Number of the Month

October   2004

Of scares and scams

In this post-scientific age of ours, there seems to be a short, but sure and certain, progression from myth to money. Human society has come full circle, but it just works faster. In Chaucer’s time the pardoner sold worthless pieces of paper. Then they called them pardons, now we call it carbon trading. The global warming scare is barely two decades old, yet it is already the basis of one of the world’s greatest industries. When Margaret Thatcher first seized upon the idea, at the prompting of Sir Crispin Tickel, it must have seemed the ideal political tool to deal with her opponents in the coalmines and oil sheikdoms. Little did she know that it would ultimately  reverse everything she believed in and cause her own nation to join the horde of economic lemmings racing towards the cliff edge.

The cholesterol myth is rather older, having been initiated by Ancel Keys half a century ago. In an extraordinary act of subreption (i.e. simply leaving out the data that did not conform to his thesis) he produced a graph that has worked through to produce a huge industry in drugs that are forced upon the hapless population by medics who thereby earn a cash bonus. The side effects of some of these medications are quite horrendous; yet cholesterol, as harmless and essential to human life as carbon dioxide, is demonised by the mythmakers.

The passive smoking myth has, of course, put billions of dollars into the well-lined pockets of lawyers; but doesn’t everything? Further billions, extorted from the smokers themselves, have gone into the anti-smoking industry, the storm troopers of the political correctness movement. The USA might have a right wing government, but it is in thrall to the New Left, just as much as Europe.

Which brings us to salt and the article that gave rise to this diatribe. It was in the Sunday Telegraph of October 3rd. James Le Fanu will be well known to regular number watchers as one of the few medical journalists who remain untainted by establishment censorship. His article Take Sid the Slug’s warning with a pinch of salt is a good example of his work. Naturally, he was not able to go into the poverty of evidence behind the salt scare, so his main argument is on the basis of homeostasis.

This phenomenon is the biological equivalent of what physical scientists know as the Le Chatelier-Braun principle (a system in equilibrium will alter in such a way as to oppose any change imposed upon it). The healthy body is in equilibrium and there are hundreds of feedback mechanisms that keep it so. If you give it too much salt, the kidneys will remove it. If you give it too little, the kidneys will conserve it. Disease may therefore my defined as disequilibrium. Galen was on the right track a couple of millennia ago, when he identified disease as an unbalance of the humours originally postulated by Hippocrates, but he did not have the detailed knowledge of biochemistry that we have now to identify the real entities involved.

The only mystery about the salt scare was how someone was going to make money out of it. Scares usually receive their first impetus from academic ego. From the thrusting Young Turk to the white-haired doyen, most academics get their thrills from seeing their names in print, and it is an added bonus if they get to walk with politicians and bureaucrats in the corridors of power. This was enough to explain the salt scare, despite the evidence being particularly paltry.

The question of who would make the money was solved by the announcement of the creation of Sid the Slug (see September). Four million pounds of money wrested from the helpless taxpayer will go into the pockets of advertising agencies and media moguls. The basis of this puerile creation is a crude example of a non sequitur based on the concentration fallacy – salt in high concentration kills slugs, therefore it is poisonous to humans. Salt is essential to the slug as it is to all other living things – its close relatives live in salt water. Pure salt on the wet body of the slug creates osmotic pressure that dehydrates the creature. It could be any soluble salt, not just sodium chloride. Pouring salt on the human body had no effect.

Only in the modern post-scientific world could such a fatuous story be generated by medical professors and propagated by the governing elite.


Another cat out of the bag

Looking for little chinks in the solid wall of establishment censorship can provide a harmless source of amusement in this drear world of conformity. It was a run of the mill story in The Times of Monday October 4th: just one more example of the Philistine Britain of the Blair age. Academy anger as Stradivarius bid rejected ran the headline. For half the lettuce allocated to Sid the Slug, the nation would be able to keep a playable example of the work one of the finest instrument makers in history.

