Number of the Month

September   2004

Catch another passing bandwagon

Number Watch has been silent for a few days, as several readers have noted. The reason is that its author is suffering from nonsense fatigue during a particularly active silly season. Fortunately at the editor, Barry Hearn, is made of sterner stuff. The outpourings, particularly on the Global Warming front, have reached new heights of twaddle. At least there is one field of human endeavour in which Britain maintains a lead, the production of loony professors. Enter Professor Pillock.

However, the most characteristic event is the appearance of a new bandwagon. You could not ask for a better illustration of what The Epidemiologists is all about. It starts off with a dubious claim of a Five-fold increase in child leukaemia. The dubiety arises from the unlikely claim of accurate diagnostic knowledge in the early twentieth century.

This is a particularly poignant subject for your bending author, who had the childhood experience of sharing a hospital ward with a classmate who was dying of the disease.

The first reaction, of course, was that More research is needed. Then the bandwagon began to roll and old favourites of epidemiology were recruited – Artificial light, Maternal diet, Irradiated fathers (or if your prefer Not irradiated fathers). Watch out for the rest of the usual suspects, including of course obesity and parental smoking.


No Respite

Any rational Briton who placed his hope on a change of Government to put an end to the torrent of official environmental claptrap is in for a great disappointment. The leader of the opposition, Michael Howard, seems determined to outdo The Great Leader himself in celebrating the extremes of fundamentalist eco-theology. In the Telegraph of 14th September we read Howard takes a stand on the environment. This is somewhat of a disappointment as the shadow home secretary, David Davis, is one of the few senior politicians who might recognise a quadratic equation when he sees one.

Of night-lights and curry

Long standing readers of Number Watch will know that James Le Fanu has been one of its heroes, mainly on the strength of his powerful book The rise and fall of modern medicine. He has endeared himself even further, not only by providing the first press review of The Epidemiologists in the Sunday Telegraph, but also by giving a further mention in his Daily Telegraph column of September 12th.  This is in the context of two of the more bizarre stories of this silly season – the "linking" of childhood leukaemia with night-lights and curry cited as a prophylactic for cancer. The sheer fatuity and frequency of this type of claim are now becoming so excessive that it is too wearisome to report more than a representative sample. Nevertheless the mass of the media lap them up like ambrosia. Rational beings like Le Fanu stand out like sore thumbs in such a milieu. 



It was almost exactly 39 years ago that your bending author first had a publication in Nature, then the pre-eminent journal of science. What a proud moment for any young scientist!  Now, when we see what has happened to that once great institution, such pride turns to gall. The eco-theologians have honed the practice of entryism (once a monopoly of the hard left) so finely that they now occupy the commanding heights of the scientific establishment, even the presidency of the Royal Society. Three years ago we remarked on the bias emerging in this journal, and asked “What hope is there for unbiased refereeing of future submissions when people with such cranky prejudice select the referees?”  Now we have evidence of the extraordinary contortions through which the editor is willing to go to prevent debate of some of the rackety “evidence” for the infamous “hockey stick” on which the whole global warming scam is now based.

The John Daley web site draws attention to the experiences of the McCritics in their attempts to open the sort of debate that once was the very essence of science.

Talking of proud moments turning to dust –

Newtons and Slugs

Sometimes the juxtaposition of two stories on one page of a newspaper tells you everything about the state of the scientific world. The headlines of two stories on page  12 of The Times of September 14th were:

Black hole in finances may mean the end for science library

Slimy Sid to show how salt is a killer

The proud moment at the other end of your bending author’s scientific career was to attend a dinner at the Science Museum to receive a medal for a life’s work. That life has gone full circle, for that is where it all started. Over half a century ago our mum’s would give us a packet of sandwiches and our tube fare, so that we could spend the whole day in the museums of Exhibition Row in London. It was a wonderful escape from the dullness of the terraced streets of Tottenham, but it was also an entertainment and an education, which imbued us ordinary back street kids with a lifelong love of science. The thing that turned the proud moment to dust was seeing, on leaving, the list of entrance fees to the museum, prices no working class child could possibly afford. That was down to Thatcherism, but that was just one of the twin jaws of the vice that has crushed the British culture, the other being socialism (or, now, New Labour).

