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Date published: 2010/01/30

GM Policy in Developing Regions (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge branch of Triple Helix ("a student society that aims to raise the standard of debate surrounding issues of science and technology in society") held a panel debate on "GM Policy in Developing Regions: Yielding Much?" the evening of 28 January in Cambridge.

The title of the debate is already pretty telling. GM is relevant to the world, not just the "developing" regions. Unfortunately the anti-GM brigade has long since hijacked the political debate about GM crops, and scientists in the UK have long since given up on trying to promulgate its use here. Fortunately the debate was global in scope, i.e. the official title was ignored.

The four panellists were David Baulcombe, a professor of Botany in Cambridge (but who spent most of his career at the University of East Anglia in Norwich); Adrian Dubock, who works on the "Golden Rice" project; Dick Taverne, a Lib Dem peer who has taken an interest in science; and Tony Juniper, ex-head of Friends of the Earth in the UK and currently the Green candidate to be the next MP of Cambridge. The chair was Gerard Evan, the recently appointed head of the Department of Biochemistry in Cambridge.

The panel was stacked three to one for GM, so Juniper was the lone "sceptic" voice. But in terms of stridency it was one against one, since Dubock and Baulcombe played the reasonableness card and it was left to Taverne to speak a few home truths. In this three-against-one circumstance the reasonableness card was a reasonable strategy, but in general, the anti-GM brigade are so strident that there is no point treating them with kid gloves. (This is the mistake the Democrats make in America when discussing policy with the Republicans. The Republicans are not interested in analysis but in dogma. There is no point being nice to them.)

Evan started out by giving potted biographies of the panellists. Amusingly enough he had obviously never heard of Juniper because he admitted to looking him up on google. Well, Evan has been at UCSF for the last decade so that's not too surprising. On the other hand, Juniper thinks of himself as the most important environmentalist in the UK, if not the world, so he was probably amazed that not everyone knows who he is.

The panellists were then given ten minutes to put their sales pitch.

Juniper went first. He's swimming against the tide of history on GM, like Tony Blair on Iraq, but, like Tony Blair on Iraq, he will never admit he was and is wrong. This is unfortunate because he's a clever enough chap that he could actually make a positive contribution to the world and not just be someone who stops progress.

He started out by saying that industrial agriculture has not brought about the end of hunger in the world so why would anyone think that GM would help. Well, given that he is one of the people responsible for blocking GM technology at every opportunity, it's a bit rich for him to complain that people are starving.

He insisted on using that dreadful phrase "sustainable development" several times. Well that buzz phrase just means anything you want it to mean. For Juniper it means using "traditional methods" in farming, i.e. going back in agricultural techniques a couple of hundred years.

He put down a few reasons why he was against GM. He was worried about loss of biodiversity. But that is an issue that is mostly orthogonal, although obviously relevant, to GM technology. Juniper purposefully conflated the issue. And needless to say, the biggest threat to biodiversity is the ever increasing human population and associated issues like climate change. Juniper himself has contributed to the ever increasing human population so he presumably doesn't want to discuss that issue.

He then mentioned that he once had had a public health concern about GM but that he was less concerned now about this. But this is the issue that he and his fellow travellers in the anti-GM brigade used to destroy the introduction of GM foods into Britain. ("Frankenstein foods" and all that.) So he and his media enablers really owe an apology to the nation. He was completely wrong on this, the headline issue. (Of course some GM foods in some circumstances will cause some disaster or other, but that's true about every technology on the planet.)

He then claimed that there was an ethical argument against allowing GM crops in the UK, but this really was a completely bogus argument. The "organic" food lobby has arbitrarily decided that GM crops are not "organic". And if you equate "organic" with "19th century" then technically this is true. As a result of this decision, if even trace amounts of GM pollen land in an "organic" field, then that crop is no longer deemed to be "organic".

Juniper used this to argue that allowing GM crops would harm people's choice about food. Of course this is completely backwards. By disallowing GM crops he has prevented people from having the choice to eat it. Why should the entire country be held to ransom by the blackmail of a religious cult which has decided that odd bits of DNA are against their religious beliefs?

He then went onto his next complaint about GM, and this one seemed to be the real reason he is so anti-GM. And this is that large companies (e.g. Monsanto) were making money out of GM. Juniper cannot seem to cope with the concept of corporations and particularly of corporations that make money. During the question and answer session at the end he made it quite clear that his real "solution" to global poverty was to smash the international capitalist system since evidently that will set the peasants free.

It is unfortunate that Monsanto in particular made such a disastrous series of decisions on GM food and IPR in the 1990s, because it played right into the hands of people like Juniper.

Juniper briefly mentioned something called the IAASTD (the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development). Apparently this was supposed to be a global attempt to come to grips with the problem of agriculture in the developing world. It included the companies that were pushing for GM but at some point it evidently became clear to them that the report was going to be anti-GM so they pulled out.

Not surprisingly the Juniper spin on this was that the pro-GM lobby was afraid of "evidence based science". But it seems that the real problem was that the IAASTD was dominated by non-scientists, in particular social scientists. Juniper was keen to mention that the IAASTD director is Bob Watson, who is also Chief Scientific Adviser to DEFRA. He's a real scientist (which is presumably why Juniper mentioned it) but a climate scientist, not a food scientist.

Juniper next claimed that the key to farming was "soil". Well, that's not saying very much, and the way he said it rather sounded like the chap in The Graduate saying that the future was in "plastics". But apparently, if we use "traditional farming methods" not only will we feed the world but we will also sequester lots of carbon in the soil.

He ended by claiming, apparently with a straight face, not to be against GM technology. Perhaps his next career will be in stand-up.

David Baulcombe was next up. He plugged a Royal Society group that he chaired that produced a report called Reaping the benefits: Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture, whose time horizon was the next 30 to 40 years.

This report was pro-GM but only as one of many technologies. And throughout his talk and afterwards Baulcombe had to keep emphasising that GM was only one technology and that it wouldn't solve all the world's problems. This is how defensive scientists have had to become over GM. It's ridiculous.

