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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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Nuclear cover up? Probably not

The Guardian‘s website is at the moment leading with yet another story about leaked emails: Revealed: British government’s plan to play down Fukushima.

What dastardly scheme was the government up to?

British government officials approached nuclear companies to draw up a co-ordinated public relations strategy to play down the Fukushima nuclear accident just two days after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and before the extent of the radiation leak was known.

Internal emails seen by the Guardian show how the business and energy departments worked closely behind the scenes with the multinational companies EDF Energy, Areva and Westinghouse to try to ensure the accident did not derail their plans for a new generation of nuclear stations in the UK.

I’m not sure “play down” is really the right phrase to use here. After all, this appears to be the relevant part of the worst email:

We need to quash any stories trying to compare this to Chernobyl – by using the facts to discredit.

Is that “playing down” Fukushima, or putting it in perspective? This email was sent long before the worst of the damage was known, at which point Chernobyl comparisons would have been gross exaggerations.

Yet over and over again, the Guardian seems to forget that this was written when there was little information available, and the reactors still appeared to be intact:

The business department emailed the nuclear firms and their representative body, the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), on 13 March, two days after the disaster knocked out nuclear plants and their backup safety systems at Fukushima. The department argued it was not as bad as the “dramatic” TV pictures made it look, even though the consequences of the accident were still unfolding and two major explosions at reactors on the site were yet to happen.

Well yes, there were serious explosions that resulted in radiation release, but they hadn’t happened when the email was sent. What was the civil servant* supposed to write?

The nuclear industry, like any industry that tries to balance profit against public good (see: transport, healthcare, media, communications), is often pretty hard to defend, but to be honest, it doesn’t come across too badly in the emails.

Sometimes they seem a bit dickishly entitled – Westinghouse probably didn’t win any points for emailing the government to object to Nick Clegg’s choice of wording in a speech – but most of the time, no matter how The Guardian spins it, it’s hard to see PR collusion in EDF offering to be “sensitive” to events in Japan in decommissioning old plants, the government explaining its new build policy, or Westinghouse discussing changes in reactor design to improve earthquake safety. I certainly can’t see what’s wrong with organising a conference to discuss how to “maintain confidence among the British public on the safety of nuclear power stations” with “factual and scientific evidence”.

In fact, given that nuclear new build is a government policy being carried out by private companies, it’s hard to see how the government could have made any statements about British nuclear power without talking to the nuclear industry.

A few emails discuss the PR response, but apart from the one from the unnamed civil servant, who fair enough does seem a bit too gung-ho about nuclear power, they make it clear that the government’s position is distinct from the industry’s, and refuse to join the industry in making a joint response (for instance, check out the email “Re: Nuclear Lines – Messaging” on page 15, sent March 14, 10:31, and any other email in that converstaion).

If a reservoir had collapsed, and the government emailed water companies for comment and to discuss preventing public panic, would that be news? Probably not.

If a train had crashed, and the government invited representatives of train operators to discuss the impact on the future of the railways, would that be news? Probably not.

So when the government discusses the future of the nuclear industry with the nuclear industry following a nuclear disaster, why is that news?

* Incidentally, the civil servant’s name has been redacted, but according to the BIS, it’s someone pretty minor, not a minister or someone with power over policy. So that’s not really a “government plan” then, is it?

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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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My hovercraft is full of “PC gone mad” scares

Sunday has always been a slow day for newspapers, hence the venerable old tradition of the Sunday document leak. The newspapers find a few fairly uninteresting reports, blow them out of all proportion, and voilà! Instant front page (picture via @JonathanHaynes).

Today’s Mail on Sunday exclusive, which took the joint efforts of both Jonathan Petre and Chris Hastings to write, can be summed up by its over-long headline:

EQUALITY MADNESS: Government spends £30m to discover whether preserving fish stocks harms ethnic Chinese, or hovercraft discriminate against gays

Gays on hovercraft? Chinese fishermen? How mad!

