Posts Tagged Mail on Sunday

Human-animal hybrids grown in secret? Well, no…

(HT @ukenagashi)

Fresh from their sister paper’s hard-hitting report into scientific ethics (which then ignored scientific ethics completely in favour of plugging The Planet of Apes prequel (direct link)), the Mail on Sunday today claims “150 human animal hybrids grown in UK labs: Embryos have been produced secretively for the past three years“.

Indeed, admixed embryo research was so secretive that it only got a few thousand column inches from tiny obscure outlets like The Times, the BBC and, err, The Mail.

That said, the stupidest thing in the article is not The Mail‘s coverage, which overall isn’t as terrible as I thought it would be*, though there’s no attempt at explaining the issues beyond just quoting a spokesperson from each side, and it doesn’t make clear that a lot of the experiments in question – implanting a human nucleus into an empty animal cell – don’t make “hybrids” (more strictly, chimeras or admixed embryos) at all; they just make what is for all intents and purposes a human egg cell (taking eggs out of humans naturally is slightly dangerous, so it’s hard to justify putting women at risk for a science experiment when you can just make egg substitutes in the lab).

No, that prize goes to Lord Alton, who first showed the figures to The Mail. He says:

‘Ethically it can never be justifiable – it discredits us as a country. It is dabbling in the grotesque.

‘At every stage the justification from scientists has been: if only you allow us to do this, we will find cures for every illness known to mankind. This is emotional blackmail.

And those cancer scientists asking for money to invent drugs that cure cancer! Pah! Terrible! It’s emotional blackmail, that’s what it is.

Still, if you’re going to ban scientists from using “curing disease” as a justification then I guess it is pretty hard to justify.

‘Of the 80 treatments and cures which have come about from stem cells, all have come from adult stem cells – not embryonic ones.

‘On moral and ethical grounds this fails; and on scientific and medical ones too.’

I’m not sure where he got that awfully precise figure of 80 from. But yes, all currently approved stem cell treatments have from adult stem cells… because adult stem research has been going strong for over 30 years while embryonic stem cell research is far more recent and has had a troubled history (especially in America); the first embryonic stem cell treatments are just starting to be tested. If in 5 or 10 years there are still no working embryonic stem cell treatments, then it will be time to look at whether embryo research is the best route to take. Right now, though, it’s much too early to say whether this fails scientifically.

* I have very low standards of “terrible” these days, it seems.

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Peter, don’t be a martyr

(H/T @RopesToInfinity)

Shylock didn’t ask for 454g of flesh…and no one wants to drink a litre of wine, says PETER HITCHENS

Because of course the traditional English pint of wine is much more convenient.

Anyway, most of the article is either scaremongering, rubbish, or doesn’t make sense, so here are the highlights.

Would it really be so difficult for those of us who still feel British to say: ‘No, thank you, please measure that in pounds and ounces,’ to the trader who offers us kilos, and to complain when the national broadcaster uses foreign expressions to replace perfectly good English ones.

It already is legal to offer to measure goods in pounds, as long as there as there is a kilogram measurement available too. The “metric martyrs” didn’t get in trouble for selling objects in Imperial, they got in trouble for not offering metric.

In truth, the only properly non-metric nation on the planet is America, the most technologically advanced, economically successful country in human history – and the most free.

Regardless of whether America is the most technologically advanced or the most free – how you’d measure either of these is beyond me – surely it would be difficult to say that metric Japan is not technologically advanced, or that metric Sweden is not free, and the metric EU is a larger economy than America. Whether or not a country is free or wealthy probably has very little to do with what they write on their rulers.

Besides, American scientists? They use metric. Every scientist does – metric forms the basis of the SI system; a rational, universal system of measurements based on the fundamental properties of the universe.*

I cannot imagine a kilogram, let alone a gram, or a metre or a litre or a hectare. I work out what they mean by converting them into the proper measures that have their roots and origins in the land, as I do – an acre is a day’s work at the plough, a fathom the width of a man’s outstretched arms.

For those of us who don’t plough fields with oxen, that might be a little less useful.

Why? Because our customary measures are a sign that we – almost uniquely among the nations – still run our own lives. These measures are rooted in daily life, are human, and honest, because they are polished in use, sound like what they are (can’t you hear a gallon sloshing in its bucket?) and because you can use them in poetry.

There are miles, inches and fathoms in the Bible and Shakespeare, and if you converted them it would sound ludicrous. Imagine Hamlet jeering as he holds Yorick’s skull: ‘Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint 2.5 centimetres thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.’

Why stop there? Bring back the lovely poetic bushel! The hogshead! The shaftment! The ell!

You see, this is the big problem with Hitchens’s argument. For all that he complains about “totalitarianism”, and measures “made up in an office”, the modern Imperial system is every bit as artificial as the metric system. Once upon a time, there were hundreds of different units, all created by people in different trades, in different parts of the country, and each one was pretty convenient for them.