One of the problems for the planet is that there are not large areas of uncultivated land that are available for food production (if you ignore areas like the Amazon forest which obviously you don't really want to use for that). So somehow we need to get more from the same or less. But he claimed that current high yields are often based on "unsustainable" practises. (He didn't choose to name any.)

Another problem is water supply for agriculture (and everything else, for that matter) due to climate change.

And he showed a graph which projected that the planet would now be facing a divergence between supply and demand for food. If true, a lot more people are going to be starving the next decade or two.

He went through a list of GM technologies that are already being used, that will shortly be used and that will come along in due course.

For example, he mentioned the possibility of increasing photosynthetic efficiencies. And of possibly having "perennial crops", so avoiding having to plant, plough, etc., every year.

Because of the Juniper anti-capitalist diatribe, at the end Baulcombe mentioned that GM does not have to be owned by big business. And he plugged Cambia, an organisation dedicated to putting GM technology into the public domain. It's not clear if this is the one organisation that will lead the way into achieving this, but it's a very important point.

Many years ago the UK was one of the main partners in the decoding of the human genome. Because of this effort this information was made available to the public domain. If it had not been for the UK public effort, a lot of this information might have become commercialised, and progress in science would have been held hostage. There were many people involved in pushing the research forward in the UK, in particular John Sulston, the then director of the Sanger Centre, where most of the British side of the work was done.

The UK should have made the same effort on GM technology. There is no reason that equal success could not have been achieved (although it's not such a tightly defined field). Unfortunately, there were no visionaries like John Sulston in the GM arena. Instead we had Tony Juniper and the rest of the anti-GM brigade, who decided to halt progress. The UK will live to regret this.

Next up was Adrian Dubock. He is the Project Manager for the Golden Rice project. The underlying problem that they are trying to address is that the part of rice that is eaten by humans does not contain Provitamin A (β-carotene), and so can lead to Vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Dubock quoted some grim statistics.

A quarter of a million people are blinded, and 1 to 2 million people die every year because of VAD. To put some emotion into these numbers, Dubock noted that this is equivalent to two 9-11 attacks every day, and to the December 2004 tsunami deaths every month or two, and the Holocaust even got a mention. It is unfortunate that pro-GM people feel the need to use such emotional comparisons, but this is what the anti-GM brigade have forced upon the world.

And apparently half the world's population gets 80% of its calorific intake from rice, so this is obviously a major reason for VAD.

A couple of German professors (one working in Switzerland), Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, figured out how to insert genes into rice so that Provitamin A is contained in the part of rice that is eaten. They have in effect made the IPR public domain. Further, Syngenta and other companies (including Monsanto) also donated some of their IPR for the project. The project has also been supported financially by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation and others.

How could anyone object to this effort? Well they can, and when asked later about it, Tony Juniper refused point blank to say anything positive about it, instead saying he was worried about biodiversity and commercial gain. Well, there is no commercial gain for the Golden Rice project itself, although obviously there eventually might be gain for farmers who take this on board. (But Juniper seems to hate farmers who use GM almost as much as he hates Monsanto.) And the idea is to cross-breed with local varieties (apparently there are 20000 rice varieties in the world). Bizarrely enough, it almost seemed as if Juniper didn't know anything about the Golden Rice project, so couldn't come up with any real criticism, but he's supposed to be an "expert" on these matters, so perhaps that was a mistaken impression.

It's not at all clear if this project will succeed, even if the anti-GM brigade don't manage to sink it. First of all, as the name implies, the rice is golden. And white rice is what most people eat. It remains to be seen if that social hurdle can be overcome.

The project is doing some market research in the Philippines to try and understand how they might be able to market it. Unbelievably in certain areas the locals are all hostile up front because Greenpeace has so scared them into believing that all GM technology is bad.

There are of course alternatives, and Dubock, like Baulcombe, was cautious again and again to say that this wasn't the total solution to VAD. One alternative is Vitamin A supplements. Apparently USAID has been distributing pills since 1993, but it doesn't reach everywhere, and it seems it is much more expensive than Golden Rice. And similarly with fortified food.

Of course there is also the Tony Juniper alternative of smashing the international capitalist conspiracy.

The final speaker was Dick Taverne. He's a British eccentric, of the sort that seems to be dying out. His degree was in philosophy (over half a century ago) and he was the only non-scientist on the panel. He quipped that he was not a scientist but that he was married to a scientist.

He is chair of some organisation called Sense about Science, which campaigns for GM as well as other things. They published some book called "Sense about GM" (which Dubock later recommended).

His most amusing moment was when he compared the anti-GM brigade to the climate change sceptics. Poor old Juniper, being compared to another bunch of reactionary crazies. Perhaps, in spirit of this, we should start to use the phrase "GM deniers".

Taverne was scathing about Peter Melchett of the Soil Association (which is the biggest determiner in the UK of what is "organic" food). Apparently Melchett was asked by some parliamentary committee about GM and he said that no evidence would change his opposition to it. You can imagine saying something like that when you are drunk at a party with like-minded friends. Otherwise it is just plain dumb.

Taverne was scathing about Prince Charles, and his views about the "wisdom of nature". Taverne noted that "the whole of agriculture is unnatural". (Dubock repeated this later.)

Taverne was scathing about Doug Parr, the chief scientist of Greenpeace, for apparently going around Africa telling them not to "repeat Europe's mistakes" (like being able to feed its population).

Rather than shirk away from the profit motive of companies, as Baulcombe did, Taverne took this head on. So what is wrong with making money, he asked. Companies that sell medicine make money, and the world doesn't get (too) hysterical about that. And some of them use the same GM technology, for example with insulin for diabetics. Taverne claimed that 25% of drugs sold are GM in some way.

Juniper later came back to this point. So he claimed that the difference with medicine was that that was "needed" whereas GM food was not. Well that is just ridiculous. Juniper of course is happy to benefit from novel medicines, so he thinks these are "necessary". But Juniper is rich and well fed, so he personally doesn't need GM food. But to extrapolate that to the world is rather Juniper-centric.

Taverne claimed that most GM research was now being done in China and India and that China was making breakthroughs in GM rice. Well, it's a trivial lesson from history that cultures that turn their back on technology are cultures that decline, and the inverse is also true. Juniper thinks that the UK is too rich so he's probably happy for the UK to go downhill. Unfortunately there are far too many people like him in positions of influence in the UK (the major national newspapers, the BBC, etc.).

