Posts Tagged Telegraph

The EU, prunes, and the problem with “patent truth”

Hey! I know it’s been a while since I blogged. Hopefully you haven’t missed me too much. Anyway.

Prunes are not a laxative, EU rules, says today’s Telegraph, endowing the EU with frankly godlike powers. Did someone in Brussels snap their fingers and magically prunes suddenly ceased to be laxatives?

Let’s help the Telegraph and suggest a more accurate headline. Perhaps…

Prunes are not a laxative, science suggested two years ago

The laxative effect of prunes is one of those things that “everyone knows”.  Certainly MEP and frequent talking head Roger Helmer agrees, claiming:

“The euro is burning, the EU is falling apart and yet here they are: highly-paid, highly-pensioned officials worrying about the obvious qualities of water and trying to deny us the right to say what is patently true.”

Ignoring the fact that this study was carried out in mid-2009, before the Euro crisis kicked off, Roger Helmer has an interesting definition of “patently true”.

The study looked at the scientific evidence for the effectiveness specifically of dried prunes. There were two studies of the effectiveness of dried prunes in humans at the time:

Daily Consumption of Dried Plum by Postmenopausal Women Does Not Cause Undesirable Changes in Bowel Function” by Edmund Lucas et al and “Consumption of prunes as a source of dietary fiber in men with mild hypercholesterolemia” by Lesley Tinker et al. Lucas found that there was no significant difference between apples and prunes in stool bulk, consistency, frequency or pain, and Tinker found a difference in stool weight between prunes and grape juice, but no effect on consistency or frequency.

A third study they looked at, “Prune juice has a mild laxative effect in adults with certain gastrointestinal symptoms” showed that as you can probably guess from the title, prune juice did appear to have laxative effects – hence why they only talk about dried plums in the report.

Now, it’s possible that dried prunes are laxative – a much more recent study (albeit one funded by the “California Dried Plum Board”) from 2011 found that prunes appear to work better than the laxative psyllium at relieving constipation – but at the time this report was written, it simply would not have been accurate to say that, based on the body of available evidence, prunes were any better at keeping you “regular” than any other sort of fruit.

(The Telegraph also claims that the EU banned claiming that drinking water could prevent dehydration. Read the actual article, and the very last paragraph reveals that they’re talking about clincal dehydration, which is normally caused by disease rather than by not drinking enough fluids and that “This claim is trying to imply that there is something special about bottled water which is not a reasonable claim”)

Edit: Just found this excellent post by Martin Robbins about the dehydration claim.

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James Delingpole uses quack medicine to prove carbon dioxide is harmless. Er…

(Hat tip to @rbhinkley for pointing out the original article)

Imagine a world where CO2 was not a deadly poison in need of urgent regulation by the European Union and the Environmental Protection Agency but a hugely beneficial trace gas which helped plants to thrive… If you’ve read [Delingpole's tastefully plugged book] Watermelons – or indeed hung around this column for any length of time – you’ll know that that world already exists.

So begins James Delingpole’s latest blog post. Let’s start with the slightly less obvious problem here: governments do not control carbon dioxide because it is a poison, they control it because it has damaging effects on the environment. Whether or not it’s poisonous has no bearing on climate change.

Secondly, carbon dioxide is poisonous. It’s not poisonous at the levels you’ll find in the air around you, assuming you’re reading this from a reasonably well-ventilated room, but at a concentration of around 3% you’ll start to feel drowsy, and as the concentration increases you’ll quickly suffer sensory impairment and eventually black out and can even die. Your body does need a tiny bit of carbon dioxide in the blood, otherwise you suffer what’s known as hypocapnia, but that’s not caused by environmental CO2, that’s caused by hyperventilating (it’s a big problem with divers, which is why you shouldn’t take short, hard breaths before diving).

So why does Delingpole want to claim otherwise? Well, he’s discovered something called the Buteyko Method – supposedly a way of breathing which increases the amount of carbon dioxide in your body, supposedly curing collapsed lungs, ME, MS, depression, arthritis, asthma, emphysema and even Crohn’s disease.

The only evidence Delingpole gives that it works? Well, it works for him. Fair enough – controlled breathing techniques are widelyknown to reduce stress, and if that helps him personally then fine. But remember he’s a journalist – surely before he sells it to his readers (and it does read like a sales pitch – he lists the locations of upcoming workshops… £375 workshops) he should find some concrete evidence that it works – and, crucially, that it has anything to do with CO2?

