Bad science of the day – minority report

There’s a new contender for the Holy Grail object: The Magic Machine that Can Tell Truth from Lies.

On the face of it, this one seems even more useless than the old-style polygraph. It can be beaten by the simple expedient of “answeringquicklywithouthesitation.”.

The Times reported that psychologist Aiden Gregg has developed:

A new lie detector test shows that it takes on average 30% longer to tell a fib than to be honest.

That sounds an impressive test for truth – objective quantifiable, replicable, easy to measure, and so on.

Gregg said he built the test because he suspected that criminals were finding increasing ways to hide their dishonesty. …..
… The psychologist warned that existing lie detectors such as polygraphs – which monitor physiological changes such as blood pressure and body temperature – implicate too many innocent people. (from the Times)

Government funding for security is so reliable in these cash-strapped times for universities. So, in one way, it’s a great idea, from an academic’s perspective.

But I can’t see anything in this report that backs up its claims as a Holy Grail Machine.

The experiments were done in an environment which was not pressured. Completely unlike a real-world instance, subjects would have no reasons to be anxious about telling either lies or truth. However, thinking up experimental “lies” would mean subjects had to take more time than the took to tell non-lies.

If you were an innocent suspect sitting in front of one of these machines, for real, you would be worried about your answers. You might hesitate before saying anything, as you pondered possible implications. On the other hand, if you were guilty but had practised a good story, you could just reel it out. Quickly.

This machine might work for finding out which of a group of scared twelve-year-olds had graffittied the bus stop. (Although, elementary normal investigation skills would surely achieve that more time-effectively and actually produce valid evidence.)

Practised liars are convincing. They can smile and wail and even sob convincingly, witness Karen Matthews’ performances. The time-delay counting machine would never have uncovered what was true or false in what she said. Any innocent mother, in the position that Karen Matthews pretended to be, would not answer normally. She would fail the test, while the sort of person who could lie about such an event to their closest family and friends would probably come across as being truthful.

Flawed as this whole lie-detector machine concept is, you can pretty well guarantee that politicians will NOT welcome it unless they are confident that they can beat it easily.

So, if it does get the government go-ahead after its trials, you can at least be confident that it doesn’t work at all.

Moral panic of the day

China is so often first with its master-class examples of how moral panics can justify social repression. Here’s another one. China has used an imaginary illness (online gaming addiction) as an excuse to remove Internet users’ anonymity, according to the Times.

The system is aimed at combating gaming addiction particularly among the young, according to the Chinese authorities. Gamers have to give their real names when they register as well as the code from their government ID cards. Gamers are still allowed to use their gaming names in the games themselves (wizardlordofall13571) but their account must have the correct information including the gamer’s age.

“… as well as the code from their government ID cards.” 😀 Western governments will be taking notes. “If you’re not doing anything wrong”, and so on.

Some text-book elements of this strategy are:

  • the use of fear. China doesn’t have The War Against Terror, so they have to use “public health”. What kind of anti-social bastard wouldn’t care about public health?
  • concern for the young. Fragile innocents are under attack. You must protect them by forbidding action x.
  • government must always act to protect its people, whether from others or from from themselves.
  • start a war against an abstract noun (“gaming addiction”)

OK, by the standards of moral panics, this is farce rather than tragedy. It doesn’t turn the public against a hated minority group. So, it won’t end in pograms and ethnic cleansing and massacres. A few thousand gamers will have lost some rights and a few companies will be shut down.

(It might also damage the bizarre WOW-related mini-industry that has grown up in China, with urchins spending long shifts grinding WOW levels to earn online gold, in order to get cash from Western players too lazy or busy to play their own characters. )

The first casualty of war is supposed to be the truth. War-against-abstract-nouns has the highest truth-casualty rate. The war has to start by defining its abstract noun as self-evidently evil. So step up, internet addiction, your time has come.

Addiction is a spurious concept, at best. Internet-gaming addiction is off the far edge of any validity it might have. However, according to ars technica (the Times’ source for the story)

The addictive nature of online gaming has been proven, at least anecdotally, time and time again. While not everyone who jumps into the digital realms of World of Warcraft or the various other massively-multiplayer online role-playing games is liable to get endlessly sucked in, those with addictive personalities certainly run the risk.

LOL. “proven, at least anecdotally.” Somebody skipped Epistemology 101.

There is little doubt that the potential for addiction exists with MMORPGs. ….. countless anecdotes from the East have produced horror stories that have gone so far as to end in death from malnourishment.