Taverne said that organic food was more expensive not because people were being ripped off (although that is probably part of it) but because it is just so much less efficient. Well, if for some reason it was just as efficient when you included all externalities then that would be fine. But it's hard to know if that's true or not since it's hard to find someone honest who is competent enough to analyse the situation.

Taverne finished by saying that the only thing "sustainable development" sustained was poverty.

After this the floor was opened up to questions from the audience. The initial batch was supposed to be about "clarifications" but it soon became obvious it might as well just be a free for all.

It's hard to tell exactly the split in the audience, but certainly there were plenty of biotech-type students and the like, but the questioning did not get heated.

There was one questioner who was obviously anti-GM and he bizarrely wanted to know if Juniper was an environmentalist or an ecologist, as if somehow that was relevant to the discussion. But then he also mentioned the so-called precautionary principle, and wondered how Taverne could promote action on climate change but not against GM foods based on this "principle". Taverne correctly answered that the precautionary principle was a "load of bollocks". And indeed, it is only used by people who don't have a real argument against something but don't like it and want to stop it. Funnily enough, Juniper then piped in to say that he was all for it, and that is indeed the kind of intellectual depth behind most of his arguments.

Patents came up. Dubock said that even though in theory companies have patented their technology, in practise patents were only ever issued in the rich country markets. And he also said that one of the problems today, thanks to Tony Juniper and his friends, is that there is vast over-regulation of the GM market so that mostly companies are the ones who can afford to jump through the hoops to bring something to market, and not so much public sector bodies.

Dubock said that in his view the anti-GM brigade hijacked the debate starting at the Rio conference in 1992. And Juniper then claimed he was there and seemed to be proud of it. (But don't the Green Party hate aviation? Perhaps he sailed there. Or perhaps it's ok for him to fly, just not the peasants.)

Taverne claimed that the cost of bring a GM product to market was 40 times that for a conventional product, and this was not down to any reason except that the regulations had been set up like that thanks to Tony Juniper and his friends.

Rather than GM as a way of producing more food on less land, Juniper has other "solutions". So apparently a third of food is wasted in the UK and obviously if that was dramatically cut then that would help. Well, obviously nobody is going to argue against that. Unfortunately, as one might expect, he mentioned "cheap food" as the source of this waste. Well, certain people in the UK will not be happy until the peasants are once more spending most of their income on food and/or starving.

Juniper also spoke out against meat eating, a policy which would get less widespread support, even in the developing countries whose citizens he seems to be more concerned about. Funnily enough, he didn't mention anything about not having children, although that is far worse for the environment than meat eating. Perhaps this is because he has children.

And he launched into a standard academic middle class rant about the "debt-fuelled consumer society" (funnily enough, he doesn't look poor). And he wanted a "culture change". Well the only way to read this is that he, the superior intellectual, knows better than the British peasants how the British peasants should behave, and if they don't behave then he would be happy to send them to re-education camps.

He also had a good rant against GM soya being fed to farm animals so that the British (and American) peasants could eat meat (but what does that have to do with GM?), and that a lot of food was now being used for biofuels (ditto). Dubock picked up on this and said that people were working on trying to make GM bioethanol from cellular waste.

Juniper claimed that pesticide use with GM was up and Taverne claimed it was down. Well, it probably depends on how you measure "use".

Juniper had one stab at playing to the crowd. So there was a question about the public funding of GM research. And for once Juniper said something sane. He was for more public research. But it seems that the only reason he was for more public research was because it was "public" rather than because it was "research". So evidently Juniper has never seen a public sector worker he didn't like. If he could entirely squeeze the private sector into nothing he would be a happy man.

Bizarrely enough, Cambridge University has hired Juniper as some kind of consultant, presumably for great sums of money. (Profits for Juniper = Good. Profits for Monsanto = Bad.) Why did the university do this? It's hard to see why other than as greenwash.

Americans dislike social health care allegedly because of the ruling elite (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Republicans' shock victory in the election for the US Senate seat in Massachusetts meant the Democrats lost their supermajority in the Senate. This makes it even harder for the Obama administration to get healthcare reform passed in the US.

Political scientist Dr David Runciman looks at why is there often such deep opposition to reforms that appear to be of obvious benefit to voters.

Last year, in a series of "town-hall meetings" across the country, Americans got the chance to debate President Obama's proposed healthcare reforms.

What happened was an explosion of rage and barely suppressed violence.

Polling evidence suggests that the numbers who think the reforms go too far are nearly matched by those who think they do not go far enough.

But it is striking that the people who most dislike the whole idea of healthcare reform - the ones who think it is socialist, godless, a step on the road to a police state - are often the ones it seems designed to help.
...
Why are they manning the barricades to defend insurance companies that routinely deny claims and cancel policies?
...
If people vote against their own interests, it is not because they do not understand what is in their interest or have not yet had it properly explained to them.

They do it because they resent having their interests decided for them by politicians who think they know best.

There is nothing voters hate more than having things explained to them as though they were idiots.

It's hard to believe that anyone who wants to pass himself off as a political scientist could write such a silly article. Sure the ruling elite are obnoxious. But the Republican ruling elite are even more obnoxious than the Democrat ruling elite. Runciman completely ignores the role of the media (in particular Fox). And the health insurance industry is not going to throw away its pocketing of a seventh of American income without a fight, so it further feeds the media bias with advertising (not to mention that they have also bribed most of Congress). Runciman is treating BBC readers "as though they were idiots".

20 mph speed limit for central Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

A 20mph speed limit in central Cambridge has been given the go-ahead.

Motorists in Cambridge's "core area" will be forced to go slow from March after the 12-month trial scheme was approved by city and county councillors.

Members of Cambridge's traffic management area joint committee voted unanimously to support the £50,000 accident reduction scheme at a meeting at Shire Hall.

The scheme will include all roads inside the Cambridge inner ring road of Queen's Road, Fen Causeway, Lensfield Road, Gonville Place, East Road, Victoria Avenue and Chesterton Road.
...
The trial scheme follows a two-month consultation by Cambridgeshire County Council, in which it received no objections to the plans and seven letters of support.
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James Woodburn, spokesman for Cambridge Cycling Campaign, welcomed the new limit.