The Science Museum is short of a paltry £200,000 a year, without which it will have to break up its unique collection. Meanwhile, the Government is to spend £4 million  on a puerile scheme to publicise an empty health threat (we reviewed the “evidence” back in February) with (would you believe?) a green slug called Sid.

Among the documents in the threatened library cited by The Times are:

Ptolemy: Almagest, first Latin translation, Venice, 1496. This reintroduced theories of astronomy and planetary motion in a geocentric system to 15th-century Europe.

Sir Isaac Newton: Opticks, London, 1704. The work in which Newton developed theories of light and colour. 

Albert Einstein: Über die spezielle und die allgemeine Relativitätstheorie: Gemeinverständlich, Braunschweig, 1917. Presentation copy of the General Theory of Relativity, inscribed by Einstein. 

James Watt: Archive of 119 works, spanning subjects from chemistry to Christianity.

Laboratory notebooks of Sir John Herschel, 19th- century mathematician.

Nasa’s final Apollo 11 flight plan, signed by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. 

Sir Frank Whittle’s original thesis on the gas turbine.

Original drawings by Charles Babbage.

Barnes Wallis papers, with “bouncing bomb” material.

The insouciance of the new governing classes, with which they encourage the dismantling of the culture of centuries, is matched by few examples in history. The Maoist revolution, the sacking of Rome, the dissolution  of the monasteries etc. all deprived the human race of access to its rightful heritage, but even at their worst excess the perpetrators stopped short of replacing the giants of their past with a green slug.


Obesity rollers

It was back in January 2002 that Number Watch commented:

A good example of getting causality back to front is the claim that, because there is a correlation between obesity and asthma, obesity causes asthma. Obesity is the new cause celebre among the health fascists of the Nanny State. Watch out for dutiful epidemiologists “proving” that it causes every known ill of mankind, as do tobacco and alcohol.

Then we were just hearing the first creaking of the axles as the bandwagon was beginning to roll. Now, two and a half years later it has fully arrived. You can tell by the fact that it has achieved the iconic status of a front-page splash in Weekend Supplement of the least hysterical of British newspapers, the Daily Telegraph.

The article itself merits study by aficionados of modern eco-theological hogwash.

"I'm convinced our diet is making us ill," says the ecologist Zac Goldsmith. "A hundred years ago, there were virtually no recorded cases of cancer. But now we have the lot, and autism and hyperactive children. We don't know what is in our food any more. There are so many hormones and preservatives."

A hundred years ago Britons were dying in their proverbial droves of Malaria, Smallpox, Diphtheria, Tuberculosis, Typhus, Typhoid fever, Whooping cough, Measles, Mumps and a host of other infections. Most did not live long enough to contract cancer and when they did it was often misdiagnosed by some vague term such as consumption. Poets and operatic heroines romantically coughed up gobbets of blood and died at a fashionably premature age.

But according to the Department of Trade and Industry, in the past 50 years we have become, on average, 4kg heavier, 4cm taller and 14cm bigger round the waist. More than 11.5 million people in Britain are classed as overweight, while nearly 1.5 million people are now severely underweight. We seem unable to strike a healthy balance.

Fifty years ago, Britons had just experienced a decade of near starvation. Most had no central heating or heated cars. They walked to the bus stop on the way to school or work, often after having woken to layers of ice on the inside of the bedroom window. Much of their still restricted energy intake was expended on preserving body temperature. Children played football and other energetic games in the parks and streets, or went on long distance bike rides unprotected from lurking paedophiles. Now the whole regime is different.

So why does such a bandwagon continue to roll? Because it has spawned a multi-billion dollar industry. Dieticians, drug companies, authors and publishers of diet books, health journalists and a host of others are coining it like crazy. Bureaucrats find justification not only for their own existence but also for enhanced recruitment further to swell their burgeoning empires. Authoritarian politicians seize upon the opportunity to harangue the population. 

This is not, of course, to say that there is no problem. Fat kids, in particular, are involved in a personal tragedy that will blight their lives. Nevertheless, almost all that is written about obesity is part of a manufactured crisis and its virtual body counts are as much dross as the rest of the output of modern epidemiology.


EPA, EPA how many kids have you killed today?

