They’re getting at me again. Nanny is threatening to take away my favourite toy. One of the remaining pleasures of my declining years is to walk down to the village pub to have a pint of Ringwood Best Bitter in a traditional pewter tankard that has my name inscribed on it. Now Nanny Stephen Byers, Trade and Industry Secretary, is going to make this illegal. Pubs are being given two years to replace all their drinking vessels with oversize glasses with a line showing the pint mark, with the risk of a fine of £1000. This after the Government received one complaint for every 256 Million pints served each year (The Times December 2).
There is a cultural divide in Britain. Northerners tend to like their beer forced through a sparkler, so that the CO2 is driven out of the beer by turbulence, and they have a flat beer with a pronounced head. Southerners tend to like their beer au naturel, with a modest head and a carbonated liquid. Such diversity is anathema to the bureaucrat, so at the cost of £500 million uniformity will be imposed. Trading Standards snoopers will enforce the ruling rigorously.
A constant reminder that we have a socialist government is that increasing invasions by snoopers are becoming the norm. The snoopers are usually young men in pairs, arriving in shiny new cars. In one week, one pair turned over the village pub, looking for smuggled goods, while another pair turned over the butchery counter at the last remaining village shop, both at peak trading times. The village smuggler, of course, would not dream of trading through the village pub, while the village butcher is retiring without a replacement. No doubt new recruits are being sought as weights and measures snoopers to monitor pints that the customers have been perfectly happy with for generations.
Let it not be thought that the British Government is purely proscriptive. For example, the old perverts of New Labour have granted themselves the legal right to bugger sixteen-year-old boys, despite the vehement resistance of the upper house, all the churches and the majority of the populace. Their "rent-boys" act was forced through by a device known as the Parliament Act. A democratic country without an effective opposition is a fearful thing.
Back to quantities, they do things differently in the State of Insanity. According to the same issue of The Times, Mr Baker of Redding, California found that his Heinz Tomato Ketchup bottle was under filled. Being in a state with the motto “sue first, ask questions afterwards” he did just that, or to be accurate the State Prosecutors did so on his behalf. As with the British ale drinker, this man purchased a product in a transparent vessel and could see exactly how much he had contracted to acquire for his money and had the right to decline. The state and the grasping lawyers have no business intervening. Should the reader think that I am straying from the subject, and at the risk of seeming self-indulgent, I quote from Sorry, wrong number! (p141)
As soon as a number is put into the law, the bureaucratic machine is set in motion. There is no room for nuances. Produce a measure marginally one side of the legal limit one thing happens, marginally the other side something else happens. It all makes the bureaucrat's life so simple. As a result, the legalised number generates a great deal of activity around the limit defined by that number. People who are just above or just below or might be in the region of the number face legal harassment. Only a small fraction of activity involves the gross violators, who would formerly have been the sole target of the legal process. Once you have a number sanctified by the law and available for the use by over-zealous officials you have the recipe for all sorts of Alice in Wonderland scenarios.
Here is a piece of algorism forwarded by Michael Stone that seems worth sharing:
More than 98 percent of convicted felons are bread users.
Fully HALF of all children who grow up in bread-consuming
households score below average on standardized tests.
In the 18th century, when virtually all bread was baked in
the home, the average life expectancy was less than 50 years;
infant mortality rates were unacceptably high; many women died
in childbirth; and diseases such as typhoid, yellow fever, and
influenza ravaged whole nations.
More than 90 percent of violent crimes are committed within
24 hours of eating bread.
Bread is made from a substance called "dough." It has been
proven that as little as one pound of dough can be used to
suffocate a mouse. The average American eats more bread than
that in one month!
Primitive tribal societies that have no bread exhibit a low
incidence of cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, and
Bread has been proven to be addictive. Subjects deprived of
bread and given only water to eat begged for bread after as
little as two days.
Bread is often a "gateway" food item, leading the user to
"harder" items such as butter, jelly, peanut butter, and even
Bread has been proven to absorb water. Since the human body is
more than 90 percent water, it follows that eating bread could
lead to your body being taken over by this absorptive food
product, turning you into a soggy, gooey bread-pudding person.