Sad though this story is, the interesting bit for number watchers was in a little side box, which contained the following:


Antonio Stradivari is said to have had an angel on his shoulder when he made his violins. Experts have debated whether varnishes or wood treatments explain their rich resonance. Last year scientists claimed that their quality could be attributed to the "Little Ice Age" that was at its peak when Stradivari was working. Long winters and cool summers produced very narrow tree rings in the wood that he used. That strengthened the violin and increased the wood's density, the scientists said.

How could the editor let this slip through? For The Times is a fully paid up subscriber to the global warming orthodoxy propagated by IPCC, according to whose famous Hockey Stick, the Little Ice Age, like the Mediaeval Warm Period, never happened. So not only are the establishment ignoring evidence from such fields as history, archaeology, art and entomology, we can now add to the list musical instrument making.

Predictable or what?

Here is a paragraph from The Epidemiologists, which follows the explanation of the birth month fallacy (emphasis added):

This sort of nonsense appears at regular intervals. No mechanisms are offered, or at best ludicrous and far fetched ones. "Researchers" take some affliction, such as schizophrenia, match them against birth months and, lo and behold, they inevitably find that one month (or quarter) produces more cases than average. A survey conducted by the author in the village pub established that ordinary punters find this sort of thing ludicrous, so why do journalists and even self-styled scientific journals fall for it?

Here is an earth shattering account of research from Johns Hopkins University entitled Certain types of schizophrenia may be linked to summer birth. Note that This study was supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health, Rockville, Md. Since only the Trojan Number is given there is no scope for further comment.

Footnote: Here's a good one, found by Our Man in Puerto Rico.  OMIPR also found a version of the above with numbers; not enough to work out what hypothesis they were actually testing, but note that the confidence interval goes down to 1.3. It turns out to be a meta-analysis. Ten, however, is the number of authors it took to produce this breakthrough.


What is random?

This question occurred during the reading and reviewing of the most enjoyable book Fooled by Randomness  by Nassim Tabet, kindly recommended by number watcher Paul Maynard. It is one of those books that make you want to have a debate with the author over a few beers. 

It would seem that there is a range of randomness. Top of the range are quantum mechanical effects which are totally unpredictable in their nature, which means that we can create devices such as gas discharge tubes or noise diodes, capable of generating truly random numbers.

In the second rank are those physical effects where the causality is simply too complicated to be capable of analysis, such as where a raindrop will form or where it will fall.

In the third rank are those effects where the causality is simply unknown. Sometimes it can be determined a posteriori (wisdom after the event). For example, the sudden collapse of the Asian currencies in the late nineties was a random event as far as the markets were concerned, what Tabet calls a Black Swan. Yet as Anatole Kaletsky wrote in The Times (13th January 1997):

The catalyst for the chain reaction of financial panic across Asia was the enormous tax increase imposed by Mr Hashimoto last April. This tax increase may have been the stupidest and most pointlessly destructive economic action undertaken by any advanced capitalist country since America’s Smoot-Hawley Tariff act of 1930.

Then there are some black swans that are not random at all. The dotcom bubble is an example (and this is not hindsight, for it was identified as such in Sorry, wrong number! which went to press months before the collapse began). The only uncertainty was precisely when it would happen, not whether. There was no possible way that the companies could ever get their money back, yet the fact was covered up by hysteria and greed. Ironically, one company that was roundly criticised by the faithful for its business model was Amazon, yet that was the one that survived and prospered.


Talking of Amazon, an assiduous librarian at an American university found her way to this web site to purchase copies of the two books. She noted that were reporting The Epidemiologists as out of print and hard to get (and therefore only available from one entrepreneurial spirit at about five times the cover price). Yet keep a couple of dozen in stock and are dispatching copies every day, as is Number Watch.


A big round number – 0.0004

A specimen not to be missed in the Daily Telegraph of October 11th: Global warming clock ticks faster. It has everything to gladden the collector’s eye, but the pièce de résistance is this paragraph:

Tom Burke, visiting professor at Imperial College, London, and a former special adviser to the Conservative environment secretaries John Gummer and Michael Howard, said: "The politically significant horizon is carbon dioxide at 400 parts per million - just because it's a big round number."