There’s not much research into whether it works, unfortunately, and a lot of it doesn’t seem to be fantastic quality. Still, here’s a quote from a review paper looking into the method (in particular, its effect on asthma):

Buteyko’s theory relating to carbon dioxide levels and airway calibre is an attractive one, and has some basis in evidence from experimental studies. However, it is not known whether altering breathing patterns can raise carbon dioxide levels significantly, and there is currently insufficient evidence to confirm that this is the mechanism behind any effect that [Buteyko Breathing Technique] BBT may exert. Further research is necessary to establish unequivocally whether BBT is effective, and if so, how it may work. (emphasis mine)

Doesn’t sound fantastic. Maybe the paper “Strengths, Weaknesses, and Possibilities of the Buteyko Breathing Method” will be more promising.

Studies with the Buteyko Method have found that resting carbon dioxide levels do not change after Buteyko training despite reported improvement in symptoms

Ouch.

Ok, how about a study from the same author, “Investigating the Claims of Konstantin Buteyko, M.D., Ph.D.

The results revealed a negative correlation between BHT and ETCO2 (r = −0.241, p < 0.05), directly opposite to Buteyko’s claims.

[ETCO2 is end tidal CO2, the amount of CO2 released at the end of a breathing cycle]

Or how about this large, randomised controlled study* – again into its effects on asthma.

This study, which we believe to be the largest randomised controlled trial and the first to use a global assessment of asthma control as a primary outcome in a non-pharmacological intervention in asthma, failed to show a difference between the intervention (Buteyko) and control (physiotherapy) groups.

Oh dear.

Even Wikipedia, refuge of the lazy journalist, points out that there is no evidence that the CO2 theory is correct and there’s little medical support for the technique!

Where does that leave us? There’s not much evidence that it works, no evidence that it increases CO2 levels, and indeed, some evidence that it may have the exact opposite effect. Does it help with asthma? Perhaps, although apparently no better than any other breathing method. Does it prove that CO2 is unequivocally good for you? Of course not.

* Although as the researchers point out, it was not blinded – which makes the fact that it didn’t work even more striking.

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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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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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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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A balanced and measured reponse to James Delingpole

Have you been enjoying the saga about the wind farms that might or might not kill whales? I do hope so. The aspect of it which I have particularly enjoyed is the sanctimonious and hypocritical rage of a vociferous lobby group of self-styled “skeptics.” (See here, here and here.) Though mostly based in Britain, they spell themselves in the American style to distinguish themselves from “sceptics” like me. That’s because, unlike proper sceptics* they – get this! – are card-carrying members of the Church of Climate Change.

I have been insulted by James Delingpole. I have officially made it!

Anyway, the reason James Delingpole claims “we” (I’m not sure why I’ve been lumped in with Ben Goldacre, but I’m honoured) are hypocritical is that we attacked him for using dodgy and distorted facts in this case, and didn’t attack all his other dodgy and distorted facts:

After all, whether or not wind farms harm cetaceans, we do know beyond all reasonable doubt that wind farms:

Despoil countryside, frighten horses, chop up birds, spontaneously combust, drive down property prices, madden those who live nearby with their subsonic humming, drive up electricity prices, promote rentseeking, make rich landowners richer (and everyone else poorer), ruin views, buy more electric sports cars for that dreadful Dale Vince character, require rare earth minerals which cause enormous environmental damage, destroy 3.7 real jobs for every fake “green” job they “create”, blight neighbourhoods, kill off tourism and ruin lives.

So isn’t it, you might argue, ever so slightly odd to get so het up over the issue as to whether or not they harm whales too?

So fair enough, let’s get het up over all of these:

    • Despoil countryside“. That’s kind of subjective, surely. If you think wind turbines look ugly, then yes, they despoil the countryside. But then, so does this. And this. And this. And this.
    • Frighten horses“. True to an extent; horses startle easily after all. However, there are plenty of places where wind farms and stables coexist, and careful design can eliminate the problems caused by flickering shadows worrying the animals.
    • Chop up birds“. Actually, the number of bird deaths associated with wind turbines is much smaller than the number of deaths caused birds flying into other buildings and stationary structures.
    • Spontaneously combust“. As far as I can tell from the limited stats available, wind turbine fires don’t appear to be any more common than any other type of fire. And at least wind turbines only produce smoke and pollution when they are in fact on fire; to paraphrase George Monbiot, wind power causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right.
    • Drive down property prices“. Yet again, so does coal and nuclear.
    • Madden those who live nearby with subsonic humming“. This is fair enough. That’s one point to Delingpole.
    • Drive up energy prices“. Actually, onshore wind costs as much per MW as coal power, and quite a bit less than nuclear power. Offshore wind is more expensive, but it also solves most of the above problems. Whoops, there goes that point.
    • Promote rentseeking, make rich landowners richer (and everyone else poorer), [...] buy more electric sports cars for that dreadful Dale Vince character.” Basically, this comes down to whether you’d rather it was coal power companies or wind power companies who were rich.
    • Ruin views“. No, James, you already did this one with “despoil countryside”. -1 point.
    • Require rare earth minerals which cause enormous environmental damage“. Now, this is a good point. Most of our rare earths at the moment come from China, which until very recently had very lax environmental controls, so the byproducts from mining them is causing environmental damage, and ideally I would rather our rare earths came from more eco-friendly sources. This isn’t just a problem with wind turbines though, it’s a problem with practically every piece of electronics in use today. Rare earth elements are used in making hard-drives, lasers, computer chips, medical images, headphones, guitar pickups and dynamos, not just wind turbines. Besides, once again, oil drilling, coal mining, uranium mining, peat cutting, even making the concrete for dams – all of these have environmental downsides as well. For this to be an argument against wind, you need to show that the damage caused by rare earths is worse than the damage caused by the above.
    • Destroy 3.7 real jobs for every green job they create“. Here’s what Full Fact had to say about that:

However the Verso Economics report was not actually seeking to address indirect benefits or jobs gained through investment in this sector. Further, the BBC reports a spokesman for the Scottish government arguing the report is “misleading”, saying it vastly underestimates the jobs created in the renewables sector and does not consider the impact of private investment. They argue that there is no negative impact on public services or public sector budgets from government support of renewables.
Whether or not these criticisms of the report ring true, there is another potential problem in using its findings to show a net loss of jobs across the UK. The original report does not address the entire UK ‘green’ jobs sector, but is focused on jobs created in the renewables sector in Scotland. Therefore, it is something of an extrapolation, and one in which it is difficult to have full confidence.

  • Blight neighbourhoods“. Pretty sure you’ve already done that one too.
  • Kill off tourism“. In fact, wind turbines have negligible effect on tourism.
  • Ruin lives“. Quite unlike climate change and global warming, which I’m sure has never ruined lives. OH WAIT.

* So let me get this straight. Fake sceptics are sceptical about the things they read, “proper sceptics” blindly regurgitate whatever they read in blogs or press releases into national newspapers without doing even the briefest of fact checks. Good to know.

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Delingpole gets whaled on

(Massive hat-tip to @rbhinkley)

“Wind farms kill whales: blubber on the green movement’s hands

That’s the typically subtle and balanced headline of today’s piece by James Delingpole, which is based on an article in yesterday’s Telegraph, “Wind farms blamed for stranding of whales“, which is itself based on the research article “Beaked Whales Respond to Simulated and Actual Navy Sonar” published on Monday. “Simulated and Actual Navy Sonar”? That doesn’t sound like it’s about wind farms at all! Luckily, the paper was published in the open access journal PLoS ONE, so we can read the whole thing (PDF).

There is not one mention of the phrases “wind turbine” or “wind farm”, or indeed even the word “wind” at all. Nor is there any mention of beaching beyond hypothetical suggestions that sonar may cause it – although they found whales were tending to stay away from military sonar, they didn’t find direct evidence that this was causing whales to get stranded.

Two hours ago, Ian Boyd of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St. Andrews – the scientist quoted in the articles – left the following comment on The Telegraph‘s website (Edit: The article has now been deleted. I’ve preserved the comment below):

This article is an abomination. Its quotes me extensively. At no point in all the interactions I have had with The Press on this issue have I ever mentioned wind farms. I disagree with the way the article was written and especially with the implications of its headline. Several of the apparent quotations from me are not ones that I recognise. I never spoke to a journalist from the Daily Telegraph so I wonder how this article was compiled. At very least it was second-hand reporting.

There are no wind turbines in the report. The scientist quoted denies ever mentioning wind turbines. In fact, from the looks of it, the only people who did mention wind turbines are the journalists at The Telegraph.

Now might be a good time to bring out that classic Delingpole quote (Youtube link).

“It is not my job to sit down and read peer-reviewed papers, because I simply don’t have the time, I don’t have the scientific expertise. [...] I am an interpreter of interpretations.”

An interpreter of entirely false interpretations, in this case.

Update: The Telegraph has withdrawn the article, and printed a correction. Delingpole’s blog post remains up.

