Posts Tagged Daily Mail

Littlejohn and renewable energy – both fueled by wind

I don’t normally blog about stupid Littlejohn columns – it’s a bit “dog bites man” – but today he’s written a piece about wind farms, and he’s really outdone himself on this one.

Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights.

At midday yesterday, wind power was contributing just 2.2 per cent of all the electricity in the National Grid. You might think that’s a pretty poor return on the billions of pounds spent already on Britain’s standing army of windmills.

In fact, for the amount of energy produced, onshore wind power is only slightly more expensive than coal, and less expensive than nuclear. Offshore wind is quite a bit more expensive, but hopefully this will come down as production gets more organised.

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Mobile phones and cancer. Again

(H/T @DickMandrake)

This will be all over the papers today, so here’s a quick run down of what’s actually happened.

Last year the World Health Organisation released its Interphone report (PDF) into the link between brain cancer and mobile phones. For the most part, they found “no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma [types of brain cancer] was observed with use of mobile phones”. However, for very heavy users (the top 10% of the population), there was a statistically significant increase in the odds of developing a form of brain cancer known as glioma but “but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation” – there is too much uncertainty in the data to know whether heavy mobile phone use caused cancer or whether something else was to blame. On the one hand, they found there appeared to be a connection between which side of the brain the tumour developed in and which hand users held the phone in – a sign that phones might cause cancer – but on the other hand, while extreme users experienced a big increase in brain tumours, people who used their phones even slightly less saw no change in brain cancer – a sign that mobile phones might not cause cancer.

Fast forward a year, and the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has issued a press release (PDF) about an upcoming report which, based on the Interphone study and some other papers, will classify the electromagnetic (EM) fields from mobile phones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” meaning there is “limited evidence” that they may cause cancer. In other words, it’s the exact same conclusion as the Interphone report, but this time the report is focusing on the negative – heavy doses may cause cancer – rather than the positive – light doses probably don’t cause cancer.

That in itself is very reasonable – even if mobile phones carry a very slight cancer risk, the IARC still need to know what that risk is. The problem comes when the media, reporting this in the usual shades of black and white, ignore all this nuance in favour of scares:

The Mail screams “Mobile phones CAN increase risk of cancer: Doctors reveal shock results of major study into effect on the brain“, magically turning “possibly causes cancer” into “CAN cause cancer”. It’s not really a shock result either, since it came out a year ago. The Mail also brings up the recent Council of Europe draft report that suggested banning mobiles from around schools, ignoring the fact it was pseudoscientific rubbish based on research from quacks.

The Express goes for the similar “Shock cancer warning over mobile phone use“, claiming “MOBILE phones have been officially linked to cancer for the very first time by a team of world experts”. Again, the report is a year old, it’s not a shock! They also manage to get in some ridiculous guilt-by-association:

But they classified mobile phones in the same danger category as the pesticide DDT and petrol engine exhaust, meaning they are possibly carcinogenic to humans.

Petrol exhaust and DDT are pretty dangerous, but that’s not necessarily because they cause cancer! Nor does being in the same group as these mean it carries the same risk of cancer, either. It just means that we have the same level of evidence for a cancer risk, which isn’t the same thing. For example, DDT is now banned worldwide, with most developed countries banning it in the 70s. This means that people aren’t being exposed to it any more (a good thing, of course!), so we can’t study its effects and work out exactly how dangerous it is.

The Guardian meanwhile goes for a tenuous connection to the risks of mobile phone base stations and wi-fi, even though the exposure to EM from these is much lower than from holding a phone to your ear – and we know even then it’s only the heaviest exposures that may cause cancer.

The Telegraph also makes the ridiculous DDT comparison, but at least they quote the great Ed Yong, head of health information at Cancer Research UK, who sensibly sums up the evidence:

“The risk of brain cancer is similar in people who use mobile phones compared to those who don’t, and rates of this cancer have not gone up in recent years despite a dramatic rise in phone use during the 1980s.

“However, not enough is known to totally rule out a risk, and there has been very little research on the long-term effects of using phones.”

(They also quote a professor of Medical Physics and Director of the Mobile Operators Association, but to be honest, they seem to have gone into damage control mode before there’s been any damage to control. Pro-tip, guys – if you ever end a paragraph about the health risks of something by saying “The social and technological benefits also need to be emphasised“, then you sound like a cyberpunk bad guy, even if you truly mean it.)

Anyway, for a little perspective, there’s a great interview with Ed Yong about the news here. Read it!

Edit: There are also great pieces out there on this from Pharyngula, Respectful Insolence, Cancer Research UK, Tom Chivers, Only That In You, Scientific American and Bad Astronomer. Good old blogosphere!

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Light bulb lies

Whose bright idea was this? asks Daily Mail Reporter today. New ‘green’ light bulbs will cost you $50 EACH (and you’ll HAVE to buy them after 100-watt bulbs are banned)

How terrible! If, that is:

  1. You’re American. This article is about the upcoming phase-out of 100 W bulbs in the United States – 100 W light bulbs have been banned in Europe for nearly two years, and shockingly we’re not paying $50 (£30) per bulb.
  2. You light your house exclusively with 100 W bulbs.
  3. You refuse to buy the normal energy saving compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb, which you can get for about £1, for some reason.
  4. You decide to buy the first of a new sort of light bulb – the LED light bulb – and in particular, you buy the smallest and brightest bulb available, which costs about $45 (£27) at the moment, and you buy it right away instead of waiting for the price to come down.

Better headline: One particular light bulb might cost $45 EACH at first (but you won’t have to buy them even if you’re American because they’re stupidly powerful and there are cheaper bulbs available which are just as bright)

Hmm, perhaps it’s a good thing I’m not a newspaper sub.

PS: Oh, and why is “green” in “scare quotes”?

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Black holes and revelations in the 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.

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The Daily Mail, churnalism, and orgasms

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!

Secrets of the female orgasm revealed: Scientists discover new hope for women who can’t climax

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).

Komisaruk

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Hangovers, statistics and a dodgy hookup

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.

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Another day, another stupid asteroid scare

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…

“Phew, that was a near miss: Cigar-shaped asteroid stronger than ’15 atomic bombs’ whizzes by earth”

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:

  1. 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…
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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