He said: "Streets are not just for cars - they are for everyone.

You never know, this might help. But there is no indication that this will help. During the day it's hard to believe anyone can even get up to 20 mph never mind 30 mph. During the night nobody is on the road. Hopefully the county bureaucrats have done some analysis to indicate that this measure will help, but their track record is not good on this score. Cost - benefit analysis is not part of their lexicon.

The fact that only seven people answered the consultation is as good a sign as any that the consultation was not publicised, because they didn't really care what people thought. (And all consultations they do are pretty fatuous, so it's not as if this one was really any different.)

There are two main motivations for this policy. The first is that the Cambridge ruling elite hate car drivers (excepting themselves of course). The second is that the Cambridge transport bureaucrats have to constantly come up with new schemes in order to justify their existence.

And since Woodburn wants to be patronising, he should remember that "streets are not just for bicycles - they are for everyone".

Tony Blair sticks two fingers up to the British public (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has said the Iraq war made the world a safer place and he has "no regrets" about removing Saddam Hussein.

In a robust defence of his decision to back war, Mr Blair said Saddam was a "monster and I believe he threatened not just the region but the world."

Ever the lawyer, Blair will never admit to doing any wrong. For one thing, it might open the way to prosecution. For another, it would reduce how much money he could make on the American lecture circuit. Whatever, he started an illegal war which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and cost billions and billions of pounds. There is nothing honourable about his involvement in this fiasco.

Date published: 2010/01/23

Science and the Media (permanent blog link)

The 2010 Darwin College Lectures are about Risk. The second lecture occurred on 22 January and was by Ben Goldacre, a columnist for the Guardian and author of Bad Science. The title of his talk was "Risk: Science and the Media". Well, the subject of Risk was pretty much missing from his talk but it didn't really matter since he had a lot to say about Science and the Media.

Goldacre is evidently fairly well known because all three halls used for the lectures were full already ten minutes before the lecture was due to start (it started a quarter of an hour late because he got stuck in the Cambridge traffic).

Goldacre is full of energy and confidence, so much so that he doesn't really seem British, although he is. He's a (junior) doctor working for the NHS but evidently his gift of the gab has introduced him to opportunities in the media. In this lecture, at least, he jumped around from topic to topic with barely time for a breath in between.

His main point (which is not news) was that the media do a terrible job at reporting science (with some exceptions), and that all they are interested in is fantasy and sensationalism. And this is not only true of the usual tabloid suspects, but also of the allegedly serious newspapers and the BBC. And this particularly happens on matters of health, which, not surprisingly, given his background, is what he discussed. The media has an obsession with miracle cures and scare stories and alleged breakthroughs.

The media is also corrupt. So PR companies will plant stories with the media on behalf of their corporate clients. So stories about the alleged saddest day of the year appearing at the beginning of January are down to some holiday company or other wanting people to start buying their summer holidays, and stories about the alleged happiest day of the year appearing in the summer are down to some ice cream company wanting people to buy more ice cream.

Before he got down to his many examples, he looked briefly at the history behind disease and lifestyle risk factors. So once upon a time medical researchers figured out that not only was there a high correlation between smoking and lung cancer, but that smoking was pretty much the main cause of lung cancer. So if you changed your lifestyle you could prolong your life.

Goldacre claimed this was pretty much the one and only example that demonstrated such a clear causal relationship between lifestyle and disease, and unfortunately the medical profession promised there were going to be many, many more such examples. Goldacre claimed that instead the real main factor affecting disease prevalence in most cases is not lifestyle but instead social depravation.

Then he got onto his examples. He mentioned that there had recently been an important article in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) looking at whether the government's Sure Start program (aimed at helping children in deprived areas of Britain) was effective, the conclusion being yes. And another article in the same journal showed that it was also allegedly cost effective. But apparently there was no coverage of this at all in the media.

Instead what we got was some crap about the alleged benefits for kids of taking some fish oil supplement. Goldacre claimed that the trial which allegedly showed this was fatally flawed. So it involved 3000 kids taking 6 pills a day for a year, and it looked at their GCSE results after a year and compared these with what had been predicted.

But there was no control group and so not even an understanding of any possible placebo effects or whether it was the extra attention being given and extra effort being made (by both students and teachers) that was the real cause of the improvement. But the media didn't care about that, they just claimed that fish oil pills were the way to go.

Goldacre claimed the pills cost around 85p per pupil per day and that the local authority where the trial was done was meanwhile spending 65p per pupil per day on school meals. It doesn't take a genius to deduce from this that some corporation selling pills was probably behind the whole effort.

Then he went after the Independent for claiming in 2007 that "Cannabis is now 25 times stronger" (than when the Independent was claiming ten years before that it was a relatively harmless drug). He showed a graph where if you were being lenient you might claim that it had doubled.

The Daily Express (and no doubt others) reported that some "expert" had claimed that suicides were linked to mobile phone masts. Apparently this "expert" looked at the distance of suicide victims in some town (Bridgend) and found they lived closer than "average" to a phone mast. Only Goldacre claims he talked to the "expert" and found out that what this "expert" meant by "average" was the average geographic distance of the UK land area from the nearest phone mast, so not weighted by the population distribution. Well, if so, that is obviously nonsensical.

The Observer (which the Guardian owns, so Goldacre's newspaper) reported that some Cambridge University researcher had allegedly claimed that the recent "surge" in autism was down to the MMR vaccine. Well, not only was the "surge" claim bogus (confusing differing ways of measuring the incidence of autism) but Goldacre talked to the researcher and she said straight out she did not believe there was any connection between autism and MMR. The Observer ran some kind of feeble retraction about the "surge" but still claimed the bit about MMR was true, and the only way the researcher was given space to deny it was to write a comment for the online version of the story.

A few years ago the British media went hysterical about the alleged plague of MRSA in NHS hospitals. Goldacre had some friend who went undercover into a hospital and took lots of swabs and sent them off to be tested and they all came back negative. Well, this was a bit discouraging since all the media was reporting how easy it was to find MRSA anywhere and everywhere.

