Swine Flu stupidity and hype

With about as much surprise as the sky being blue we find ourselves in the midst of a media whirlwind about the latest influenza outbreak. As per usual interesting world events always seem to happen when I’m traveling overseas, although in this case it was only Tasmania so I wasn’t too much out of touch with what was happening. However the media I had access to wasn’t initially the CDC website, WHO website or anywhere truly useful but the bog standard and crappy normal media with their teams of incompetent buffoons. However it would appear I was not the only one and even those who should know better, such a national health ministers, seem unable to know how to find out useful information.

The initial surprise of how long Mexico sat on their hands before realising they had a serious problem was soon followed by reports of countries banning pork. After Indonesia’s debacle at handling the H5N1 problem and their ongoing deaths I would have thought that Mexico noticed this and also China’s canning over it’s slow response to ask for help. But apparently not. Reports trickling out of the backwaters of Mexico suggest that this virus has been on the go since early March, which is fantastic as it has been widely accepted that contagious diseases need to have containment and controls lines set up within 21 days. It is simply amazing that a country such as Mexico, which I thought was reasonably advanced, could have botched this so badly. Hopefully they will learn from this as their economy takes a thumping as it closes down for a week or two.

And then we find that various countries around the world are banning imports of pork products. Like, WTF? I realise that in nearly all of these countries the level of science education is quite low but it really isn’t rocket science to know that influenza is transmitted by contact and people coughing. It is not the sort of disease transmitted by eating the creatures infected. And what’s more, last time I checked most people cook pork and don’t eat raw pig lungs.

However, for some good news, CNN has actually had some decent reporting. Pointing out the usual weekly death rate from flu in the USA is still more than the all the deaths of this H1N1 strain is a step in the right direction. Furthermore pointing out the world isn’t going to end in a Zombie controlled mess and the current lethality is only 8% is also a good step in countering the usual hype from the media.

And then we get the dumness again. Here in Australia we have the thermal scanning at airports. Even after the experts point out it will not work because people carrying the virus don’t develop symptoms for 7 days we get stupid claims about “protecting Australia”. Pigs arse you are going to protect Australia this way. It has been pointed out before there really is no way to prevent the spread of these types of diseases. Sure, you can slow them down so your health services are not swamped but the conception of detecting something with such a long latency is simply a joke. The money would be better spent on direct health care where and when it is needed.

Now we get onto some of the local comments. We have the various health ministers and experts commenting on how well prepared we are to handle this. As someone who has had a child with Influenza A in hospital in Adelaide ,I’ll call bullshit on that one. The concept of isolation was not used until my sick son had been sitting amongst non flu hospital patients for about 4 hours. And this was in the middle of the flu A outbreak when the hospitals ran out of ward space. This was the same year the hospital morgue ran out of room and the refrigerated shipping containers were used for overflow. Now I’m not saying that this isn’t coping but it isn’t coping in the way your average voting citizen expects. Why can’t they be upfront about what will happen if this is a pandemic? Be open with the fact that hospitals won’t have room, it’s simply too expensive to have that much spare capacity. Be open with the fact your morgue will overflow and you’ll be using shipping containers. Even if we had a measly 1% of very sick people there is no way in a pink fit 10,000 people turning up to hospitals in Adelaide is going to work. And if we had 10% sick and 1% fatalities just be open and realistic that the standard of health care is simply not going to be very good. Doctors and nurses don’t grow on trees. Neither do administration staff or people who drive medical supply trucks or ambulances. We live in such a safe society we simply can’t deal with small disasters and our expectations of health care and government support are incredibly high due to lack of major threats for many generations.

So in summary, ignore the wild hype, we don’t need to get excited and run around like headless chooks. Yep, it may be really bad however it most likely won’t be as bad as what your grandparents survived in 1918 and the resources we do have these days are so much better. You really don’t need to get too exited, you were listening to the repeated warnings scientists have been saying for decades about this sort of scenario? You did support increased science funding by lobbying politicians didn’t you? Because without that lobbying we wouldn’t have the H1N1 vaccine already…oh wait…you listened to the hype and not the scientists? Maybe if a few more media stations did what CNN has now done and have some decent science reporting this current mess would not have got out of control.

Posting for Skeptics Circle…

To save a few clicks via the “ABOUT” tab (sheesh) here’s the email address for submissions for the next Skeptics Circle.

Isn’t anyone psychic anymore?

info at skepticssa dot org dot au


OK , so roll in the links and see what what appears!

Bonus points for working out the hint.

As this post will be coming from Australia you’ll need to send it early on Wednesday, so i can get it on Thursday, so you can read it on Thursday morning. Before I post it.

