Number of the Month

December  2005

Last month of the dying year. We cope with the seasonal depression by looking forward to the great celebration. However, in addition to the Numby awards, there is also the great festival of (C word erased for fear of causing offence).

A moment of despair

So, the oldies that form the rump of the Conservative party have obeyed the directions of the media moguls and have elected The Boy David as their leader. He manages to out-Blair Blair in almost every respect. He actually has less than half the parliamentary experience that Tony had on his accession, and while he has never done a real job the one that he had was public relations. As arch spin doctor Alistair Campbell pointed out, he is not so much the new Blair as the new Campbell.

The contest turned out to be the tale of two speeches, one all substance and no style, the other all style and no substance; so there was little doubt about the winner.

Anyway, The Boy David now has an actual definite policy. Believe it or not, it is to promote eco-theology. He has actually recruited his schoolmate, Zac Goldsmith, the leading British eco-nut, and the arch eco-profiteer, John Selwyn Gummer, to head his team to promote the annihilation of science. Veteran number watchers might remember that the first serious attack your bending author came under was from the Gummer organisation. If you have attended a school where the fees are higher than most people earn, you can afford a certain detachment from reality. When the Labour zealots set out to destroy the grammar schools, they little realised that of all the dire consequences, one would be that the two major parties, including their own, would be led by the products of the top fee-paying schools.

One of the sad things about growing old is that you pass through various stages when you realise that it is too late to start various projects. Now, long after it is too late to start learning the tenor sax, comes the realisation that you probably will not live long enough to see your country return to rationality and science. It is hard to bear.

It is quite startling how Eton has maintained its domination of British society. In addition to being the source of many former prime ministers, it is now the leading eco-theological college, as Philip Stott demonstrates.

Nevertheless, it is important to find something positive and supportive to say about a new leader, so here it is. He is not a lawyer.

Karolinska classic

Every now and then we are treated to a piece of junk science so ineffable that it has everything (though if you wish to eff, please feel free to do so). First notice the different codes that the media use to indicate that “It’s only epidemiology”. The Times  uses the old standby “may”, but The Telegraph and The BBC rely on the quotation mark.

It has the impressive Trojan number, no less than 61,000. It has the number experiencing the disease in question that is about half a percent of this. Then the number exposed to the putative cure is two thirds of that. Then that number is divided into four levels of exposure, so now we are down to about 0.1% of the original. Unusually, we are also told the number of dietary items in the data dredge, namely 67. We are not told the number of diseases, so we cannot know the total size of the matrix, but even for one disease, at the “normal” level of significance, at least three results are guaranteed. No doubt further diseases will emerge in future headlines. Eat your hearts out Harvard!

About (wait for it, wait for it……) Turn!

Obviously Harvard aren’t going to take an intervention from those upstart Swedes lying down.

Fibre doesn’t prevent cancer yelled Nigel (thousands to live) Hawkes in The Times.

A high fibre diet may not cut the risk of bowel cancer was the response of The Telegraph. The BBC’s typically mincing account opened Scientists remain divided over whether eating a high-fibre diet can reduce the risk of developing bowel cancer.  

Now you might think that this is a bit of a blow for the big beasts among the apologists for low standards of statistical significance and their jackals in the blogosphere, but they will follow form and ignore yet another contradiction. They will keep asking “Where is your evidence?” We will keep supplying it, as here, and they will keep ignoring it.

Of course, we must not make the mistake of assuming that this new claim is any less rubbishy than the contrary ones that preceded it:

At first sight, the results suggest a link. People in the top fifth for the fibre content of their diet were 16 per cent less likely to get colon cancer than those in the lowest fifth. But on further analysis, the link disappears. If other dietary factors such as red meat, milk and alcohol are included, the link between fibre and cancer becomes insignificant. 

Pick the logical bones out of that one.

Not that the dietary gurus are going to be fazed by this little setback. Note the intrusion of the Harvard nurses towards the end of this little preachment.


Behind the scenes at the Numby Awards (Exclusive)

This is the age of the celebrity, and everyone is curious about what happens behind all the glitz and glamour. It is therefore not surprising that letters have poured into the Number Watch mailbox, and they both ask for some gems of information about what really goes on.

Well naturally, the preparations go on for weeks before the big night, but the real activity starts at 4 am on the actual day, not in the exclusive Assembly Rooms above the Takeaway Kebab in the Balls Pond Road, but in the kitchens, which are taken over for the event. The repast, is of course, now traditional, and is based on that great British dish Trognon de chou à la mode de l’école anglaise. There is a whole team needed to prepare this dish, mostly of traditional skills, but with the modern touch. The cabbages, which have been carefully stored at room temperature for several weeks, are cut up by the Assistant Boiler and passed to the Chief Boiler (who is a long retired school cook). They are plunged into large vats of boiling water, in which they will simmer for the rest of the day. As the time for the event approaches, the Chief Boiler, whose sensitive nose tells him the exact moment, summons the Podger, who empties out the remaining drain of water and takes up his podging tool, a perforated steel plate on the end of a rod. In only ten minutes of skilful podging, all traces of structure have been removed from the delicacy and it is time to pass on to the scooper.

