Archive for category * Science

Is it a meteor? Is it a plane? No it’s… a star

One thing The Mail normally does quite well are giant picture spreads – stories with lots of giant photos and maybe a couple of hundred words of text to explain them. Normally…

Image of rings of light in the sky, described by the Mail as "spiralling meteors"

Am I being pedantic? I don’t care; the “spiralling meteors” are not meteors, they’re stars! As the Earth turns, the stars seem to rotate around the Pole Star (the “stationary” speck of light in the centre of the image), and if you take a long exposure photograph of them they seem to draw circles in the sky. Now, there are meteors in this image but they are not spiralling and they are, err, a bit tricky to see, especially since The Mail has squished the images down to web resolution.

The image with 4 barely visible meteors highlighted

Edit: After I’ve complained about the Mail squashing the image too much, WordPress has gone and squashed it even further. Click on the images to view them unsquashed.

Can you see them? They’re more visible in the full size version, and they do not spiral. In fact, that’s how you tell a meteor from a star – the meteor moves so quickly that the rotation of the Earth has no effect on its apparent path, so it blazes in a straight line across the sky. All in all, this is a great star trail picture, but it’s not the best meteor picture ever, and the way The Mail has presented it means it’s not a meteor picture at all.

As the photographer Mark Humpage says on his website:

The bright moon made watching/capturing difficult this year and the very wide angle shot makes for a good composition but lesser meteor detail.

Incidentally, there are a lot of really good photos on Humpage’s website – not just of stars and satellites, but hurricanes, icebergs and aurorae too – and, unlike The Mail, he knows the difference between a star and a meteor. Enjoy!

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The Daily Mail blames “brain chemicals” for riots… the research they cite doesn’t

Daily Mail headline: Rioters have ‘lower levels’ of brain chemical that keeps impulsive behaviour under control

Do they? Well, some of them might, but the research in question wasn’t about rioters at all.

Researchers from the University of Cardiff uncovered a link between impulsiveness and levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in a key brain region.

… Around 30 male university students had their levels of GABA measured using a specialised type of brain scan.

They were also asked to complete questionnaires that assessed different aspects of impulsiveness, a trait known to influence self-control.

Participants with more GABA in the pre-frontal brain region had lower scores for ‘urgency’ – the tendency to behave rashly in response to distress or strong emotions and urges.

There was no connection to rioting in the study. Any connection made in the article is being made by journalists – this article has no by-line, being published solely under the Daily Mail Reporter name, but I think it came from the Press Association originally – and it’s a tenuous connection. You see, The Mail is working completely backwards here – they’ve decided that since people who have less GABA tend to behave more rashly, people who they think behaved rashly must have less GABA. You might as well assume that since every MP is in London right now, everyone in London is an MP.

Besides, although the paper in question, “Dorso-lateral prefrontal gamma-amino butyric acid in men predicts individual differences in rash impulsivity” (in Biological Psychiatry not Biological Society, despite what The Mail claims) did find a connection between GABA and impulsiveness, it wasn’t as strong as The Mail claims:

Figure 1 from the paper

Figure 1 from the paper (highlights my own)

That’s a graph from the paper, showing the connection between the amount of GABA in one particular part of the brain (along the bottom axis) and how strong the individual’s feeling of urgency was (along the side axis) in two groups (cohorts). There does appear to be a correlation (the R number is a measure of how strong this correlation is; R = -0.7 is a reasonable correlation) but look at the two I’ve highlighted with red dots in cohort 2. These two people have the same amount of GABA in their brains, but one of them was incredibly impulsive while the other was one of the calmest people in the study. Likewise, in cohort 1, while there was a definite tendency for people with more GABA to be less impulsive, just look at that cluster of dots – there are impulsive people with lots of GABA, and cautious people without it.

The best you could possibly say about this article is that maybe on average a rioter* has less GABA than normal, assuming these riots are entirely impulsive and there is nothing at all planned or premeditated about them. But then, why does this study need to be connected to riots at all? The paper came out in July before the riots, it’s not about riots – or any kind of violence at all – and none of the scientists quoted mention them, and to be honest, blaming the riots entirely on brain chemistry leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. As Mindhacks has pointed out, The Daily Mail seems to be going to great lengths to avoid exploring any of the context behind the riots, and this kind of story helps bolster the Mail‘s line that there is no deeper cause of these riots than “criminality pure and simple”.