Something like that…

OK, for some reason people are channelling a really old email address for me.

Now, we all know this wont work so here it is, hopefully with some degree of spam-proofness.

Climate debate and facts

Reading in the local newspaper last week I was surprised to find the following statement in an opinion piece by Chris Kenny:

People are scorned as “deniers” simply for pointing out the scientifically agreed fact that Earth has not warmed for a decade.

Overall the article, “I’m sick of the scare tactics in climate debate”, is concerned with the rhetoric that currently fills any discussion over climate and so I was curious about the offhand way such a simply wrong fact was thrown in there. In the next paragraph we then had the following:

And that no one has yet proved a link between human activities and/or carbon emissions and climate change.

The second half of this statement could be discussed as the word “prove” can be ambiguous but I was more interested in the first statement, which again is simply wrong.

With this in mind I wrote a letter to the editor and assumed , in this case incorrectly, that it would be simply ignored as that is my first hand experience of any complaints about the standard of journalism in The Advertiser. To my surprise I soon received a phone call from the editor advising me that they would be publishing my letter. Unfortunately The Advertiser does not put it’s letters online, unlike opinion pieces from it’s journalists, so I can’t show you the link to the letter. However I can simply show you what I wrote as I kept a copy. What is below is in two parts, the first part is what was published, the second is what was left out.

“Chris Kenny’s latest opinion piece with a subtitle of “I’m sick of the scare tactics in climate debate”, will I’m sure be leading to pots and kettles eying each other off. Chris makes the claim “People are scorned as “deniers” simply for pointing out the scientifically agreed fact that Earth has not warmed for a decade.” This is simply wrong and not a fact. The scientific consensus is currently well represented by the following statement from the Hadley Climate Center, “A simple mathematical calculation of the temperature change over the latest decade (1998-2007) alone shows a continued warming of 0.1 °C per decade.” Now, people can argue about other issues and what this means, however the fact of observation is not, unless you care to deny reality.Chris further states “And that no one has yet proved a link between human activities and/or carbon emissions and climate change.” Addressing the first part of this claim scientist have clearly demonstrated that the increasing CO2 levels correspond with a decreasing C13/C12 isotope ratio which is due to human burning of fossil fuels and not a natural process.
Simply put Chris, what you said is wrong.
Now, no-one is going to deny there are alarmists in both camps on this topic which really doesn’t help but could we please respect the facts and concentrate the debate on areas of uncertainty?”

The section that was left out of the published letter, for completeness was:

“And as for “Why the scare campaign”? Chris, of all people, being an adviser to a government should know. Because they work, regardless of which side of the fence you live on. The media could perform us all some justice by promoting articles that investigate facts and not just hype the spin, confuse people and promote ignorance. And a few less straw man arguments by journalists claiming to be skeptical wouldn’t go amiss. Skeptics seek the facts to support an argument and promote critical thinking, aspects sadly lacking in this present debate. However for those wanting such a debate, then please come along to the Skeptics National conference in Adelaide in October where this very topic will be debated on the Sunday morning session.”

Now it’s fine to cut the letter and with hindsight what was cut will be going straight back to them because I find out today, 1 week later, it would appear Chris has a bee in his bonnet about this issue. And the straw man arguments return which is really sad because I remember the long past days of decent journalism.

Without further ado here is his rebuke:


Sceptics can’t deny the facts

  • Skeptics SA accused me of getting my climate change facts wrong last week. However, the U.K.’s Hadley Centre shows none of the past 10 years has been as warm as 1998. Sure, the centre claims there is still evidence of a warming trend, albeit reduced from a decade ago. But it confirms that each of the past 10 years has been cooler than 1998.
  • The Skeptics SA letter also referred to scientific consensus. We often hear this term now but science is not about consensus, it is about objective fact.
  • Another reader asks what more Australia could do to reduce carbon emissions. If we were serious, the first thing we would do is lift our ban on uranium exports to India.
  • Just to restate what happened, someone made a claim, it was factually wrong and they were corrected. I would have thought that’s the end of the matter, lesson learnt. As a skeptic I certainly was not denying the facts. And no-one is claiming that 1998 was not a hot year. Is stating that “Sceptics (sic) can’t deny the facts” suggesting that skeptics have denied the facts? Who knows. Perhaps Chris is claiming he is now a skeptic and that even he can’t deny the facts anymore? That would be reassuring however it is again misleading to state something out of context and to ignore the factual reason which is given by the Hadley Centre. To get a view of the temperature over the past few years, here’s the graph showing this.