By this time the members of the banquet are queuing up with their antique plastic trays in the traditional way. The scooper takes up a carefully cooled plate and with his serving scoop plonks on to it an exactly calculated amount (traditionally known as the Dollop).

This is where the modern touch comes in. For the scooper passes it on to the divider, who with a few deft brandishes of his dividing knife, cuts the Dollop into five identical pieces. In that way every participant is assured of receiving the regulation daily five portions of fresh vegetables. The plate is then passed on to the Server, who presents it, to the accompaniment of traditional witticisms.

Naturally all salt has been removed from the building by the Salt Police, as it would be a tragic embarrassment if one of the distinguished guests keeled over dead in the middle of the speeches, through having exceeded the 6 gm daily allowance.

It would, of course, be absurd for even such a delicacy to be served on its own; and another team has been preparing the accompanying pommes de terre Brittanique. This provides a delightful contrast to the uniformity of the chou, as the potatoes have been boiled in a number of different vats for different times, so the masher is able to apply his traditional skills to ensuring that the watery mash contains tantalising lumps that are almost raw.

Even persistent non-vegetarians are catered for. At a separate counter staffed by a nurse in uniform and decorated with health warnings, they are served with a thin slice of Spam.

So that is what goes on behind the scenes, but of course the real secret of the unique atmosphere of this grand occasion is the persistent bouquet of the main dish, which delicately pervades the air and clings to guests as they return home to their everyday lives.


The fifth annual Numby Awards



Once again the normally tranquil pavements of the Balls Pond Road broke out into their once-a-year state of animation. Excitement rose as the red carpet, freshly darned, was rolled out. Spectators linked arms to hold back the over-excited police. As the celebrities arrived (many of the Green persuasion on chaufer-driven tandems) autograph books, writs and other documents were flourished.

Later, inside, the remnants of the sumptuous banquet were cleared away and a silence fell that was only punctuated by deep rumble from the audience. Your bending author was allocated a solitary place at an obscure side table. This had been labelled PRESS CORPS, but some wag had appended a final E. The stage was taken by the Chairman of the Judges, Sir Hugh Jerrors, Professor of Modelling Those Little Fluffy Bits Round The Edges Of Clouds at the Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop. He introduced the new members of the panel M. Tire-Bouchon of the EU Commissariat and Mz Anne Datwon of the Irish Society for Aid to Poor Farmers. He also called upon Baroness Bottlebank, Junior Minister for Interfering in the Lives of Ordinary People, to present the awards. Unfortunately, as has become the custom, none of the laureates had turned up, so the certificates were received by proxies, drawn from the Royal College of Phenologists. As usual the awards were ranked into three tiers – numb, number and numbest – but we shall select just a few of the more interesting ones.

Obsessive of the year

This new award goes to Paul Smith the campaigner on speed cameras. For years he has bombarded everyone he can find on the inaccuracies of these devices and has been rebuffed by authority, but, as reported in The Times, the Ministry has at last climbed down. The resistance shown by the ministry was quite extraordinary and backed up by its own expert, one Benjamin Heydecker. When your bending author backed Smith’s contention about regression to the mean, it resulted in a letter from the Ministry, which also made efforts to prevent broadcasting of the BBC TV programme on the gross inaccuracies of the hand-held devices (in which your bending author was involved). When making the presentation, the baroness said that it should not be taken as an encouragement of such persons. How could the nation have a proper system of stealth taxes to fund its essential and growing administrative system if every Tom, Dick and Harry could challenge the scientific basis on which it is constructed?

Persistent irritant of the year

This goes to Benny Peiser, moderator of CCNET. This service began as a commentary on natural catastrophes, but has branched out to cover scares of all sorts. The regular bulletins are highly valued by those who are perverse enough not to spend their lives terrified by their own shadows. The baroness pointed out that such people are inexperienced in the practicalities of politics, a point emphasised by the quotation from H L Mencken around the base of the trophy:

The art of practical politics is to keep the public in a state of constant alarm by menacing it with hobgoblins, both real and imagined, – so making people clamorous to be led to safety.

