Archive for category Politicians say the darndest things

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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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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Evidence? Where Cameron’s going, he doesn’t need evidence!

David Cameron is going to give a speech today with Lord Reid today about the AV referendum. In it, he will say:

“Too often debates about AV are less like political arguments, and more like scientific discussions, where people get lost in a language of proportionality and preferences, probabilities and possibilities.

“Of course, some of these things are important. But for me, politics shouldn’t be some mind-bending exercise. It’s about what you feel in your gut – about the values you hold dear and the beliefs you instinctively have. And I just feel it, in my gut, that AV is wrong.”

Just a reminder, this came from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, not a Richard Littlejohn column or some particularly stupid Comment is Free post. The man who directs a nation of 62 million people and controls the sixth largest economy in the world doesn’t think politics should be about thinking and weighing up different options. Oh no, that’s just “some mind-bending exercise”! No, politics is about what you feel in your gut* and your blind instincts.

Voting systems are, at heart, all about mathematics – each voting system is just a different way of counting people’s opinions. You cannot discuss any voting system without taking into account the way it behaves mathematically. The language of “proportionality and preferences, probabilities and possibilities” is not swamping the debate, it is the debate.

Imagine if this was any other debate. Imagine if David Cameron said we should ignore the clinical trials when deciding whether to fund a particular drug, or the climate models when considering pollution controls, on the grounds that all this scientific evidence was “mind-bending” and got in the way of his “instinctive beliefs”. No-one would think that was an appropriate way for an elected official to make decisions.

If you push the evidence out of the debate, all you’re left with is empty sloganising, blatant untruths and tribal party politics. Without a proper debate on the pros and cons of each voting system, the AV referendum just becomes a Cameron/Clegg popularity contest. That’s a terrible way to decide an issue that will shape government in the UK for decades to come.

* Most of what’s in your gut is digested food, so perhaps Cameron is just saying that politics should be full of shit?

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An Express Crusade that’s even more pointless than usual

DAVID Cameron was last night challenged to make May 5 the day that Britain decides whether to quit the European Union.

The Daily Express stepped up its crusade for the UK to cut ties with Brussels by calling for the planned referendum on electoral reform to be turned into a historic vote on EU membership.

Leading MPs and campaigners backed the move. Tory MP Peter Bone, of the Better Off Out group, said: “This is a splendid idea by the Daily Express. It makes absolute sense.”

“A splendid idea that makes absolute sense”, except that it is impossible. The wording of the referendum question is set out in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, which received Royal Assent on the 16th of February. There has to be a minimum of 10 weeks between the bill passing and the day of the referendum, so the Electoral Commission can decide which groups officially represent each side of the debate; if the question was changed or a new question was added, you’d need an amendment or a new bill to change the questions on the paper and that would reset the clock – especially since in this case, the Electoral Commission would suddenly be tasked with not only registering all pro-AV and anti-AV groups, but also pro-EU and anti-EU groups as well.

We’re now way closer to May 5th than 10 weeks; even if Parliament could somehow draft, debate and pass a European Referendum Bill in one night (and it would have to be Parliament – David Cameron doesn’t have any magical amendment powers here), the new question would need another 10 week waiting period. It simply could not be done any sooner.

Conservative MPs Peter Bone and Philip Davies, Labour MP Kate Hoey and UKIP MEP Nigel Farage all put their weight behind this idea even though all of them must know it wouldn’t be possible;* after all, the media made so much of the 10 week deadline that it would be impossible to be oblivious. Still, I’m sure they must have had important reasons to support something that would be illegal (trying to change a referendum question less than 10 weeks beforehand), unconstitutional (David Cameron pushing the amendment without support from either House) and impractical (writing, reading, debating, reporting on and passing a bill on an issue as critically important and controversial as the European Union in a matter of weeks) besides an excuse to get their names in the paper next to a burning European flag…

Right?

* Incidentally, at the time when it was possible – though still massively impractical – to put this question into the bill, none of the MPs proposed putting a question like this into the referendum. Funny, that.

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