The gist of the article is simple enough: the Mail claims that because of the Equality Act 2010, the government has wasted taxpayers money on “bizarre reports” – supposedly to the tune of £30 million. But how “mad” are these reports, anyway? Let’s go through each of the documents the Mail calls “bizarre” and see.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) paid £100,000 to consultants who produced a report investigating how efforts to boost Britain’s coastal fish stocks would affect minority communities including the Chinese, homosexuals and Welsh speakers.

That refers to this document: Draft UK Marine Policy Statement: Equalities Impact Assessment Screening report. The only time Chinese people, gay people and Welsh speakers are mentioned is once in a piece of boilerplate listing various groups that live in Britain (and yes, that includes white people and men) and asking whether any of them might be affected, with the answer of course being “No”. According to the Mail, “the assessment was a ‘small part’ of the total work by Hyder Consulting, for which it was paid £111,477,” though that doesn’t stop them insinuating that every single penny of that hundred grand was spend ticking one checklist.

Next.

The Department for Transport issued a study this month looking at harassment and discrimination on ships and hovercraft. The report covered a range of groups, including transsexuals.

So it’s ships and hovercraft? Why are you just focusing on hovercraft then, Mail on Sunday? Oh wait, it’s because hovercraft are inherently silly, which means homophobic or transphobic abuse on board them is also silly!

The study itself mostly seems to be dealing with clarifying whether the Equality Act should apply to all British flagged vessels, whether it should apply to all vessels in British waters, that sort of thing. A bit of space is also dedicated to making sure disabled people have access to ships – as you can imagine, ships are often not very wheelchair friendly. Transgender people are only mentioned once, in some standard boilerplate, which, again, is just saying “We foresee no special problems for transgender people using ships, no further action is necessary.

Officials at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport [carried] out a so-called ‘equality impact assessment’ to ensure minority groups are able to take a full part in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations next summer.

This seems to be based on a piece that the Mail got caught plagiarising from a blog last month (the report itself is not out yet). Not sure why that’s meant to be bizarre. After all, The Mail‘s always going on about how immigrants should integrate with British society more. You’d think they’d love the idea!

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Do it yourself controversy

Court battle for right to have DIY abortion at home screams today’s Daily Mail.

Ew! DIY abortion! That must be some weird, sick medical activity, right?

Women could have a ‘DIY abortion’ in their home within months under controversial plans to change the law.

They would be handed drugs to take to terminate their pregnancy in familiar surroundings rather than in a hospital or clinic.

Britain’s largest abortion provider is going to the High Court to try to scrap existing rules which state that abortion pills can be taken only under the supervision of a doctor or nurse.

No, in fact all this means is that women taking abortifacient pills may be allowed to take them at home, rather than the hospital (something that’s rather awkward at the moment, since you need to take two sets of pills a day or apart). Every check currently imposed on abortion would remain in place – women would still need to see two doctors beforehand, the drugs would remain only on prescription, and they would still be provided by trained doctors. The only difference is that women wouldn’t have to take the pills at the hospital, but could take them home. There’s nothing DIY about it, unless having some privacy while you take a pill counts as “doing it yourself”.

Obviously there are still some things they’d have to work out – for instance, how you’d check no-one overdosed or make sure the drugs were being used by the woman they were prescribed to (though this is a problem with all prescription drugs, not just abortion medication). But curiously, this isn’t the angle the Mail takes in its criticism. Instead…

A spokesman for Life, the anti-abortion charity, said: ‘Clearly, BPAS’s intention is to increase access to abortion yet further, by making it little more than a pill-popping exercise.

This is the only criticism in the article of the idea. No comment from anyone who has problems with this particular idea, only from people opposed to all abortion full stop.

(Incidentally, surely early term abortion is a “pill-popping exercise” anyway. I mean, there are pills, they are popped. The only difference to how abortion is carried right now is that one stage will take place somewhere else. That’s it.)

RopesToInfinity (of No Sleep ‘Til Brooklands) complained about Radio 5 Live having the same idea of “balance” – the most extreme views only, please! – on Twitter this morning, incidentally much more succinctly than this rambling post managed to.