Party Pooper of the year

This award went to Lord Lawson of Blaby for his contribution to scientific debate, highlighted by this exchange, spotted by Benny Peiser:

It seems likely that there will be disagreements in Montreal over whether new targets for reducing emissions should be set beyond the first period of the Kyoto Protocol .... Of course, it is difficult to take costly action today on behalf of a seemingly distant future. The Prime Minister said, "the blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge". The blunter truth about the politics of climate change is that countries are not doing enough to sever the link between economic growth and increasing emissions of greenhouse gases. --Lord May of Oxford  

The noble Lord, Lord May, speaks with great passion and, indeed, with great charm – it is a potent combination. However, it has to be said in the kindest possible way that he is a serial alarmist. When some 30-odd years ago the Club of Rome produced its report on the limits to growth-many of your Lordships will recall it-which stated that there would be such a shortage of resources that growth would more or less grind to a halt within a reasonably short space of time, this fallacious forecast, which received a great deal of media attention at the time, was warmly endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord May, as he now is. He said that he thought growth would come to an end even sooner as a result of the second law of thermodynamics. Now he is sending out a new alarm which is the exact opposite; that is, he refers to the alleged rise in carbon dioxide emissions, and therefore global warming, as a result of very rapid continuing growth for a long time to come. So he has backed both horses in the race. --Lord Lawson of Blaby

The Nearly Man Trophy

Until the last moment the favourite for this new award was Mr Albert Kettle of 23 Dandelion Terrace, Penge, who was going to join an expedition to climb Mount Everest, but withdrew when he realised that it would mean missing the last episode of a TV serial he had been following. Then Sir Liam Donaldson intervened with his dramatic statement that he nearly resigned from his nice little earner as the Government were seeking to compromise on a total smoking ban. Hands up all those who thought he was going to lose this battle, after one of the most ruthless campaigns of disinformation in peace-time history. He is noted for his steadfast work in favour of hundreds of theoretical dead bartenders, while not allowing himself to be distracted by thousands of real corpses in hospital mortuaries with autopsies and samples establishing that they were killed by the filthy system for which he was responsible. Mick Hume on his column of Mirabilists of the year 2005 could not have possibly left him out

Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, for tirelessly spreading epidemicitis, cautioning that we are threatened by epidemics of obesity/binge drinking/ smoking/whatever, plus a hypothetical pandemic of avian flu. Warning: Government Miserabilism Can Damage your Health. There are many other health-and-lifestyle miserabilists, from the judge who opposed longer licensing hours because “continental-style drinking requires continental-style people” rather than us boozy British scum-bags, to the company who called sacking a woman for smoking at home “positive discrimination”.

Man of the year

This award could be none other than Tony Blair. Not only has he won an historic third term, but many of his policies, after eight years of decisive action, are coming to fruition. This is particularly true in the field of Energy, where his masterly procrastination has produced a situation in which the nation is almost totally dependent on one fuel. After all this time for thought, he has at last called for (wait for it, wait for it and you will) a policy review.

News flash (after the ceremony) Headline in The Times: Fears of new cold war as Russia threatens to switch off the gas 30th December.

Woman of the year

Much as the panel is loath to repeat itself, the triumphs of one woman so surpass those of any other that it would be rude to ignore them, so yet again Margot the Magnificent takes the title.

Once again the teeming crowds pour out into the teeming rain and the historic streets of Islington, where King Tony himself used to dwell and have historic meetings with his friend Gordon, in which they divided up the empire. Talking excitedly of cabbages and kings, the throng gradually dissolves into the haze. The red carpet is rolled away, the powerful fifteen watt lights are extinguished and The Balls Pond Road returns to its customary brooding dignity. Nothing is left of all the splendour, except a few more names on the wall of the historic Hall of Fame in a wooden outbuilding behind the Takeaway Kebab, which is also shared by the historic dustbins.

Sic transit gloria mundi.


Number of the month 3

3 is the item number out of 6 that members of the Conservative Party found in a full-page newspaper advert issued on their behalf. It reads


We should not just stand up for big business, but stand up to big business when it’s in the interests of Britain and the world. Our shared objective with business if to achieve sustainable economic growth.

The poor suckers have been gulled into voting for a Green coup. They find themselves committed to policy statements, about which not only have they not been consulted, but neither have their elected representatives. It is almost beside the point that it is all based on the junkiest of science.

Number of the year 1984

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
to spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?


The date is the only prediction that Orwell got wrong. He was a few decades out, but everything else he envisioned is happening at an ever increasing rate.

Take this example, nominated by Our Man in Puerto Rico. Why would the bureaucrats of the EU wish to spend huge amounts of taxpayers’ money to reproduce a system that already exists? The answer is given in one obscure paragraph:

Powerful applications are expected on the roads; the Galileo network would allow a vehicle's exact movements to be tracked, presenting new possibilities for road-user charging and tolling.

What they really want to do is spy on their own citizens. There are useful by-products, of course, such as extra revenue and keeping the best roads for the rich, the bureaucratic and the corporate.

There is something disturbing about the fact that two of the most terrifying things in Orwell’s nightmare have become the titles of banal UK TV shows – Big  Brother and Room 101. Are they trying to condition us, like dentists starting off with a joke?

On each landing, opposite the lift shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move.
BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

George Orwell, Nineteen eighty-four

More next month on the March of Authoritarianism.

Footnote to a Year of Scares.



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