The Spurious Use of Pseudo-Science in a Marketing Purpose – or Getting a Bit of Wiggle Room

I’m going to reproduce the graph below, using the defence of “fair use”, before this post disappears.

The Wiggle editor has added a disclaimer to this post which wasn’t there before, to sort-of-distance themselves from the piece after the #boycottwiggle campaign got into gear (ho-ho). Instead, the charity behind the post has been pushed to the front of stage on this one. And I’m pretty sure the blogger’s pseudonym has changed since I read it earlier. 

But it’s still there. An article using a deeply dodgy piece of pseudo-science to try and claim cycling helmets should be compulsory. Odd that a company that sells cycling helmets should try and get them made compulsory.

The questions of whether or not helmets are a good idea at all, and whether they should be compulsory, are complicated and nuanced. I’m not going into them here. You can have a read of this, for assorted similar stuff.

But look at this graph, of deaths in the States while cycling with or without helmets, and the sentence that follows it:

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“With so much evidence to show that helmets save lives you would think that everyone would think that compulsory helmets are a good thing right?”

You know, it knocked me over, did this graph. For a minute I thought, if helmet use makes you so much more safe, we should all wear them.

But you’ve probably seen the flaw in it already. The graph shown is absolutely meaningless, without a vital piece of contextual information. And that piece of information is – the proportion of Americans cycling while wearing helmets.

Do you see? The proposition is expressed as a binary one – people wearing helmets vs people not. Therefore we assume that the rate of wearing vs not wearing helmets must be similar. And so the graph is shocking. But we don’t get told what the ratios are – we’re left to deduce it. And notice the way the number of deaths while wearing helmets jumps towards the end – is that because helmets suddenly became dangerous, or because more people were wearing them?

Let me take a similar example. If that graph were deaths while cycling bare-headed, versus deaths while wearing (it’s America , so let’s go native) 10-gallon hats. We would see far fewer deaths while wearing 10-gallon hats. So 10-gallon hats should be mandatory. Or how about cycling while dressed as the Native American from the Village People? I reckon that would be no deaths. So that’s far safer than cycling without a feathery head-dress.

In fact, if you think about it, if everybody in the USA wore a helmet while cycling, 100% of cycling deaths would involve people wearing helmets. On which basis, helmets should be banned to make everybody safer.

So my moral here is – get the context when someone presents what looks like a scientific argument. Or run the risk that your government insists you have to stick gladioli up your nose before getting on a bike. Nobody with a gladiolus in each nostril died in a cycling accident. It’s a scientific fact. So let’s take no more risks – let’s legislate.

Quick Church Warden Joke

Bertie, one of the Wardens up at the church, has a special doctor’s appointment tomorrow morning.

I believe, from what they say in the village, that he must be nearing eighty. Certainly he’s an old boy of Little Tremlett School, which closed its doors back in the forties. Yet he barely looks a day over fifty. They reckon that his remarkable youth is down to his receiving a dose of special “reviving” hormones periodically, which village rumour connects to concepts such as “monkey glands” and “something a civet would rather not live without”.

Anyway, tomorrow he’s off to the doctor’s for his latest dose. Apparently each booster lasts five years. The women at the church refer to it as his “Quinquennial injection”.

The Bad Science Chronicles – Giles Fraser

Sorry to have one last moan about Giles Fraser, but I think it’s worth it. Not because it’s right always to have a bash at Giles Fraser, but because he’s illustrated a scientific conundrum quite nicely. Again, from his “taking pills for unhappiness” piece. Others have had a right old go on other grounds, but there’s one more thing I didn’t mention last time. Let me quote.

“It is significant that psychoactive drugs were originally developed for other purposes. Drugs such as Thorazine, Miltown and Marsilid were developed in the 50s as ways to treat infections. But they were also seen to have mood-altering side-effects – though scientists had no idea why or how. So, as several writers have pointed out, “instead of developing a drug to fit an abnormality an abnormality was postulated to fit a drug”. Thus we are encouraged to think of our problems in terms of the lucrative solutions to problems we didn’t know we had. In this way, the pharmaceutical companies are responsible for the very conditions they propose to alleviate”

Let’s just apply this to another drug.

Let’s take a drug that is definitely not used for what its original “intent” was. Let’s look at the compound called salicylic acid. It’s a constituent of the bark of willow trees (hence its name – willow being “salix” in Latin). Its primary use, if I can call it that, is in helping trees to resist pathogens.