Newborn babies can choke on bread.
Bread is baked at temperatures as high as 400 degrees Fahrenheit!
That kind of heat can kill an adult in less than one minute.
Most American bread eaters are utterly unable to distinguish
between significant scientific fact and meaningless statistical
In light of these frightening statistics,
we propose the following bread restrictions:
No sale of bread to minors.
A nationwide "Just Say No To Toast" campaign, complete celebrity
TV spots and bumper stickers.
A 300 percent federal tax on all bread to pay for all the societal
ills we might associate with bread.
No animal or human images, nor any primary colors (which may
appeal to children) may be used to promote bread usage.
The establishment of "Bread-free" zones around schools.
Remember: Think idiotically, act globally!
Here is a typical piece of scare mongering from the Sunday Times, December 3rd:
It is the usual empty rhetoric, much as in the bread story above. It took the efforts of four reporters and an expert, one Dr Gerard Hyland a physicist from the University of Warwick, who wrote:
"Although safety guidelines do protect against excessive microwave heating, there is evidence that the low-intensity, pulsed radiation used can exert subtle, non-thermal influences. If these influences entail adverse health consequences, current guidelines would be inadequate."
Hyland said children could be at greatest risk because their skulls were thinner and their immune system was still developing.
Note the subtle use of the word subtle, which in junk-speak means undetectable. If thin skulls are a risk factor, the ladies and gentlemen of the press have very little to worry about.
On the same day, Dr James Le Fanu, one of the few remaining cool heads in the British press, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph about putative hazards:
Then there is bed rest. Dr Richard Asher, in an article in The Lancet, "The dangers of going to bed", highlighted the hazards. "Look at the person lying in bed; what a pathetic picture he makes," he wrote, "the blood clotting in his veins, the calcium draining from his bones, the flesh rotting on his buttocks and the spirit evaporating from his soul."
And the interesting point about all these health hazards is that they are based on considerably more substantiating evidence than the allegation which surfaced again this week that mobile phones can damage the brain.
Yet all mobile phones sold in Britain will soon carry health warnings about the dangers of excess use.
This way lies madness. Why not be done with it and just attach a health warning to everything - goalposts, toothbrushes and bed rest included?
Mobile phones transmit radio frequencies of such low intensity that their biological effects can scarcely be detected; even the most high-powered devices raise the temperature of tissues in the immediate vicinity by less than 0.05°F. The question as to whether they may have any long-term adverse effect has been examined over 15 years in nearly 200,000 employees of Motorola.
The conclusion? You could buy a mobile tomorrow and use it continuously for 2.7million years without fear that it might be doing you any harm.
And yet a blue-chip Government inquiry this year, chaired by Sir William Stewart, felt unable to assert that mobile phones were "harmless". This loss of nerve in the face of anxiety-mongering by the "consumer health watchdogs" is regrettable. It suggests, falsely, that scientific investigation cannot distinguish truth from false-hood. It heightens public neuroticism and deprives the few valid official health warnings of any force or meaning.
From one Jim Norton
The first ignorant rant of the week comes courtesy of John Brignell, who
apparently wants to do for math what Steven Milloy has done for science. It
concerns that ever popular subject, the great global warming "scam". It seems
dear John has made a remarkable discovery. Warm water holds less CO2 than
cold water! The increase in atmospheric CO2 isn't being caused by all those
evil SUVs after all, it's actually caused by global warming. The name of
John's site is Numberwatch, but there are several numbers missing from this
How much have the oceans warmed?
How much would this change in temperature affect the solubility of CO2?
How much has the amount of CO2 in the oceans changed? How does this compare with the change in atmospheric CO2?
The answer to all these questions is that I don't know. Neither does anyone else, which is the whole point. Furthermore, the idea of the piece was to illustrate that correlation is not causation. I am, however, grateful and flattered to appear in the same sentence as Steve Milloy, to whom I dedicated Sorry, Wrong Number!
