Archive for category Health and Correctness gone Politically Safe

The Sun, 20 mph speed limits, and a lot of nonsense

CONTROVERSIAL 20mph speed limits designed to cut road casualties are not working, official figures show.

So says The Sun anyway*. So, what’s the problem?

A report from the Department for Transport shows there were 2,262 fatalities and injuries in 2011 on 20mph roads in built-up areas — 24 per cent more than in 2010 when 1,827 were recorded.

That compares to a one per cent reduction in casualties on 30mph roads in built-up areas.

How many people died or were injured on roads with a 30 mph speed limit then? The Sun doesn’t say, but the official data is easy enough to find. In 2010, 127,377 people were killed or injured on a road with a 30 mph speed limit. In 2011, it was 125,494.

In other words, that “1% drop” corresponds to almost 2000 fewer people were injured on 30 mph roads, while 400 more people were injured on 20 mph roads. That is a net decrease of 1448 injuries/deaths.

Just looking at the number of injuries on 20 mph roads is not going to tell you about how effective 20 mph speed limits are. You have to compare them with other speed limits. Data about how many 20 mph zones there are is hard to find, which makes making sense of the Sun‘s data difficult, but it certainly looks like a lot of them have been springing up lately, so an increase in injuries is to be expected – if there are more roads, there will always be more accidents!

Studies of 20 mph zones consistently find that the same stretch of road will see fewer accidents and fewer injuries if the speed limit decreases from 30 mph to 20 mph, especially if this decrease is enforced by speed bumps and other traffic calming measures.

* Incidentally, far from being “controversial”, surveys consistently find around 74% in favour of 20 mph speed limits and just 12% against them.

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The EU, prunes, and the problem with “patent truth”

Hey! I know it’s been a while since I blogged. Hopefully you haven’t missed me too much. Anyway.

Prunes are not a laxative, EU rules, says today’s Telegraph, endowing the EU with frankly godlike powers. Did someone in Brussels snap their fingers and magically prunes suddenly ceased to be laxatives?

Let’s help the Telegraph and suggest a more accurate headline. Perhaps…

Prunes are not a laxative, science suggested two years ago

The laxative effect of prunes is one of those things that “everyone knows”.  Certainly MEP and frequent talking head Roger Helmer agrees, claiming:

“The euro is burning, the EU is falling apart and yet here they are: highly-paid, highly-pensioned officials worrying about the obvious qualities of water and trying to deny us the right to say what is patently true.”

Ignoring the fact that this study was carried out in mid-2009, before the Euro crisis kicked off, Roger Helmer has an interesting definition of “patently true”.

The study looked at the scientific evidence for the effectiveness specifically of dried prunes. There were two studies of the effectiveness of dried prunes in humans at the time:

Daily Consumption of Dried Plum by Postmenopausal Women Does Not Cause Undesirable Changes in Bowel Function” by Edmund Lucas et al and “Consumption of prunes as a source of dietary fiber in men with mild hypercholesterolemia” by Lesley Tinker et al. Lucas found that there was no significant difference between apples and prunes in stool bulk, consistency, frequency or pain, and Tinker found a difference in stool weight between prunes and grape juice, but no effect on consistency or frequency.

A third study they looked at, “Prune juice has a mild laxative effect in adults with certain gastrointestinal symptoms” showed that as you can probably guess from the title, prune juice did appear to have laxative effects – hence why they only talk about dried plums in the report.

Now, it’s possible that dried prunes are laxative – a much more recent study (albeit one funded by the “California Dried Plum Board”) from 2011 found that prunes appear to work better than the laxative psyllium at relieving constipation – but at the time this report was written, it simply would not have been accurate to say that, based on the body of available evidence, prunes were any better at keeping you “regular” than any other sort of fruit.

(The Telegraph also claims that the EU banned claiming that drinking water could prevent dehydration. Read the actual article, and the very last paragraph reveals that they’re talking about clincal dehydration, which is normally caused by disease rather than by not drinking enough fluids and that “This claim is trying to imply that there is something special about bottled water which is not a reasonable claim”)

Edit: Just found this excellent post by Martin Robbins about the dehydration claim.

