Is it warm or it is just me?

May 21, 2010

It’s rather warm outside today – so where are all the “zOMG!!!!1! Totally Global Warming”, stories?

Whenever it snows in the UK, you can generally rely on some moron to write a piece for the tabloid/right-wing press which basically states:

It has snowed. Thus I have proven that climate change is not happening.

Such an asinine comment demonstrates that the author clearly fails to appreciate the difference between “weather” and “climate.”


However – it is rather warm today. When I climbed into my car, the temperature was 31ºC (see pic) and it later climbed to 32ºC. There is a tree over my driveway which means that my car was mostly in the shade as well. Anyway, according to the BBC/Met office, the average maximum temperature for May in Birmingham (nearest big city), is only 16ºC. The highest temperature ever recorded in Brum in May is only 29ºC!! The not-in-my-car temperature in Birmingham today is apparently 25ºC – pretty close to the record May temperature.

So the question I have is… where are all the articles in the tabloids proclaiming that the warm weather is proof of global warming?

Quick follow-up to “Homeopathy is Witchcraft”

May 19, 2010

Is Dr Tom Dolphin regretting his statement that “Homeopathy is witchcraft“?

I do hope not. Whilst it is perhaps an affront to witches and wiccans to be lumped in with homeopathy, they do not (yet) seem to have been particularly vocal on the matter. This statement at the BMA junior doctors conference has brought another touch of publicity to the ten23 campaign (follow #ten23 on twitter), and put the continued NHS funding of homeopathy back in the spotlight.

(To see the exchange on homeopathy at the junior BMA conference go here, hit the “index points” tab and scroll down to “Motion 80”)

This, in turn, has resulted in another round of interviews on chat shows such as the Jeremy Vine show on BBC radio 2 on 17th May 2010, (Listen from 1hr 08 min – only available in the UK) where an NHS Homeopath (Dr Bob Leckridge), 2 pro-homeopathy and 1 anti-homeopathy callers joined with Radio 2 resident GP Dr Sarah Jarvis to run a few more rounds of the “homeopathy is witchcraft” and perhaps the more pertinent “should homeopathy be funded on the NHS” debates. It also seems that Dr Leckridge had prior knowledge of the case outlined with the first caller – which smacks of a planted, pre-arranged caller – which is a little duplicitous at best – *if* this was done on purpose by the BBC, this is evidence of clear bias in their reporting/coverage of this matter. E-mails shall be sent.

It should be pointed out that as a properly qualified MD, Leckridge is the best sort of homeopath. It would interesting to see whether or not he agrees with some of the grander claims that some homeopaths make about being able to cure cancer and malaria.

Anyway, I’ve listened to quite of a few these now, and you get to spot the same old patterns repeating over-and-over again. In addition to this, Dr Leckridge made some rather sweeping statements on the radio that I would like to address.

The anecdotal evidence submitted by callers is clearly irrelevant, as it is uncontrolled, and “the plural of anecdote is not data”.

(There is a longer list of more pro-homeopathy “arguments” at the Alice in Galaxyland blog, I’ll restrict myself to the arguments that cropped up in the Jeremy Vine show on Monday.)

1) Some people get better after seeing a homeopath.

This is a classic post hoc ergo propter hoc or “false cause” fallacy – just because someone gets better, doesn’t necessarily mean that it was the seeing of a homeopath or taking of a sugar pill that made them better. This is why we have randomised controlled trials using statistically significant numbers of patients. It is also why we conduct lots and lots (and lots) of scientific experiments to try and define and determine a mechanism of action for a genuine, conventional pharmaceutical remedy. We have only had the tools to ‘discover’ this level of proof en masse for the past 20-30 years or so. And yes, there are many genuine, conventional pharmaceutical remedies for which we have not a determined molecular mechanism… which allows us to neatly segue into fallacy #2.

2) We don’t know how X works, therefore homeopathy does/can work too.

An “argument from ignorance” fallacy.

In the above Jermey Vine show, Homeopath Dr Leckridge stated that “we don’t know how antidepressants work” – and to a certain point, he’s correct. I’m a molecular mechanisms kind of guy – let’s take a look at Prozac, aka Fluoxetine. A quick search of PUBMED reveals that only 7451 papers have the word “Fluoxetine” in their title or abstract. Only 28 Cochrane library reviews contain the word “Fluoxetine” in their title/abstract. Only.

We know that Fluoxetine is an Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, in that it selectively inhibits serotonin reuptake (duh) and that Fluoxetine leads to the phosphorylation (activation) of ERK1/2 MAP kinases, most probably by interacting with the 5-HT2b receptor. We don’t know precisely how this activation of ERK1/2 leads to inhibition of serotonin reuptake. We do, however have good RCT evidence for the efficacy of Fluoxetine for depression, Obsessive compulsive disorder, bulimia nervosa, panic disorder and more.

