Posts Tagged Daily Mail
Edit: After a quick email conversation with the author, the article has now been rewritten (direct link). Although it still has a slightly cringeworthy headline, it no longer contains misunderstandings about the paper and is all in all pretty good! I’ve hidden the original post behind the cut.
Journalism is hard, guys! All that “interviewing” and “researching” and “fact checking” takes time and effort. It’s much easier if you can just nick someone’s article, rearrange the words and stick a misleading headline on it!
This week’s New Scientist has an article called “Sex on the brain: Orgasms unlock altered consciousness” by Kayt Sukel. It’s pretty interesting – it’s about a couple of studies where women masturbated or had sex inside an fMRI machine (a type of MRI which shows which parts of the brain are active at any time), which imaged the activity in their brains to try to work out what happens in at orgasm. Interestingly, the two studies found completely opposite results. One group, led by Barry Komisaruk, found that one area of the brain – known as the prefrontal cortex or PFC – became extremely active at orgasm. Another group, led by Janniko Georgiadis, found a drop in PFC activity, and in particular, they found that the part of the PFC known as the orbitofrontal cortex or OFC shut down completely.
The article discusses a couple of possible reasons for this – Georgiadis suggests that since the PFC shuts down because the brain “loses control” at orgasm and enters an altered state of conciousness, while Komisaruk suggests that the PFC lights up because brain is investing heavily in controlling fantasy and pleasure. Since their experiments were slightly different, it’s of course possible that they’re both right – in Georgiadis’s experiments, the women had their partner with them in the fMRI machine, while in Komisaruk’s experiments, the women masturbated, and it’s possible that the two lead to very different patterns of brain activity (if the PFC plays a role in fantasy and imagination, it makes sense that it would be more active during masturbation).
At the end of the article, Komisaruk suggests that perhaps “anorgasmia” (the inability to have orgasms) might be treatable by having women “teach” their brains to have the right patterns of activity (one person New Scientist quotes, Kenneth Casey, compares this idea to the placebo effect – using the power of the mind to change the effect things have on the body), but since these are very early days, it’s certainly not a solid proposal. We don’t know which way round cause and effect are in this case anyway; perhaps changing the activity of the PFC causes orgasms, or perhaps orgasms change the behaviour of the PFC, and as Georgiadis notes:
I’m not sure if this altered state is necessary to achieve more pleasure or is just some side effect
Anyway, all very interesting, but quite vague, being more theoretical than practical at the moment. Unless you’re the Daily Mail, that is!
Yes, for the Mail, these aren’t tentative – and confusing – first steps towards understanding the mental pathways that lead to orgasm, this is NEW HOPE FOR WOMEN WHO CAN’T CLIMAX. And also an excuse to show a model in her underwear miming either an orgasm or a sideways migrane. But mostly the NEW HOPE thing.
Interestingly, the Daily Mail ignores Komisaruk’s work completely – although he gets quoted at the bottom of the article, nowhere does the Mail mention his contradictory findings, presumably because that would mean that things are a tiny bit complicated and science can never be complicated!* This makes it a lot easier to pass the musings about a “cure for anorgasmia” as cold hard scientific fact, of course… but they’re not, they are just musings.
For some reason though – presumably because it’s the picture New Scientist used – they use a picture from Komisaruk’s experiment showing Sukel‘s brain, even though it shows exactly the opposite to what the Mail claims (the area in the image labeled “A” is the prefrontal cortext, and instead of being shut down it’s lit up like a Christmas tree). Not only is Daily Mail Reporter misrepresenting New Scientist‘s article, it’s doing a terrible job of it.
It’s not quite as terrible as “New theory could be “greatest discovery since chemotherapy”” or “Ten easy ways to beat cancer“, but it’s still a classic example of the press taking preliminary findings and twisting them into into “NEW HOPE” where hope may not (yet) be warranted.
* It’s also possible that the Daily Mail didn’t want to mention the possibility that people (even *gasp* women) might masturbate, but perhaps that theory’s a bit too Daily Mail Island (NSFW).
It’s one of the oldest clichés in the book. You go to a party, get completely hammered, and wake up in bed with a dodgy PR firm.
Today’s ill-advised hookup is a threesome between The Express, The Mirror and a non-alcoholic drinks company called Sweet Lady Beverages, who claim that “the average Briton will spend five years of their life with a hangover“.
