Archive for the ‘Getting It Wrong’ Category


3 Comments » Posted on Friday 16 July 2010 at 4:37 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

Ever suffered from a limp wrist, or been on the receiving end of a painfully iron grip? Car manufacturer Chevrolet know all about the importance of a good handshake, which is why they’ve developed a complex mathematical equation for their new staff training guide, as that well known science journal the Daily Mail reports.

It’s been a while since I covered this kind of dodgy maths, so let’s go over the basics. “Formula for” stories are seen by PR agencies as a great way to get free press coverage for whatever product they are shilling because the equations can be dressed up as real research. Attaching a “Dr” or “Prof” to your news story is a great way to gain legitimacy, and the media lap it up as another example of what those crazy boffins are up to.

While this is all great for the PR agencies and their clients, it’s terrible for science. These formulas tend to be based on extremely dodgy assumptions and contain variables which can’t be objectively measured. What’s worse, even a simple mathematical analysis usually reveals problems such as division by zero, which can lead to things like cold and lumpy but infinitely perfect pancakes.

With these problems in mind, let’s take a look at the formula for the perfect handshake. It was created by Geoff Beattie, head of Psychological Sciences at the University of Manchester, and is detailed in this the press release:

PH = √ (e² + ve²)(d²) + (cg + dr)² + π{(4<s>2)(4<p>2)}² +
(vi + t + te)² + {(4<c>2)(4<du>2)}²

I’ve broken it over two lines because the thing is so long, and I think that square root is meant to cover the entire equation, not just the first term, but the press release isn’t very clear. We’ve also got a definition for the many variables, along with what I assume is their optimal values:

(e) is eye contact (1=none; 5=direct) 5;
(ve) is verbal greeting (1=totally inappropriate; 5=totally appropriate) 5;
(d) is Duchenne smile – smiling in eyes and mouth, plus symmetry on both sides of face, and slower offset (1=totally non-Duchenne smile (false smile); 5=totally Duchenne) 5;
(cg) completeness of grip (1=very incomplete; 5=full) 5;
(dr) is dryness of hand (1=damp; 5=dry) 4;
(s) is strength (1= weak; 5=strong) 3;
(p) is position of hand (1=back towards own body; 5=other person’s bodily zone) 3;
(vi) is vigour (1=too low/too high; 5=mid) 3;
(t) is temperature of hands (1=too cold/too hot; 5=mid) 3;
(te) is texture of hands (5=mid; 1=too rough/too smooth) 3;
(c) is control (1=low; 5=high) 3;
(du) is duration (1= brief; 5=long) 3.

Both the formula and its variables are looking really dodgy. I’ve literally no idea what terms like {(4<c>2)(4<du>2)}² are meant to mean. I can only think that the angular brackets denote some kind of average, but then why do they only apply to some of the variables? Are those 2s actually meant to be ²? In which case you can rewrite the whole term as (2<c><du>)4, which is at least a little bit simpler.

I also take issue with using two letters to stand in for one variable, because they can be confused for two separate variables multiplied together. Measuring “verbal greeting” and “vigour” doesn’t mean that both of your variables have to start with a v – real mathematical equations make extensive use of Greek letters in an effort to solve this exact problem. But even if this equation was beautifully formatted, it would still be rubbish.

All the measurements are completely subjective, and the scales of 1 to 5 indicate the data behind the equation was probably collected from a survey. This even includes variables such as temperature, which can easily be measured scientifically. Remember, subjective measurements are one of the hallmarks of a “formula for”.

I emailed Beattie yesterday to ask how the formula was created, but as he is yet to reply I can only speculate. I think what he has done is ask people a bunch of questions about handshakes, and then tried to fit their answers to some kind of least-squares model, as indicated by the squares and square root in the formula. This method gives you a great equation for “explaining” the data you’ve gathered, but doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the phenomena you’re examining.

If that is the case, I still don’t understand how the formula is meant to work. You’d expect that the perfect handshake would have a maximum value of PH, and since there is no division or subtraction involve, that just means slotting in the maximum values for all your variables. The optimal values in the press release include a few 3s and 4s though, so PH isn’t going to be maximum. Hmm.

As with all “formula for” stories the maths behind the perfect handshake formula just doesn’t add up, yet it’s being interpreted as a serious piece of research. Comments on the Mail story such as these two show just how much damage this can do to people’s impressions of science:

“So, most of the country is out of work desperately trying to survive and these idiots are getting paid, what – to study handshakes? Sack these people immediately!”

How much time did the nutty professor spend on this useless bit of information?

Mathematical models and equations are a fantastical tool for understanding the natural world around us, but they have to be based on sound assumptions and decent science – things that “formula for” stories such as this almost invariably lack.

3 Comments » Posted on Sunday 9 May 2010 at 6:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

Who needs facts?

We all know that science can be complicated and confusing, but don’t let that get you down – Fake Science is here to straighten everything out. Did you know that the periodic table is actually based on Scrabble, or that wind power uses giant fans to make wind? Science has never been so simple.

Want to lose weight? Keep it off your plate

Simply leaving serving dishes on the kitchen counter rather than bringing them to the dining table reduces the amount of food you eat, say researchers at Cornell University. They found that this simple dieting strategy reduces the temptation of second helpings, cutting the number of calories people consumed by 20%.

Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, said that the same idea can be used to promote healthier foods over sugary snacks – keeping fruit on display makes you more likely to eat it instead of reaching for a piece of cake in the fridge.

Animal privacy? Not in my backyard

Wildlife documentaries infringe an animal’s right to privacy, says Brett Mills, a lecturer in film studies at the University of East Anglia:

“We have an assumption that humans have some right to privacy, so why do we not assume that for other species, particularly when they are engaging in behaviour that suggests they don’t want to be seen?”

I’m a staunch defender of civil liberties, but even I think extending the right to privacy to animals is going a bit too far. Of course, great care should be taken to avoid distributing their natural habits or causing them distress, but I really don’t think animals mind us watching them doing what they do.

Green tax would hurt the poorest

A proposed tax on carbon footprints would hit the poorest households hardest, according to study from the University of Leeds. The carbon tax would cost low earners 6% of their annual income, while the richest households would only pay around 2%.

The difference is the result of poorer households spending more on costs such as heating and electricity – 40% of their income, compared to just 8% for high earners.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 24 April 2010 at 4:53 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

ResearchBlogging.org

Forensic experts are unable to accurately determine the age of bruises on the bodies of crime victims, say researchers at Queen Mary, University of London. A study published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, suggests that sentencing of criminal cases involving bruising, such as child abuse or assault, could be based on flawed conclusions.

The researchers evaluated the bruise-judging abilities of 15 forensic experts with the aid of 11 willing volunteers and a suction pump. Each subject used the pump to inflict bruises on themselves, which the researchers photographed daily until they had faded completely. The photos were digitally altered to remove any hints that might aid the experts in estimating their age, such as marks from the suction pump, then randomly presented for them to judge. They were also asked to place a series of photos in chronological order, identifying how the bruise faded over time.

While we’re used to seeing experts on TV pin down the time of a crime to the nearest minute, the reality is somewhat different. The median difference between the expert’s assessment and the true age of a bruise was 26 hours, but some were even further out, with one expert getting it wrong by 454 hours or nearly 19 days.

Fresher bruises were easier to identify, with a 52% success rate for injuries under 12 hours old, but accuracy fell as the bruises faded. There was a slight increase in accuracy for injuries over 6 days old, but this could be due to chance as there were only a few bruises that lasted this long.

The experts fared better at the second task, placing the bruise images in chronological order without too many mistakes. The results seemed to depend on the nature of each bruise rather than the skill of the experts, because some bruises showed clearer changes in size and colouration than others.

Incorrectly judging the age of a bruise could have significant effects on a criminal trial, either by allowing perpetrators to get away with their crime or placing the blame on an innocent suspect. The study authors conclude that forensic experts’ estimates are unreliable at best, which calls into question whether they should be used in court at all.

Pilling, M., Vanezis, P., Perrett, D., & Johnston, A. (2010). Visual assessment of the timing of bruising by forensic experts Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, 17 (3), 143-149 DOI: 10.1016/j.jflm.2009.10.002

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6 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 24 March 2010 at 11:53 pm by Colin Stuart
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Musings

Anyone who knows me will attest to my often unwavering love of science. I pay my rent talking about science; not a day goes by when I’m not entrenched in the latest scientific discoveries. But it has to be said, sometimes science is a twat.

Science is often applauded as a discipline of progress, the great giver of development and improvement to life. And yet science has deprived a forgotten generation, a generation who suffer the indignity of progress and yet reap very few of the benefits.

My great aunt, simply known by everyone as Auntie, is very nearly 89 years old. Born in 1921 she is basically all my grandparents rolled into one. All my natural grandparents were gone by the time I was seven and so she had to bear the brunt of surrogate grandparenthood. And I wasn’t the easiest of surrogate grandchildren. Being a science geek, and being perpetually unpopular, meant that I won several academic awards during my high school years. Whilst these awards were mostly for science, I did win the Year 8 award for French.

However, what has to be said is that these awards ceremonies were as about as enlightening as a Gordon Brown YouTube video. And yet she sat diligently through several mind-numbingly tedious and over-bureaucratic awards ceremonies.

Despite her willingness to suffer such torture, science, the subject that enforced her to endure such an ordeal, hasn’t been kind to her. Scientific progress has meant that she now lives in a world where it is commonplace for people to reach her age. And yet the human body is simply not designed to last that long.

Our younger generation laud science as the bringer of technology. Science gave us the internet, the iPhone and HD TV. Yet she was born between world wars, in a time when such ideas were fanciful. What has science done for her? It has extended her life so that she now has to deal with dementia, her body wearing out under the strain of scientific progress. Last week she sneezed and fractured a vertebra. A woman who served in WW2 as part of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) now needs four care visitors a day just to help her stay in her home.

If, as she will soon surely need, she has to move into a care home, it will cost around £1000 per week. The travesty is that if she hadn’t worked hard all her life and had no savings then care would be provided. But my point isn’t a political one.

Is the subject that I love causing such problems? On our exponential march into the future are we leaving behind those that don’t reap the benefits? Those of a religious persuasion are sometimes shaken in their convictions by a lack of faith. Just sometimes I wonder whether a world without science would be kinder….

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 14 March 2010 at 9:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Pi for all

Here’s an extract from an article I wrote for New Scientist in honour of Pi Day today.

The stars overhead inspired the ancient Greeks, but they probably never used them to calculate pi. Robert Matthews of the University of Aston in Birmingham, UK, combined astronomical data with number theory to do just that.

Matthews used the fact that for any large collection of random numbers, the probability that any two have no common factor is 6/pi2. Numbers have a common factor if they are divisible by the same number, not including 1. For example, 4 and 15 have no common factors, but 12 and 15 have the common factor 3.

Matthews calculated the angular distance between the 100 brightest stars in the sky and turned them into 1 million pairs of random numbers, around 61 per cent of which had no common factors. He got a value for pi of 3.12772, which is about 99.6 per cent correct.

A serious science survey?

The BBC reports that one in 10 children believe the Queen invented the telephone, while others suggest Charles Darwin and Noel Edmonds. The results come from a survey of 1,000 school kids, but rather than despairing at the state of science education, I’m actually amused by this story.

These types of articles seem to crop up fairly often, with children giving nonsensical answers to questions about historical facts. Everyone always interrupts them fairly seriously, but I think it’s far more likely that the kids are just having a laugh.

High-gravity lava lamps

Would a lava lamp work on Jupiter? There’s only one way to find out – build a giant, semi-lethal centrifuge out of Meccano, and take your lamp for a spin:

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3 Comments » Posted on Thursday 28 January 2010 at 11:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

Rumours are circulating that President Obama plans to scrap NASA’s new generation of rockets. It’s been leaked that his budget next Monday won’t include cash for the Constellation program, a series of spacecraft designed to replace the ageing Shuttle, and return us to the moon by 2020.

If that’s true, I’m incredibly disappointed. I understand that in a time of global economic turbulence, space exploration may not be Obama’s top priority, but his new vision for NASA seems incredibly short-sighted.

Instead of “boldy going”, astronauts will spend another ten years floating around the International Space Station. NASA will concentrate on Earth-based projects – mostly climate change related – and private companies will take over the Space Shuttle’s job of ferrying cargo in to orbit. The moon and Mars will just have to wait, it seems.

This worries me, but not because of some romantic idea of humans exploring the final frontier – my concerns are far more practical. I believe getting off Earth and colonising other planets is essential for the continuation of the human race. At the moment we’ve got all eggs in the proverbial basket – if an asteroid were to strike Earth, it could potentially wipe us out completely. Colonisation simply spreads the risk.

Building a base on the moon and then eventually Mars would not only be an incredible feat of human ingenuity, but also a kind of species-wide insurance policy. It’s a project that would take decades, and unfortunately politicians only think in four-year terms. I understand that Obama is under attack because of his healthcare plans, and the budget has to be balanced somehow, but cutting Constellation isn’t the answer.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 24 January 2010 at 5:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Oh dear, one week in and I’m already off schedule. Two words: food poisoning. Leftover Chinese food can be deadly! On with this week’s roundup:

Next stop, outer space

Even London natives can struggle with the complicated spiderweb that is the Tube map, but surprisingly enough it is actually intended to simplify getting about the capital. Inspired by its iconic design, Harvard scientist Samuel Arbesman developed a similar map for getting about the Milky Way:

But where is Morington Crescent?
But where is Morington Crescent?

The coloured lines correspond to an arm of the spiral galaxy, and each stop is a star or other astronomical object.

Mental time travel

You won’t be journeying to the age of the dinosaurs just yet, but psychologists at the University of Aberdeen have discovered a strange form of time travel. Apparently thinking about the past or future causes people to move backwards or forwards. The researchers suggest behaviour could be the origin of temporal metaphors such as future = forward and past = backward.

Bond. Strange Bond.

The Royal Society of Chemistry continued it’s tradition of strange PR stunts this week by announcing a search for a Sean Connery lookalike.

As if devising a new ending for the Italian Job or cooking the perfect Yorkshire pudding weren’t enough, they want to use the lookalike in a bizarre photoshoot designed to highlight the importance of British research keeping the nation healthy. No, I don’t get it either.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 14 January 2010 at 7:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

Finding it difficult to meet your perfect partner? According to the Daily Mail, a”maths genius” can explain with a “baffling” equation. That’s right, it’s the first “formula for” story of 2010!

The Mail and others have leapt on a rather silly paper by Peter Backus, a University of Warwick economist. He’s used the Drake equation, which was originally intended to estimate the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy, to explain why he doesn’t have a girlfriend.

You can visit Wikipedia for an explanation of the Drake equation, or alternatively check out Colin’s dissertation for the full details. The basic idea is to break down all the requirements for alien life in to individual factors, such as the chance of a star having planets or a planet supporting life, then multiply them together to get the number of civilizations out there in space. Trouble is, we don’t have very reliable evidence to back up most of the figures, so estimates vary wildly.

Backus has used the same principal to find his perfect woman, and “discovered” that there are only 26 women in the UK that are suitable for him. That’s a one in 285,000 chance of meeting “the one”, apparently. Of course, the exact same criticism of the Drake equation can be applied here – most of his numbers are entirely subjective and not backed up by evidence. Pick some different numbers, and you’ll come up with an entirely different answer.

I can’t really blame Backus for his formula, as it’s not like he’s trying to sell anything or has got the maths wrong. What I find annoying is the way the media leaps on the figure of “one in 285,000″ as an absolute fact, and describes maths no more complicated than multiplication as if it were some sort of advanced calculus that should only be attempted by a genius. Let’s just hope no one discovers the ancient art of “division”, or our heads just might explode.

2 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 12 January 2010 at 8:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

Hello! It’s 2010, and I’m finally back. I had intended an earlier return to blogging here at Just A Theory, but unfortunately a rather serious computer failure held me up. The hard drive in my PC died, causing Windows to become corrupt and refuse to boot. As you can see, I attempted some minor brain surgery in an effort to revive the poor machine:

I actually had some success, and after more than 12 hours of work was rewarded with this rather understated error message:

Quite. Sadly, in the end I had to say goodbye to my faithful old PC and buy a new one, complete with Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 7. It’s quite different to the Windows XP I’m used to, especially as I’d disabled most of XP’s bells and whistles to make it run like Windows 2000. Essentially, I’ve been using the same operating system for an entire decade, and now I’ve been forced to change some long-held habits!

All of which leads me on in a fairly rambling way to what I had originally intended to talk about at the start of 2010 – whether we’re now living in a new decade. The media seem pretty convinced that we’ve abandoned the “Noughties” in favour of the “Teens”, but the maths says otherwise – it won’t be until the end of 2010 and the start of 2011 that we enter the next decade.

It’s the same argument that you probably tired of in the years leading up to December 31st, 1999. At the time, mathematicians said that millennial celebrations should be put off until the start of 2001, while the rest of the world largely ignored them.

Simply put, our calendar system starts at the year 1 AD, not the year 0 AD. One year later is 2 AD, ten years later is 11 AD, and two-thousand years later is 2001 AD. So, new decades start with years ending in a “1″.

But when we speak of the Noughties, we obviously mean the years 2000 to 2009. The year 2010 can’t be a Noughtie, because it doesn’t have a 0 in the right place. And hang on a moment, isn’t the calendar based off the life of Jesus, a man whose date of birth we know very little about? And lets not even start on the missing 11 days of September 1752.

Given the human desire for patterns and our fondness of round numbers, it’s probably best if we stick to celebrating 2010 as the new decade – it’s no less arbitrary than any other choice. Even so, I can’t help wanting to go with 2011. It may be ugly, but it’s mathematically correct!

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 9 December 2009 at 7:18 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Science Policy

Earlier today Alistair Darling announced Labour’s pre-Budget report. While most outlets have focused on increases in National Insurance and a tax on bankers bonuses, New Scientist point out that £600 million will be cut from higher education and science and research budgets.

I’m absolutely amazed that Labour are reducing science funding, while at the same time refusing to budge on wasteful schemes like ID cards or Trident nuclear missiles.

In the past year alone the Government has spent £81.5 million on developing biometric ID cards, and the final cost is expected to be £4.5 billion over a ten year period. This is despite the science behind biometrics not being fit for purpose.

Meanwhile, the cost of replacing our Trident nuclear missiles has been placed at £130bn over 30 years (though the Government says it will only be £20bn). This is counter to the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, if not the actual law, and a fantastic waste of money. Given the choice between expanding human knowledge, or maintaining the potential to blow people up, I know which I’d go for…

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2 Comments » Posted on Friday 4 December 2009 at 6:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Of course, that wasn’t the actual headline the papers ran with:

All men watch porn, scientists find – Daily Telegraph
Porn-loving men ruin sex study – The Sun
Pornography study that was doomed to fail after scientists couldn’t find a single man who hadn’t viewed X-rated material – Daily Mail

The story comes from this press release detailing the launch of a new study by the University of Montreal in to the effects of porn on men. Quite why you press release the launch of a study rather than its results I’m not sure, but the papers seem to have latched on to this part:

“We started our research seeking men in their twenties who had never consumed pornography. We couldn’t find any,” says Simon Louis Lajeunesse, a postdoctoral student and professor at the School of Social Work.

It turns out that Lajeunesse has so far asked 20 male students about their sexual habits, and found that they all watch porn – so I guess that definitely means all men do. From this tiny sample, Lajeunesse also determined that single men watch porn an average three times a week, for 40 minutes at a time.

Lajeunesse’s research actually seems to have a decent aim in mind – finding out whether porn can harm healthy sexuality – but the idea that you can drawn any general conclusions from the habits of 20 men is laughable. I don’t know what the University of Montreal press office were hoping to achieve with their press release, but if it was anything more than “tee hee hee, porn”, they’ve not really succeeded.

5 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 2 December 2009 at 6:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Radio 4 comedy is sometimes good, but often terrible, while their science programmes are normally pretty decent. A new series called The Infinite Monkey Cage attempts to jam both science and comedy into one show, and as you might expect, the results are mixed.

The regular presenters are physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince, a self-confessed “keen idiot” when it comes to science. They’re joined in the first episode by the comedian Dara O’Briain, who studied cosmology at university, and Alice Roberts, an anatomist and science communicator. You may remember that Cox and O’Briain previously worked together on Physics Rocks, which formed part of the BBC’s LHC coverage last year.

It’s a good cast, and the chatty tone makes it easy to imagine yourself joining them down the pub for a drink and a natter about science, but I think billing the programme as a comedy is misleading. O’Briain draws an interesting parallel between scientists and comedians, who both effectively spend their lives comparing things to other things, but the conversation quickly takes a more serious turn.

When I’m listening to a comedy show, I don’t expect questions such as Cox’s “how do we educate people to respect the scientific method?” – not that it isn’t worth discussing, but its not funny either. They later try and bring things back with a sketch on the absurdity of science funding, but this was extremely “Radio 4″ comedy – in other words, dire.

Following up with Cox briefly interviewing science minister Lord Drayson just adds to the overall feeling of a programme trying to do too much. Is it about cracking science-themed jokes, or is it about discussing science as part of our wider culture? Am I meant to laugh, or learn?

Mixing science with comedy is difficult to do well, and The Infinite Monkey Cage doesn’t quite manage it. I’d much prefer something like Punk Science – big on laughs and lighter on content, but you still come away with some sort of insight. I’ll be checking out the next episode (it’s running for another three weeks) to see if they do any better.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 29 November 2009 at 5:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Universities must do more to stop formula stories

This week Times Higher Education have an interesting article about your favourite and mine, the “formula for” story. Of particular concern is the move by PR companies to use students to advertise their dodgy equations, such as the formula for a perfect night out from last month.

The concern is that students could be damaging their scientific reputations by taking part in this kind of PR activity, and that universities should take more care in publicising the work through their press offices. It turns out that Leeds University, home to “VKendologist” Phillippa Toon, were happy to facilitate media interviews for the nonsense formula story. A bit worrying, really.

Test-tube burgers, anyone?

Would you eat meat grown in a petri dish? Scientist in Holland have produced lab-grown meat for the first time – though they haven’t tasted it yet.

Cells taken from the muscle of a live pig grew into sticky muscle tissue, which doesn’t sound very appetising because the meat needs exercise to give it a more normal consistency.

I’d certainly welcome lab-grown meat, as long as it tasted like the real thing. It would take much less space and resources than breeding pigs or cattle, and animals wouldn’t have to die before we tuck in. I’m sure many people will be horrified by the idea, but a meat cell is a meat cell, wherever it grows.

Oh nos!

It had to happen eventually. The lolcats have got in to the Large Hadron Collider, and I think we all know how it’s going to end:

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 27 November 2009 at 8:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

Cliff Arnall is back, and he’s got enough dodgy “formula for” stories to see us through til Christmas. The man behind the worst and best days ever has now come up with a formula for the “perfect toy”. As with all the finest scientific research, you can find the details in the Daily Mail.

If you don’t remember him, Cliff Arnall often pops up in to the media peddling mathematical nonsense. The Mail bill him as “Professor” Arnall, which is a new one, but it’s not entirely clear which institution he’s from. Certainly not Cardiff University, who have made repeated attempts to distance themselves from Arnall after he left their employ as a part-time tutor.

Let’s have some fun playing with the formula then. The Daily Mail have a handy explanation:

All the variables in the left column are basically arbitrary scores out of 5, and thus fairly meaningless. In the right column, T, L and C are at least all quantifiable, in that we can assign a meaningful value to them. Multiplying T by L is actually fine, because both of these variables use units of time. The problems start when you divide by the square root of C.

Quick anyone, what’s the square root of £1? I might as well ask for banana divided by orange – neither question makes mathematical sense, because there is no such thing as the square root of currency.

Our old friends zero and infinity make an appearance as well. If a toy is free, it doesn’t matter if you give it 0 out of 5 for everything else, because as long as your child plays with it for even a second, it’s going to have infinite play value. Dividing by smaller and smaller values of C makes the last term in the equation grow rapidly, completing dwarfing the others. In other words, Cliff Arnall’s perfect toy is crap and worthless. Just like his formulas then.

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 25 November 2009 at 7:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Today the Daily Mail and the Telegraph both reported that spending time on Sodoku and other puzzles will help you lose weight. That’s right – you can simply think yourself thin, because giving your brain a workout apparantly burns 1.5 calories a minute, or 90 an hour.

Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Lose weight without even having to really do anything? Fantastic…until you realise that shifting just a single pound of fat requires burning 3500 calories more than you normally do. At five and a half weeks per pound, you’re not going to slipping in to some skinny new clothes any time soon.

Surely this advice comes from a well-respected brain expert though? It seems to have been announced by one Tim Forrester, who is billed as a “researcher” and “mental agility expert” by the newspapers. He also happens to run cannyminds.com, a “a brand new internet retailer specialising in Brain Training, Educational and Skills Improvement products.”

Well that’s handy – Forrester can sell you the very same puzzles that his “research” suggests will help you lose weight! And not a conflict of interest in sight.

It’s not clear how Forrester made this incredible discovery, but a bit of Googling shows up an article from Popular Science, published in 2006. The “1.5 calories a minute” figure seems to be ascribed to Harry Chugani of the Children´s Hospital of Michigan, but it’s not clear when or where he said it. The article also says our brain requires 0.1 calories a minute simply to survive, a phrase that Forrester quotes nearly verbatim.

Thinking hard is obviously going to require some extra calories, but I have no idea how many. The figures in these articles don’t seem to be backed up by any research, and they seem fairly unlikely – walking burns around 5 calories a minute, and requires far more activity than simply thinking.

Really, it doesn’t take too many calories to recognise that these articles are nothing more than poorly researched adverts for some guy’s website. That’s bad enough, but they could also have a potentially damaging effect on someone’s health if they decide to reach for the crossword instead of the cross trainer. There are no quick fixes to losing weight, and the “Sudoku diet”, like many, is complete nonsense.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 8 November 2009 at 2:28 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Large Hadron Collider taken down by bread

Earlier this week the Large Hadron Collider suffered yet another setback, when it was dive-bombed by a bird carrying a piece of baguette. You just can’t make it up.

The rogue bit of bread caused a short circuit in part of the LHC’s above-ground electronics, leading to an automatic shutdown of the giant ring’s cooling system. Thankfully the LHC was only knocked offline for a few days this time, and systems are now running normally. Lets just hope the scientists at Geneva have invested in a couple of scarecrows.

Eating fast makes you fat – now we know why

It’s often said that eating too fast will lead to putting on weight, because your brain doesn’t have enough time to catch up with your full stomach. Now, new research has found a possible physiological explanation for why this might happen.

Dr Alexander Kokkinos of the Laiko General Hospital in Athens found that eating too quickly can slow the release of two hormones from the gut, PYY and GLP-1. Volunteers were given 300ml of ice cream to eat at different rates, and those who ate the slowest had the highest hormone concentration.

X-rays top the charts

Back in June I reported on a Science Museum survey to pick the most influential scientific infection in their collection. The results are in, and it seem X-rays take the top spot, followed by penicillin and the DNA double helix.

It’s a bit of an odd choice, I think. In my original post, I went for the Pilot ACE Computer, because it was the first multi-tasking computer. It seems others disagreed though, because it came in at a lowly seventh place. Still, X-rays over penicillin? I’ve taken antibiotics far more than I’ve been X-rayed, as have most people I would’ve thought. Strange.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 1 November 2009 at 6:12 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Getting It Wrong, Mathematics, Weekly Roundup

Formulas, multiplied

For some reason the Independent have decided to publish the mother of all “formula for” stories – ten examples of the best worse science reporting there is. They include ones I’ve written about before, like the formula for the perfect pancake,but also a bunch I’d not previously seen. The best has to be the equation for the perfect sandcastle, which is OW = 0.125 x S. In other words, one part water, eight parts sand.

Lunch time at the Periodic Table

This photo of a literal Periodic Table has been doing the internet rounds recently:

Turns out it’s a piece of art work at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. It was created by two student in 2003, Nazila Alimohammadi and Anna Clark. Nice work – I’m always up for a good pun!

From coffee to carbon

Also floating about this internet this week was this interactive illustration of the size and scale of various cells from the University of Utah. Starting from a coffee bean and a grain of rice, you can zoom past human cells, bacteria and viruses before ending up at a single carbon atom. Zooming out is just as fun!

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 28 October 2009 at 8:40 pm by Colin Stuart
In Getting It Wrong, Science Policy, Space & Astronomy

Today I was getting ready to leave my flat for my afternoon shift when, hurrying to finish my lunch, I managed to catch the very end of Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs) on the TV.

The twelfth and final question was asked by the Conservative member for Wells, David Heathcoat-Amory, and this is what he had to say:

“As the Prime Minister knows, this is the International Year of Astronomy. Does he therefore support the Campaign for Dark Skies, which is good for astronomy and also saves energy? If he does, will he play his part by turning off—or at least dimming—the lights in public buildings, including Downing Street, where all the lights are on very late into the night?”

As someone who is passionate about astronomy my ears immediately pricked up and I was momentarily diverted from my Marmite sandwiches. Did I really just hear a question on astronomy asked in the House of Commons? Really? Well this was our learned Prime Minster’s response:

“I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to complain about European regulations, because that is normally what he does. All of us have a responsibility to save electricity and all Government Departments and all parts of government should be involved in doing so.”

What a bullshit answer. Now I’m the first to admit that this question wasn’t the most pressing matter of the day. There had already been questions on the Afghan election, the Lockerbie disaster and climate change, far more important than whether you can adequately star spot.

