Posts Tagged Daily Mail

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 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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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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How to inflate figures and scandalise people

A number of papers this week (Daily Express*, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph, Wales on Sunday) have all carried the same story, claiming that, in the words of the Daily Mail, “NHS officials pay £32 for gluten-free bread that costs £2.25 in the shops”.

Though it’s not impossible that a big organisation like the NHS has inefficient bread-buying schemes, it seems a bit unlikely that something as widely prescribed as gluten-free bread is being bought for more than 10 times its shelf price. So where did the figures come from?

Well, it looks like the story comes from this Welsh government data about prescriptions. Sure enough, if you look it says that the 27 prescriptions of a particular type of bread, Lifestyle Gluten-Free High-Fibre Brown, cost £32.27 each.** But doctors aren’t prescribing one loaf of bread at a time.

The important column is the one marked “quantity”, which tells you how many grams of bread were prescribed. For Lifestyle Gluten-Free High-Fibre Brown, doctors prescribed a total of 123,600 grams. Divided between the 27 people, that’s 4,577 grams each, or about 11 loaves of bread per person. So that £32.27 figure is the cost of buying 11 loaves of bread, not 1, and as the Welsh government points out, it works out at around £2.82 per loaf.  This is still slightly more than the cheapest online cost of the bread, so I assume there is still room to bring prescription costs down, but NHS Wales is certainly not spending more than £30 on a loaf of bread.

* Turns out James Delingpole writes for The Express too. Huh.

** If you want to check for yourself, it’s in section G-O under the name “Lifestyle_G/f H/fbre Bread Brown”.

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The scientist’s not for turning

Scientists! What are these mysterious creatures? Well, The Independent (and, with the help of copy-paste, The Mail) certainly doesn’t know!*

Global warning: Scientists in U-turn as they claim extreme weather and climate change are linked

Experts have reversed their opinion after more than 20 years of reluctance to blame greenhouse gas emissions for extreme weather

Climate change is inextricably linked to the extreme weather that has wreaked destruction all over the world in the last ten years, scientists now claim.

Experts are convinced of a legitimate link between the two after more than 20 years of reluctance to blame greenhouse gas emissions for the heavy storms, floods and droughts which have made global headlines.

The controversial U-turn is a radical departure from the previous standpoint and was made by a new international alliance of climate researchers from around the world.

You hear that? All the scientists! All of them! Every single scientist used to say that extreme weather and climate change weren’t linked, then overnight, they all did a U-turn and now they all believe they are linked!

Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. While most scientists will never say that any given event was definitely caused by global warming (after all, no-one can say for sure whether, say, Katrina would have happened without climate change), plenty of researchers have published papers in reputable, peer-reviewed journals connecting climate change to hurricanes (Emmanuel 2005 (PDF), Webster et al 2005, Mann and Emmanuel 2006 (PDF)), flooding (Schrieder et al 2000, Christensen and Christensen 2003 (PDF)), heatwaves (Stott et all 2004, Diffenbaugh et al 2007 (PDF)), and pretty much every other form of extreme weather you can imagine. The connection between climate change and extreme weather is still debated, but there are certainly plenty of scientists have published research indicating the two are linked.

Secondly, this so-called U-turn isn’t even a U-turn! Instead, what a panel of climatologists called Attribution of Climate-Related Events (ACE) is looking at various extreme weather events over the last century – tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, droughts – and working out whether climate change has made these sorts of weather more likely.** They are not yet saying that climate change has increased the risk of extreme weather, they’re still researching whether it could have! The scientists quoted by The Independent (and subsequently by The Mail) do say that they think climate change is causing severe weather, but as far as I can tell, these scientists have always made this connection. Peter Stott for example connected heatwaves to climate change back in 2004 (see the paper above), and Kevin Trenberth connected drought to global warming in the same year (PDF). Neither of these scientists has, as far as I can tell, U-turned.

Incidentally, the best rated comments on both articles are firmly denialist and, on The Mail‘s site, any comments that are pro-climate science have been downvoted (The Indie only lets you “like” comments, not dislike them). Good to see the astroturfers out in force.