The story is all about a small rise (less than one fifth) in a negligible greenhouse gas. This produces a full cast of dramatis personae in addition to the Burke. There is also a very fine example of chartmanship, with a suppressed zero creating the illusion of dramatic change. Further comment would only take the gilt off the gingerbread. Read, savour and enjoy!

Footnote: courtesy of our industrious Man in Puerto Rico, here is the chart without the manship:


 Passed Master

The other big story of that day was the fact that Jacques Derrida had gone to join that great bandwagon in the sky. The old fraud was one of the most successful academics of the early post-scientific era. He was the master of the vacuous but portentous oxymoron. He was slavishly followed by academics in the West and even (though controversially) received a Cambridge honorary degree. He was largely responsible for creating the bubble of “post-modernism” that was so delightfully pricked by Alan Sokal, though as Sokal points out, he himself paid little attention to science.

Readers who have read Stephen Potter’s Gamesmanship books (and those who haven’t will never fully understand the modern world) might have notice the strange resonance between the names Derrida and Odoreida. The latter was one of Stephen Potter’s principal gamesmen, noted for his rather extreme practices of the art. Of course Derrida professed at Yale, while Odereida merely instructed at the Lifemanship Correspondence College, Station Road, Yeovil. In the book Lifemanship, now all of fifty years old, it is shown how the practiced lifeman can bring any expert to a shuddering halt, by a variety of ploys that come under the heading Breaking the flow. Thus, for example, when a well-travelled expert is in full flow, the interpolation of half a dozen words can bring him to a shuddering halt. An example suggested is “Yes, but not in the South”.

The extent to which Derrida had advance the practice of gamesmanship from such crude levels to the sophistication of modern practice is revealed by his famous conference interruption “The Einstein constant is not a constant.”

As an example of stopping the flow this is immaculate. It is an oxymoron completely without meaning, a work of genius, thought up on the spur of the moment.

The Greeks had a word for it – Oxymoron is derived from the Greek words meaning sharp and foolish.

Literary criticism has been described as "pulling the wings off butterflies to see how they work". Derrida and his deconstructionalists ground the creatures into fine dust.

Computing the cost

They say that it is ill-mannered to say “I told you so”. Therefore two selections will have to suffice. The first is from Sorry, wrong number!, Section 12.2 Great computer disasters, published in the year 2000 (emphasis added). The second is from The Times of October 12th 2004, in an article entitled Overspend on NHS computer system ‘puts patient care at risk’:

After I had written the above, the great passport scandal occurred. Thousands of would-be travellers were queuing at passport offices around the UK, frustrated because they could not get their passports in time for the holidays and business trips they had booked. The contract, awarded to Siemens for £230 million over 10 years, was to supply a computer system that would speed up the passport system and increase its security. It did neither. Then students might not get their loans in time for the start of term, because of computer problems. The next one boiling up nicely was the NHS computer network. The contrast between public and private enterprise has no more graphic illustration than in the implementation of information technology.

I must confess that these never-to-be computer systems did not produce any wrong numbers. In fact they did not produce any numbers at all, apart from the billions of pounds of losses, but they are an interesting sidelight on the main themes of this book.

 Politicians and health leaders last night said the NHS national programme for IT (NPfIT) risked damaging patient care after it emerged that much of the rising bill will fall on local health trusts. The total cost of implementing the system, which was discussed in a private Department of Health meeting in August, is expected to be up to £24 billion more than the £6 billion procurement price agreed by the Government over ten years. 

At £3 billion a year, the cost is equivalent to almost half the current annual increases in government spending on the health service. 

Describing the programme as potentially the “biggest cock-up since Eurofighter”, a reference to multibillion pound overspends by the Ministry of Defence in the late 1990s, Richard Bacon, a member of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, said that the expenditure looked “terrifying”. 


Karolinska dreaming

Mother, there are millions of cats in the garden!
Well, thousands.
Well, hundreds.
Well, there’s our cat and the cat next door.

Regular number watchers will be familiar with the name of the Karolinska Institute. It is Harvard with a Scandinavian lilt. Back in January 2002, for example, it told us that asthmatics are more prone to lung cancer (relative risk 1.58). A month earlier it told us that ultrasound scans were associated with brain damage (relative risk 1.3). Believe it or not, brain damage was defined by left-handedness.