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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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Human-animal hybrids grown in secret? Well, no…

(HT @ukenagashi)

Fresh from their sister paper’s hard-hitting report into scientific ethics (which then ignored scientific ethics completely in favour of plugging The Planet of Apes prequel (direct link)), the Mail on Sunday today claims “150 human animal hybrids grown in UK labs: Embryos have been produced secretively for the past three years“.

Indeed, admixed embryo research was so secretive that it only got a few thousand column inches from tiny obscure outlets like The Times, the BBC and, err, The Mail.

That said, the stupidest thing in the article is not The Mail‘s coverage, which overall isn’t as terrible as I thought it would be*, though there’s no attempt at explaining the issues beyond just quoting a spokesperson from each side, and it doesn’t make clear that a lot of the experiments in question – implanting a human nucleus into an empty animal cell – don’t make “hybrids” (more strictly, chimeras or admixed embryos) at all; they just make what is for all intents and purposes a human egg cell (taking eggs out of humans naturally is slightly dangerous, so it’s hard to justify putting women at risk for a science experiment when you can just make egg substitutes in the lab).

No, that prize goes to Lord Alton, who first showed the figures to The Mail. He says:

‘Ethically it can never be justifiable – it discredits us as a country. It is dabbling in the grotesque.

‘At every stage the justification from scientists has been: if only you allow us to do this, we will find cures for every illness known to mankind. This is emotional blackmail.

And those cancer scientists asking for money to invent drugs that cure cancer! Pah! Terrible! It’s emotional blackmail, that’s what it is.

Still, if you’re going to ban scientists from using “curing disease” as a justification then I guess it is pretty hard to justify.

‘Of the 80 treatments and cures which have come about from stem cells, all have come from adult stem cells – not embryonic ones.

‘On moral and ethical grounds this fails; and on scientific and medical ones too.’

I’m not sure where he got that awfully precise figure of 80 from. But yes, all currently approved stem cell treatments have from adult stem cells… because adult stem research has been going strong for over 30 years while embryonic stem cell research is far more recent and has had a troubled history (especially in America); the first embryonic stem cell treatments are just starting to be tested. If in 5 or 10 years there are still no working embryonic stem cell treatments, then it will be time to look at whether embryo research is the best route to take. Right now, though, it’s much too early to say whether this fails scientifically.

* I have very low standards of “terrible” these days, it seems.

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The Sun lies about disability benefits, what a shock

GOT hay fever? Why not throw a sickie?

Even better, take the rest of your working life off.

Well, this is going to go well.

New figures show that under Labour the state was happy to pay your way, no questions asked.

Those claiming Disability Living Allowance soared from 2.1million in 2000 to 3.1million last year. The annual cost is now £12billion.

So, 3.1 million have “taken the rest of their working lives off” on Disability Living Allowance, and the state is “paying their way”? Well, no.

Disability Living Allowance is a supplementary payment, given to people with disabilities, which helps cover their care and mobility costs – in The Sun‘s case, they seem to be talking solely about the part of the DLA that covers care, since that’s where the 3.1 million figure comes from. There are different levels of DLA, depending on how severe the disability is, but even in the most severe case – someone who requires 24 hour care – the recipient would only get £73.60 a week, or about £3,800 a year, and on average, people only receive about £46.30 a week, or £2,400 a year (and 500,000 of that 3.1 million get nothing at all). No-one has “taken the rest of their working lives off” to live on £2,400 a year.

Incidentally, that part about the annual cost being £12 billion does seem to be including the cost of mobility allowance as well – the cost of the care part of the DLA is only £6.4 billion a year. It sounds like a lot, but like I say, it only actually works out at about £46 per person per week – not very much at all when you think about the cost of a private carer, or the earnings lost by a friend or family member who takes time off work to provide care.