Before we look at the article itself, a quick sanity check. Life expectancy in the UK is roughly 80 years, and it’s unlikely people are going to experience hangovers before the age of about 15 or so. So, at maximum, that gives the average Brit about 65 drinking years. If the Express‘s statistics are true, we spend 8% of our adult lives hung over – we would spend more time hungover than we would eating. It’s amazing anyone gets anything done.
The article goes on to say that:
“[Britons] will suffer the ill effects for a whole day – usually a Sunday – at least once a week between the ages of 21 and 38.“
Bear in mind that this an average. According to Sweet Lady Beverages, the average person is hung over every week until the age of 40, and those hangovers last all day. That sounds a tiny bit excessive. After all, one – much more scientific – study found that having even just one hangover per month over an extended period is linked to a major increase (around 2.36 times) in heart attack risk.* And yet somehow, we’re not dropping like flies.
As far as I can tell – there’s no information about this survey available on the web outside these two articles – Sweet Lady Beverages simply asked visitors to its site to answer some questions about hangovers. There’s no published methodology; in other words, they don’t say what questions were asked or what precautions they made to make sure they had a fair sample.
For instance, they could have asked
It would certainly explain the odd results they got.
The Sweet Lady Beverage company is quoted by the Express as saying
The message we can take from this is simple – by reducing our alcohol intake we can reduce the amount of time feeling wretched.
Oddly on-message for a company selling alcohol-free drinks, wouldn’t you say?
* I can’t find many good scientific studies of hangovers. A lot of them are rather hamstrung by the fact that surveys usually take place in university, and therefore involve university students – not very representative of the drinking habits of the wider population! Nevertheless, this paper suggests that only 15% of the population have more than hangover per month.
Edit: The Daily Mail has now picked up the story too.
The road I live on has a railway running across the end of it. Every day, hundreds of tons of metal speeds along the line just a hundred metres or so from my house. Yet I don’t live in fear of waking up one morning and finding a train’s crashed into my house, because of course the trains are restricted to the railway tracks.
Space is much the same. Asteroids are whizzing around over our heads every day, but they follow precisely defined orbits through the sky. An asteroid passing close to the Earth is no more a “near miss” than a train passing my house without hitting it is a “lucky escape”.
It’s a simple enough idea, you’d think, and yet…
Thankfully, the 50m long rock that could have destroyed a small country went barely noticed as it passed earth at a distance of some 2,085,321 miles.
Yes, the asteroid 2011 GP59 could have destroyed a small country. If it was two million miles closer.
Once again, this article has been taken from the Australian news site news.com.au, who seem to have a thing for scaremongering stories about space; they also started the rumour that Betelgeuese would go supernova in 2012 and gave credence to the shameful “supermoon” story. At least the Mail‘s headline is less awful than news.com.au’s, who’ve gone with “Scientists find asteroid with potential power of 15 atomic bombs. Heading this way. Tonight.” which surely has to rival shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre in terms of unethical scaremongering stupidity.
Incidentally, the claim that it’s “as powerful as 15 atomic bombs” doesn’t come from any scientific authority. It comes from the news.com.au journalist – who doesn’t appear to be a science journalist at all, but a technology journalist – digging up an old New Scientist article about an asteroid that exploded with the energy of three nuclear bombs (three of the very small Hiroshima bombs, I should point out, not a modern nuclear bomb), and then scaling it up. This is a stupid calculation for a number of reasons:
- You can’t just say “this asteroid is 10 metres long, this asteroid is 50 metres long, therefore it’s 5 times bigger”. It’s the volume which is important – the length times the width times the height. Assuming the asteroid is 5 times bigger in each direction, then it’s 5 x 5 x 5 times bigger, which is 125 times the size. If the journalist hadn’t cocked up his maths, he could have made this asteroid sound EVEN SCARIER. Except…
- The amount of energy an asteroid has depends on its speed. A fast moving asteroid carries far more energy than a slow moving one, and a small increase in speed causes a much larger increase in energy.** The gravitational pull of the Earth as the asteroid approaches plays a large role in determining its speed, so the energy it would have would depend on the route it took to Earth. Since this asteroid is not heading for Earth, it’s meaningless to ask how much energy it would have if it hit Earth.
