November 27, 2009

Regrettably, for personal reasons I am compelled to suspend this blog until further notice. I apologise for any inconvenience.

How Joanna Blythman got it wrong, part 5

November 19, 2009

This is the fifth in a series of articles in response to Joanna Blythman’s 8th November editorial from the Sunday Herald. For an explanation of what this is all about, see my first post.

Joanna Blythman is scientifically illiterate. This is not a wild accusation thrown out to smear her, it is my response to her published statements on scientific matters. In the previous post this was illustrated with Blythman’s misunderstanding of systematic review. In post number two Blythman’s selective quoting of evidence demonstrated a lack of understanding of the hierarchy of evidence. This impression is reinforced when she tried to refute the Food Standards Agency’s review with reference to a Newcastle study which it appears was not published in a peer-reviewed journal.

From Blythman’s perspective such arguments may appear to be mere pedantry or obfuscation, designed to discredit her. However they are fundamental and for someone of scientific literacy deal-breaking. Blythman is probably aghast at the arrogance of scientists when responding to non-scientist critiques of their work. Should she be?

Lest this blog should veer towards misogyny (we haven’t got onto Julia Stephenson yet) here is an illustration featuring two male celebrities; Jasper Carrott and Geoffrey Boycott.

Jasper Carrott has lent his support to a protest against a mobile phone mast in Dudley. He is quoted as saying,

“I am very concerned about the damage that these masts can do the health of people, particularly to children and pregnant women.”

He has also appeared in a film about his concern.

Concerns over mobile phones and glioma risk have been around for some time. For anyone familiar with the electromagnetic spectrum they shouldn’t be. Mobile phones operate at a variety of frequencies, but all in the range of about 900 to 2100 Megahertz (million cycles per second). This puts them in the microwave range. We know that the energy in an electromagnetic wave increases with increasing frequency, as given by the expression;


If mobile phones (or for that matter wi-fi networks) were to be a cancer risk to humans then all radiation with a higher frequency would have to be a greater risk.
This would include infra-red healing lamps and perhaps more importantly (given their proximity to the head in use) infra-red hair straighteners. I’m not aware that anyone is worried about the tumour risks of hair straighteners.

The next, even more risky activity would be standing on the inside of your French windows in daylight (visible light without UV). Going outside in the sun with adequate UV protection would also have to be hazardous, and the sensible use of UV tanning beds within their safe operating parameters would be worse still.

Addendum. Still unconvinced? Consider this: if you held an infra-red lamp to your rheumatic back for an extemely long time, you would probably get extremely uncomfortable but you would not give yourself sunburn. By contrast a shorter exposure to a UV lamp would carry a high risk of sunburn, as the individual rays are more energetic. A good analogy can be seen in this document on page 5

Geoffrey Boycott famously survived an aggressive tumour in his mouth, and it is not my intention to say anything unkind about the man. Although I can’t reference it, I heard him during a lean spell during the commentary on Test Match Special declare that he avoids mobile phones because of health concerns. Of course the man is entitled to all the caution he wants to take after his ordeals, but the fact that he seems never to venture outdoors without a hat is probably, in an almost literal sense, more than a million times more important (see paragraph “cell phones can not cause cancer”).

This is I think an important issue. For a scientifically-literate commenter who faces the concerns of people worried about mobile phones there is a reasonable theoretical basis for dismissing such concerns. Such a dismissal may have a sound basis but it is easy to see it can be interpreted as arrogant and not considered. Whereas it often seems that scientists will brook no criticism from lay people, many times the concerns falter on scientific principles such as this.

Of course it may be possible that this theoretical justification is wrong. It may be that mobile phones can cause cancer. But if so it will overturn an understanding of electromagnetic radiation which has survived for about 100 years. Thus the bar for concern should be set pretty high. So far nothing very convincing to suggest harm has appeared. The Precautionary Principle is inappropriate here.

Julia Stephenson (told you!) declared war on “electrosmog” after coming to believe her wi-fi network was making her ill. Her article in the Independent was riddled with scientific errors. She said at one point,

Even cordless hands-free home telephones … are now off-limits. Their electrical force-field is nearly as powerful as that of a mobile phone. Since I’m now chained to a phone on a lead, my cupboards are filthy and my friends are neglected. But at least I’m less radioactive.

I would like to think Stephenson was using “radioactive” metaphorically there — as a joke about her “improved state”. But I’m not sure she understands the difference between radioactivity and radiation. A few people made scientifically sound criticisms of her letter (and this rather more trenchant criticism).

Stephenson responded with a whining rebuttal which has in turn been roundly condemned as well. But there seems to be a tendency to characterize all science-based critiques as an ad hominem assault, or an attempt to silence dissent. Where there is no grasp of the technical frailties being exposed, it all seems a bamboozling attempt at attacking you.

What to do about it? I wish I knew.

