Archive for category Graphs everywhere!

The Daily Mail blames “brain chemicals” for riots… the research they cite doesn’t

Daily Mail headline: Rioters have ‘lower levels’ of brain chemical that keeps impulsive behaviour under control

Do they? Well, some of them might, but the research in question wasn’t about rioters at all.

Researchers from the University of Cardiff uncovered a link between impulsiveness and levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in a key brain region.

… Around 30 male university students had their levels of GABA measured using a specialised type of brain scan.

They were also asked to complete questionnaires that assessed different aspects of impulsiveness, a trait known to influence self-control.

Participants with more GABA in the pre-frontal brain region had lower scores for ‘urgency’ – the tendency to behave rashly in response to distress or strong emotions and urges.

There was no connection to rioting in the study. Any connection made in the article is being made by journalists – this article has no by-line, being published solely under the Daily Mail Reporter name, but I think it came from the Press Association originally – and it’s a tenuous connection. You see, The Mail is working completely backwards here – they’ve decided that since people who have less GABA tend to behave more rashly, people who they think behaved rashly must have less GABA. You might as well assume that since every MP is in London right now, everyone in London is an MP.

Besides, although the paper in question, “Dorso-lateral prefrontal gamma-amino butyric acid in men predicts individual differences in rash impulsivity” (in Biological Psychiatry not Biological Society, despite what The Mail claims) did find a connection between GABA and impulsiveness, it wasn’t as strong as The Mail claims:

Figure 1 from the paper

Figure 1 from the paper (highlights my own)

That’s a graph from the paper, showing the connection between the amount of GABA in one particular part of the brain (along the bottom axis) and how strong the individual’s feeling of urgency was (along the side axis) in two groups (cohorts). There does appear to be a correlation (the R number is a measure of how strong this correlation is; R = -0.7 is a reasonable correlation) but look at the two I’ve highlighted with red dots in cohort 2. These two people have the same amount of GABA in their brains, but one of them was incredibly impulsive while the other was one of the calmest people in the study. Likewise, in cohort 1, while there was a definite tendency for people with more GABA to be less impulsive, just look at that cluster of dots – there are impulsive people with lots of GABA, and cautious people without it.

The best you could possibly say about this article is that maybe on average a rioter* has less GABA than normal, assuming these riots are entirely impulsive and there is nothing at all planned or premeditated about them. But then, why does this study need to be connected to riots at all? The paper came out in July before the riots, it’s not about riots – or any kind of violence at all – and none of the scientists quoted mention them, and to be honest, blaming the riots entirely on brain chemistry leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. As Mindhacks has pointed out, The Daily Mail seems to be going to great lengths to avoid exploring any of the context behind the riots, and this kind of story helps bolster the Mail‘s line that there is no deeper cause of these riots than “criminality pure and simple”.

Wales Online originally ran this story too (here’s the Google cache, and if that stops working, here’s a screenshot), but they’ve since realised there’s nothing in this proving anything about the brains of rioters and have replaced the story with an altogether more reasonable report on the research. Will The Mail follow suit? Let’s see.

* Male rioters at least – the study only looked at men, so there’s no guarantee this correlation is true in women too.

Edit: The researchers behind the study have published a scathing rebuttal in The Guardian, saying “Let us be absolutely clear. Our research has almost nothing to say about rioting, and certainly can’t be used to justify or excuse any type of behaviour.” Despite complaints from the scientists, The Mail‘s article is still online.

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Some statistics on the papers and the Press Complaints Commission

This a post I’ve been thinking about for a little while. Since I’ve got jury service starting soon, which will cut heavily into my free time for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to put it up now.

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is the watchdog in charge of dealing with complaints about the press. Unlike Ofcom, its broadcast equivalent, the PCC is entirely self-regulating – it is, ultimately, run by the press to moderate the press. Plenty of people have questioned this arrangement, and MPs have called the organisation “toothless“. So how effective is it? Well, nothing will tell us like cold, hard stats.

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At least no-one used the word “ethnics”

Another day, another immigration panic. This time, it’s Metro, warning “UK population will be ‘largest in Western Europe by 2050′“,* though the Express mentions it too in less detail.

The population will jump to 77million by the middle of the century with France, which has more than double Britain’s land area, in second place with 70million inhabitants.

Germany, currently the EU’s biggest country with 81.6million people, will see its population slump to 71.5million, owing to low birth rates, fewer immigrants and ageing population.

This is a multipurpose blog post; since an article like like comes out every week (I’d probably have written something like this after the infamous “1-in-5 Britons will be ethnics” article, but there were bigger problems with that than just misleading use of data) I’ll try to be as general as I can.

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England stats part 2

Because there were just too many graphs for one post. This time, World Cups and managers.

Today’s papers are full to the brim with questions. Why didn’t England win the World Cup? Was it psychological? Were there too few youngsters on the team? Are young England players improperly trained? Did England play as a team? Is 4-4-2 dead? Should Fabio go?

Unsurprisingly, Capello is not popular in the papers. The Mirror demands “FabiGO” and The Sun‘s headline is simply “It’s time you went, Capello“. The Daily Mail goes further, and somehow suggests that the wealth of Fabio and the team is precisely why England did badly:*

In contrast to England’s only successful manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, who lived in a modest semi in Ipswich and, at the end of his time in charge, was earning just £7,000 a year, Capello has always enjoyed the trappings of the high life, including a vast art collection said to be worth £17million.

Indeed, his convoluted financial affairs brought him to the attention of the Italian tax authorities, though he was never charged with any offence.**

In case you hadn’t guessed, Alf Ramsey was England manager in 1966. Of course, he was also England manager for the 1970 World Cup (in which we fell in the quarter finals) and 1974 World Cup (which we failed to qualify for entirely). And “only successful manager”? Bobby Robson and Terry Venables both took England to the semifinals of a major tournament (1990 World Cup and Euro 1996) and both could have got to the finals if it hadn’t been for bad luck on penalty shootouts. Because that’s what it is. Luck.

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How bad were England?

The most even-handed headline I could find today on England’s 4-1 loss to Germany is BBC News’s “Germany knock out dismal England“, though I like the alliteration in the The Sun‘s headline “Fabio’s flops“. “Dismal” – that’s a strong word. Was the match really dismal? All the papers agree England’s performance was weak, and certainly you can’t say there was much in the way of decent defending from England but, from a historical perspective, was it all that bad?

The statistics I’m using come from EnglandFC.com for England data, and RSSSF.com for German data (using West German data for pre-1990 results – the data does not include the World Cup, so that’s been taken from the FIFA site). All data runs the range 1950-2010 – both England and Germany appear to have remained roughly constant over the period, so I’m basically using as much of the data as is meaningful (pre-1950, England did not often play internationally, and Germany was an extremely different country).

First of all, how has England done this World Cup?

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