Archive for category Churnalism

50 Shades of Babies

Baby boom predicted next year thanks to success of Fifty Shades of Grey books, says theDaily Mail today. It’s such nonsense that I don’t really know where to be being. Let’s have a quick rundown of the problems.

  1. Fifty Shades of Grey did not invent sex, nor did it invent porn. There have been plenty of erotic books written for women before Fifty Shades came along. People like Jilly Cooper were best sellers decades ago, and somehow these authors didn’t inspire baby booms of their own.
  2. The sort of sex Fifty Shades of Grey is credited with inspiring – again, according to the Daily Mail, quoting a poll by a dating website – is going to tend to be controlled and organised. The Twilight fanfic book does after all focus heavily on contracts between sexual partners. It stands to reason that people would be more likely to use contraception if acting out scenes from the book.
  3. There’s no real evidence that Fifty Shades of Grey has led to people having more sex – a few people posting “I had so much sex after reading this!” on Mumsnet isn’t really enough. Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t just magically materialise in people’s houses, they had to go out and buy it. Presumably most of these people would have bought a similar book if Fifty Shades was not available, especially if they were looking to “spice things up in the bedroom”.
  4. The story comes, ultimately, from one Professor Ellis Cashmore (the only professor I know of whose website has an intro video). I’m sure he’s a smart guy, but he’s professor of culture, media and sport, not demography or statistics or anything else that you might expect someone making predictions about the birth rate to be grounded in. He’s in the papers quite a lot too, for sometimes quite disconnected stories. In the past month alone, he’s explained the psychology behind penalty shootouts, the meanings of footballers tattoos, homosexuality in sport, the place of Wimbledon in British culture and the reasons Madame Tussauds is so successful. It’s not proof he’s wrong, of course, just a reason to be a bit wary that he’s suddenly leapt out of his department to give the Daily Mail a juicy story about a particularly popular book.
  5. Come on, seriously, this story is nonsense meant solely to drive traffic to the Daily Mail and boost Professor Cashmore’s profile. In 2010, 723,165 babies were born in England & Wales. To be statistically significant, you’d need the book to lead to tens of thousands of extra births – i.e., ones that were not planned. Even for a book that’s sold a million or so copies, that’s a lot of babies.

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The Kraken, the Yeti and the sceptical Mail journalist – three mythical beasts?

Because one ridiculous article wasn’t enough, today the Mail has two articles about the possible discoveries of cryptozoological beasties:

Is this finally proof the Yeti exists? Abominable Snowman ‘close to being caught’ after coarse hair is found in remote Russian cave

and

Could this be the lair of the Kraken? Scientist claims existence of mythical 100ft sea monster that ate the ocean’s biggest predators for breakfast

Let’s start with the Yeti first. This article is based on the claims of “hominologist”* Igor Burtsev – in fact, it’s the third article about him this year – and even the Daily Mail doesn’t sound that convinced any more, judging by the fourth paragraph:

However, doubt has already been cast on the ‘find’ – as the team has no convincing photographic or DNA evidence. Their claim appears to be based on bent branches, a single unclear footprint and a small sample of grey ‘hair’, found in a cave.

Broken branches, a footprint, some hair and a “bed” (which was mysteriously free of hair) – that’s “finally proof the Yeti exists”? Let’s remember Wiener’s law for science journalism: if your article can be summarized as “no”, don’t write it.

Incidentally, Burtsev is president of an organisation called Cryptosphere, whose website carries a detailed description of one of Burtsev’s previous expeditions to an American ranch that supposedly housed 30 Bigfoots.** The sum total of their discoveries there? Some broken branches, some footprints, some hair and a “shelter”. Sounds familiar.

The second story has already been taken apart handily by PZ Myers, someone who knows a lot more about squids, cephalopods and their ilk than I do.

In short, neither story is “proof” or even “evidence” that the Yeti or the Kraken exist. All they do prove is that someone at the Mail is a little too gullible.

* Hominology is a psuedoscientific version of primatology – basically, it’s the study of mythical apes like Bigfoot, Sasquatch and the Yeti.

** Bigfeet?

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James Delingpole uses quack medicine to prove carbon dioxide is harmless. Er…

(Hat tip to @rbhinkley for pointing out the original article)

Imagine a world where CO2 was not a deadly poison in need of urgent regulation by the European Union and the Environmental Protection Agency but a hugely beneficial trace gas which helped plants to thrive… If you’ve read [Delingpole's tastefully plugged book] Watermelons – or indeed hung around this column for any length of time – you’ll know that that world already exists.

So begins James Delingpole’s latest blog post. Let’s start with the slightly less obvious problem here: governments do not control carbon dioxide because it is a poison, they control it because it has damaging effects on the environment. Whether or not it’s poisonous has no bearing on climate change.

Secondly, carbon dioxide is poisonous. It’s not poisonous at the levels you’ll find in the air around you, assuming you’re reading this from a reasonably well-ventilated room, but at a concentration of around 3% you’ll start to feel drowsy, and as the concentration increases you’ll quickly suffer sensory impairment and eventually black out and can even die. Your body does need a tiny bit of carbon dioxide in the blood, otherwise you suffer what’s known as hypocapnia, but that’s not caused by environmental CO2, that’s caused by hyperventilating (it’s a big problem with divers, which is why you shouldn’t take short, hard breaths before diving).