However, Gordy barely even answered the question instead using it to score cheap points against the Opposition. The token answer of “all of us have a responsibility blah blah blah blah” was about as satisfying as my Marmite sandwiches. He might as well have said piss off lets all go for some lunch.

And this is the great problem; there are too few advocates of science in Government. Regular Just a Theory readers will recall my ongoing debate with Labour peer and Science Minister Lord Drayson (which I am happy to say is going to happen with the next month or so). Despite my well documented grievances, Lord Drayson is really on science’s side and we should continue to hope for more of his ilk.

So, having seemingly ranted for eight paragraphs thus far I feel I should tell you the premise behind Campaign for Dark Skies. The essence is that there is so much wasteful light thrown up into the night sky that the skylines of most major UK cities are horribly hued a kind of murky orange. This limits the glory of the night sky to around 50-100 stars rather than the normal 1500 that should visible from these shores.

Jacob blogged earlier in the week about the Trillionth Tonne, a website counting the cost of our inability to tackle climate change. In his post he called the ever increasing figure “sobering to watch”. Equally the Campaign for Dark Skies have a counter clocking up the amount of money wasted due to street lamps showering some of their light up into the sky rather than down where we need it.

In fact, the counter ticks along at £4 a second, which means since the 1st January 2009 the UK has wasted over £100 million on electric lights that serve no purpose whatsoever. And that is just street lights. The full estimate, including business and industrial based lighting, is likely to be over £1 BILLION. I’m not even going to argue the astronomical perspective on this one. Yes you would be able to see more stars but £100 million pounds, or more likely £1 BILLION, is just a pointless waste our OUR money.

This comes on a day when after PMQ’s, Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth stood before Parliament and detailed a report suggesting MOD cost cutting led to the deaths of 14 service personnel in a Nimrod crash in 2006. Ainsworth said that,

“in our pursuit of financial savings the MoD and the RAF allowed their focus on safety to suffer. We accept this with regard to the Nimrod XV230”

Don’t get me wrong I am not blaming the deaths of those 14 servicemen on wasteful street lighting. However what really gets my goat is that when a valid science question that could save our economy upwards of £1 billion is actually asked in Parliament, and on a day when the Government is held to account for its penny pinching, that our dearest PM shits all over it.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 16 October 2009 at 7:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

As anyone who reads Just A Theory should know by now, “formula for” stories are usually nothing more than thinly veiled PR that newspapers happily print for free, but they don’t get much worse than this:

Say hello to Phillippa Toon, proudly displaying her formula for the perfect night out. Phillippa is a biology student at Leeds University, and also holds the estimated position of “VKendologist”.

For those not up on their alco-pops, VK is an unpleasant mix of vodka, sugar and E numbers served in pubs and clubs across the country. The drink is owned by Global Brands, who it seems placed adverts on Facebook in the hopes of attracting Britain’s brightest minds to figure out the “formula for fun”. The advert read:

“Wanted! Talented maths or science student or graduate to spend the summer literally discovering the formula of fun. Must be over 18 years of age like bars, clubs and pubs and be prepared to have a fantastic time in the quest for knowledge, science and the pursuit of the perfect night out.”

According to the Yorkshire Evening Post, Phillippa was one of “hundreds of mathematicians and fellow scientists” vying for the chance to make up a such a formula.

For once, I can’t fault the maths too much. Yes, the measurements are completely subjective (check out the calculator on the VK website for full details of the variables in the formula), but at least there’s no division by zero leading to the likes of infinitly bad pancakes.

What really gets me about this is how shameless it is. Get a pretty girl, dress her up as a scientist, and gush about the “experiment” she conducted using “maths and science”. She’s not even the usual “expert scientist” they wheel in for these things, she’s still a student. Why do we let companies get away with this? Why do newspapers insist on printing these stories full of nothing but cargo cult science?

I know the answer, of course. Newspapers need to fill their pages with content, and a quirky science story that you can lift straight from a press release fits quite nicely. Never mind that it’s based on complete nonsense – since when do silly things like “evidence” or “facts” matter?

By now, my message has become a mantra I am doomed to repeat forever. Do not believe a word of these “formula for” stories; they are adverts, not science.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 8 October 2009 at 7:03 pm by Colin Stuart
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

Scientists and curious onlookers are gearing up for what many are calling the day NASA ‘bombs’ the Moon in search of water. Tomorrow, at approximately 12:30pm UK time, the Lunar Crater Observing and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) will send 2,305kg of American engineering headlong into the south pole of our nearest neighbour in space.

The impact will see a new crater added to the already much pockmarked lunar surface with this man-made moon scar stretching twenty metres across. The momentum of the impact will hurl a 350 tonne plume of material into lunar orbit which the waiting Shepherding Spacecraft will fly through, searching for traces of water before impacting the Moon itself four minutes later.

The target is Cabeus, a crater found some 100km from the Moon’s South Pole, a location that precludes much penetration from sunlight, rendering the maximum temperature 100K.

Such low temperatures and data from a previous mission have led scientists to predict the existence of water ice hidden in Cabeus’ murky shadows. Slamming into the lunar surface is the best way to unveil the Moon’s hidden secrets.

As Jacob reported earlier in the year, evidence for lunar water has already been provided by the Indian Chandrayaan-1 probe and further evidence of water on the Moon would add to our understanding of our Solar System.

However, despite its scientific merits there has been a backlash against the mission with accusations of extra-terrestrial terrorism. Apparently LCROSS is NASA committing “an eco-sin on a galactic scale.” Nevermind that the Moon is 385,000 km away and the galaxy is 100,000 light years across.

With these words the blogger of ecosalon.com warns that, “the Moon is a celestial body revered by Earthlings of all cultures, inspiring poets, shamans and lovers across the globe.”

These feelings seem to be echoed by the imaginatively titled dontbombthemoon.com who quoth that, “it is dangerous to bomb the moon when we are unclear of the outcome. We feel that bombing the Moon could bring us consequences that are both psychic and physical. Disruption of cycles.”

Nowpublic.com take the celestial biscuit though when they philosophise that, “the problem is this, by bombing the moon in many exopolitic experts opinion is this action will cause an all out war in space with extraterrestrials. These same extraterrestrials even have bases and crafts placed on the Moon.”

This last totally absurd notion aside, there seems to be this wide held belief that the Moon is sacred and that by making a miniscule pinprick in it that somehow we are going to cause apocalypse. Never mind that asteroids hit the Moon all the time. Never mind that with your very own eyes you can see evidence of hundreds of much larger impacts which have left our “cycles” untouched. This isn’t the first time lunar lunacy has made it onto one of my blog entries.

There are just so many things wrong here. However, part of the blame for such nonsense has to lie at the media’s door. In their perpetual attempt for an attention grabbing headline they have fashioned this notion of ‘bombing’ the Moon, a label which quite misrepresents what is actually going on.

Depending on which camp you sit in, you can either watch an innovative scientific experiment or the destruction of life as we know it from 11:30am tomorrow at http://www.slooh.com/LCROSS.

7 Comments » Posted on Monday 21 September 2009 at 8:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Can this man cure cancer with his bare hands?” ask the Daily Mail. Well, no. But you probably guessed that already.

The man in question is Adrian Pengelly, a self-styled healer, energy worker, teacher, and psychic. Apparently he’s recently had a bit of bother from the BBC consumer programme Watchdog – presumably because people think he is lying to them and stealing their money.

Pengelly claims to have “magic hands” that can cure cancer. The lack of an apparent mechanism proof for his restorative powers doesn’t bother Pengelly; his power is in the “thousands of people saying they were healed” after his “treatment”. “I don’t care about scientific evidence,” he says. Until later in the article, that is:

“Some said I had a gift from God. But I just wanted to understand the science.

“I thought: “What is there? There’s only energy – electricity in different forms – and it floats.” I can feel energy come with one hand and draw it with another.

“Somehow the energy I was generating was stimulating the body’s immune system.”

That’s funny. Isn’t floaty electricity what “causes” the health problems of those poor electro-hypersensitive people? If only there was some way for us to tell what effect electricity has on the human body, some sort of method that could be applied scientifically. Nah, it’ll never work.

You can tell I’m in a pretty snarky mood this evening. But what else can you say about a man who claims to be able to heal from a distance, without knowing who he is healing?

“It may seem hard to believe that a healer can effect an improvement when he is hundreds or thousands of miles away from a patient, but time and time again the results have been seen to work…

“Adrian does not need to know the name, address, or any details of the person who needs healing. It seems to work regardless of this information.”

Wow, so something that has absolutely no effect can still have no effect at a distance! What a marvellous age we live in.

I probably don’t need even need to say it, but it’s clear that Pengelly offers nothing more than a placebo effect for those he treats – and he’s not even very good at it. In the Mail article, he claims to be able to cure 65% of cancer sufferers. I’d expect a little better from magic, especially at £30 a session!

1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 17 September 2009 at 12:17 am by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Creation is a fantastic film about a man coming to terms with the untimely death of his young daughter. It’s also a rather unfortunate account of the life and work of Charles Darwin. I was invited to see the film before its UK release next week at a special screening in the Science Museum’s IMAX theatre. Going in to the cinema, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Coming out again, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d seen.

Paul Bettany and Martha West as Darwin and his daughter Annie are superb, and I was genuinely moved by their on-screen relationship. But, for every touching father-daughter moment there came scene after scene of Darwin manically running after the ghost of his dead child.

The real Darwin struggled to live with Annie’s death, and suffered throughout his life from a mysterious illness that likely caused him great mental trauma. He was not however stark-raving mad, as the film portrays him, and after the first few interactions with the ghost of Annie, my sense of immersion was shattered.

The film is a dramatisation though, and not a documentary, so some bending of the truth is allowed. I imagine what more people will take issues with is the portrayal of religion. Darwin’s wife Emma, played here by Bettany’s actual wife Jennifer Connelly, was deeply religious, and Darwin delayed publication of his theory for many years because he feared her (and the world’s) response.

This is played out in the film, but perhaps in the most ham-fisted way possible. “Science is at war with religion,” declares Thomas Huxley near the start, and Darwin must win the fight for science.

Why must the theory of evolution always be set against religion in this way? It is perfectly possible to both accept the truth of evolution and believe in God – not a philosophy I ascribe to personally, but nor one I feel the need to constantly assault.

If Creation is meant to convince people of the truth of evolution over God, then it will fail. As the lack of a US distribution deal indicates, those who do not wish to have their minds changed will simply refuse to see it. But if the film is meant to appeal to Darwin’s loyal supporters, then the sight of him raving at the ghost of his daughter is unlikely to please.

Who then is Creation intended for? I don’t know. It’s certainly a film worth seeing; I enjoyed it as a well constructed piece of cinema. I’m just not sure that I liked it.

5 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 12 August 2009 at 12:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology

Are a generation of children growing up with text messaging at risk of turning their brains to mush? The Daily Mail seems to think so.

“Predictive text messaging changes the way children’s brains work and makes them more likely to make mistakes generally, a study has found.”

The study in question was recently published by the journal Bioelectromagnetics, and did indeed look at mobile phone use and cognitive function in children. What Michael Abramson and colleagues did not find, however, was a causal link, despite what the Mail might think. Remember folks, correlation does not imply causation.

Researchers tested the mental abilities of 317 Australian 12 and 13-year-olds, and recorded their mobile phone usage. Results show children who had more calls and text messages were less accurate in memory tests, but completed them faster. The paper goes on to suggest that text messaging could be responsible, as predictive text “train[s] the user to favour speed over accuracy.” A quote from Abramson in the Mail article backs this up:

“We suspect that using mobile phones a lot, particularly tools like predictive text, is behind this.

“Their brains are still developing so if there are effects then potentially they could impact down the line, especially given that the exposure is now almost universal.

“The use of mobile phones is changing the way children learn and pushing them to become more impulsive in the way they behave.”

In a word: bollocks. The data gathered simply does not back this up. It may be completely true, but it’s not a statement that can be drawn from the evidence available in his paper. Makes a nice sound bite, though.

This line of argument is further undermined because the same correlation was seen with phone calls, not just texts, implying the underlying mechanism might be the same. Perhaps children who use their phones more often are just naturally more easily distracted, thus pay less attention? There is no way to tell from this study.

That doesn’t stop Baroness Susan “Facebook makes you fat” Greenfield weighing in, with her usual attacks on anything invented in the past couple of decades. In addition to suggesting “Generation Text” will cause the downfall of humanity, she has a go at Twitter:

When I was a child, if I wanted to tell someone about my day, I spoke to them face-to-face, I wrote them a letter or I walked to the phone box down the road.

Communication was far from instant and, although we were not aware of it at the time, it influenced what information we deemed worthwhile sharing.

Today, we can ‘tweet’ to the universe such inanities as: ‘I’ve just put my socks on.’ A friend can respond – ‘Congratulations!’ – within seconds.

A Twitter search for “I’ve just put my socks on” does admittedly turn up a single result, but this is just one of the thousands of message sent every day. Despite this common criticism of banality, I don’t think most people actually use Twitter in this way. No one cares what you had for breakfast, so tweeting about it probably results in a quick exodus of followers. Of course, I have no evidence to confirm this other than my own anecdotal experience, but at least I admit as much!

I agree with Greenfield that new technologies must be evaluated for potential harm. Where we differ is my requirement for causal links and solid evidence, rather than conclusions pulled out of thin air.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 5 August 2009 at 2:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Science Policy

[Whoops, I'm off schedule already. Apologies to those who were expecting a post on Monday, but another bout of illness over the weekend meant I had to take a few days off. And now, the news.]

On the path to a greener future, governments must lead the way. Without legislation that suitably incentives green behaviour, the necessary changes to our economy will not be possible. Carbon trading, if appropriately priced, seems like a good way to do this. Unfortunately, the UK Government seems to have missed the point of the scheme: reducing emissions.

A report published today by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) warns that the Government may not meet its own targets for emission cuts, and could have to use taxpayers money to purchase more carbon credits.

In 2006, then Prime Minister Tony Blair promised a 12.5% reduction in carbon emissions by 2010-11, relative to 1990/2000 levels. The EAC have criticised the Government for not doing enough to reduce energy use in its buildings, the largest source of emissions. So far, only a 6.3% reduction has been achieved.

Failure could come at a hefty price. Starting in April next year, around 5,000 organisations including Government departments, retailers and banks will have to buy carbon credits. Under the Carbon Reduction Commitment, these organisations will have to pay £12 for every tonne of carbon dioxide they produce.

All of this money is contributed to a central pot, and emissions are assessed on a yearly basis. Organisations that do well are given their money back, plus a bonus, whilst those that do poorly get back less than they put in. Effectively, inefficient organisations pay money to those which can reduce emissions the most.

This means that unless targets are met, the Government will be handing taxpayers money to private businesses to make up for its carbon excess. You could say this is how the scheme is meant to work – reward those who are greenest, and allow the stragglers to pay for their sins. A fair point – but shouldn’t we expect better?

If the Government are forced to purchase more carbon credits in this way, it sends out the completely wrong message to the country. We must learn that simply paying your way is not enough; at some point we must all make emission reductions.

What’s worse, this is a double cost to the taxpayer. In not reducing energy usage, the Government will have already paid more in utility bills than is necessary. Instead of investing in insulation or solar panels, it has thrown money away on a short-term “solution”. It’s not good enough. The short-term is running out.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 8 July 2009 at 3:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Scientists at Newcastle University claim to have created human sperm from embryonic stem cells for the first time. Professor Karim Nayernia who led the team says their research could be used to study male infertility, but the tabloids drew slightly different conclusions.

Ethical storm flares as British scientists create artificial sperm from human stem cells‘ and ‘Are we on the brink of a society without any need for men?‘ – Daily Mail

The end of men? Scientists create sperm in the lab out of stem cells‘ – The Mirror

Chaps doomed as lab grows sperm‘ – The Sun

I can’t access the paper thus only have the press release to go on, but even without an in-depth look at the science I can safely say that these headlines are a bit alarmist.

Theoretically, these artificial sperm could be used to fertilise an egg and produce a viable embryo, though such a procedure is currently banned in the UK by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. Laws do change however, and Professor Nayernia and his team have already used the technique to impregnate mice, though the resulting offspring died soon after birth due to abnormalities.

It’s still a huge leap to go from creating sperm to eliminating men all together. For one thing, surely half of all babies born through this method would be male? Even if this weren’t the case, the researchers were not able to produce viable sperm from female stem cells. It seems that men will need to stick around, if only for their Y chromosome.

Ultimately I think that the furthest this research will go is to generate artificial sperm from the stem cells of men who can’t produce their own. We’re not even close to that yet though, and many media reports mention rival scientists questioning whether the team at Newcastle have even created sperm at all. Dr Allan Pacey of the University of Sheffield and Secretary of the British Fertility Society told the Guardian:

“As a sperm biologist of 20 years’ experience, I am unconvinced from the data presented in this paper that the cells … produced by Professor Nayernia’s group can be accurately called ‘spermatozoa’”

Whilst it is important that we have a debate about the implications of this research and create legislation reflecting the realities of science, I don’t think these headlines can be taken seriously. A dose of common sense will tell you that the majority of couples will choose to conceive in the same way as they have always done, men included, and this new technique will just be another addition to the IVF toolkit.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 6 July 2009 at 7:54 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Whoops. Wrote this yesterday but somehow failed to put it on the site. Warning: incoming link dump. I’ve still got loads of interesting stuff left, so I thought I’d burn it all off at once.

Honours for UK astronauts

The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) have created an award for people from the UK who have flown in to to space – all five of them.

The silver pins were give to Helen Sharman and Richard Garriott, who were backed by private funds, and Michael Foale, Nicholas Patrick and Piers Sellers who all became US citizens to fly with NASA.

Despite UK government resistance to human spaceflight, the BIS have made up another five pins that they hope to give to future UK astronauts.

One quarter of Londoners believe in creationism

The figure falls to one in seven nationwide, which is still fairly concerning. Worse though are the one in five Londoners who have never even heard of Darwin – you don’t have to believe the guy, but at least know his name!

US Navy is building electromagnetic plane guns

As in, guns that fire planes. Well not quite, but the Pentagon has spent half a billion dollars on building a new launch system for aircraft carriers.

Currently, they use “steam catapults” to launch planes off the short carrier runways – which is pretty much what it sounds like. The new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System will instead use an electric linear motor to shoot the planes off in to the sky.

Self-help books don’t

A psychological study has found that self-help books can actually have the opposite effect to that intended. The research showed that people with low self-esteem actually feel worse about themselves after repeating typical self-help statements like “I am a lovable person”.

Monkeys barter and trade on a simian stock market

Instead of pounds or dollars, non-human primates use grooming as currency. Scientists from the University of Strasbourg in France examined monkey exchange rates by placing food in a box that only one female was trained to open.

An hour after she did, the other members of the group rewarded her with longer and more frequent grooming, and she reciprocated less.

Her new-found wealth wasn’t to last however. When the scientists introduced another trained monkey, the first female’s grooming “stock value” decreased as the second female’s rose. Eventually the “market” equalised and they were both groomed for the same amount of time.

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5 Comments » Posted on Friday 3 July 2009 at 6:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

With all the World Conference of Science Journalists fun, there’s obviously been a lot of news this week that I’ve had to ignore. Rather than letting it slip away without comment, I thought I’d once again abuse the Weekly Roundup category for the next few days. A bit longer than my usual Roundup format today, because I’m basically cramming two blog posts in to one:

Electro-hypersensitivity: because when you make up a medical condition, it becomes real

Maybe it’s just because I own more electronic doo-dads than anyone really needs, but when ever I see people complaining that electricity/wifi makes them ill, I get annoyed. The Daily Mail published just such an account, from Sarah Dacre, who suffered from unexplained headaches and digestive problems for seven years.

Her medical problems increased over the years, and it wasn’t until 2006 when she was diagnosed with electro-hypersensitivity (EHS) by a “specialist [she] found on the internet” that she was able to over them. She moved to a country house in Kent, and was miraculously cured.

It’s a good thing that, unlike the rest of the country, Kent isn’t bathed in radio waves. And doesn’t have mobile phone masts. Or electricity. Hmm.

There is no scientific evidence to show the existence of EHS. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. A meta-analysis of studies looking at the phenomenon found that those who claimed to suffer from the condition could not tell if the electromagnetic field they were being subjected to was real or not. I don’t know what caused Sarah Dacre’s medical problems, but this ain’t it.

Vegetarianism as a way of avoiding cancer? I’d rather eat a burger

Vegetarians ‘avoid more cancers’ says the BBC headline. A study published in the British Journal of Cancer looked at cancer rates in over 60,000 Brits, and found that those who were strictly veggie or only ate fish were at a much reduced relative risk of developing cancer.

Ah, cancer and relative risk – we’ve been here before. I’m not going to do a full look at the stats, but let’s take bladder cancer as an example. The research showed that compared to meat eaters, vegetarians have a relative risk of 0.47 for developing bladder cancer. In other words, cutting out meat more than halves your chance of developing the disease.

Halves it from what though? As always, I refer you to the excellent Cancer Research UK for some numbers. For every 100,000 people in the UK, each year 16.9 will develop bladder cancer. That means roughly 10,000 people each year over the entire population. If we all stopped eating meat – and only if we all did – around 5,000 a year would avoid the disease.

Maybe I’m just too attached to eating meat, but changing the eating habits of an entire country in order to effect such a small change doesn’t really seem worth it. Though, us all cutting out meat would effect other cancer rates as well, so it’s not just 5,000 who are being spared. Should we change our diet of the back of this study then? Lead author Professor Tim Key doesn’t think so:

“At the moment these findings are not strong enough to ask for particularly large changes in the diets of people following an average balanced diet.”

Now, don’t make the mistake of thinking I just ignore all health advice. Some risk factors are worth changing your habits for. Every year, around 35,000 people die as a result of lung cancer. Almost 90% of these are a result of smoking. Saving 31,500 lives a year by banning smoking seems a pretty obvious thing to do.

Smoking is also the major preventable risk factor for bladder cancer, which leads to about 5,000 deaths a year. Yes, roughly half of these could potentially be avoided if we all went veggie, but eradicating smoking seems like a much more effective, less costly and less disruptive way to cut cancer rates.

To look at it another way, you don’t see anyone suggesting we ban cars, which would save around 3,000 lives a year. It’s a fair comparison I think, since given the choice between a life of salads and cars, or sausages and trains, I know which I’d go for!

Comments Off Posted on Friday 26 June 2009 at 8:48 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong

Apparently women are at their happiest when the reach the age of 28. Don’t take my word for it though – the hair colour company Clairol have commissioned a “study” of 4,000 women. A spokesman for the company said:

“The age of 28 has been pinpointed as the time in a woman’s life their hair looks the best, body shape is at its peak and confidence is at an all-time high.”

The “research” consisted of asking women at what point they were happiest in 12 “key areas” of their lives. If you really care, the Telegraph story linked above lists the various nonsense answers.

It also seems that 56% of women worry about losing their looks as they age. That’s good news for Clairol then, as their entire business model is built on convincing women that they are unattractive and must buy their products in order to looks good.

Psychologist Corinne Sweet offered these words of wisdom to women concerned about their appearance:

“Having a good hair day is essential to success both at work and in love, as many women still feel their hair is their crowning glory

“Considering it was found that women have six bad hair days a month, anything women can rely on to improve their hair at home, in the minimum of time with guaranteed results can mean a huge lift in well-being, confidence and self-esteem.”

Yes girls, nothing is more important than your hair. Without good hair, you cannot be successful. Buy Clairol products, or your life will be a meaningless mess. After all, “research” and a psychologist say so.

Corinne Sweet avoids the wrath of my scare quotes because, according to her biography at least, she is currently doing an MSc in Psychodynamics of Human Development at the Birkbeck Psychology Department. The rest of her website reveals she is very much a journalist/broadcaster though, so I imagine she was just approached by Clairol to slap her name on their bullshit in order to give it a veneer of respectability.

The Telegraph fell for it, and saw fit to report the “story” in their Health section. I hope all my female readers are already rushing to the chemists to stock up on Clairol products. Hurry, before it’s too late.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 25 June 2009 at 7:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

ResearchBlogging.org

A Canadian study published in the journal Obesity has found that overweight people are 17% more likely to live longer than those of normal weight. In response, the Daily Mail instructed their readers to fatten up, but I would advise against it.

The study looked at data from the Canadian National Population Health Survey, which monitors the health of participants every two years. Using over 11,000 patient records, the researchers were able to track changes in Body Mass Index (BMI) and their relationship with mortality.

BMI is a commonly-used statistic for assessing a person’s body weight. It is calculated by a formula incorporating both height and weight. Normal BMI is considered to be between 18.5 and 25, whilst 25 to 30 is overweight. Outside of this range are underweight and obese.

Unsurprisingly being underweight or obese was found to be bad news when it comes to living longer, although for younger participants aged 25-59 being underweight was not a concern. Whilst we might expect these results, the conclusion that being in the overweight category gives you a slight lifespan advantage requires deeper investigation.

The problem could lie with the way BMI is measured. For the average person BMI is a useful indicator of healthy body weight, but because it doesn’t actually measure total body fat it can be problematic. For particularly athletic or muscular people the formula doesn’t work, because muscle weighs more than fat. Thus, those in the overweight category could actually be fit and healthy with large amounts of muscle tissue – exactly the kind of people we would expect to live longer.

The authors of the study caution against inferring causality as the Daily Mail has done. Getting fatter won’t necessarily help you live longer, and as the researchers point out there is a difference between a long life and a healthy one. Being overweight has been clearly linked with heart disease and diabetes amongst other conditions, so anyone following the Mail’s advice would be putting themselves at risk of developing these afflictions.

There is also the problem of continuous weight gain. Once you start putting it on, it can be hard to stop. The Healthy Survey data shows that a quarter of Canadians who were overweight in 1994/5 had become obese by 2002/3, and obesity will certainly up your chances of an early death.

Even the Mail must realise this, but I guess the sub-editor who wrote the headline didn’t read to the bottom of the article. They report the words of Dr David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum: “This study shouldn’t be used as an excuse to put on weight.”

Orpana, H., Berthelot, J., Kaplan, M., Feeny, D., McFarland, B., & Ross, N. (2009). BMI and Mortality: Results From a National Longitudinal Study of Canadian Adults Obesity DOI: 10.1038/oby.2009.191

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 22 June 2009 at 4:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong

On Friday I noticed that a few papers had run a story about research into “taste dialects”, the notion that different regions of the country favour particular foods. All ready I was sceptical, and then I noticed that the research had been performed on behalf of Costa Coffee. Hmm.

Well, for various reasons I didn’t get around to writing about it. I’d probably have moved on from this story this week if it weren’t for the appearance of a press release on EurekAlert from the University of Nottingham.

Normally EurekAlert serves as a pretty reliable source for scientific press releases, so I’m a bit surprised to see this kind of “research” cropping up. I’ve cracked out the scare quotes because some of the “findings” are so subjective that they can’t in any way be called science. For example:

People from the North East seek tastes that offer immediate satisfaction, borne from a history of hungry heavy industry workers demanding foods that offer immediate sustenance.

Maybe I’m being harsh. Maybe that isn’t complete bollocks, and the researchers somehow show a causal link between a history of heavy industry and a desire for instant satisfaction. I’ve got no way to tell, because the “research” wasn’t published anywhere.

That’s unsurprising, considering the people who carried it out. Whilst Professor Andy Taylor works in the University of Nottingham Flavour Research Group, food psychologist Greg Tucker works for The Marketing Clinic, which uses the scary-sounding Interrogation Research technique to come up with market research. Some choice quotes from that page:

The consumer is under strong social pressure to provide answers which are acceptable to society.

The Marketing Clinic can ascertain what is really going on and get into consumers unconscious thoughts.

I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like they scream “THERE ARE 5 COFFEES AND THEY ALL TASTE GREAT!” at people until they agree. Coffee, after all, was the reason for commissioning this survey. No surprise to find this “result” buried away at the bottom of the list then:

Coffee is the earliest recalled taste memory for under eighteens. In all regions, people noted the importance of getting a ‘good’ rather than ‘average’ cup of coffee.

And where might one get a good cup of coffee in all regions? Why, Costa Coffee of course!

I’m disappointed that EurekAlert are participating in this shameless marketing exercise. If you still need convincing to the true nature of this “research”, one need only glance at the contact details on the end of the press release. Lucy Whittle of Paratus Communications can tell you everything you need to know. The company even proudly display their ability to get corporate nonsense in to the papers, so I don’t think EurekAlert needs to give them any more help.

1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 20 June 2009 at 7:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

Cliff Arnall is the king of the “formula for” story. Earlier this year I wrote about his equation for calculating the date of Blue Monday, his self-styled worst day of the year.

At the time I failed to mention that Arnall actually trots out this rubbish not just once, but twice annually. When summer rolls round, it’s time for the happiest day of the year, which according to Arnall’s formula was yesterday.

The “story” was picked up by the Telegraph, Daily Mail, and Sun. Fact-checking obviously doesn’t occur on the happiest day of the year, because it seems that Arnall is still dining out on Cardiff University’s reputation, despite the institution making it very clear he only worked there as a part-time tutor.

I suppose its time to take a look at the formula now, but by this point do you really need me to tell you it’s nonsense? Here, in all its glory, is the “complicated equation” needed to calculate a day’s happiness rating, along with the variable definitions:

O + (N x S) + Cpm/T + He

  • O: Outdoors
  • N: Nature
  • S: Social interaction
  • Cpm: Childhood memories of summers
  • T: Temperature
  • He: Holidays

Not sure about the difference between outdoors and nature, and surely the value will be the same for each day; O = N = 1, unless there is a second outdoors that I don’t know about. Social interaction could actually be quantifiable, perhaps the number of conversations in a day, but it’s pretty unclear.

