Archive for category Total Perspective Vortex

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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Climate denial and another stupid anti-BBC story

UPROAR AS BBC MUZZLES CLIMATE CHANGE SCEPTICS, screams The Daily Express:

THE BBC was criticised by climate change sceptics yesterday after it emerged that their views will get less coverage because they differ from mainline scientific opinion. [...] It said coverage should not be tailored to represent a “false balance” of opinion if one side came from a minority group.

So this isn’t about the BBC muzzling anyone, it’s about making sure that the BBC isn’t giving fringe ideas disproportionate amounts of time. It doesn’t just refer to climate change, either: the BBC Trust report (PDF) also refers to the BBC’s coverage of MMR, where giving undue weight to the idea that MMR caused autism even after science had conclusively proved otherwise on caused a public health disaster, and of the safety of GM food. Climate change is just another example of an area of science where a few loud voices have drowned out the actual science.

So, who’s in uproar?

Lord Lawson, chairman of the sceptical Global Warming Policy Foundation, said the fact that carbon dioxide levels were rising leading to global warming was not under dispute. However, he added, its extent and effect could not be explained by majority scientific opinion alone. [...]

The foundation’s director, Dr Benny Peiser, said the report would lead to biased coverage of climate change and stifle any real debate. [...]

Dr David Whitehouse, the foundation’s editor and a former BBC science correspondent, said the corporation had “lost the plot” when it came to science journalism.*

Yes, every single “sceptic” The Express quotes is actually a member of the GWPF thinktank. The Express does not quote any independent sceptics, any actual climate scientists, any sci-comms experts – in fact, it doesn’t quote anyone else except for an anonymous BBC spokesman.

So there are two possibilities here. Either The Express has been spectacularly lazy in putting this story together, or they’ve just been fed this story by the GWPF and have published it unthinkingly.

Well, funnily enough this press release went up on the GWPF website just yesterday.** What good timing.

* Dr Whitehouse’s full comment bears quoting here:

He said the corporation was “grouping sceptics with deniers” which would result in a lack of valid scientific input to its reports.

He said: “A sceptic is not a denier, all good scientists should be sceptics. The BBC has got itself into a complete muddle.

“In seeking to get the science right it has missed the journalism which is about asking awkward questions and shaking the tree.”

I think the BBC needs to investigate whether the royal family are all shapeshifting lizard aliens from Alpha Draconis. Sure, there’s no evidence for it, and the people who believe it are an extremely fringe group, but journalism is about ASKING AWKWARD QUESTIONS and SHAKING THE TREE.

** The GWPF claim that the independent report was a “damning indictment” of the BBC. Indeed, it was so damning that the author made these caustic remarks:

One thing should be made clear: BBC science broadcasting is seen as of high quality and is much praised for its accurate and impartial approach, its breadth, and its professionalism. Comments from the submissions made to this Review show how widespread is this opinion.

and

The BBC is to be commended for the breadth, depth and professionalism of its science coverage. I was impressed by its treatment, which has shown real progress over the past decade or so.

Ouch for the BBC!

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Clearest blurry speck footage ever

I get the feeling the Daily Mail thought it was going to be a slow news day when they got Daily Mail Reporter to churn out this and put it at the top of its science page.

It seems to be world centre for UFO videos, but this the image is extraordinarily clear.

UFO enthusiast Michael Lee Hill, of Eastlake, has recorded many images of something mysterious over Lake Erie, Ohio.

Ooh, an “extraordinarily clear” picture of UFO? Let’s see it!

You're not missing out on much, it's a blurry white pixelated speck.

Oh come on.

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Radiation scaremongering in the Daily Express

On March 30, The Daily Express ran with this front page this front page article:

TSUNAMI NUCLEAR FALLOUT HITS UK

The headline’s technically true, but the scale of the radioactive fallout compared to the media fallout is a bit out of sync. Slightly elevated levels of the radioactive isotope iodine-131 (I-131) have been seen in Glasgow and Oxfordshire, but the key word here is slightly.