Now, in an attempt to get the wheels back on the mobile phone bandwagon, it is associating their use with acoustic neuroma. The study is a remarkable illustration of the law of diminishing Trojan Numbers. They start off with 148 people with tumours and get a relative risk of 1.0, so they take a subset of those who have had more than ten years exposure and get a relative risk of 1.9. Then they take a subset of that subset who have the tumour on the same side of the head as the normal phone use and get an apparently respectable relative risk of 3.9. We are not told how many people they ended up with, but the Confidence Interval (1.6 – 9.5) gives us a pretty good idea that by this stage they are rather thin on the ground. Perhaps someone with access to the journal Epidemiology can tell us what the number actually was.

The last two paragraphs of the press release provide a fine summary of the phenomenon of the insanity of international institutions.

One of the delights of a journal such as Epidemiology is that you only have to read the titles to get the message. Here are three more from the same issue

Environmental Tobacco Smoke and Pregnancy Outcome.

Occupational Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields and Risk of Alzheimer's Disease

Indoor Radon and Lung Cancer in France

Any bets on the standards of statistical significance achieved?

Of cabbages and kings

More horror stories from Britain’s Chief Chicken Little. What a disappointment the photograph is! Where is the wild-haired, flame-eyed prophet of doom standing on a tumulus, with the wind swirling his druidic robe, the rain drumming the ground around him and the dramatic lightning flashes illuminating his terrible features? Instead, we have a normal carbon-based life-form in a normal carbon-based suit. No doubt he enjoys a healthy vegetarian carbon-based lunch in his carbon-based garden, while writing his doom laden prophecies on carbon-based paper.

Even more disappointing is that there is now evidence that he is subject to random bouts of sanity. So much for the King of Kings.

One subtlety to note is the introduction of the magic word exponential. Remember back in December 2001, when the Edinburgh CJD lot were applying an exponential model that would have us all dead in 60 years? In fact the death rate has been declining ever since.



In 1858 the work of Parliament was virtually brought to a standstill by what became known as the Great Stench of London. Today the miasma reeking up to heaven from the Mother of Parliaments might be more figurative, but it is no less potent. Headlines in the British media have been dominated by stories of nest-feathering among the nation’s parliamentarians. Not only have they awarded themselves huge salary increases, but their expense claims have leapt by an astonishing degree. Now any politician who can talk himself into a safe seat (and that is most of them) is rich for life. The second homes racket alone is worth a small fortune. Even their car usage payments are at a scale unavailable to ordinary taxpayers.

Their most distressing excess, however, is in the field of pensions. Not only have they awarded themselves, at the taxpayers expense,  the most generous scheme imaginable, they turned their faces to the wall as Gordon Brown looted the private pension schemes of the taxpayers they are living off. It was not just the scale of the Chancellor’s haul ( £5 Billion a year) that mattered, it was the signal it gave that the Government did not care about private sector pensions.

Politicians continually wail about the cynicism of the electorate about politics. They actually wonder why! Their class has always been held in contempt by most people, but the precipitous descent into ineffectual venality of the present bunch is breathtaking by any standards of history. Parliaments in the past have been called Addled (1614), Devil’s (1459), Drunken (1661), Dunces (1404), Mad (1258) and Useless (1625). What name will history give this one? Rotten seems hardly adequate.

Even the Great Leader himself makes little attempt to conceal his contempt of Parliament. He has the poorest attendance record of any Prime Minister ever.

The best or worst you can say about the opposition parties is that they are ineffectual. There is nothing more destructive of the democratic process than a large parliamentary majority. This is what led to the hubris of the Thatcher Government, which not only ignored the electorate, but neglected their own party and allowed a formidable electoral machine to fall into decay. This parliament is dominated by the torpid mass of Labour members. As long as the boss allows them to line their pockets and throws them the occasional bone like the hunting bill, they are dutifully inactive, with the possible exception of the war in Iraq, which stirs some atavistic murmurings. The list of the top most expensive MPs comprises nine from Labour and one SNP. Parliamentarians, even on the Government side, have the prime duty of monitoring and restraining the executive. This they have failed to do. The only restraint comes from the emasculated House of Lords.