Cpm and He are both very bad notation. What is wrong with just C and H? The extra letters don’t add anything, they aren’t even an abbreviation, but they could easily be confused for additional variables. I guess this way looks more “scientific”.

In fact, the only scientifically measurable variable, temperature, is what makes this “formula” fall apart. Assuming you have at least some memory of your childhood, Cpm/T will rapidly grow to infinity as the temperature drops to 0 °C and completely dominate anything else in the equation.

I don’t know about you, but I thought it was pretty warm out yesterday. It seems that Arnall’s Blue Monday, January 19th, would be a much better candidate for happiest day of the year according to this formula. Maybe he accidentally got his bullshit mixed up with his bollocks, and gave us all the wrong date. Now that’s a thought that makes me smile.

2 Comments » Posted on Friday 19 June 2009 at 8:27 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong

ResearchBlogging.org

“Science is inevitably biased to some extent,” says Dr Daniele Fanelli, “because it’s made by human beings.” One might easily dismiss this claim as unfounded, but Fanelli has the numbers to back it up. His recent research paper combined over 20 previous studies on scientific misconduct, and found that nearly 2% of scientists admit to falsifying or fabricating data.

Whilst most scientists would shudder at the thought of distorting or inventing results, it seems that a small number are prepared to do so. Fanelli, a researcher in science and technology studies at the University of Edinburgh, believes quantifying and identifying this practice is essential to improving science.

He’s not alone. The UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO) is an independent advisory body set up in 2006 to support good practice in research and help address cases of scientific misconduct. UKRIO head James Parry stresses that whilst misconduct is not a common occurrence, it is a problem. “We need to take steps to actively promote good conduct and research,” he says.

What causes a scientist to turn away from good conduct, and good science? Fame and fortune are obvious answers, but Fanelli argues some scientists might feel forced in to it. “There is an excessive pressure to publish, an excessive reliance on publication record to assess scientific careers.” With scientists needing to keep up appearances, perhaps publishing a falsified paper in an obscure journal seems like the only solution.

It isn’t just smaller journals that fall foul of misconduct, as even the giants of the science publishing world can get it wrong. Parry recalls the case of Jan Hendrik Schön, a physicist at Bell Labs in New Jersey. Over the course of a few years Schön published a slew of papers on superconductivity in high profile journals, including Science and Nature. “It turned out he was faking results,” says Parry. “Some of the data used in one paper had actually been used in another – he’d just labelled it differently.”

Intentionally mislabelling data is high on the list of crimes against science, but Fanelli’s research shows that a much larger proportion of scientists are guilty of lesser offences. One third of those asked admit to a variety of “questionable research practices”, including dropping data based on gut feeling or allowing funding sources to influence a study. Whilst these may just be the research equivalent of a parking ticket or speeding fine, their high prevalence is worrying.

More worrying is that the true misconduct figures could be even higher. Scientists in the surveys Fanelli analysed were self-reporting, and may have chosen not to admit their misconduct. When asked about their colleagues, 14% reported knowing someone who had falsified results, whilst 72% suggested other questionable research practices were taking place. Even these figures don’t paint the whole picture, because one case of misconduct could be reported multiple times. “How these figures relate to the true frequency of misconduct is partly an open question,” says Fanelli.

Whilst just answering a survey might be easy, actually dealing with a colleague’s misconduct can be harder. “It’s a very stressful situation,” explains Parry, but the UKRIO can help. “If someone comes to us with concerns, we offer confidential and independent advice and guidance.” This support can play a crucial role in exposing potentially harmful misconduct, especially when it comes to health and biomedical research. “It’s the area where there is the most potential for mishap if things go wrong,” says Parry.

It is also the area with the most reported misconduct. “Medically related research has consistently higher admission rates,” says Fanelli. There are two possible explanations for this. Perhaps these researchers are more aware of issues surround scientific misconduct and so are more honest, or maybe misconduct rates simply are higher in medicine. Both explanations could be true.

Should we be concerned that we don’t know how many researchers are cooking the scientific books? Fanelli believes this behaviour is not necessarily bad for science, because dodgy data can be used to support research that is subsequently accepted as true. The 19th century scientist Gregor Mendel was posthumously accused of data that was too good to be true, but his work forms the foundation of modern genetics. Thus science is self-correcting in the long term, but for contemporary research misconduct is more of a problem.

The solution, says Fanelli, is greater transparency. “Scientists should report more faithfully what they actually did.” He suggests that if dropping a few data points lends weight to an argument then scientists should go ahead and do so, but must admit to it. And of course, he practices what he preaches: “I’m trying to be as unbiased and objective as I possibly can.”

Fanelli, D. (2009). How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data PLoS ONE, 4 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005738

Comments Off Posted on Monday 15 June 2009 at 1:18 pm by Jessica Bland
In Getting It Wrong

In the posted version of my article on torture, I made a mistake. I misdescribed Dr. Basoglu’s definition of torture. He had corrected this previously, and he rightly pulled me up for posting the unchanged version:

Therefore, Basoglu argues, the definition of torture used in International law should be modified. “It would be based on four parameters” Intent, purpose and removal of control are all widely-accepted criteria for torture. But Basoglu adds a fourth criterion: “multiple stressors must be present.” So, both combinations of physical events and psychologically stressful situations would constitute torture under this definition.

Basoglu’s correction was:

“Intent and purpose are widely accepted criteria for torture but removal of control is not…It is (a) multiple stressors that interact with each other and (b) removal of control that define the contextual characteristics of captivity settings. It is these two criteria based on learning theory formulation of torture trauma that make the proposed definition novel and evidence-based.”

That is to say, it is not just the fourth of the parameters that is novel. It is also the third. And together they provide a contextual definition of torture.

I hope this will be one of the only times that Just A Theory bloggers tag their own writing with the ‘getting it wrong’ tab…..

My apologies to Dr. Basoglu and to anyone who read the uncorrected text.

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7 Comments » Posted on Sunday 14 June 2009 at 9:55 am by Sam Wong
In Getting It Wrong

The physicist Alan Sokal famously satirised the field of postmodern cultural studies by writing a meaningless spoof paper and getting in published in a journal called Social Text. He described the paper, entitled ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, as ‘a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense’. By getting it published, he sought to demonstrate that postmodernist academics were more interested in who wrote a paper and how it sounded than whether it says anything meaningful.

Sokal’s paper was published in a humanities journal with no peer review process. Could something similar happen in a peer-reviewed scientific journal? Concerned about how well papers would be scrutinised by open access journals that charge publication fees to the authors, Philip Davis decided to find out.

Davis, a graduate student at Cornell University in New York, was made suspicious by the glut of unsolicited e-mails he received from Bentham Science Publishers inviting him to submit papers to and even sit on the editorial board of journals for which he had no expertise.

To put their editorial standards to the test, Davis created a gobbledegook paper using a computer programme called SCIgen. SCIgen was developed by three students at Massachussetts Institute of Technology to generate a nonsensical paper to submit to the World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics (WMSCI) in 2005. Their paper, titled ‘Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unificiation of Access Points and Redundancy’, was accepted – not so surprising when you consider that the WMSCI charged speakers $390 to attend.

Davis’s paper was titled ‘Deconstructing Access Points’. Here’s a sample paragraph:

Several encrypted and ubiquitous heuristics have been proposed in the literature. On the other hand, the complexity of their method grows logarithmically as Boolean logic grows. Further, unlike many previous methods, we do not attempt to manage or develop the evaluation of I/O automata. Furthermore, Karthik Lakshminarayanan constructed several lossless solutions, and reported that they have tremendous effect on the deployment of Internet QoS. This is arguably unreasonable. As a result, the class of frameworks enabled by TriflingThamyn is fundamentally different from previous approaches [13, 21]. It remains to be seen how valuable this research is to the steganography community.

Just in case it wasn’t obvious enough that this was a hoax, Davis put down his institutional affiliation as the ‘Centre for Research in Applied Phrenology’ (CRAP). He submitted it to The Open Information Science Journal, and four months later it was accepted. He was invited to pay the $800 publication fee.

The journal claimed that they knew it was a hoax. ‘We tried to find out the identity of the individual by pretending the article had been accepted for publication when in fact it was not,’ Mahmood Alam, Bentham’s Director of Publications, told New Scientist. But on Friday, Bambang Parmanto, the editor-in-chief of The Open Information Science Journal resigned, blaming the mistake on ‘a breakdown in the process’.

Thanks to the internet, the subscription access model of scientific publishing is looking increasingly anachronistic, and it will surely only be a matter of time before all research papers are freely available for all to read. But the model in which journals make a profit from publication fees charged to authors is also undesirable: it risks excluding research from developing countries or less well-funded fields. Further, as Philip Davis has demonstrated, the greed of the publisher can mean that the review process is not as scrupulous as we would hope. It is important that we come up with a system in which scientific papers are published so that anyone can access them freely, but without compromising the integrity of the peer review apparatus. The best solution must be one in which no one makes a profit from publishing.

3 Comments » Posted on Friday 12 June 2009 at 2:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

ResearchBlogging.org

Place your hand over your heart. Now move it to your stomach. How about your thyroid? Ok, that last one is a little trickier, but I’d be shocked to meet anyone who couldn’t do the first two. Well, it’s time to be shocked.

A study published in the journal BMC Family Practice has found an appalling lack of public knowledge of human anatomy. The research, carried out by psychologists at King’s College London, aimed to discovery whether public understanding of anatomy had improved since a similar study in the 70s. It hasn’t.

Clue: It isn't D.
Clue: It isn't D.

They gave over 700 people multiple choice questions like the example above. Most were patients currently undergoing treatment for one of six types of conditions; the researchers were interested to see whether a patient with respiratory problems would be able to identify the location of the lungs, for example. The rest of the sample (133 participants) were members of the public.

In the test above, 44% of the public failed to find the true location of the heart. For cardiac patients the results were even worse, with just over half seemingly unaware of the placement of their troublesome organ.

As the researchers rightly point out, this knowledge gap poses a significant problem for doctors trying to inform patients about their illness. They point to previous studies which show that many people do not know the difference between pairs of medical terms, like heart attack and myocardial infarction, or fracture and broken bone.

I’m not too worried about that kind of knowledge – I couldn’t tell you the difference between those terms, because I’m not a doctor. What I simply can’t fathom is how it is possible for anyone to not know where their heart is. We feel it beat every second of every day. After heavy exercise, the intensity of our heartbeat is so loud that you can hear it. Other organs fair even worse: 72.9% could not correctly place the lungs. What do these people think is going on in their body?

We can take comfort reading that, as you might expect, the study found levels of knowledge increased amongst more educated participants. There was also a slight decrease in knowledge for older participants, suggesting that education is slowly improving. Perhaps public understanding of anatomy is getting better then, but this research shows that a lot more work needs to be done.

John Weinma, Gibran Yusuf, Robert Berks, Sam Rayner, & Keith Petrie (2009). How accurate is patients’ anatomical knowledge: a cross-sectional, questionnaire study of six patient groups and a general public sample. BMC Family Practice, 10 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2296-10-43

4 Comments » Posted on Friday 29 May 2009 at 3:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology

It’s Friday, so many of you will probably be off to the pub this evening to wind down after a hard week’s work. As you sip your frosty pint on this warm spring evening, you might want to take note of how you hold the glass. According to new research by psychologist Dr Glenn Wilson, this small indicator can reveal much about your personality.

Only it can’t, because it’s a load of bollocks commissioned by the Walkabout bar chain to get them a bunch of free advertising. Dr Wilson, of King’s College, London, drew his conclusions by observing 500 patrons in bars – no doubt Walkabout owned – last month.

Splitting drinkers in to eight distinct groups by, I dunno, pulling them out of thin air, Dr Wilson tells us how we may be inadvertently broadcasting our unconscious intentions every time we take a swig:

“The simple act of holding a drink displays a lot more about us than we realise – or might want to divulge.

“When you’re in a crowded bar, often all you have to go on is body language.

“To a large extent, it’s an unconscious thing and just reflects the person you are and the type of social relationships you have.

“The next time you’re in a bar, it might be worth thinking about what you’re saying to the people around you, just by the way you’re holding your glass.”

If you really care about the categories, check out the links above for full details. They include The Flirt, “usually a woman, who holds her glass with dainty, splayed fingers and uses it in a provocative way,” and The Browbeater, “usually male, he prefers large glasses, or bottles, which he uses as symbolic weapons, firmly grasped, and gesticulating in a threatening, “in the face” kind of way.”

Dr Wilson seems to have forgotten a ninth category, The Bullshitter. This type of drinker makes up “science” as they quickly down their beverage before laughing all the way to the bank.

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 27 May 2009 at 11:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Getting It Wrong

By now you’ve probably heard about Ida, the newly discovered fossil being heralded by many as “the missing link” in human evolution. Last night saw the broadcast of Uncovering our Earliest Ancestor, a documentary about the fossil narrated by an almost obligatory Sir David Attenborough.

As a student of science communication, I watched dutifully. I was not impressed. It felt like sitting through an episode of CSI or 24, with crash zooms and blinking maps featuring heavily. Scientists breathlessly compared the impact of Ida to “an asteroid hitting the Earth”

In the lead up to last night’s programme, Ida has been riding a hype wave that would be the envy of any Hollywood starlet. Unveiled by a press conference last week, and paraded around the media, Ida is big news. But is she big science? Anyone watching last night would certainly think so, but the scientific paper published in PloS One tells a slightly different story.

Ignore for a moment the fact that most biologists now question the need for a “missing link” in our evolution. The fossil record demonstrates the transition from early primates all the way along the evolutionary tree to humans. Although a somewhat outdated model of evolution – see New Scientist’s Darwin Was Wrong cover – the tree idea is still useful for thinking about how one species evolves in to another.

For us to be descended from Darwinus masillae, you would expect to trace a line down from Ida’s position on the tree to ours. That is what the documentary would have you believe, but as far as I can tell, it isn’t what the scientific paper says. As this diagram from New Scientist suggests, Ida belongs on the lemur track of evolution – although she herself was not a lemur.

Ida doesn't necessarily lie on our evolutionary branch.
Ida doesn't necessarily lie on our evolutionary branch.

I’m concerned by the extent to which Atlantic Productions, who made the documentary, influenced the science behind Ida. It is clear that they were involved from a fairly early stage – one scene in the documentary is a suspicious looking “home video” of the first discovery of Ida by lead scientist Dr Jørn Hurum. Scientists working on the fossil were asked to sign contracts and NDAs and some have even complained of being forced to work to media schedules. “It’s not how I like to do science,” said co-author Dr Philip Gingerich.

What would Atlantic have done, if Ida was shown to be a fairly uninteresting example of a lemur? Can the documentary, and lose their investment? Or would they have pressed for the scientists to reconsider their decision, to find the story? Worryingly, it appears this might be what happened.

At the end of the day, Ida is an amazingly complete example of such an ancient fossil. She is a great find for science, but unfortunately just does not deserve the hype afforded to her. And whilst Darwinus masillae is certainly related to us, as all animals are in some way related to us via the very earliest life forms, Ida cannot possibly be our earliest ancestor. For one thing, she died before ever reaching sexual maturity, and thus never bore any children. But on a broader scale, she zigged when our ancestors zagged. Somewhere out there might be a fossil that directly relates to us both, but even that does not deserve the label “missing link”. Of course that won’t stop another media circus, should it ever be discovered.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 25 May 2009 at 2:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

A recent survey suggests that the UK public doesn’t trust scientists to tell them what causes or cures cancer. A YouGov poll of 2,400 people on behalf of the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) found more than half thought scientists constantly changed their minds about cancer. Over a quarter also said that advice was constantly changing, and the best approach was to ignore it.

Is it any wonder that the public feel this way? Since starting Just A Theory I have written about many media reported cures or causes of cancer: oral sex, shampoo, Facebook, cannabis, beer and the Large Hadron Collider. These are just the few stories that I’ve actually picked up on. With so much conflicting media advice, how is anyone meant to make informed decisions? Most of the causes/cures barely change your absolute risk of cancer anyway, so perhaps ignore all advice completely really is the best option.

Not so, say the WCRF. Their advice has stayed the same for over a decade: eat balanced diet, exercise, and maintain a healthy weight. All fairly bog-standard, boring advice, but the WCRF say that around a third of the most common cancers could be avoided by following it. Richard Evans, head of communications for WCRF, explains:

“It is a cause for concern if people are not listening to cancer prevention advice because they have the impression that scientists are always changing their minds.

“The fact is that WCRF and other cancer charities agree on the best ways of reducing cancer risk and this advice has stayed broadly the same for quite a long time.

“A decade ago, we were recommending that people eat a plant-based diet, be physically active and maintain a healthy weight and this is still the case today.”

Yet, the Daily Mail continues its ongoing mission to divide all the inanimate objects in the world into those that cause or cure cancer, and other newspapers do the same. If media advice on cancer is leading people to ignore the WCRF recommendations and thus leaving them more susceptible to cancer, maybe you could argue that actually the media “causes” cancer. Hmm.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 24 May 2009 at 3:01 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Flying carpets…in space!

I pretty much never get tired of that headline.

Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata has demonstrated a “working” flying carpet aboard the International Space Station, as part of a series of experiments submitted by members of the public.

A whole new world...
A whole new world...

He had to cheat a little bit, however. Wakata’s feet were stuck to the carpet with sticky tape, which if you ask me doesn’t really count.

The Science News Cycle

Courtesy of PhD Comics, the Science News Cycle:

Strange measurements of science

The BBC have an article on some of the more interesting measurements made in the name of science. From the bluest sky to the crunch of a fresh biscuit, they’re quite strange. All were requests to the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex, which is responsible for defining and standardising units in the UK. Sounds like quite a cool job, and last Wednesday they celebrated World Meteorology Day in honour of their meticulous measuring.

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2 Comments » Posted on Saturday 23 May 2009 at 7:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

A policewoman has come up with a formula designed to increase public confidence in the police. I would have gone with catching criminals and not accidentally killing members of the public, but then what do I know about policing?

Chief Constable Julia Hodson of the Nottinghamshire Police suggests that her formula CE+CI+CS+VCxC = PC is the solution to policing problems. A quick run down of the variables:

  • CE: Community Engagement
  • CI: Critical Incidents
  • CS: Customer Satisfaction
  • VC: Volume Crime
  • C:Communication
  • PC: Public Confidence

You know the drill. Like all “formula fors” we have unquantifiable variables, nonsense algebra, and a completely useless equation. Hilariously, the Daily Mail describe the formula as an “Einstein-style mathematical equation”. Maybe it’s all the “C”s? Who knows.

If you could somehow measure all of these variables, the formula still doesn’t make sense. Why do you multiply Volume Crime by Communication? What on earth is that meant to mean? Hodson has degrees in both law and social policy, but along with everyone else offering “formula fors”, she could probably do with retaking GCSE Maths.

My new friends, the TaxPayer’s Alliance, have also criticised the formula. They make a bit more sense than when they were quacking on about ducks, with TPA Research Director Matthew Sinclair offering this:

“With the high crime rates in Nottinghamshire the Chief Constable’s time might be better spent working out how to bring criminals to justice rather than concocting dodgy algebra that wouldn’t pass muster even in a grade-inflated GCSE exam.

“This is exactly the kind of nonsense that makes the public wonder whether the police share their priorities, and undermines the public confidence which the formula is supposed to bolster.”

The TPA seem to be worming their way in to a number of news stories at the moment. An organisation to watch out for I think.

As for Chief Constable Julia Hodson and her nonsense formula, it appears that Nottinghamshire police are currently looking for a Scientific Support Manager Opportunity. They want someone to “drive the strategic direction of scientific support and deliver continuous improvements in the quality of forensic service provided to colleagues and the people of Nottinghamshire.” Perhaps providing a few maths lessons on the side wouldn’t hurt either.

1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 23 May 2009 at 5:20 pm by Sam Wong
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Let me begin by saying that sneering at the Daily Mail is not big and it’s not clever. But 2.2 million people read it every day, and it has a lot to say about how they should look after themselves, so it’s only reasonable that its coverage of stories relating to health should be subjected to scrutiny. Here are a few of the questionable articles I found this week.

Monday: Neuroimaging as a crystal ball

I know she looks like a crystal ball reader, but actually Mail hack Wendy Leigh is the one who’s having her fate revealed in this scene. The silly-looking headgear is part of the setup for a procedure called brain electrical activity mapping, or Beam: ‘the latest health trend’ in America.

The theory behind it is that measuring the electrical activity of the brain reveals its ‘true’ age, speed and ability, pointing to the likelihood of certain conditions.

Wendy learns that her acetylcholine levels are high, meaning that she has a low risk of Parkinson’s and dementia. Using imaging technology to predict neurological conditions early is an appealing idea, but are we really able to do this already? I found reliable answers surprisingly hard to come by on the internet, but it doesn’t look like there’s good evidence for quantitative electroencephalography, as it is more properly called, having high predictive value for this kind of use. The article admits as much towards the end:

Dr Richard Henson, of the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, says while recording brain waves is a well-established technique, it’s unlikely the results could provide meaningful information about what the brain’s neurotransmitters are up to.

Still, Wendy reports that after three weeks, she’s sleeping better and her sugar cravings have lessened, so let’s keep an open mind about it.

Tuesday: Fat = Fit

Overweight heart attack victims should stay fat as they are more likely to live longer, say researchers.

Given the massive health risks associated with being overweight, that’s a pretty dangerous piece of advice. Are there good grounds for it? The story is based on a review in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. I couldn’t access the article myself, but according to NHS Choices, the authors actually said that although a paradox exists, the data still support “purposeful weight reduction in the prevention and treatment of CV [cardiovascular] diseases”.

Wednesday: Forget dieting, have a biryani

If you did decide to reject the Mail’s advice and lose weight, how to go about it? I’m not going to have to eat salad for dinner am I? Not according to this article: ‘Why eating a curry could STOP you from putting on weight‘. It seems that curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, suppresses the growth of fat tissue. Mice fed on a high fat diet gained less weight if their food was supplemented with curcumin. They still gained weight though. Will takeaway curries become the latest fad diet. Since curries (combined with the associated naan, rice, poppadoms, chutney etc) are quite high in calories, I suspect a salad might still be a better option.

Thursday: Hang on, forget the biryani, go to bed

You wait ages for a more appealing weight loss strategy than eating less and exercising, and two come along at once. This time: ‘Why sleeping more could help you lose weight‘.

Researchers in the US analysed the sleep activity and energy expenditure of 14 volunteer nurses at the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington DC.

14? That’s your sample size? And all doing the same job in the same place? Alright then, what did you find?

Those identified as ‘short sleepers’ had an average body mass index (BMI) of 28.3 – classed as overweight – compared with 24.5 – classed as normal – for ‘long sleepers.’

Oh, for crying out loud! Surely we don’t have to go over the whole correlation/causation thing again? Maybe fat people don’t sleep well because they sink into the mattress too much, or because they can’t stop thinking about cake.

Friday: Swigging from plastic bottles will make you strangely self-conscious about your thighs

Drink from plastic bottles can raise the body’s levels of a controversial ‘gender-bending’ chemical by more than two thirds, according to tests.

Experts have been concerned about the possible health effects of bisphenol A (BPA) – an everyday chemical used in many plastic food and drink containers and tins as well as clear baby bottles – which is officially classified as toxic in some countries.

A study found that participants who drank for a week from polycarbonate bottles showed a 69 per cent increase in their urine of BPA, which mimics the female sex hormone oestrogen.

Gosh, this all sounds very scary. Maybe our increasing tendency to drink from plastic bottles is what caused the whole ‘metrosexual’ thing.

Once again, NHS Choices provides a pretty thorough discussion of the limitations of this study. Most significantly, there’s no evidence to suggest that the levels of BPA seen in the participants have any significant effects on physiology.

I promise to write about some good science next week. If I kept doing this, I’d probably tear my hair out.

7 Comments » Posted on Thursday 21 May 2009 at 7:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Science Policy

ResearchBlogging.org

Doing the rounds this week is a story about a £300,000 government-funded research project that took three years to establish that ducks like water. Sounds like a tremendous waste of taxpayers’ money, but is it? The newspapers certainly seem to think so:

Ducks like water study ‘waste of £300,000 taxpayers’ money’ – The Guardian
Boffins’ £300k study finds ducks like rain – The Sun
Farmers condemn £300,000 Defra ducks survey – The Telegraph
Just quackers! Government spends £300,000 on three-year study to show ducks like rain – The Daily Mail

The study in question, Water off a duck’s back: Showers and troughs match ponds for improving duck welfare, was published nearly a year ago in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. The researchers, from Oxford University, aimed to investigate the welfare of ducks reared for meat, as there is currently no legal requirement for farmers to provide the waterfowl access to bathing or swimming water. Many ducks only contact with water is in the form of drinking water from so-called “nipples” – basically a small tube.

Depriving ducks of water is a bit like the much vilified battery-farming method of rearing chickens. By placing the animals in an environment very far from one they would find in the wild, farmers sacrifice animal welfare in order to make a profit.

This is not the most glamorous of scientific studies, but it could have wide-reaching implications. Approximately 18 million ducks were reared for their meat in 2006, so the welfare of a large number of animals could be affected.

With this in mind, researchers tested the effects of four different water sources on ducks. The birds had access to either a bath for swimming, a trough for dipping their heads in and splashing water on their bodies, or an overhead shower. The fourth group’s only access to water was through the nipple drinkers, which were also given to the other three groups. Over the course of a month or so, the ducks were inspected to monitor the conditions of their eyes, nostrils and feathers, as well as their behaviour and ability to walk.

The results showed that the ducks deprived of bathing water were not as healthy as the others. The condition of both their bodies and plumage were affected – surely quite important if you’re trying to rear healthy ducks for the dinner table. It didn’t seem to matter what form the ducks’ access to water came in – baths, troughs or showers all did the trick. The researchers recommend that farmers stick to showers, as they are easier and cheaper to maintain.

So yes, you could say that with help of £294,027 from Defra, (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) scientists were able to conclude that ducks like water. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but if you actually bother to research the details then you no longer have a news story. Journalists could have gone and read the paper, which is easily understandable even to the layperson, or perhaps looked up the Defra report. But they didn’t. With the media calling for MPs’ heads to roll over the current expenses scandal, another opportunity to attack wasteful government spending is always welcome. This story isn’t really about science – it’s politics.

Piecing together the background of this story, I suspect that it has been engineered by the TaxPayers’s Alliance. This organisation campaigns for lower taxes, and criticises wasteful spending of public money.

The TPA have their own take on the story, written as if it were a response to a report in the Daily Star. Curiously though, the Star piece has a quote from Susie Squires, the TPA campaign manager. Squires appears in many of the other newspapers’ reports as well.

Despite claiming to be an “independent grassroots campaign” against “politicians of all parties”, the TPA have a distinctly Conservative streak. Two of its founders, Andrew Allum and Florence Heath were both leaders of the Imperial College Conservative association, and Allum was previously a Conservative member of Westminster City Council. The other, Matthew Elliot, has received numerous Conservative awards.

It appears to me that this “story” has been manufactured by the TaxPayer’s Alliance in order to attack the Labour government whilst it is still reeling from the expenses row. The scientists who carried out the original research have unfortunately been caught in the cross-fire of a political battle, that has little to do with the actual subject of the study.

In the grand scheme of things, £300,000 to improve animal welfare is a small amount of money. In 2004, when this research began, Defra had a budget of £3.153 billion – meaning this research accounted for less than 0.01% of the total cash available. It’s easy to mock scientific research like this, but perhaps journalists should do some research of their own before writing up their stories.

JONES, T., WAITT, C., & DAWKINS, M. (2009). Water off a duck’s back: Showers and troughs match ponds for improving duck welfare Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 116 (1), 52-57 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.07.008

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 19 May 2009 at 7:00 pm by Jessica Bland
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Science Policy

On the Guardian website last week, George Monbiot launched an all out attack on UK science funding entitled ‘These men would’ve stopped Darwin’. The men he is attacking are current research council bosses, as well as Lord Drayson, minister for science and innovation. Monbiot accuses them of damaging economic interference in science funding.

Last month’s budget ringfenced £106 million for science that showed “economic potential”. This was accompanied by a new mandate from research councils, asking that all new grant applications include a rundown of the research’s economic implications.

UK science is certainly becoming more business savvy. And this is changing how science is done. But it is not necessarily damaging it. Monbiot jumps from arguing that economic aims should not control scientific funding to the conclusion that scientists’ imaginations alone should have that job. For him, proper science is when scientists are free to pursue their passions; “it is about wonder and insight and beauty”.  He puts an absolute divide between scientist-led science and business-led science. If economic interests encroach on science funding, then, according to Monbiot,  scientist-led science will disappear.

But this is going too far. There is no great chasm between what scientists aim at and commercial aims. There is certainly tension between the two, but they are not distinct. Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York uses one particular example to illustrate this. Research into the biological processes behind cancer has been productive in recent years. So much so that work at the level of cell-processes is almost complete. In order to increase our understanding in this area, and perhaps develop new treatment, we do not need more medicalresearch but better computer-modelling. We need more mathematical research. If mathematicians working in abstract areas had not been publically funded over the last few decades, then we would be much further away from the relevant models.  The economic potential of new cancer treatments is huge. Whichever mathematicians get there first will open up the road to large-scale commercial possibilities. But this could not have been foreseen. IT was serendipitous.

Lord  Drayson’s response on Sunday made this point. Unfortunately, it was lost alongside both his defense of his own commercial record and forceful, pro-Labour concluding remarks. 