This friend talked to a journalist who told him he should send his samples "to the lab that always gives positive results". Well, that phrase is obviously rather damning. And it turned out the lab was run by someone by the name of Christopher Malyszewicz, who the media trumpeted as an "expert" and a hero of British health care.

Goldacre talked to him and it turns out his undergraduate degree was in engineering (and it wasn't clear if he had even finished it) and his alleged PhD was bought from some firm in America. And when some microbiology inspector finally managed to inspect Malyszewicz's lab, it turned out to be in his garden shed, and not of suitable lab standard. Apparently various medics wrote to the media but were ignored.

Goldacre had an amusing turn of phrase. So there are people who are "too incompetent to assay their own incompetence".

Next he went back to the MMR issue. So in 1998 a doctor by the name of Andrew Wakefield published a case study in the Lancet saying that he had had 12 child patients who were autistic and had the MMR vaccine. Well, given that supposedly around 1 in 100 or 1 in 200 (depending how you measure it) children are autistic and given that most children were getting the MMR vaccine, you are bound to have lots of cases where both are observed in the same child. Of course these kind of observations might be relevant, so the Lancet was correct to publish it, and let scientists do more work on the issue.

Of course the media went hysterical and the rest is history. The take-up of MMR declined a lot in spite of there never being any real evidence that there was even a link, never mind a causal link.

Goldacre claimed that although some media people realised the story was likely bogus, they still had to run with it because their competitors did and because Wakefield was an "expert". Goldacre pointed out that with a hundred thousand doctors in the UK you could probably find one who would back any claim you wanted.

Although the controversy started in 1998, Goldacre showed a graph which indicated that the real interest in the controversy spiked in 2002 because of poor little Leo Blair, the youngest child of Tony and Cherie Blair. So the Blairs refused to say whether or not he had had the MMR vaccine. The general feeling was that he had not (although it was government policy that children should), because Cherie Blair was rather against conventional medicine and instead was into the usual New Age crackpot alternatives. Goldacre claimed that at the time, 32% of all MMR stories mentioned Leo Blair, and only 25% mentioned Wakefield. A bit ridiculous.

Some American by the name of Krigsman kept pushing the MMR and autism story, with claims in 2002 and 2006 that he had found a link. But this research has never been published, so should not be considered worthy of anything. At the same time in 2006 there were two peer-reviewed papers that found no link between MMR and autism. Needless to say, almost all the media pushed the Krigsman story rather than the other one. Goldacre claimed that only he and some blogger (the boyfriend of one of the authors of one of the papers) mentioned it.

Wakefield was found out to have various conflicts of interest, and so the media ended up blaming him for the fuss, rather than face up to their contribution to the sorry saga.

And apparently these vaccine scares are country specific. So MMR and autism ran in the UK, Hepatitis B and Multiple sclerosis ran in France, thiomersal and autism ran in the US, etc. Because of the bogus thiomersal scare, the US government asked drug makers to stop using it in vaccines. The alternatives are more expensive, which is not a problem in America but is a problem in Africa.

David Cameron spouts more nonsense about "broken Britain" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

David Cameron has said the case of two young boys tortured in Doncaster was not an "isolated incident of evil" but symptomatic of wider social problems.

The Tory leader said the "truly awful" incident meant people must ask "deep questions" about social breakdown.

In a speech in Kent, he said this was a seminal incident, likening it to the cases of Baby Peter and Jamie Bulger.

Labour accused Mr Cameron of "tarring" the people of Britain by "seizing on one absolutely horrific crime".
...
The Tory leader said he would not flinch from raising the case as he believed it was symptomatic of levels of social breakdown in Britain.

"I think when things like this happen it is right to stand back, reflect and ask ourselves some deep questions about what is going wrong in our society," he told an audience at a community centre in Gillingham.

Mr Cameron denied that his frequent references to a "broken Britain" was an over-statement and "terrible crimes" such as those which had happened in Doncaster could not be ignored.

"I don't think it is right every time one of these events takes place to say that it is just some isolated incident of evil that we should look away from and forget about."

"Are we going to do that every time there is a Jamie Bulger or a Baby Peter or a Ben Kinsella or a Gary Newlove or what has happened in Doncaster? We shouldn't. We should ask about what has gone wrong with our society and what we are going to do about it."

And he hit back at critics who have accused him of exploiting the Doncaster case for political ends, saying: "I think it is right to raise it in a responsible way and it is right to have this debate about how we can strengthen our society."

Cameron is despicable. Even worse, he is playing the Tony Blair soundtrack, and it is over ten years out-of-date.

There are over half a million children born in the UK every year. It would not be very surprising if some of them have pathological behaviour, especially when their parents have pathological behaviour. The Bulger case is already from almost 20 years ago, when the Tories were (unfortunately) in power. Cameron could no doubt find cases in the same proportion going back through the entire record of human history. It is ridiculous to claim that here and now something different is happening (and of course all allegedly the fault of the Labour government). It is unfortunate that the next leader of the country insists on spewing nonsense over and over again.

Date published: 2010/01/20

UK government wants to introduce a no-fly list (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Fresh measures to track terror suspects and strengthen airport security after the attempted Christmas Day bomb plot have been announced by Gordon Brown.

A "no-fly list" is to be set up to stop suspected terrorists from travelling to the UK while other individuals under suspicion will undergo thorough checks.
...
A new "no-fly list" will identify individuals who will not be allowed to enter the country because of suspected terrorist links.

Individuals who have attracted the attention of the authorities but are considered lower-risk will be listed in a second category.

They will be subject to "special measures", such as more extensive screening, before being allowed to fly to the UK, although officials said they could not divulge what this would entail.

By the end of the year, all UK airports and ports will be covered by the e-borders scheme, which he said meant information passengers provide when buying tickets can be checked against the watch lists.
...
The Conservatives, who have called for a "radical" rethink of the UK's security approach, welcomed the introduction of a "no-fly list".

This is a typical knee-jerk government proposal. The US no-fly list has been a complete shambles. 4-year old kids and grannies and famous pop stars are routinely harassed. And is there any evidence that even a single terrorist has been stopped? There is no reason to believe that the UK no-fly list will do any better.

