discovery of the microcluster and the enormity of the expenditure on disposable surgical instruments

From the article it appears that only Professor Stan Prusiner is trying to keep the scare stoked up, but as Our Man in Puerto Rico pointed out, he is in some danger of seeing a nice little earner dissolve before his eyes.

Power mad

Talking of Our Man in Puerto Rico, he is getting worked up about technical correspondents who cannot distinguish between the units of energy and power. The latest manifestation is a report in Time magazine about America's new secret weapon, High Power Microwaves. According to Mark Thompson:

HPMs can unleash in a flash as much electrical power—2 billion watts or more—as the Hoover Dam generates in 24 hours.

Editors will not publish anything contentious without having the copy scanned by lawyers, so why can they not employ a bright school kid to go through their technical stuff? It is clearly too much to hope that they can find a reporter who know his Joules from his Watts.

 To be taken with a pinch of salt

Here we go again! The food fascists are back on the salt trail. A press release from a branch of the Nanny State that calls itself the Food Commission was picked up by all the UK media. They harangue the processed food industry for failing sufficiently to reduce the salt content of their products. There is, of course, a maximum recommended level, based on no scientific evidence at all. The justification comes in the last two lines:

Eating high levels of salt is linked to high blood pressure, which is the main cause of strokes and a major factor in heart attacks, two of the most common causes of death and illness in the UK.

Not only is this based on a familiar form of weasel words “is linked to”, but the story is all about 1 to 6 year olds. We are not told how many of these die of strokes and heart attacks.

The BBC in its enthusiastic promotion of the new scare links to its own essay on salt, which relies on more tame weasel words “Many scientists believe this process is linked to high blood pressure, or hypertension, which in turn is linked to a greater risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.”

In fact, the whole salt farrago has become the epitome of junk science. Gary Taubes has provided a monumental survey of the evidence. It is all there – exaggerations, statistical fiddles, ex cathedra pronouncements, subreption, bullying and an adherence to the principles of religion rather than of science.

The physiological fact is that the human body deals very effectively with the maintenance of its salt balance. Any excess is successfully excreted by action of elaborate control mechanisms. What it cannot deal with is a lack of salt, since it cannot manufacture it. Both sodium and chlorine are essential to huge range of functions within the body, from digestion to nerve impulse transmission. The trick by which animals were able to leave the salt sea was to take it with them in the blood plasma. Animals instinctively know the importance of salt, which is why they resort to salt licks.

The light fantastic

You can’t keep a good man down. It was back in July 2000 that Number Watch drew attention to the work of Dr Tony Chu, who rewrote Newton in the name of a cure for acne. Well he is back, and on the front page of the Daily Telegraph. He has abandoned ordinary light and now uses the Nlite laser. The Trojan number is a little disappointing, at 41, but he does admit that more research is needed. Ah, that strain again!

Rather an unfortunate name for the magic laser, as it is redolent of M Blondlot and his N rays. Following the links we find that Nlite emits a gentle yellow light. The science is the same, only the colour has been changed to protect the innocent.

Half a century ago the old traditional GP recommended a treatment for your bending and spotty author. It was sunlight.

Isn’t science wonderful?

Peril postponed

One of last year's prominent scares was the Great Acrylamide Disaster (see April, May and July). Now, the BBC announces that there was nothing in it. Reader B Holland swears that the BBC Radio 4 bulletin of that morning told exactly the opposite story. No need to be complacent when you are eating that snack in the pub, however. If the acrylamide doesn't get you the salt will.

A quick survey of five major newspapers revealed no coverage of this end-of-scare story. This is difficult to understand, as it had all the things that they revel in, such as total reliance on anecdotal evidence.


Barry Holland secured this confirmation from the BBC that he is not suffering from aural hallucinations:

You did hear it. I am afraid reasons of space meant we couldn't get the item on today .. Our reporter Nicola Stanbridge went over to Germany 
This is the cue for the piece we ran ...
"One state in Germany could ban products from Ryvita in Britain because of concerns about high levels of Acrylamide, with the rest of the country considering following suit. The problem with the toxins were raised a year ago by Swedish scientists and occur naturally when roasting or frying foods, particularly carbohydrates at high temperatures. New research published last night suggests the dangers of cancer in humans from Acrylamides is not as great as first thought. But German experts contradict the study. High levels of Acrylamides are proven to cause cancer in animals, research continues into the affects on humans. Our reporter Nicola Stanbridge has been to Germany to see how they're progressing on the latest food scare." 

