Friday, 4 December 2009

The Big Questions

Stephen Landsburg's new book arrived this morning. So far, slightly disappointing if at least generally entertaining. He's definitely better at economics than philosophy. My favourite sentence thus far:
In one recent survey, 39% of New Yorkers said they would leave the city "if they could"! Every one of them was in New York on the day of the interview, so we know that at a minimum 39% of New Yorkers lie to pollsters.
Ok, that's two sentences, but it's classic Landsburg.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Why on earth did we watch Oceans 11 on TV?

A couple of weeks ago, my flatmates and I watched Ocean's Eleven when it was on ITV1 (or whatever that channel is called these days. We noticed it was on later that night, decided we were going to watch it when it was on, and then sat through the whole film adverts and all. This was exceptionally bizarre behaviour, not because we didn't like the film (as far as I'm aware, we all do) but because I have Ocean's Eleven on DVD! As far as I can tell, watching a film on DVD is strictly preferable to watching it on TV - no adverts, you can pause it whenever you want, you get to decide the start time, you can always just come back to it later, etc. etc. I've genuinely been struggling to come up with a sensible explanation for our behaviour.

One possible idea is something about the power of trivial inconveniences - maybe it's just too much effort to go into my room, open the DVD box, switch the TV source to the X-box and press play. I'm not sure this holds much water though - we could easily have achieved all of these steps in the time it took for the first ad-break in the film. Although I guess that's what Yvain means by 'trivial' - the benefits of being able to pause a DVD are probably a lot smaller than the benefits of unrestricted access to google.

I don't really have any other explanations, apart from maybe some 'race memory' of when everyone used to watch TV at the same time, so we had something to talk about in the office (but people my age just don't do that - a significant fraction of us watch our favourite programmes online as soon as they've been shown in the US). So I'm still left with the puzzle. If watching Ocean's Eleven was the optimal use of our time that evening, and if watching a film on DVD is preferable to watching it on the TV, why on earth did we watch Oceans 11 on TV?

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Ridiculous Laws being taken to their obvious conclusion part 3,298,674

A judge has apparently decided that being really, really bad at leading murder investigations is not sufficient reason to prevent someone from being put in charge of murder investigations. At least not if they're really, really bad at their job because of "religious" reasons. A policeman is suing the department that fired him for proposing the use of psychics in investigations because, apparently, his belief in psychics is a religious belief:
Judge Peter Russell said that the case had merit because his Spiritualist views "have sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance" to be covered by the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.
Maybe next time someone gets a question wrong in one of my probability classes, they should sue me because believing that all of the outcomes in the sample space are equally likely is part of their religion?

This is a problem I've mentioned before: it's very, very difficult to protect "genuine" religions from persecution without also protecting the religions which are even more obviously silly. Religious discrimination laws are a licence to believe whatever you like, and to claim legal protection for acting on that belief: essentially, a licence to do whatever you like at work, as long as you can convince enough other people that doing that thing is "holy". Silly laws lead to silly court cases like this.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Fermi-type questions

Here are a few interesting Fermi-type questions I've been thinking about recently (and, in one case, on and off for about 3 years). These sorts of questions are almost always trivial if you are allowed to use Google, so if you want something interesting to think about, don't.

  1. Are there more trains or stations on the underground? Almost everyone I ask this starts to answer with "there's obviously more..." and then can't decide which there's obviously more of! I think I know the answer, but I'm not entirely sure. They're certainly within an order of magnitude of each other.

  2. How many pints of beer are drunk per year in the Square Mile? A friend of mine had this as an interview question, I'm still not sure what the best way of getting a reasonable estimate is, although I'm confident I could get within 1/2 orders of magnitude.

  3. How many swimming pools full of water does an average person drink in their lifetime? (say, for example, that a swimming pool is 25m x 10m x 2m).

  4. What is the highest number you could count to? (Assume you have to count out loud, and you have to count in English. Assume whatever you like about eating/sleeping/etc.)

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Evidence Based Drug Policy, or "La la la, I can't hear you!"

Professor David Nutt, a government drug policy advisor, has been 'asked to step down' following a terrible incident in which he advised the government on drugs policy.

Nutt published a piece of research (for some reason this isn't linked in either the Guardian or the BBC article.. could they not find it? Or is citing your sources frowned upon in newspaper reports?) stating (among other things) that alcohol is more harmful than cannabis, LSD or Ecstasy.

According to a letter from Alan Johnson to Nutt, this research could lead to a 'confusion between scientific advice and policy' and Nutt was asked to step down. Wait. Let's read that sentence again. 'confusion between scientific advice and policy'. What? Surely if your policy disagrees with the scientific advice, it's time to change your policy? This truly is politics at its worst.

At least Nutt isn't going quietly. Hopefully this will stir up some actual debate. Maybe people will even realise quite how ridiculous the current policy is.

Monday, 19 October 2009

The Formula for the Perfect Night Out: An attractive girl and some Vodka

I haven't had a 'formula' story for a while. Actually, I don't think I've written anything for a while, but anyway, I recently came across this from the Yorkshire Evening Post (well, more specifically, from the advertising department of Vodka Kick, but it was printed in the YEP). Apparently, Phillippa Toon, the new expert 'VKendologist' has come up with the formula for the perfect night out.