The levels of I-131 detected in Oxfordshire rose by 0.0003 becquerel per cubic metre (Bq/m3), while in Glasgow it rose by just 0.00001 Bq/m3. A becquerel (Bq) is the unit of radioactivity; 1 Bq means you have one radioactive atom decaying and releasing radiation per second. These decays are what produce the distinctive clicks of a Geiger counter; each “click” represents a flash of radiation from the decay of one atom. As you may have seen in school, even when held away from radioactive sources a Geiger counter will probably give you a click or two per second – we’re surrounded natural radiation from the air, the ground, space and even from our own bodies. Around you right now, radon gas is releasing, on average, 20 Bq/m3 of radiation while inside your body, radioactive potassium-40 is decaying at over 4,000 Bq, and carbon-14 is producing radiation at a similar rate. Compared this background radiation, the change due to fallout is minimal: 0.0003 Bq is equivalent to one atom of radioactive iodine decaying per hour, and 0.00001 Bq is one extra decay per day. (For some perspective, after Chernobyl I-131 levels in the air at Harwell reached a maximum of 4 Bq/m3, ten thousand times the levels seen in Oxfordshire.)

Working out how much harm radiation causes isn’t always easy – a few bequerels from radon gas are more harmful than the thousands of bequerels released by potassium in your body, since radon releases harmful alpha radiation instead of the comparatively safe gamma radiation, and radon spends most of its time lurking in your delicate lungs – so to work out the risk you need to work out the equivalent dose, a measure of how much damage the radiation does to the body usually measured in sieverts. Being exposed to 0.0003 Bq/m3 extra I-131 is equivalent to an increased dose of 0.01 microsieverts (μSv) per year. You would absorb almost as much radiation just by sleeping next to someone for one night. For comparison, the smallest dose that we know to be harmful is around 100,000 microsieverts per year; millions of times more than anyone in the UK could receive from the fallout.

The Express quotes John Large, one of the critics of the nuclear industry, as saying:

The International Commission on Radiological Protection – which is made up of government agencies – is quite clear. It says any increase in accumulated radiation dose exposure is accompanied by a proportionate increase in risk. That is the natural law.

For Sepa [Scottish Environmental Protection Agency] to make profound statements about it is ‘not of concern’ to the public is not right. Of course the risk’s tiny but it’s up to the public to decide.

If you want the public to make an informed decision about nuclear power, it has to actually be informed. Screaming about “TSUNAMI NUCLEAR FALLOUT” without providing any context is not helpful, it’s just scaremongering, plain and simple.

Since the harmful dose for radiation is 5 million times higher than the levels found in Oxfordshire, I wonder what John Large would like Sepa to have said. Saying that these radiation levels are not of concern is not leading the public on, it’s simply a cold, hard medical fact. If Large does think these radiation levels are of concern, then may I suggest that his next statement focuses on the extreme dangers of radioactive bedmates.

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A balanced and measured reponse to James Delingpole

Have you been enjoying the saga about the wind farms that might or might not kill whales? I do hope so. The aspect of it which I have particularly enjoyed is the sanctimonious and hypocritical rage of a vociferous lobby group of self-styled “skeptics.” (See here, here and here.) Though mostly based in Britain, they spell themselves in the American style to distinguish themselves from “sceptics” like me. That’s because, unlike proper sceptics* they – get this! – are card-carrying members of the Church of Climate Change.

I have been insulted by James Delingpole. I have officially made it!