The key is in the innocuous BBC reporting. It says "A new no-fly list will identify individuals". How are they going to "identify individuals"? Through "information passengers provide when buying tickets". Information such as name and address. But in the US the authorities seem to filter only on name, and presumably nobody trusts the address, since it is easy to change that. But in any case every terrorist organisation knows that this information is used as a filter, so (surprise) will use people not on the list, or get names and addresses, etc., changed. It is only innocent people, or dumb terrorists, who will be caught by these filters.

Even worse, once you are (somehow) on a no-fly list there is no way you can get off it. The government can decide you are guilty without any trial and without any redress.

And it is unfortunate that the next Tory government is already setting itself up to be just as bad as the current Labour government, because once they are in power, they will no doubt go downhill from their current expressed views.

Suddenly everybody is against "garden-grabbing" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has promised to act against "garden-grabbing" by property developers, after a report showed it was a problem in many parts of England.

Fifty of 127 councils who responded to a survey said building on previous green or empty land was a concern.
...
Garden-grabbing refers to the practice of building homes on open land attached to existing urban or suburban houses, which increases population density and, campaigners say, damages the character of an area.

As part of government-commissioned research, academics at Kingston University sent a survey to 363 planning authorities in England.

Of the 127 who responded, 50 said it was an issue in their areas. Of these, just seven had specific policies in place to deal with it.
...
Shadow communities secretary Caroline Spelman said: "Labour ministers are in denial that the problems of garden-grabbing stem from their own planning rules.

"Thanks to regulations issued by John Prescott, leafy gardens across the country are being dug up, and replaced with blocks of flats and high-density buildings that spell disaster for the local environment and local infrastructure."

For the Lib Dems, Sarah Teather said: "This tired Labour government has been stuck in power for so long it is now having to go back and fix its own mistakes.

"John Prescott effectively sold off precious green space across the country and now that half of it has already disappeared, Labour is belatedly stumbling into action."

It is unbelievable what kind of poor analysis you get on the BBC sometimes. So out of 363 planning authorities, a whole 50 (less than 14 percent) said there was "an issue". There is no attention at all as to what "an issue" even means. Instead we just get the standard ten seconds of response from the opposition parties to spout their uncontested propaganda.

It is not too surprising that the Tories are against "garden-grabbing". They are the party that believes there should be no house building anywhere in the south of England, and being against "garden-grabbing" is one small part of that general view.

On the other hand, it is amazing that the Lib Dems have jumped on the same band wagon. It's getting harder and harder for anyone to choose between the three main parties these days because they all parrot the same things.

There is a serious issue here, which unfortunately the BBC and the political parties have decided not to address. So it is believed by many urban planners that high-density building is exactly what we should be aiming for, since allegedly this is more "sustainable". That is largely a bogus claim, but none of the political parties seems to be willing to push for policies which will counteract that, in particular introducing standards for minimal house sizes and minimal garden sizes.

It's all very well claiming you are against "garden-grabbing" but until you have a proper proposal for development to replace that, then it is just complaining with meaningless slogans. Well, to be fair to the Tories, they want to solve the problem by not having a housing shortage in the first place, and to achieve that they would like to kick all foreigners out of the country (well, except for Lord Ashcroft, the foreign donor who is buying them the coming election).

There's not enough bike parking at the Cambridge train station (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Councillors have hit out after a plea for more cycle racks at Cambridge railway station was snubbed by rail bosses.

Cambridge Liberal Democrats said the city council had offered to pay for extra racks if the rail operator, National Express East Anglia, would offer some land at the station as a new bike parking area.

But the Lib Dems said the rail firm had "stopped the bid in its tracks" and said no, because it would mean "losing income from valuable car parking spaces".
...
Cllr Nichola Harrison, who represents the city's Petersfield ward on the county council, said cyclists were finding it difficult to park their bikes securely at the station because the racks were taken up with dumped and disused bikes.

The train station is one big bike parking disaster area, and the main problem is indeed that that many of the spaces are taken up by dumped bikes. And that is really what should be sorted. But can anyone fault the rail operator for not adding more space for bikes because it would mean "losing income from valuable car parking spaces"? (Except the academic middle class, such as the Lib Dems, who hate all corporations, and who hate all car drivers excepting themselves.) Car drivers are expected to (more than) pay for the services they are provided, but funnily enough cyclists never expect to pay for anything. If cyclists were willing to pay for parking then the situation at the train station would change.

Date published: 2010/01/18

Trying to quantify our uncertainty (permanent blog link)

The 2010 Darwin College Lectures are about Risk. The first lecture occurred on 15 January and was by David Spiegelhalter, from the university, talking about "Risk: Trying to quantify our uncertainty".

Spiegelhalter is not only with the MRC's Biostatistics Unit, he is also the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge, and because of the latter role he gets some attention in the media. You would also expect him to thus be a reasonable public speaker, and he did well enough in that regard.

He started by saying that there were a zillion and one definitions of "risk" and he was going to take it as "anything to do with situations where 'bad' or 'good' things might happen".

He said that people often used "gut feelings" to deal with these situations and pointed out that perhaps this works pretty well since humans didn't invent probability until a few hundred years ago.

And he said that "gut feelings" can be unreliable when there is manipulation by others, or the reasoning is complex, or a lot depends on the decision.

Most of the rest of the lecture was looking at specific examples, starting with a precisely mathematically defined situation, calculating odds in the lottery, and progressing onto situations where there is no precise mathematical analysis, for example, the risk of fatal accidents when driving or walking.

He said that his doctor had told him that he had a 1/10 chance of having a heart attack within the next 10 years, but that if he took statins this risk would be reduced by 30%. It's usually a good idea to think in terms of quantities rather than percentages. So think of 100 people like Spiegelhalter. Of these, on average 90 would not have a heart attack, and 10 would, if none of them took statins. If everybody took statins then instead of 10 having a heart attack, only 7 would, and so 3 people would have been spared. But the outcome for 90+7=97 people did not change. So if all 100 took the statins (and obviously up front nobody knows who would be in the subset of 3 who would benefit) then the odds are 97 to 3, i.e. 32 to 1, that it was a complete waste of time.