Skip this bit if you have a low boredom threshold, but, after the above posting, I have had a couple of sleepless nights over my apparent inability to communicate. I realise that my quaint British English might be a barrier. FrontPage with which I prepare these pages, resolutely underlines in red all the spellings that I learned from childhood, even though it is supposed to be set for UK English. Nevertheless, this does not explain the mystery of how I fail to get the point across with a four-word sentence lacking controversial spelling: namely:
CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION.
Now this is a perfectly normal construction of SUBJECT, VERB, ADVERB and OBJECT. Admittedly the nouns are abstract, but the definitions ought to be relatively non-controversial:
CORRELATION (abstract noun) meaning mutual relation
IS (active verb) third person singular of the present tense of the verb TO BE
NOT Adverb representing negation.
CAUSATION (abstract noun) meaning the act of causing, the bringing about of an effect or the relation of cause and effect.
So how do you explain the mystery of how someone can read this simple sentence and then go on to deduce that “dear John” believes that The increase in atmospheric CO2 isn't being caused by all those evil SUVs after all, it's actually caused by global warming? Of course, I am somewhat hampered by not knowing what an SUV is but, even if I met one face to face, I find it hard to believe that it would overturn this simple truism. I suppose that I will just have to accept that there is a higher logic that is beyond my reach.
And here's another funny thing. The very same Jim Nelson has a web site devoted to Practical Skepticism at which he lists some of the major logical fallacies and exposes "anti-environmental myths". The list does not include the non sequitur. We now have a sceptic who believes. Whatever next?
One of the favourite non sequiturs of the "environmentalists" is that everyone who does not accept their own myths and nostrums is "anti-environment". For the record, since childhood I have been heavily involved in campaigning for the real environment, formerly over polluted rivers and latterly against the concreting over of our small and beautiful island.
Yet another extract from Sorry, Wrong Number!:
Brignell’s law of league tables
All measures used as the basis of a league table always improve.
All other measures get worse to compensate.
What you measure is what you get.
THURSDAY DECEMBER 07 2000
Schools report: Three cheers for a team effort
John O’Leary, Times Education Editor, reports on England’s record primary school results
One year’s outstanding results could be a freak, but this summer’s repeat performance in primary schools has had Tony Blair proclaiming a sea change.
In another unexpected event, the sun rose at the appointed time that very morning.
December 6th is the day of the Queen's Speech in which the Sovereign had the ignominious duty of reading out the policy proposals of her Government. The march of socialism goes on.
There is nothing that stirs up the blood of a good socialist like a really good ban. This time Nanny is going to ban tobacco advertising and fox-hunting (the latter on a free vote by the docile Labour majority), the thin end of a very large wedge.
The Home Secretary announced plans to impose a curfew on children under the age of legal buggery. Such children hanging around the streets are said to be a major cause of crime. Some people think that crime originates in families, but the Government continues its attack on the traditional family. Minister Tessa Jowel maintains that the Government should not promote marriage as the normal way of life. Having removed all the tax incentives for marriage, the Government is now establishing ways to coerce parents of children at school into work. Explanations for the rise in juvenile crime range from the Dr Heinz Kiosk theory (we are all guilty) to the Lord of the Flies theory (unsupervised children degenerate towards the primitive). After a particularly vicious child stabbing in Peckham, a Kioskite psychologist had her time of glory on British TV, but recent research at the University of Minnesota (The Times, December 7) suggests that "hanging out" is highly correlated with juvenile crime.
The right to a jury trial will be restricted. There is to be a Regulatory Reform Bill with powers to cut red tape. We nasty old cynics forecast that it will do just the opposite.
The overall effect of all these measures will be further to augment the number of Government snoopers who are increasingly infesting every corner of society. What has this all to do with numbers? It's in the book.