Which all brings us to the topic of the moment. Imagine an act of liberalisation that almost nobody wants. Even the most fervent libertarians oppose it. It will inevitably lead to great human misery. It is promoted by a Nanny Government that likes to micromanage the everyday lives of its subjects, right down to what they are allowed to put in their own mouths. It will encourage a form of addiction whose incidence is lower in the country than in almost the whole developed world. It is being promoted by American corporations that have devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to lobbying. Even the promoters of the bill offer no perceivable benefits.

It is, of course, The Gambling Bill.

Stench is hardly the word.


 Forthcoming events in the UK

Seminars by Professor S Fred Singer on:

 Scientific Controversies about Global Warming

Nov 10  at 11:30am. Imperial College (London). Huxley Bldg, Rm724
Contact: Lizzie Kennett  0207 594 8210
Nov 11 at 4pm. Clarendon-Atm Phys Bldg, Parks Rd, Dobson Rm
Contact Don Grainger  01865 272 888
Nov 12 at 4pm.  BAS, High Cross, Madingley Rd, Cambridge
Contact: Tim Moffat   (0)1 223 221 400  [email protected]


The IEE Annual Wheatstone Lecture - 8 December 2004, 6PM

 "Measurement uncertainty and the public domain" by Professor John Brignell, at Savoy Place London



Carilyn Clements ([email protected])
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Number of the month – 24

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

24 is the number of Commissioners appointed to rule the European Union. The old commission stepped down this month and a new one should take its place next month. The new body, however, has not come into being because the MEPs have rejected one of the members, Rocco Buttiglione. The reason? He follows the teaching of his church. Not any old church, but the Roman Catholic Church.

Oh, the irony! The body that once suppressed the likes of Copernicus and Galileo is now suppressed by the followers of the new eco-theological religion of political correctness. Under the urgings of the Italian left, MEPs have raised their snouts from the trough for long enough to vote to reject the whole proposed commission. The little world of Don Camillo has expanded to encompass the whole of a continent and Mayor Peppone is in the ascendancy.

It is quite all right to wreck the economy of the continent, as Mad Margot has done, but quite another question to follow the teachings of a religion that once ruled most of that continent and comparatively recently saw the likes of Poland through the miseries of the Soviet occupation. This has been hailed as a triumph for democracy, but some hold an alternative view.

Meanwhile, the two former British Commissioners, Messrs Kinnock and Patten, have return home clutching their absurdly generous pensions to take up seats in the House of Lords; while the new boy, Peter Mandelson, has packed his bag, dog and catamite, to rush off to the fleshpots of Brussels to replace them. He should do well there. His history as a politician makes him most suitable to swim in those murky waters. He is unique in having to be required to resign twice from the cabinet – no one else ever had a second chance. As Arch Tony Crony,  creator of the New Labour spin machine and appreciator of the finer things in life, he is the ideal man for the job.

How things have changed! Once resignation meant resignation. Peter Carrington, for example, manfully took responsibility for the failure of intelligence that lead to the Falklands war. He resigned and stayed resigned. In contrast, the Crony responsible for the fiasco of WMD intelligence in Iraq was rewarded by being made Head of Intelligence.

Footnote: your bending author is a member of no religion or political party.

Tailpiece – one born every minute

Your bending author went into Boots the Chemists, asked for something to deal with ear wax and emerged clutching a spray called Audiclean. Back home the small print revealed that the contents were about 200 ml of French seawater. Not a bad profit margin at about 125 GBP a gallon! Still, a nation that could palm Beaujolais Nouveau off onto an unsuspecting world could sell anything. Just punishment for ignoring two important rules of life – always read the small print before parting with your hard-earned and never buy anything that is advertised on television. Now, where is that olive oil?


Footnote: Many thanks to those who offered their local seawater at reduced prices, but the present stock will last a lifetime. Anyway, this seawater is rich in bicarbonates, isotonic, pH balanced, sterile and preservative free. So there!



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