Blowing in the wind

Today, The Times claims that “Wind farms paid to close on windy days”. Unfortunately, because of the paywall, I can’t actually see the article to comment on it. Luckily, the Daily Mail has written their own version of the article (direct link), based on The Times‘s investigation. Yay for churnalism!

Wind farms were paid £25million not to produce electricity when it is ‘too windy’ last year, figures revealed today.

There was a staggering 13,733 per cent rise in the payments on the year before.

Turbine operators are ordered by the National Grid to shutdown to avoid too much power being produced during gales.

These payments are based on something called the “transmission constraint agreement“. In a nutshell, transmission constraint agreements are paid to power stations of all types – not just wind turbines – when demand is low. The reason wind farms get the bulk of the payments seems to be because it’s easier to shut them down – you simply apply the brakes. Coal and gas on the other hand can’t be shut down as easily – you need to keep them hot so they can start up again when demand returns, and this wastes fuel.

First of all, the claim that it represents a “staggering 13,733 per cent rise” is rather misleading. According to this article in the Telegraph, an initial trial run took place in May 2010 – involving just two wind farms shutting down for one hour – but it looks like the constraint scheme didn’t start properly until much later – either at the end of the year or at the start of 2011. Comparing full operation with a trial run is ridiculous.

Secondly, The Mail claims that

National Grid, a public company, have never before admitted how much is spent getting wind farms to close.

… except as we’ve just seen, they “admitted” it back in 2010.

There is a good point buried in this – as Ofgem, the office that regulates energy generation points out, the power companies themselves set the constraint payments, and the rates they tender are currently more than they’d be paid, per megawatt, to actually generate power. This is a perfectly reasonable argument, but simply attacking the idea of constraint payments, as The Mail seems to be doing, is ridiculous. The electricity system always needs to be in balance, and as long as the people who transmit the power aren’t the people who generate it, these payments will unfortunately always be necessary in some form.

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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 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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Will driving at 80 mph help the economy? Statistics say… probably not

Last week, the Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond announced plans to raise the speed limits on motorways from 70 mph to 80 mph. This, he claimed, would:

“generate economic benefits of hundreds of millions of pounds through shorter journey times.”

Never mind the debates about safety and the environment, let’s look at this one argument. So, does a shorter journey equal a more economic journey? The problem is that cars need more fuel to travel faster, and so the faster you go, the worse your fuel efficiency is. Statistics that go right up to 80 mph are hard to find for some reason – the big US government study for example only went up to 75 mph – but according to the calculator at MPG for speed (better sources always appreciated), driving at 80 mph uses about 15% more fuel per mile than driving at 70 mph.

So, lets do some maths! For the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume every single journey on the motorways is work-related. The actual figures will be lower, especially on weekends and holidays.

At 70 mph, it takes 51 seconds to drive 1 mile. In this time, a car with a claimed “highway” fuel efficiency of 40 miles per gallon (roughly as efficient as a modern hatchback like a Ford Fiesta) will use about 0.11 litres of petrol. At the current average pump price, that’s 15 pence of petrol.

At 80 mph, you cover that same mile in 45 seconds, saving you 6 seconds. On the other hand, your car is now 15% less efficient. According to the calculator, your 40 MPG car is now doing just 28.8 MPG, using around 0.13 litres of petrol to cover that mile, so the fuel to travel that distance cost you about 18 pence.

Spending 3 pence to save 6 seconds is equivalent to spending £18 to save 1 hour. The average median wage in the UK is far lower than £18 an hour (currently, it’s £12.50 per hour for full-time workers (PDF))* – in other words, if you drove at the speed limit to get to/from work, the money you’d be spending on petrol would mean most people would actually lose out (people who car-share would be in a better position, but few people car-share to work).

All the extra pay taken home by workers would simply end up going straight to the petrol companies – and when the government is trying to increase consumer spending, that’s the last thing the economy needs.

(Oops, forgot to mention that this post bears a debt of inspiration to this xkcd comic.)

* Thanks to Lukeablancas in the comments for pointing out that I’ve gone for the median wage. The median wage is good for working out what this means for the average person, since it’s unaffected by extremes, but if we’re looking at the country as a whole, the mean wage might be better – this will take high-earners like company bosses into account, as well as people who work in short but intense shifts, like some freelancers. In 2010, the mean wage for men was £16.00 per hour and for women it was £12.92 per hour (annoyingly the government hasn’t released the combined figures for men and women, but assuming there are roughly equal numbers of both in work the average wage overall is £14.46 per hour). Either way, on average people will end up losing out.

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Quick note

Just FYI, I’m out of the country for a while, and won’t have a whole lot of internet access for a while. Comments may get stuck in moderation for a while, and obviously there’ll be no new posts. There are plenty of great blogs in the sidebar to the right – go and read them instead!

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The Mail takes “God Particle” too literally

Last month, scientists at the LHC and Tevatron particle accelerators both announced that they’d seen spikes in the data which could be evidence for the long sought Higgs boson. However, these were, they stressed, fairly small spikes – the LHC data was at the “three sigma” level of uncertainty, meaning there was roughly a 1 in 1,000 chance that what appeared to be a spike was actually just random noise in the data that was clustered to look like a spike. 1 in 1,000 sounds like good odds, but the LHC has hundreds or even thousands of different pieces of research going on, each analysing the data in a different way. It’s almost certain that you’ll get a few of these 1 in 1,000 events popping up.

A bit more data’s been presented, and the spikes have got slightly smaller. They’ve not melted away altogether, and the change in their size might not be especially significant, but it’s a bit of a setback for finding the Higgs. What is good however is that we’ve narrowed down the range of possible energies that the Higgs might have (although it’s a bit out of date now, there’s a nice diagram on Wikipedia showing how data from different experiments is combined to do this). In other words, it’s just another step along the road of science.

How does The Mail cover this?

God particle that would explain the creation of the universe 'Might not exist' by Graham Smith

(Although it’s under Graham Smith’s by-line, the article is almost word-for-word identical to a Reuters piece from yesterday, which seems to be where these mistakes came from)

Oh dear. The so-called God particle isn’t that godly; the Higgs boson will not “explain the creation of the universe”. The Higgs boson is related to the Higgs field which, according to the theory, explains where the universe gets some of its mass from. This has nothing to do with the creation of the universe – indeed, the Higgs boson did not exist before the universe began.

It looks like the idea that the Higgs created the universe comes from the faulty idea that the Higgs gave the universe all its mass (and therefore allowed stars and planets to form) – in fact, most of the mass of everyday particles from nuclear forces inside atoms, not the Higgs field. Where the Higgs is important is in explaining where rarer particles – W and Z bosons – get their mass from, and why the force they represent – the weak nuclear force – is not simply the same as the electromagnetic force.

Also, that quote in the headline? They’re not quoting a scientist – it’s taken from the article itself! No scientist would say “The Higgs boson might not exist after all” (and as far as I can tell, no-one has), especially not based on this data. For one thing, there’s always been a chance that the Higgs doesn’t exist – there’s no “after all” about it – and furthermore this data doesn’t prove the Higgs doesn’t exist, it just narrows the range of possible masses that the boson might have.

These results are interesting, but they’re not the death-knell for the Higgs that The Mail and Reuters are making them out to be. For more balanced coverage, there’s good pieces from Pallab Ghosh at the BBC and Ian Sample and the always-excellent Jon Butterworth at The Guardian.

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