- It also depends what the asteroid is made of. Most asteroids are made of dust and ice, and burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere. A few – maybe one per year – explode high up in the atmosphere. And a very, very few – mostly large metallic asteroids that don’t burn as well - hit the ground. Again, we don’t know what this asteroid is made of.
- THE ASTEROID IS TWO MILLION MILES AWAY AND WILL NOT HIT EARTH AT ANY TIME IN THE FORESEEABLE FUTURE.
At any rate, there are literally thousands of asteroids this big – or indeed much bigger – rattling around near-Earth space, and there must be thousands more we haven’t detected yet. It’s worth being sensibly worried about the risk of currently undiscovered asteroid hitting us, but getting worked up about an asteroid that we know can’t hit us is just stupid.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to dig a train-proof bunker in my garden.
* Psst, Daily Mail Reporter. “Earth” has a capital “e”.
** In fact, energy is proportional to speed squared – if you double your speed, your energy goes up fourfold.
This will be the last “supermoon” post, I hope. There’s just something about it which seems to make journalists become especially stupid. Perhaps the Victorian doctors who said the moon caused “lunacy” were onto something.
Anyway, here’s what has pride of place on the Mail‘s science page today:
You know, lunar planet! That… moony planet?
The photos in the article are very nice looking, but the reason the moon looks so giant in them isn’t because of the “supermoon”. The trick is to take the photos of the moon when it’s very low on the horizon, grazing very distant buildings. Using a powerful zoom lens, you zoom in on the distant buildings, so they look normal sized and the moon looks gigantic. This isn’t something unique to supermoons, it can be done any day.
Like I said in last week’s post, the “supermoon” would never be as dramatic as the papers claimed – it was only 6% larger than usual, and this happens twice a month. Without a decent telescope and a camera, you probably wouldn’t notice the “supermoon” at all.
Normally, scientists are meant to be circumspect and reserved about cause and effect. We’re supposed to deal in probabilities, statistics and uncertainties. However, on this occasion, I have absolutely no qualms in saying this: The Daily Mail is wrong. The “Supermoon” had nothing to do with the terrible earthquake off the coast of Japan today.
The powerful tsunami that today slammed into Japan’s eastern coast comes just two days after warnings that the movement of the moon could trigger unpredictable events on Earth.
Except none of these “warnings” come from scientists. The only people who took the “Supermoon” seriously were internet conspiracy theorists and the tabloids. And…
Astrologers predicted that on March 19 – a week tomorrow – the so-called ‘supermoon’ 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.
An astrologer is the not same thing as an astronomer. A warning from an astronomer should (generally) be taken seriously. A warning from an astrologer isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.
Others on the Internet have predicted it will cause further catastrophes such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.
“Others on the Internet”? Of course, everything that was ever written on the internet MUST be true.*
* Fully aware of the hypocrisy, thank you very much.
However the ‘supermoon’ date is still eight days away. But those that adhere to this particular belief could claim that this was still close enough for there to be some kind of effect.
Ok, as everyone knows, the moon orbits once a month. Once every two weeks, it comes close to the Earth – this is the “perigee” of its orbit – and in between these perigees we have the furthest points: the “apogee”. This means that eight days before the perigee, it will be as far away as possible from the Earth; the exact opposite of a “supermoon”. Its gravity would be weaker, not stronger.
The energy needed to produce an earthquake builds slowly through stress and strain in the rocks where tectonic plates meet, over years or decades. A tiny change in the position of the moon – a change which, remember, happens twice a month – will have virtually no effect compared the constant force of billions of tons of rock pressing against each other.
Two days ago, in an interview with ABC radio discussing the potential impact of the March 19 supermoon, astrologer Richard Nolle, who first coined the term in 1979, said he was convinced that lunar perigees cause natural disasters on Earth.
‘Supermoons have a historical association with strong storms, very high tides, extreme tides and also earthquakes,’ he said.
The only one of those that is true is that “Supermoons” can cause high tides (and even then, it only changes the tidal range by a couple of percent). There is no association between “Supermoons” and storms or major earthquakes. And again, an astrologer is NOT an astronomer.