Of course, that system was such a mess. Over the years – starting with the Magna Carta – the number of units was slowly whittled down (bye bye Scots measures) and the ones that were left were standardised (no longer was the Cheshire acre twice the size of the standard acre), culminating in the Weights and Measurements Act 1824. Measurements across the whole country were unified, and it became illegal to sell goods using the older units – more or less exactly what happened when metric was introduced.

Outside the oompah-band and leather-shorts regions of Germany, you will not see anyone drinking beer in litres either. This is because a litre is a measure made up in an office, whereas the old-English ‘bottle’ (equivalent to about 72 centilitres) and the old-French ’bouteille’ (the same) were enough for two people to share over a meal.

It has now been rationalised into 75 centilitres, three-quarters of a litre, but no further. And that is itself a significant departure from the metric system, which is based on counting our toes and doesn’t like quarters because ten can’t be divided by four (or three, for that matter).

Of course not, a litre of beer is rather massive. Anyway, metric doesn’t care what you divide things into. The whole point of metric is that it’s based on the decimal number system, so you can divide it however you like. If you want to split it into fours, that’s easy. If you want to split it in thirds, or fifths, or even sevenths, that’s no problem. On the other hand, if you want to split a mile into 7 pieces, how do you do that? It’s 0.143 miles, but how many feet is that? The answer is a bit more than 754 feet and 3 inches, but that’s an absolute bastard to work out in your head, unless you know your 5280-times tables off by heart.

The metric system officially doesn’t have such a thing as a foot. It scorns this useful measure, going straight from the metre down to the centimetre. But here’s a funny thing. School rulers in metric countries are not one metre long, but 30 centimetres, which is almost exactly a foot. Timber and building materials are often sold, in metric countries, in 30cm units. Just don’t call them feet.

So, err, why is measuring things in 30 cm units a defeat? Again, the metric system doesn’t care how you divide your measurements, so 30 cm is a perfectly valid length for a ruler… so is 50 cm, or 10 cm, or 87 cm, or any other length that takes your fancy.

It is almost invariably forced on people and nations by dictators, revolutions or invasion. It may have its uses in international commerce and science, though Man went to the Moon in feet and inches. But nobody ever wanted it in private dealings.

And NASA’s decision that it, and it alone, would continue to use U.S. customary units instead of metric resulted in the crash of the Mars Climate Orbiter. At any rate, every measurement system has been imposed by force by some people – why do you think India used Imperial until after it declared independence?**

Long story short, we use metric because it is more convenient than Imperial, not less – though, as Hitchens’s past record shows, given a choice between foreignness and inconvenience, he’ll take inconvenience every time.

* Except for the kilogram, which is admittedly still based on a chunk of platinum in a bank vault in Paris. Hopefully not for much longer though…

** Wikipedia also mentions occupied Japan using American units, but I can’t find an independent source for that so I’ll leave it in this footnote.

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My hovercraft is full of “PC gone mad” scares

Sunday has always been a slow day for newspapers, hence the venerable old tradition of the Sunday document leak. The newspapers find a few fairly uninteresting reports, blow them out of all proportion, and voilà! Instant front page (picture via @JonathanHaynes).

Today’s Mail on Sunday exclusive, which took the joint efforts of both Jonathan Petre and Chris Hastings to write, can be summed up by its over-long headline:

EQUALITY MADNESS: Government spends £30m to discover whether preserving fish stocks harms ethnic Chinese, or hovercraft discriminate against gays

Gays on hovercraft? Chinese fishermen? How mad!

The gist of the article is simple enough: the Mail claims that because of the Equality Act 2010, the government has wasted taxpayers money on “bizarre reports” – supposedly to the tune of £30 million. But how “mad” are these reports, anyway? Let’s go through each of the documents the Mail calls “bizarre” and see.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) paid £100,000 to consultants who produced a report investigating how efforts to boost Britain’s coastal fish stocks would affect minority communities including the Chinese, homosexuals and Welsh speakers.

That refers to this document: Draft UK Marine Policy Statement: Equalities Impact Assessment Screening report. The only time Chinese people, gay people and Welsh speakers are mentioned is once in a piece of boilerplate listing various groups that live in Britain (and yes, that includes white people and men) and asking whether any of them might be affected, with the answer of course being “No”. According to the Mail, “the assessment was a ‘small part’ of the total work by Hyder Consulting, for which it was paid £111,477,” though that doesn’t stop them insinuating that every single penny of that hundred grand was spend ticking one checklist.

Next.

The Department for Transport issued a study this month looking at harassment and discrimination on ships and hovercraft. The report covered a range of groups, including transsexuals.

So it’s ships and hovercraft? Why are you just focusing on hovercraft then, Mail on Sunday? Oh wait, it’s because hovercraft are inherently silly, which means homophobic or transphobic abuse on board them is also silly!