* I’ve picked on The Mail largely because they’ve used words like “U-turn” and “reversal”. The Independent‘s coverage still makes the mistake of talking about scientists like we’re all one big hive mind, but at least they state that the previous opinion connecting climate change to extreme weather was “equivocal”.

** ACE formed in early 2009, so I’m not sure why they’re being reported as if they’re brand new.

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Defending tau

The Daily Mail today has a piece about the proposed alternative to the number pi, tau (τ), equal to 2 x π.*

Basically, the reason we might want to change to tau is simple:

Pi is defined as the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter. We came up with this definition thousands of years ago, before modern geometry had taken off, and it’s a perfectly good number.

However, we now know that the diameter of a circle – the distance all the way across – isn’t really the best way to measure a circle. Instead, it’s better to measure the distance the radius of the circle – the distance from the centre to the edge. For example, if you’re working out a planet’s orbit, the distance from the planet to the Sun (radius) is a nice logical thing to measure, but the distance from the planet to the other side (diameter) of its orbit doesn’t really mean anything important.

Since the radius is half the diameter, circumference divided by radius is twice as big as circumference divided by diameter, which is why tau is twice as big as pi.

The definition of 1 radian. The red line (radius) and blue line (arc length) are the same length. By Stannered, CC-SA-BY-3.0

Tau is also nice because it makes working with angles a bit easier. The most natural way of measuring angles – the way you have to do it if you’re doing maths or physics – is to measure them in radians. The radian is defined in terms of the circle’s radius – one radian is the angle you get if you walk around the circle for a distance of one radius. If you travel 2π radians, you travel a distance which is 2 times pi times the radius, or pi times the diameter; in other words, you travel the length of a full circle, 360°.

However, that 2 in there is a bit of a pain. It basically means that, in physics or maths, whenever you’re dealing with a circle or a wave you get annoying factors of 2 popping up in your equations, and unless you’re very careful, it’s easy to forget a factor here or put an extra one in there, making your sums completely wrong. For example, to switch between ordinary frequency and angular frequency (effectively, switching from revolutions per second to radians per second), you multiply the frequency by 2π. This is a change we need to make a lot when working with waves, and it’s so easy to lose a factor of 2 when you’re working with a bulky equation.

That factor of 2 is only in there in the first place because we made the mistake of basing pi on the diameter instead of the radius. If we replaced pi with tau, 1 circle would be τ radians, and that factor of two would disappear. It wouldn’t be a groundbreaking change, but it would still be quite nice, and it would make the mathematics of circles a bit easier to understand. Of course, the hassle of teaching people to use tau instead of pi is probably greater than the benefits, so its unlikely we’ll ever give up pi.

Unfortunately, the Mail is quoting from a (paywalled) interview in The Times with University of Leeds lecturer Kevin Houston, whose and they seem to cut down what he’s said to just:

‘Mathematicians don’t measure angles in degrees, we measure them in radians, and there are 2pi radians in a circle,’ Dr Houston said.

“That leads to all sorts of unnecessary confusion. If you take a quarter of a circle, it has a quarter of 2pi radians, or half pi. For the number of radians in three quarters of a circle, you have to think about it. It doesn’t come naturally.

‘How much simpler it would be if we just used tau instead of pi,’ Dr Houston added. ‘The circle would have tau radians, a semicircle would have half tau, a quarter of a circle a quarter tau, and so on. You don’t have to think.’

Trimmed like that, it sounds like Houston is only promoting tau because he’s too stupid to work out three quarters of two (his Youtube video, linked by the Mail, explaining the mathematics of tau, shows this is not the case). So perhaps naturally, Daily Mail commenters have leapt at the chance to prove that they’re smarter than a mathematician, because really, what do mathematicians know about mathematics?!

If an ‘A’ level Maths student has trouble with the difference between Tau and Pi, then they should be on another course. Any excuse to dumb down the kids and stop them thinking for themselves!

Alan, Frankfurt, Germany (ex pat)

Right on! How dare we dumb maths down by making it slightly clearer!

