Number of the Month

September 2012

Of mice and men

Within hours of the posting of our Number of the Month for August the Daily Telegraph was on the streets with a main front page headline instigated by one of our two nominees for representing that honour:



It is a remarkable piece in many ways. It might seem hypocritical for your bending author to object to a snide attack on a party leader for whom he has lost no opportunity to express contempt, but it is quite another thing to do so from within the party and its parliamentary benches. A party is like a family: it does not wash its dirty linen in public. The honourable course is to leave the party, as members have done in droves since the last election campaign; then you are entitled to make your criticisms as acerbic as you like.

It used to be said that loyalty was the secret weapon of the Conservative party, but letting the greenies in by the door drives honesty and honour out through the window. Just look at the story of the carbon tax in Australia as an example: that really was a grotesque U-turn. The much publicised U-turns after the last British budget were in comparison mere froth. The Chancellor needed to do nothing but adhere to the chosen path, yet he was expected to deliver a fairly portentous speech, so he let in a few trivial causes that have been harboured by the civil service for years. Even New Labour did not let themselves get caught in that trap. The resulting U-turns did much damage, largely as a consequence of a manic trivia-fest in the media.

Now our Tim has performed a U-turn, for reasons of his own but overtly based on emissions. The world would be a better place if politician kept their emissions to themselves. We have to keep reminding ourselves that carbon dioxide emissions do nothing but good, even making a tiny contribution to making the world warm enough to be habitable.

The style is tortured. A passage of “sceptred isle” magniloquence descends into a bathetic non sequitur of an insult:

Our history, our environment, our culture, our great cities – plus the happy combination of the English language with our geographical position – give us that opportunity. The success of the Olympics should give us the confidence. So the Prime Minister must ask himself whether he is man or mouse.

 Boy, what a used car salesman this man would make! It is not, however, a persuasive argument that you are a man if you follow me in reneging on a commitment but a mouse if you do not. It is irrelevant that the commitment was an unreasoned, foolish and unnecessary hostage to fortune. Britain’s tragedy is having a political class who cannot see beyond the five year span of the electoral cycle, though in this it is hardly unique.

Even the apparent flattery carries a veiled scorn – His place in history is assured as the leader who made the Tories (nearly) electable again, an achievement that eluded three previous leaders.” That interpretation is a green-tinged, perverse reading of the history. All Dave needed to do was to lay low. Gordon Brown had presented him with potential landslide victory. Instead he set about alienating his core vote, pursuing the green vote and the pink vote; anything but the blue vote. He lost an election that was in the bag. Many life-long Conservatives came to wish that he would go and take his wretched tree with him. It had been involvement with the EU (in the form of the ERM) that had made the party unelectable, not a detachment from trendy causes.

Why Tim should think his own cause is furthered by such a petulant and rambling outburst is a mystery. In the circumstances a period of quietude would seem more appropriate.

So, why is Tim suddenly so keen on connections to China? Surely it could not be that he has found it to be yet another nice little earner. Or could it?


An accolade of sorts

One of the respondents to the WUWT request for comments on its proposed retooling noted in passing that Number Watch is “probably the worst laid out site of all time”.

If so, it is entirely due to a personality defect in its author, who, since those difficult teenage years, has made a point of finding out what is trendy and then doing the other thing. Another of those respondents said “I am sad to hear the upgrade bug has bitten you. I love the site just as is. But if you must do changes, please keep it simple as you can. It is the words — the facts — here that matter and not the “look and feel”. Well said! WUWT is one of the most important things to have happened in the post-scientific age. It seems a shame for it to just be treated as a small part of a blogosphere that is more fashion conscious than the most banal of women’s magazines.

Number Watch is not a blog. It predates that trend. It is a collection of essays, FAQs and other bits and pieces, one of which happens to be a running commentary on what is happening in the world of politics and the media with regard to the propagation of wrong numbers. The hit statistics show that it is used as a resource in a number of academic institutions. It was never “designed”, but a small selection of styles based on Times New Roman was adopted. These clouds, much hated by the blog-age fashionistas, were a slight joke at the start, being based on one of my catch phrases in lecturing on instrumentation – “the clouds of unknowing”. I contemplated giving them up when they came under attack from a new age revisionist, but some of the longer standing readers leapt to their defence and they stayed. The structure is that of a book, where everything springs from the index page.