Just happens that same action has, in human beings, an anti-inflammatory effect. So a natural medicinal use arose – chewing willow bark (or making an infusion of it) to cure headaches and reduce fevers.

A derivative of salicylic acid was made in the lab – acetylsalicylic acid. It’s less likely to cause direct damage than the original, but metabolises down to salicylic acid. It’s called “aspirin”, and it’s one of the commonest, and least expensive, drugs in the world.

Recent investigations of aspirin have revealed that it can have an effect in protecting against heart attacks.  Now, on Giles Frasers’ implied criticism of depression drugs, this would be all wrong. Salicylic acid’s main use is protecting trees against pathogens. Aspirin’s intended use was as a pain reliever for headaches and fevers. Clearly, we couldn’t use it for what it’s not intended for – to treat or pre-empt heart problems? Not if we think we can only use drugs for what they are “intended” for.

But this is science. And in science, you deal with what is, rather than what is intended. If aspirin treats heart conditions, you should use if for that. It doesn’t matter if you were trying to cure your headache and you helped your heart – in the same way that somebody discovered that antibiotics can cure some cases of peptic ulcers. The point is, if the drug works, it works. If the drug doesn’t, it doesn’t. That’s what science is supposed to be.

And aspirin is a classic example. If aspirin is an effective method of helping certain heart disease issues (NB I’m not a doctor, and I’m not a very good drug designer – please consult your GP), and if medical scientists identified this and told people about it – and they did – then that’s quite a good counter-example to the Big-pharma-evil-companies-pushing-drugs theory. Because aspirin is way, way out of patent protection. It’s completely generic. Anybody can sell it over the counter, and nobody makes much money out of it. Yet the scientists reported its effects nonetheless.

In science, you look for one thing and you find something else. That’s what sometimes happens. If you’re a good scientist, you don’t fret that you were looking for something else, and you don’t worry about whether you were intending something completely different. You go with the evidence, and see where it takes you.

Depression is not Being a Bit Sad

[Edit: I’d really recommend going and reading this from “thedirtyho”, which is far better than mine and written from the inside]

If your short-term partner has left you, but you’ve had other partners in the past and will probably – given a few days’ self-pity – get over it, and in a few weeks find another one – then have a few drinks with some mates. In the morning, you’ll worry more about the headache than your failed relationship.

If you’re feeling relatively down because you spend every day in your office, writing progress reports that explain you’ve made no progress since the last progress report because you’re constantly in futile meetings to review your progress reports – go for a walk at lunch time. Will do you the power of good.

If you need a bit of cheering up, talk to your friends. They like you.

If you’re a popular liberal Christian, and need a bit of reassurance or just a few quid – write a Guardian column. You’ll feel fantastic.

Normally, if you’ve lost a loved one – you will feel pretty desolate, and then gradually time softens the blow. Or you might feel numb, and then guilty about that. These are both normal.

If you’re just a bit down, you’ll probably get over it. And sometimes, being sad is the right response to your situation. And if you think the world’s full of injustice and you’re angry, this is an appropriate reaction.

If every day is blankness or blackness, and you can’t talk to your friends because you don’t think you have any, and your closest family can’t see what the problem is, and there appears to be no way out, and every day you are tired and every evening you fear your failure to go to sleep, and there’s no bloody way out of it no matter what you see or how much encouragement you get from others, and no matter how many people tell you to cheer up because it will never happen – don’t read any articles on the subject by Giles Fraser. Don’t talk to the sort of Christians who’ll tell you that Jesus will instantly heal you. If you do talk to that sort of Christian, don’t tell them you’ve been instantly healed, even if you believe it  – because you really won’t need the guilt when you find out you’re wrong. Go and see your pastor, if they’re sensible and you have one – and then go and see your doctor. Don’t tell yourself they won’t help, because they can. Don’t tell yourself you don’t need drugs – because you might. You might not – but you’re not necessarily the right person  to tell – not currently being the sort of self-sufficient, self-contained, aren’t-I-great Guardian reader that you might be at other times. Don’t think you’re a failure – because millions of people struggle in this world, in different ways, and need their own kind of support. And it’s not a matter of weakness, and it’s not your fault. Go and get the help you need. We all need help – not all the same help, not all for the same reasons. But this is the help that you need. So go and get it.

