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


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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Will driving at 80 mph help the economy? Statistics say… probably not

Last week, the Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond announced plans to raise the speed limits on motorways from 70 mph to 80 mph. This, he claimed, would:

“generate economic benefits of hundreds of millions of pounds through shorter journey times.”

Never mind the debates about safety and the environment, let’s look at this one argument. So, does a shorter journey equal a more economic journey? The problem is that cars need more fuel to travel faster, and so the faster you go, the worse your fuel efficiency is. Statistics that go right up to 80 mph are hard to find for some reason – the big US government study for example only went up to 75 mph – but according to the calculator at MPG for speed (better sources always appreciated), driving at 80 mph uses about 15% more fuel per mile than driving at 70 mph.

So, lets do some maths! For the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume every single journey on the motorways is work-related. The actual figures will be lower, especially on weekends and holidays.

At 70 mph, it takes 51 seconds to drive 1 mile. In this time, a car with a claimed “highway” fuel efficiency of 40 miles per gallon (roughly as efficient as a modern hatchback like a Ford Fiesta) will use about 0.11 litres of petrol. At the current average pump price, that’s 15 pence of petrol.

At 80 mph, you cover that same mile in 45 seconds, saving you 6 seconds. On the other hand, your car is now 15% less efficient. According to the calculator, your 40 MPG car is now doing just 28.8 MPG, using around 0.13 litres of petrol to cover that mile, so the fuel to travel that distance cost you about 18 pence.

Spending 3 pence to save 6 seconds is equivalent to spending £18 to save 1 hour. The average median wage in the UK is far lower than £18 an hour (currently, it’s £12.50 per hour for full-time workers (PDF))* – in other words, if you drove at the speed limit to get to/from work, the money you’d be spending on petrol would mean most people would actually lose out (people who car-share would be in a better position, but few people car-share to work).

All the extra pay taken home by workers would simply end up going straight to the petrol companies – and when the government is trying to increase consumer spending, that’s the last thing the economy needs.

(Oops, forgot to mention that this post bears a debt of inspiration to this xkcd comic.)

* Thanks to Lukeablancas in the comments for pointing out that I’ve gone for the median wage. The median wage is good for working out what this means for the average person, since it’s unaffected by extremes, but if we’re looking at the country as a whole, the mean wage might be better – this will take high-earners like company bosses into account, as well as people who work in short but intense shifts, like some freelancers. In 2010, the mean wage for men was £16.00 per hour and for women it was £12.92 per hour (annoyingly the government hasn’t released the combined figures for men and women, but assuming there are roughly equal numbers of both in work the average wage overall is £14.46 per hour). Either way, on average people will end up losing out.


Quick note

Just FYI, I’m out of the country for a while, and won’t have a whole lot of internet access for a while. Comments may get stuck in moderation for a while, and obviously there’ll be no new posts. There are plenty of great blogs in the sidebar to the right – go and read them instead!

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The Mail takes “God Particle” too literally

Last month, scientists at the LHC and Tevatron particle accelerators both announced that they’d seen spikes in the data which could be evidence for the long sought Higgs boson. However, these were, they stressed, fairly small spikes – the LHC data was at the “three sigma” level of uncertainty, meaning there was roughly a 1 in 1,000 chance that what appeared to be a spike was actually just random noise in the data that was clustered to look like a spike. 1 in 1,000 sounds like good odds, but the LHC has hundreds or even thousands of different pieces of research going on, each analysing the data in a different way. It’s almost certain that you’ll get a few of these 1 in 1,000 events popping up.

A bit more data’s been presented, and the spikes have got slightly smaller. They’ve not melted away altogether, and the change in their size might not be especially significant, but it’s a bit of a setback for finding the Higgs. What is good however is that we’ve narrowed down the range of possible energies that the Higgs might have (although it’s a bit out of date now, there’s a nice diagram on Wikipedia showing how data from different experiments is combined to do this). In other words, it’s just another step along the road of science.

How does The Mail cover this?

God particle that would explain the creation of the universe 'Might not exist' by Graham Smith

(Although it’s under Graham Smith’s by-line, the article is almost word-for-word identical to a Reuters piece from yesterday, which seems to be where these mistakes came from)

Oh dear. The so-called God particle isn’t that godly; the Higgs boson will not “explain the creation of the universe”. The Higgs boson is related to the Higgs field which, according to the theory, explains where the universe gets some of its mass from. This has nothing to do with the creation of the universe – indeed, the Higgs boson did not exist before the universe began.

It looks like the idea that the Higgs created the universe comes from the faulty idea that the Higgs gave the universe all its mass (and therefore allowed stars and planets to form) – in fact, most of the mass of everyday particles from nuclear forces inside atoms, not the Higgs field. Where the Higgs is important is in explaining where rarer particles – W and Z bosons – get their mass from, and why the force they represent – the weak nuclear force – is not simply the same as the electromagnetic force.

Also, that quote in the headline? They’re not quoting a scientist – it’s taken from the article itself! No scientist would say “The Higgs boson might not exist after all” (and as far as I can tell, no-one has), especially not based on this data. For one thing, there’s always been a chance that the Higgs doesn’t exist – there’s no “after all” about it – and furthermore this data doesn’t prove the Higgs doesn’t exist, it just narrows the range of possible masses that the boson might have.

These results are interesting, but they’re not the death-knell for the Higgs that The Mail and Reuters are making them out to be. For more balanced coverage, there’s good pieces from Pallab Ghosh at the BBC and Ian Sample and the always-excellent Jon Butterworth at The Guardian.

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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 Istyosty proxy, which I use for linking the more terrible examples of journalism (for instance, Delingpole columns), has been taken down by legal threats. As a result, some links will be broken. Sorry, I’ll try to update the links when I have the time.

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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.



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.



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


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.


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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