But because we haven’t yet joined up the dots from ERK1/2 activation to inhibition of serotonin reuptake, the mechanistically implausible affront to rational thinking that is homeopathy works, right? Wrong. (I should mention here that we do not know the molecular mechanism for any homeopathic remedies, mostly because they do not have molecules in them.)

3) My dog/horse/cow/alpaca/kitten/parakeet/child got better after I gave them homeopathy? How can it be the placebo effect if it worked on them?

This is simply not the case. In an everyday situation, the owner of the animal / parent of the child knows what treatment the animal / child is getting, and their interaction with and perception of the disease state the animal / child is influenced by that.

Even in RCT situations, children and animals have shown to be susceptible to the placebo effect.
For Children:
Placebo efficacy in childhood and adolescence migraine: an analysis of double-blind and placebo-controlled studies.
For Animals:
“The placebo effect is well documented in animal trials [12,3,24], and explained by Pavlovian conditioning”
from here (and refs therein) and an interesting piece in the Science based medicine blog (and refs therein)

4) NHS doctors just want to pump us full of antibiotics for respiratory tract infections. Therefore homeopathy works?

This point was neatly refuted by Dr Jarvis on the show, and even if it were not, it does not mean that homeopathy works or that homeopathy should be funded on the NHS. As such it is a complete non sequitur.

It is worthy of note that the excellent NHS choices website contains information on the treatment of RTIs:

The outlook for respiratory tract infections is generally good. Most infections are self-limiting, which means that they will pass without the need for treatment.

However, extra care and additional treatment may be required for people who are more vulnerable to the effects of infection.

5) There is in-vitro evidence for the effect of ultra-dilute homeopathic remedies.

Quite simply, NO, there isn’t. Every paper I have seen that seeks to show an effect of an ultra-dilute homeopathic remedy in cell culture systems has some sort of critical flaw, whether it be the basophil excitation assay that Maddox et al demonstrated to be nothing more than wishful thinking, or the more recent cell culture papers by Sunila et al or Frenkel et al, they have all been shown to be poorly designed experiments, which more often than not, report the effect of ethanol or silicates in cell culture.

(It is worthy of note that apparently an unwilling author on the Frenkel et al paper has now come forwards and raised further problems with that paper.)

As happens time and time again, when thrust into the glare of publicity and public scrutiny, homeopathy fails to convince and resorts to the same old misdirection and misinformation.

What Proportional Representation would have meant…

May 8, 2010

A quick note about what a PR system would have meant on Thursday night.

Yes – electoral reform is on the cards. I blogged about this a week or so ago, and whilst it is a fair system, it does have caveats, albeit small ones.

So, going by figures on the BBC news website – these are the rough distribution of seats if PR had been applied to thursdays results:

Proportion of Vote (%) PR SEATS FPTP Seats Difference
Conservative 36.1 234 306 -72
Labour 29 188 258 -70
Liberal Democrat 23 149 57 92
Democratic Unionist Party 0.6 4 8 -4
Scottish National Party 1.7 11 6 5
Sinn Fein 0.6 4 5 -1
Plaid Cymru 0.6 4 3 1
Social Democratic & Labour Party 0.4 3 3 0
Green 1 6 1 5
Alliance Party 0.1 1 1 0
UK Independence Party 3.1 20 0 20
British National Party 1.9 12 0 12
Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force 0.3 2 0 2
English Democrats 0.2 1 0 1
Respect-Unity Coalition 0.1 1 0 1
Traditional Unionist Voice 0.1 1 0 1
Christian Party 0.1 1 0 1
Independent Community and Health Concern 0.1 1 0 1

Note) – numbers don’t completely add up due to lack of info on smaller parties and a missing seat.

So  – we can see that the Lib Dems do really well, as do the smaller fringe parties. This is at the expense of the major two parties, which is exactly what we’d expect — given that’s what the electorate voted for!

Proportional Representation is fair – but fair in the UK means that the BNP may get 12 seats, and UKIP may get 20 seats. Greens may get 6.

Click to embiggen

All this assumes that in the PR system the UK will hopefully adopt, no ‘margin’ (a threshold of the vote that a party has to get to to ensure it gets representation) is imposed. A threshold set at 2% would exclude the BNP, but also parties that currently have seats, and might expect to retain representation, particularly the Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh national parties.

Anyway, if PR becomes a reality – we must be prepared to expect something like this. Just an FYI.

EDIT: Since I published this the electoral commission have done a more rigorous analysis of the May 6th Vote.

Wrote a note in my diary on Friday morning… it simply reads: “Bugger”

May 8, 2010

A quick and probably overly pessimistic look at why SciVote may have failed to have an impact.