Unexpected Scientific Heroes

By applying the maths that flow from the Theory of Relativity, he was the first to propose the expanding universe, and later what we call the Big Bang. He came up with  Hubble’s Law, and calculated an approximation of Hubble’s Constant. Einstein was skeptical about his theories and it was Einstein that was wrong . (Einstein, being a good scientist, changed his views in the light of the evidence).

Yet his name’s not Hubble, it’s Georges Lemaître.

Yet, for a theory that implies the Universe is billions of years old, and for developing a mathematical model of how it all happened, look at the sanctions the Church applied to Mgr Lemaître.  (The clue’s in his title-  he was made a “Monsignor”. )

He’s also a famous Belgian. Quite a bloke. He was also a Cambridge man but, let’s face it, nobody’s perfect.

Quick Extinction Joke

Two Neanderthals walk into a bar. Even though it’s a dimly-lit bar, they can see perfectly every crevice, every cobweb in the ceiling, each individual bubble in their pints of bitter, the fingerprints on the glasses – every detail of the whole shebang. They have extremely well-developed visual processing centres in their brains.

Unfortunately, a couple of Homo Sapiens are having a game of darts. This being a Neanderthal bar, they can’t really see what they’re doing. One of them misses the board completely with all three throws, taking out all the remaining Neanderthals. Hearing the shouts and cries, the Homo Sapiens panic and run – crashing straight into two walls before they find the door, but they get out.

Sometimes Survival of the Fittest is little more than a vague aspiration.

Interpreting the Signs of the Times

For those of my readers who live in other parts of the world, where the weather is not an everyday topic of conversation: I should say that the last few days in England have been warm. Today was a big day for weddings, and I suspect was the kind of day when overweight music-group members are just grateful they are not officiating, and therefore can wear lightweight clothing instead of surplices, cassocks and other appropriate clerical garb. Those married today will have had a roasting and probably quite uncomfortable day, but will in years to come look back on the perfect weather.

In the United Kingdom we have a government body called the Met Office. Originally set up to tell people what the weather was going to be, they diversified. Now the first thing that any weather person does is tell you what the weather currently is – which is, unless you buried 3 miles deep in an air-conditioned office, something you already know – and then they try to make you feel either guilty or terrified about what the weather is going to be.

Now, the Met Office has a whole series of differently coloured alarms which they attribute to different weather conditions. I’d give you the URL, but frankly they combine extreme scare mongering with utter boredom. So let me give you the following summary:

IN HOT WEATHER

Yellow alert – the sun is going to be yellow. Be prepared to move into the shade if you go an interesting pink colour.

Orange alert – the sun is still going to be yellow but it will be warmer. Get someone to hose you down every thirty seconds. Do not leave the house, as the roads will be crawling with locusts, ants and aphids.

Amber alert – like an orange alert, but people don’t stop.

Red alert – we are all going to die. Forget about work. Nip to Tesco to get plenty of beer in, lay a wet towel on your head, lay down and watch the Test. It’s all your fault for not recycling your bottles and jars.

IN COLD WEATHER

Yellow alert – the sun is going to be yellow, but something appears to be wrong with it. If the yellow alert is for snow, don’t eat it.

Orange alert – best described as a bit parky. Maybe wear an extra sweater if you’re going to be walking a long way.

Amber alert – really quite chilly. If you are going to the pub, do not have a cold shower before walking six miles home. Unless you’re that Belgian bloke in the beer advert, of course.

Red alert – like a red ski slope. It is very snowy. Do not go outside, as the streets will be crawling with penguins, Yetis and Michael Palin. Do not, under any circumstances, take off all your clothes, open the windows and have a four-hour snow bath. Especially not if you are old or unwell.

IN WET WEATHER

Yellow alert – it’s a bit wet. Mind how you go.

Blue alert – the water levels are rising. You wish you’d not switched that extra bar on the fire during last winter’s Amber Cold Alert, don’t you? You should have let yourself freeze, and then you wouldn’t have been in this situation.

Green alert – the water is now over your window sill. Maybe you should get the canoe out?

IN BORING WEATHER

Yellow alert – the weather person on TV says it’s “quiet”.

Amber Alert – Words like “mizzling” and “spits and spots” may feature in the evening forecast, in a desperate attempt to make it sound interesting

Orange Alert – The weather people start trotting out stats like “it’s the most boring day’s weather in the UK since 1974. And that was only really boring in Northern Ireland.”

Red Alert – The Met Office have failed. Nobody cares about the weather any more. Do not leave your house – the streets will be thronged with redundant weather people.