It is well known that how you present a risky situation will affect how people judge the risk. And here he said that you could draw a picture with 100 coloured disks laid out in various ways, and how you laid out the disks determined how seriously people judged the risk. Well that is usually deemed to mean that people are just silly and do not know how to judge risk, and that seemed to be his interpretation as well, although he didn't say so explicitly.

But another interpretation is that in this circumstance there is no correct exact quantification of risk, and so a range of values associated with the risk is perfectly acceptable.

And part of the issue here is also that the statement about what statins might do to prevent heart attacks does not at all mention what negative side effects might come about from taking statins. So should a "rational" person take or not take the statins, who knows.

Spiegelhalter was asked by Radio 4 to try and estimate the outcome of various football matches, given data about past results. Well he had to come up with a model based on the results, and his model seemed to do ok on one specific weekend.

The point here was that because a precise mathematical analysis was not possible, next best was the use of historical data and a model. He quoted the statistician George Box as saying: "Essentially, all models are wrong but some are useful".

So this is relevant to both weather prediction and climate change. On weather prediction, the Met Office has recently come in for some criticism because it had claimed that the summer of 2009 would be a "barbecue summer" (it was not) and that the winter of 2009 was likely to be mild (it was not). Part of the problem is that the Met Office often does not quote probabilities, and even when they do the media can easily ignore that subtlety. It seems that the Met Office is going to introduce probabilities in their forecasts somehow, but they are still discussing how to present the information.

The same issue arises with climate change. So, the models are not perfect and the data underlying the models is not perfect, but are the models good enough that they are useful? Spiegelhalter didn't take on that discussion.

Instead he introduced the term "micromort", which equates to a one in a million chance of dying suddenly (so by accident rather than by some disease). There was a recent controversy where David Nutt, the (now ex-)chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), claimed that taking ecstasy was not much different, in terms of risk, than horse riding".

Spiegelhalter quoted (amongst other micromort stats) that taking one ecstasy tablet is equivalent to 1 micromort, and that horse riding for a year is perhaps equivalent to 1/2 micromort. Well, those numbers are similar, but that is all Spiegelhalter noted. He did not note that it's comparing apples and oranges because of the one tablet versus one year. In any case, the reason there was a hysterical reaction to Nutt's claim was that the ruling elite think that horse riding is "noble" whereas ecstasy taking is for hooligans. And risk taking for "noble" activities is apparently fine and dandy.

His final comments were that we should try and quantify uncertainty, and that scientists need to "honestly communicate" the deeper uncertainties to a sometimes sceptical public.

Lib Dems in Cambridge opt for Julian Huppert (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

The Liberal Democrats have voted in Julian Huppert to fight for the Cambridge seat in the general election.

The move came after the current city MP, Lib Dem David Howarth, announced his intention to step down at the next election.

The councillor, who has lived in the city since he was a child, was selected from a shortlist of six candidates who fought for the position in Hustings, at The Michaelhouse Centre, in Trinity Street on Friday night.

As with the Tory candidate selection, the Lib Dims seem to have opted for the least worst candidate. And Huppert has to start out as the favourite, given that Howarth has kept his nose clean over the expenses scandal. Huppert is at least clued up enough to have his own website.

Unfortunately the contents there are not encouraging. So, for example, in the economy section he quotes a nef (new economic foundation) report concerned with "calculating the real value to society of different professions". Well, thank god someone is worrying about that, eh, rather than doing something useful with their lives. Other than that he follows the usual national Lib Dem line on the economy, for example, he wants to replace the Council Tax with income tax, allegedly because that is "fairer". But there is nothing particularly more fair or less fair about basing a tax on property (which is an approximation of wealth) versus income. It's just that the Lib Dems think there are more votes in being anti-wealth tax and pro-income tax.

And on transport he follows the usual academic middle class mantra: "we cannot simply keep building more roads to relieve the congestion, especially since all studies show that new roads just generate more traffic". Funnily enough, no new (trunk as opposed to access) roads have been built in Cambridge in the last nearly forty years. And funnily enough, the same argument about generating more traffic never seems to apply to London train commuters. So Huppert is one of those promoting a new train station in Chesterton, and the the main effect of that will be to allow London commuters to push into north Cambridge (one of the few "affordable" areas of the city) and force yet more Cambridge workers to live out in the villages. Somehow Huppert (and the rest of the Cambridge ruling elite) never seem to figure that one out.

Howarth was a capable enough MP, even if he didn't particularly bother promoting the Cambridge hi-tech industry. If (and possibly when) Huppert becomes MP, it will be interesting to see how he does. Given that the next government will not be Lib Dem, it probably doesn't really matter what he thinks, one way or the other. But as MP, hopefully he would at least view it as his job to promote the city.

Another pointless government report, this one about future jobs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Becoming the pilot of a spaceship may seem the stuff of science fiction, but it could be a regular job in just 20 years time, a report has concluded.

That is one of the findings of a government study into jobs of the future, which also suggests people will be employed to make human body parts.

It names 20 jobs that could be common by 2030, including "vertical farmers" growing food in multi-storey buildings.
...
The report was carried out by market research group Fast Future, which tried to determine a list of both jobs that do not currently exist and current jobs that could become more prominent.
...
The report was commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Why is the government paying for this kind of pointless report? This kind of blatant waste is what annoys people about government, and yet the politicians and bureaucrats who run government cannot seem to resist wasting money like this. The next Tory government has said it is going to slash and burn the government, but you can bet waste like this will continue, and instead important government spending will be cut.

Date published: 2010/01/03

Governments are good at wasting money (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government is to spend £1m buying airtime for a TV ad promoting its public services website Directgov.

The £1m only covers the broadcasting cost of the ad, which features stars like Dame Helen Mirren and Kelly Brook.

A spokeswoman would not say how much it cost to produce but said actors worked for a "fraction of a commercial rate" and advertising in January was cheaper.

The Tories said it was "vanity marketing" but Directgov said they could save the government money.
...
Mike Hoban, the communications director for Directgov, said: "At a time of economic uncertainty it is essential that we give everyone in the UK easy access to important government information about taxes, benefits, job opportunities and education.