The appalling British National Health Service (and that is not to criticise the thousands of wonderful, dedicated people working in it) where the culture of caring has been replaced by the culture of management, is spending millions of pounds of taxpayers money on saturation advertising about the evils of smoking. Presumably it can dissipated our money on any cause it wishes, but does it have to justify it with the big lie? The lie in question is the 120,000 people die every year from the effects of smoking. Given the pro rata sizes of population, this lie even exceeds that of the one propagated by the CDC in America of 400,000 deaths, which was debunked with considerable ease. Because of the total control of the media by the current orthodoxy the alternative view is never heard by the vast majority of the population. The advertisements are based on the harrowing deaths of smokers. It is an unfortunate fact that very few of us have a dignified and painless exit.
57 is the percentage of British parents who would sue if their child were injured at school (The Times, December 8). Ten years ago this number would have been near zero. This is why playground games such as conkers, rounders and even skipping have been banned in schools. The establishment agonise over why kids go off the rails as soon as they get some freedom as teenagers. One of the most disastrous of all imports from the USA has been the compensation society. The most dominant form of advertising on multi-channel television is now from ambulance chasing legal firms. They are closely followed by irresponsible loan offers to the credit unworthy and schemes to consolidate overwhelming debts. All of these would have been illegal a few years ago. The overall effect is quite disturbing, giving a picture of a society on the edge of a precipice.
The lunatics really have taken over the asylum. James Randi is rightly famous for his work as a hunter down of charlatans (see, for example, our review), and his web site is always worth a regular visit. His latest posting, however, is startling and depressing. It refers to the membership of the "White House Commission on Alternative and Complementary Medicine Policy".
Among the members of this White House Commission we find:
Dr. James Gordon, MD, Chair of the Commission, is an ardent advocate of the incredible "alien abduction therapy" which asserts that UFOs regularly kidnap humans and molest them. He supports the teachings of mystic/quack Wilhelm Reich, of Jungian "transpersonal psychology," the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and more. Dr. David Bresler, Ph.D., is a "board-certified" acupuncturist, promotes "guided imagery" (you picture your white cells killing bad germs), and he is a proponent of Iranian faith healer Ostad Hadi Parvarandeh. Thomas Chappell sells "wellness products." Effie Poy Yew Chow, Ph.D., is an acupuncturist and Quigong Grandmaster. George DeVries is the CEO/Pres. of American Specialty Health Plans (San Diego), the nation's largest chiropractic and acupuncture HMO. Veronica Gutierrez, Doctor of Chiropractic, heads an organization that promotes home births, chiropractic manipulation to treat ear infections and to prevent SIDS, and the use of thermography to diagnose "chiropractic subluxations." Dr. Wayne Jonas, MD, is the author of "Healing With Homeopathy: The Complete Guide," and "Healing With Homeopathy: The Doctor's Guide." Sister Charlotte Rose Kerr, R.S.M., is an acupuncturist and a Senior Faculty Member at the Traditional Acupuncture Institute. Dr. Xiaoming Tian, MD, is an acupuncturist/Qigong Practitioner, and the director of the Academy of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine and Wildwood Acupuncture Center, where Chinese herbal and Qigong remedies are offered. He's also vice-president of the International Academy of Medical Qigong. Dr. Donald Warren, DDS, is a dentist who practices "cranial osteopathy," or skull-manipulation, which he calls "an alternative and complimentary approach to health," and he uses "contact reflex analysis," a form of applied kinesiology quackery where the patient's body is used like an ouija board to diagnose problems and deficiencies.
James must wonder what his life's work has all been for. Has there ever been such a collection of charlatans in one place? US readers are urged to make their feelings known here.
As regular readers will know, Number Watch has refrained from partisan comment on the shenanigans in Florida, but correspondents have raised issues relating to the abuse of measurement. One of the methods of abusing measurement referred to in Sorry, Wrong Number! is moving the goalposts, or the Browner Gambit. The principle is that you do not change the rules after the game has started. If a ballot form has been designed for machine counting that is the way it should be counted. Once you start human interpretation of what it is thought voters intended you are in Gilovich territory. In particular, without being intentionally corrupt, people will see what they want to see.
Just occasionally the old ways are better. British voters are given a large black wax pencil, with which they make a large cross in a large square. The finer points of pregnant chads and the like do not come into it.