Drayson agreed that scientific serendipity is a necessary part of how science works, and that this scientist-led science should be protected. But this does exclude asking scientists to consider the economic implications of their work. Nor does it make it any easier to ask for more science funding from Alastair Darling’s already tight budget without promising the money to projects with economic potential.

Public spending on science is justified in one of two ways:

(1) Science is an academic discipline that finds out wonderful things.

(2) Science is part of the foundation of a knowledge economy and it’s output will help improve the economic climate.

Neither fully captures the real need for continued spending on science – that is a mixture of the two. But what Monbiot fails to acknowledge is the importance of the second. If you are in the business of convincing politicians to give more money to science, then talking in terms of economic outcomes looks like the more profitable route. And so that is the rhetoric that Drayson et al needs to use, even if they know in reality science doesn’t quite work like that.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 18 May 2009 at 6:18 pm by Seth Bell
In Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Musings

The other day Jacob wrote about Susan Greenfield’s claim that Facebook can make you fat. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the Internet can change the structure of your brain. However, it seems fairly self-evident to me that web 2.0 technology is offering us ways to change how we live and think.

We have greater freedom to express our thoughts and opinions to both friends and strangers through Twitter, Facebook, comment forums and blogs like this. Even Gordon Brown has got in on the action by broadcasting on YouTube.

The Internet offers better medium for dialogue than traditional print or broadcast media. Do web 2.0 technologies have the potential to change the fundamental structure of our society?

Brian Appleyard, writing for the Sunday Times, doesn’t think so. He argues that it is historically ignorant to believe that technology can fundamentally change society:

“”The internet”, says David Edgerton, professor of the history of technology at Imperial College London and author of The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, “is rather passé . . . It’s just a means of communication, like television, radio or newspapers.”

Edgerton is the world expert in tech dead ends. Fifty years ago, he points out, nuclear power was about to change the world; then there was supersonic passenger flight, then space travel. The wheel, he concedes, did change the world, as did steam power. The web is not in that league.”

I’m not really convinced by this argument. I agree that there are a plethora of ‘revolutionary’ technologies which failed to change the world, but communication technologies (like television, radio or newspapers) did change the very structure our society. The extent to which they did is difficult to articulate because of the difficulty for us to imagine our lives without them.

Similarly, I don’t think that blogging, twittering and the like are an optional fad which will simply be incorporated into our existing cultural framework. In western society we live a culture intensely interested in celebrity. Web 2.0 technology offers a way for people to express their need to be recognised and acknowledged by a wider audience than just the people they see in the pub.

I recently attended a talk at the dana centre (Dinner@Dana: Social Surveillance) which questioned whether sites like Facebook endanger our privacy. I don’t think this is the question we need to be asking. We should instead be asking how new technologies will change the way we think about privacy itself. If new generations grow up micro-broadcasting and making their lives public to others it seems likely that our current notions of ‘privacy’ will gradually be replaced by a very different animal.

So, whilst I don’t think the Internet has the potential to change our brains, I think it does have the potential to change the way we think.

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3 Comments » Posted on Friday 15 May 2009 at 6:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong

The mainstream media just cannot get enough of Facebook, Twitter, and all that Web 2.0 jazz. Baroness Susan Greenfield seems to have cottoned on to this fact, and now seems to make regular media appearances to warn us all about the dangers of such things.

Her latest claim is that Facebook makes you fat. We’ve had cancer and poor grades in the past, but now Greenfield says that computer games and social networking sites could be altering our brains to make us eat more.

She blames the lack of consequence in virtual worlds for “‘infantilising” our brains, leading to people eating too much because they don’t think about the ramifications. You can’t make this stuff up – unless you’re Baroness Susan Greenfield of course. Speaking at a science seminar in the House of Lords, she also blamed computers for the rise in ADHD:

“This is just a suggestion, I am not saying it is a causal relationship. But surely if we are exposing our brains to an environment that has a short attention span, if that happens to you in your first few years of life for long periods of time, might it be the case that when they go to school and are asked to sit still for half an hour, might there not be some cases of fidgeting?”

Essentially, she’s saying ‘Look, I haven’t done any research in to this, but I’ve got to be right. It’s science, and I proved it. Only I didn’t.’

The mainstream media listen to Greenfield because she is director of the well respected Royal Institution. I cannot fathom how she remains in this position whilst also spouting her own opinions as scientific fact. Perhaps if my mind hadn’t been horrible addled by computer use, I’d be able to understand.

5 Comments » Posted on Thursday 14 May 2009 at 6:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

ResearchBlogging.org

We complain about it all the time. Journalists take a small study with some preliminary findings and write it up as the story of a century. The sensationalising of science news is certainly a problem in the media, but a new study suggests perhaps we are too quick to blame the journos.

A paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine examines the content of 200 randomly selected press releases from 20 academic medical centres in the US. The analysis by lead authors Drs Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz shows that press officers are just as bad when it comes to exaggeration.

The press releases split in to 113 that focused on human research with the remaining 87 covering animal or laboratory research. On the human side, 40% reported on studies limited by factors like small sample sizes. Of the same group, 42% failed to provide caveats explaining the limits of the research.

Things get worse for the animal and laboratory studies press releases. Despite the majority claiming the relevance of the research to human health, 90% failed to mention potential difficulties in extrapolating the results to people.

In total, 29% of releases were rated by the authors as exaggerating the importance of research. Animal research was more likely to be exaggerated than human. It’s not just the press officers grandstanding however. Most press releases contain quotes from the scientists involved, and 26% of these were found to overstate research importance.

The authors admit that their findings would be stronger if backed up by an analysis of the press coverage resulting from these releases, but say the study is still important because press releases are known to be influential. A previous study suggests that as many as one third of news stories rely mostly or completely on a press release.

S. Woloshin, L. M. Schwartz, S. L. Casella, A. T. Kennedy, & R. J. Larson (2009). Press Releases by Academic Medical Centers: Not So Academic? Annals of Internal Medicine, 613-618

2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 10 May 2009 at 5:51 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

The Daily Mail have reported that the Government are indoctrinating children into supporting the MMR vaccine. It seems that in the January 2008 Biology GCSE paper pupils were awarded marks for criticising the controversial Andrew Wakefield paper on the link between MMR and autism.

The paper was set by the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) exam board, who have since “apologised for any misunderstanding” and removed the exam from their website despite it being nearly 18 months old. I managed to track down both the paper and it’s accompanying mark scheme with a little Google sleuthing.

Question 5 is the relevant one. Part (a) asks pupils to explain how the MMR vaccine protects children from measles, mumps and rubella, whilst part (b) focuses specifically on Wakefield and his 1998 paper in The Lancet. Pupils must read the following passage and then answer some questions:

Autism is a brain disorder that can result in behavioural problems. In 1998, Dr Andrew Wakefield published a report in a medical journal. Dr Wakefield and his colleagues had carried out tests on 12 autistic children.

Dr Wakefield and his colleagues claimed to have found a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Dr Wakefield wrote that the parents of eight of the twelve children blamed the MMR vaccine for autism. He said that symptoms of autism had started within days of vaccination.

Some newspapers used parts of the report in scare stories about the MMR vaccine. As a result, many parents refused to have their children vaccinated.

Dr Wakefield’s research was being funded through solicitors for the twelve children. The lawyers wanted evidence to use against vaccine manufacturers.

The questions are:

(i) Was Dr Wakefield’s report based on reliable scientific evidence? Explain the reasons for your answer.

(ii) Might Dr Wakefield’s report have been biased? Give the reason for your answer.

For question (i) the mark scheme requires an answer of “no”, along with any two of the following: “sample size small / only 12″, “conclusion based on hearsay from parents”, “only 8 parents linked autism to MMR”, and “no control used”. The answer to question (ii) is given as “yes, being paid by parents / lawyers”.

The Daily Mail received the following response from Wakefield:

“The thought police appear to be saying, “To pass this exam you have to adopt this particular point of view.”

“We didn’t make any claims that MMR was the cause of anything. The exam question completely misrepresents what we said. The Lancet study received no funding whatsoever.”

Unfortunately for Wakefield, the lack of a link between MMR and autism is not just a “particular point of view”, but scientific consensus backed up by numerous studies contradicting his original in The Lancet. The exam question gives an accurate (if simplified) account of what happened.

This “controversy” over the exam is actually a complete fabrication by the Daily Mail. Their story tells us the Goverment has been accused of using the exam paper as indoctrination, but fails to mention who’s doing the accusing. It seems quite possible that the story’s author, Beezy Marsh, is also its subject. She is a well known opponent of MMR, as documented by Ben Goldacre.

It’s worth discussing though whether a question like this belongs on a GCSE Biology paper. Should pupils merely demonstrate that they know a bunch of scientific facts, or should they be awarded marks on their ability to understand scientific controversy?

I’d say the latter is an important part of the curriculum, and the Wakefield saga is definitely a suitable topic for the classroom. As a specific exam question however, I’m not so sure. The details behind the incident require an explanation more complicated than the few dotted lines provided by AQA allow.

It’s also incredibly cowardly of AQA to remove the paper from their website the moment “controversy” rears its head, which is why I’ve upload it to Just A Theory (scroll up for the link) for anyone to read. They’ve clearly thought about the response to the question though. An AQA report on the exam paper, which remains on their site for now at least, evaluates pupils answers.

In part (b) many candidates did not seem to appreciate the difference between bias and reliable evidence, often transposing the answers to (b)(i) and (b)(ii). In part (b)(i) many candidates offered ‘small sample’ and many others ‘reliance on parents’ opinion’, but only 10 % identified both ideas. In part (b)(ii) it was surprising that only half of the candidates recognised that payment by solicitors could lead to bias.

The fact that only half of the thousands of students taking the paper thought money changing hands might influence Wakefield’s decision shows that this is definitely a topic that should be covered in the curriculum. I’m just not sure that this particular exam question is appropriate. As for the Daily Mail’s accusation of “brainwashing”, perhaps a GCSE English retake is in order.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 8 May 2009 at 10:00 am by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong

ResearchBlogging.org

Last month it was widely reported that a study had found Facebook users have lower grades. At the time I had my doubts about some of the conclusions newspapers were drawing. Now a new study criticises the original, and finds no link between Facebook and grades.

The authors were unhappy that although the previous study, which they refer to as “FG”, only looked at simple correlation, ‘Facebook harms grades’ became an established fact as it disseminated through the media. They found 500 references to this in three day span, despite the “unpublished and inadequately reviewed” FG study being merely reported in a press release.

It’s not just the media at fault though. They say the FG study used a sample of convenience which did not adequately reflect the population it sought to examine. It was heavily weighted to graduate students with only six first- and second-years, making it “unrepresentative of any university population at all”. Other aspects of the FG study, such as a lack of control for demographic variables, also come under fire.

Not content with mere criticism, the paper also describes a new study lead by Josh Pasek, a Ph.D. candidate in political communication at Stanford University. The researchers looked at three groups of students. One consisted of 1,060 first-years at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), whilst two others were drawn from a larger study, the annual National Annenberg Survey of Youth (NASY), for another 1,250 participants.

In all three groups there was no negative link found between grade point averages (the typical US measure of academic performance) and Facebook use. Results were mixed, either showing no correlation or a small positive one – Facebook users were more likely to have slightly higher grades. This increase was not statistically significant however when limiting the sample to just university students, as the previous FG study did.

The researchers are quick to point out that their results should not be used as a definitive answer to the question of Facebook’s effect on grades. They warn that since Facebook only emerged in 2004 it could be too early to tell, and predictions are difficult because of our “constantly evolving media environment”. They also point out that excessive participation in any activity, be it browsing Facebook or otherwise, will have an “extreme time replacement effect”. As I said in my post on the FG study, procrastinators procrastinate in any way they can.

Interestingly, published alongside the paper in online journal First Monday is a response from the author of the FG study, Aryn Karpinski of Ohio State University. She defends her study as “merely planned…for a conference”, and makes the fair point that she was a victim of media sensationalism.

Karpinski in turn criticises the new study’s methods, particularly their choice of samples. She argues that the UIC sample of first-years is not representative of the country as a whole, and the NASY survey is invalid as it only had a 45% response rate. It could be that those who didn’t respond are negatively impacted by Facebook use. The statistical methods used in the study are also attacked.

It doesn’t end there. In the same issue of First Monday Pasek et al respond to Karpinski’s response to their study, which was in turn a response to her original study. Perhaps it would have been easier simply to have the discussion on their Facebook wall-to-wall. They defend themselves of course, and ultimately “look forward to a continued rigorous academic dialogue on these issues”. Quite.

Josh Pasek, Eian More, & Eszter Hargittai (2009). Facebook and academic performance: Reconciling a media sensation with data First Monday, 14 (5)

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 7 May 2009 at 12:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong

Long time readers of Just A Theory will be well aware of my hatred of a well-worn science journalism trope, the “formula for” story. This vile being has a sibling which I’m surprised to realise I’ve never written about: the “gene for” story. In a way this variety of nonsense is much more dangerous, allowing people to blame their genetic makeup for their faults and vices.

A perfect example of this is a recent story in The Telegraph: “Why risk taking runs in the family – scientists find gene that makes you gamble“. The gist is scientists at University College London have discovered that people with the “short” version of a particular gene are more likely to take a gamble than those with the “long” version. In fact, that’s not what they found at all.

Suppose we play a game. I offer you £50, and a choice. You can either keep £20, and give the rest back to me, or you can take a gamble with a 40% chance of winning the whole £50, and a 60% chance of losing everything. If you don’t like that game, we can play a different one. This time I offer you £50, but if you don’t take the gamble you lose £30.

The two games are actually the same, but just framed differently. “Keep £20″ is the the “gain frame” whilst “Lose £30″ is the “loss frame”. The researchers at UCL were investigating the way this “frame effect” can influence the decision making process. Previous research suggests that the amygdala, an area of the brain involved in processing emotions, shows activity when making decisions involving the frame effect. This new research demonstrated that variation in the serotonin transporter gene, which is thought to influence the amygdala, can also influence frame effect decisions.

Thirty participants were split into two groups, those with the “short” and those with the “long” version of the gene, and both groups played a number of games like those described above. Despite being aware that the “gain” and “loss” frames were identical, all participants were more likely to gamble if presented with the loss frame. Those with the “short” gene variant were the most suscetible to the framing effect.

This does not mean that “short” gene participants are more likely to gamble! In a paper published in The Journal of Neuroscience the authors noted “there was no difference in overall risk-seeking behavior” between the two genetic groups. Dr Jonathan Roiser from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, lead author on the paper, explains:

“This doesn’t mean that people with the short variants are risk takers,

“In fact, they were risk averse in the ‘gain frame’ whilst risk seeking in the ‘loss frame’, which implies inconsistency in their decision-making.”

The gene variation isn’t even that important of a factor in making frame effect decisions. Dr Roiser again:

“This one gene cannot tell the whole story, however, as it only explains about ten per cent of the variability in susceptibility to the framing effect. What determines the other ninety per cent of variability is unclear. It is probably a mixture of people’s life experience and other genetic influences.”

Whilst “formula for” stories tend to be what Charlie Brooker called PR-reviewed, with little basis in actual science, “gene for” stories are more normally inaccurately simplified accounts of genuine research. This is the case here, and it’s dangerous. Compulsive gambling can be incredibly destructive, and “it’s not me, it’s my genes” could allow gamblers rationalise their behaviour instead of seeking help.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 6 May 2009 at 8:13 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong

Any fan of The Sopranos will know that the Mafia is supposedly in the business of “waste management”, as disposing of rubbish makes a good cover for other more nefarious dealings. Now it appears that even the Mob are going green, as a Sicilian investigation into Mafia links to wind power gets under way.

Subsidies from the EU and Italian government combined with the world’s highest wind power rates of €180 (£160) per kwh produced has seen the Mafia getting into the business of renewables, with disastrous results.

According to Roberto Scarpinato, the anti-Mafia prosecutor in charge of the investigations, sham companies set up by organised crime bosses dominate the Italian wind power sector. He accuses the Mafia of controlling wind farm permits by manipulating their business and political connections.

Wind farms built by companies with suspected Mafia links have not produced power for the past couple of years, despite receiving taxpayer money to fund their construction. The Mafia is also suspected of protecting their interests by destroying two rival wind towers as they lay in storage.

It seems there is at least one honest man in the industry, however. Salvatore Moncada owns the largest Sicilian wind power company, Moncada Energy Group. His five wind farms produce around 100 megawatts, but the Mafia have been a constant threat. He refuses to pay “pizzo” – extortion money – and has pulled out from projects he believes to be Mafia controlled. He required a 24-hour police escort for 18 months, but believes the danger is now over.

Italy’s problems aren’t though, as the Mafia’s control over wind could have wider-reaching implications. Despite being fourth in Europe for installed wind power capacity, Italy is not on track to meet EU emissions targets by 2020. The science and technology to fight climate change might be in place, but once again it seems that people are the problem.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 1 May 2009 at 5:28 pm by Sam Wong
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

What was that story about the boy and the wolf? It seems that the Daily Mail, who, over the years, have been more concerted in their efforts to terrify the public than George A. Romero, have got to the point where their own writers are numb to the possibility of genuine danger. This is what Christopher Booker had to say about swine flu:

Too many people seem to have a vested interest in talking up these panics beyond what the evidence can support, from scientists dependent on promoting scares for their funding to politicians who recklessly use scares to show their concern for our welfare. We in the media, it is only fair to add, are far from blameless in this respect.

What a generous concession he makes in that last sentence! If you’re familiar with Christopher Booker’s previous output, you’ll know that he has form when it comes to dismissing danger. Booker wrote dozens of articles claiming that white asbestos is completely safe, even alleging that it is ‘chemically identical to talcum powder’. His vociferous denial of climate change has led George Monbiot to dub him ‘The Wikipedia Professor of Gibberish’. The man’s complete inability to assess risk makes you wonder how he has managed to live to the age of 71 without stepping in front of a bus.

The last occasion when our Government was panicked into sending a health warning to every household in the country, for instance, was in 1987, when Edwina Currie sent out such a pamphlet, Don’t Die Of Ignorance, warning us of the terrifying threat of Aids.

No one can doubt that HIV/Aids has remained a serious problem, to date responsible for some 18,000 deaths in the UK. But back in the late 1980s we were being solemnly warned that, as early as 1990, we could expect the death toll to reach a million.

Compared with the 9,000 people who die in NHS hospitals every year just from MRSA and C.difficile, even those 18,000 deaths in 20 years can now be seen in a rather more sensible perspective.

It’s remarkably easy not to be scared of Aids, isn’t it? It may be extremely deadly, but it’s also extremely easy to prevent. I’m not sure on what grounds the distribution of pamphlets can be characterised as a ‘panicked’ reaction to a deadly infectious disease whose spread can be prevented if people know what simple measures to take. Perhaps the government’s ‘panic’ was instrumental in keeping the death toll in the UK as low as 18,000.

Booker is not the only columnist at the Mail who is snorting at the threat of swine flu. Martin Samuel had this to say:

More people won the Lottery last week than contracted swine flu. And do you know anyone who won the Lottery?

This used to be a country that was healthiest in adversity, almost irritatingly cheerful when the chips were down. Now, some poor soul gets a cough in San Diego and half of Swindon goes to the doctor.

Professor John Oxford, a virologist at St Bart’s hospital in London, warned that swine flu might travel south and mix with bird flu to form — get this — Armageddon flu. The end of the world, in other words: although no doubt it could be averted with an increase in his research grant.

It is time to get a grip. Swine flu, bird flu, Armageddon flu? Yes, and pigs might fly, Professor.

I have a lot of time for Martin Samuel as a sports writer. I used to enjoy his football coverage in the Times a lot – as his many awards testify, he was always able to offer a much more insightful analysis than what you get from the legions of ex-players who stumble into the media upon retirement. But when it comes to epidemiology, I think his analysis is a little wide of the mark. Lotteries, unlike infectious diseases, don’t pick more and more winners every day.

This is not some tabloid fantasy. We are on the brink of a pandemic. That’s not to say that some of the media’s coverage hasn’t been irresponsible. One thing I particularly disagree with is the prominence some papers have given to projected numbers of cases or deaths. Given the degree of uncertainty in such estimates I really don’t think they should be the basis for headlines. But swine flu is undoubtedly a serious cause for concern, and it’s tragic that many people have become so sceptical of the news media that they are happy to dismiss the current situation as a scare story. I can’t help but think how messrs Booker and Samuel might feel if their loved ones become casualties.

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5 Comments » Posted on Friday 1 May 2009 at 2:10 pm by Seth Bell
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

ResearchBlogging.org

Good news for the appearance-conscious this week, as it is announced that an ‘anti-ageing’ cream produced by Boots, ‘No 7 Protect & Perfect Intense Beauty Serum’, really does reduce wrinkles. And it is not just Boots who are claiming this, but qualified scientists from The University of Manchester who have given their seal of approval of the product by publishing a double-blind, randomly sampled test of the cream in the British Journal of Dermatology.

The test is essentially a clinical trial: Thirty people were given the product, whilst another thirty people were given the vehicle – the base moisturiser with the suspected anti-ageing agents absent. The participants were not told which product they were using. After six months their wrinkles were examined and compared to their previous degree of wrinkling. At this point it was revealed which product subjects were on and they were given the opportunity to keep using it for a further six months, after which time their wrinkling was examined again. The cream was shown to noticeably reduce wrinkling.

Sceptical? Well I was at first; after all we are all used to the beauty industry relying on “scientific” studies to advertise their products. But this study is published in a reputable journal and does seem to represent a genuine attempt to explore the science behind anti-ageing products. The analysis at least relies on real statistics rather than consumer surveys.

The results show that after six months 43% of people using the product show an improvement compared to 22% of people who were using the vehicle, however the authors of the paper point out that these results are statically insignificant. After twelve months the results become statistically significant, where 70% of people showed an improvement using the product compared to 33% using the vehicle.  So, strictly speaking, the authors of the study are claiming the benefit of the anti-ageing effects are only noticeable after twelve months (despite this, the BBC, The Sun and The Guardian all report the statistics for the results after six months rather than twelve.)

In 2007 No. 7 Protect & Perfect Beauty Serum became Boots’ fastest ever selling product after it was shown on BBC2 Horizon, demonstrating that science as a brand can have enormous influence on consumer attitudes.

Does it work then? Well, to be honest, I’m still not completely convinced. The results are based on photo comparisons such as the one below. I cannot really observe much improvement, but then I’m not a qualified dermatologist. In addition, the difference between the product and the vehicle may be as a result of an inherent difference to the way a person’s skin reacts to moisturiser.

But despite this I’m genuinely encouraged by this study. The comments section of The Guardian article provides an amusing read: amidst the petty abuse some have complained that this study does not constitute proof, that peer-review is not a foolproof process. I agree with the claim that peer-review is not foolproof, but at least Boots (who provided funding for the study) are making an effort to scientifically investigate their products. Author Professor Chris Griffiths points out that Boots were taking a gamble:

“We did this in a purely independent way. Either way this paper would have been published otherwise we would have not entered into the study. I suppose Boots were confident or foolhardy, whichever way you want to look at it.”

And even though I’m not convinced by the findings, I don’t’ begrudge Boots their increase in sales on the basis of the study. Consumers are more media savvy than they are usually given credit for and will understand that, even if the results are taken at face value, the product has a chance of improving their wrinkles but that there is no guarantee.  If it doesn’t work for them, they’ll end up trying another product. I think it is more hope than science which will drive people to Boots.

Terms like ‘anti-ageing agents’ do conjure up an image of beauty-treatment advertising jargon, which many of us hold a long-enduring scepticism toward. But a cream which reduces wrinkles is not particularly pie-in-the-sky compared to other achievements of mankind. I’m fortunate enough to be wrinkle-free at the moment, but am hopeful that an anti-ageing cream will be scientifically proved to work in the future. We’re not there yet, but I think this study is a least a step in the right direction.

Watson, R., Ogden, S., Cotterell, L., Bowden, J., Bastrilles, J., Long, S., & Griffiths, C. (2009). A cosmetic ‘anti-ageing’ product improves photoaged skin: a double-blind, randomized controlled trial British Journal of Dermatology DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2009.09216.x

2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 29 April 2009 at 6:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

As someone with more than a passing interest in science I often find myself screaming “that’s just plain wrong!” at films or TV programmes with a laughably poor grasp of basic scientific principles. One notion that just will not go away is the prorogation of sound in space. Whether it’s the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars, or Dalek spaceships being vaporised in Doctor Who, everything in space seems to go ‘boom’.

Sound waves reach your ear as vibrations passing through matter – normally air. If you’ve ever been at a gig with large subwoofers you might have felt these vibrations passing through the floor and up your legs, providing you with that ‘thumping bass’ feeling.

Air is actually not a very good medium for transmitting sound. Try tapping a hard surface and listening to the sound it makes. The vibrations caused by your finger have been transferred through the molecules in the air and into your ear. Now place your ear on to the surface, and tap again. The sound should be louder. This is because the molecules of the solid surface are more tightly packed, and thus transfer the vibrations faster than air can.

What does this have to do with the Death Star? Well, in the vacuum of space there are no molecules – that is essentially what the word ‘vacuum’ means. Since there are no molecules there is nothing to transmit the vibrations caused by the Death Star blowing up, and so Luke Skywalker (and the audience) should not be able to hear the explosion.

At this point I have to mention Firefly, a TV programme created by Joss Whedon (best know for Buffy the Vampire Slayer). In Firefly, spaceships float serenely by in complete silence, often accompanied by some twangy (a very scientific technical term) guitar music. The effect is very strange, but only because the myth of sound in space has been perpetuated on our screens for so long.

Thankfully, someone is fighting back against this and other on screen gafs. The Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics website is one that I discovered many years ago now, but if you have never seen it before, it’s well worth a look. Sound in space is part of the ‘Generic Bad Movie Physics’ list, along with flaming cars and visible laserbeams.

The site also reviews movies, but not in the traditional sense. Ratings are dished out on a scale based on the American system ranging from GP for good physics to XP – physics so bad they can only come from a universe other than our own. The Terminator is deemed ‘pretty good’ despite the titular time-travelling cyborg, whereas Star Wars Episode III takes place, as you might expect, in a galaxy of physics far, far away.

Unfortunately it looks like the site hasn’t been updated in a while, but what is up there is still pretty entertaining. Of course, no one is expecting Hollywood to have a team of expert scientists on every film set, but it doesn’t hurt to get a few facts right.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 26 April 2009 at 2:12 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Problem: exams on Monday and Tuesday coupled with an ever increasing list of interesting links to share.

Solution: stretching the definition of “Weekly” to its breaking point.

That’s right folks, to give myself a bit of breathing space over the next few days, as well as to clear my links backlog, we’re going into roundup overload.

Just a little bit of GTCA

Bio-Rad, a company that creates various products for use in scientific laboratories, have come up with a quirky little advert. It’s not a science rap, but a science cover song:

My favourite part? “These letters also spell DAN”

‘Beer goggles’ are no excuse for misreporting

A recent study into the effects of alcohol on men’s perception of a woman’s age has been given a slightly different spin by many media outlets. The research was intended to examine a common claim in cases of under-age sex; being drunk made the girls seem older.

The methodology involved rating both young and mature faces for attractiveness, either under the influence or not. Results showed that attractiveness ratings for the young were not effected by alcohol, which was reported as dispelling the ‘beer goggles’ myth. However, the results also show that alcohol had a “significant” impact on making older faces with lots of make-up more attractive – the ‘beer goggles’ effect exactly.

In other words, the study showed the opposite of what the journalists reported – or at best, gave mixed results. Perhaps a study should be conducted into the effects of alcohol on journalist’s perception of a study’s attractiveness…

Paxo’s brain for research

Jeremy Paxman will be donating his brain for scientific research after he dies. His aim is to raise awareness of a campaign by the Parkinson’s Disease Society to encourage 1,000 others to do the same. Parkinson’s effects 120,000 people in the UK, and donated brains could help find a cure.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 23 April 2009 at 4:01 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

The Huffington Post have published an article by actor Jim Carrey on the link between MMR and autism. As we’ve seen before, celebrities taking a stand on science often ends badly, and this case is no exception.

Carrey’s article jumps on a recent ruling against compensation for three families who believe their children’s autism was caused by MMR. He says:

“a ruling against causation in three cases out of more than 5000 hardly proves that other children won’t be adversely affected by the MMR, let alone that all vaccines are safe.”

He continues:

The anecdotal evidence of millions of parents who’ve seen their totally normal kids regress into sickness and mental isolation after a trip to the pediatrician’s office must be seriously considered.

I’m sorry Jim, but there is a well known saying: the plural of anecdote is not data. There are many studies which have failed to find a link between MMR and autism, and the “controversy” over such a link is completely unheard of outside of the UK and US. MMR as a cause of autism is a myth fabricated by the mainstream media, and it has caused measles to rise in the UK by over 2400%. Measles can be fatal, and if this continues, children will die.

Human beings are very bad at assessing cause and effect, and we also feel the need for something or someone to blame when bad things occur. It must be terrible for the parents of autistic children to watch their kids grow distant from them, but the MMR vaccine is not to blame and if the myth persists then other people’s children will be harmed. Jim, you’ve made some great movies, but you’re really badly informed on this issue. Stop campaigning and stick to the films.

7 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 22 April 2009 at 6:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong

Getting the Tube home last night my eye was drawn to a man reading The Sun. “Fatties cause global warming” screamed the front page. “Oh really?” I thought. “And here I was blaming it on CO2 emissions.”

