Number of the Month

September 2000


Retrospective on August

Well, what a productive silly season we have had! On one day there were half a dozen junk stories in The Times alone. Then, of course, there's the Guardian Ecology Page. Most notable of all, however, was the apotheosis of Clive Bates, the egregious director of ASH. Always on hand with a totally over the top comment when news is hard to come by, he really hogged the British newspapers with some of his most creative balderdash.

Parents who smoke around their children were "scarring them for life" (The Express).

"The effect of smoking on heart disease is the great untold story simply because the circulation is so sensitive" (The Times).

"Smoking at work costs 35 million working days a year in absenteeism and that is simply among workers who smoke. This important and timely research suggest everybody has a lot to gain from workplace bans" (The Daily Mail).

All this based on a classical piece of junk science from the University of Athens. It involved a sample of no fewer than 30 teenagers and had all of the characteristics of the genre - self reporting, no believable mechanism and, of course, no numbers to put to the statistical test.

On the last day of the month came a piece of junk from Bristol's new science centre so ludicrous (risk ratio 1.14) that it would normally hardly merit comment. Headline in the Daily Mail - How second hand smoke can damage a woman's fertility. In the article, however,  up pops  Clive with the comment that the findings were "deeply worrying". "The tobacco companies would have you believe that tobacco smoke is just a slightly irritating annoying thing that  people just put up with. But if, as this research suggests you are inflicting damage on someone's fertility by smoking around them, then that's pretty serious. If people aren't going to regulate their own behaviour, then this strengthens the case for banning smoking in the work-place and public places." A researcher from the said centre carried out a survey of  of 250 people which showed that 80% of people would back a ban on smoking in public places if they knew that passive smoking had an impact on female fertility. Readers of Sorry, wrong number! will recall that Roger Bate persuaded 76% of people to call for a ban on water by appropriately phrasing the survey question, while an American student achieved a remarkable 86% response for the same question. The power of lies backed by junk science is often hard to credit.

Our Clive has really become a national institution and he ought to receive more recognition, as the court jesters did in days of yore. How about Zealot Laureate?  That has a noble ring to it.

Curse of the Euro-fumes

Putting August aside with a sigh of relief, we merely find that September has started with a bit of a bang. On the first of the month The Times sub-editors dug out one of their favourite headline templates - Thousands to die of X, by Nigel Hawkes. This time X was traffic fumes. Data from France, Austria and Switzerland "proved" that air pollution is responsible for 6% of all deaths. Dr Kino Kunsli of the University of  Basle looked at one measure of pollution, PM10 particles, and showed that they were correlated to heart and lung complaints as cause of death, hence he estimates that they cause 40,000 deaths a year. This is a typical piece of body-count junk, which relies on the fallacy of confusing correlation with causation. Watch out EPA! Europe is on the march.

British is Best

British university researchers are the most prolific in the world. It must be true, because the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) says so (The Times, September 1st). The justification is that academics in the UK produce sixteen papers per one million dollars of funding, compared with 14.7 in Canada and 13.9 in Australia. The poor old Americans were down at 11th in the league at 9.2, while the hopeless Japanese were bottom at 3.9. It certainly makes you proud to be British that all those forests were sacrificed at so little cost. The second corollary to Brignell's law of league tables states that what you measure is what you get. HEFCE measures the goodness of research by paper. The British are also top in citations per million dollars. Only a nasty old cynic would point out that some of the world's most cited papers have also been some of the most erroneous. Dr Alfred Steinschneider's paper on apnoea is a classical example, receiving over 400 citations. The same cynic might observe that the denominator in these fractions (the amount of money spent, particularly on salaries) is more indicative of the cultural truth.

Horrific outbreak of common sense in new QUANGO!

A moment to treasure on the second of the month is the banner headline in The Independent - Organic food 'is a waste of money'. Note the quotes. How could this happen? The new Government's Foods Standards Agency has been set up to preserve and extend the prevailing orthodoxy, but disastrously the Government has failed to appoint a cloned, scare-mongering, anti-science environmentalist to head it. The turmoil among the chattering classes was evident in the newspaper coverage. The Times not only gave it a minor front page headline, but also devoted an editorial to the crisis. FOOD FIGHT it yelled The FSA is poorly placed to pronounce on organic products. The new, and no doubt temporary, hero of the pro-science minority is Sir John Krebs, who by some mischance was appointed to chair this organisation. He committed the unpardonable crime of looking at the evidence rather than the creed. As The Times pointed out, he was appointed as an independent monitor to be immune to producer pressures (Note the absence of any other pressure to which he is supposed to be immune).

