Archive for category Total Perspective Vortex

Another anti-contraceptive scare story

Happy new year to everyone!

I don’t normally mention TV news here, but they can slip up too. Channel 4 News yesterday ran a big, scaremongering piece about one simple statistic: 584 people with contraceptive implants became pregnant.

This might be newsworthy, except Channel 4 forgot to mention two rather important things, subsequently picked up on by the BBC.

First of all, the data in question covers 11 years, not just one year.

Secondly, over that time, the implant has been used by around 1.4 million women.

Now fair enough, presumably not everyone who got pregnant after using Implanon reported it, and contraceptive failure is always regrettable. 584 pregnancies among 1.4 million users however means that the implant did not fail in 99.95% of patients. That is very, very reliable in medical terms.

For comparison, vasectomy is 99.9% effective, an IUD is 99.8% effective, the pill is 99.7% effective (when taken properly; people missing doses means that in real life, it’s only 92% effective on average) and condoms are 98% effective (again, when used properly).

It’s always good to make sure people are completely aware of the relative risks of any type of contraceptive (and indeed any medicine), but using these 584 pregnancies as a sign that there’s something wrong with the implant, without any kind of context or an explanation, isn’t going to do this. All it will do is scare people – as Channel 4 have now realised. They’ve since released another article, “Implanon implant: what to do if you’re worried“, which explains:

You do not need to speak to your doctor unless you are very worried and need to have your mind put at rest.

As long as you can feel the implant, there is no cause for concern. The implant is still a very popular, safe and reliable method of contraception.

No method is 100 per cent effective but only a tiny number of women using the implant have got pregnant.

Good advice, but they should have put that in the actual article yesterday.

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It doesn’t snow in the summer

RAIL bosses made the farcical decision to take two de-icing trains out of service at the height of the big freeze, it emerged yesterday.

Hmm, you’re right, Express, that is a bit farc…

The locomotives were away for their annual service when the Arctic weather swept in.

Oh, you mean they were already being serviced before the big freeze started? Still, as the Express says, they should have serviced them in the summer, not the wint…

Network Rail said the two trains were 55 years old and were sent away at the end of the summer to be upgraded.

The process took longer than expected and “extra resources” were brought in from unaffected parts of the network. The company has 30 trains across the country responsible for keeping the railways free of ice.

Oh. In short, here’s a more accurate first paragraph:

RAIL bosses made the decision to take two de-icing trains out of service at the end of summer.



If global warming is real then why is it cold, part 379

As you may have heard, there’s currently a climate conference taking place in Cancún, Mexico. As you may also have heard, it’s snowing.


If, last week, frozen behind a snowdrift, you heard a faint hysterical squeaking, it might well have been the sound of those 20,000 delegates holed up behind a wall of armed security guards in the sun-drenched Mexican holiday resort of Cancun, telling each other that the world is more threatened by runaway global warming than ever.

Yes, it’s the classic “If global warming is real why is it cold?” argument from Christopher Booker, blithely ignoring the fact that 2010 is set to be one of the hottest years on record (and 2000-2009 was the hottest decade on record) regardless of what the weather is like for one week on a small northerly island. To be fair, this isn’t his only argument (even if he does return to the subject three more times in the space of the column). After all, he also has “If the oceans are getting more acidic, why are they still alkaline?”

Far from the oceans acidifying, their pH currently ranges between 7.9 and 8.3, putting them very firmly on the alkaline side of the threshold, at 7.0.

Of course, the fact that the seas are alkaline doesn’t mean they can’t be less alkaline than they were years ago. And sure enough, according to the Australian Antarctic Division:

CO2 from human activities has caused the pH of ocean surface waters to drop by 0.11 pH units. This might not sound like much, but it is equivalent to a 30% increase in acidity.*

Ocean acidification is never going to turn the oceans completely acidic – that would require a 1580% rise in ocean acidity, which is a bit unlikely. What acidification will do – and what it has already done, in fact – is bring acidity up just enough to interfere with creatures like coral, which rely on the precise chemistry of the ocean to produce their skeletons.

His other argument?

It is only those same old computer models that predict that Tuvalu and the Maldives are about to drown, when real measurements show the sea around them not to be rising at all.

It’s true that one dataset from Tuvalu did appear to show no sea level rise. Unfortunately (for both Booker and the Tuvaluans) that data was taken from a single station over a relatively short period and presented without uncertainties, making it effectively meaningless. Analysis of more data from Tuvalu (PDF, p.11) finds a sea level rise of 1.2 ± 0.8 mm/year. The uncertainty in the data is still quite large (not least because the island of Tuvalu itself is moving by a small but unknown amount), but there certainly appears to be a sea level rise. At any rate, regardless of whether or not the sea level is rising at Tuvalu right now, it’s certainly rising worldwide at a rate which threatens people living in low-lying land.