Clearly The Sun must realise this – they complain that “Many of those handed up to £73.60 a week are laid low with ailments such as “alcohol abuse” or allergies“, clearly hoping that we won’t realise that £73.60 is not all that much money. There maybe people on DLA because of alcohol abuse or allergies, but in that case, it will be because their condition is so serious that they need part-or-full-time care. To qualify for even the lowest rate, you need to be either physically unable to cook for yourself or require care for part of the day. That’s more than just “someone who cannot get out of bed because their hangover is so bad“.

The Sun also says that “The vast majority of claimants have never been medically assessed“, which also isn’t true. Most people aren’t assessed by the Department of Work and Pensions, true, but in order to qualify for DLA, you need to have been diagnosed by your doctor. Everyone who is on DLA was assessed by their doctor.

Now at last the Government plans to order regular assessments to weed out the workshy.

It should make the economy look healthier by a few billion pounds a year.

That’s something not to be sneezed at.

Unpaid carers are worth about £87 billion to the economy per year, by reducing the strain on the NHS. Making it even harder for them is hardly going to make the economy any healthier.

Edit: The Express’s coverage is more or less the same, but with TPA quotes and the added bonus that they express incredulity that people with back pain might have trouble moving around. WHO’D HAVE THOUGHT?

(The Sun discards its “Sun Says” columns each day. I’ve preserved this one beneath the fold)

Read the rest of this entry »

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Different refugees, same scare story

A few weeks ago, the Daily Star ran a fairly shameful piece which claimed that “Thousands of illegal immigrants will flee riot-torn Egypt and flood to Britain, the leader of Nato has warned” even though the Nato Secretary-General had been talking about what may happen to the whole of the EU (not Britain in particular) if unrest in North Africa damaged the Middle East peace process. Tabloid Watch has a very good takedown of that story.

Anyway, today its stablemate the Daily Express has a very similar piece, this time about the situation in Libya: UN tells Britain to open its doors to refugees.

BRITAIN faces a wave of migrants from Libya after a demand from the UN yesterday that Europe opens its borders to refugees.

The article appears to be based to be based on an interview with Baroness Amos, who leads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, on the Today programme yesterday. As quoted by the Express, she said:

“In asking for the borders of neighbouring countries like Tunisia and Egypt to stay open, it is important that EU borders also stay open.

“I know the EU countries are going through a difficult financial time but they are still much better off than people who are fleeing a violent and difficult situation in Libya.

“We will continue to ask the EU and neighbouring countries to keep their borders open.”

This is a less a “demand” and a more a very politely worded “If you wouldn’t mind…“; the European Union’s borders are already open to refugees fleeing Libya, and have been since the start. More importantly, she doesn’t mention Britain once. Nothing here supports the Express‘s claim that a “wave” of Libyan migrants is heading that way – it would after all be very difficult for anyone displaced by the fighting (almost certainly without access to much money) to, at short notice in a country with virtually no infrastructure, travel all the way from Libya to Britain, when there are other countries much nearer – not just Tunisia and Egypt but Italy and Spain as well.

Indeed, the question she was answering makes it clear that this isn’t about Britain at all, it’s about Mediterranean countries who actually would expect to receive some refugees from the conflict:

What about the role of the European Union, both in the short and in the longer term? If there’s going to be a large number of people who are displaced and who are very close to the European Union’s southern border, it does sort of raise a whole set of new questions, doesn’t it, over the way in which the EU deals with people who are often very desperate and trying to get into the EU?

Unless the UK has suddenly become part of Europe’s southern border, none of this has anything to do with migration to Britain. The Daily Express has co-opted an ongoing human rights crisis and turned it into yet another immigration scare story. Even the Daily Mail, not normally known for its balanced coverage of stories about refugees and asylum, has managed to be reasonable about the situation in Libya.