Natural disasters are unfortunately common. Earthquakes, storms and floods happen with depressing regularity – look hard enough and you can find disasters happening around any supermoon. What’s important is to the look at the disasters that weren’t linked to a supermoon. No scientific study has shown an increase in quakes or storms around supermoons.
What do the actual scientists say?
Dr David Harland, space historian and author, said: ‘It’s possible that the moon may be a kilometre or two closer to Earth than normal at a perigee, but it’s an utterly insignificant event.’
Professor George Helffrich, a seismologist at the University of Bristol was equally dismissive.
‘Complete nonsense. The moon has no significant effect on earthquake triggering.
‘If the moon triggers “big” earthquakes, it would trigger the many of millions of times more “small” earthquakes that happen daily. There is no time dependence of those; hence no moon effect.’
John S Whalley, geoscience programme manager at the University of Portsmouth, agreed there was no correlation.
‘There is no established correlation between variations in the orbit of the moon and either the number or magnitude of earthquakes.
‘It is all too easy, with hindsight, to link major earthquakes to variations in all sort of parameters.
‘The real test is to look at the vast numbers of earthquakes of all magnitudes that occur on a daily basis worldwide.
‘Any correlation with the lunar orbit would have to be established on the basis of this population of earthquakes, not on individual high magnitude events. In need hardly add that no such correlation has been established.’
I would end this post with another glib link to the SMBC comic, but frankly I don’t feel like this the right time for daft jokes. Nor is it the appropriate time for a newspaper with a readership of millions to be giving a platform to charlatans and conspiracy theorists, who seize on a terrible tragedy just to get a little bit of publicity for their pseudoscientific claims.
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.
But astronomers have dismissed the claims as pure nonsense.
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.
Let’s suppose you were putting together the most stereotypical Daily Mail health story (that wasn’t about cancer). What would you include?
Well, obviously first of all, you need your patients. They should be someone Mail readers can sympathise with – white, straight, middle-class, happy and utterly conventional.
When Charlotte Davies met her future husband there was an instant attraction [...]
The university administrator met [accountant] Dean three years ago in a bar in Colchester, Essex, and the pair quickly became inseparable.
Secondly, we need a disease. That can either be something rare and terrible – a unique form of cancer, for instance, or a disease like meningitis that often affects the young – or it can be something everyday, like sore joints or high blood pressure… or eczema.
Unfortunately for her, there was also an instant reaction – on her skin. Within weeks of meeting her soulmate, her eyelids erupted with eczema and her eyes had swelled to the size of golf balls.
Third, doctors have to be baffled. If your patient just stumbled to the GP and got a diagnosis, that’s no good. They have to have to been bounced from hospital to hospital until some maverick doctor (who may be played by Hugh Laurie) works out what the true problem was. Better yet, medical science should fail all together, and “alternative medicine” has to provide the “answers”.
Doctors struggled to explain the sudden reaction and it was a homeopath who eventually diagnosed the cause…
Fourth, you need a hook. Something that makes this case of eczema different from the millions of others out there.
… as love.
‘He told me that it was common for eczema to be effected by emotions, but typically due to stress, trauma or unhappiness. This was the first time they had ever heard of someone being allergic to love’, she said.
‘I felt like my body was putting Dean to the test, because even though my heart told me he was The One, it was as if my body wanted to see if he really was a good as he seemed.
‘If he loved me after my eyes had turned into a bright red tomatoes literally within days of meeting him, then I’d know his love was true.’
Fifth, you need a moral. Something to appeal to the Daily Mail‘s sensibilities. One common one is the story of the mother who goes against medical advice to abort a foetus, and is then lucky enough to bring it to term safely – women who aren’t so lucky don’t seem to make the papers in quite the same way, of course. In this case, the moral is…
She said: ‘In December we got married and the eczema started to get a lot better. Perhaps my hormones calmed down and I just felt more relaxed once we were married, but it certainly seems to have cured me.’
The headline goes even further: “Allergic to love: Meeting my soulmate brought me out in itchy eczema… until he proposed”.* You heard it here first – living in sin causes eczema!
Oh, and sixth, you need to blatantly plug a product, of course!
Charlotte tried a concoction of steroids, creams, and alternative medicines, to no avail. Eventually she chanced upon Skin Shop’s Dry Eye Gel, a product she describes as ‘miraculous’ at treating the symptoms. [...]