‘The circle would have tau radians, a semicircle would have half tau, a quarter of a circle a quarter tau, and so on. You don’t have to think.’ …..It may be appropriate for DM readers who like not to think, but I’m afraid mathematicians do think, and aren’t interested in tau, thank you very much.

rupert, Yors4hire, UK

Except for all the mathematicians and scientists who support tau I daresay because they think.

This tau thing is clearly aimed at mindless rote learners but to those of us who actually understand maths, pi expresses something meaningful which is precisely why we refer to it so much.

Vincent, Glasgow

Pi and tau express more or less the exact same thing – the shape of a circle – tau just expresses it in a slightly more logical way.

As a retired Maths teacher this idea lacks intuitive sense. The whole point of the exercise is to relate the circumference of a circle to its diameter – and the ratio is the irrational number 3.14159… The ratio is NOT 6.whatever! That’s the basic theory. Then there are various formulae needed at basic school level: for example, the area of a circle is pi time radious squared. The new formula would be tau times radius squared divided by four: an extra calculation step. Or the volume of a cone pi r squared h…. and so on. And in times of austerity how many schools could afford a new set of textbooks filled with tau? (And all authored by Leeds people, no doubt!) And then there are the millions of calculators with the pi button built in…. No! This idea is like trying to say that from 2012 we’ll all drive on the right – indeed the idea of tau is worse than that because there are regions of the world already driving on the right….. This is a big UM and No No

Andrew, Cwmbran

No, but the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its radius IS 6.whatever (6.28318… in fact). The fact that the area of the circle becomes a half times tau r squared (0.5 τr2 – there’s no dividing by four involved) is one of the downsides to tau, but as Kevin explains in the video, there is a deeper mathematical reason why we would expect that half to be there, so while it’s annoying it does make sense.

This is the way you can waste a lot of time while avoiding doing anything of real interest or value to anyone. What a waste of brain cells!! Is this supported by public funds? There are real problems in the world today that are worthy of serious consideration, but when academics waste their time on things like this, they prove that they have no value to society at large and should be dismissed.

Samuel, Dubuque, Iowa

One mathematician making a 5 minute Youtube video in his spare time? How dare he! He should devote every second of his life to curing cancer!

Big Wow… Is “2pi” the only mathematical innovation Leeds University can come up with, it’s best 21st Century contribution to the advancement of mathematics? Talented Maths kids doing their 5 science A levels must be crossing Leeds off as even a 5th choice.

Russ H, Bucks

Again, this is one guy working in his spare time. This is not the only thing the University of Leeds Maths department does! (Incidentally, 55% of Leeds pure maths research is “world leading” or “internationally excellent”, and a further 40% is “internationally recognised”.)

BUT….e^([pi]i)]=-1 and this does not work for tau. There are uses for Pi beyond circles!

Miles, Australia

(This refers to Euler’s identity, eπi = -1, which gives us a nice way of representing imaginary numbers using angles. And despite what Miles says, it’s all about circles.)

That’s true, it doesn’t. Instead, eτi = 1. This is even better than Euler’s original version, since we no longer have that minus sign (and all that minus sign told us is that pi radians = half a circle, something we already know). Quite a few comments are like this – “OH NO EULER’S FORMULA IS BEAUTIFUL, WE CAN’T CHANGE PI COS THAT WILL BREAK IT” – and yet no-one actually bothers working out what it would look like with tau.

Professional jealousy. Eienstein acceepted Pi and I can assure you he was more intelligent than this egghead. This man just wants to make a name for himself. Change all the books indeed. He is “daft” !

Ruckus, myrtle Beach SC (ex pat)

And why do we bother speaking English? If German was good enough for Einstein, it’s good enough for us!

All those comments have been upvoted, by the way, unlike this comment, which currently has a score of -1:

I am in full favour of this proposition. Unfortunately, a large number of these comments seem be be from people with only a basic understanding of mathematics. Using Tau in place of Pi would reduce the need for a constant in a plethora of standard calculations involving circles and spheres, the like of which children will be schooled in. Furthermore, the simplicity of the equations using Tau may increase understanding and encourage children to pursue an interest into further mathematics. From my experience of mathematics lessons, the majority of students didn’t dislike mathematics, but rather found it too complicated to enjoy. Once provided with a topic they were able to grasp, students began to enjoy working the problems. Once children have achieved a satisfactory grasp of simple circle equations, the transition to understanding the calculus is a much easier one. I think that should the readers have been taught using Tau the comments here would be better informed.