Sure enough, while the Mail has a mixture of comments both sympathetic and unsympathetic to the refugees, only one comment on the Express‘s article doesn’t demand that we “SEND EM ALL BACK”* – and that comment is just pointing out that the UN asked, it didn’t demand. The other comments look like this:

I’d like to tell the UN where they can stick this proposal – and it wouldn’t be anywhere pleasant. Libya & its people are not our problem; we have a shortage of decent jobs & affordable housing for our own people, so letting in yet more foreigners is preposterous. These people need to stay in Libya & weather the storm.

If this does happen,people we must act not just chat on paper sites.This country is dieing and cameron is no doctor.More mouths more human rights to pander to and more death on our streets.The world can go stuff itself my england has had a running sore since labour got into power,IMMIGRANTS.Increase foreign aid dave,well his big society must refer to the big foreign society that darkens our shores.Their will be blood,I really hope the bnp in power sends them all packing,I’ll be there waving them a good british clear off.Two fingers optional.

NOW IS THE TIME TO TELL THESE MIGRANT WORKERS TO GO BACK TO THEIR OWN COUNTRIES. WE IN THE UK ARE FED UP OF BEING DUMPED ON BY THE REST OF THE WORLD AND ESPECIALLY THE EU.
THE ROMANS HAD A GREAT IDEA A CENSUS MAKING ALL IT’S PEOPLE GO BACK TO THEIR PLACE OF BIRTH SOMETHING THAT LEADING POLITCIANS SHOULD THINK ABOUT FOR TODAYS SOCIETY.

Oh joy. Why is it always us that get told what to do regarding refugees? We already have 1.5 million from labors criminal actions plus a further 1 million illegals. The vast majority of these are Muslim and the chances are that Libyan, Egyptian and Tunisian are Muslim as well. We can no longer support the huge number of migrants that want to come here and seriously put the religious balance at risk. I have a suggestion for the UN. Get Russia to take them. I would think that if the immigrants were not going to Western Europe but to some place out on the Steppes they might prefer to stay where they are and rebuild their country.

I’m sure that has nothing to do with the misleading headline, which seems carefully calculated to rile people up, right?

* There’s one other comment that’s sort of sympathetic, but, err…

However, refugees are refugees – not ‘asylum seekers, potential residents, parasites on society or disruptive elements'; they should be treated as guests and behave as such.

Moreover, while guests in a country they should be looking to return home as soon as possible – and if the international community deems that their home country is run by an ‘oppressive regime’ then these refugees sould be armed, trained and sent back to their home countries as the spearhead of a UN force to liberate their kinsmen.

That would definitely prevent the situation escalating into civil war, right? Right?

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Peter, don’t be a martyr

(H/T @RopesToInfinity)

Shylock didn’t ask for 454g of flesh…and no one wants to drink a litre of wine, says PETER HITCHENS

Because of course the traditional English pint of wine is much more convenient.

Anyway, most of the article is either scaremongering, rubbish, or doesn’t make sense, so here are the highlights.

Would it really be so difficult for those of us who still feel British to say: ‘No, thank you, please measure that in pounds and ounces,’ to the trader who offers us kilos, and to complain when the national broadcaster uses foreign expressions to replace perfectly good English ones.

It already is legal to offer to measure goods in pounds, as long as there as there is a kilogram measurement available too. The “metric martyrs” didn’t get in trouble for selling objects in Imperial, they got in trouble for not offering metric.

In truth, the only properly non-metric nation on the planet is America, the most technologically advanced, economically successful country in human history – and the most free.

Regardless of whether America is the most technologically advanced or the most free – how you’d measure either of these is beyond me – surely it would be difficult to say that metric Japan is not technologically advanced, or that metric Sweden is not free, and the metric EU is a larger economy than America. Whether or not a country is free or wealthy probably has very little to do with what they write on their rulers.

Besides, American scientists? They use metric. Every scientist does – metric forms the basis of the SI system; a rational, universal system of measurements based on the fundamental properties of the universe.*

I cannot imagine a kilogram, let alone a gram, or a metre or a litre or a hectare. I work out what they mean by converting them into the proper measures that have their roots and origins in the land, as I do – an acre is a day’s work at the plough, a fathom the width of a man’s outstretched arms.