Dry Eye Gel costs £8.99 for 30ml and is available from [ADDRESS REDACTED]
Incidentally, the Dry Eye Gel website promotes their product “As seen in the Daily Mail“, while every photo in the article – including the couples wedding pictures – are credited to “Eastnews Press Agency”, a PR photography company which claims on its site that “We know exactly the style of images National and Regional newspapers demand. With this knowledge we can give you and your clients the best opportunity to gain maximum press exposure. We can offer everything from straight forward picture coverage to an all-in-one package. This would include a full “news write through” of press releases and picture distribution service direct to National and Regional Press.“
Come to think of it, it sure was convenient for everyone involved that a woman decided to tell a national newspaper about her relatively minor skin condition, wasn’t it?
(Thanks to Tabloid Watch for pointing out the Dry Eye Gel website)
* There’s a joke about loveless marriage in there somewhere, but I’m not cruel enough to make it.
Sometimes I wonder if the papers are specifically trying to legitimise being a rubbish romantic partner by misinterpreting scientific studies. Last month we had The Telegraph suggesting that fathers should leave parenting to the mother, today we’ve got The Daily Mail telling us that “Behind every successful man is a woman keeping out of the way” (no, I don’t know who’s supposed to be behind successful women, gay men or single men either).
Luckily, for once, the study this is based on is freely available online: Outsourcing Effort to Close Others by Gráinne Fitzsimons and Eli Finkel.
The researchers carried out three experiments, only one of which is actually relevant. Women were asked to think about how their partners supported them in achieving either their health goals or their career goals, answered a questionnaire about their fitness regime, then were then asked how committed they were to their partner. They found that women who thought about how their partner helped them with their fitness planned, on average, to spend less time on exercise, especially if the women were close to their partners.*
It’s modestly interesting, but it doesn’t suggest that “behind every successful man is a woman keeping out of the way” for a number of reasons.
First of all, it didn’t measure whether being supported actually made people less motivated. Thinking in depth about a partner’s support may make you less motivated, but the actual support doesn’t.
Secondly, this is only in the extreme short term. Women were asked to think about how their partner supports them, and then straight away asked what their fitness plans were. If this was a long term effect, all women who were close to their partners should have had low goals, not just the ones mulling over how they were supported.
Third, this data is only about women. It says nothing about men! There was another experiment involving men, but that didn’t measure how close the partners were or how much support they got.
Fourth, it doesn’t measure success, it just measures how big the goals people are willing to set for themselves are. Of course, there’s no way of knowing whether they achieved these goals or not. The researchers suggest this might be caused by “outsourcing effort” – people relying on a partner to provide some of the motivation instead of having to do it all themselves.
Fifth, they found this “outsourcing” effect was overwhelmed by the other benefits of providing support – for example, “he watches the baby so I can get to the gym”.
Finally, the report itself quotes other studies which found that:
individuals who have romantic partners who are strongly supportive of their individual goal pursuits (e.g., in academics and fitness) feel more confident about their ability to achieve those goals and are ultimately more likely to achieve them than do individuals who have romantic partners who are less supportive (Brunstein, Dangelmayer, & Schultheiss, 1996; Feeney, 2004)
Partners who see the individual as already possessing his or her ideal characteristics, and who behave in ways that affirm those characteristics, tend to promote or facilitate the individual’s growth toward those ideal self goals (Drigotas, Rusbult, Wieselquist, & Whitton, 1999; Rusbult et al., 2010).
Thus, in addition to making individuals feel more positively about their relationships and more valuable and loved by their partners, supportive partners also help individuals achieve their goals (Brunstein et al., 1996)
In other words, the bulk of the science out there, including this study, shows the “shocking” truth that receiving support and motivation from ones partner (and indeed other close friends and family members) helps people achieve their goals. In short, the exact opposite of what The Mail suggests!
* The study is annoyingly short on numbers; though they do say the results were statistically significant, I don’t know to what level or how strong the correlation was. According to ScienceDaily, there were only 90 women involved, all of whom were selected anonymously online. Given how many factors were involved (there were three groups of women, and each was then divided up into smaller groups depending on how close they were to their partners), I’m not convinced you could get especially good data here, but I can’t find the numbers so I can’t be sure.
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.