Wales Online originally ran this story too (here’s the Google cache, and if that stops working, here’s a screenshot), but they’ve since realised there’s nothing in this proving anything about the brains of rioters and have replaced the story with an altogether more reasonable report on the research. Will The Mail follow suit? Let’s see.

* Male rioters at least – the study only looked at men, so there’s no guarantee this correlation is true in women too.

Edit: The researchers behind the study have published a scathing rebuttal in The Guardian, saying “Let us be absolutely clear. Our research has almost nothing to say about rioting, and certainly can’t be used to justify or excuse any type of behaviour.” Despite complaints from the scientists, The Mail‘s article is still online.

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A punny reply from the TaxPayers’ Alliance

A couple of days ago, Primly Stable commented on the post from last month about the false claims that the NHS was buying loaves of bread for £32 a piece, pointing out that The Express had issued a retraction of the story (though it remains available online), and Tabloid Watch followed this up with an excellent post pointing out that The Sun had quietly deleted the story too.

At Tabloid Watch’s suggestion, I emailed Emma Boon of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, who was quoted by a number of papers (including The Mail and The Telegraph) as saying

“It smacks of incompetence that the Welsh NHS is paying so much more for these goods than they are available for in the shops.

“The cost per unit prices are way above supermarket prices for gluten-free products in some cases which is really worrying.”

“This doesn’t look like taxpayers are getting value for money.”

to ask if she or the TPA would be retracting the comments, and whether the TPA would remove the claim from their website. Here, in full, is her reply:

Thank you for your e-mail. £2.82 is still an awful lot of dough for a loaf. A cursory glance around my local supermarket or online reveals gluten free loaves are sold for much less.

Whichever way you slice it I stand by every word of my comment.

Best,

Emma

The reply may not have addressed any of my concerns (for one thing, the claim that the NHS spends £32 on bread is still up on the TPA website), but those are some excellent puns, I’m sure you’ll agree. I’d say Boon should consider writing for a tabloid in her spare time, but judging by how often she and the rest of the TaxPayers’ Alliance are quoted in the papers, it seems a little redundant.

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

(HT @ukenagashi)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Climate denial and another stupid anti-BBC story

UPROAR AS BBC MUZZLES CLIMATE CHANGE SCEPTICS, screams The Daily Express:

THE BBC was criticised by climate change sceptics yesterday after it emerged that their views will get less coverage because they differ from mainline scientific opinion. […] It said coverage should not be tailored to represent a “false balance” of opinion if one side came from a minority group.

So this isn’t about the BBC muzzling anyone, it’s about making sure that the BBC isn’t giving fringe ideas disproportionate amounts of time. It doesn’t just refer to climate change, either: the BBC Trust report (PDF) also refers to the BBC’s coverage of MMR, where giving undue weight to the idea that MMR caused autism even after science had conclusively proved otherwise on caused a public health disaster, and of the safety of GM food. Climate change is just another example of an area of science where a few loud voices have drowned out the actual science.

So, who’s in uproar?

Lord Lawson, chairman of the sceptical Global Warming Policy Foundation, said the fact that carbon dioxide levels were rising leading to global warming was not under dispute. However, he added, its extent and effect could not be explained by majority scientific opinion alone. […]

The foundation’s director, Dr Benny Peiser, said the report would lead to biased coverage of climate change and stifle any real debate. […]

Dr David Whitehouse, the foundation’s editor and a former BBC science correspondent, said the corporation had “lost the plot” when it came to science journalism.*

Yes, every single “sceptic” The Express quotes is actually a member of the GWPF thinktank. The Express does not quote any independent sceptics, any actual climate scientists, any sci-comms experts – in fact, it doesn’t quote anyone else except for an anonymous BBC spokesman.

So there are two possibilities here. Either The Express has been spectacularly lazy in putting this story together, or they’ve just been fed this story by the GWPF and have published it unthinkingly.

Well, funnily enough this press release went up on the GWPF website just yesterday.** What good timing.

* Dr Whitehouse’s full comment bears quoting here:

He said the corporation was “grouping sceptics with deniers” which would result in a lack of valid scientific input to its reports.

He said: “A sceptic is not a denier, all good scientists should be sceptics. The BBC has got itself into a complete muddle.