    The temperature spike at 1998 can clearly be seen. And it’s explanation, which Chris does not even hint at:

    1998 saw an exceptional El Niño event which contributed strongly to that record-breaking year. Research shows that an exceptional El Niño can warm global temperatures by about 0.2 °C in a single year, affecting both the ocean surface and air temperatures over land. Had any recent years experienced such an El Niño, it is very likely that this record would have been broken. 2005 was also an unusually warm year, the second highest in the global record, but was not associated with El Niño conditions that boosted the warmth of 1998.

    A picture says a thousand words and anyone can see that 1998 is an usual year. It is also apparent that what the Hadley Centre claims about increasing temperature is also correct. The fact that 1998 was a record breaking year does not invalidate the statement from the Hadley Centre that the average temperature is increasing. And before people jump in with “but the last 6 years hasn’t warmed” I’d just like to point out we are not denying this. We’d also not support it either because the error bars clearly show the error measurement is much larger that what we are looking for. The correct position is “we don’t really know”. Perhaps some of the readings were wrong, perhaps there were other things happening such as what happened in 1960’s with increased aerosols and particulates, who knows. That’s why we have error bars on good graphs, so we know how good the data is and don’t make incorrect claims.

    This leads into Chris’s second point, that about consensus and his incorrect belief it has no place in science. If the world was perfect, measurements never had errors, all factors and processes were well known, humans were perfect and generally the whole place was painted in black or white then this would be a valid statement. However in the reality based world that science lives in we know this isn’t correct.

    When you make a measurement there is error and variation. Sometimes there are competing explanations for observations. Sometimes the world is complex and it’s not apparent exactly what is influencing what and what the processes are. And sometimes people have differing points of view and different backgrounds that enable them to look at the same data but draw different conclusions. However this does not mean no claims can be made, as many post-modernists are want to do, or that nothing can be said until everyone totally agrees. There is a misconception in the general public, and this applies to nearly all journalists, the vast majority of whom have no background in science, that science gathers pure unambiguous facts and then make a dogmatic decree of the new knowledge gained. This might be great for depicting a scientist for Hollywood but reality is different. Vastly different.

    Actual science involves the rather more nebulous concept of supplying the best explanation for the available evidence. There is no place for dogmatic belief, unlike in religion where maintaining the status quo and existing faith based knowledge is crucially important. The “best explanation” involves many scientists agreeing that a conclusion can be drawn from the available body of evidence and, shock, horror this is usually done in a via consensus. Now some people might suggest the data is not accurate enough, or not enough data has been collected, or that it is not representative or a hundred reasons why they personally cannot accept the proposed conclusion. That’s fine and science allows for dissent, in fact it strives on dissent. However when the vast majority of scientists agree on something then that’s good enough. If someone brings along more,better or different evidence and it’s convincing and of suitable quality then the consensus will change. It would be lovely to live in a world of unambiguous objective fact but unfortunately that world only exists in the minds of those ignorant to the scientific method, those used to living in a world of political decree and religious dogma.

    And for a recent discussion about long term trends, see this article I wrote a while ago.

    Weird but good chemistry video

    From a link on New Science we have this video from Europe.

    Good effort, more please.

    Telstra + “hologram” = BS

    On the front page of my morning paper I find a big shiny article touting Telstras use of a “hologram” at a conference held here.  Here is part of what the article says:

    In an Australian first, Dr Bradlow’s life-sized, real-time hologram walked, talked and interacted with business executives at an Adelaide conference while he stood in front of cameras in Telstra’s Melbourne office.

    A 2D "hologram"

    This is pure bullshit. Telstra was not demonstrating a video hologram, or even a static hologram. A quick check on numerous  websites or in many  books explains what a hologram really is  and the most obvious attribute is that it appears to be a 3D object. Not a 2D image on a screen. In their defense, Telstra and the media are only parroting what the company that supplies this technology is saying.

    What Telstra demonstrated was projecting a video onto a screen. Some of my old magic books show how this is done, the concept is way over 100 years old and is explained on the companies website here. What they have made is a translucent foil which is an improvement over the old perspex and glass setup and allows for larger displays without some of the inherent hazards of large partial mirrors. However, a hologram it isn’t. In the right most section of the image above you can see the base of the foil just above the suits feet, yes he’s standing behind it and yes, those are marks on the ground showing him where to stand to give the best image to the viewers.

    From the supplying companies web site we have this:

    All the images used on an Eyeliner™ system appear as three-dimensional images, but are projected as two-dimensional images (2D/3D) into a 3D stage set. The mind of the audience created the 3D illusion. This means that production costs are minimal, needing only the single camera lens for filming and a single projector for the playback.