The news comes from a paper in the International Journal of Epidemiology, entitled Population adiposity and climate change. Adiposity being an overly-scientific term for “fatness”, that is.

Dr Phil Edwards of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and his colleague Ian Roberts modelled two possible populations, one “normal” with 3.5% obese people and another “overweight” with 40% obese, as measured by a Body Mass Index of 30. Both population consists of a billion people. They say that the normal population reflects the UK in the 1970s, whilst the overweight population is the prediction for 2010.

By estimating the energy required by both populations they found that the overweight population would require 19% more energy than the normal population. This of course means the overweight population would need to consume 19% more food. Producing this extra food would result in 270 megatonnes of extra greenhouse gasses (meaning CO2 as well as other gases like methane) being released into the atmosphere.

An overweight population would also release further greenhouse gases through increased reliance on transport. Newton’s laws of motion tell us that moving a heavier mass requires a proportionally larger force, so we would expect heavier car drivers to use more petrol. Overweight people are also more likely to drive rather than walk, compounding the effect. In total this would add another 170 megatonnes of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.

All of these figures are really extended back-of-the-envelope calculations. In the paper, the authors admit to making many assumptions about the two populations, such as keeping everyone of the same sex at the same height, and using identical levels of activity for both normal and obese people. As such, I wouldn’t take these figures as literal, but they do indicate that an overweight population has some effect on climate change.

Does this research mean then that a global diet is in order? Eat carrots, stop climate change? No. Food production accounts for only 20% of emissions, according to the paper, so in a planet of one billion people as imagined by this model we’re still left with 6000 megatonnes of greenhouse gasses being pumped out by other industries.

Tackling climate change requires a transformation in the way we consume and generate energy. The Sun story paints it as a problem caused by “fatties” – an easy scapegoat, but we’re all to blame. The obesity crisis is an issue that must also be tackled – nearly half of the population obese by next year is insane – but it’s not a magic bullet for climate change. Nothing is.

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 21 April 2009 at 2:03 pm by Jessica Bland
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

At the beginning of the month, NASA told us that last year’s record low in Solar activity may well be bettered in 2009. 87% of the days in the first quarter of this year had no solar flares. 73% of the days in 2008 saw similarly inactivity. The Sun is keeping very quiet.

Today, the BBC’s Pallab Ghosh produced a video news report on UK astronomers’ reaction to this. One of the physicists he interviewed, Professor Mike Lockwood from Southhampton University, was on the Radio 4′s Today show discussing it.  And, inevitably, the conversation turned to climate change.

It was inevitable because Solar radiation effects our weather: it certainly feels much warmer when the Sun is out. But, climate change patterns are a very different thing to our day-to-day local weather. There is significant debate over both the possible scale and nature of the sun’s affect on climate change. The Royal Society have a brief summary that explain the situation better than I can.

A clip of Lockwood’s Today show interview is available here. There is a wonderful Radio 4 ‘ah’ when Lockwood explains that there might be changes on Earth because of this lack in solar activity, but that solar variation is only by  “hundredths of percents”. And so the effects are likely to be very small. Lockwood’s story is not really related to climate change. The excitement for scientists is that the Sun, the things they spend all day studying, is doing something strange.

To give Ghosh credit, that is what he reports. Nor were the Today show’s team at fault either. They have a political mandate and were right to take this angle during the interview: particularly given the extent to which some climate sceptics rely on solar activity as an argument against anthropogenic climate change. They questioned the scientist hard about the potential climate repercussions, leaving no room for spin-off reports to exaggerate the claims made. A good interview technique in my book. Even if it did aggravate Professor Lockwood a little.

There was nothing loaded about the questions and reporting here, but back in 2007 the BBC was criticised by its own news executives for having a biased stance on climate change. It was planning a PlanetRelief day that would encourage green-thinking in everyday activities.  This was seen as pro-anthropogenic climate change campaigning, and the day was eventually cancelled. What aggravated me at the time was that most of the BBC reporting on climate change is of the kind we saw today: interview-based and quite science heavy. It is not biased in general, but was tainted by that episode.

The exception to that rule was Dr David Whitehouse, BBC Online’s science editor and now author of ‘The Sun: a biography’. Yet, he was biased against anthropogenic arguments: the opposite point of view to the one the BBC were criticised for. He expounded his minority views about solar effect on global warming on the BBC website for almost ten years without any comeuppance.

In 2000, Whitehouse reported on weather records found in Armagh in Ireland that supposedly showed that the Sun has been the main contributor to global warming over the past two centuries. He did not mention of the complex scientific debate behind the solar effects on our climate, choosing instead to quote Dr John Butler, who discovered the records: “I suspect that the greenhouse lobby have under-estimated the role of solar variability in climate change.”

Four years later, he reports on the high solar activity levels in the later 20th century. A group from the Institute of Astronomy in Zurich claimed that over the last century the number of sunspots rose at the same time that the Earth’s climate became steadily warmer. According to the article, there is a causal link. The only reason why the Sun’s recent low activity (it was low in 2004 as well) is not matched by a reverse climate change is because fossil fuel burning is starting to have some effect. Again, nothing about the debate over whether the sun can really effect climate change.

By 2007, Whitehouse starting writing in the mainstream press. Interestingly his tactic changes. He is no longer arguing that the Sun’s high levels of activity last century increased global warming. He claims instead that the Sun’s potential inactivity over the next fifty years might cause global cooling, reducing the effects of man made warming.  He wrote a long feature for The Independent, “Ray of hope: Can the Sun save us from global warming?”, in December that year.

That newspaper piece takes a much less contentious stance than the BBC reports. This is in part due probably to the increase in evidence against Whitehouse’s position. But it also highlights the difference in care taken over an online piece buried in a Science and Technology tab and one in the mainstream press. Which is worrying. Not least because that BBC tab is taking more and more of the newspaper readership.

Today’s reporting of solar activity showed a return to form by the BBC. There was no climate change headline: no overenthusiastic claims about a new model for global warming. Instead, the science came first. The sun is being a bit strange, which has got some scientists very excited. But that’s it really – no one really knows what it means for next summer’s hose-pipe ban.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 17 April 2009 at 9:27 am by Jessica Bland
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

This week the internet security company McAfee released the results of a survey they commissioned on the carbon footprint of email spam. The survey shows that the annual energy used to transmit, process and filter spam totals 33 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh). This is equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes. And 80% of it comes from us searching for and deleting spam emails from our inboxes.

Wow. That’s huge. Imagine how goody green-drops we would be if we had some way of getting rid of spam? Well we don’t need to imagine, we can just buy McAfee’s Spamkiller software.

There is nothing wrong with a company paying for a survey that might increase the brand-profile of one of its products. After all, that just makes good business sense. But there is something a bit sad about the way this was picked up by mainstream, well-respected publications and reported as news. The worst case is a New Scientist article in their online Tech section. This was a near verbatim repeat of McAfee’s press release with the addition of one quote – from Jeff Green, McAfee’s senior vice president of product development.

There are similar articles hopping around cyberspace, replicated in part or whole on various sites. They all do the same thing; they report the story as straight news, with a carbon footprint quote from someone at McAfee. My favourite is James Murray’s report for BusinessGreen.com entitled Spam Epidemic Results in Giant Carbon Footprint. Getting “epidemic” and “Carbon Footprint” in the same heading is pretty impressive. I challenge anyone not to click on the article if it appears in their Google news results.

Luckily, that particular article dose not actually appear on a Google news search for “carbon footprint spam”. The top article in that search is, in fact, a piece where the writer appears to have grasped more than the copy and paste functions of a keyboard. Jeremy A. Kaplan from PCmag.com should be applauded for being the only writer I found who applied his critical faculties to the McAfee study.

In Why the Spam Carbon Footprint Study is Wrong Kaplan makes the simple point that most of the energy we use whilst filtering and deleting emails (the process that accounts for 80% of the carbon footprint McAfee have calculated) comes from having a computer switched on. And by including a computer’s footprint in their calculations the study grossly overestimated the true effects of the spam epidemic.

Kaplan’s article was posted later than many of the other pieces and it illustrates well why taking time over a story can make for better journalism. If you read the McAfee study properly, mulled it over for a bit and then set about deciding whether it’s newsworthy, queries like Kaplan’s tend to crop up. Then when you speak to or, more likely, email someone at McAfee, you might just ask them about why the study they commissioned points more to the carbon footprint of computer uses rather than of spam emails. And that way, you might do more than play your part in their corporate marketing scheme. You might do some journalism.

All this is even more surprising given a similar statistical manipulation that burned a bona fide journalist at The Sunday Times back in January. Google and You’ll Damage the Planet claimed that just two Google searches has the same carbon footprint as boiling a kettle. This was almost instantly refuted by Google as Jacob reported. A search is equivalent to 0.2g of carbon, whereas a kettle burns 7g. The Times Online version of the article now carries a clarification. It claims that the original article based its numbers on the amount of carbon produced in the average number of searches done before some one finds the information they need, rather than in a one-click search. But this correction didn’t matter. The response from Google spread across the web quicker, discrediting the article.

The Google-Kettle episode taught us how precarious calculations of computing carbon footprints are. But those reporting the McAfee survey chose to forget that in favour of an easy article. Maybe that’s a little harsh; perhaps they are just too busy filtering their spam mail to do any real reporting.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 14 April 2009 at 4:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Wrong

A recent study from Ohio State University has found that university students who use Facebook spend less time studying and get lower grades. How do you think the media reported this? That’s right folks, it’s time for another round of “correlation does not equal causation”!

Three paragraphs in to the press release, co-author of the study Aryn Karpinski makes it clear that she has only shown a correlation between Facebook use and bad marks: “We can’t say that use of Facebook leads to lower grades and less studying – but we did find a relationship there.”

I did a quick (and non-exhaustive) Google News search to see who was reporting the study, and how they were presenting its findings. The results are pretty much what you would expect.

“Pupils who spend time on Facebook do worse in exams, study shows” – Daily Mail
“Facebook students underachieve in exams” -The Telegraph
“Facebook fans do worse in exams” – The Times
“Facebook users do less work” – The Sun

The extent to which each news outlet pushes the idea that Facebook has caused these poor results varies. The worst offender is The Times, who’s strapline “Research finds the website is damaging students’ academic performance” is simply inaccurate. The others merely state the existence of a link, that students who use Facebook are also students with bad grades, but heavily imply that one has caused the other.

As one commenter on the Mail story points out, the whole idea is nonsense. Imran from Bristol says:

How silly, you could write an article called “Students who spend time down the pub” “Students who spend time watching the telly” or “Students who spend time doing do worse in exams, study shows”

Procrastinators procrastinate in any way they can. Be it Facebook, watching TV, or going to the gym, if you put off studying then you are going to be outperformed by those who apply themselves and get good grades. The media love a Facebook story though, especially when it’s contributing to the downfall of modern society as we know it, so that’s the angle we get. Now, I should probably stop blogging and get back to revising…

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 12 April 2009 at 10:23 am by Sam Wong
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

It’s quite easy to think of the Pope as a crackpot old man, like the Duke of Edinburgh. Only the Pope is, by all accounts, a very intelligent man, who is seen as a father figure by over a billion people. You might think, then, that he’d want to consider the facts before offering advice about how to tackle a disease that kills 8,000 people a day. Facts like the fact that correct and consistent use of condoms gives almost complete protection against HIV infection.

‘You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,’  he said last month on a trip to Africa. ‘On the contrary, it increases the problem.’

No one is suggesting that the distribution of condoms, by itself, is going to eradicate Aids overnight, but the suggestion that condoms could make things worse is pretty indefensible. That hasn’t stopped Benedict’s cronies from trying.

On Friday, the new Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, went on the Today programme. When he was asked about the Pope’s statement that condoms could make things worse, he said ‘I am not sure that’s exactly what he said at all’. All the journalists present must have had a lapse of hearing at the same time, then.

‘What he actually talked about was the need to humanise sexuality. And I think to some extent he was speaking up in protection of African women.’ Of course, to a greater extent, he was endangering the lives of millions of African women.

Blogging for the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, Gerald Warner offered a slightly more sophisticated defence.

The basis on which the Pope made this claim was the observable and recorded situation in Africa with regard to HIV/Aids infection rates. The statistics speak for themselves. Uganda was hit by an Aids epidemic in the 1980s and the government thought condoms were part of the answer, though it also promoted abstinence and fidelity. By 1992 more than 18 per cent of Ugandan adults tested HIV positive.

But the country has a 41.9 per cent Catholic population so, using this as a base, the Church promoted the “Education for Life” programme, based on abstinence and fidelity while rejecting condoms. By 2007 only 5.4 per cent of Ugandans were HIV positive. No other country has effected such a recovery, though it is threatened now as the government once again turns to the blandishments of the rubber companies.

Uganda’s success in its efforts to tackle Aids is indeed a remarkable story. According to the US Census Bureau/Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDSHIV), prevalence in Uganda peaked in 1991 at 15% of the adult population, and fell to 5% in 2001.

Picking apart what caused this decline is a tricky business. An increase in deaths from Aids during this period might have played a role , but it is likely that the main reason is a decrease in new infections. The reduced incidence has been widely credited to the ABC (abstinence, be faithful, use condoms) approach taken by Uganda’s first Aids control program, launched in 1987.

Abstinence only programs, by contrast, have repeatedly proven ineffective at reducing sexual activity and sexually-transmitted disease transmission (here’s one review but there are plenty to choose from). Warner goes on:

The correlation between a devoutly Catholic population and containment of Aids is startling and demonstrable. By 2007 Burundi, with a 62 per cent Catholic population, had only a 2 per cent Aids infection rate. Angola, 38 per cent Catholic, had a 2.1 per cent rate. In contrast, Swaziland, only 20 per cent Catholic, had a 26.1 per cent infection rate and Botswana, just 5 per cent Catholic, had a 23.9 per cent rate. Beyond Africa, in the Philippines, 81 per cent Catholic, the HIV rate is a miniscule 0.01 per cent.

Those are some nice figures you’ve chosen there. What about Lesotho? 70% of its population is Catholic, and 28% of its adult population is HIV positive. As for the Philippines, attributing its low HIV rate to the predominance of Catholicism makes about as much sense as crediting its 800 native species of orchid.

The Catholic Church is capable of admitting when it is wrong. In 1992, Pope John Paul II officially conceded that the Earth was not stationary, almost 400 years after Galileo’s observations had shown this to be the case. So we can expect the Pope to endorse the use of condoms in around 2400.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 9 April 2009 at 12:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Today we’ve got another oral story from the Daily Mail, although this one is a little more current. In “Why lipstick could save your life” we learn that “scientists” have discovered that applying lipstick acts as a “stretching exercise” which can improve balance and coordination. The “study” revealed that this could be particularly helpful for women over 65, who are at risk of serious injury or death following a fall.

You’ve probably noticed I’ve got my “scare quotes” out. That’s because the study leader, Dr Patricia Pineau, just happens to be director of research communications for L’Oreal Group. That’d be L’Oreal who, amongst other products, make lipstick. Instantly, my “conflict of interest” alarm is set off.

It could be that this research is completely kosher. The study looked at 100 women aged 65 to 85 who were given shoe insoles to test their centres of gravity and a belt that monitored posture. The conclusion was that the women who wore make-up every day had better balance and posture, and were less likely to suffer a potentially fatal fall.

What we have here is a positive correlation between make-up use and balance. Does that mean that wearing lipstick improves your coordination? Not necessarily. It could be that the women with better coordination are more likely to wear make-up. If you’re old and difficulty maintaining balance, it’s also possible that you find it difficult to put on make-up due to shaky hands. As such, those women with poorer coordination would also wear less make-up.

Now, I’ve got no evidence to support this hypothesis, but it seems equally likely to me as the one put forward by this research. The difference is that I’m not trying to sell you anything, whilst L’Oreal have chosen to go with the hypothesis that just happens to highlight their products. Surprise surprise.

“Research” like this is really only one step above customer satisfaction surveys that “prove” product X is better than product Y. I’ll continue to distrust any study that benefits the company that funded it it – sorry L’Oreal, you’re just not worth it.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 8 April 2009 at 6:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Browsing the major news outlets this morning, as I tend to do, my gaze fell across the BBC’s “Most Read” list. “Oral sex linked to throat cancer” proclaimed the headline. Could be a story in this, I thought, until I clicked through and realised the article was from 10th May 2007. Old news.

Stories from years gone by sometimes crop up on the “Most Read” list when they get linked to by big sites, and of course appearing on the list means a story is more likely to get read, self-perpetuating it up the charts. This story about a Sudanese man forced to marry a goat crops up more often than you’d expect.

If it’s old news, why am I bothering to post about it? It’s actually pretty funny. Popping along to the Daily Mail I noticed that they were also running the story, the difference being the date – 8th April 2009.

Reading the article, it’s obvious what has happened. Someone at the paper obviously noticed the story’s popularity on the BBC’s site, and realising that it ticked two key Daily Mail boxes, sex and cancer, simply copied it. Compare the following two paragraphs, first the BBC:

HPV infection was found to be a much stronger risk factor than tobacco or alcohol use, the Johns Hopkins University study of 300 people found.

The New England Journal of Medicine study said the risk was almost nine times higher for people who reported oral sex with more than six partners.

And then the Daily Mail:

A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University has revealed that the HPV virus poses a greater risk in contracting cancer than smoking or alcohol.

The American study of 300 people also found that that those with more than six partners were almost nine times at greater risk of contracting the disease.

The Daily Mail reporter has rewritten the wording enough to avoid it being a blatant rip off, without noticing that the story is actually ancient, in news terms. If any further evidence was needed, they even use the BBC’s quote:

Study author Dr Gypsyamber D’Souza told the BBC: ‘It is important for health care providers to know that people without the traditional risk factors of tobacco and alcohol use can nevertheless be at risk of oropharyngeal cancer.’

If you wanted proof that even the big boys sometimes stoop to copying off each other, you’ve got it. I’m not sure how they even made this mistake to be honest. You can immediatly tell that the BBC story isn’t fresh because it uses their older, narrower web design. The Daily Mail strikes again.

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 7 April 2009 at 6:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Actually if I’m being honest, she doesn’t, but then neither does shampoo – contrary to the actress’s claims.

Writing on her website goop.com she warned of “environmental toxins and their effects on our children.” The page has since been taken down, but not even Hollywood actresses can hide from Google, so you can still read the text here. Paltrow pointed to “chemicals that may or may not be safe” as a possible cause of diseases in children and gave suggestions from others for avoiding them:

The research is troubling; the incidence of diseases in children such as asthma, cancer and autism have shot up exponentially and many children we all know and love have been diagnosed with developmental issues like ADHD. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but perhaps we can do things to reduce illness in our children and ourselves. Below you will find some of the most prevalent facts and also easy, affordable ways to reduce exposure to substances which may be harming us.

The advice included “avoiding chemicals” by using olive oil or aloe vera gel in place of shampoo or skin lotion. Olive oil is made up of many types of fatty acids, whilst aloe vera contains, amongst other things, anthraquinone, commonly used in the production of dyes. In other words, both substances are chemicals – as is practically anything else you care to spread on your skin or stick in your mouth.

Many individuals and organisations have come out attacking Paltrow. Cancer Research UK point out that the number of children with cancer has not risen in the past ten years, whilst bacteriologist Professor Hugh Pennington described the claims as “rubbish” and “loopy”. He added:

“It does annoy me when celebrities use their position to spout nonsense. They have a perfect right to their views, even if they are loopy, but they do hold a position of influence. You may as well ask someone on the Underground.”

Quite right. Paltrow is completely abusing her stardom with these claims, and people might be tempted to follow her advice. Why members of the public would choose to listen to her over, say, Cancer Research UK, I have no idea. You only have to look at the popularity of fad diets or the racks of celeb magazines in supermarkets to see that the opinions of actresses’ carry great weight in society. Gwyneth Paltrow is welcome to speak out on whatever she pleases, but I hope next time she tries to be a little more informed.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 31 March 2009 at 9:58 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

I’d make a pretty rubbish goalie, as I almost let this “formula for” story slip right past me. Last week, the Sun reported that “boffins” have found the formula for a penalty kick that will score every time.

According to “university eggheads” the ball must be kicked at over 65 mph, with a run-up of five or six steps at an angle of 20 to 30 degrees on the ball. When it reaches the goal line, it must be exactly half a metre from both the crossbar and the nearest post. The Sun even provide this handy diagram:

The "perfect" penalty.
The "perfect" penalty.

Now, I’m no football expert, but if the goalie dives to the same side that the ball is aimed at, there is definitely going to be a greater than 0% chance that they occupy that same space half a metre from the goalposts. That puts a hole in the researcher’s “100% success” claim straight away.

Oh, I can’t even pretend any more. This isn’t remotely research – it’s advertising. Despite The Sun’s “exclusive” label, the story appeared much earlier this month on the Sky Sports website. Professor Tim Cable of Liverpool John Moores University found the “formula” – which isn’t actually a formula mind, just a description – using Sky+HD, that well known piece of research equipment.

It gets worse. The perfect penalty formula was actually “discovered” almost three years ago, according to this BBC article. Back then it was mathematician Dr David Lewis, again of Liverpool John Moores University, who made the shocking breakthrough. He actually provided a formula as well: (((X+Y+S)/2)x((T+I+2B)/4))+(V/2)-1.

I’m not even going to bother breaking that mess down. It’s clear that this “formula for” story is making money for someone though, and based on my extensive research of two samples I predict it will next show up around December 2011. Of course if the researchers at Liverpool John Moores need to make a quick buck a little sooner than that, we could see it as early as the Euro 2010 cup. Not that I’m being cynical or anything.

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3 Comments » Posted on Saturday 28 March 2009 at 8:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Musings

This post has been written to coincide with the start of Earth Hour in the UK. The event, initiated by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), asks people around the world to spend an hour in darkness to support action against climate change. With a worldwide rolling start at 8.30pm local time, the WWF are hoping that a billion people will join together in switching off their lights.

Perhaps you’re already sitting in darkness as you read this post, but I’m not. I disagree with large scale events like Earth Hour, because they actually allow people to ignore the issues. “If I switch my lights off for an hour, I’m saving the planet!” they think, whilst tucking into a processed microwave dinner that they brought back from the supermarket in their gas-guzzling 4×4.

I’m generalising of course, and many of the participants in Earth Hour will already be hardcore eco-warriors. The trouble is, combating climate change will not be solved by large scale gimmicks like this. Everyone must make small and boring changes to their lives which are hard to market with a simple slogan or event, but will collectively make a difference

We must reduce our use of energy in a drastic way, and not just for 60 minutes in a year. You may switch your lights off this evening, but what about the rest of the time? How many people leave unoccupied rooms needlessly lit throughout the year, simply because they forget to flick the switch when they leave? I’m not claiming to be perfect as I sometimes do it myself, but I do make a conscious effort to turn off the lights each and every time I leave the room.

It’s not just lights we need to worry about, as changes must be made in every aspect of our lives. Transport, food, manufacturing – they all need overhauling. Whilst I appreciate that the WWF are using Earth Hour to get people talking about these issues, I worry that many people will simply enjoy an hour in the dark and then get on with their lives, using just as much energy and pumping out just as much carbon as before.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 26 March 2009 at 3:08 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

A new type of biometric identification may soon be joining fingerprint and retina scanners, in the form of X-ray photographs of a person’s knees, according to Lior Shamir of the National Institutes of Health and Salim Rahimi, a computer engineer at State University of New York.

Their report, to be published in the International Journal of Biometrics, suggests that an individual’s knees differ enough from any others to make them of use in identification. Using an algorithm known as wnd-charm, which is normally used to diagnose medical knee joint issues, the authors suggest that knee X-rays are a viable alternative to external biometrics.

Whilst it is possible to fool existing biometrics with fake fingerprints and contact lenses, the pair say it would be much harder for any would-be impersonators to spoof another’s knees. It seems that knees also stay consistent, with X-rays taken several years earlier still suitable for verification purposes.

The new technique doesn’t quite measure up to existing technology, with accuracy results lower than retina or fingerprint identification, though the researchers say refining the wnd-charm algorithm could improve this.

I say don’t bother. I think biometrics are a terrible, terrible idea. They can’t be replaced if someone succeeds in spoofing your identity, as it would be difficult to legally acquire a new set of knees. There is also the issue of those who cannot use their eyes, fingerprints or indeed knees to identify themselves, because they don’t have them. In a society where knee-ID becomes the norm, how could such people function?

Finally, X-raying people’s knees repeatedly to authenticate them sounds like a really bad idea. Multiple exposures to X-rays is incredibly dangerous, which is why your dentist will hide behind a protective screen when scanning your teeth.

The average person will be exposed to relatively small doses of X-rays during their life, so there is no need to worry about routine medical procedures. Biometric techniques however must be used all the time if they are to be of any use, and scanning knees in this way would undoubtedly cause health issues. The authors suggest terahertz imaging in the place of X-rays could offer more precise data, and it would also solve the problem of repeated exposure. I wonder though, do we really want to be asked “Can I see your knees, please?” at every security checkpoint? No thanks.

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2 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 24 March 2009 at 8:14 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong

I’ve just got time for a quick post this morning before I dash off to Imperial. We are finally handing in our group projects, so the whole day will be spent watching people present – and presenting my own, of course. Hopefully I’ll have some picture up in a few days.

For now, have a look at this video which depicts protein translation using stop-motion Lego animation:

The video was created by Kathy Vandiver, director of the Community Outreach and Education Program at MIT’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences, and is just one of a series of animations about cellular processes. They’re used as teaching aids for school-aged and adult students, but whilst I think it looks pretty cool (I’m always up for a bit of stop-motion) I don’t think it’s a very good example of science communication.

For one thing, I have absolutely no idea what is happening here. For that, I have to turn to the accompanying article in Popular Science magazine:

It shows translation, which is a cellular process in which proteins are synthesized. The piece of mRNA (messenger RNA) at the bottom of the video contains genetic information for building a protein. Each codon, which is a nucleotide triplet, in the mRNA sequence codes for an amino acid, which are the building blocks of proteins.

I’m confident enough that I have a working knowledge of biology to be able to write about it, but the last time I actually studied the subject was for my GCSEs. If I don’t get it, I don’t see how students currently working at GCSE level are meant to.

Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, as the videos are only meant to serve as an introduction at the beginning of a class. In that setting, I could see how they would work. Watching them out of context however, and I’m left baffled. What do you make of it?

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 26 February 2009 at 12:18 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Technology, eh? If it isn’t enough that Facebook gives you cancer, now the BBC says that “Games consoles ’cause skin sores’”. I’ve got a wonderful mental image of a radioactive GameBoy.

A report published in the British Journal of Dermatology declares the discovery of PlayStation palmar hidradenitis, a “new” skin condition displayed by a 12-year-old girl admitted to a Swiss hospital.

The sore red marks and lumps on the patients hands were indicative of idiopathic eccrine hidradenitis, or swollen sweat glands. The condition is typically found on the soles of the feet of children who partake in have physical activity, such as jogging. This particular patient had not undertaken any such activity recently, however.

What she had been doing was playing a PlayStation game (the Sims) for hours on end each day, and she continued to play ever after the lesions appeared on her hands. As such, the doctors treating her suggested that the condition should be labelled as a more specific variant, PlayStation palmar hidradenitis, because “[e]xcessive video gaming is currently regarded as an alarming
health issue”.

This is nonsense. To label this condition as specific to games consoles, let alone one particular brand of games console, is completely pointless. It’s clearly a case of swollen sweat glands in the patients plam, a diagnosis that is fully covered by the doctors’ ultimate choice of idiopathic palmar eccrine hidradenitis. To stick “PlayStation” in there as well smacks of nothing more than sensationalism. A spokesman for Sony, manufacturers of the PlayStation, responded to the news:

“As with any leisure pursuit there are possible consequences of not following common sense, health advice and guidelines, as can be found within our instruction manuals,” he said.

“We do not wish to belittle this research and will study the findings with interest. This is the first time we have ever heard of a complaint of this nature,” he added.

Belittle it all you want, Sony. It’s rubbish.

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4 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 24 February 2009 at 8:51 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

It’s Pancake Day, or Shrove Tuesday for the Christians amongst us. Yesterday the Daily Mail published a story that began:

“With Shrove Tuesday tomorrow it was perhaps inevitable that an eager scientist would apply their skills to creating the perfect pancake.”

I’m tempted to re-word this:

“With Shrove Tuesday tomorrow it was perhaps inevitable that the Daily Mail would run some nonsense about a formula for the perfect pancake.”

Yes, we’ve got another one. Today’s formula faker is Dr Ruth Fairclough, who “worked out the food formula because her two daughters loved eating pancakes so much.” It appears that in between culinary calculations, she is part of the Statistical Cybermetrics Research Group at the University of Wolverhampton, who specialise in downloading and analysing large amounts of data from the internet. With that in mind, on to the formula:

100 – [10L - 7F + C(k - C) + T(m - T)]/(S – E)

Ooh, that’s big and scientific looking. Check out all those variables! What do they mean? Here’s the run down:

  • L: the number of lumps in the batter
  • C: the consistency of the batter
  • F: the “flipping score”
  • k: the ideal consistency
  • T: the temperature of the pan
  • m: the ideal temperate of the pan
  • S: length of time the batter sits before cooking
  • E: the length of time the cooked pancake sits before being eaten
  • The closer the result to 100, the better the pancake is

Phew. Everyone still with me? If you don’t mind, I’m going to skip over my usual complaints of meaningless variables (how do you measure “flipping score”?) and incompatible units, because frankly I’m bored of repeating myself.