For those of us who don’t plough fields with oxen, that might be a little less useful.

Why? Because our customary measures are a sign that we – almost uniquely among the nations – still run our own lives. These measures are rooted in daily life, are human, and honest, because they are polished in use, sound like what they are (can’t you hear a gallon sloshing in its bucket?) and because you can use them in poetry.

There are miles, inches and fathoms in the Bible and Shakespeare, and if you converted them it would sound ludicrous. Imagine Hamlet jeering as he holds Yorick’s skull: ‘Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint 2.5 centimetres thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.’

Why stop there? Bring back the lovely poetic bushel! The hogshead! The shaftment! The ell!

You see, this is the big problem with Hitchens’s argument. For all that he complains about “totalitarianism”, and measures “made up in an office”, the modern Imperial system is every bit as artificial as the metric system. Once upon a time, there were hundreds of different units, all created by people in different trades, in different parts of the country, and each one was pretty convenient for them.

Of course, that system was such a mess. Over the years – starting with the Magna Carta – the number of units was slowly whittled down (bye bye Scots measures) and the ones that were left were standardised (no longer was the Cheshire acre twice the size of the standard acre), culminating in the Weights and Measurements Act 1824. Measurements across the whole country were unified, and it became illegal to sell goods using the older units – more or less exactly what happened when metric was introduced.

Outside the oompah-band and leather-shorts regions of Germany, you will not see anyone drinking beer in litres either. This is because a litre is a measure made up in an office, whereas the old-English ‘bottle’ (equivalent to about 72 centilitres) and the old-French ’bouteille’ (the same) were enough for two people to share over a meal.

It has now been rationalised into 75 centilitres, three-quarters of a litre, but no further. And that is itself a significant departure from the metric system, which is based on counting our toes and doesn’t like quarters because ten can’t be divided by four (or three, for that matter).

Of course not, a litre of beer is rather massive. Anyway, metric doesn’t care what you divide things into. The whole point of metric is that it’s based on the decimal number system, so you can divide it however you like. If you want to split it into fours, that’s easy. If you want to split it in thirds, or fifths, or even sevenths, that’s no problem. On the other hand, if you want to split a mile into 7 pieces, how do you do that? It’s 0.143 miles, but how many feet is that? The answer is a bit more than 754 feet and 3 inches, but that’s an absolute bastard to work out in your head, unless you know your 5280-times tables off by heart.

The metric system officially doesn’t have such a thing as a foot. It scorns this useful measure, going straight from the metre down to the centimetre. But here’s a funny thing. School rulers in metric countries are not one metre long, but 30 centimetres, which is almost exactly a foot. Timber and building materials are often sold, in metric countries, in 30cm units. Just don’t call them feet.

So, err, why is measuring things in 30 cm units a defeat? Again, the metric system doesn’t care how you divide your measurements, so 30 cm is a perfectly valid length for a ruler… so is 50 cm, or 10 cm, or 87 cm, or any other length that takes your fancy.

It is almost invariably forced on people and nations by dictators, revolutions or invasion. It may have its uses in international commerce and science, though Man went to the Moon in feet and inches. But nobody ever wanted it in private dealings.

And NASA’s decision that it, and it alone, would continue to use U.S. customary units instead of metric resulted in the crash of the Mars Climate Orbiter. At any rate, every measurement system has been imposed by force by some people – why do you think India used Imperial until after it declared independence?**

Long story short, we use metric because it is more convenient than Imperial, not less – though, as Hitchens’s past record shows, given a choice between foreignness and inconvenience, he’ll take inconvenience every time.

* Except for the kilogram, which is admittedly still based on a chunk of platinum in a bank vault in Paris. Hopefully not for much longer though…

** Wikipedia also mentions occupied Japan using American units, but I can’t find an independent source for that so I’ll leave it in this footnote.

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