Double update: Delingpole has belatedly updated the blog post. It now ends:

It has been drawn to my attention that the man who led the St Andrews research team has violently, passionately and emphatically dissociated himself from the original Telegraph news item suggesting that his research showed wind farms to be deleterious to the health of whales. I am delighted to put this straight.

What this means is that, though at this stage we know for absolute certain that wind farms despoil countryside, frighten horses, [here follows a list of fifty-bazillion unsourced claims about wind turbines], the possibility that they also lure whales to their doom remains at this stage an unproven hypothesis. (Just like Anthropogenic Global Warming theory, then.)

The phrase “I am delighted to put this straight” has never sounded less sincere.

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Supermoon!

The moon from Majora's Mask

You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?

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.

The answer:

But astronomers have dismissed the claims as pure nonsense.

Take us away, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Edit:

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.

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Sham painful supernova

Everyone knows the old Mark Twain quote, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes“. Today we have a weirdly literal example of that.

A couple of days ago, the Australian news site news.com.au ran a story which claimed that the star Betelgeuse was going to go supernova in 2012, that its explosion would light up the sky, that it would burn so brightly that we’d have two suns, and that the explosion would tie in with the old 2012 Mayan prophecy BS.

Pretty quickly, astronomers like Phil Plait and Ian O’Neill wrote responses to the article, pointing out that while an exploding Betelgeuse would be spectacular, it would still be less bright than the moon (so no two suns), it would be too far away to have any effect on the planet, and we have no way of knowing whether Betelgeuse would explode tomorrow or in a million years.

Guess which line the British papers have gone for?

The Daily Mail runs with Earth ‘to get second sun’ as supernova turns night into day, complete with a still from Star Wars (because that’s a movie that had two suns in it!) while The Telegraph has ‘Second sun’ on its way. Both claim that “scientists” have predicted the 2012 supernova, but as far as I can tell, no-one’s done any such thing. The scientist quoted by news.com.au actually just made perfectly sensible comments about what supernovae are – the only connection to 2012 is randomly thrown in by the journalist who wrote the piece, Claire Connelly.

For a full debunking, either of the blogposts linked above is worth reading, as is news.com.au’s own apologetic follow-up, Betelgeuse ‘not likely to explode in 2012′.

Of course, it won’t be long before this story – devoid of context and rebuttals – gets pride of place on 2012 conspiracy sites, and then the whole vicious cycle will begin again.

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Is dodgy neuroscience in journalists’ nature or their nurture?

(Hat-tip to This Wicked Day for the link, and for pointing out that I can’t spell)

Another story exclusive to all papers: The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Daily Express have all churned out a story based on this morning’s Today (two parts, sound only).* The show was guest edited by Colin Firth, who decided to use this as an opportunity to commission some research into whether political views are visible in brain structure.

The results are fairly interesting – though the only place they’ve so far been published is on the Today show’s blog, which means I can’t really comment on them in any detail. As far as I can tell, this is what they found: people who self-identified as left-wing or liberal were found to generally have a thicker anterior cingulate – the part of the brain believed to deal with empathy and decision making – while people who described themselves as right-wing conservative had a larger right-hand amygdala – the structure which seems to be do with anxiety and higher emotion processing. There seems to be some confusion on the Today show blog about whether it’s a “strong correlation” or “a weak but statistically significant correlation”.

The problem is that, just as with the so-called “liberal gene“, there’s nothing here which proves that these structures actually cause people to be left or right wing. For one thing, we don’t know which way the correlation runs; in other words, whether having a larger amygdala causes people to be right wing, or whether being right wing just makes the amygdala grow – or whether there’s something else hidden in the body which affects political views and brain structure.

Secondly, again, just like with the liberal gene, it’s possible that political views are only indirectly linked to brain structure – the fact that the correlation between the two was weak would seem to back this up. For example, if people with a thick anterior cingulate are generally better at empathy, and more empathic people are generally more liberal, then there might be a small correlation between cingulate size and left wing leanings. This would not mean that one causes the other however! It would be perfectly possible for someone with a thin cingulate to be empathic, and for someone with a thick cingulate to be self-centred. Our brain structure isn’t the only thing that affects our personality – nor are our political views driven entirely by our empathy and our anxiety.

* Interestingly, the reliably right wing Mail goes for the self-deprecating headline “Tory voters found to have larger ‘primitive’ lobe in brain” while the similarly leaning Express runs with the exact opposite: “Lefty? Blame the shape of your brain“.

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