Well, there’s plenty of doubt from me. Just because you add up a list of anecdotes, they still don’t constitute scientific proof.

China, Korea, and even Japan have had a long and sordid history with online gaming addiction.

(I am momentarily distracted by the “and even Japan” phrase.) All the examples come from the far east, maybe because of some sense that readers will see the far east as so exotic that it might really have “diseases” with which we westerners are unfamiliar. Like bird-flu.

What are the symptoms of this Asian internet-flu? To quote another ars technica story:

If you find yourself using the Internet for more than six hours per day and exhibit at least one of a number of symptoms, you could be addicted. The list of symptoms is about what you would expect, including things like insomnia, difficulty concentrating, mental or physical stress, irritation, and spending time wishing you were online.

Blimey, we’re all doomed. If you work at a PC – which is most of us – you could find yourself well and truly in the “addicted” range without even logging on at home. The symptoms? I suspect they could be called the “human condition”. But if we can all become unstressed, focussed, easy-going people who sleep like logs, just by not playing WoW, most of us should be already there.

Joke science

Coffee makes you hallucinate. (Yeah, right….) Well, it says so in a piece of research reported in lots of today’s UK papers.

The NHS Choices website says that

This bizarre claim is based on research into 219 students who answered questionnaires on caffeine intake, hallucinations and feelings of persecution. Various other news sources have reported the study, including the Daily Mail, which says that “drinking cup after cup of coffee dramatically increases the risk of hallucinating”.

Hmm, what percentage of 219 students reporting that they hallucinate after drinking coffee isn’t taking the piss? (~0% is my rough guess.)

This hallucinogenic coffee must be the best-kept secret on the planet. After centuries of coffee drinking, noone else has ever reported a caffeine -induced hallucination but these researchers found enough coffee-trippers in of a sample of 219 students to generate comparative results.

The NHS website demolishes the “coffee makes you hallucinate” claims quite comprehensively. This is reassuring in terms of the quality of NHS advice, after spuriously precise numbers of fruit-and-vegetables to eat or steps to take every day had made me a tad sceptical.

It’s obvious why the press excitedly report such nonsense (Ben Goldacre has pretty well said everything that needs to be said on that subject). But why do research projects that a 10 year-old could find gaping flaws in get done at all?

(sparing their blushes, no names) …of the Department of Psychology, Durham University carried out this research. No sources of funding were reported. The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Oh yes, publication targets for academics and universities. Publish or be damned.

Stupidity and lies for Jesus

Always willing to flog a dead horse, I’ve stumbled across more mind-bending nonsense on the crazy-fest that is Yahoo! Answers. As I mentioned previously, this (*) is a haven for the weird and wonderful ideas people can come up with. Sadly, in the best of Web 2.0 traditions, idiocy, bad education and lies rise to the surface while real education gets drowned under the stupidity of the commons. I honestly think that if a good answer ever turned up it would be drowned under the idiocy (and get so many thumbs down) it would quickly flee for its life.

The most recent idiocy to draw my attention is a month old question titled “Do fossils of now extinct creatures such as dinosaurs prove evolution?” (see original)

At first site this looks like a legitimate question. It is the sort of question you would expect inquisitive school children to ask. It gives the chance for a well thought out answer about the nature of fossils, what evolutionary theory is and how scientific proofs work. You can imagine it being the sort of question a teacher would set a class to see what research they carry out. Well, Toutatis forbid they type the question into a search engine. The results are shocking. To an otherwise ignorant person seeing to improve their education, this search would be disastrous. Anyway, back to the question.

After an innocent start (obviously to trick the unwary), the question continues:

The fact that dinosaurs once lived and are now extinct is no proof of evolution. Such fossils merely show us that certain species once living were destroyed and became extinct. Theorists have been able to reach no general agreement on the cause or causes of extinction. The theories on this subject are numerous and sometimes very imaginative. Since most fossils are found in sedimentary rocks and show signs of catastrophic burial, they seem to point to a global flood as the principal cause of extinction. They must have lived on earth at the same time, just as the Bible implies.

Oh dear Belenus! It is true that the fact dinosaurs lived once and not any more is not proof of evolution. After a promising start it crashes down into a pile of blithering idiocy. So far so uneducated. Next we get:

If the flood-geology interpretation of geological strata is correct, all or most dinosaurs became extinct at the time of the flood. Until that time, then, man and dinosaurs lived on the earth at the same time.