Anyway, the reason James Delingpole claims “we” (I’m not sure why I’ve been lumped in with Ben Goldacre, but I’m honoured) are hypocritical is that we attacked him for using dodgy and distorted facts in this case, and didn’t attack all his other dodgy and distorted facts:

After all, whether or not wind farms harm cetaceans, we do know beyond all reasonable doubt that wind farms:

Despoil countryside, frighten horses, chop up birds, spontaneously combust, drive down property prices, madden those who live nearby with their subsonic humming, drive up electricity prices, promote rentseeking, make rich landowners richer (and everyone else poorer), ruin views, buy more electric sports cars for that dreadful Dale Vince character, require rare earth minerals which cause enormous environmental damage, destroy 3.7 real jobs for every fake “green” job they “create”, blight neighbourhoods, kill off tourism and ruin lives.

So isn’t it, you might argue, ever so slightly odd to get so het up over the issue as to whether or not they harm whales too?

So fair enough, let’s get het up over all of these:

    • Despoil countryside“. That’s kind of subjective, surely. If you think wind turbines look ugly, then yes, they despoil the countryside. But then, so does this. And this. And this. And this.
    • Frighten horses“. True to an extent; horses startle easily after all. However, there are plenty of places where wind farms and stables coexist, and careful design can eliminate the problems caused by flickering shadows worrying the animals.
    • Chop up birds“. Actually, the number of bird deaths associated with wind turbines is much smaller than the number of deaths caused birds flying into other buildings and stationary structures.
    • Spontaneously combust“. As far as I can tell from the limited stats available, wind turbine fires don’t appear to be any more common than any other type of fire. And at least wind turbines only produce smoke and pollution when they are in fact on fire; to paraphrase George Monbiot, wind power causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right.
    • Drive down property prices“. Yet again, so does coal and nuclear.
    • Madden those who live nearby with subsonic humming“. This is fair enough. That’s one point to Delingpole.
    • Drive up energy prices“. Actually, onshore wind costs as much per MW as coal power, and quite a bit less than nuclear power. Offshore wind is more expensive, but it also solves most of the above problems. Whoops, there goes that point.
    • Promote rentseeking, make rich landowners richer (and everyone else poorer), [...] buy more electric sports cars for that dreadful Dale Vince character.” Basically, this comes down to whether you’d rather it was coal power companies or wind power companies who were rich.
    • Ruin views“. No, James, you already did this one with “despoil countryside”. -1 point.
    • Require rare earth minerals which cause enormous environmental damage“. Now, this is a good point. Most of our rare earths at the moment come from China, which until very recently had very lax environmental controls, so the byproducts from mining them is causing environmental damage, and ideally I would rather our rare earths came from more eco-friendly sources. This isn’t just a problem with wind turbines though, it’s a problem with practically every piece of electronics in use today. Rare earth elements are used in making hard-drives, lasers, computer chips, medical images, headphones, guitar pickups and dynamos, not just wind turbines. Besides, once again, oil drilling, coal mining, uranium mining, peat cutting, even making the concrete for dams – all of these have environmental downsides as well. For this to be an argument against wind, you need to show that the damage caused by rare earths is worse than the damage caused by the above.
    • Destroy 3.7 real jobs for every green job they create“. Here’s what Full Fact had to say about that:

However the Verso Economics report was not actually seeking to address indirect benefits or jobs gained through investment in this sector. Further, the BBC reports a spokesman for the Scottish government arguing the report is “misleading”, saying it vastly underestimates the jobs created in the renewables sector and does not consider the impact of private investment. They argue that there is no negative impact on public services or public sector budgets from government support of renewables.
Whether or not these criticisms of the report ring true, there is another potential problem in using its findings to show a net loss of jobs across the UK. The original report does not address the entire UK ‘green’ jobs sector, but is focused on jobs created in the renewables sector in Scotland. Therefore, it is something of an extrapolation, and one in which it is difficult to have full confidence.

  • Blight neighbourhoods“. Pretty sure you’ve already done that one too.
  • Kill off tourism“. In fact, wind turbines have negligible effect on tourism.
  • Ruin lives“. Quite unlike climate change and global warming, which I’m sure has never ruined lives. OH WAIT.

* So let me get this straight. Fake sceptics are sceptical about the things they read, “proper sceptics” blindly regurgitate whatever they read in blogs or press releases into national newspapers without doing even the briefest of fact checks. Good to know.