Being aged and unreformed I have a considerable dislike for the modern cloned blog format. I have to keep checking to see which one I am actually reading. They seem to be addressed to those who do not read books and are therefore incapable of reading across a whole page. Typically they have two outer columns of “information” that is repeated across every page and a middle informative one that requires much scrolling. What I loathe most, however, are the inevitable comments sections. They are often inhabited by trolls and other members of the illiterati, so that the odd particles of gold are as rare as those in the gravel on the bed of a stream. They are often hundreds of entries long, rambling and incongruous, completely burying the subject under discussion.

I am proud of the Number Watch Forum, a small group of like-minded people who share their views without the need for editorial control. There are regular contributors, often with surprising specialist knowledge, from whom I have learned a great deal. There are some who have difficulty with the concepts and they are helped with tolerance. Above all, the threads are short and to the point.

I am also proud of the regular readership. When I am obliged to issue the occasional appeal for support to meet the increasing costs (a difficult thing to do for a traditional Englishman) as last month, there they are with an instant response, which is more moral boosting than I can describe.

There! That is the longest outburst of first personal pronouns that your bending author has emitted in twelve years. As we say in Eurosceptic circles – better off out!


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What, no numbers?

A regular reader gently chides Number Watch for the relative absence of numbers in these pages of late – a valid criticism. The explanation is that your bending author is suffering from repetitive stress syndrome of the brain. The sheer quantity of nonsense stories in the media is ever increasing. The Times is a rich source, but as it has retired behind a paywall it cannot be referenced without causing annoyance. The Telegraph used to be a fairly trustworthy and sober read, but under the new ownership its pages are increasingly littered with cod psychology trials and obviously fallacious junk science reports, often greenie inspired. The modern BBC, of course, is hopelessly awash with bias. And they are only the British sources.

A recent study by the Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop has established that sorting through other people’s garbage can lead to depression and inertia, and this is what your bending author has been doing for more than a decade. It is easy to identify nonsense on sight, but it is a more onerous and unrewarding task to marshal the evidence that makes it so.

Consider, for example, this item in a recent edition of The Daily Telegraph. If memory serves correctly, the numbers 2 ½ and 6% were actually mentioned in headline of the printed version. You only had to read the first sentence of that piece to realise that the whole story is utter rubbish. To dig deeper is an exercise in masochism (currently fashionable in the soft porn critical sections of the media) but your wish is my command, so here goes. To cut a long cliché short, here is a summary of the principal objections to this farrago.


bulletThe relative risks for an observational study are derisory.
bulletThe Trojan Number is impressive, but the results derive from 3% of that.
bulletThe evidence is anecdotal. Most people exaggerate their work load.
bulletFrom the later details this was obviously a data dredge.
bulletNo plausible physiological mechanism is offered.
bulletThe other factors mentioned are the “usual suspects”.
bulletThese are “adjusted for”.
bulletAmong possible confounding factors, activities that housework displaced are absent.
bulletThe subject is highly emotional and therefore ideal bait for media attention.
bulletThe Government “recommends”. Nanny knows best!
bulletThe source is an Oxford epidemiologist.
bulletSuch expensive exercises divert resources from genuine medical research.


There is another rationalisation for the recent relative absence of such stories in these pages. Their origin is mainly in the ignorance and attitudes of the political class and its media acolytes. The narrow education of Oxford PPE graduates does not encourage an understanding of, say, positive feedback instability. The study of the consequences of such lack of knowledge is much neglected. We British can see that the governments of the USA and Australia are quite mad, but the details are somewhat a mystery to us outsiders. Equally, the peculiar varieties of insanity exhibited by our Government in Brussels and its sub-department in Westminster are confusing to those not directly affected. We say of each other “Why do they put up with it?” We self-appointed commentators have a duty to enlighten readers overseas, but at the considerable risk of boring them into abstinence.

Finally, do contributors to the Telegraph Online not have access to spell checkers? This out-Grauniads the Grauniad.


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Oh No! It’s I’m sorry I’ll read that again, again

The hit statistics tell Number Watch that the airborne generator fantasy (comments) has blown up again. Learning engineering (and science) is about developing a sense of proportion. During my materials lectures, when I got to the topic of insulation I would pass round a one foot long sample of medium voltage cable. There were inevitably a few gasps of surprise at the weight. It would have made an excellent lethal weapon of the type that used to be called a “life preserver”. None of those students would now be blathering about a “tether”.