As it stands, this formula is unusable. The “ideal” figures, k and m, are both constants, which means that they are the same each time – as you would expect, because if something is ideal then it shouldn’t change! An example of a constant in a real scientific formula is the “c” in the famous E = mc2. Here, c stands for the speed of light, which even Google knows is around 300 million metres per second. We’ve no idea what k and m are in the pancake formula however, so there is no way of evaluating it.

Even if you could, the construction of the formula contradicts itself. Take the term C(k-C), which obviously has something to do with consistency (no pun intended). It’s one of many terms in the formula that is being taken away from 100, and since we want our result to be as close to 100 as possible, we should probably try and make C(k-C) as small as we can.

Using a mathematical technique known as differentiation, it is easy to work out there is no minimum value for C(k-C), but there is a maximum – when C = k/2. Not much use there, but if we assume that C has to take positive values (after all, what does negative consistency mean?) then C(k-C) is at a minimum when C = 0 or C = k. In these cases, C(k-C) will be zero.

Hang on a second. That means that the formula is telling us that in order to get a perfect pancake, with should either strive for the ideal but unknown consistency k, or alternatively, the worst consistency possible (i.e., zero). That doesn’t sound too tasty. The maths is identical for the T(m – T) term, so a pan cooled to 0 °C will mean you are well on the way to perfection.

So, we’ve got our batter with its terrible consistency, and have just taken the pan out of the freezer. How long should we let the batter sit before starting? The worst thing we could do is leave the batter out for a fraction of a second longer than it takes us to start eating the pancake.

This is because as S and E become closer together, the S – E term will approach zero, causing the equation to balloon to infinity. Sit your batter for 10 seconds and your pancake for 9.999999999 seconds, and you’ll have a pretty awful snack on your hands. Conversely, let that pancake have 10.000000001 seconds rest before you tuck in, and you’re approaching culinary heaven because the minus sign is reversed.

Like most of its ilk, this formula is full of holes that are clear to any mathematician. Apologies if I’ve gone off on a slightly technical rant, but I really cannot stand these “formula for” stories, but what concerns me is that Fairclough actually teaches maths at Wolverhampton, or at least did in 2007 – she’s listed as the module leader for a variety of statistical units. If I were in her class, I’d be pretty worried.

1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 22 February 2009 at 12:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Physics, Weekly Roundup

“Run LHC, run!”

CERN have announced that actor Tom Hanks has been chosen to reboot the Large Hadron Collider once repairs are complete. The massive machine was damaged soon after being switched on last September, when a helium leak caused an estimated £20 million damage.

Hanks is currently filming Angels and Demons, in which he reprises the role of Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code. The films plot involves an attempt to destroy the Vatican with 0.25 grams of antimatter stolen from CERN. No, really.

Must CERN resort to these kinds of PR games? Isn’t the LHC enough of an accomplishment without a Hollywood star attached? Apparently not.

Bad Science in the bathroom

Ben Goldacre has truly made it big, with this interview in the toilets of Conway Hall. He talks about the usual schtick: what’s wrong with science reporting, and what should be done to fix it. I do so admire his collection of stripy shirts.


Ben Goldacre of Bad Science talks about Sensationalised Science Reporting from Conrad on Vimeo.

Some very weird experiments

I’m cheating a bit with the title of this post, but two out of three ain’t bad. My odd one out for your this week is extremely odd – a countdown of the twenty most bizarre experiments of all time.

Some are merely quirky, such as in 1978, when psychologist Russell Clark got his students to proposition others with the line “I have been noticing you around campus. I find you to be attractive. Would you go to bed with me tonight?” in order to study gender differences.

Others are ethically questionable, like monkey head transplants and electrocuting puppies. Sometimes scientists don’t do themselves any favours when it comes to public opinion!

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 21 February 2009 at 10:24 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong

It’s been a while, and I know you’ve all been waiting for itm but we’ve finally got ourselves a new scientific rap. The last one, about astrobiology, was in October, so it’s been a long time coming. This new offering seeks to explain climate change with the aid of a funky beat:

The song, “Take AIM at Climate Change” (AIM stands for Adapt, Innovate, Mitigate) was produced by POLAR-PALOOZA, an organisation dedicated to bringing stories and multimedia from scientists in the poles to the masses.

It’s also, really, really bad.

From the opening “climate change, mmm mmm” to the moon-walking polar explorers, it’s like a parody of itself. It wouldn’t seem out of place on Sesame Street. It’s a shame, because the science is sound. You can read the lyrics here (as well as comments on each line from someone who doesn’t seem to have quite finished building the site…), and they have a decent enough message:

See, the heat comes down from the Sun to the Earth
But now the heat can’t escape, it just can’t disperse…
Cos of carbon dioxide from power plants and factories,
Cars and trucks, so much more than you can find naturally

So the Poles get warm, and the Earth gets hotter
All that necessary ice melts down into water
And the impact, the sad fact, is it can only escalate,
So – for real – we gotta act now, before it’s too late..

The message gets lost thought, because the presentation of the video is just so unintentionally hilarious. I’m afraid the LHC rap is still king when it comes to science rap – possibly because it knows just how ridiculous it is!

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2 Comments » Posted on Friday 13 February 2009 at 11:03 am by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Getting It Wrong

Now don’t laugh, but in the interest of bringing you a 100% factually accurate report, I’ve just been sniffing my ironing board.

It’s all because of a recent press release informing us that the aroma of chips is made up of butterscotch, cocoa, onion, cheese and ironing boards. All ready, your bullshit meter should be tingling.

Oh, where to start? First off, although the press release appears to come from the University of Leeds, if you look at the top it has actually been issued by the British Potato Council, an organisation devoted to promoting potatoes which in 2006 was reported by the Sunday Times as voted Britain’s most useless quango.

Reading on, the “research” was designed to promote National Chip Week, making it a perfect example of what Charlie Brooker recently dubbed PR-reviewed phindings. Dr Graham Clayton from the University of Leeds was in charge of a team that collected aromas from chips and analysed them with a very sciencey sounding Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry. I’m not dissing the machine, it’s a proper piece of scientific equipment used by a variety of disciplines. It seems to have been used here to create graphs you can smell, however:

The output of the analysis is a series of peaks on a graph or a fingerprint. Each peak indicates the occurrence and levels of a different component of the aroma.

Each peak was also sniffed by an analyst to record if it could be detected and the type and strength of the aroma recorded.

Clayton himself is the Commercial Manager of Food Chain CIC, a commercial entity based within the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds. His LinkedIn profile (a sort of Facebook for business) declares “[p]rojects are delivered by academics but constructed on industry needs” – in other words, he makes a living creating nonsense “science” for PR companies. The end of the press release helpfully informs us that Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry analysis is often used by food companies to determine the shelf life of food products. Guess who’s offering a shelf life check up? Food Chain.

It’s not a lie to say that he is Dr Clayton of the University of Leeds (he holds a PhD, after all) but the impression that description evokes is a bit far from the truth. It’s also not the first time this rubbish has been presented as academic research – Clayton was in the news a couple of years back with the formula for the perfect bacon buttie. You can imagine my thoughts on that particular “discovery”.

The impact of this chip aroma “research” could be pretty big, according to Clayton:

“Perhaps these findings will see chips treated like wine in the future – with chip fans turning into buffs as they impress their friends with eloquent descriptions of their favourite fries.”

Yes, I’m sure that’s exactly what will happen. Oh, and the aroma of ironing boards? Mine at least, smells like…iron.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 10 February 2009 at 10:49 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

It’s not a very catchy headline, is it? It would have been much better to go with the Guardian’s Cannabis doubles testicular cancer risk, says US study – now that sounds scary. If you haven’t figured it out through my dripping sarcasm, we’re talking about two old friends: relative versus absolute risk.

We last saw the pair in the shocking news that drinking beer increases your risk of bowel cancer by a fifth (in other words, to about 0.073%). In case you’ve forgotten, let’s cover the basics again quickly.

Imagine there is a 1% chance of contracting a disease, meaning that in a given time frame (usually a year) we can expect 1 in 100 people to have this disease. Now, suppose that research finds that eating ice cream makes you more likely to get this disease – perhaps 3 in 100 ice-cream eaters have it, meaning there is a 3% chance you will contract the disease if you eat ice cream.

Relative risk is best thought of in terms of multiplication. By eating ice cream, your relative risk of the disease has trebled, because 1% becomes 3%.

Absolute risk is more like addition. An additional 2 people in every 100 will contract the disease if they eat ice cream.

Now, it’s clear why newspapers prefer relative risk to absolute risk. “Trebled” sounds much better than “plus 2″ in a headline. It’s a much less useful statistic however, especially when dealing with events with a low chance of occurring.

I must say though that in this case, if we look at the original paper, I think it’s actually the scientists who are to blame. In their words:

“We observed a 70% increased risk of TGCT associated with current marijuana use.”

That 70% is relative risk, not absolute. It’s also not double, which would be an increase of 100% in relative terms. That’s because the research showed a 70% relative increase for men in general, but the Guardian went with “double” which only applied to regular cannabis users, or those who started smoking before they were 18. To be fair, this is partially explained in the second paragraph, and then clarified towards the end.

So where did I get my un-catchy headline from? I once again turned to Cancer Research for some absolute risk statistics. In the UK, 7.1 men per 100,000 of the population contract testicular cancer. Dividing these two numbers gives us the absolute risk of 0.0071%, which I simply multiplied by 1.7 to calculate the 70% increase used in the headline.

I don’t know about you, but I think 0.01207% is pretty low. It’s because testicular cancer is actually one of the rarest forms of cancer that there is, so even a massive (relative) increase in risk results in a pretty small chance of catching it anyway. To me, that’s just not news – and yet pretty much anything involving cancer makes it in to the papers.

Remember: relative risk, and absolute risk. The difference is pretty important.

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 9 February 2009 at 8:03 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

The controversy over the MMR vaccine, which continues to this day, will be studied by science communicators for years to come. The suggestion of a link between the vaccine and the onset of autism was first put forward by a team lead by Andrew Wakefield, and published in The Lancet in 1998. Now it appears that Wakefield may have fabricated the data on which the entire study was built.

Early in the course at Imperial, we examined the role of the media in this case. Wakefield and colleagues held a press conference to announce his findings, stating:

“It’s a moral issue for me. I can’t support the continued use of these three vaccines, given in combination, until this issue has been resolved.”

In class, we were asked to imagine ourselves as reporters at the press conference – what would our reaction to this news be? The answer was more or less unanimous: it’s headline news. If the Sunday Times’ allegations are true, then Wakefield knowingly acted to deceive and defraud his fellow scientists, the press, and the public at large.

The Sunday Times has found that the medical history of the 12 children presented in The Lancet differs from the corresponding hospital and GP records. Whilst Wakefield claimed that the children developed problems with in days of the jab, in all but one case was this true according to medical records. In fact, many of the children had shown signs of autism before vaccination.

Wakefield linked MMR to autism by suggesting that the vaccination could cause bowel disease in children, which then lead to damage in their brains. It was reported that 11 of the 12 children’s bowels were diseased, but the Sunday Times investigation shows that at least seven showed no abnormalities. It was only after a “research review” of the tests that Wakefield and his team decided that these results should be revised.

The selection of children for the study has also been brought into question. Two of the children were brothers from East Sussex, whilst a further two shared a GP in Tyneside. None of the 12 children came from London, nor were they routine visitors to the Royal Free hospital in Hampstead. Many of the children’s parents had heard of Wakefield before though the MMR vaccine campaign, Jabs, compromising the scientific norm of a truly random sample.

It transpires that Wakefield himself was in the employ of Jabs’s lawyer Richard Barr. In June 1996, one month before the admittance of any of the children to the Royal Free, the pair sent a confidential document to the Legal Aid Board. It described a “new syndrome” suspiciously like the one reported in The Lancet twenty months later. They were successfully awarded money for research by the board.

The Sunday Times previously reported that in addition to research funding, Wakefield earned £435,643 through Barr.

Are these the actions of a man who’s interest is in uncovering scientific truth? To date, no one has been able to replicate Wakefield’s findings. As I said last week: please, vaccinate your children.

4 Comments » Posted on Friday 6 February 2009 at 4:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Ben Goldacre is well known for his battle against Bad Science, both in his Guardian column and on his website. On Tuesday he posted a recording of a show hosted by Jeni Barnett of LBC Radio, in which she discusses the MMR vaccine. Goldacre accused Barnett of misrepresenting the dangers of the vaccine, despite the numerous scientific studies which have now shown there to be no link between MMR and autism. Many members of the British public continue to believe that there is, which is why this story has been running for over a decade. The BBC have a decent timeline.

Yesterday, Goldacre received a warning from the lawyers of LBC, instructing him that posting the audio of the show was an infringe of copyright. Goldacre makes it clear that the reason for posting the audio was so that he could not be accused of misrepresenting Barnett’s views, but in the end had no option but to remove the audio.

It was at this point that a small corner of the internet exploded.

The audio was first uploaded to WikiLeaks, which offers hosting to leaked documents in any form. With servers around the world, it’s extremely hard to get anything removed once it’s on the site. Numerous bloggers have also taken it upon themselves to host the audio, along with a transcript:

Part 1 – Science Punk
Part 2 – The Lay Scientist
Part 3 – PodBlack Cat
Part 4 – The Skeptic’s Book
Part 5 – Science Punk
Part 6 – Holford Watch

So that’s the history. What was actually said? Well, Barnett accuses pharmaceutical companies of trying to make money by forcing vaccinations on children, uses anecdotal evidence of her family to try and claim that the MMR jab is unnecessary anyway, talks about having the “courage” to turn away from the vaccinating herd, and generally spreads dangerous misinformation. Thanks to the hard work of others you can read the entire transcript for yourself, but here are some choice quotes, along with a link to the blog hosting them:

Now back in the day (and that’s an expression I’ve learned from my [unclear] son), back in the day, children got measles, children got mumps. I’m not suggesting – I am not suggesting – that we got backwards where some children, where we have one in fifteen children die of it. And that one person in fifteen is the one we have to be looking at and wondering why and dealing with it. But if, as a human being, you decide you do not want to give your child a vaccination, you should, in a democracy, have that right to say no.”

Stick the kids out running in air, ban cars on the road, make them have six hours a day PE at school give them an hour every single day where they’re running around playing rounders and walls and not just – a few! My daughter’s beautiful boy Nathan, he’s a footballer and he gets an infection and he falls over – he gets better, because he’s always running and jumping and doing star-jumps or whatever you do!”

But let me put this to you – my nan, if you had an ear infection, would have put salt in a sock, heated it up, somehow (she didn’t have a microwave), put it behind your ear and good golly, Miss Molly, that ear infection would slow down in some way.

Now, there’s not a lot of science in it, but it blooming well worked!”

Obviously, it goes on and on. Jeni Barnett doesn’t have a clue what she is talking about, an in fact has freely admitted as much on her own blog.

“I am not a scientist, I would not claim to be a scientist. When tested on the contents of the MMR vaccine I told the truth. I did not have the facts to hand. Was I ill informed? Yes.As a responsible broadcaster I should have been better prepared as a parent, however, I can fight my corner. I don’t know everything that goes into cigarettes but I do know they are harmful.”

How does she know cigarettes are harmful, I wonder? Perhaps due to an overwhelming body of scientific evidence demonstrating this to be the case – in much the same way that MMR has been shown not to be linked with autism.

It’s terribly important that people like Jeni Barnett are called out, as news released today demonstrates. The Health Protection Agency has published the latest annual measles figures for last year, and the increase is shocking, with 1,348 confirmed cases in 2008 (a provisional figure), compared to 56 a decade earlier:

Dr Mary Ramsay, an immunisation expert at the Health Protection Agency, points out that the majority of these cases could have been avoided, had the children been given the MMR vaccination.

“What is so alarming is that the majority of these cases could have been prevented as most were in children who were not fully protected with MMR.

“There are still many children out there who were not vaccinated as toddlers over the past decade and remain unprotected. Unfortunately this means that measles, which is highly infectious, is spreading easily among these unvaccinated children.

Measles is not a simple childhood disease, but a serious infection that can be life threatening if it developments into complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. If you have non-vaccinated children, I urge you to take them to your local GP.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 29 January 2009 at 3:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Doing the rounds is a story about a painful-sounding affliction known as “cello scrotum” – and yes, it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Thing is, “cello scrotum” doesn’t actually exist; rather, it was made up by doctor Elaine Murphy (now Baroness Murphy) in a letter sent to the British Medical Journal in 1974.

Spotting a similar problem called “guitar nipple”, supposedly caused by a guitar player’s breast rubbing up against their instrument (oo-er…) was the inspiration for Murphy’s hoax. She and suspected the report to be a spoof, so set around inventing their own mythical malady and submitting it to the BMJ.

Murphy made her husband John sign the letter to avoid getting herself into trouble, and the couple have been “dining out” on the hoax for years. There have been a few references to “cello scrotum” in the medical literature over the years, but it was after seeing it resurface in the 2008 Christmas edition of the BMJ that Murphy decided it was time to come clean.

Any cello players amongst you should rest assured, there really is no such thing as cello scrotum. As Murphy’s new letter says, “[a]nyone who has ever watched a cello being played would realise the physical impossibility of our claim.”

The story should be a reminder to everyone however: journal editors are human too, and mistakes can (and do) slip through. If you see something a bit funny, follow it up – you might uncover the next “cello scrotum”! I’ll leave you with everyone’s favourite internet meme, the lolcat:

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 28 January 2009 at 7:24 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

The Daily Mail and Telegraph seem to think so. The latter also went with “Obesity can be caught as easily as the common cold, say scientists” as the headline, along with this cracking photo:

The one on the left just looks a bit squashed...
The one on the left just looks a bit squashed...

The research comes from Pennington Biomedical Research Centre in Louisiana, where a team lead by Professor Nikhil Dhurandhar found that chickens and mice infected with an adenovirus gained more weight than their uninfected brethern, even when given the same amount of food.

Adenoviruses are commonly known as a cause of respiratory infections. The particular virus in question is known as human adenovirus 36 or AD-36. In a previous study published in 2005, Dhurandhar found that whilst 11% of non-obese adults carry the virus, the figure shoots up to 30% in the obese population.

Does this mean that the easily-spread virus is responsibly for obesity? Well, whilst the team’s research showed that cells infected with AD-36 absorbed fat more easily, it can’t be the sole cause – after all, only 30% of obese adults are infected.

The Telegraph article soon backs down from its inflammatory headline (no doubt added by some hapless sub-editor), with quotes from numerous people questioning the claim. Dr Ian Campbell, a GP and medical director of the charity Weight Concern spells it out:

“A virus will never be the reason for why we have an obesity epidemic.

“There are far too many other factors, starting with our calorie intake exceeding our expenditure, and that’s because we live such sedentary lives.

“Our dietary habits have changed beyond belief and I don’t believe that’s the effect of a viral infection – it is the fault of the commercial expansion of companies making unhealthy foods.”

So, whilst AD-36 could be a contributing factor, the most important aspect of weight gain is simple. To butcher Dickens:

“Daily calorie expenditure two thousand, daily calorie intake nineteen hundred, result happiness. Daily calorie expenditure two thousand, daily calorie intake twenty-one hundred, result misery”

In other words, it’s the same old boring advice; eat less, exercise more.

As an aside, it’s interesting that David over at Sciencebase notes that Dhurandhar has been chasing the “obesity bug” for over a decade, seemingly trying to replicate the medical paradigm shift that occurred after the realisation that peptic ulcers were caused by bacteria, and not stress as previously thought. Scientists are people too, and like everyone else they have their own personal agendas. One to look out for, I think.

3 Comments » Posted on Monday 19 January 2009 at 1:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

According to the Daily Mail, today is “the most depressing day in HISTORY” – so say the “experts”. Forget your credit crunches, terrorist attacks and military invasions, today is Blue Monday, so we should all apparently feel very sorry for ourselves. Well, I’m quite pleased actually because I get another nonsense formula to bash!

You may remember “worst day ever” stories from years past, because in fact this little gem is rolled out annually. It is supposedly derived from a formula thought up by Cliff Arnall, “formerly of Cardiff University”, but is actually a product of PR company Porter Novelli according to good ol’ Ben Goldacre. The company approached Arnall to put his name to the “research” that was put out as part of a promotion for Sky Travel. Arnall, who Cardiff University have made clear was only a former part-time tutor for them, now seems to make a habit of promoting this rubbish at every opportunity.

On to the formula. The official “Beat Blue Monday” website offers the following formula for calculating the worst day of the year:

The model was broken down using six immediately identifiable factors; weather (W), debt (d), time since Christmas (T), time since failing our new year’s resolutions (Q), low motivational levels (M) and the feeling of a need to take action (Na).

These “immediately identifiable factors” are of course nothing of the sort; notice as well that the variable D is undefined. My usual complaints apply: variables that make no sense (how to you turn “weather” in to a number?) and broken equations (if your motivational level is zero, then the result is infinite), but there is also some nasty abuse of notation here. Na is obviously meant to stand for “need action”, but variables represented like this would normally be part of a series, e.g. Na, Nb, Nc, etc. I guess using the notation in this way makes it look more “scientific”.

Another fault is that although the formula supposedly results in a universal “worst day”, the variables seem to be very individual. Surely “time since failing our new year’s resolutions (Q), low motivational levels (M) and the feeling of a need to take action (Na)” all change from person to person? I was going to try and work back from the result to determine just what they are inputting for the equation, but it’s such a mess it isn’t even worth bothering. Today isn’t Blue Monday at all – I’ve just had a rather good laugh.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 13 January 2009 at 12:32 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

Now this is a bit interesting. Yesterday I (and many others) examined the claims of one Dr Alex Wissner-Gross, as reported by the Times, that two search on Google release as much CO2 as boiling a kettle. Today, speaking to TechNewsWorld, Dr Wissner-Gross says he has been misquoted.

The original study (which as I must remind you, I don’t have access to and thus haven’t read) apparantly never mentions Google, or indeed kettles. Both elements of the story seem to have been entirely manufacture by the Times.

“For some reason, in their story on the study, the Times had an ax to grind with Google,

“Our work has nothing to do with Google. Our focus was exclusively on the Web overall, and we found that it takes on average about 20 milligrams of CO2 per second to visit a Web site.” Dr Wissner-Gross told TechNewsWorld.

This quote gives us another figure to add to the growing bag of statistic on this matter: 20 milligrams, or 0.02g of CO2 per second of web usage. If you recall from yesterday, Google claimed that the average search on their servers took less than 0.2 seconds, which given this new figure would result in a CO2 emission of just 0.004g; pretty far off Google’s own estimates of 0.2g. Perhaps the remaining emissions come from the users PC as they read the results.

In the end, these statistics become meaningless. Google aren’t going to release their methodology; it would mean revealing the details of how their servers are set up, something they probably don’t want to share. Meanwhile, I still don’t even know where the original study was published, let alone how to access it. I’m considering emailing Dr Wissner-Gross, but I don’t think a message from a lone blogger is likely to get a reply when competing against the world’s press. Sigh.

I’ll sum up with another quote from Dr Wissner-Gross in he TechNewsWorld article:

“Everything online has a definite environmental impact. I think everybody can agree on that, including Google.”

It’s not just everything online that has an environmental impact, pretty much just everything does. If we’re going to worry about the carbon cost of Googling (rather than larger concerns such as cars or power plants) then we might as well take it to the ultimate logic conclusion: the greenest thing you can do is to kill yourself.

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 12 January 2009 at 8:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

Running just two searches on Google releases as much carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle, says Harvard University physicist Dr Alex Wissner-Gross. He says that each search produces 7g of CO2, but just how did he come up with such a figure? Well to be honest, I don’t know. I can’t find any original sources for his figures, only media reports. It’s still possible to infer some information from these reports, however.

The Times reports a similar estimation by Chris Goodall, author of Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, who suggest a Google search emits between 7g and 10g of CO2. This estimate assumes a total of 15 minutes computer use for one search however, which seems incredibly slow to me. Closer to the mark would be 15 seconds – type your search, hit enter, check the results and click a link – normally the first one, thanks to Google’s accurate searching technology.

Since both Goodall’s and Dr Wissner-Gross’s estimates agree, its not unreasonable to suggest they must be making similar assumptions – inaccurate assumptions, in other words. Google agree, and have responded to the claims. They say that as the average search takes just 0.2 seconds, their servers only use 0.0003 kWh of power per search – about the same amount of energy as an adult human body burns in ten seconds, apparently.

In terms of CO2 emissions, this works out at about 0.2g per search, far from the 7g claimed by Dr Wissner-Gross. Now, we’ve only got Google’s word for these figures, but I see no reason to believe Dr Wissner-Gross over them for one simple reason – he runs a company that offers to make your site carbon neutral. As is to be expected, everyone reporting the story has plugged his website so I won’t give him any more free publicity, and it does rather bring in to question his motivation for releasing his study.

I also question the comparison to boiling a kettle, which we are told is roughly equivalent to two search in carbon terms. The trouble is, “a kettle” is not the most scientific definition. A kettle will take a different amount of time to boil depending on how much water there is inside, and thus the electricity used is variable. As a basis for comparison, it’s a bit lacking.

Finally, consider the alternative to Google. Finding out information would involve travelling to a library, most likely by car, hunting down the book you require, and then searching through it. All of these activities require energy, be it in the form of petrol to power your car or food to fuel your muscles, and emit far more carbon into the atmosphere than simply loading up Google. I don’t know about you, but I think I will continue to Google with a green and guilt-free conscience.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 9 January 2009 at 5:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology

What with all the reviewing I’ve been doing, I’ve let a few new stories slip by uncommented on. I’ll probably try and catch up with a big Weekly Roundup on Sunday, but today I’d like to talk about a story that got me annoyed earlier in the week. You may have seen it; apparantly where you sit on a bus reveals your personality. It wasn’t just the Daily Mail who ran the story, but it was pretty much the same everywhere.

The basics: “leading psychologist” Dr Tom Fawcett found that people who sit at the front are forward-thinkers, passengers in the middle are independent-minded, and those lurking at the back are rebels who don’t like their personal space being invaded. In total, bus-goers can be split into seven distinct personality groups.

How were these Earth-shattering results discovered? Dr Fawcett explains:

“It was carried out as an observational survey – we noted people’s body language and whether there was any interaction with other passengers, if they were sociable or withdrawn or even anti-social.”

In other words, to determine the personality of passengers Dr Fawcett didn’t conduct any interviews or tests – he merely looked at people and made judgements. Can anything scream “confirmation bias” more than this? Dr Fawcett clearly didn’t try to falsify his hypothesis by looking for, say, rebels sitting at the front of the bus. Without conducting a decent personality test, the results are worthless anyway.

If you think about, there is one major factor in determining where you sit on a bus: whether or not there is a seat free! Obviously people do have their personal preferences as to where to sit, but often they just have to take the first available seat. It doesn’t sound like Dr Fawcett took that into consideration at all.

Honestly, with stories like this, I do wish journalists would turn around to the scientists involved and say “hang on…isn’t this a load of a old rubbish?” Because it is!

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 7 January 2009 at 2:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong

I guess 2009 must be short on celebrity TV scandals so far, because earlier this morning the headline story on the Daily Mail’s website was Revolt! Robbed of their right to buy traditional light bulbs, millions are clearing shelves of last supplies. It’s been pushed off by other stories now, but the switch to energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) bulbs must be big news, with not one but two editorials on the matter.

Last year I wrote about a study showing that CFL bulbs can do more harm than good, depending on where you live. Yes, they will always use less energy than a regular bulb, but the materials required to make them could increase average mercury emissions in a low-mercury country such as Norway. Countries like the US would receive a reduction in mercury emissions, however. Full details are in the previous post, so I won’t repeat them here, but although I can’t back it up with facts I imagine we’re probably closer to the US side of the scale than Norway.

The mercury question aside (a question that could be easily answered if I was able to access the paper) I’m moderately in favour of CFL bulbs, but I would much rather see commercial LED bulbs instead. More on that in a bit; let’s have a look at how the Daily Mail is reporting the national tragedy that is the loss of the incandescent bulb.

It’s good to see that hyperbole is out in full effect, with the opening statement:

Millions of Britons are finally waking up to the fact that their beloved light bulb will disappear for good after 120 years.

Yes, losing the good old bulb feels like an old friend has passed on. Often, I would stare up into my lighting fixture until my retinas burnt, such was my devotion. Soon, this happy past-time will be no longer.

Reading the article, it’s easy to see why this story is being run. Nothing to do with CFLs versus regular bulbs; it’s all an excuse for a bit of Daily Mail EU bashing:

The supplies are running out after the Government signed up to an EU decision to replace conventional 100w light bulbs with supposedly greener low energy alternatives.

The Mail’s main objections seem to be health issues, financial cost, and quality of lighting. They report that CFLs can causes skin rashes, migraines and epilepsy. Googling for a bit has revealed that much of the evidence for this is anecdotal – I can’t seem to find any scientific studies that provide an answer either way. This is a failing of both the Government and the Green movement – why haven’t these types of studies been commissioned before phasing out traditional bulbs?

The concerns on cost are a little less agreeable, however. The Mail reports an average pack of six standard bulbs to cos £1.21, or 20.17p each, whilst a single CFL is £2.19, roughly ten times as much. Again, no facts to back it up, but I have definitely seen CFLs cheaper than this, so the Mail are possibly being selective in their reporting. They do say, however, that CFLs can save £7 a year in bills per bulb, over a regular light.