Readers of the two books associated with this web site will be left in no doubt about its author’s opinion of the EPA. Apart from the fact that it kills people (such as the thousands of Peruvians who died unnecessarily of cholera or the millions of Africans who are still dying of Malaria) it was responsible for sabotaging the method of statistical inference as a branch of applied science, by its adoption of ludicrously low standards of significance. The fact that this exercise (on passive smoking) was carried out by part of the official administration of the most powerful country on earth was a body blow to real science from which it has never recovered.

Now, however, on the same subject the EPA has come up with a publication in which it raises the abuse of statistical methods of new heights of absurdity. Collectors of  statistical nonsense will relish, among many other delectations:

1.      The repeated use of the term “statistically significant” with no numbers attached.

2.      In particular, nowhere in the document is relative risk mentioned

3.      On the other hand there are lots of “estimates” and “assessments” with no attempt at justification.

4.      In the one mention of “confidence intervals” an attempt is made to justify the EPA’s unique descent to a level of 90%. That was prompted by the organisation’s desperation at being unable to produce evidence to support legislation that it had already been preparing for four years. Even the most   degenerate of epidemiologists stop short of this level of mathematical abuse.

5.      The faltering attempt to justify the use of meta-analysis in this context.

6.      The repetition of the name Fontham, one to conjure with among aficionados of junk science (try a search at )

7.      The repeated virtual body counts, again with no attempt at justification. In particular children, whose exposure to tobacco smoke must have fallen by a factor of at least a thousand over the last couple of decades, are considered worth exploiting.  There is, of course, no attempt at justification of the grotesquely inflated figures.

8.      The “there is no evidence” defence to the zero-threshold theory. Not only does this ignore the first principle of toxicology, it is also a prime example of use of the fallacy argumentum ad ignorantiam.

9.      The audacity of using the title “setting the record straight”.

10. Above all the outrageous estimates of the probability of the studies being wrong, which in successive paragraphs are one in ten thousand, then one in ten million, then one in a billion. On the contrary, if you take into account such factors as the low relative risks, publication bias and the political context, the probability of being wrong is approximately one in one.

and on and on and on ....

Finally, if you think the above heading is an exaggeration have a look at the Malaria Clock.

Footnote: Using statistical methods pioneered by the EPA, Australian scientists have located the centre of the universe.


Number of the month – one in a billion

When the EPA comes up with a fraudulent claim of such a magnitude, no other number gets a look in. This organisation has managed to surpass even its own levels of mathematical abuse with these new claims. There have been over one hundred and forty epidemiological studies of the purported relationship between passive smoking and lung cancer (they are listed in the new book by McFadden). In almost all of them the undemanding 95% significance range includes the relative risk value of  1.0, meaning that there is no significance at all. If you believe in marginal statistics, thirty of them show that passive smoking actually  protects against lung cancer.

It is clear that no one has come anywhere near to establishing a relationship. In fact, such an overwhelming amount of non-evidence can only lead to the conclusion that there isn’t one.

Yet the EPA has the gall to claim not only that a correlation has been established, but that they are able to show a dose-response relationship.  There are a number of implications of this claim.

  1. Though no one has managed to establish one point on the curve, they have been able to establish a sufficient number to which to fit a trend.
  2. In order to do this they must be able to establish the level of exposure to smoke to a remarkable accuracy.
  3. They then claim that the trend is statistically significant. “P for trend” is a new fashion among epidemiologists. It was a year ago that Number Watch remarked on this new phenomenon and in the first month of this year begged for information on how they purport to calculate it. No one has offered any information.
  4. As we have shown, you can fit a trend to any small number of random points, and the slope depends only on the outermost ones. Experience suggests that a trend is real only if it is self-evident to the naked eye.
  5. The truly gross act is to combine all the probabilities to produce the one in a billion estimate. In virtually all the trials the probability of the result being wrong is not 0.05, since the RR of 1.0 is within the equivalent undemanding range. Add to this the effects of publication bias, the absence of any acceptable RRs, together with the problems listed above and you are forced to the conclusion that the probability of each study being wrong is close to 1.0.  Thus the probability of them all being wrong is also close to 1.0, which is rather different from the reciprocal of one billion.

The EPA, of course, will blithely ignore any such criticisms and carry on propagating its anti-scientific nonsense for its own solely political reasons.




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