Numbers, numbers, numbers…

I heart science. I do science for a living. Science and me can generally be found sitting in a tree, and up to no good. Science has been a source of constant fascination to me for as long as I can remember. Science and the science economy is doubtless immensely important to the UK economy as a whole.

But the efforts to mobilise the science vote for the LibDems on the 6th of May failed.

Not only did the LibDems lose seats, the peerless science advocate MP Dr Evan Harris was pipped to the post in Oxford West by 176 votes. All this whilst the more inane members of the tory party ( “Mad Nad” Dorries, Woo-devotee Tredinnick ) managed to keep their seats.

So why is this? An oft quoted figure for the potential impact of the scivote was the “3.3 million science and engineering votes”, bandied around by the New scientist. This seems like a decent number. Over half the total number of votes the LibDems got in 2005 [PDF] — it all seemed credible and feasible — 3.3 million votes to put behind the party with the best science policies would have an impact.

However, the lack of obvious science vote and the general Lib Dem fail have caused me have a bit of think about this 3.3 million figure.

In my 2nd year of biochemistry, we had some lectures on career choices. An interesting fact was that less than one third of biochemistry graduates go on to do research for a career, whether it be in academia or in industry A rather depressing fact is that more than 40% of Biochemistry graduates went into banking.

According to the ONS (link – .xls file) there are 3.3M “professionals” employed in the UK. Of these, 1.03M are in the STEM sector (Science Professionals, Engineering Professionals, ICT professionals). This suggests that that the 1/3 of biochemistry graduates going on to use their degree as intended is broadly replicated across STEM disciplines.

Just beacuse someone has a STEM degree, doesn’t mean that they do STEM for a living, or indeed that they might have a vested interest in STEM investment, or that STEM might be an important election issue for them.

Voting intentions.

According to the higher education statistics agency,  there are 260,000 academic professionals (I think this means postdocs, fellows, lecturers, readers, professors) in the UK. Academics traditionally vote left-of-centre, with ~70% of them favouring Lib Dem or Labour (data from this 2001 THE piece – if anyone has more upto date info – please comment!).

So, based upon this, we have a group of 1M STEM workers, a good chunk of whom probably already vote for the Lib Dems or Labour. Sadly I am forced to conlcude that the SciVote initiative merely resulted in the shuffling of deck-chairs on the Lib/Lab titanic.

In order for SciVote to have an effect, it must reach beyond the scope of STEM workers, and into the general public. Publicity generated by high profile scientists, such as professors Cox, Hawking, Dawkins, and Al-Khalili could/should be used as a stepping off point to better engage the public in science – not just the “hey, look how brilliant science is” and the “wow! this looks ace” aspects, but the economic and social benefits of science [PDF].

Until this is done, the voter on the street is not going adjust their vote in order to benefit something in which he/she does not have a vested interest, or perhaps see an obvious and tangible return within the lifetime of a government.

SciVote must quickly engage with the new STEM recruits in the house of commons (full list here), and try and push STEM back up the political agenda as quickly as possible. This can and should be done in a cross-party manner, and irrespective of who has the keys for number 10. And as a matter of urgency.

The Campaign for Electoral Reform Begins here…

May 1, 2010

Time to get political… (it was always going to happen)

This is the last weekend of the 2010 general election campaign.  It has been a fascinating few weeks for UK politics – the big story being (whether you happen to like him or not) Nick Clegg’s game changing appearances in the parliamentary leaders debates.

Before that, the Lib Dems polled around 20% of the vote – after the first debate, they polled around 30% and frequently find themselves in second place. Clegg’s public exposure transformed him an also ran and the butt of endless “the other one” jokes on “Have I Got News For You”, to a recognisable, genuine, credible candidate for office.

Fig 1 - Trends in the polls around the First leaders debate (central vertical marker) (Screenshot from BBC news website.)

Shortly after the first leaders debate, the BBC poll aggregator, a.k.a “Poll of Polls”, showed that:

  • Conservative 37% > 33%
  • Labour 31% > 29%
  • Lib Dems 21% > 29%
  • Others 11% > 9%

So whilst the Lib Dems took most votes from the Conservatives (perhaps those voting Conservative because they simply did not want to vote Labour, and hadn’t previously seen the Lib Dems as a credible alternative), they did gain from both sides of the political spectrum. With this levelling of the political playing field, you might assume that we’d have a hung Parliament – and you’d be right. But not in a good way.

Let us assume that the percentages of the “popular vote” – I.e votes cast for individual parties – in the election is 30:30:30:10 (Tory,Labour,LibDem,Others). In a democracy, you might assume that the numbers of elected representatives might be evenly split in a political debating chamber.

However, you might be surprised to learn that we do not live in a democracy (and I don’t mean this in a tin foil hat conspiracy sort of way).