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8 Comments

Supermoon!

The moon from Majora's Mask

You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?

The question: Could ‘supermoon’ next week disrupt Earth’s weather?

The web was yesterday awash with apocalyptic warnings that the movement of the moon will trigger tidal waves, volcanic eruptions and even earthquakes next week.

The conspiracy theorists claim that on March 19, the moon will be closer to Earth than at any time since 1992 – just 221,567 miles away – and that its gravitational pull will bring chaos to Earth.

The answer:

But astronomers have dismissed the claims as pure nonsense.

Take us away, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Edit:

The Sun and Metro have both managed to be much worse than the Mail. The Sun has the headline “‘Disaster’ as Moon closes in” while Metro has “‘Supermoon’ may cause weather chaos for coastal Britain“. Bear in mind that the Moon comes almost this close twice a month – the only thing that makes this time “super” is that it happens to coincide with a full moon, and even then, that happens every 2 or 3 years. This will cause slightly higher tides, yes, but according to the NOAA, these happen 3 or 4 times per year (since they can be triggered by new moons and nearly-full moons too) and the change in the tide is only around 2%.

The Telegraph‘s coverage is better – there’s far less doom – though as much as I hate to be a party pooper, it’s going to be less dramatic than they make out. On average. the moon’s “angular diameter” – the amount of the sky it fills up – is 0.259 degrees. In other words, the moon would appear the same size as a five pence coin held 1.99 metres (6 feet 6 inches) away from your face. During the supermoon, its angular diameter is 0.274 degrees- the same as a five pence coin held 1.88 metres (6 feet 2 inches) away. That’s roughly a 6% increase in size – and this increase happens twice every month.

If you could compare the two side by side, you would see the difference – if you’ve got a small telescope or a decent pair of binoculars, then a supermoon should be a great opportunity to have a look up there – but otherwise, you probably couldn’t tell (the moon illusion causes the size of the moon to appear to vary by way more than 6% anyway). At any rate, the Telegraph‘s illustration is… a little exaggerated.

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Asteroid, doom, whatever, yawn

Devastating asteroid impacts are thankfully incredibly rare, with millions of years between impacts. One thing that’s not rare is the killer asteroid scare story.

Today’s Mail claims ‘Doomsday’ asteroid could slam into the Earth on April 13, 2036… but don’t worry, we’ll have seven years’ warning, ominously following that with “Warning comes days after another asteroid shot over the Pacific just 3,400 miles above the Earth’s surface

First of all, the asteroid that shot “just” 3,400 miles over the Pacific? That was Asteroid 2011 CQ1, and it was about the size of a washing machine. That’s not dangerous. At all. According to NASA, “there is likely to be nearly a billion objects of this size and larger in near-Earth space and one would expect one to strike Earth’s atmosphere every few weeks on average“. Far from being dangerously close, this asteroid was unusual in that it didn’t quite hit us – if it had, it would have burnt up harmlessly in the atmosphere and no-one bar a few astronomers would have noticed.

Anyway, the “”doomsday” asteroid” in question is Apophis, a name you’ll probably recognise from previous media frenzies in 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2005. Nothing has changed since then; in fact, the odds of collision are gradually getting longer (its position on the danger scale has dropped from 4 – a 1% chance of dangerous impact – to zero). We’ve got a fairly good idea of what the asteroid’s path looks like, but there’s a tiny bit of uncertainty we’ve still not cleared up and it’s possible that it might be on a path that will eventually hit Earth. Luckily for us, the odds that it’s on that path are just 1-in-250,000 (your odds of being killed by Apophis are roughly the same as the odds of being killed by rats or cave-in, apparently). We’re talking lottery odds here.

For a more detailed analysis, there’s a great post at Bad Astronomy – Repeat after me: Apophis is not a danger!

As Nick Ross used to say, don’t have nightmares.

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