The global warming scare may have been fun for the children while it lasted. But the time has come for the joke to be declared well and truly over.

Some joke.

Incidentally, Booker finishes off his column with a link to some people singing Handel’s Hallelujah in a food court which, he claims, is “the very opposite of all that is stood for by global warming, social workers, the European Union, the Coalition Government and the rest of this column’s usual fare“. Because if there’s one thing environmentalists really hate, it’s people singing.

* pH is a logarithmic measure of acidity, which means that numbers appear to work slightly oddly. A drop of about 0.3 on the pH scale corresponds roughly to a doubling of the activity of H+ ions (the ions that cause acidity), and a drop of 1 (from 8 to 7, for instance) represents a tenfold increase in H+ activity.



Plunged into chaos

A cat and a dog

Cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria! (Photo by PT, CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

You know those adverts for household gadgets where they make squeezing toothpaste or putting lids on pens look like some impossibly laborious chore? I think the the Daily Express watches them and thinks “We could do better than that!

BRITONS face a day of chaos tomorrow as the clocks turn back an hour, plunging the country into evening darkness.


Now, a disclaimer. If there was sufficiently strong evidence that double summer time would be beneficial to the country, then I’d be all for it. The problem is that when Portugal, a country in the same time zone as the UK, tried moving to European time during the mid-90s, the sun set so late in the evening that it interfered with sleep cycles, and insurance companies reported a rise in accidents, not a fall (PDF, p. 13-14). There may still be a case for changing the time zone, but it’s certainly not as clear cut as the Express would have you believe.

So anyway, CHAOS.

A third of us will oversleep, 20 per cent will wake up to a cold house after forgetting to change the central heating timer and one in eight will arrive at work late over the coming days.

Better start preparing that bomb shelter!

Research by energy company npower also found that almost half of parents say the change in daylight hours will affect their children’s sleep patterns.

It will take an average of three days to readjust, with 40 per cent of people polled saying it would be harder to get their children to school on Monday.

That’s all very good and well, but pushing the UK forwards a time zone won’t change that. We’ll still have a clock change and, as Portugal saw, double summer time is more disruptive to children’s sleep patterns.

In fact, everything the Express has said so far is just as bad for its own Crusade for Change as it is for the current scheme. These aren’t arguments for changing time zone, these are arguments for scrapping summer time altogether.

The warnings come as growing numbers of politicians, businesses and families back the Daily Express Time For Change crusade.

29 million of them, in fact. If you include the imaginary ones.

And as Tabloid Watch points out, yesterday the Express claimed 58% of people supported the change. Before the campaign began, 60% of people did. Growing numbers indeed.



A liberal helping of dodgy science

The Mail and The Telegraph are both fairly right-wing papers, so it’s perhaps not surprising that both have seized on a study showing a genetic “cause” for liberal political views; the Mail under the headline “The gene that makes you lean to the Left: How genetic variant determines your political views” and the Telegraph under “Left wing liberals are born not bred” (The Telegraph also has a satirical opinion piece about the study which, with the help of an American cartoon nabbed from Google Images, manages to accuse the Lib Dems of supporting communism).

The theory goes that a certain gene – the “7-repeat” variant of the gene DRD4 – causes an increase in novelty seeking behaviour (though some studies claim this isn’t actually true), and this makes people search out more alternative views on things, broadening their horizons and generally making them more liberal.

The papers aren’t completely misrepresenting the study – the scientists did indeed find that people who had the 7R form of DRD4 and a large social circle tended to self identify as more liberal than people without. However, they clearly missed a very important paragraph of the study:

For most traits, the effects of individual genes are too small to stand out against the combined influence of all other genes and environmental factors. […] Thus, perhaps the most valuable contribution of this study is not to declare that “a gene was found” for anything, but rather, to provide the first evidence for a possible gene-environment interaction for political ideology

The scientists then went on to say

While our finding is statistically significant, the strength of the association is quite small. However, even in a biometric trait such as height, less than 15% of the variation has been attributed to specific genes. Genetic effects take place in complex interaction with other genes and environments, and it is likely the combination of hundreds if not thousands of genes interacting with each other and with external stimuli that influence political attitudes and behavior.

(Emphasis mine)

This gene isn’t the be-all-and-end-all the papers claim it is. Rather, it’s a gene that, if you ignore everything else, may have a small effect on someone’s political views. There is incredibly wide variation in political views among everybody, whether they have the gene or not.