What is the German for Concentration Fallacy?

Number of the month one in 73 million

A British lawyer was released after three years in prison for allegedly murdering her two babies. The main reason for quashing the sentence was the extraordinary fact that a prosecution pathologist withheld evidence of the presence of the staphylococcus aureus bacteria in the central spinal fluid of one of the boys.

An extraordinary story, especially when you read of the unbelievable wriggling of the prosecution in changing its ground throughout the original case. One is left wondering what would have happened if the unfortunate family had been inarticulate and without influence.

Anyway, all that has nothing to do with numbers, but an even more extraordinary claim by one of the “expert” witnesses does. It was a statement so crass that the Royal Statistical Society was moved to issue a press release condemning it. By then, of course, it was too late as the jury had already been influenced to bring in their guilty verdict. Professor Meadow, who gave evidence at Clark's trial at Chester Crown Court, told the jury there was "one chance in 73 million" of two babies in the same family dying from cot death.

This statistic is based on one of the most elementary errors in the book, the fallacy of dependent events. The probability of two events occurring is the product of the individual probabilities of the events, but if and only if the events are independent. The assumption that the causes of death of two siblings are independent is grotesque to anyone who reads a newspaper or has friends and relations. It is commonplace that susceptibility to various diseases is an inherited trait. What the learned professor did was to take the probability of one cot death and square it. There are cases where this is valid (see, for example, our treatment of extreme values) but it is sheer buffoonery to apply it in these circumstances.

 Footnote. The fallacy of dependent events should not be confused with what the author (in Sorry, wrong number!) dubbed the independence fallacy. That was also concerned with causes of death, but from a different aspect. If all the possible causes of death are D1, D2, D3…..DN, these events are independent, as you can only die of one cause. Since, however, death is certain, these probabilities must add up to one:

P(D1) + P(D2) + P(D3) +……..+P(DN) = 1

If  you change one of these numbers, the others have to change to compensate to keep the total the same. Another way of putting it is that it is a system of N-1 degrees of freedom , since it is wholly described by N-1 numbers. The set of numbers is not therefore algebraically independent. Thus the conquering of infectious disease must result in an increase in deaths form non-infectious causes, and we have the "mysterious" increase in deaths from cancer and heart disease that so exercises politicians and the media. Perhaps now that Britain’s National Health Service has started killing people with MRSA in its filthy hospitals, it will be able to claim improvements in the death rates from cancer and heart failure.

After Math

Most of the press had follow-ups on the story that produced the number of the month. The Times piece featured Dr David Drucker  a microbiologist of Manchester University:

Drucker, whose work is partly funded by the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths, says a bacterial explanation probably accounts for the vast majority of deaths attributed to SIDS.

This would fit, he says, with evidence that both parental smoking and a baby sleeping on its front are additional risk factors. “Nicotine interacts with the bacteria to produce toxins that are a thousand times more potent,” he explains.

Now that is an interesting result. Where was it published? The thousand times factor rings a bell; could it be the Billion Dollar Fraud that got Tulane University into  hot water? Drucker is obviously a man to watch.

The snow story got a bit less comical and more of a tragical farce. Snow and ice bring Britain to standstill yelled the BBC headline. It was a whole two inches of snow. Some motorists were stranded in their cars for 20 hours. The gritting lorries were out too late, thereby keeping up with the new British slogan Incompetence rules OK!

There was a lovely juxtaposition of stories in the Western Daily Press. On a page filled with pictures of the snowbound chaos, there was a highlighted side column featuring our new friend Bill Giles, who was warning that because of global warming we will all have more hay fever.

Here are some more of the stories ignored by the British media, who adhere to their ratchet reporting of world weather, with one surprising honorable exception from the Guardian (links from the ever informative Miceal O'Ronain via Bizarre Science ). The one about the Gulf Stream is worth a note, as it rather endangers a two-way bet favoured by the global warmers.

Yellow River's Hukou Falls freeze over
Cold Snap Pushes Hydro-Quebec Demand to Record
Cold Snap Brings Canada Old Fashioned Winter
Columbia research reveals that Gulf Stream is not responsible for mild winters in Europe
Cold spell exposing Canadians as wimps
Cold snap has most of Canada in its icy grip.
Big freeze hits North America
Day Ten in the Ice Box
South Suffers From Rare Arctic Blast
USA's deep freeze spreading south to Florida
If only the global warming myth were true!



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