Hang on a minute, doesn’t that mean that CFLs are actually cheaper? If a normal bulb costs 20.17p + £x to run (where £x is the electricity cost), then a CFL will cost £2.19 + £x-7. Doesn’t matter what £x is, a CFL will always be cheaper. Additionally, because CFLs last much longer than normal bulbs, you’ll see that £7 saving for many years.

Finally, the Mail report complaints that say both the lights are too dim, and that they don’t work with a dimmer switch. Forgive me if I’m being stupid, but why would you want to dim a too-dim light?

It’s a fuss about nothing really. Only the 100W bulbs are currently being phased our, whilst the rest of them will be hanging on until 2012. I’m hoping that by then, LED bulbs will have taken hold, and the question of CFL suitability won’t even matter. The Daily Mail fail to even report on the existence of LED bulbs, however.

LEDs, or light emitting diodes, are the small indicator lights you find in most consumer electronics. Not bright enough to light a room you might think, but put a bunch of them together, and you’re getting close. LED bulbs are already on the market, but at costs and strengths that make them unsuitable for wide use. These problems are expected to be overcome however, and will result in dramatic energy savings, even over CFLs.

Still, perhaps I’m just as bad as the Daily Mail in over-reporting the death of the light bulb. Glancing at my word count, I’ve written nearly 800 – quite enough for one day I think!

1 Comment » Posted on Monday 29 December 2008 at 6:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Sense About Science, an independent charitable trust set up to promote science in public, has released its third annual “celebrity audit”. The document details the claims of those in the public eye in relation to science, and highlights that celebs all too often don’t have their facts straight. Whether you like it or not, celebrities hold power in our society, so we should really encourage them to get their science right.

During the US presidential campaign I praised both Obama and McCain for their views on science, but it seems that they have both linked the MMR vaccine with autism – a big no-no. Despite the controversy around the vaccine, it has been shown again and again to be safe. Obama said of autism:

“Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.”

Sorry Mr President-Elect, you may be the saviour of the world, but that’s just not good enough. Continuing in America, Scientologist wacko Tom Cruise hit out against psychiatry in a video leaked to the internet:

“Psychiatry doesn’t work. [...] When you study the effects it’s a crime against humanity.”

This is despite the millions of people helped by psychiatry. Really, when you release movies like Mission Impossible III, I don’t think you have any right to throw the phrase “crime against humanity” around lightly…

Over in the UK, it seems our celebrity chefs have been doing their parts to muddy the scientific waters. Nigella Lawson has been supporting the Mind Meal, said by the charity Mind to help people with mental health problems. The Domestic Goddess said:

“The Mind Meal is an excellent idea – good, simple food that can help you to feel different about life”

Dietitian Catherine Collins suggests that the “specialist allergy foods and expensive ingredients” are “an unnecessary expense”, and not worth promoting.

Meanwhile, Delia Smith wants to cut out sugar from our nation’s diet in order to curb obesity. In contrast, Lisa Miles, senior nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation says that sugar is actually an important part of a balanced diet, and is found naturally in foods such as fruit and milk. She also says that the causes of obesity are “much more complex”.

Sense About Science suggest that any celebrities looking for scientific advice would do well to call them first. I don’t think we should discourage famous people from speaking out on science, but I do think they should know what they’re talking about!

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 27 December 2008 at 7:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

If a health risk is increased by a fifth, is that a lot? More importantly, should you worry about it? Many news outlets are reporting on a story from the World Cancer Research Fund that just one pint of beer a day, or other alcohol equivalent, can increase your risk of bowel cancer by a fifth. I’m going to pick on the Daily Mail in particular (mainly for the comments which I’ll get to later), but all of the stories are pretty much the same.

The question is, should I be worried enough to cut back on having a few pints, especially during this festive season? The important number here is not the relative risk (an increase of a fifth) but the absolute risk. According to Cancer Research UK, there are 61 diagnoses of bowel cancer in the UK for every 100,000 people each year. In other words, the chance of you getting bowel cancer is 61/100,000, or 0.061%.

Now, these statistics will include all instances of bowel cancer, including drinkers and non-drinkers alike, but for the moment let’s pretend that it’s only non-drinkers. Then, if everyone in the UK takes up drinking a pint a day, and thus risk of bowel cancer increase by a fifth for everyone, around 12 more people in every 100,000 will be diagnosed each year, corresponding to an absolute risk of 0.073%. I’m fudging the maths a little bit, because I don’t know how alcohol factors in to the Cancer Research UK data, but I’m actually making it look worse than it really is, because with accurate information on the effect of alcohol, the increase in risk would be even smaller. Remember, I’m making the (very wrong) assumption that no-one in the UK drinks!

In other words, when you look at the risk in absolute terms, it has hardly increased at all. Personally, those figures don’t worry me in the slightest. Yet, all of the mainstream media run the story with “beer makes you a fifth more likely to get cancer” because that is the eye-catching headline. The trouble is, we’re often giving conflicting information about whether drinking (in moderation) is “good” or “bad” for us, and this “flip-flopping” causes a cynicism of science apparent in both the Daily Mail’s headline (“Cheers! Now they tell us beer and wine give us cancer”) and it’s commenters. A typical example is this comment from Bryan Caffyn:

Please when will they,the so called experts, make up their minds, last week we were being told by the very same people, a glass or two of wine would reduce the risk of all sorts, now its going to increase the chance of bowel or liver cancer. Even by this barmy bunches standards this is crazy, time gormless gordon dare I say took the lead, no I musn´t be silly, Christmas is over.

What these stories don’t get across is that most substances we consume are both improve and are detrimental to our health. The science isn’t wrong (I’m assuming, of course, having not read any actual papers); there really is an increased risk of bowel cancer from drinking. That doesn’t mean that drinking can’t also have beneficial effects in other ways. When the changes in absolute risk are so small, however, who really cares? A fifth of relative risk just isn’t enough to be worth worrying about!

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 26 December 2008 at 1:08 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Physics

As part of the Guardian’s Cif charades series, “Cif regulars write about a counterintuitive topic suggested by our readers”, Michele Hanson has shared with us her thoughts on quantum physics. Hint: I’m not very impressed.

Hanson believes that physicists aren’t “choosing their projects wisely”, and are “aiming a little too high” with their research into the quantum world. After all, what use is quantum physics? It’s not like it helps us understand semiconductors, vital in the construction of many electronics, or build MRI scanners, which help millions of people around the world. No, wait – yes it does. Just because Niels Bohr worked on the Manhattan Project, it doesn’t mean we should throw all of his research out of the window.

She aks “How can you not know how something worked if you’ve just worked out how it worked, and made it work?” I had to re-read the sentence a couple of times just to understand the question. Here’s the problem: quantum physics is weird. Like much of science, the results are counter-intuitive, difficult to understand, and an incomplete model of how the world truly is. Guess what though? Science works, bitches.

Still, because Hanson can’t get her “fluffy little head around” it, quantum physics isn’t important. Speaking to a friend, she discovers they share a basic knowledge of physics, up to a point:

..I asked another friend out with her dog. Her knowledge of plain, never mind quantum, physics was fairly basic. “Apples fall on your head,” she said. “Heat rises except in my oven, and E = mc².”

I can manage that, except for the last equation. Let’s not go there.

Oh no, an equation! We musn’t let anyone see the dreaded equals sign, lest they be overcome by it’s damning parallel lines. Begone, foul beast! At least I can take comfort in most of the Cif commenters disagreeing with Hanson as well. After all, this is a woman who believes that girls shouldn’t be encouraged in the sciences because “girls in general just aren’t that keen on science.” Bleurgh.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 9 December 2008 at 5:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics, Psychology

Long term readers of Just A Theory may remember that one of the very first posts here was about a pet hate of mine: junk equations. Back then it was a formula for fame, but this time it’s the bane of students with essay deadlines ever: procrastination. Thankfully I handed in my essay yesterday, so I have some free time to rip in to this nonsense.

Professor Piers Steel has, according to the Telegraph spent “more than 10 years” studying why people procrastinate. Depending on who you ask, he’s either a psychologist or a business professor at the University of Calgary (the Telegraph say the former, the Daily Mail and the Times the latter).

On to the equation itself. It’s U = EV/ID, where U stands for “utlity”, or your desire to complete a given task. E is the expectation of succeeding in your task, whilst V is the value of completing it. I is the immediacy of the task, and finally D is your personal sensitivity to delay.

Well, that’s what the Telegraph says. The Daily Mail give a different formula: U = EVTC, where T is your tendency to delay work, and C the consequence of not completing it. By simple substitution, it must be that 1/ID = TC. Now, I can see an argument for saying that T has just been re-written as 1/D (in the same way that you can write 0.5 as 1/2), as they are both about delay, but how does the immediacy of the task (I) relate to the consequence of not completing it (C)? Already I’m starting to see the cracks in this equation…

For the definitive answer I went to Prof. Steel’s website, which provided me with the following:

Yet more variables! We’ve already met U, E, V and D, but now we have G (which seems to be standing in for the Greek letter Gamma which was actually used in the equation). Confusingly, G appears to be taking the place of D in the equation described by the Telegraph, whilst D here is now I. To avoid any further confusion, I will refer to Steel’s form of the equation, U = EV/GD from now on. To reiterate: E is expectancy of successful completion, V is the value of completion, G is the sensitivity to delay, and D is the immediacy of the task.

Besides changing variables like they were underpants, the problem with all of these formulas is that the values in them are completely unscientific and not at all measurable. Granted, your expectation of completing a task successfully could be expressed as a probability, for example, but such a measure is very subjective. What are the odds of getting an A for an essay? They simply can’t be calculated.

The other issue is the mathematical validity of the formula. If your sensitivity to delay is very low (and thus you have a small G), your utility value will be high – but surely it should be the other way around? If you don’t like to put things off, you’re less inclined to procrastinate! So maybe G should be measured from 1 to 10, with 1 being a high sensitivity and 10 being low. All this really illustrates is that it is very easy to come up with a formula for anything – as long as you fiddle the numbers to give that answer that you want!

Actually, it appears that this formula has more than one thing in common with the fame formula from my early post. Like that example, this equation is being used by its creator to publicise an upcoming book. Of course, all of the newspapers that have picked up this story are giving him a nice little bump of free advertising.

It shouldn’t need saying again, but I’m going to any way: these formula stories are a complete waste of time. They’re the absolute dregs of scientific journalism, and you shouldn’t pay any attention to them whatsoever. So, stop reading this and get back to work!

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 5 December 2008 at 5:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Musings

It seems that CNN has decided to completely axe their science, space, environment and technology unit – for editorial, not economic reasons, apparently. CNN argue that it’s no longer needed:

“Now that the bulk of our environmental coverage is offered through the Planet in Peril franchise, which is part of the AC360 program, there is no need for a separate unit,” said CNN spokesperson Christa Robinson.

Environmental issues being the only news covered by a science, space, environment and technology unit, hmm…

CNN are really dropping the ball here. Yes, science is increasingly entering into other parts of the news: politics, business, and so on. It’s important to see these aspects covered as part of the main story, but for dedicated science stories you really need a dedicated science unit. Now of course, I would say that, but would you axe the sports unit and let general journalists comment on football scores? Of course not.

I don’t watch CNN, and I very rarely visit their website, but now I probably never will again. What’s the point? They clearly don’t care about covering the news accurately and in detail, so I’ll be steering clear in the future. As Tim said on the Sci Comm Facebook group: “In case you were thinking of working at CNN……don’t bother”!

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 20 November 2008 at 7:22 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Musings, Science Policy

So, I had been planning to write about Paul Drayson, the new UK science minister, and his recent comments about having a “sixth sense”, but it appears that my course mate Tim has beaten me to the punch in saying most of what I was going to. I guess I could use a sixth sense of my own…

Nevertheless, I still have a few comments to make about the propogation of Drayson’s comments through the media. If you haven’t seen the story, here’s the Daily Mail’s offering: “Science Minister has sixth sense“.

What did he actually say? Well, the quote arose from an interview in the Sunday Times, under the headline “Paul Drayson: He’s Buzz Lightyear of the cabinet“. Its a long interview, that ranges on topics from his policies to his private life.

Near, the end, talk turns to his personal belief in God, which leads on to a discussion about intuition. Drayson relays his thoughts on a book on the subject – Blink by Malcom Gladwell – and says “This struck a chord with me because in my life there have been some things that I’ve known and I don’t know why.”

Now, here’s the important bit. It is the interviewer Isabel Oakeshott that uses the phrase “sixth sense”, and she does so “half in jest”. Drayson replies: “Yes, like a sixth sense,” and that he believes “there’s a lot we don’t understand about human capability.”

Arguably, Drayson should choose his words more carefully. If he had spoken directly of “intuition” for example, rather than picking up on Oakeshott’s “sixth sense” phrase, the story probably would never have arisen. If you’re the government’s representative on science, referring to supernatural idea is going to be too hard for your typical journo to resist, and that was the case here. On the same day, the section of the interview was spun out into another article by Oakeshott: “I saw it coming, says minister of sixth sense Lord Drayson“, which is where all these other stories presumably arise from.

These stories include the Telegraph’s “‘I have a sixth sense’ claims science minister Lord Drayson“. The quote in the headline is, of course, incorrect.

Now it has to be said, I don’t think science or scientists are being directly harmed by this reporting. It’s Drayson (and by extension the Labour government) who are made to appear foolish, but on the other hand foreign scientists who read the story might be left with a bad impression of the UK. After all, if we’ve got a guy who can predict the future as UK science minister, what must UK scientists be like? Hopefully Drayson will learn from the incident, and think a bit more about just who he represents!

3 Comments » Posted on Sunday 16 November 2008 at 12:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Evolution, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

The RSC are at it again

The Royal Society of Chemistry are clearly not reading Just A Theory. Not one week after I pointed out the bizarre competitions they have been running, they announce a recipe for Yorkshire pudding.

The Society was replying to the inquiry of one Ian Lyness, who wanted to know why his Yorkshires had failed to rise in the mountainousness Colorado, despite previous success elsewhere in the US. Though they haven’t answered Ian’s question, the RSC have decreed that the perfect Yorkshire should be at least 10 cm tall.

Chemical scientist Dr John Emsley of Yorkshire claimed that only his fellow Yorkshire men and women could produce “worthy” puds. All extremely unscientific conclusions, you might agree. Emsley also provided the “chemical formula” for a pudding, namely carbohydrate + H2O + protein + NaCl + lipids.

I know they’re just trying to appeal to a wider audience (and it worked, the story was run by many papers), but the RSC really should give up on this kind of thing.

A robot that’s uncanny

The uncanny valley is a commonly held belief that as robots and animations become more humanlike, there is a point before they reach perfection at which they become abhorrent. It’s not been scientifically proven, but I’ve certainly experience the phenomenon for myself.

The latest example is Jules, a creation of the Bristol Robotics Lab. Jules is designed to mimic the facial expressions of other human beings, thanks to the motors embedded beneath its “skin”.

Robotic engineers Chris Melhuish, Neill Campbell and Peter Jaeckel spent three-and-a-half years creating the software that powers Jules’ interactions. You can see their results, and Jules’ slightly creepy monologue, in the following video:

This cannot be said enough: science and religion can live happily ever after

The Guardian have an article by Micheal Poole on that old chestnut, science and religion. He’s a visiting research fellow in science and religion at the department of education and professional studies at King’s College London, so unsurprisingly he has a thing or two to say on the matter.

He makes the point that whilst ideas intelligent design and young Earth creationism are nonsense, they do not discredit the concept of creation, or rather Creation as preformed by a Creator. I’ve said similar in the past, but Poole’s argument is very nicely laid out, and worth a read.

He reminds us that creation is a religious concept, not a scientific one, however, it can also not be disproved by science. Science can answer questions about the processes of the natural world; it cannot determine if these are the results of actions by God. In other word, it’s a matter for religious philosophers to fret over, not scientists. Region and science are not enemies, and they should cease to be portrayed as such.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 10 November 2008 at 2:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Evolution, Getting It Wrong

A survey by Teachers TV has found that nearly a third of the 1200 teachers who participated belive that creationism should be given the same status as evolution in the classroom. More worryingly, out of the 248 science teachers who were included in the poll, 18% agreed with this notion. Should these people really be allowed to call themselves science teachers?

I do have a few doubts about this poll. It was conducted via email, which means that selection bias could be a factor. Those who are strongly propionate’s either way about this issue are more likely to respond to an email poll than those who aren’t too bothered. This could likely mean that the percentage of science teachers in the UK who believe creationism should be taught in school is lower than 18%. This isn’t really that important to what I have to say, however.

Regardless of how representative the poll is, there are still 44 (or possibly 45, as 18% of 248 doesn’t give you a whole number) science teachers out there who would like to teach creationism in their lessons as an equal alternative to evolution. This is nonsense.

I’m largely reiterating points I laid out in the wake of the Michael Reiss incident, in which the director of education at the Royal Society was widely misreported to have called for creationism to be taught in science lessons, ultimately leading to his dismissal from the post. What he actually said is that science teachers should be able to answer questions on creationism rather than deflect them, and more importantly show why it is not science.

Creationism isn’t science for the same reason that science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God: it’s unobservable, untestable and most importantly cannot be falsified. Evolution can be falsified. For example, if DNA sequencing of two species that appear to be similar (say, chimpanzees and humans) showed wildly different genomes, then it could not be possible that we evolved from a common ancestor. Fortunately for evolution, we share something like 96% of our genes with chimps.

The previous paragraph is an example of how I would like to see creationism taught in schools. Thankfully, almost half of the surveys respondents agree with me, in that they feel the complete exclusion of creationism from the classroom is counter-productive. The question is, how do you change the minds of those teachers who truly believe it is science?

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 7 November 2008 at 5:28 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Musings

I’m starting to worry about the Royal Society of Chemistry. Lately they’ve been acting a bit like an embarrassing school teacher – the kind who tries to be “down wid da kids”. Innit. Urgh.

Sorry. First of all, it was their competition a couple of months ago to suggest a new name for the Large Hadron Collider. They offered £500 to anyone who could come up with a better name than the current “contrived acronym”. The winner was “Halo” – in my opinion a far worse name than LHC, but there we go.

The point is, what was the RSC even doing running such a competition? Their own press release mentions that “Some reports say that the RSC is suffering from “professional jealousy”". I don’t think it’s that, but I’m stumped as to why the Royal Society of CHEMISTRY are getting involved with a particle physics experiment.

You might say that they were just jumping on the LHC bandwagon, hoping to ride the massive wave of publicity. It’s possible, but then how do you explain this latest development? The RSC are now “inviting the public to devise a successful ending to the greatest-ever cinema cliff-hanger to mark the 40th birthday next year of The Italian Job made in 1969.”

Sorry, what? The Italian Job? Sure, great film, no disagreement there. Fantastic ending, you’ll get no argument from me. But, and I say it again, why the Royal Society of C-H-E-M-I-S-T-R-Y? It turns out that 100 years before the film was the creation of the Periodic Table by Dmitri Mendeleyev.

Now, get ready for this.

There’s gold in The Italian Job. There’s also gold in the Periodic Table.

That’s it! That’s the link they’re going for! Bravo, RSC, on one of the most tenuous excuses I have ever seen. They’re trying to “draw attention to gold”, and by association, the Periodic Table. It must also be pointed out that the RSC “does not condone the fictional bullion heist and regards the competition only as a scientific and logical challenge.” (I like that they don’t condone fictional heists, presumably leaving the door open for real life ones.)

If you want to enter the competition (and aid the RSC in its descent to madness) the details are all in the link above. The prize is a three-night stay for two in Turin. Not a chemistry set in sight…

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 6 November 2008 at 10:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology

We’ve got another one. “Experts” warned today that wearing a purple tie to an interview could cost you the job.

In a way, this story is very similar to one I wrote a month or so ago about blondes being more confident. Daily Mail? Check. Dubious science? Check. Funded by someone looking to hawk their wares? Check.

Psychologist Dr Ludwig Lowenstein carried out the study for tie makers Peckham Rye (no vested interest there of course) – but to what extent was it a serious study? The Daily Mail give no indication of where (if?) it was published, and I can’t find anything online, so it’s hard to fact check. I’ve no idea, for example, how many people participated in the study, or what kind of questions they were asked. There’s no indication of methodology used, or how conclusions were drawn.

For all intents and purposes Dr Lowenstein might as well have made these results up. The reason scientists insist on the traditions of publication and citation is so other people can check your results. When “research” is funded by commercial organisations the results are often not made public, or at least not easily accessible, and that’s a Bad Thing™.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t trust all commercially funded research. For example, Google.org is the internet giant’s charitable wing, and have committed over $100 million dollars to research into fields such renewable energy. Notice the complete lack of “your choice of search engine could give you skin cancer”-type research.

I’m also not saying that the conclusions made by Dr Lowenstein are wrong. How could I? I’ve not been out questioning people about ties, so I’m not in any position to draw conclusions. I could however take a look at his data (if it was available) and then come up with something. It could be a load of rubbish, I’m not a trained psychologist after all, but if I could do it so could other scientists. That’s how science works.

Of course, I’ve got to have my usual poke at the Daily Mail. Yes, I know why they’ve run the story; you get a nice punny headline (I’m guilty of it as well), they get to included a bunch of celebrity pictures, and the results come from a guy with a PhD. That doesn’t mean they have to list it in the science section. It’s not science.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 3 November 2008 at 2:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong

Research published last week in the International Journal of Epidemiology suggests that mothers who drinking “lightly” during pregnancy are not putting their unborn child at risk of behavioural difficulties or cognitive deficits, when compared with children of abstinent mothers. In some cases, light drinking was actually shown to be beneficial, according to lead author Dr Yvonne Kelly of University College London’s Epidemiology & Public Health department:

“The link between heavy drinking during pregnancy and consequent poor behavioural and cognitive outcomes in children is well established. However, very few studies have considered whether light drinking in pregnancy is a risk for behavioural and cognitive problems in children.

“Our research has found that light drinking by pregnant mothers does not increase the risk of behavioural difficulties or cognitive deficits. Indeed, for some behavioural and cognitive outcomes, children born to light drinkers were less likely to have problems compared to children of abstinent mothers, although children born to heavy drinkers were more likely to have problems compared to children of mothers who drank nothing whilst pregnant.”

The study defines light drinking as 1-2 units of alcohol per week or occasion. This confuses me; what counts as an occasion? If a mum-to-be likes to party every day of the week, does this mean that she’s fine as long as she restricts herself to 1-2 units each night? Of course not, so why not just stick to the amount consumed per week?

I worry that this confusion could be spread to pregnant women by the reporting of the story in the mass media. The stated 2 units amounts to a single 175ml glass of wine of around 11% alcohol strength per week. Personally I would consider this “barely” rather than “light” drinking, which to me seems more like two or three glasses of wine week for a total of 4-6 units per week – still well under the recommended limit of 14 units per week for women. I wonder how many women might have a similar interpretation of “light”, and drink too much after reading this story.

The Times were the most cautious in their reporting, with “Drinking alcohol occasionally when pregnant ‘does no harm’“, and in the second paragraph define “occasionally” as “one to two units, or a single drink a week”. You’d be hard pressed to come away from reading their story thinking a bit of a binge would be ok.

Similarly, the BBC said “Light drinking ‘no risk to baby’“, but said that the study defined “light” as “two drinks a week”, not 2 units. The study itself is unclear on this matter, sometimes switching between 2 units and 2 drinks. I can’t think of any reasonably sized serving in which 1 unit = 1 drink. For the calculations to work out, we’re talking a measly 100ml of 10% strength wine. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who defined such a measure as a “drink”.

The Telegraph falls somewhere in the middle with “Pregnant women ‘can drink a small glass of wine a week’” – a decent headline, but they go on to say “Guidelines on what constitutes a unit has since been changed and only a small (125ml) glass of 12% ABV white wine is the equivalent to one unit.” I’m not sure what guidelines they are referring to – one unit is 10ml of pure alcohol, so their example would be (125 * 0.12) / 10 = 1.5 units. In other words, women following the Telegraph’s advice might be at risk of drinking more than 2 units.

Finally, both the Guardian (Light drinking in pregnancy may be good for baby boys, says study) and the Daily Mail (Pregnant women who drink ‘lightly’ could have brighter, better-behaved babies) were perhaps overly optimistic in their reporting of the study, stressing the potential positive benefits. This stance makes for good headlines, but could it mean women don’t think twice before reaching for another glass – after all, it might even be good for the baby!

Ultimately I blame the press release from UCL which went with the headline “Light drinking in pregnancy not bad for children, says UCL study“. Even though the first line immediatly defines the meaning of “light”, it’s just encouraging over-confident reporting by the newspapers. After all, that’s pretty much the point of these press releases – enticing science writers to cover the latest breakthrough. Journalists love an eye-catching headline as much as any reader.

Scientists use very exact language for a reason: if you don’t, it gets you in to trouble. It’s very hard to reproduce someone’s results if their methodology is written like a cook-book (“take a pinch of copper, add a dash of hydrochloric acid…”), so being specific is important. When stories get picked up by the mass media, these specifics are often lost or glossed over – after all, no one really cares how many protons are in a carbon nucleus (for example) other than scientists, right?

The trouble is, when it comes to research such as this, the specifics are pretty important. If your definition of “light” drinking is different to that of the study’s authors, the university press officers, or the newspaper editors, you could be putting your baby at risk. Sometimes it’s ok to dumb down the science, and sometimes it really isn’t.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 1 November 2008 at 1:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

Apparently “socialite” Paris Hilton has bagged herself a $200,000 seat on the first Virgin Galactic (for the long-term readers, you may remember one of my first posts was about the company) flight into space.

She joins other rumoured “commerc-onauts” (a phrase I believe I’ve just coined) such as William Shatner, Sigourney Weaver, and Stephen Hawking, but has expressed some rather strange fears.

“I’m very scared to do it. What if I don’t come back?” she said. “With the whole light-years thing, what if I come back 10,000 years later, and everyone I know is dead? I’ll be like, ‘Great. Now I have to start all over.”

Ah yes Paris, that “whole light-years thing.” The esteemed Ms. Hilton appears to be referring to Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity, in which your perception of time can be affected relative to others, depending on your speed. In a famous thought-experiment Einstein suggested that placing one of a pair of twins on a near-light speed flight, whilst the other remains on Earth, could have some interesting effects.

Due to time dilation, the journey would take much longer from the point of view of the twin on Earth. When the space-faring twin returns, he would find that his Earth-bound brother had aged much more than him. It’s all due to the fixed speed of light, and explained by Einstein’s theory.

Paris seems to have been slacking in her Advanced Physics class however, because this effect (known as the twin paradox) can only happen at the speed of light. The Virgin Galactic flights will barely leave the atmosphere, let alone get up to 300 million metres per second, so she’s probably safe for now. Unfortunately.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 20 October 2008 at 11:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong

The Daily Mail is not alone in reporting that “new research” has shown 10.04pm is the best time to be creative, but I’m going to pick on them because their story is particularly bad – and the comments on their website are particularly illuminating.

A survey of 1,426 adults found that people feel most inspired at 10.04pm, whilst 4.33pm was a creativity low point. Additionally, 44% of respondents said that taking a shower would help get the creative juices flowing.

So, where have these results come from? A well regarded university, or a knowledgeable think-tank, perhaps? No, the “research” was conducted by the hotel chain Crowne Plaza. Of course, this means that their “study” is not available for peer review, or indeed just to be read. Googling, all I could find was reports similar to the Daily Mail one, rather than any actual figures.

So, is this science? No, it’s simple polling for a hotel firm. I’m not sure of their motives, but I’m pretty sure they want to sell more hotel rooms, not increase the boundaries of human knowledge. Why then is the Daily Mail reporting this as “science”?

Well, for one thing they seem to be mixing up these result with an earlier study by the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan – a genuine research institute. The way the story is written, it almost seems that this university has done the research, not the hotel chain.

By presenting the “findings” with this headline, the Daily Mail are misleading their readers about the role of scientists. Take a look at some of the comments on the story:

So now we know. Is this really what we pay for Scientists to use their brains.
The world has starving people and famin areas diseases for which there are still no cures and these people waste time on such trivial issues. Says a lot for their brainwaves at whatever time of day.

And at 10:05 it is all over, so back to bed!!

Isn’t it amazing what wonderfully useless information these experts come up with after years of research.

This cynicism is understandable. If scientists did come up with such useless findings as “10.04pm is the magic creativity time” I would be as sceptical as these commenters. By dressing up what amounts to nothing more than marketing as “science”, the Daily Mail does a disservice to both its readership and real scientists.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 19 October 2008 at 5:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

Now that’s what I call a sticky situation

The world’s longest stick insect has been discovered in the rainforests of Borneo. A member of the species Phobaeticus chani, the specimen measures 56.6cm, beating the previous record holder Phobaeticus serratipes by over a centimetre.

As you might imagine, it looks like a stick.

If you want to check it out for yourself, it will soon go on display in the Creepy Crawlies exhibition at the Natural History Museum.

‘Perfect shower’ is far from it

Yet another “formula for” story, with “scientists” developing a “mathematical formula” for the perfect shower. Apparently “The balance of privacy, pressure, time and temperature in the shower all need to be carefully moderated to create the perfect shower experience.”

The “research” was of course sponsored by someone – surprise surprise, a shower manufacturer. Neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis of Mindlab International had some nonsense to spout which I won’t bother repeating here.

You know what the worse thing is? They didn’t even include the bloody “formula” in their press release.