Number Watch opened a modest bottle of Crozes Hermitage to celebrate the world having avoided more Gore.
In its continued drift towards authoritarian socialism, the British Government is turning to the technique of the Big Lie with more and more abandon. The latest example was highlighted by Christopher Booker's Notebook Column (The Sunday Telegraph, December 24th) in his account of the Government’s “drive to save lives with a crackdown on motoring crime”. The Big Lie in this case is that a third of all accidents are speed related. The Transport Research Laboratory calculates a figure of 4.6%. As a result of the lie draconian penalties are proposed, including public clamping the cars of offenders (and their families), a modern form of the stocks.
A number of features make this a classic case:
1. The driving force is the anti-car SIFs, who simply yearn for a return to primitivism.
2. It is done because it can be done and science has provided an instrument (the Doppler radar), which produces a number that can be built into the law.
3. It is the path of least resistance, real crime being much more difficult to deal with.
4. It provides misdirection, like the patter of the stage magician, taking the observer’s attention away from the failure to deal with real problems.
5. As the police are allowed to keep part of the proceeds to fund further repression an explosive growth of activity is guaranteed. Booker has coined the mnemonic SEFRAs (self financing regulatory agencies) for this new growth phenomenon. More will be heard about them.
6. Exceptions are of course allowed, as in the case of the Home Secretary, who was driven down a motorway at 103 mph by his police driver, with no action being taken. In communist Europe you had to get off the road to allow a high-speed convoy of politicians to go through.
7. The alienation between police and public, once unknown in the days of the Bobby on foot, becomes more and more evident.
Fine foods are often more appreciated when they are savoured in combination, and it is the same with numbers. Here are a few that emerged in the UK recently:
400 is the number of manufacturing jobs being lost per day (as estimated by the GMB union).
90 is the percentage drop in farm incomes over five years (as estimated by accountants Deloitte and Touche). Read William Rees-Mogg’s article England’s Green and Frightened Land (The Times December 11) for an ominous account of the devastation.
One million is the number of pounds now regarded as a modest annual bonus in the financial world of the City of London. Five million is considered more acceptable.
6% is the level at which Bank Rate has been maintained by the Bank of England for the tenth month in succession in the light of a 1% annual rate of inflation.
Do these numbers matter? Obviously not to the Government in the Cloud Cuckoo Land of its urban fastness at Whitehall, fearful of imaginary environmental dragons and giving urgent priority to bills such as banning the hunting of vermin. As to the first of these numbers, consider the words of Carl Sagan, one of the great seers of our age:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.
£800,000,000 is the amount of money lost by Britain's grotesque white elephant, the Millennium Dome. Oh dear! Those nasty old cynics have been proved right again. This is what we expected when Thatcherite economics collided with political correctness. The older ones among us can still remember the inspiration of the Dome of Discovery at the Festival of Britain, which even the poorest among us could afford to visit as schoolboys, resulting in many of us opting for a career in science. It was all summed up in the Daily Telegraph on December 29th;
Stephen Bayley, the man who resigned as its creative director nearly two years before it opened, yesterday said that only one good thing had come out of the project - "a very expensive but valuable lesson for governments never to patronise the public and treat them like morons".
A picture from The Times seems apposite:
On the day that an honorary knighthood was announced for arch-goon Spike Milligan, his biggest fan, the heir to the throne, kept up the tradition with a new announcement in the last Times of the year:
THE Prince of Wales today pledges to lead a national crusade to make complementary medicines such as homoeopathy available to all on the National Health Service.
Writing in today’s Times the Prince offers the services of his own Foundation for Integrated Medicine to implement a national strategy for research into the clinical effects of alternative treatments. His comments triggered immediate criticism from leading medical figures and from within the Government.
For the record, the sympathies of Number Watch are essentially royalist, even more so when it observes the goings on in the White House and environs, but these sympathies are under considerable strain.