How Joanna Blythman got it wrong, part 4

November 16, 2009

The fourth instalment of the series of articles criticizing Joanna Blythman’s editorial from the Sunday Herald of November 8th. For an explanation of what this blog is about, see part 1, or the About page.

Blythman’s article from the Herald is both angry and dismissive in in tone. She describes David Nutt as being “in a huff” and threatening to “flounce off” to form a new advisory body. His colleagues are described as “mutinous and militant”, and “his indignant allies”.

Given this combative approach it might seem surprising that she then takes scientists to task for their poor response to non-scientists who challenge their recommendations. Following her own intemperate language about her opponents, she castigates them for theirs. Never mind, maybe Blythman’s own response to criticisms will teach us how it should be done.

I’m not aware of an article where Blythman has responded to criticism of her own statements (if she ever stumbles across this blog I may find out), but when the Food Standards Agency published a systematic review of the nutritional content of organic foods in July 2009, Blythman wrote a response for the Daily Mail. It starts;

The food industry, in alliance with pharmaceutical and big biotechnology companies, has waged a long, often cynical campaign to convince the public that mass-produced, chemically-assisted and intensively-farmed products are just as good as organic foods, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
The latest assault in this propaganda exercise comes from the Food Standards Agency, the government’s so-called independent watchdog, which has just published a report claiming that there is no nutritional benefit to be gained from eating organic produce.

That’s pretty much an ad hominem right off the bat, wouldn’t you say? Alliance with industry, a cynical campaign, a propaganda exercise — the tone is set before reaching for evidence to substantiate the accusations. Blythman portrays the FSA as swinging into line behind the Goliath of the conventional food industry against the poor beleaguered organic David with its measly £2.1bn turnover. There’s an expression I can’t quite remember which might help here, something about pots and kettles. Ah, yes…

Hilariously, Blythman then tries to pour scorn on the FSA report by saying it contains nothing new, and is simply a re-hash of previous work–a “second-hand study”, she calls it.

Well, duh. A systematic review is a construct which seeks out all available studies on a topic and evaluates them methodically to provide a comprehensive answer to the research question. See here or here for definitions. A systematic review sets out in advance criteria for inclusion of a study — quality thresholds, for example. If a study is so poorly designed and executed that its findings can be relied on it is not included. The criteria for including and excluding studies are explicitly declared before the study search takes place, rather than being applied retrospectively.

So for Blythman to protest that the review has no new data is to misunderstand or misrepresent completely the aim of the study. If she doesn’t know what a systematic review is supposed to be then she should find out. She’s a journalist, isn’t she? If she does understand the role of a systematic review then she is relying on her readers’ lack of knowledge so she can fool them into thinking the review is unimportant. Which is it to be, incompetence or duplicity? There are no other explanations.

I don’t intend to cover the many factual and statistical inaccuracies in her Daily Mail article, as that’s already been done very well here and here. What I do want to point out is the relentless use of language meant to insinuate the dishonesty of the FSA throughout the piece. If Blythman wants to get better press from scientists, she has to give more honest press to them.

In the next post I will talk about a possible reason why non-scientist critics of science and technology feel they are badly treated by scientists responding to their objections, with a detour into the strange world of Julia Stephenson.

How Joanna Blythman got it wrong, part 3

November 15, 2009

As before, throw six to start if you want to know what I think I’m doing here.

After her introduction Joanna Blythman gets stuck in to the issue of ‘consensus’;

As is often the case with the scientific dogmas of the day, the so-called scientific consensus is a lot shakier than it appears… even within the scientific community, indeed on the self-same advisory body, there are dissenting voices.

This should surprise no-one. There is a multitude of research into cannabis and other illicit drugs, of vastly different scope and size — and quality. It would be a great shock if all of this pointed to the same conclusion about harm. Indeed if the evidence was coherent and pointed the same way why would we need the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD)? The correct recommendation would be obvious to everyone.

It is an extremely simple matter, therefore, to present some evidence which seems to contradict the consensus view of the ACMD. It’s even easier if you’re not going to appraise the evidence you quote for the robustness of its findings (this is not meant to cast any doubt on the validity of Professor Robin Murray’s longitudinal study, which I will look at in another post). Selectively quoting single items of evidence which give the answer you want to hear doesn’t sound much like healthy scepticism to me — more like the bolstering of a dogma.

The same approach can be seen in this post from Ann Widdecombe. Personally, if I found out I was on the same side of the argument as the Right Irrational Member for Maidstone and the Weald I would take that as a sign to reconsider urgently my position, but I’ll leave that aside for two reasons;

  1. Orwell said that some things are true even though the Daily Express says they are, so it doesn’t pay to be too rigid about those you normally disagree with
  2. I don’t want to damn Blythman simply by the company she keeps, unwittingly or otherwise. I hope to argue reasonably and not resort to a kind of “ad hominem by association”, even though I hope to demonstrate later that Blythman is not above using fallacious arguing techniques such as ad hominem.