The Daily Express has 29 million imaginary friends

SUDDENLY, the nights are drawing in. The sky is filling with the smoky grey clots of churning vapour that herald the annual return of Boreas and his frigid kingdom of shade and bluster. Worst of all, men, women and children are forced to eat their tea in the dark because no-one has invented the light bulb yet.

From the darkness rises our saviour, St. Desmond, at the vanguard of the heroic Crusade for Change. Where the Daily Express leads, an army 29 million strong follows

Wait, 29 million? That sounds a bit much, surely? The turnout at the last general election was only 29.6 million – are you telling me as many people care about the Daily Express‘s “crusade” as care about national politics in general?

In fact, all that happened is that Santander carried out a survey, and 58% of those polled said that the government should look at the current Summer Time system. Not that they definitely agreed with the Express, just that they thought it might be worth checking. The Daily Express has then multiplied this figure by 50 million – a ballpark estimate of the population of England – and assumed that therefore 29 million people must be in favour.

Without being able to see the survey, there’s no way of knowing how representative of the British population this survey is. Already though, one thing seems clear; while the Express talks about 29 million Britons, it might be more accurate to say 29 million Englanders. Messing with British Summer Time is somewhat less popular in Scotland and the North of England, as the Daily Express itself secretly recognises.

Let’s look at some of the other findings of the study.

According to the study, 45 per cent will feel unusually depressed during the daylight-starved winter months.

Concerns are also mounting about children walking home in the dark and the danger of personal injury, with one in four people saying they feel more at risk as evenings draw in.

In addition, some 36 per cent – 17.7 million people – believe there is an increased chance of road traffic accidents, and one in four also insist they feel more at risk from burglary.

In other words, 3 in 4 do not feel more at risk, 64% of people did not say they believed there was an increased chance of road traffic accidents, and 3 in 4 do not feel at risk of burglary. Bringing seasonal affective disorder (winter depression) into this is a low blow – it appears to be caused not by clock changes, but just by the fact that there is less light overall during winter.

I’m not sure how much difference clock changes would have to some of those anyway. There is good evidence that “double summer time” reduces traffic accidents in England (but raises them in Scotland), but I couldn’t find any evidence about the others – there are some papers on whether clock changes can cause depression, but the conclusions look, well, inconclusive.

So, in the interests of improving the state of mathematics, I’m going to poll the entire world about whether the Daily Express needs remedial lessons on how to use statistics and surveys. That means potentially upwards of 6,877,939,067 voters, all weighing in. Lend us your opinion, have your say, and help my Crusade for Change!

(Hat tip to Exclarotive)

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UKIP spaces out

EU IS ON ANOTHER PLANET - Daily Express front page

No... pretty sure Europe's on Earth

The Daily Express has an EXCLUSIVE today: the EU is spending money on things! Well, when they say “Exclusive”, what they actually mean is that they just downloaded the draft EU budget for 2011 and searched for “space” and “films”.

As millions of Britons faced swingeing cuts, the draft EU budget reveals an extra £23million will be spent on space research next year, taking the annual total to £204million.

Taxpayers’ cash is also being funnelled into a £670million subsidy of pro-European documentaries and art-house films revelling in scenes of sex and violence.

All EU funded films do of course have to have at least one ultra-violent orgy scene, hence why sick depraved films like Tamara Drewe received a subsidy. Still, it’s the Express‘s stance on space travel that intrigues me, and by the Express‘s stance, I mean UKIP’s stance, since that’s where this story seems to have come from:

Nigel Farage, frontrunner to lead the UK Independence Party, last night described the draft budget as proof that Brussels had lost touch with reality. He said: “The idea of sending eurocrats into orbit has its charms but £23million extra for space research is bizarre.

“Will the first EU space rocket have gold-plated taps and marble flooring? It seems our eurocrats have finally got off the Brussels gravy train and boarded Starship Excess.”

The first European space rocket? That would be the Ariane 1, built back in the 1970s.* Not a gold tap or marble floor in sight.

So, is £204 million an outrageous sum to spend on space? By comparison, the UK spends £268 million per year on the UK Space Agency – probably frozen at the moment, but last year, that figure rose by £29 million – and contributes hundreds of millions more to ESA. Per person, the UK spent far more on space than the EU. Besides, if the EU withdrew support for ESA, all that would happen would be that member states would have to take the slack – the total British expenditure for space would not change significantly.

*The European Space Agency is not technically EU, but it is funded by them, and somehow I doubt the EU is going to start its own rocket program in parallel with Ariane.