“In seeking to get the science right it has missed the journalism which is about asking awkward questions and shaking the tree.”

I think the BBC needs to investigate whether the royal family are all shapeshifting lizard aliens from Alpha Draconis. Sure, there’s no evidence for it, and the people who believe it are an extremely fringe group, but journalism is about ASKING AWKWARD QUESTIONS and SHAKING THE TREE.

** The GWPF claim that the independent report was a “damning indictment” of the BBC. Indeed, it was so damning that the author made these caustic remarks:

One thing should be made clear: BBC science broadcasting is seen as of high quality and is much praised for its accurate and impartial approach, its breadth, and its professionalism. Comments from the submissions made to this Review show how widespread is this opinion.

and

The BBC is to be commended for the breadth, depth and professionalism of its science coverage. I was impressed by its treatment, which has shown real progress over the past decade or so.

Ouch for the BBC!

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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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“If ancient folklore is to be believed”

Daily Express headline: RAIN TODAY COULD LAST FOR 40 DAYS

Actual story: “BRITAIN could be heading for a washout summer if ancient folklore is to be believed. Legend says that showers today, St Swithin’s Day, mean 40 days of rain to come.

Better headline: RAIN TODAY ALMOST CERTAINLY WON’T LAST FOR 40 DAYS

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Happy birthday Neptune?

Neptune

Happy birthday!

Just a quick post: according to The Observer, tomorrow (July 11) will be one Neptunian year since the discovery of the planet Neptune. Except…

One year on Neptune is 60,190 Earth days. Neptune was discovered on 23 September 1846, so Neptune’s first birthday will be 60,190 days after this date.

23 September 1846 + 60,190 days = July 10, 2011

Neptune’s birthday is today, not tomorrow! We’ll all be celebrating on the wrong day!

Never mind phone hacking, this is the real scandal.

Edit: The BBC is even more wrong, claiming Neptune’s birthday is July 12. The philistines!

Double edit: In fact, it looks like we’re all right! July 10 is one average Neptunian year after the date of discovery, July 11 is the day when Neptune will have made precisely one orbit around the solar system’s barycentre (i.e., its centre of mass when you take the Sun and all the planets into account), and July 12 is the day that Neptune will have made precisely one orbit around the Sun. (A figure of July 13 is floating around as well, most likely as a result of an Indian newspaper article which has taken timezones into account). Thanks to Up, Blogstronomy and the Wikipedia users on Talk:Neptune!

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The scientist’s not for turning

Scientists! What are these mysterious creatures? Well, The Independent (and, with the help of copy-paste, The Mail) certainly doesn’t know!*

Global warning: Scientists in U-turn as they claim extreme weather and climate change are linked

Experts have reversed their opinion after more than 20 years of reluctance to blame greenhouse gas emissions for extreme weather

Climate change is inextricably linked to the extreme weather that has wreaked destruction all over the world in the last ten years, scientists now claim.

Experts are convinced of a legitimate link between the two after more than 20 years of reluctance to blame greenhouse gas emissions for the heavy storms, floods and droughts which have made global headlines.

The controversial U-turn is a radical departure from the previous standpoint and was made by a new international alliance of climate researchers from around the world.

You hear that? All the scientists! All of them! Every single scientist used to say that extreme weather and climate change weren’t linked, then overnight, they all did a U-turn and now they all believe they are linked!

Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. While most scientists will never say that any given event was definitely caused by global warming (after all, no-one can say for sure whether, say, Katrina would have happened without climate change), plenty of researchers have published papers in reputable, peer-reviewed journals connecting climate change to hurricanes (Emmanuel 2005 (PDF), Webster et al 2005, Mann and Emmanuel 2006 (PDF)), flooding (Schrieder et al 2000, Christensen and Christensen 2003 (PDF)), heatwaves (Stott et all 2004, Diffenbaugh et al 2007 (PDF)), and pretty much every other form of extreme weather you can imagine. The connection between climate change and extreme weather is still debated, but there are certainly plenty of scientists have published research indicating the two are linked.

