Number of the Month

October  2007

Health bulletin

One definition of a bore is someone who when asked “How are you?” tells you. When so many have enquired, however, it is only polite to respond; so apologies for not sending individual replies and thanks for the consolation that one has been missed.

The story so far, as long standing number watchers will know, is that your bending author has been obliged to take aperiodic breaks due to a propensity to contract lung infections. Flying became a known hazard, following the smoking ban and the consequent opportunistic reduction in air filtering by the airlines, a fine example of the law of unintended consequences. In September last year, the offer of a short free flight to be the guest of honour at a conference was too great a temptation. A flat battery on the first aircraft meant a missed connection and a whole day spent wandering around airports, while developing a rising fever.

As a result of seeing a specialist and having a gamut of tests and scans it was possible to put together the historical picture. A childhood tendency to bronchitis resulted in a series of infections that had to run their course, as there were no antibiotics available in those post war days. It seems likely that walking a mile and a half to school in the Great Fog of 1952 did not help.

The result of this is a cumulative damage in the form of stretched tubes and ineffectual cilia (bronchiectasis) which makes the lungs an even more fertile environment for opportunistic infections. Since September there have been three more such invasions, each by a different germ. The recent little visitor was a primitive bug by the name of H Influenzae and unfortunately the antibiotic first prescribed was inappropriate, so it was necessary to start all over again, which accounts for the longer duration of inactivity. The usual routine is also to have a massive dose of steroids, which then have to be tapered off. An unfortunate accompaniment to all this is that the inflammation is inevitably accompanied by a flare up of arthritis. In that September your relatively unbending author was walking a mile across the fields to the village social pub for the lunchtime pint and back. Since then, a hundred yards with the aid of a stick is the maximum, so that little “bending” jest has struck back with irony. During the infection, the old brain works even less effectively than normal, while excessive fatigue is a common experience of victims of the overall condition. The smallest task, even sitting at a keyboard writing scurrilous unorthodoxy, seems insurmountably demanding. Inevitably it will all happen again.

End of boring.

What I did in my holidays

Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the dreams of opium-induced fever, composed the wonderful Kubla Khan.  Your bending author in a germ-induced fever had rather more prosaic thoughts about the calumny being poured upon the element carbon. While not experiencing the catastrophe of interruption by a person from Porlock,  he was rather limited by a constitutionally unreliable memory, but pieced together what remained in a little essay entitled In praise of carbon.  It is always offensive when an innocent individual or institution is defamed for political purposes, but that it should be done to a simple element seems particularly gross and a sign of our times. Perhaps this will go a small way towards redressing the wrong.

Shock Horror!

Hands up all those who expected good news from this source.


The absence of laughter

There are bad times just around the corner.
Noel Coward

A few years ago some of us university oldies were sitting in the local pub discussing what we missed about the old days. It was unanimously agreed that it was the laughter. It used to be such a fun place but now it was a glum place.

A long time ago, when Britons really had something to worry about, the popular radio programme was ITMA. One of the characters was Mona Lott, of the immortal catch phrase “It’s being so cheerful as keeps me going.”

A latter day Mona would probably qualify for a professorial chair at the University of East Anglia, where lugubrious pronouncements are the stock in trade. Yet nobody laughs. Its Department of Environmental Science is an institution dedicated to the generation of bad news. You might think that, by pure accident, they might come across the occasional titbit of good stuff; but no, all is relentless gloom.

Now, after all the warnings about ocean acidification, they have discovered that the seven seas are losing their capacity to absorb the evil carbon dioxide. Naturally, these observations are “surprising and worrying”, but things tend to be in that cold and windswept part of Britain (“Very flat, Norfolk” according to Noel Coward).

After we had spent all those sleepless nights worrying about those poor little molluscs having their exoskeletons dissolved, we now find that the laws of physics and chemistry have changed, so that the amount of gas absorbed by the sea is no longer determined by the partial pressure in the atmosphere. O the misery of modern man, that the laws of nature should run riot in our time! Incidentally, the calcium carbonate in those shells is dissolved by carbonic acid into what?

What devastating prognostications have been launched on the basis of a piddling little increase in the atmospheric concentration of a minor gas as we have emerged from the Little Ice Age! It can, of course, be made to look big by the wonders of chartmanship, but when this is removed it proves to be no great shakes.

Now, if you really decline to guffaw at all this and need something really worth worrying about, try this.



Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
T S Eliot, Choruses from ‘The Rock’

Long ago in the dim dawn of pre-history, your bending author experienced the first day at grammar school. At the end of the day he was taken aside by the form master, who explained the special problems he would experience as the youngest boy in the class, born (like Number Watch) on July 13th. That advice came from the accumulated wisdom that can only accrue from a century of existence as an institute of learning. That school was wantonly destroyed for ideological reasons and, when the demolition ball crashed through the elegant gothic arches, not only the fabric was destroyed but also that priceless store of wisdom.

Now instead of wisdom we have what Kingsley Amis called “pseudo-research into non-problems” as illustrated by this heading in The Telegraph:

Pupils born in summer more likely to struggle

How things have changed! Now schools no longer run themselves, but are subject to endless interference and targetry by Government ministers and underemployed bureaucrats. Pupils are repeatedly tested into a state of coma. Expensive research is commissioned to replace what was once common knowledge. Stupid interventions and “urgent action” are thought up at the drop of a hat. “Equity” and “efficiency” are the watchwords, while teachers and parents are deemed too stupid to be able to make the allowances that they once made without instruction from above.

Furthermore, changes are suggested that are self-evidently nonsense. However many children are “held back” there is always going to be one who is the youngest in the class, while those held back now become the eldest, so there is always a difference of one year between them. Even common sense is no longer common.


When insults become compliments

In the discussion of Tim Worstal’s celebration of St Crispin’s day  the following critique of your bending author’s efforts is offered from behind a screen of anonymity

… some irrelevant, generic spew from an elderly loon who thinks the ozone hole always existed, and who effectively dismissed the entirety of modern epidemiology in his bid to discredit the Lancet Iraq casualty figures.

It is very gratifying to be credited with precognition, but writing a whole book in anticipation of a journal article seems to taking it a bit too far. As a contribution to the arts of rhetoric and logic, this quotation might leave something to be desired, but just on the internal evidence alone there are grounds for satisfaction in exciting the contempt of someone who exists at this level of cognition.


Junk à la carte

Harry H Corbett in Steptoe and SonAs regular number watchers well know, epidemiologists are able to produce results to order: whatever suits their clients, sponsors or the fashion of the day. They are able to do this by exploiting such techniques as debased standards of statistical significance, publication bias, data dredges and so-called meta-studies.

It was a dead cert that the obesity bandwagon would be irresistible, so it is with a sigh of recognition of the inexorable that we greet the unastonishing news that a new report links obesity to cancer.

When it got out into the media at large, however, it was even worse than that. The report embraces the propaganda of every hair-brained and extremist killjoy campaign in the book. The other platitude du jour is recycling, so all the tired old guff that gave rise to The Epidemiologists: have they got scares for you  is now rehashed as The new rules for defeating cancer. As always, you have to admire the chutzpah.

Those of us in the know have access to a ready antidote to this sort of nonsense in Junk Food Science and give thanks to the brave persistence of Sandy Szwarc, but those dependent on the mendacious media have only their natural suspicion to fall back on (check the responses to the Telegraph article).

Our number of the month comes from the Trojan Number in the press release of 7,000 cancer studies from around the world, but they were only the “relevant” ones. The “irrelevant” ones totalled 493,000. So to add to all the other epidemiological catch-phrases, we now have “relevancy” and wonder what it means, other than producing the politically correct result. So we have:

Number of the month 7,000

Footnote (by Dennis Ambler)]

Some info on the cancer report leader:

Click here: Department Epidemiology, UCL. Marmot,M 

Biographical Details:
Michael Marmot has been at the forefront of research into health inequalities for the past 20 years, as Principal Investigator of the Whitehall studies of British civil servants, investigating explanations for the striking inverse social gradient in morbidity and mortality. He chairs the Department of Health Scientific Reference Group on tackling health inequalities and chairs the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) Research and Development Committee. He also chairs committees of the BHF and the Wellcome Trust. He was a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution for six years. Internationally acclaimed, Marmot is a Vice President of the Academia Europaea; a member of the RAND Health Advisory Board; a Foreign Associate Member of the Institute of Medicine, and chairs the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health. He was awarded the Balzan Prize 2004 for Epidemiology and gave the RCP Harveian Oration in October 2006. He was Knighted by Her Majesty The Queen in 2000 for services to epidemiology and understanding health inequalities.




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