Archive for category Too scientific; did not read

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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Evidence? Where Cameron’s going, he doesn’t need evidence!

David Cameron is going to give a speech today with Lord Reid today about the AV referendum. In it, he will say:

“Too often debates about AV are less like political arguments, and more like scientific discussions, where people get lost in a language of proportionality and preferences, probabilities and possibilities.

“Of course, some of these things are important. But for me, politics shouldn’t be some mind-bending exercise. It’s about what you feel in your gut – about the values you hold dear and the beliefs you instinctively have. And I just feel it, in my gut, that AV is wrong.”

Just a reminder, this came from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, not a Richard Littlejohn column or some particularly stupid Comment is Free post. The man who directs a nation of 62 million people and controls the sixth largest economy in the world doesn’t think politics should be about thinking and weighing up different options. Oh no, that’s just “some mind-bending exercise”! No, politics is about what you feel in your gut* and your blind instincts.

Voting systems are, at heart, all about mathematics – each voting system is just a different way of counting people’s opinions. You cannot discuss any voting system without taking into account the way it behaves mathematically. The language of “proportionality and preferences, probabilities and possibilities” is not swamping the debate, it is the debate.

Imagine if this was any other debate. Imagine if David Cameron said we should ignore the clinical trials when deciding whether to fund a particular drug, or the climate models when considering pollution controls, on the grounds that all this scientific evidence was “mind-bending” and got in the way of his “instinctive beliefs”. No-one would think that was an appropriate way for an elected official to make decisions.

If you push the evidence out of the debate, all you’re left with is empty sloganising, blatant untruths and tribal party politics. Without a proper debate on the pros and cons of each voting system, the AV referendum just becomes a Cameron/Clegg popularity contest. That’s a terrible way to decide an issue that will shape government in the UK for decades to come.

* Most of what’s in your gut is digested food, so perhaps Cameron is just saying that politics should be full of shit?

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Radiation scaremongering in the Daily Express

On March 30, The Daily Express ran with this front page this front page article:

TSUNAMI NUCLEAR FALLOUT HITS UK

The headline’s technically true, but the scale of the radioactive fallout compared to the media fallout is a bit out of sync. Slightly elevated levels of the radioactive isotope iodine-131 (I-131) have been seen in Glasgow and Oxfordshire, but the key word here is slightly.

The levels of I-131 detected in Oxfordshire rose by 0.0003 becquerel per cubic metre (Bq/m3), while in Glasgow it rose by just 0.00001 Bq/m3. A becquerel (Bq) is the unit of radioactivity; 1 Bq means you have one radioactive atom decaying and releasing radiation per second. These decays are what produce the distinctive clicks of a Geiger counter; each “click” represents a flash of radiation from the decay of one atom. As you may have seen in school, even when held away from radioactive sources a Geiger counter will probably give you a click or two per second – we’re surrounded natural radiation from the air, the ground, space and even from our own bodies. Around you right now, radon gas is releasing, on average, 20 Bq/m3 of radiation while inside your body, radioactive potassium-40 is decaying at over 4,000 Bq, and carbon-14 is producing radiation at a similar rate. Compared this background radiation, the change due to fallout is minimal: 0.0003 Bq is equivalent to one atom of radioactive iodine decaying per hour, and 0.00001 Bq is one extra decay per day. (For some perspective, after Chernobyl I-131 levels in the air at Harwell reached a maximum of 4 Bq/m3, ten thousand times the levels seen in Oxfordshire.)

Working out how much harm radiation causes isn’t always easy – a few bequerels from radon gas are more harmful than the thousands of bequerels released by potassium in your body, since radon releases harmful alpha radiation instead of the comparatively safe gamma radiation, and radon spends most of its time lurking in your delicate lungs – so to work out the risk you need to work out the equivalent dose, a measure of how much damage the radiation does to the body usually measured in sieverts. Being exposed to 0.0003 Bq/m3 extra I-131 is equivalent to an increased dose of 0.01 microsieverts (μSv) per year. You would absorb almost as much radiation just by sleeping next to someone for one night. For comparison, the smallest dose that we know to be harmful is around 100,000 microsieverts per year; millions of times more than anyone in the UK could receive from the fallout.

The Express quotes John Large, one of the critics of the nuclear industry, as saying:

The International Commission on Radiological Protection – which is made up of government agencies – is quite clear. It says any increase in accumulated radiation dose exposure is accompanied by a proportionate increase in risk. That is the natural law.

For Sepa [Scottish Environmental Protection Agency] to make profound statements about it is ‘not of concern’ to the public is not right. Of course the risk’s tiny but it’s up to the public to decide.

If you want the public to make an informed decision about nuclear power, it has to actually be informed. Screaming about “TSUNAMI NUCLEAR FALLOUT” without providing any context is not helpful, it’s just scaremongering, plain and simple.

Since the harmful dose for radiation is 5 million times higher than the levels found in Oxfordshire, I wonder what John Large would like Sepa to have said. Saying that these radiation levels are not of concern is not leading the public on, it’s simply a cold, hard medical fact. If Large does think these radiation levels are of concern, then may I suggest that his next statement focuses on the extreme dangers of radioactive bedmates.

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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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Planet? Moon? What’s the difference!?

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:

Amazing pictures of lunar planet... the nearest it has been to Earth for 20 years

You know, lunar planet! That… moony planet?

Okay, Daily Mail Reporter, find your nearest 8 year old relative and ask them what the difference is between a “planet” and a “moon“. The answer may (not) surprise you!

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.

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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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The Supermoon did NOT cause the earthquake

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.

Ben Goldacre and Phil Plait have already produced some admirable rebuttals to the Mail‘s exploitative scaremongering; these are my thoughts, but I recommend reading the linked posts.

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.

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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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The Daily Mail guide to being a crappy person

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.

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Asteroid, doom, whatever, yawn

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.

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