So why does Delingpole want to claim otherwise? Well, he’s discovered something called the Buteyko Method – supposedly a way of breathing which increases the amount of carbon dioxide in your body, supposedly curing collapsed lungs, ME, MS, depression, arthritis, asthma, emphysema and even Crohn’s disease.

The only evidence Delingpole gives that it works? Well, it works for him. Fair enough – controlled breathing techniques are widelyknown to reduce stress, and if that helps him personally then fine. But remember he’s a journalist – surely before he sells it to his readers (and it does read like a sales pitch – he lists the locations of upcoming workshops… £375 workshops) he should find some concrete evidence that it works – and, crucially, that it has anything to do with CO2?

There’s not much research into whether it works, unfortunately, and a lot of it doesn’t seem to be fantastic quality. Still, here’s a quote from a review paper looking into the method (in particular, its effect on asthma):

Buteyko’s theory relating to carbon dioxide levels and airway calibre is an attractive one, and has some basis in evidence from experimental studies. However, it is not known whether altering breathing patterns can raise carbon dioxide levels significantly, and there is currently insufficient evidence to confirm that this is the mechanism behind any effect that [Buteyko Breathing Technique] BBT may exert. Further research is necessary to establish unequivocally whether BBT is effective, and if so, how it may work. (emphasis mine)

Doesn’t sound fantastic. Maybe the paper “Strengths, Weaknesses, and Possibilities of the Buteyko Breathing Method” will be more promising.

Studies with the Buteyko Method have found that resting carbon dioxide levels do not change after Buteyko training despite reported improvement in symptoms

Ouch.

Ok, how about a study from the same author, “Investigating the Claims of Konstantin Buteyko, M.D., Ph.D.

The results revealed a negative correlation between BHT and ETCO2 (r = −0.241, p < 0.05), directly opposite to Buteyko’s claims.

[ETCO2 is end tidal CO2, the amount of CO2 released at the end of a breathing cycle]

Or how about this large, randomised controlled study* – again into its effects on asthma.

This study, which we believe to be the largest randomised controlled trial and the first to use a global assessment of asthma control as a primary outcome in a non-pharmacological intervention in asthma, failed to show a difference between the intervention (Buteyko) and control (physiotherapy) groups.

Oh dear.

Even Wikipedia, refuge of the lazy journalist, points out that there is no evidence that the CO2 theory is correct and there’s little medical support for the technique!

Where does that leave us? There’s not much evidence that it works, no evidence that it increases CO2 levels, and indeed, some evidence that it may have the exact opposite effect. Does it help with asthma? Perhaps, although apparently no better than any other breathing method. Does it prove that CO2 is unequivocally good for you? Of course not.

* Although as the researchers point out, it was not blinded – which makes the fact that it didn’t work even more striking.

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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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The scientist’s not for turning

Scientists! What are these mysterious creatures? Well, The Independent (and, with the help of copy-paste, The Mail) certainly doesn’t know!*

Global warning: Scientists in U-turn as they claim extreme weather and climate change are linked

Experts have reversed their opinion after more than 20 years of reluctance to blame greenhouse gas emissions for extreme weather

Climate change is inextricably linked to the extreme weather that has wreaked destruction all over the world in the last ten years, scientists now claim.

Experts are convinced of a legitimate link between the two after more than 20 years of reluctance to blame greenhouse gas emissions for the heavy storms, floods and droughts which have made global headlines.

The controversial U-turn is a radical departure from the previous standpoint and was made by a new international alliance of climate researchers from around the world.

You hear that? All the scientists! All of them! Every single scientist used to say that extreme weather and climate change weren’t linked, then overnight, they all did a U-turn and now they all believe they are linked!

Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. While most scientists will never say that any given event was definitely caused by global warming (after all, no-one can say for sure whether, say, Katrina would have happened without climate change), plenty of researchers have published papers in reputable, peer-reviewed journals connecting climate change to hurricanes (Emmanuel 2005 (PDF), Webster et al 2005, Mann and Emmanuel 2006 (PDF)), flooding (Schrieder et al 2000, Christensen and Christensen 2003 (PDF)), heatwaves (Stott et all 2004, Diffenbaugh et al 2007 (PDF)), and pretty much every other form of extreme weather you can imagine. The connection between climate change and extreme weather is still debated, but there are certainly plenty of scientists have published research indicating the two are linked.

Secondly, this so-called U-turn isn’t even a U-turn! Instead, what a panel of climatologists called Attribution of Climate-Related Events (ACE) is looking at various extreme weather events over the last century – tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, droughts – and working out whether climate change has made these sorts of weather more likely.** They are not yet saying that climate change has increased the risk of extreme weather, they’re still researching whether it could have! The scientists quoted by The Independent (and subsequently by The Mail) do say that they think climate change is causing severe weather, but as far as I can tell, these scientists have always made this connection. Peter Stott for example connected heatwaves to climate change back in 2004 (see the paper above), and Kevin Trenberth connected drought to global warming in the same year (PDF). Neither of these scientists has, as far as I can tell, U-turned.