Its good that he uses an “if” to start there. I agree that if the flood geology interpretation were correct dinosaurs died at the flood. However it isn’t. It isn’t even close. Man and Dino did not live on Earth at the same time. It really is that easy.

So far this is just standard creationist idiocy. It is the sad product of poor education, poor understanding and religious doctrine combining. As always though, the monumental lack of evidence to support creationism causes problems and the TRUE BELIEVER© is forced to lie for Jesus. It happens all the time. In all types of debate. The stronger the persons faith, the more they seem willing to lie for their deity. I find the irony very entertaining. Here we have:

Is there any EVIDENCE outside of the Bible to support this view? Yes, there is. It is well known that along the Paluxy River in Texas many dinosaur footprints have been found in limestone strata classified as Cretaceous. Not so well known is the fact that for about fifty years human footprints have been reported in the same strata.

Taranis give me strength. Don’t you just love it when some one asks a question that they answer themselves? Yes. (all puns intended). The only evidence to support humans and dinosaurs co-existing is in the minds of creationists. It isn’t even in the Bible. It is pure fiction. The Flintstones is not real. Lying for Jesus is still lying. The crazy questioner finishes off with his bit of conspiracy theory for Jesus nonsense:

Source: Footprints in Stone(color-sound film)
But since the concept that man lived with dinosaurs is incompatible with the theory of evolution, many Scientists dismiss this documentary for the persuasive evidence unfolded.

Man living with Dino is not incompatible with evolution. The “documentary” evidence cites is not dismissed for that reason and it really is not persuasive…

The screaming stupidity that is Yahoo! Answers comes out in the “best answer” chosen by the “asker.” As is so often the case, the person chooses a best answer that restates whatever idiocy they agree with. This is no different:

I do agree with you to some extent. It is impossible for humans to prove the actual “age” of the extinct dinosaur remains. When scientists try to “determine” the age of the dinosaur remains by soil composition and “carbon dating” etc, I just shake my head. Anybody can make an assumption about life that way. It is also impossible for humans to determine exactly how old the history of mankind is as well. Remember, in the early days of creation, people lived much longer then we do now. Of course they did. Adam lived for 930 years, and his son Seth lived for 912 years. Before the flood, many people lived well into their hundreds. There was a wonderful balance of nature then. No pollution or anything “man-made” existed to destroy that balance. God knew what he was doing right from the very beginning. His creation and existence is perfection in itself – he is the superb mastercraftsman! I bow to his absolute genius…

It is mind-numbing in its stupidity. What on Earth is age doing in quotes? What is the idiot trying to say? Putting determine in sneer quotes – what is that all about? The whole answer manages to be so far from the truth it is almost beyond belief. It isn’t even internally consistent. Even in Biblical terms there were lots of man-made things before the flood – the Ark for example…

The wonders of the internet (and specifically web 2.0) push this stupidity to the top of a search engine query. The miracle of Web2.0 gives the asker the chance to give prominence to the madness that the person asking the question wants to be seen as the answer. Yes, if you scroll down you can find better answers but not everyone is going to do that and, crucially, when they have had their reasoning tainted by the initial two bits, they will be more sceptical of the truth than of the idiocy.

Web 2.0 is not about empowerment and it certainly is not about the shared wisdom of the masses. The tragedy of the commons seems so much more appropriate.

* I suspose this may be a specific problem to the Religion and Spirituality part of Yahoo Answers, but the other sections seem to be riddled with nutjob answers…

A survey says

There’s a news item – which seems to appear everywhere from the UK’s Daily Mail and the Telegraph to the Indian Andrha News – which suggests that 54% of British people believe in God, compared to 58% who believe in UFOs*, ghosts and mediums.

Internal Pedant wanted to change that last plural to “media” but that would have been both confusing and blatantly absurd. Surely, even UFOnauts and fundies aren’t stupid enough to place much faith in “the media”.

If only this were true……. Abduction survivors have a mild comedy value. People who consult psychics victimise only themselves. None of them are likely to start pogroms or crusades or jihads or even complain when people are insulting to their beliefs. So what does it matter?

Trying to draw a quick mental Venn diagram of the intersection of sets, I realise that the overlap between believing groups could be almost total. Between 4% and 54% of the respondents must believe in both God and UFOs.

These intersecting set people must have to spend so much of their time and mental energy in believing stuff that they might as well be channelling Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, who managed to cram in believing six impossible things before breakfast

But, all these news stories say something like “according to a survey”. However, I can’t find one report with any references to who carried out this survey, what the questions were, how many people were interviewed or any of those dull facts that Ben Goldacre keeps reminding us to think about when we see survey reports in the media.