Plugging these numbers in to the BBC news poll predictor (fig2) reveals that an even split of the vote results in a distinctly uneven split of MPs.

Fig 2 - House of Commons Seat prediction based upon a 30:30:30:10 split of the popular vote (Screenshot from BBC news website)

Note – there are a few caveats one needs to be aware of using such predictive tools – the first being that apparently the UK has a population of 100.1%. The second being that a major assumption of these tools is that the changes in vote are evenly spread across all constituencies.

Anyway, as you can see, an even split in the popular vote leads to a house of commons consisting of 31.8 % Tory, 48.3 % Labour, 15% Liberal Democrat and 4.4% others. There is no way that this can be seen as anything approaching fair and democratic.

The current “first past the post” system is clearly an anathema to reason and fairness.

Proportional representation – the way ahead?

The proportional representation (PR) system directly links the number of representatives per party to their portion of the popular vote. Clearly, a much more democratic and fair system.

If we assume 650 MPs, and divy up the MPs as per the 2005 election results (taken from this pdf – table on page 92) this is what PR would have given us in 2005:

%age pop. vote
PR Seats
FPTP Seats Change
Labour 35.20% 229 335 -106
Tory 32.40% 211 198 13
Lib Dem 22.00% 143 62 81
UKIP 2.20% 14 0 14
Scottish 1.50% 10 6 4
Green 1.00% 7 7
DUP 0.90% 6 9 -3
BNP 0.70% 5 5
Plaid 0.60% 4 3 1
SinnFein 0.60% 4 5 -1
UDP 0.50% 3 1 2
SDLP 0.50% 3 3 0
Independent 0.40% 3 3
Respect 0.30% 2 1 1
SSP 0.20% 1 1
Veritas 0.10% 1 1
Alliance 0.10% 1 1
No Description 0.10% 1 1 0
SLP 0.10% 1 1
Liberal Party 0.10% 1 1
Ind – Kidderminster 0.10% 1 1 0
Speaker 0.10% 1 1 0
English Democrats 0.10% 1 1
Socialist Alternative 0.03% 1 1

(note – percentage figures from the original table were rounded to 1 d.p)

(PR seats = number of seats based upon proportion of popular vote. FPTP seats = actual seats after 2005 general election.)

So, what can we infer from this?

  1. The incumbent party has most to lose from implementation of PR – which is probably why it hasn’t happened yet.
  2. Fringe parties are better able to get representation in the house of commons – this is often touted by the major parties as a good reason to not implement PR. As we can see, the BNP would gain 5 seats in the house of commons – now, I find the BNP abhorrent, a vile, blinkered, nationalist party that prey on the unfounded fears of certain sections of society. However, if ~192,000 people choose to vote for them, a true democracy requires that their voices are heard in the political arena.
  3. The Northern Irish parties seem to fare badly – I suspect that this may be because there are fewer inhabitants per constituency in N.I than on average.

However, despite these caveats, a political system based upon the principles of PR would be fair and democratic.

In order to allow efficient governance within a PR-based parliament, a coalition system would seem to be a fairly good way of achieving a workable majority in any legislative assembly. The major three parties still hold the balance of power, (583 out of 650 seats) but would have to ally with each other and work together to help push legislation through (either permanently or for certain issues). The smaller parties account for the remaining 67 seats.

The more right wing block of UKIP + BNP + English Democrats +Veritas would have 21 seats between them and whilst this is representation in the house of commons, it is not going to be sufficient to effect major change to the UK’s policies, certainly in isolation. They would have to ally with a major party or two to get legislation implemented, and one might hope that this would prevent more radical policies getting into law. So those that like to infer that PR leads to adoption of radical policies are almost certainly wrong.

The clutch of smaller left wing  parties would not fare as well (>10 seats), but then as 2 of the main 3 parties can claim to be centre-left, this sort-of balances out.

The fact that the seats are more spread across the parties means that lobbying on a party basis will be less effective, and should make the UK parliament more resistant to interference from vested interests *cough* Murdoch *cough*.

There is no doubt that there would need to be a major change in how politics is done in the UK, which IMHO is a good thing. Keeping the status quo because change is difficult or uncertain is not a good reason to not implement change, especially when it results in a fairer, more democratic system.

I think that this quick analysis of the vote and the effect that proportional representation would have on the house of commons effectively dispels some of the scaremongering that the major parties (i.e. those with most to lose) like to indulge in. Cooperation between parties would have to become more commonplace, which would hopefully lead to more legislation which effectively deals with concerns on both sides of the political divide, and in turn leads to a system of governance that better represents the views of the people. Which is kind of what democracy is all about, innit?

Interestingly, the wooden spoon in the 2005 election went to the “Telepathic alliance” with 34 votes.  <obvious joke> You’d think they’d have clairvoyance enough to stay at home and not waste their deposit. </obvious joke>