Some of the most touching correspondence received at Number Watch has come from that oppressed minority in California, the sane. Here is a comment from regular reader, Matthew:
Originally planned as a three tier system to serve different needs and budgets, California's University system has become a hotbed of mediocrity and education by numbers. The top tier, referred to University of California [UC] of X (X=Berkeley, San Diego, Los Angeles, etc.) now teaches nearly all undergraduate classes with teaching assistants. Freshmen, or first year students, are "taught" in classes consisting of 300 or more students watching monitors of the Professor, sometime on tape. The grading and individual instruction are done by much harried graduate students. Professors and administrators have realized that corporate sponsored research, capitalizing on their earlier efforts, is much more lucrative. The middle tier, named California State University [CSU] of Y (Y=Sacramento, Stanislaus, etc.) have begun teaching Graduate courses in direct competition to the UC and have made inroads into teaching with Professors as a novel approach. The UC responded politically, and a quite academic war has brewed. The lowest tier, called Community Colleges, were originally intended for vocational instruction or as a way to remedy abysmal high school instruction, have begun quietly offering full four year degrees to compete with the CSU & UC systems. A nasty bureaucratic war has resulted, with ink and accusation flowing like blood at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Of note is the fact that in a very unscientific poll of my university class mates (at a CSU), our four year degrees took on average six years to achieve (12 students, all in the Department of Engineering, Office of Computer Science).
Officially, course work is measured in units (representing class hours per week). It was standard, on a semester system, to require 120 units for your degree. My degree required, and in no way could this be reduced , a total of 142 units. All later students would require even more units. It is a standing joke at school. This came about owing to the politically correct and ethnically aware administration. Budget and time made me forgo my optional fourth year math courses to fit in mandatory classes in Business Ethics (taught as a Philosophy class) and a Race and Ethnicity Studies course, otherwise my degree would have taken an additional year to achieve.
So, in honour of Matthew and his fellow sufferers, and to mark the demise of mathematics as a serious subject, the number of the month is 142. Remember - today California, tomorrow America, the day after Europe then the Rest of the World.
It is that time of year again. Does it seem like a whole twelvemonth since we
were all waiting with bated breath for airplanes to drop out of the sky among
other disasters associated with the millennium bug? The consultants and other
chancers who made a mint out of this particular scare claim, of course, that it
was only their expensive activities that averted catastrophe. It reminds one of
that very old story about a man who was sitting in a railway carriage watching
with astonishment as the man sitting opposite was tearing his copy of the
Guardian newspaper into strips and throwing them out of the window.
He leaned forward and said "I hope you don't think me nosy, but why are you doing that?"
"It's to keep the lions away."
"But there aren't any lions around here!"
"Yes, effective isn't it?"
In the subsequent year we must have had at least a thousand empty scares, most of them too silly even to be worth mentioning here. The inevitable mobile phone scare, referred to above, has been demolished by two research programmes, the largest involving 782 people with brain tumours and 799 controls. Was this project really necessary, however, when half the population are now using the deadly devices with no explosion of brain tumours, or indeed any other disease of likely relevance? Oh, No! The researchers declare that further long term studies are needed in case there is a risk of slow growing tumours. It is important not to let what is happening out in the real world affect the activities and incomes of these vital researchers. As the Junkman pointed out, this all rather spoiled the Christmas of personal injury lawyer Peter Angelos, who had been looking forward to a billion dollar payout. Dammit, I thought, blow the expense, let's open another bottle of the Crozes.
The celebration was a short one. Peter Angelos went ahead with his scam despite the scientific evidence, such is his faith in the corruptibility of the American legal system. There is plenty to justify such faith, as Huber has trenchantly pointed out. Angelos is pursuing British manufacturer Vodafone for a billion dollars (The Times, December 28th).
Europe and North America ended the year in the grip of snow and ice. The media were strangely silent on the subject of global warming.
A Happy New Year to fellow number watchers! It would be absurdly optimistic to hope for it to be a junk-free one, so keep taking the tabloids. While we are talking about wrong numbers, the true new millennium actually starts on January First 2001.
Don't miss the Dubious Data Awards at STATS or, of course, the Most Dubious News of the Year at the National Anxiety Center.