"Directgov will save the government £400m over three years. Therefore this is an investment that is important in helping the government save money."

The BBC also says:

The Conservatives say they would offer a £1m prize in a competition to develop a website that would allow large groups of people to help develop new policies.

Tory frontbencher Jeremy Hunt told the BBC the idea was to tap into the "huge amount of expertise" among the British people to avoid policy "howlers".

The prize would be public money - from the Cabinet Office budget - but he said it could offer taxpayers good value.

Labour and the Lib Dems dismissed it as a "gimmick" and a publicity stunt.

The plan - to be introduced if the Conservatives win the next general election - appears to be based on the so-called "wisdom of crowds" theory written about by author James Surowiecki.

He argued that large groups of people are smarter than the elite few at coming to wise decisions.

Mr Hunt, the shadow culture secretary, said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Look at the U-turns over child care vouchers, over the 10p tax, over the NHS IT system.

"It is crazy that these things have gone wrong when you've got lots and lots of, for example, retired health professionals, retired policemen, people in the teaching profession, who have huge knowledge and expertise...

"Is there a way that we can use the internet ... to try and avoid some of these howlers so a future Conservative government can not just have good policy ideas but execute policy in a much more considered and thought-through way?"

So both main parties want to blow a million pounds of public money. And needless to say they both claim that what they want to do is a jolly good idea and what the other side wants to do is a waste of money.

Well, what is a reasonable measure of whether or not this is good value for money? You could ask whether a company would spend money in either of these ways. Of course companies do a lot of "vanity" spending as well. So you could ask whether you yourself would spend money like this. And the answer is unfortunately pretty clearly no.

In the case of direct.gov.uk, people generally don't find what they want on any website by going directly to that website, but instead find what they want via google, which does a much better job of finding what people want than the folks who run the website (pretty much any website). So this does indeed look like a typical case of government "vanity" spending. Most government advertising is short on information and big on patronising spin.

And the Tory idea is just plain wrong in more than one way. Firstly, the Tories unfortunately seem to believe that there are all sorts of simple solutions to complicated problems, and the Tories all too easily fall for the latest smooth talking consultants who come along promising them miracles. (And this is even before the Tories take over power, and it will undoubtedly get worse later.) The so-called "wisdom of crowds" is just one example. (The alleged causative benefit of marriage is another.)

Secondly, even if "crowds" were "wise", it is irrelevant here. Governments already have access to plenty of experts who will tell them why most of their ideas are crazy (including all the examples that Jeremy Hunt quotes). But governments choose to ignore the experts, or at least those that contradict their preferred view, for purely ego-driven or political reasons, or because they are scared of, and/or in the sway of, Rupert Murdoch. Having yet another website churning out more ideas is not going to change this dynamic one iota.

But there is one interesting aspect of the Tory idea. So how would you design a website so that experts could intelligently collaborate and argue with each other? How do you really even decide who the experts are, because there are plenty of amateur anoraks who are very expert in various areas of public policy? You certainly don't want a free-for-all. You just have to look at the idiotic contributions on any open web forum, for example, the BBC website's "Have Your Say", to see the problem here. The noise soon drowns out the signal. You could put in place a system of recommendation, but that has the same flaw, as "Have Your Say" also clearly demonstrates. (The google ranking of websites somehow mostly works in spite of this.) And how do you keep the experts honest? So there are plenty of transport experts in the UK, it's just that most of them are blinkered anti-car nutters. So you wouldn't really want to trust anything they say. You need honest experts, and they are few and far between.

Government decides to sting motorists for bigger fines (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Motorists in England and Wales fined for minor offences face having to pay bigger penalties under a government scheme to compensate victims of crime.

Since 2007, a £15 surcharge has been added to the fines of all people convicted of a crime, to raise money for support services for crime victims.

Now ministers want to extend the scheme to on-the-spot fines and fixed penalty notices for a range of offences.

They say the offences that could be targeted are not victimless crimes.

Under the current scheme, anyone fined by the courts pays an extra £15.

However, ministers believe the amount raised could be significantly increased if it were extended to include people issued with on-the-spot fines or fixed penalty notices.

This could include motorists caught speeding or flouting parking restrictions and those guilty of disorder offences such as shoplifting, writing graffiti or being drunk and disorderly.

Under the plans, a fine of £60 for speeding, using a mobile phone while driving or not wearing a seatbelt would be increased to £75.

This is the government taking the piss. The fine for speeding has arbitrarily been increased from 60 pounds to 75 pounds. Unfortunately the government has decided to behave less and less honourably the closer it gets to being thrown out of office.

Gordon Brown wants full body scanners in airports (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has given the go-ahead for full body scanners to be introduced at Britain's airports.

BAA, which runs six UK airports, said it would now install the machines "as soon as is practical" at Heathrow.

Experts have questioned the scanners' effectiveness at detecting the type of bomb allegedly used on Christmas Day in an attempted plane attack over Detroit.

But Mr Brown said it was essential to "go further" than the current technology allowed.

Brown is a caricature of the politician who always has to be seen to do something, no matter how pointless and no matter how expensive.

Power companies handing out useless low energy light bulbs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An energy company has been criticised for sending out millions of low energy light bulbs to meet its target under a household energy cutting scheme.

The Green Party accused Npower of taking "inexcusable" shortcuts instead of investing in more effective measures such as loft insulation.

Unsolicited mail-outs of light bulbs as an option under the scheme were stopped by the government as of this month.
...
The government ordered energy companies to help pay for measures to cut household energy consumption - such as cavity wall or loft insulation, or by issuing low energy light bulbs - two years ago.
...
That met the company's requirements under the scheme, but will only cut a fraction of the energy that other measures such as cavity wall or loft insulation will achieve, critics claim.

Surprise, the government comes up with an arbitrary and idiotic set of rules for companies to follow, and the companies do so as to minimise their costs, i.e. to maximise their profits. Who would have thought it, eh.

And if the so-called Green Party doesn't like it, perhaps they should stop being useless and start doing something positive for once. They perpetually complain about how evil corporations are and about how wonderfully decentralised everything should be, so perhaps they should actually try and pretend they believe this by themselves organising insulation to be added to houses rather than relying on corporations to do it.

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