Plus,

“The findings, maybe somewhat unsurprisingly, have been issued to mark the DVD release of The X-Files: I Want to Believe” (from the Daily Mail)

That’s why I can’t find any links to the actual survey. It’s a publicity stunt.

Silly me. That’s what you get for believing in the media…..

* Normally, this means believing that unidentified flying objects are all secret Grey visitors from the planet zarg who will beam up rednecks and probe their orifices. Still, I have to admit to my own inability to identify more than a handful of flying objects. I confused a jay with a pheasant only last week. I can recognise a Cessna and a Spitfire and a Hurricane (from childhood model-building experiments) but otherwise they are all just planes.

Getting climate change and asbestos wrong

You’d think that there had been enough pop science articles about climate change for even the thickest journalists to have grasped that “global warming” is

  • short-hand for complicated climatic processes, more accurately referred to as anthropogenic climate change, which don’t necessarily involve warming in any given place. (For instance, the diversion of the Gulf Stream could make the UK colder.)
  • not specifically identifiable in any given day’s or year’s temperatures in any particular place. Climate is not necessarily the same as weather

I assume that Christopher Booker is not a complete fool. He’s expensively educated, and he studied at Cambridge. So, it’s hard to see why he’s spreading ideas as confused as those in his Telegraph article, where seems imply that climate change is pretty well only “global warming” and the fact that some Russian measurements are wrong makes it all false anyway. (I paraphrase)

The world has never seen such freezing heat
A surreal scientific blunder last week raised a huge question mark about the temperature records that underpin the worldwide alarm over global warming. On Monday, Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which is run by Al Gore’s chief scientific ally, Dr James Hansen, and is one of four bodies responsible for monitoring global temperatures, announced that last month was the hottest October on record.(from the Telegraph)

Oh dear, Christopher, the point really isn’t whether a given month is “hot”.

How can you explain this to someone who believes that it is somehow discrediting Al Gore’s arguments to mention Al Gore’s name in the context that someone he knows has been misled by being supplied with a handful of duff numbers?

The science is too difficult for me to understand, but I’m pretty confident that it rests on millions of different types of observations, over many years and all parts of the world. And the work has been analysed and peer-reviewed by legions of climate scientists.

So, it’s not actually proven. (And, granted that my own assessment that the climate has changed dramatically over my lifetime, let alone Christopher Booker’s, is anecdotal.) But there seems to be such a serious weight of evidence to support it, it would be pretty dumb to imagine it is contradicted by one month’s error figures.

Pretty well as dumb as this complete misunderstanding of the evidence on asbestosis, for example, on the basis of some spuriously-qualified scientist :

Booker’s articles in The Daily Telegraph on asbestos and also on global warming have been challenged by George Monbiot in an article in The Guardian newspaper
Booker’s scientific claims, which include the false assertion that white asbestos (chrysotile) is “chemically identical to talcum powder” were analysed in detail by Richard Wilson in his book Don’t Get Fooled Again (2008).
Wilson also highlighted Christopher Booker’s repeated endorsement of the alleged scientific expertise of John Bridle, who has claimed to be “the world’s foremost authority on asbestos science”, but who in 2005 was convicted under the UK’s Trade Descriptions Act of making false claims about his qualifications, and who the BBC has accused of basing his reputation on “lies about his credentials, unaccredited tests, and self aggrandisement”.(from the Criticism section of Brooker’s Wikipedia entry)

Committing adulteration

The Register has a piece on the “melamine in whey protein” story that’s been disturbing me. Obviously, it’s nowhere near as disturbing to me as it has been to the thousands of Chinese babies become seriously ill with kidney damage and even died, as a result of imbibing the product when it found its way into milk.

One thing about this incident that inspires true shock and awe is the evil chemical genius that it shows. Imagine that you are a milk producer whose yields are a bit disappointing. Even, if you were completely unscrupulous, you might think that watering down the milk was as far as you could go.

Not so, a company called Xuzhou Anying can provide a sciencey-sounding “protein” powder. Well, a powder that tests as if it was made of protein, when you do an assay on it. It turns out to be melamine. How on earth did anyone come to think “Mwa ha ha, I can pass of melamine as protein”

In the first quarter of last year, the Chinese company, Xuzhou Anying, was advertising dust of melamine as something it called “ESB protein powder” on the global market trading website, Alibaba. “The latest product, ESB protein powder, which is researched and developed by Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co., Ltd… Contains protein 160 – 300 percent, which solves the problem for shortage of protein resource,” it boasted. (from the Register)

So this magical protein powder claimed to contain more than 100% protein. Shouldn’t that have set off just a few alarm bells in the minds of prospective buyers.