PS In view of the continued discussion, a brief account of the cable problem has been placed in the FAQ section.

PPS plus an addendum with links to earlier remarks  on the subjct

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As your bending author is bidden to serve time grubbing among the numerical garbage cans of the modern media, here is a bit of homework in self-justification –

That weasel word “could” strikes again

Lazy newspaper editors, with space to fill, love stories about wonder foods and their deadly converses. Here is a headline that simply shouts Junk Science – Spinach could help beat dementia. What better object to choose – a vegetable rich in myth, counter-myth and Popeye cartoons – and what more dire threat than the fate feared more than death?

This is a very small observational study with a large number of targets (at least five), which gives it the characteristics of a dredge and major errors associated with the extreme value fallacy. The results, therefore, are worthless. The very existence and name of funnel plots, for example, reveals that such small studies are worse than useless. Naturally, “more studies are needed.”

Free radicals are just more monsters of the modern imagination, which have replaced the invented demons that plagued primitive society. When you look seriously into the evidence it fades away like the morning mist, as in the case of other big scares, such as global warming. Yet, like those scares, it fuels the growth of huge lucrative industries and professional hangers-on, in this case those modern witch-doctors, the diet gurus in the media.

The free radical hypothesis is unsupported by large clinical trials and there are even claims that antioxidant supplements do more harm than good. Indeed, a recent book remarks that ‘It is clear that it is no longer science but market forces that are driving the macabre antioxidant industry.’

In ignorance of the finer details of modern biochemistry it is difficult to understand how the chemical factories that are human cells could function without the interplay of free radicals. Furthermore, for every negative ion there must be a positive one, otherwise the body would charge up to a huge electrical potential.

To describe the link to spinach as tenuous would be to flatter it. It is just bait to hook the editor, then the reader. There are thousands of plant sources for the magic potions, but they do not have the requisite media pizzazz.

Question someone who has just read the paper and you find that they remember nothing but the headline. It is doubtful whether they read the article at all, which for the editors is just there as a space filler. The diet charlatans, however, will file away that headline, and produce it in their subsequent effusions as evidence.

There is no substitute for a balanced, varied diet.


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Basil aloft

Further to our discussion of the airborne generator fantasy –

One of the most famous TV comic moments is when Basil Fawlty (concussed, confused and manic) cries “Don’t mention the war ”. The updated version is when the airborne generator pushers (confused and manic) cry “Don’t mention the cable”.  A web search of “airborne generators” is most revealing. Everything is kept in the air by faith and will stay in the air, just so long as nobody mentions the c-word. A typically optimistic example of the coverage is given by the BBC.

One comprehensive review of airborne superconducting generators mentioned it once, but they think they got away with it. Not only do they skirt the problems of electrical insulation, but they add those of thermal insulation and refrigeration. Before the tethermen get over-excited, however, they are dealing with generators in airplanes, while “high temperature” superconductors operate at about -200 C.

There are occasional hints of haunting by an unmentionable design constraint, but these stop at the use of inappropriate language. There are sporadic variations; some even propose sending power down to earth via a terror-watt death ray of electromagnetic radiation. Nevertheless, the motto of the day is “keep the faith”.

It is interesting to note that our FAQ on the cable problem has made, according to the hit statistics, very little impact. Perhaps it is a waste of time telling people things they would rather not know.


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Great News! The EPA sued

Just when it seemed that the pedlars of junk and the authoritarian socialists were unstoppable in their quest for world domination, a large chink appears in their armoury and sunlight illuminates the shadows. Much thanks to Steve Milloy and his collaborators for this announcement. Not wishing to steal a share in the glory, we restrict ourselves to three quotations.

EPA. It was founded on a lie (that the majority of cancers are environmental in origin) and it continued in that vein. It was largely responsible for the many millions of deaths resulting from the DDT ban. Under director Carol Browner it became a ruthless political propaganda agency. The scientific and social crimes of the EPA have been covered many times in this web site and the associated books.
The sound of the jackboot is heard in the land. Number Watch February 2007

Liars need good memories.
Your bending author’s grandmother

Powerful patronage makes people over-confident. They come to believe that they are untouchable. Like the royal favourites of mediaeval times, they soar in the air on a zephyr of preferment, only to get too close to the sun and plunge to earth.
How we know they know they are lying



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And it came to pass …

In the mid nineties your bending author was invited to join a multidisciplinary group with a view to preparing a bid for generous major research funding offered for a study into possible health effects of minute particles in the air. It seemed attractive in the light of previous experience of developing novel methods of detecting the motion of such particles in liquids a couple of decades before, especially as research funding was getting more and more hard to come by. After attending a couple of discussions I formed and stated this view: they are out to “get” particles. Give them the instruments and they will, by hook or by crook, find them guilty.