What does space smell like? Steak, apparantly

News about the aroma of space is doing the rounds at the moment. Supposedly NASA have hired fragrance firm Omega Ingredients to recreate the smell of space, to help astronaut training feel more realistic. Right…

Astronauts de-suiting after a space walk have reported “particular odours”, such as fried steak and hot metal. Surprisingly, the Sun is alone in reporting that this is most likely “non-scents”, with Sir PatricK Moore weighing in:

“These odours may have come from astronauts’ suits or spaceships. The vacuum of space is unlikely to have its own scent. It is more likely to be reacting to man-made equipment. There is nothing in space and nothingness cannot really have a smell.

“Boys or girls attempting to go to space because they think there is fried steak flying about might be disappointed.”

That looks pretty hot

And finally, some beautiful pictures of the sun (our star, not the newspaper discussed above, that is), perfect for brightening up any cold autumn morning. Enjoy.

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2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 25 September 2008 at 8:55 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology

The Daily Mail has a story about “research” showing that “women with lighter hair have more confidence.” Oh really?

The “study” was carried out by Mark Sergeant of Nottingham Trent University, who asked 200 women how they felt both before and after dyeing their hair. It turns out that participants “across the board” felt “elevated” confidence and mood levels, as well as more sexually attractive, with newly-made blondes reporting the highest increases.

What’s wrong with this research? Huge assumptions, for one thing. How can we be sure it was a new hair colour that contributed to a change in these women’s attitudes, and not simply a change? If you feel bad about the way you look changing any part of your appearance, whether it be by dyeing your hair, plastic surgery, or even buying new clothes, is probably going to make you feel better.

Then there’s that oh so important question: where’s the money? The “research” was funded by Clairol… a company which sells hair dye. The words “conflict”, “of” and “interest” spring immediatly to mind. Now, it could be that this “research” is entirely sound. It could be that blondes really do have more fun. Really though, if you saw a story saying that research funded by Big Cigarette Co had found cigarettes actually improve your health, are you going to believe them?

It’s certainly bad science, but is it bad reporting? To be fair to the Mail, I found this story not in their Science section, but in ‘Femail’. Since the second paragraph of the story is “Scientists claim their research shows that bleaching hair does wonders for a woman’s self-image”, however, I felt that it was fair game – especially as it was written by Fiona MacRae, the Mail’s science writer.

The cynic in me might say that the Mail only chose to go with the story because they would be able to accompany it with a bunch of pretty pictures of eye-catching blonde women. Maybe I should try that:

If you skipped straight to this picture of Scarlett Johansson, you've probably missed the point of the post.

Now of course if this was a proper scientific study of whether pictures of Scarlett Johansson get me more hits, I’d probably put the picture higher up for more impact. I would also publish another identical post, but without the picture, as a control. If I didn’t, it would be a pretty bad study as there would be no way of measuring an improvement, and I’d expect someone to pick me up on it.

The same logic should apply to science reporting. If you see a study that doesn’t have a decent control, or makes a lot of assumptions, why not ask the scientists involved to clarify their findings? If research is funded by an organisation with a vested interest in the results, why not point out to your readers that it might be worth taking with a pinch of salt?

Just because “scientists say” or “research has shown” something is the case, it doesn’t mean that it is true. After all, Otto Rössler – the guy who went to court to try and stop the LHC – is “a scientist”. He’s also pretty damn loony. Bad science does not have to mean bad reporting – just ask Ben Goldacre.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 17 September 2008 at 6:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Coincidentally tying into yesterday’s post on Science Debate 2008, the new series of Horizon was kicked off last night by speaking to “leading scientists” about the scientific knowledge a President requires. What did they have to say for themselves?

Initially, not much. It seems they had all been bundled into a darkened room only to have spotlights shined into their blinking, deer-in-the-headlight eyes. I’m not entirely sure why the BBC chose to shoot their guests in this manner – its a toss up between wanting to appear “edgy”, and just being too cheap to build a set.

A few uncomfortable introductions: Richard Dawkins, James Watson (one of the discoverers of DNA), and others. Cut to the scientists scribbling random equations on blackboards. Oh good. Right, a bit of history: Kennedy was a good friend to scientists, who in turn helped out America by sending men to to the moon. Everyone else since then has been rubbish. Especially George Bush.

More meaningless equations, this time floating in the sky between buildings. What do they mean? It doesn’t matter, it’s SCIENCE! Really, does the BBC thing we have such short attention spans these days that if we don’t see something shiny every few seconds we’ll lapse into a coma of boredom?

Six minutes in, and it’s time for the programme to start. Apparently a President must understand e = mc2 in order to be able to push the nuke button. Funny, I thought it just took a finger – a thumb even, in an emergency. Oh no, turns out that the President is “shadowed by a uniformed officer”, holding a case full of launch codes.

Sorry, where were we? Right, science, but not too much science. Richard Garwin, designer of the first hydrogen bomb, shows us how how much enriched uranium is needed to start a nuclear reaction in a power station (yes, we’re on power stations now, do keep up), then mutters under his breath for a few seconds whilst working out how long the reaction would take – one millionth of a second. Beaming, he says “and you can calculate all that yourself!”

No! Not calculation! The science has gone too far! A horror-movie style musical stab plays as we cut quickly over the evil, evil numbers on the blackboard. The monster of mathematics has reared its ugly head, and we must move on sharpish before it devours us all.

There’s some nonsense about detecting Iran’s nuclear progress, with former CIA agent Robert Baer telling us that ninjas and James Bond will not be coming in and shutting them down. That’s not the way that world works. Yes, ninjas and James Bond were the actual words he used.

Oh right, science. Well, a President must also know about stem cell research. Sir Paul Nurse guides us through his laboratory full of duplicated equipment: thanks to the ban on federally funded research, one set of machines can be used for stem cell research, and the other (privately funded) can’t. The are even hooked up to separate electrical meters, so no American tax dollars go to those filthy anti-life scum. What does a President need to know? Some people don’t like stem cells, it seems. They even have signs saying so. Better watch out for them.

Physics, biology – isn’t there something else on our list we need to tick off? Ah: chemistry. We’re reminded of that “dreaded of science class icons, the periodic table” – apparantly “little could appear less interesting.” Really? Someone better tell the Periodic Table of Videos to shove off, because Horizon is back on the case.

Chemistry is all to do with photosynthesis. That’s what a President needs to know. Sorry, sorry, did I say photosynthesis? Silly old me, I meant climate change. Oh, but now we’re back to nuclear power. I guess we didn’t cover that in enough detail earlier.

At the end of the program, what does a President really need to know about science? The answer, it seems, is to choose a science advisor. Good to know. If you like, you can watch The President’s Guide to Science online with BBC iPlayer until next Tuesday, but frankly, I wouldn’t bother.

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 12 September 2008 at 3:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Evolution, Getting It Wrong

“No” is the answer that immediatly springs to mind, but comments made yesterday by director of education at the Royal Society, Professor Michael Reiss, have kicked up a bit of media storm.

Speaking during the BA Festival of Science at an event entitled “Should creationism be a part of the science curriculum?“, Reiss has been reported by (amongst others) the Times, the Guardian and the BBC as calling for creationism to be taught in science classes. Today, the Royal Society has put out a press release stating Reiss’s views have been misrepresented by the media. He issued the following clarification:

“Some of my comments about the teaching of creationism have been misinterpreted as suggesting that creationism should be taught in science classes. Creationism has no scientific basis. However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis. I have referred to science teachers discussing creationism as a worldview’; this is not the same as lending it any scientific credibility.”

What Reiss is basically saying is teachers should be able to respond to pupils who bring up creationism in their science lessons and explain to them why it is not a valid scientific theory, unlike evolution. As we saw in The Genius of Charles Darwin, when Richard Dawkins spoke to science teachers about challenging creationism in schools they were almost terrified of the idea.

Ducking the question is not a solution. As I stated in my review of the programme, evolution is not the enemy of religion. It’s a point worth labouring: evolution is not the enemy of religion. If you wish, you can choose to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who supposedly created the universe after “drinking heavily”, but evolution is not inconsistent with a creation myth. It doesn’t even contradict the idea that “man was created in God’s image” – God just took his time about it, starting with single celled organisms and letting it go from there. After all, he’s supposedly omnipotent and would know exactly which random mutations would lead to the human race.

I’m digressing. Creationism should not be taught in science lessons – that’s laughable. It’s right at home in a religious education class (or more properly, a personal and social education class), and science teachers could just deflect pupils’ questions to RE teachers. What’s wrong, however, with using those questions as a launching point for discussions on what we call “science”? Why is evolution a provable science fact, whilst creationism is not? Conversations such as these would go a lot further in improving a child’s scientific education than simply ignoring their questions.

Lord Robert Winston, also speaking at the BA Festival of Science, agrees that simply dismissing religion without discussion is “dangerous“, and criticises Dawkins and others for doing so:

“I would argue that the ‘God Delusion’ approach is actually very divisive because it is the one way surely of not winning over opposing views … Religious people can say, ‘look these guys just don’t understand us’.”

“We need to be much more sophisticated in how we handle these problems in our society and I don’t think the propositions of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and a number of other writers have really furthered useful healthy debate. I think actually they’ve limited it – that worries me”

You’ll never change anyone’s mind with simple “you’re wrong.” Show children the facts of evolution whilst pointing out their absence in creationism will allow them to make up their own mind – the approach taken by teacher David Campbell, who I praised at the start of the month, is definitely the way to go.

As for the media’s reporting on Reiss’s comments, I think journalists are often all too ready to whip up the debate between religion and science, especially when it comes to religion. Just a theory, of course.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 9 September 2008 at 2:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Physics

The Today programme had Professor Stephen Hawking on this morning, taking about (what else), the Large Hadron Collider. He reiterated much of what I’ve said this past week, namely micro black holes are unlikely to be produced, and even if they do crop up, we’re perfectly safe.

Hawking also agreed with my comments yesterday about the immediate benefits of the LHC, stating science for the sake of science is enough for now:

“Throughout history, people have studied pure science from a desire to understand the universe, rather than for practical applications, or commercial gain. But their discoveries have later turned out to have great practical benefits. It is difficult to see an economic return from research at the LHC, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any.”

He also pointed out that together the cost of the LHC and the space program (which Hawking also views as vital to the survival of the human race) cost less than 0.1% of world GDP – which we should easily afford. Hawking himself could be out of pocket, as he has a bet against the discovery of the Higgs boson – to the tune of $100. He thinks it would be more “exciting” not to find the Higgs, as it would mean something is wrong with the Standard Model of particle physics.

It’s good to hear from Hawking on the LHC. He’s arguably the most famous living physicist, even if many people remember him for his disability rather than his discoveries. Hopefully the general public will have read his books or seen him on TV, remembered him as an interesting and reasonably sane guy, and take his word for it – we’re not all going to die tomorrow, but we are witnessing an extremely important piece of science.

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2 Comments » Posted on Monday 8 September 2008 at 6:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Physics

It seems the media pendulum is swinging back in favour of the Large Hadron Collider, with both the Times and the Sun reporting the particle accelerator could lead to “improved cancer treatments, systems for destroying nuclear waste and insights into climate change.”

The claims, presumably put out by CERN as damage control, are pretty impressive. Apparently cancer cells could be destroyed using particle beams containing “protons, carbon ions and even antimatter.” Antimatter can be produced by the proton synchrotron, part of the system which accelerates beams before injecting them into the LHC, but I’m not really sure how that helps kill cancer. The LHC isn’t the first machine to create antimatter, so what is being done here that is new?

CERN will also use the proton synchrotron in a new laboratory investigating the interactions of cosmic rays and clouds. If cosmic rays fired into a “cloud chamber” form clouds, it could have “interesting implications.” Very promising, I’m sure.

I don’t really want to bash the guys at CERN, but come on. The similar wording in both articles indicates cribbing from a press release (although I can’t find one on CERN’s site) providing journalists with some tenuous links to hot issues in science, as away of getting some positive press for the LHC.

I’d rather see a spin on the actual science taking place at CERN, rather than some “maybes” around the periphery. Yeah, the discovery of the Higgs boson might not immediatly lead to some wonderful technological revolution, but that’s not what science is about. Imagine if Newton had publicised his explanation of gravity as “Great News For Farmers – A New Method Of Collecting Apples Is On The Way!” He had no way of knowing that his calculations would eventually be used to put men on the moon – that’s just not how science works.

CERN should be celebrating their efforts of discovery, not pandering to a fickle media – although if the LHC can make my whites “whiter than white”, I’m all for it.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 7 September 2008 at 2:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Mathematics, Psychology

Something doesn’t sound quite right

The type of music you like could be linked to your personality, suggests a study carried out by Professor Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University. Apparently fans of country and western are “hardworking, outgoing” whilst indie lovers are “low self-esteem, creative, not hard working, not gentle”. Sounds like a bunch of nonsense to me – what if you like both country and indie? I haven’t been able to find a published paper on the research, which might validate it a little more, but I’m not holding my breath.

Because I say so

In the latest of a series on statistics in the media, Michael Blastland talks about the pitfalls of causation and correlation. Just because event A occurred before event B, it does not mean that A caused B – and yet so many stories in the media report just that. One you should always watch out for, so have a read.

Fruit for thought

Finally, some amazing photos of fruit taken using a scanning electron microscope. The colours may be false, but its all still very pretty.

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3 Comments » Posted on Saturday 6 September 2008 at 6:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Physics

As we draw closer to the official “switching on” of the Large Hadron Collider, the mainstream media is increasingly running stories on the possibility of the destruction of the universe. A quick summary:

I can see the appeal of such stories. EARTH SUCKED INTO BLACK HOLE!!! is an impressive headline, and sure to shift a few newspapers. Unfortunately for editors, it’s just not going to happen. The LHC Safety Assessment Group have reviewed the dangers and found that there are “no reasons for concern.”

The LHC is the largest particle accelerator ever built, but that doesn’t mean that the collisions within it have never taken place before. In fact, cosmic rays have been colliding in the Earth’s atmosphere for billions of years, and have already generated the equivalent of a million LHC experiments. As you have probably notice, the planet still exists. Staggeringly, more than 10 million million – that’s 10,000,000,000,000 – LHC-like experiments are conducted every second across the universe.

The same goes for microscopic blank holes, which the media believe could sink to the centre of the Earth and consume us all. If that were true, it would have already happened, either here or else where in the universe. The continued existence of dense bodies such as neutron stars rules out this possibility, as they would attract “natural” microscopic black holes and be destroyed. Other exotic phenomena such as strangelets (hypothetical lumps of “strange matter”), vacuum bubbles and magnetic monopoles have also failed to occur during cosmic ray collision, so they’re ruled out as well.

All of these occurrence are what I mentally lump into the “too interesting to actually happen” category. They join things like alien invasions, teleportation and mind-reading. When you can make a decent sci-fi flick out of the concept, it probably isn’t going to happen.

So, why isn’t this being communicated by the majority of the mainstream media? The legal case filled by the likes of Professor Otto Rössler probably doesn’t help. Rössler, along with other scientists, submitted their case to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the LHC violates the rights to life and private family life which are provided under the European Convention of Human Rights. “Look,” says the media. “Even the boffins think this collider thingy will blow up the world. Someone stop the mad scientists!”

I have to wonder how many retractions will be printed come next Wednesday, when newspapers find that their offices are still around. Somewhere between none and zero, I reckon. The event will be ignored by the public at large, many of whom will say “oh, they just got lucky,” and continue to believe scientists will destroy us all.

1 Comment » Posted on Friday 22 August 2008 at 4:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong

David Bradley over at Sciencebase has written an interesting article on scientific stereotypes and the perception that science is only done by weird men in lab coats.

He mentions a survey performed by a team from Leicester University and Curtin University of Technology in Australia, where preliminary results have found that most children aged six to eight perceive scientists to be white, male, and endowed with crazy hair. Worryingly, many children say they don’t want to become a scientist when they grow up because scientists (supposedly!) never have any fun.

Lead researcher Tina Jarvis found that when asked to draw a scientist, boys never drew women and girls would only do so occasionally. Black and Asian children would also fall in line with stereotype and draw white scientists, rather than someone from their own ethnic background. Is it any wonder that science struggles to attract girls and members of ethnic minorities to the profession?

Perhaps not. I was listening to a discussion on PM on Radio 4 the other day, about how the elderly are discriminated against by “elderly people crossing” signs which depict them as frail and infirm. The guy from the road signs organisation (name escapes me, unfortunately) argued that whilst it would be possible to change to a more political correct sign, you would actually lose the usefulness of the sign.

Everyone knows what a frail old man with a walking stick represents, and I think it could be the same with the scientists. The children were asked to draw a scientist and sketched the stereotype so that they would be clearly understood. Marilyn Fleer, associate professor of education at the University of Canberra in Australia, agrees with me:

“Although there are still stereotypical responses given when children are asked to draw a scientist, if you interview them they will qualify their work by saying they had to draw it that way, so that you know what it is.”

The solution is to show children that the stereotype isn’t true, and all sorts of people end up as scientists. By encouraging them and demonstrating the fun in science, we’ll have a whole new generation of scientists – and I’m sure only some of them will have crazy hair.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 13 August 2008 at 3:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong

Prince Charles has once again struck out at genetically modified crops because he believes they will cause the “biggest disaster environmentally of all time.” This of course comes after his extensive testing of the effects of GM crops on the environment. Oh no wait, it doesn’t.

The Prince’s latest outburst completely ignores scientific consensus – a study lasting from 1996 to 2006 found that GM crops provided both economic and environmental benefits. A short summary:

  • GM crops have resulted in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, a major contributor to global warming, because the crops need less attention and farmers can use their tractors less. In 2006 this meant a reduction of 14.8 billion kg of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of removing over 6 million cars from the road for a year.
  • Economic benefits to farms planting GM crops totalled $33.8 billion over the study period, with an increase of $7 billion alone in 2006. Of the $33.8 billion, 43% of this was due to an increase in harvest thanks to insect resistant and herbicide tolerant engineered crops. Nearly half of this income (49%) went to farmers in developing countries.
  • Since 1996 an extra 53.3 million tonnes of soybeans and 47.1 million tonnes of corn have been produced. This extra production has meant lower prices and thus more affordable food for everybody.

What opponents of GM crops don’t seem to understand is that by turning public opinion against research is condemning millions of people to starvation and death. Crops can be engineered to grow more easily and with higher yields, as has already been demonstrated.

To those who say this will lead to “Frankenfoods”, I ask what they think of selective breeding. For millennia, farmers have selected the crops with the strongest resistance to disease, the fastest growing time, or the tastiest fruits, and breed them to encourage these characteristics. This is nothing more than brute force genetic modification, since genes are what determine a plants characteristics! Almost everything we eat has been “genetically modified” since agriculture began – and not always for a “good” reason.

Consider the humble carrot. Eaten in the millions every day, this innocent looking root vegetable hides a dark, dark past, for it was not always as it appears today. The carrot, that most orange of side dishes, used to in fact be purple – or even black, red, or yellow. It continued to be so until patriotic Dutch carrot farmers – evil genetic scientists that they are – decided to genetically modify an orange carrot by selective breeding, making it tastier in the process.

So the next time your crunch down on a carrot – beware! Its genetically modified attributes will turn your brain to mush and your liver to pudding. Or maybe it won’t, I don’t know. Ask Prince Charles, because he’s the expert.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 10 August 2008 at 7:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Getting It Wrong, Physics, Weekly Roundup

The Guardian reports on the Advertising Standards Authority’s decision to allow Miracle Gro to advertise their organic compost as “100% chemical free”. The ASA’s reasoning is that viewers understand the word “organic” to mean no man-made chemicals are used in the manufacture of a product, so the advert is permissible. I’m not quite sure how a compost without any chemicals would be beneficial to plants, so it seems Miracle Gro are playing on the commonly held beliefs that chemicals, particularly man-made chemicals are inherently bad, and “natural” and “organic” products are free from such nasty things. Tut tut.

Scientists at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York have used graphene, a material made from carbon that is one atom thick, to create the world’s smaller balloon. They produced membranes innumerable to gas that measured from 1 to 100 square micrometres in area and 0.25 to 3 micrometres deep. A micrometre is one millionth of a metre, meaning around 1.5 million of these balloons could fit on your thumbnail. If only they could work out a way to write “Happy Birthday” on them. Until then, the suggested uses of the balloons include tiny weighing devices and pressure sensors.

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 5 August 2008 at 5:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Last night Channel 4 showed the first part of a three part series, The Genius of Charles Darwin. Presented by biologist Richard Dawkins, it celebrates the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s great work, On The Origin of Species. If you missed it, you can watch it on the Channel 4 website for the next 7 days.

I found the programme interesting, but not without flaws. I know that Richard Dawkins is a militant atheist, but the manner in which he presented was sure to immediately annoy any religious viewers he was attempting to reach. The statistic is that 40% of the UK population reject Darwin’s theory of evolution, and these would be the people best served by the programme. I imagine he lost quite a few of them after the following opening:

I want to persuade you that evolution offers a far richer and spectacular view of life than any religious story. It’s one of the reasons I don’t believe in God.

He might as well have said “the cultural and spiritual traditions you have been brought up with are wrong, and you should immediatly turn you attention to me, for I am far, far more intelligent than you.” In fact, this is more or less what he said to a group of 16-year-olds as he attempted to teach them about religion. He had a fair point; just because you were brought up with a particular belief system does not make that belief system right, and if presented with reasonable evidence to the contrary any rational person should change their mind. The trouble is he was so confrontational that the students weren’t at all receptive to his message.

I am not religious in the slightest, indeed I am no fan of religion in any form. However, religious beliefs are so ingrained into the people who follow them that anyone disrespecting those beliefs are not likely to hold their interest for very long. If Dawkins’ aim was to communicate science, then why not leave room for God as the creator of natural selection? If you choose to believe that then you can agree with evolution without compromising your beliefs. I fear that at times during the programme science took a back seat to Dawkins’ agenda, and atheistic evangelism is just as distasteful as the religious variety.

Once we get past all this there is some nice content. Dawkins chronicles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, and follows in his footsteps to the famous Galápagos Islands where Darwin made many of his incredible discoveries. When we go back to the students, Dawkins has taken them to a beach to search for fossils. None of them look very impressed or interested – hardly the sign of someone learning.

Dawkins then visits Darwin’s own house, and uses his piano to illustrate the vast length of time over which evolution takes place. At one end of the piano, the origin of life. At the other, modern day. Up until just over half way along the keyboard, life consisted of nothing but bacteria. Dinosaurs are about 10 notes below the highest, with their extinction a mere five notes later. Apes and monkeys arrive on the highest note, and the whole of human history occupies a space less than the width of a piano string. It’s a great explanation, and not a mention of religion in sight.

Later on in the programme, Dawkins is talking to genetics with Craig Ventor, one of the scientists who mapped the human genome. They discuss how similarities in genetic code between species provide one of the greatest proofs that all life on Earth is related. Ventor utters “to me it’s not a theory any more.” How I wish he hadn’t. Evolution isn’t “just” a theory, it is a theory. The theory of evolution is our explanation of the observed phenomenon of natural selection. By saying “it’s not a theory any more” you play right in to the hands of anti-Darwinism and those who love to say “just a theory”. To his credit, Dawkins also seems a bit annoyed by this, stating that evolution is fact – which it is, as well as a theory.

In the end we return to the students. A few already agree with evolution, others may have been convinced, but some still dismiss it in favour of their religious beliefs. If they didn’t before, they now see evolution as a direct challenge to religion – which it is not, even if both Dawkins and fundamentalists wish to portray them as such. Sadly, Dawkins has failed to communicate to them the wondrous ideas behind evolution.

Next week’s episode looks to be about evolution as applied to human society – a subject I found myself wondering about as I watched this weeks episode. Do our advances in medicine and technology mean that “survival of the fittest” no longer applies to the human race? I look forward to finding out – just please, leave the religion bashing at the door.

3 Comments » Posted on Monday 4 August 2008 at 3:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong

This BBC article on “flat-earthers” – people who genuinely believe that the Earth is a flat disc – lead me to the Flat Earth Society forum. I was both amazed and horrified at what I found. Let me direct your attention to the Flat Earth FAQ.

The FE’ers, as they call themselves, believe that the governments of the world are engaged in a massive conspiracy to make us believe the world is round. NASA is in on it, and used the money they saved from not building rockets to develop “advanced computers and imaging software” with which they created fake photos of Earth. What is the purpose behind the conspiracy? “Probably money” – although I’m not quite sure where the profit is in this.

So what does our flat Earth look like? It has a circumference of 78,225 miles and a diameter of 24,900 miles. I’d expect the diameter of a flat Earth to be close to the circumference of the real Earth through the North pole so that the distance from the rim to the centre was the same as from pole to pole, and it appears that this is actually the case. At least the flat-earthers have their figures right.

The sun and moon above a flat Earth

The sun and moon are both 32 miles in diameter and circle 3,000 miles above the Earth. I guess the moon must produces its own light, since it certainly wouldn’t be able to reflect the sun’s light, otherwise there would be no night on flat Earth, and we can’t have that. Gravity doesn’t come in to play, instead flat Earth accelerates constantly upwards (without any form of propulsion), providing us with that familiar sinking feeling. A vast ice wall runs round the entire rim of the disc, and is guarded on behalf of the conspirators. I could go on, but I won’t.

I don’t know how you can get through to people who believe in this nonsense. By the time you’ve got to giant ice walls, logic seems to have been thrown out the window (or perhaps off the edge) and conversation is reduced to sticking your fingers in your ears whilst screaming “I’m right, I’m right!” until you lose all sense of reality.

I also don’t understand why you would even want to believe in a flat Earth. Does it somehow improve your sense of well being, knowing everyone is wrong as they potter about with their round world delusions? Do you hope to advance human knowledge of flat Earth by conducting experiments and sending expeditions to the ice wall? I just don’t know. It saddens me to say it, but I don’t think there is actually any way of convincing these people they are wrong. All you can do is point out the flaws in their logic, and hope no one else falls for it.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 28 July 2008 at 7:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

One of my science communication pet hates is stories about scientists discovering “the formula for x”, where x is a successful sitcom, why people vote, or happiness, just to name a few.

The latest culprit is PR agent Mark Borkowski who claims to have found a “scientific formula” for fame. The formula itself is given as follows:

F(T) = B+P(1/10T+1/2T2)

where:

F is the level of fame;

T is time, measured in three-monthly intervals. So T=1 is after three months, T=2 is after six months, etc. Fame is at its peak when T=0. (Putting T=0 into the equation gives an infinite fame peak, not mathematically accurate, perhaps, but the concept of the level of fame being off the radar is apposite.);

B is a base level of fame that we identified and quantified by analysing the average level of fame in the year before peak. For George Clooney, B would be a large number, but for a fabulous nobody, like a new Big Brother contestant, B is zero;

P is the increment of fame above the base level, that establishes the individual firmly at the front of public consciousness.

Not that it really matters, but this is terribly unclear. A more correct way to write it would be F(T) = B+(1/(10T)+1/(2T^2))*P, eliminating any ambiguity as to what each symbol means, but as with all of these stories scientific accuracy is not high on the agenda. Borkowski has made the same two mistakes that always crop up in these formulas – unmeasurable variables and confirmation bias.

The unmeasurable variables in this case are F, B, and P. T is time, where the units of T are periods of 3 months – not exactly orthodox, but still completely measurable. F, B and P however are measures of fame, for which I know of no scientific units. Perhaps fame is measured in the units of star power – solar luminosity.

Yes, I’m being facetious, but it is an important point. One of the greatest tools available to a scientist are the standard units of measurement known as SI units. I’ll talk about them in more depth another day, but they include metres, kilograms, and seconds – quantities we are all familiar with. This common set of units allow scientists to communicate their findings in a meaningful way, and the results of not confirming your units can be disastrous, as NASA discovered when they mixed up feet and metres, causing an unmanned spaceship to crash.

The other problem, confirmation bias, is an interesting one. It basically amounts to “people believe what they want to believe”, and it’s definitely in action here. Borkowski wanted to match Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame with his own 15 months of fame:

I started to wonder if Andy Warhol – an artist by calling but a master of the stunt and the soundbite – was right; does everyone get 15 minutes of fame? It occurred to me that it should be possible to look at fame statistically, to analyse the evidence we have all witnessed in the media, to see if fame’s decline can be quantified. The answer, I discovered, is that it can be, and that Warhol was partially right – but the first spike of fame will last 15 months, not 15 minutes.

In looking at fame “statistically”, it turns out that 15 months is exactly right! Well done, Borkowski.

This formula fits the data remarkably well, giving a precise numerical value to the 15-month theory: if I put in T=5 (corresponding to 15 months after the peak), it gives F=B+P(1/50+1/50), which works out at F=B+.04P. In other words, up to 96% of the fame-boost achieved at the peak of public attention has been frittered away, and the client or product is almost back to base level.

Of course, if you put in T = 6 (i.e. 18 months) you get F = B + 0.03P (rounding off the decimal point). Three months later, it appears our Big Brother contestant hasn’t really got much less famous than they were after 15 months. What about after two years, when T = 8? In that case, F = B + 0.02P – fame doesn’t really appear to be dropping off very quickly, does it? The claim that ‘the study showed pretty conclusively that any specific boost to fame is sustained for approximately 15 months…’ isn’t remotely conclusive – in fact, I’ve just show that you can reach an entirely different conclusion by choosing different values of T.

The reason I hate these formula stories with a passion is that they damage the public perception of science. The ideas they offer are meaningless, suggesting that all scientist do is sit around dunking biscuits in a quest for perfection. That story is nearly a decade old, so the junk equation is clearly not a new concept, and I don’t think we will be rid of it any time soon. So, the next time you see an article proclaiming that science has once more advanced, and we now know how to calculate the cuteness of puppies or the magic of rainbows, please do the only sensible thing – ignore it.

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