Secondly, this so-called U-turn isn’t even a U-turn! Instead, what a panel of climatologists called Attribution of Climate-Related Events (ACE) is looking at various extreme weather events over the last century – tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, droughts – and working out whether climate change has made these sorts of weather more likely.** They are not yet saying that climate change has increased the risk of extreme weather, they’re still researching whether it could have! The scientists quoted by The Independent (and subsequently by The Mail) do say that they think climate change is causing severe weather, but as far as I can tell, these scientists have always made this connection. Peter Stott for example connected heatwaves to climate change back in 2004 (see the paper above), and Kevin Trenberth connected drought to global warming in the same year (PDF). Neither of these scientists has, as far as I can tell, U-turned.

Incidentally, the best rated comments on both articles are firmly denialist and, on The Mail‘s site, any comments that are pro-climate science have been downvoted (The Indie only lets you “like” comments, not dislike them). Good to see the astroturfers out in force.

* I’ve picked on The Mail largely because they’ve used words like “U-turn” and “reversal”. The Independent‘s coverage still makes the mistake of talking about scientists like we’re all one big hive mind, but at least they state that the previous opinion connecting climate change to extreme weather was “equivocal”.

** ACE formed in early 2009, so I’m not sure why they’re being reported as if they’re brand new.

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Nuclear cover up? Probably not

The Guardian‘s website is at the moment leading with yet another story about leaked emails: Revealed: British government’s plan to play down Fukushima.

What dastardly scheme was the government up to?

British government officials approached nuclear companies to draw up a co-ordinated public relations strategy to play down the Fukushima nuclear accident just two days after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and before the extent of the radiation leak was known.

Internal emails seen by the Guardian show how the business and energy departments worked closely behind the scenes with the multinational companies EDF Energy, Areva and Westinghouse to try to ensure the accident did not derail their plans for a new generation of nuclear stations in the UK.

I’m not sure “play down” is really the right phrase to use here. After all, this appears to be the relevant part of the worst email:

We need to quash any stories trying to compare this to Chernobyl – by using the facts to discredit.

Is that “playing down” Fukushima, or putting it in perspective? This email was sent long before the worst of the damage was known, at which point Chernobyl comparisons would have been gross exaggerations.

Yet over and over again, the Guardian seems to forget that this was written when there was little information available, and the reactors still appeared to be intact:

The business department emailed the nuclear firms and their representative body, the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), on 13 March, two days after the disaster knocked out nuclear plants and their backup safety systems at Fukushima. The department argued it was not as bad as the “dramatic” TV pictures made it look, even though the consequences of the accident were still unfolding and two major explosions at reactors on the site were yet to happen.

Well yes, there were serious explosions that resulted in radiation release, but they hadn’t happened when the email was sent. What was the civil servant* supposed to write?

The nuclear industry, like any industry that tries to balance profit against public good (see: transport, healthcare, media, communications), is often pretty hard to defend, but to be honest, it doesn’t come across too badly in the emails.

Sometimes they seem a bit dickishly entitled – Westinghouse probably didn’t win any points for emailing the government to object to Nick Clegg’s choice of wording in a speech – but most of the time, no matter how The Guardian spins it, it’s hard to see PR collusion in EDF offering to be “sensitive” to events in Japan in decommissioning old plants, the government explaining its new build policy, or Westinghouse discussing changes in reactor design to improve earthquake safety. I certainly can’t see what’s wrong with organising a conference to discuss how to “maintain confidence among the British public on the safety of nuclear power stations” with “factual and scientific evidence”.

In fact, given that nuclear new build is a government policy being carried out by private companies, it’s hard to see how the government could have made any statements about British nuclear power without talking to the nuclear industry.

A few emails discuss the PR response, but apart from the one from the unnamed civil servant, who fair enough does seem a bit too gung-ho about nuclear power, they make it clear that the government’s position is distinct from the industry’s, and refuse to join the industry in making a joint response (for instance, check out the email “Re: Nuclear Lines – Messaging” on page 15, sent March 14, 10:31, and any other email in that converstaion).

If a reservoir had collapsed, and the government emailed water companies for comment and to discuss preventing public panic, would that be news? Probably not.

If a train had crashed, and the government invited representatives of train operators to discuss the impact on the future of the railways, would that be news? Probably not.

So when the government discusses the future of the nuclear industry with the nuclear industry following a nuclear disaster, why is that news?

* Incidentally, the civil servant’s name has been redacted, but according to the BIS, it’s someone pretty minor, not a minister or someone with power over policy. So that’s not really a “government plan” then, is it?

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