“Dust of melamine” How tasty does that sound? I mean, if it’s good enough to make kitchen worktops, melamine must be great as a food item.

Awkwardly worded and a bit fishy, it nevertheless apparently hooked North American pet food makers and animal feed distributors ….

(killing off lots of pets in the USA)

…China makes a lot of melamine and the country also manufactures and exports tens of billions of dollars worth of powders and concentrates for use in processed food. Readers can see where this is going. Completely stamping out criminal rings making and diverting melamine for use in processed food is going to be a long process, if it can be done at all.

I start thinking of all the ways that “protein” powders get into the food chain. There’s a big enough market for cheap whey protein, for a start. Plus, protein powders are added to most manufactured foods.

It doesn’t inspire much confidence to consider that an assay for the nitrogen content of a product is enough to render it acceptable, especially when the readings are so far off the scale as to be incredible.

I googled “ESB protein powder” “about 2,430 for ESB protein powder.” The first page of Google results gives no apparent indication that this is a completely blag product.

(The accompanying Google ads list several online supplement sellers, who might probably feel that they definitely haven’t had their money’s worth for their ad dollars, given that that guilt by association isn’t normally seen as an advertising plus. But then, there’s nothing in the hits to suggest that ESB protein powder isn’t a miracle new bio-engineered protein.)

I follow the top listed Googled hit.
Here on the page, in a list of other doubtless meticulously-safe protein powder products, I see:

4. ESB protein powder
The latest product ESB Protein Powder which is researched and developed by Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co., Ltd. contains
Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co.,Ltd. [China \ Jiangsu\Xuzhou]

I am tempted to order some for a sick laugh. I follow the link. It only says “Enquire now” though but it does provide some information on this nutritionally astonishing powder:

The latest product ESB Protein Powder which is researched and developed by Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co., Ltd. contains protein 160%-300%, which solves the problem for shortage of protein resource. Reasonably making use of NPN and reducing the production cost of feed factor, ESB Protein Powder is a good additive to supplement the shortage of protein resources in animal feed applications.
After eating this, protein powder will be transformed into mycoprotein in the alimentary canal under the action of digestive enzyme; it will be normally digested, absorbed and used by the livestock and poultry. It is safe nonpoisonous, without bad reaction

I feel momentarily smug as a vegetarian. At least I won’t be eating animals fed on tasty melamine. Wait a minute. Mycoprotein? Doesn’t that mean “protein derived from fungus”? Is melamine now being classed as a mushroom? Doesn’t Quorn claim to be derived from mycoprotein? Feel notably less smug. I hope they don’t outsource the Quorn ingredients.

There are 42 protein powders listed on these pages, almost all from Chinese companies. The site is directed specifically at the wholesale market and at resellers.

“Hi! Start here to find Protein Powder manufacturers,exporters,suppliers,distributors and wholesalers related to Protein Powder. from china and around the world “

Here’s another reseller’s blurb from exilion.

… Reasonably making use of NPN and reducing the production cost of feed factor, ESB Protein Powder is a good additive to supplement protein resources in animal feed applications. After eating this, phalli protein will be transformed inside the alimentary canal and upon effect from digestion enzyme; it will be normally digested, absorbed and used by the livestock and poultry. It is safe nonpoisonous, without bad reaction. Use Methods. For poultry feed: adding 2% is capable of increasing protein by 3.2%-4%. 2. For cattle/sheep/pig/fish/shrimp feed: adding 3% is capable of increasing protein by 4.8%-

I give up on working out what phalli protein means (isn’t that the plural form of phallus?) I see that sheep, pigs, fish and chickens are all likely to get fed this crap.

Every link to ESB powder relates to a product from a single Chinese factory. This is slightly reassuring. At least this particular scam seems to have some limts. But the massive plethora of resellers doesn’t exactly allay suspicion. And these are just the resellers who are citing the original source. I would imagine there must be many more who have rebranded the product or would be quite willing to do so.

Now, just in case one gets the idea this is bagging on China too much, consider it takes two parties to make this crime work. The people who make and sell the melamine. And the western firms in the food industry working the territory for the best possible deals, in the process giving up tight supervision and quality control of their suppliers. (from the Register)