    The point of this blog is that by using the word hologram, when people see this they come away with a poor impression of the beauty and true awesomeness of a real hologram. So in future when someone talks about hologram people will be thinking of this old stage trick and not the real thing. This is dumbing down science for no good reason apart from marketing hype. And with decreasing levels of basic science understanding and an increasing amount of technology this is the last thing we need.

    Halal Dolls in Iran??

    After noticing that Iran is about to be destroyed, not by tactical nukes, but Barbie dolls I thought I’d follow up the mention of acceptable dolls for Iran’s children. I was wondering how different Sara and Dara might be from Barbie, expecting the worst. Having found this article from a few years ago.And here is a lovely little picture of Sara and Dara.

    Sara and Dara dolls

    Not too disturbing, until one realises this:

    A complete doll is haram (Arabic for “forbidden”) under strict Islamic law. Unless a part of the body is missing on the doll, the doll is not halal (permitted). It would be considered idol worship.”

    Initially I was wondering if an arm or leg may be missing but then I realised.. there’s probably a shitload of that doll missing! Like teeth or toe-nails for starters. I’d bet it hasn’t a heart nor a brain either.

    But then I realise, “idol worship“? What part of any of a kids doll meets the criterion of “idol”, which according to Wiktionary means

    A graven image or representation of anything that is revered, or believed to convey spiritual power.”

    Please correct if I’m wrong but they shouldn’t really be concerned with Barbie.. revered?? Don’t think so.

    “Convey spritual power”? The only thing Barbie and friends, let alone Sara and Dara, have in common with spiritual power is that the plastic used to make them could also be made into motor spirit to power a car.

    So here’s a big hint to Iran, don’t worry about dolls being Halal, none represent real humans, least of all Barbie. If you really care about kids keep them away from that brain sucking bitch because they seriously screw with girls heads. Remember the Mattel stuff up “Math class is tough” from the 1990’s? That company still does it’s best to keep girls in boxes, and not just the plastic kind. So about the best thing Iran could do is forget about the dodgy reasons for dumping Barbie and go with the real reasons. And if they feel like it, others have gone before them in improving Barbie’s personality to something less pathetic.

    And while I’m putting in links for Sniggle , here’s their rather good pseudoscience page.

    For a totally rant against Bratz, see this. Totally agree.

    Currently MGA, the maker of Bratz, and Mattel, the maker of Barbie, are busy suing the ass off each other.

    Hopefully the judgment is that differences are settled with nuclear weapons at 10 paces.

    Poor mediums being picked on..lets shed some crocodile tears…

    New Scientist Short Sharp Science Blog has a few comments about changes to laws in the UK which will be treating the services provided by mediums with the same sort of responsibility as any other product. As the UK is now part of the EU  many laws have to be changed to bring them into line with standards in other parts of Europe. The old (bad) law guarantees “genuine” mediums some legal protection, obviously not the sort of protection other services have to live with where you are not allowed to lie and steal. The spiritualists are wingeing it is an attack on their religion.
    Unfortunately my irony meter is still broken from a meeting with some Australian “skeptics” the other weekend however I do notice that it appears perfectly fine to delude yourself, delude and exploit others and then claim the moral high ground.
    Last time I looked it was the 21st century and I find it incredible in this day and age when we have real issues to deal with which need a huge and concerted effort by everyone we still have this crap being peddled. Every time the claims about talking with the dead are investigated nothing is found. Unlike science which learns from it’s mistakes the whole spiritualism woo keeps on going with the same tenacity and usefulness as polio.
    For an example of the sort of warnings we could see, this site “Psychic Readings” as an example.
    Psychic.com.au will not be held responsible for any damages that are the result of using this site. This includes the below terms that are likely to cause damage:

    • Failure of the site to conform to the manner or expectation you expected or desired”

    And this is where it gets interesting. Lets say this sort of ‘get out of jail free’ card applied to the toilet I installed yesterday. I go to use it and it instantly overflows and my room is full of crap because it simply doesn’t work. You simply can’t have this sort of “protection” in the real world. This is why the real world, and not psychic.com.au, uses proper customer protection clauses. When you make claims and take money, what you provide is actually meant to work. And this would be my guess as to why the spiritualists are getting grumpy. How are they ever going to demonstrate that their products work? Courts of law are not going to put up with their bullshit excuses.
    “They tell us we will probably be all right but we fear this will end up with one of us in court in front of a judge,” said David McEntee-Taylor, head of the Spiritual Workers Association (SWA).
    Hey sunshine its easy, just demonstrate to the judge your woo working.
    We can only hope..

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