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Another anti-contraceptive scare story

Happy new year to everyone!

I don’t normally mention TV news here, but they can slip up too. Channel 4 News yesterday ran a big, scaremongering piece about one simple statistic: 584 people with contraceptive implants became pregnant.

This might be newsworthy, except Channel 4 forgot to mention two rather important things, subsequently picked up on by the BBC.

First of all, the data in question covers 11 years, not just one year.

Secondly, over that time, the implant has been used by around 1.4 million women.

Now fair enough, presumably not everyone who got pregnant after using Implanon reported it, and contraceptive failure is always regrettable. 584 pregnancies among 1.4 million users however means that the implant did not fail in 99.95% of patients. That is very, very reliable in medical terms.

For comparison, vasectomy is 99.9% effective, an IUD is 99.8% effective, the pill is 99.7% effective (when taken properly; people missing doses means that in real life, it’s only 92% effective on average) and condoms are 98% effective (again, when used properly).

It’s always good to make sure people are completely aware of the relative risks of any type of contraceptive (and indeed any medicine), but using these 584 pregnancies as a sign that there’s something wrong with the implant, without any kind of context or an explanation, isn’t going to do this. All it will do is scare people – as Channel 4 have now realised. They’ve since released another article, “Implanon implant: what to do if you’re worried“, which explains:

You do not need to speak to your doctor unless you are very worried and need to have your mind put at rest.

As long as you can feel the implant, there is no cause for concern. The implant is still a very popular, safe and reliable method of contraception.

No method is 100 per cent effective but only a tiny number of women using the implant have got pregnant.

Good advice, but they should have put that in the actual article yesterday.

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Conflicts of interest

The Daily Mail and the Daily Express both have rather similiar articles today, under the headlines “Want the secret to a happy marriage? Don’t have sex before the wedding” and “The secret of a happy marriage? Save the sex for the honeymoon” respectively.

COUPLES who marry the old-fashioned way – shunning sex until after the wedding – enjoy happier marriages, a study has found.

Researchers say delaying the joy of the wedding night not only results in better relationships but also improves sex itself.

Odd, since most other studies either find no connection between sex and later relationship satisfaction or a non-causal connection (i.e. the sort of person who has sex while not married is also the sort of person who would prefer to get a divorce rather than remain in a loveless relationship, but the two are not directly related); it’s interesting that The Express and The Mail never publish articles about these studies.

The paper itself has not yet been published, so I can’t say anything about the quality of the science, apart from that by only asking married people about their sex lives – as opposed to people who cohabit or people who don’t want a long term relationship – it would seem to be impossible to tell whether there is legitimately a cause-and-effect connection between premarital sex and happiness, or whether couples who are happy and unmarried are simply more likely to remain unmarried than couples who are unhappy and looking to recapture their “spark”.*

More interesting though is the background. The research was carried out at Brigham Young University, a Latter Day Saints university with notoriously strict rules regarding the sex lives of its students, and was led by Professor Dean Busby, co-founder of the RELATE Institute specialising in marital advice, and author of a book called “Pathways to Marriage”. There are quite a few conflicts of interest of there.

Busby is, and should be, free to carry out research as he sees fit (within ethical limits, of course), just as any academic can – I certainly wouldn’t want to see anyone banned from performing research because of their religious or personal views – but it would have been nice to see an acknowledgement from either paper that a university which places an absolute ban on extramarital sex and all same-sex relationships is going have a vested interest in proving that marriage is the “best” state for a relationship.

* Presumably the researchers did not ask same-sex couples at all – Brigham Young University is in Utah, where same sex marriage and civil partnerships are not just unrecognised, but specifically banned in their constitution. While this doesn’t disprove their research, it does limit its validity somewhat.

Edit: It turns out that Brigham Young University can prohibit staff from making any statement thatcontradicts or opposes, rather than analyzes or discusses, fundamental Church doctrine or policy” , as well anything deemed “unchaste” – and has used this power to dismiss staff who’ve come out in favour of same sex marriage – which puts validity of this research under more strain.

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