Pep, Manchester

Good old Daily Mail comments, eh?

* They claim the idea was invented by Kevin Houston at the University of Leeds. In fact, it’s much older than that – Bob Palais first came up with it in 2001 – and Houston is just promoting it. Also, as a conflict of interest thing, I guess I should point out that Kevin taught me a few years ago, and is a thoroughly nice guy.

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Hard-hitting research from Cravendale

(Hat tip to @TomChivers)

Look at me, boldly breaking press embargoes to bring you the FACTS. What IS the formula for the perfect cup of tea?

You might have thought that George Orwell answered that fairly conclusively years ago, but if you did then you are clearly an idiot. After all, George Orwell was just an author, journalist and political campaigner. What the hell do writers know about tea?! No, to answer this question we need the help of cargo cult science!

Good thing Cravendale’s taken the hit and hired scientists from Northumbria University to tell us the secret of good tea. Spoiler warning: the answer’s “Cravendale”.

Some of the more sceptical among you might be wondering how they tested this, and how awfully convenient it was that this research, which appears to have been funded by Cravendale, just happened to prove that Cravendale made the best cup of tea. Well, how can you argue with this experimental methodology:

Following the brewing process, teabags were removed and varied amounts of semi-skimmed Cravendale milk [0ml, 5ml, 10ml] were added to samples for our sensory advisory panel.

The panel’s results reveal that the ideal amount of milk to be added is 10ml.

Yep! They compared Cravendale milk to no milk at all, and shockingly found that Cravendale tastes better than nothing. This must prove Cravendale is the best milk ever, QED.

Incidentally, 10ml isn’t much milk at all, really – it’s less than half a single measure of spirits, after all. You’d think that if you were trying to test the ideal amount of milk to put in tea, you’d try everything from “no milk at all” to “nothing but milk”, but to be fair I guess the scientists involved had more important things to do than indulge the bizarre PR-driven whims of a milk filtration company.

There’s no mention of sugar in the paper, and certainly no mention of anything more exotic – a spoonful of honey, a dollop of cream, or a splash of lemon, for instance. I assume Cravendale hasn’t figured out how to filter sugar or lemon juice yet. They have however found time to make some truly groundbreaking progress in the field of thermodynamics, however:

The optimum temperature to drink tea at is 60°C. With the addition of Cravendale milk, our brews were able to reach the optimum temperature after just six minutes, two minutes faster than regular black tea.

Yes, adding a cold liquid to a hot liquid will in fact cool the hot liquid down! Of course, this only works with Cravendale milk – as everyone knows, if you add regular supermarket own-brand milk to tea, the tea just keeps getting hotter and hotter!

Still, all this stuff about “things cooling down over time” is pretty state of the art – I mean, Isaac Newton only figured out his law of cooling 300 years ago. Thank goodness Cravendale is on the cutting edge.

Anyway, based on all this research, the scientists at Northumbria have come up with a formula for the perfect cup of tea. Are you ready for this piece of extremely rigorous mathematics? Here goes:

TB + (H2O @ 100°c) 2minsBT + C(10ml) 6minsBT = PC (@ OT60°c)

where TB = teabag, BT = brewing time, C = Cravendale milk, OT = optimum temperature and PC = perfect cuppa.

Look how science-y that is! There are letters and numbers and plus signs all over the place! And they say “H2O” instead of “water” – only a true scientist would do that! Also according to that formula you should keep your tea brewing for 6 more minutes after you add the milk which sounds like a one-way trip to astringency-town to me, but then I’ve never written my tea making instructions down in the form of algebra, so what do I know?

This “research” has been embargoed until tomorrow morning – let’s see if any of the papers are stupid enough to run with it.

Anyway, this was quite a long post, so you should probably treat yourself to a nice cup of tea now. Just remember to use own-brand milk.

Edit: So far, the Mail, Telegraph, Express and Metro have all swallowed Cravendale’s PR rubbish. Sigh.

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