Incidentally, the best rated comments on both articles are firmly denialist and, on The Mail‘s site, any comments that are pro-climate science have been downvoted (The Indie only lets you “like” comments, not dislike them). Good to see the astroturfers out in force.

* I’ve picked on The Mail largely because they’ve used words like “U-turn” and “reversal”. The Independent‘s coverage still makes the mistake of talking about scientists like we’re all one big hive mind, but at least they state that the previous opinion connecting climate change to extreme weather was “equivocal”.

** ACE formed in early 2009, so I’m not sure why they’re being reported as if they’re brand new.

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Hard-hitting research from Cravendale

(Hat tip to @TomChivers)

Look at me, boldly breaking press embargoes to bring you the FACTS. What IS the formula for the perfect cup of tea?

You might have thought that George Orwell answered that fairly conclusively years ago, but if you did then you are clearly an idiot. After all, George Orwell was just an author, journalist and political campaigner. What the hell do writers know about tea?! No, to answer this question we need the help of cargo cult science!

Good thing Cravendale’s taken the hit and hired scientists from Northumbria University to tell us the secret of good tea. Spoiler warning: the answer’s “Cravendale”.

Some of the more sceptical among you might be wondering how they tested this, and how awfully convenient it was that this research, which appears to have been funded by Cravendale, just happened to prove that Cravendale made the best cup of tea. Well, how can you argue with this experimental methodology:

Following the brewing process, teabags were removed and varied amounts of semi-skimmed Cravendale milk [0ml, 5ml, 10ml] were added to samples for our sensory advisory panel.

The panel’s results reveal that the ideal amount of milk to be added is 10ml.

Yep! They compared Cravendale milk to no milk at all, and shockingly found that Cravendale tastes better than nothing. This must prove Cravendale is the best milk ever, QED.

Incidentally, 10ml isn’t much milk at all, really – it’s less than half a single measure of spirits, after all. You’d think that if you were trying to test the ideal amount of milk to put in tea, you’d try everything from “no milk at all” to “nothing but milk”, but to be fair I guess the scientists involved had more important things to do than indulge the bizarre PR-driven whims of a milk filtration company.

There’s no mention of sugar in the paper, and certainly no mention of anything more exotic – a spoonful of honey, a dollop of cream, or a splash of lemon, for instance. I assume Cravendale hasn’t figured out how to filter sugar or lemon juice yet. They have however found time to make some truly groundbreaking progress in the field of thermodynamics, however:

The optimum temperature to drink tea at is 60°C. With the addition of Cravendale milk, our brews were able to reach the optimum temperature after just six minutes, two minutes faster than regular black tea.

Yes, adding a cold liquid to a hot liquid will in fact cool the hot liquid down! Of course, this only works with Cravendale milk – as everyone knows, if you add regular supermarket own-brand milk to tea, the tea just keeps getting hotter and hotter!

Still, all this stuff about “things cooling down over time” is pretty state of the art – I mean, Isaac Newton only figured out his law of cooling 300 years ago. Thank goodness Cravendale is on the cutting edge.

Anyway, based on all this research, the scientists at Northumbria have come up with a formula for the perfect cup of tea. Are you ready for this piece of extremely rigorous mathematics? Here goes:

TB + (H2O @ 100°c) 2minsBT + C(10ml) 6minsBT = PC (@ OT60°c)

where TB = teabag, BT = brewing time, C = Cravendale milk, OT = optimum temperature and PC = perfect cuppa.

Look how science-y that is! There are letters and numbers and plus signs all over the place! And they say “H2O” instead of “water” – only a true scientist would do that! Also according to that formula you should keep your tea brewing for 6 more minutes after you add the milk which sounds like a one-way trip to astringency-town to me, but then I’ve never written my tea making instructions down in the form of algebra, so what do I know?

This “research” has been embargoed until tomorrow morning – let’s see if any of the papers are stupid enough to run with it.

Anyway, this was quite a long post, so you should probably treat yourself to a nice cup of tea now. Just remember to use own-brand milk.

Edit: So far, the Mail, Telegraph, Express and Metro have all swallowed Cravendale’s PR rubbish. Sigh.

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Littlejohn and renewable energy – both fueled by wind

I don’t normally blog about stupid Littlejohn columns – it’s a bit “dog bites man” – but today he’s written a piece about wind farms, and he’s really outdone himself on this one.

Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights.

At midday yesterday, wind power was contributing just 2.2 per cent of all the electricity in the National Grid. You might think that’s a pretty poor return on the billions of pounds spent already on Britain’s standing army of windmills.

In fact, for the amount of energy produced, onshore wind power is only slightly more expensive than coal, and less expensive than nuclear. Offshore wind is quite a bit more expensive, but hopefully this will come down as production gets more organised.

Read the rest of this entry »

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