Churnalism? There’s an app for that

The DNS servers seem to have made a terrible mistake today, and accidentally swapped the Daily Mail‘s site with that of the Apple app store. How else am I to explain the fact that today’s main science story is “Ugly Meter: The 59p iPhone app that tells you how good-looking (or not) you are“? There’s not really a lot to the story. Our intrepid friend “Daily Mail Reporter” downloaded the app and then input the faces of various celebrities into it, just to make sure we know “scientifically” who the most attractive X Factor judge is and what insults the app decided to throw at Christina Hendricks (according to the program, the ugliest person who has ever lived).

It should be reasonably obvious that attractiveness, being an extremely subjective quantity, cannot be measured by holding an iPhone up to an old back issue of the Mail, and that the app has all the scientific value of mobile phone X-rays and nude scanners (both links go to Youtube videos). In case you didn’t guess, the app simply generates a random number and then throws an insult at you. In other words Daily Mail Reporter didn’t even double check their results; they just found an old showbiz magazine, took some photos of it with a 59p program running on their phone, wrote some sneering copy about Brat Pitt, David Cameron and Christina Hendricks (because what articles these days would be complete without a Mad Men reference), clapped their hands and clicked “Publish” with the glowing satisifaction of a job well done.

That’s what journalism has become. iPhone apps and Mad Men. Good job, world, good job.



Pain in the asteroid


A ludicrously overdramatic diagram of an asteroid racing towards Earth from the Mail



Some time yesterday morning, a GIANT asteroid SKIMMED PAST the Earth. Of course, you were probably aware of this from the breathtaking meteor showers, massive tsunamis, devastating volcanoes and dreary Aerosmith ballads that ravaged the planet in its wake. The asteroid, TD54, was so GIANT in fact that it was NEARLY THE SIZE OF A DOUBLE-DECKER BUS, The Mail informs us, presumably with pants wet from fright. Not even reassurances from NASA that the asteroid a) could not possibly hit Earth, b) was small enough to burn up in our atmosphere and c) that this sort of thing happens literally every day prevent the Daily Mail calling this a “close call” and a “near miss”.

Read the rest of this entry »


Daily Mail fails to tell difference between fact and fiction

Daily Mail caption reading "Gun pointed at royal"

Totally not a misleading caption

Today, as every day, the Mail is outraged*, this time about a drama about Prince Harry being taken hostage while serving in Afghanistan. While the recent spate of fictional docudramas based on tragic events happening to real people are often not in the best taste – Channel 4 dramatising of the hypothetical execution of Gary Glitter accompanied by a remix of “Monster Mash” was possibly a bit of a low – that’s not the argument that the Mail uses against the show. Instead, the article takes a turn for the bizarre:


Channel 4 is to show a ‘dramatised documentary’ based on what would happen if Prince Harry were taken prisoner serving in Afghanistan.

The 90-minute film includes scenes showing the prince, played by actor Sebastian Reid, being held behind enemy lines while negotiations are carried out to free him.

The Taking Of Prince Harry shows the prince at one point with an unloaded gun pointed at his face before one of his captors pulls the trigger.

Although Clarence House has not responded to the documentary makers, royalists will be outraged by the programme and the potential risk to the throne.*

“Potential risk to the throne”? I do hope the Daily Mail realises this is a fictional drama; Channel 4 did not actually put a gun to Prince Harry’s face and pull the trigger. In fact, since Prince Harry returned from Afghanistan in February 2008, it’s hard to see what the “potential risk to the throne” may be. The article certainly never tells us.

The best the Mail can come up with is that “it has already prompted concern that extremists may take ideas from the programme” – though who had these concerns is never mentioned, nor why extremists would have to watch the show to have the idea, especially when there are already “reports and stories of jihadi websites saying he should be the number one target“.

According to the article, Prince Harry is not outraged, Clarence House is not outraged, Buckingham Palace is not outraged, the security forces are not outraged – the only people who are outraged appear to be the Daily Mail.

* “Royalists will be outraged” after we tell them a bunch of reasons to be outraged might be more accurate.

Edit! The Mail has altered the article. Now we’re no longer to be worried about Channel 4 shooting fictional Prince Harry. Instead, it now says “Members of the military will be appalled at the sense of defeatism the show is likely to sew [sic] in viewers back home already questioning the value of the war in Afghanistan”, while the headline now reads “Army outraged as ‘distasteful’ Channel Four drama shows Prince Harry taken hostage by Taliban in Afghanistan” (though the article itself still doesn’t back up the claim that anyone is actually outraged). Not much of an improvement, but at least they don’t claim that the show represents “a risk to the throne” (which is a good thing – if the claim was true, that would mean Channel 4 was committing the offence of treason felony).

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