Never fear! The Prime Minister has appointed as his special adviser one Jonathon Porritt, whose qualifications as a cloned, scare-mongering, anti-science environmentalist are impeccable. He will Chair the new Sustainable Development Commission. No doubt bookmakers will be announcing favourable odds on Krebs' survival.

A question of jogging

All over the media was a story from Copenhagen, which originated in the BMJ, where scientists have proved that jogging reduces the mortality of men. The Trojan number was 19,698, which was the total number of people in the study. By the time it had been reduced to men and persistent joggers it was 96. There is a wonderful list of possible confounding factors taken into account - diabetes, smoking, household income, education,  alcohol consumption, systolic blood pressure, concentrations of plasma cholesterol, plasma high density lipoprotein and body mass index. There is also an impressive table of probabilities and statistical significance. Nevertheless, would it be too rude to ask - how many of the 96 joggers actually died?

One of life's little ironies

A recurrent theme of Sorry, wrong number!, the book that goes with this web site, is the observation that SIFs and junk scientists produce the wrong numbers that enable politicians to justify draconian taxes on things that are politically incorrect, like tobacco, alcohol and motor cars. Furthermore, when such taxes go beyond a limit that ordinary people deem reasonable, respect for the law breaks down, as is demonstrated by the widespread acceptance of smuggling. The book was printed on time, but was stranded undelivered at the printers, because of the effects of the fuel blockade that brought Britain, like many other European countries, to a standstill in a widespread eruption of popular resistance.

Junk Mail

The Daily Mail for September 12th was a bit of a vintage issue for junk collectors. The first five pages were devoted to the fuel crisis and the Government lies that accompanied it. There was a column about the hidden BSE plague among cattle in France, which still maintains its ban on British beef, though this is subject to far stricter measures. There is a whole page on Reiki, the laying on of hands, as a treatment for cancer, which involves the practitioner "tuning in" to the energy. The piece of resistance, however, was a full page article by one Dr John Briffa headlined How many diseases can selenium beat? According to the opening paragraph, this trace element shows great promise in the war against cancer, and may also help to combat conditions as diverse as infertility, dementia, low thyroid function and AIDS. It goes on – "On Christmas day 1996, a scientific study was published which demonstrated selenium's ability to halve deaths due to some cancers. Since then the focus of much scientific, research, it is clear that selenium's health giving properties are nothing short of remarkable."

Apart from the woolly English, which seems to be characteristic of devotees of junk science, the only thing remarkable is the lack of evidence for this claim. The date enables us to identify the source document (by searching "selenium" on the Junk Science page). This was a paper by Larry C. Clark of the University of Arizona, with full supporting cast of fifteen co-authors, in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It is the usual bunkum, based on marginal statistics (e.g. a risk ratio of 0.63, which is unacceptable in real science) and a tiny population. Two years later another eructation of junk science showed that Italians who had high levels of selenium in their water supply had a quadrupled risk of malignant melanoma. There are many things to savour in the rest of the article, including the fact that cancer incidence is increasing (the independence fallacy). There is also a particularly fine example of the false limit, which is a technique for misleading people without actually telling a lie. In this case it takes the form – "The truth is, our risk of cancer is linked closely to lifestyle factors, and up to 80pc of cancers are related to diet." As A K Dewdney pointed out, "up to" includes zero. Even the notorious Causes of Cancer by Doll and Peto did not push the percentage up this far.

Sorry, wrong number!

Talk about the engineer hoist by his own petard! There is a corollary of Murphy’s law that applies to authorship. It states that there is one critical typo that remains hidden from the author at the proof checking stage, but leaps out of the page as soon as he opens the first pristine copy from the printers. Furthermore this typo is always of a nature and position to cause maximum embarrassment. To my horror, when I opened the first printed copy of the book associated with this web site, I found myself in the role of telling the world that, on tossing a coin, the probability of getting either heads or tails is one half. I feel constrained to make the following declaration;

I, the author, do solemnly swear, with my hand on a copy of the Journal of Epidemiology, that this probability was stated as "one" when the document file left me.

Bad news

Lord Melchett and his band of criminal vandals from Greenpeace were found not guilty by a jury after they destroyed genetically modified crops. This shows the power of propaganda and augers ill for society.

A preposterity of professors

Martin Mckee, Professor of European Public Health, in a typically intemperate SIF rant in The Times correspondence columns (September 13th), digs up the junk claim that passive smoking kills people, which has never been remotely established by acceptable scientific methods. These professors of junk, however absurdly titled their chairs, seem to have the freedom of the press, and PC editing ensures that letters of rebuttal are never published. There is, however, one voice of sanity in the British press, Christopher Booker of the Sunday Telegraph. In particular, he takes up Mckee's claim that bar takings in The State of Insanity actually went up when smoking was banned. A British innkeeper who made the same experiment to wide acclaim subsequently went broke. The difference is that his customers had a choice, whereas those in California were presented with a monopolistic diktat by their PC masters.