It’s worth noting that both Blythman and Widdecombe quote research which supports their position but don’t cite it, so the reader can’t track down the original research to check its validity. This matters because the interpretation given by a newspaper to an article you can’t see could misprepresent or distort it and you wouldn’t be able to tell.

I should point out at this stage that I’m not interested in the Government classification of cannabis per se, which has been done to death in countless other places. What I’m interested in the opportunism which took this row as a pretext to peddle a dreadful article about scientists and health policy in general. So any comments about the relative harms or otherwise of particular drugs are likely to be ignored.

The ACMD examined probably several hundred, possibly a few thousand probably took into consideration hundreds of articles about cannabis.These would have ranged from animal investigations to epidemiological research et cetera. As well as this it listened to oral contributions from interested parties. It assessed all of these for relevance and for the reliability of their findings. At the end of it the Council made a recommendation. It’s fine to disagree with the recommendation, as some within the scientific community have done, but to imagine that flagging up a single piece of evidence means you’ve discredited the whole review is naive in the extreme.

How Joanna Blythman got it wrong, part 2

November 14, 2009

If you haven’t seen it yet, you will need to read part 1 first to understand what is going on here.

Let’s start with Blythman’s early paragraph about the merit of scientific inquiry;

Like many scientists, he thinks he deals in absolute fact, offering a rock-solid “evidence-based” scientific “truth” that trumps all other perspectives – social, moral, political – and which is superior to other types of knowledge we might bring to bear on our decisions, such as intuition, experience, observation, or even common sense.

Actually, it is. Intuition, experience, observation and common sense are all very well, but all of them are inevitably coloured by the subjectivity of the individual. Scientific enquiry is all about eliminating subjective elements to uncover objective truths.

Common sense would tell you that the World is flat, because (barring the odd lumpy bit such as the Himalayas or the Cotswolds) it looks flat, especially at the coast. Inductive reasoning would lead you to think, “well, hang on… if I see a ship appear over the horizon the mast is visible before the hull. So maybe the sea isn’t flat but very slightly curved.” Common sense would certainly lead you to suppose the Sun travels round the Earth.

Many of the findings of mathematics or science are counter-intuitive. A classic example is the Monty Hall problem.

Suppose you’re on a game show and you’re given the choice of three doors. Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats [that is, booby prizes]. The car and the goats were placed randomly behind the doors before the show. The rules of the game show are as follows: After you have chosen a door, the door remains closed for the time being. The game show host, Monty Hall, who knows what is behind the doors, now has to open one of the two remaining doors, and the door he opens must have a goat behind it. If both remaining doors have goats behind them, he chooses one randomly. After Monty Hall opens a door with a goat, he will ask you to decide whether you want to stay with your first choice or to switch to the last remaining door. Imagine that you chose Door 1 and the host opens Door 3, which has a goat. He then asks you “Do you want to switch to Door Number 2?” Is it to your advantage to change your choice?

As the player cannot be certain which of the two remaining unopened doors is the winning door, most people assume that each of these doors has an equal probability and conclude that switching does not matter. In fact, the player should switch—doing so doubles the probability of winning the car from 1/3 to 2/3.

Thanks to Wikipedia for that

To emphasise the counter-intuitive nature of this paradox it is worth pointing out that when Parade magazine published the problem and solution (admittedly in a truncated form which was slightly ambiguous), many graduates including mathematicians wrote in complaining that the solution was wrong.

You might think about this if you’re ever a contestant on Deal or No Deal. With all the variables of so many prizes involved intuition is bound to trip you up.

Quantum mechanics is more or less an affront to common sense, but without it there would be no transistors, and eventually no digital computers. Without digital computers there would of course be no World Wide Web. So we have the delicious irony that you can view the Sunday Herald’s website via a medium which no knowledge system other than science could produce, where you can read Joanna Blythman denying the special status of science ahead of other knowledge systems.

How Joanna Blythman got it wrong, part 1

November 14, 2009

In the aftermath of the sacking of Professor David Nutt by Alan Johnson, the journalist Joanna Blythman wrote a comment piece for the Sunday Herald attacking Nutt and the scientific community who had rallied to his support. The Blythman article is in my view such a sprawling collection of inaccuracy, dogma, scientific illiteracy and frankly ad hominem abuse that it perfectly exempifies many of the huge problems inherent in science journalism today. This sort of problem is discussed regularly by, among others, Ben Goldacre at Bad Science. Blythman’s article has prompted me to start this blog, partly as a case study and partly out of disgust that such tendentious nonsense could be published by an apparently serious newspaper.

My aim with this blog is to place posts here exploring aspects of the Blythman editorial to highlight the errors it contains. Obviously this means that the blog will be fairly short-lived. On the other hand some other anti-scientific claptrap may well have come along by then and I may want to rant about that. We’ll see.