Though I withdrew from that project, I did not fully realise at the time that it was all part of a concerted attack by international bureaucratic greenies on the energy and transport industries. It did, however, help to gel some inchoate thoughts that led to early retirement to produce a couple of books and the Number Watch web site.

Now that tendency has reached a climax with the EPA human testing scandal. The insolence of office, brought on by the overweening power granted to that body by insouciant politicians, has led to a grotesque collision between lies and actions. Given the powerful allies they have in their media and governmental greenie connections, they might well get away with it, but the more detritus they brush under the carpet the more the mound comes to resemble the pachyderm in the parlour.


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Junk science’s September song

 Old age cannot be cured. An epoch or a civilization cannot be prevented from breathing its last. A natural process that happens to all flesh and all human manifestations cannot be arrested. You can only wring your hands and utter a beautiful swan song. 
Renee Winegarten

 The Greek chorus that is junk science as interpreted by the media maintains its own eccentric commentary on the human condition. Dubious statistics and cod psychology pad out the columns of the establishment media. This month the dominant theme has been dementia.

It is the modern “fate worse than death”. We have all seen the terrible dissolution of personality that it inflicts and the threat of it haunts our latter years. Dementia is a key to the headline-grabbing that junk scientists so covet. As we have seen, some go for the wonder food approach to exploiting it, but others choose to go down the more sinister scare route. So it is no surprise that lazy editors seize upon the “linking” of dementia to benzodiazepines:

Sleeping pills taken by millions linked to dementia: research – Telegraph.

Common anxiety drug increases the risk of dementia, research discovers Mirror.

Anti-anxiety drug benzodiazepine 'raises elderly dementia risk Independent.

Seniors dementia risk raised with sleeping pill use CBC.

Sleep, anxiety drugs linked to dementiaFox News

Etc,  etc…

Readers with masochistic tendencies may wish to refer to the original paper. Any summary, however, including this one, will be inadequate.

As reported, this observational study has it all – a Trojan number that shrinks to a derisorily small core of victims who experience both that ailment and the target “cause”; unacceptably low relative risks; multiple corrections for other factors; use of the 95% confidence level yielding a wide range of RRs and ORs (calculated to three figures of precision); excessive torturing of limited data; perverse assumptions of causality etc.

Much of Junk Science relies on ignoring one golden scientific principle – correlation is not causation. In this case it stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. Among the symptoms of incipient dementia are sleep disturbance and anxiety. Is that not why these drugs were prescribed in the first place? That is precisely why we were careful to include reverse causality in the list of flaws of the data dredge almost a decade ago. This is not just about science; it is about common sense, lamentably lacking in so many self-styled scientists. To be fair to the original authors, they mention this possibility and admit that it cannot be ruled out, despite debatable attempts to diminish it, but that sort of equivocation cuts no ice with the media.

According to the Telegraph – “they accounted for other factors that affect dementia such as age, gender, educational level, marital status, wine consumption, diabetes, high blood pressure, cognitive decline, and depressive symptoms”. But did they “correct” for spinach?

This study is not just worthless. Like wind turbines, it is worse than that. Even given that this is a family of drugs that is grossly over-prescribed, it attacks an aspect of human experience that is fraught with stress and anxiety and amplifies those tendencies. In a society that imposes an onus of longevity on the population, it is a medical duty to ease passage through this terminal terror, while available resources are directed towards an understanding of the physiological mechanisms, which might lead to prevention.

Meanwhile, we oldies remain afflicted with a condition known as the Mann syndrome, which is defined as an obsession with “hiding the decline”.

The song is ended but the malady lingers on.


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Number of the month – 17

This appears to be the number of recent users of benzodiazepines on which the above headlines are based. It yielded an OR of 1.48 (0.83 to 2.63), a range which includes 1.0 (Adjusted for schooling duration, singleness, wine consumption, use of antihypertensive drugs, use of antidiabetic agents, use of statins, use of platelet inhibitors or oral anticoagulants, and significant depressive symptoms according to Center for Epidemiologic Studies depression scale).



Index, search box and begging bowl 

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