The study itself mostly seems to be dealing with clarifying whether the Equality Act should apply to all British flagged vessels, whether it should apply to all vessels in British waters, that sort of thing. A bit of space is also dedicated to making sure disabled people have access to ships – as you can imagine, ships are often not very wheelchair friendly. Transgender people are only mentioned once, in some standard boilerplate, which, again, is just saying “We foresee no special problems for transgender people using ships, no further action is necessary.

Officials at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport [carried] out a so-called ‘equality impact assessment’ to ensure minority groups are able to take a full part in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations next summer.

This seems to be based on a piece that the Mail got caught plagiarising from a blog last month (the report itself is not out yet). Not sure why that’s meant to be bizarre. After all, The Mail‘s always going on about how immigrants should integrate with British society more. You’d think they’d love the idea!

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The Mail’s latest antivaccine scare

Old habits die hard, and for the Mail that means no matter how many times their stories are debunked, their antivaccination scaremongering will never end.

Today’s Mail on Sunday carries the story “Experts admit swine flu jab ‘may cause’ deadly nerve disease“. Note how the phrase “may cause” is in quotes – odd, since the experts in question didn’t use the phrase. In fact, they said the opposite.

The Mail‘s story comes from a routine newsletter from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) called Drug Safety Update, which carries news about safety tests, urgent recalls, new drugs and so on. One of the articles in this month’s update explains the infrastructure that the MHRA put in place to monitor adverse reactions to the swine flu vaccines Pandemrix and Celvapan. Not especially gripping stuff, especially since the conclusion they come to is:

It was evident from our analyses early in the vaccination programme, including similar analyses across the EU, that there was no clear indication of a large increased risk of GBS [Guillaine-Barré syndrome] similar to that seen with swine flu vaccines in the US in 1976. To date, there remains no confirmed evidence to indicate that Pandemrix or Celvapan is associated with an increased risk of GBS.

Of course, this is a scientific document, and any proper scientific document includes caveats. So, sure enough, it continues:

However, given the uncertainties in the available information and as with seasonal flu vaccines, a slightly elevated risk of GBS following H1N1 vaccines cannot be completely ruled out. The benefits of vaccination would still outweigh any small vaccine-attributable risk of GBS.

That first sentence is what the Mail builds the article around entirely, ignoring completely the second. Just as they did with the Royal Society’s climate change advice a few weeks back, they take one statement out of context from an earlier document, in this case a leaked letter from the Health Protection Agency – “There is no evidence to suggest an increased risk of GBS from the vaccines being developed to fight the current pandemic” – compare it to another out-of-context statement made more recently – “Given the uncertainties in the available information and as with seasonal flu vaccines, a slightly elevated risk of GBS following H1N1 vaccines cannot be completely ruled out” – and claim this represents a U-turn in opinion.

Without the original letter itself, which the Mail curiously neglected to actually quote from when it “leaked” it, I can’t know for sure what the HPA actually said. However, going just on that one, out-of-context sentence, here’s a more accurate summary of the change in medical opinion:

2009: “There is no evidence to suggest an increased risk of GBS from the vaccines being developed to fight the current pandemic

2010: “To date, there remains no confirmed evidence to indicate that Pandemrix or Celvapan is associated with an increased risk of GBS.

Guillaine-Barré syndrome is a terrifying condition, but for the Mail to pass that fear on to vaccines that have been proven to be safe is not just misleading but downright harmful. This article has come out in mid-Autumn, just at the time when the NHS’s seasonal flu vaccination scheme reaches its peak. If even one person decides not to get the jab because of this article, that’s one more potential infection this winter. One more potential flu death.

Shame on the Mail.

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The Sunday Times wants women to be more grateful for their unwanted pregnancies

Today the media has vomited up a delightful little piece of rhetoric, twice by The Sunday Times, once under the title “IVF babies aborted as mothers lose in love” and once as “Scandal of aborted IVF babies“,* along with the The Mail on Sunday parroting the The Times‘s findings under the headline “Dozens of IVF babies aborted ‘after women change their minds about becoming a mother’“.

All the articles are based on the news that 80 abortions per year are carried out to terminate foetuses produced by IVF treatment. That’s the entirety of the factual content of the articles. The statistics that this is based on actually seem to have been released two years ago. Oddly, The Times claims it had to use the Freedom of Information act to prise these data out of the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA)’s hands, and the paper carries a snide dig from Dr. Mohamed Taranissi that the HFEA should be “much more open with the data they have” (the paper of course neglects to mention that Taranissi and the HFEA have a somewhat fraught relationship, and that he might not give the most unbiased opinion). In fact, you can download these statistics from the HFEA’s website and have a play with them yourself, although be advised they are in a rather human-unfriendly format.

80 post-IVF abortions, up to half of which are performed on women aged 18-34. Note the use of the word “up to half”, not just “half”. This will be relevant later.

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