The BBC reports that UK researchers claim to have found sharply higher cancer rates in people living close to overhead power lines. Aficionados of  Junk Science will recognise this as a prime example of the genre when they learn that the risk ratio involved was a startling 1.29. It all gave a boost to Dennis Henshaw, Professor of Scaremongering at the University of Bristol, who has put forward a theory that electric charges from power lines cause deadly particles to adhere more readily to the lungs. 

Another old friend Professor Richard Lacey, Scaremonger Emeritus at the University of Leeds, also had a resurgence on the announcement that a mother with CJD is believed to have passed it on to her child. He is the famous vegetarian who wrote the history of mad cow disease. He also drew attention to the "essentially unlimited health risks" of genetically modified food and the possibility that E Coli poison might pass to other bacteria. He is a prolific producer of hypothetical body counts, but not in the Carol Browner league.

Disastrous outbreak of reality over Global Warming

The European Space Agency has put its foot in to it by allowing real science to intrude upon the debate about Global Warming. With junk science freak Al Gore facing a presidential election and New Labour in Britain threatening to go into meltdown after its victims made clear what they thought of its grotesque fuel taxes, their timing could not be worse. A multi-billion dollar industry depends on the Global Warming scam for its very existence.

In short ESA has come up with some actual numbers as a result of measurements made by its sun-watching SOHO satellite <material removed>. They ascribe the warming that has taken place over the last half millennium to changes in the solar magnetic field and increased UV radiation. Real scientists have been saying something of the sort for years. If you do not believe this, check through the archives in the Good Guys section of the links.

In a cynical pre-election move, Gore is now calling for measures to reduce the cost of fuel, having made elimination of the motor car a basic tenet of his bizarre political philosophy. Collectors of U-turns will be watching the battle between the elastic Blair and the stodgy Brown to see whether the same thing will happen before the approaching election in the UK.

A dredge too far?

Europe is on the march yet again. Having beaten The EPA to the discovery of the micro-cluster, it has now beaten the Harvard Medical School (the masters of data dredging) to the development of the mini-dredge. The headline in The Times of September 29th was Change of diet can cut breast cancer risk. One Professor Peter Boyle of the European Institute of Oncology announced that women can cut their risk of  breast cancer by a third by following a simple health plan. The best protection was (surprise, surprise!) by drinking not more than a pint of beer a day of two glasses of wine a day. Naturally, the only numbers given were the Trojan numbers of 2,800 women with breast cancer and 4,000 women without it as controls.

Number Watch decided to perform its own study, but not having generous donors to fund a jaunt to Italy, it has to rely on the random number generator in Mathcad. It was easy enough to use the same Trojan numbers, but necessary to make a guess at the number of lifestyle habits and the proportion of women adopting each one. The numbers chosen were fifty habits and a one in ten adoption of each. A set of 50 binomial random numbers was generated (for the cognoscenti by rbinom(50,2800,0.1)) and another set for the 4000 controls with exactly the same number of habits and probability. The percentage difference was then recorded and ranked, the five at each extreme being used to form the table. The habits were named from the standard SIF hit list. The results were as follows.


% change in risk





Green vegetables




Olive oil




Passive smoking


Saturated fats






Not bad, when you consider that there is no difference in the probabilities in the two populations! Combining the last three observations, we can now announce to the women of the world that by giving up smoking, alcohol and saturated fats they can cut their risk of breast cancer by one third - a similar result to  the good professor's at a tiny fraction of the cost.

U-turn in the barrel

The number of the month just has to be 30 Million, which is the number of barrels of oil released from the strategic reserve by the order of President Clinton on September 23rd - not because it is wrong, but because it represents one of the most remarkable u-turns in the history of junk science. As we have observed above, this move was demanded by the nice Mr. Gore in a complete contradiction of everything he has ever stood for. In his preposterous book Earth in the Balance he called for nothing less than the elimination of the motor car. The road to Damascus has nothing on the road to the White House when it comes to dramatic conversions. Like the nice Mr. Blair, he has suddenly discovered that the ordinary punters might be prepared to be lectured on the prescriptions of  junk science, but they draw the line at paying through the nose for it. It remains to be seen just how many of the electorate will be taken in by such cynical last minute apostasy. There is some honour in being convinced but wrong. There is none in being prepared to ditch one's principles in electoral desperation.







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