What really impresses me about this story is not the total inanity of the formula (I'll get to that in a minute) but the sheer brazenness of the advertising campaign. They picked an attractive girl who happens to be studying science at university, appointed her a 'vkendologist' and then gave an exceedingly dodgy survey to lots of drunk people, before collating the answers to give a completely meaningless 'formula' (I'll get to that in a minute). They don't even try to pretend that the formula is useful - the text of the 'article' directly contradicts what the formula itself would predict, but it's accompanied by a picture of a pretty girl in a labcoat, so that qualifies it as 'science'.

Why do they print these things? Well, I know the answer to that, it's cheap copy for the newspapers, it's a few free drinks and some publicity for Ms. Toon and it's free advertising (which, incidentally, doesn't need to be checked by the ASA) for VK. Maybe the fact that they have had to use a student for this story is a good sign, indicating that real academics are less likely to put their name to this sort of thing than they used to be or (and I think this is more likely) maybe they just advertised the job of 'VKendologist' to students so they were more likely to find a girl who fit their profile (or whose profile fit their profile...).

As for the formula itself. Apparently:
(attractiveness + spontaneity) x (number of friends + venue + timing + the fun time) x (end of the evening factor)
You have no idea what any of that is supposed to mean, don't worry, we're given an explanation later. The fun time, for instance is translated as 'how much fun they have'. I assume this 'factor' in the equation came from the question from the survey:

What is the optimum time of fun on a night out? (For example 10pm to midnight)

So we're multiplying by a time period. I have literally no idea how we're supposed to do that. In fact, so far as I can work out the dimensions of this particular sum are "people + bar + period of time". I'm not sure what units we're supposed to measure 'venue' or 'attractiveness' or 'spontaneity' in - I'm also not quite sure whether being more or less spontaneous is supposed to be better.

In fact, I give up. This isn't even an attempt at a formula, it's an attempt to get the words 'VK' and 'perfect night out' into a newspaper accompanied by a picture of an attractive young woman. It's a total success. This is not entirely the fault of the VK advertising department, or of Phillippa Toon, or even of the Yorkshire Evening Post.

Monday, 24 August 2009

This is an excellent sentence (fragment)

so the fourth Ackermann number is quite large.

From the wikipedia article on the Ackerman function. You really have to have a special interpretation of 'quite' for this sentence to be true.

Monday, 17 August 2009

I used to think Steven Colbert was a parody..

This is possibly the scariest/funniest thing I've ever seen. This guy seems to be genuinely claiming that universal healthcare leads directly to terrorism. I thought that "evil and Orwellian" were going pretty far, but this is insane.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

This literally doesn't seem to add up

How tall is Nelson's column? Apparently until recently, no-one knew the answer to this question.

I realise this is hardly news, as it happened about three years ago, but it's one of the most confusing things I've ever read, I genuinely have no idea how it could be true. Apparently, before someone got up there and measured it, we'd all been massively overestimating

To quote the story:

As part of the most thorough cleaning and restoration of the world-famous monument in its 163-year history, a laser survey was carried out to establish exactly how tall it was.

And the discovery which will render countless school textbooks out of date was that it measures 169ft from street level to the top of Nelson's hat - compared to an official height of 185ft.

I'm supposed to believe that the 'official height' was out by about 16 feet? That's 10% of the actual height. I could make an estimate that's within 10% of the actual height just by holding my finger up against it and squinting. Had no-one tried measuring the thing's shadow? Or dropping something off the top to see how long it took? Or counting how many of those ring-like things there are round the outside? Or giving a barometer to the janitor?

I genuinely find this utterly implausible, but no-one in any of the newspaper stories I can find from the time seems to have questioned it. Lazy reporting? Or am I over-estimating the numeracy of the nation?

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Shops cut prices

I'm not really sure if this qualifies as an inane newspaper article, but it was by far the most interesting thing on the Sun's news page today:

A NEW price war was hotting up last night after Britain's biggest pharmacy chain slashed the cost of a bottle of suncream to £1.

I can't really figure out why this is supposed to be news. Presumably it's some sort of 'credit crunch' story, but it seems more like good old-fashioned competition to me. I was surprised that Lloyd's is Britain's biggest pharmacy (do Boot's only operate in big cities?) but I don't have much more to say.

Even The Sun can get some things right

There is new legislation in the offing regarding the regulation of complementary medicine. This is a bit like having legislation regarding the practice of sorcery: it just doesn't make any sense, and tends to encourage the view that 'alternative' medicine has some legitimacy.

Professor Ernst (whose book I still haven't gotten round to reading) is quoted in the Sun as saying:
If you regulate nonsense, it is still nonsense.
When even the Sun's columnists can make more sense on a topic than the government ministers in charge of it, I think it's time to be worried.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Government Advisors don't understand economics

I'm slightly worried that anyone who reads this blog is going to start to think I get all my news from the Sun: actually I was pointed to this story by Ben Goldacre, but since he was just commenting on an article that appeared in the Sun, I think I'll quote it stight from the horse's as... mouth.

MORE than seven million Brits use illegal downloading sites that cost the economy billions of pounds, Government advisors said today.

Now, I am not an economist, but there is one very simple principle that I have managed to gather from reading only the very basic popular economics literature: a transfer of wealth is not an economic cost.

If I steal £100 from you, I have not cost the economy £100 - you have £100 less, but I have £100 more, so the economy as a whole is just as rich: all it has lost is the opportunity cost of the time I spent stealing the money instead of doing something more productive (and of the time that you spend trying to prevent me from stealing money, etc.). I would have thought this was even more obvious in the case of downloading music: when a track is downloaded one person gets richer (they own a track they didn't own before) and no-one gets poorer; some people who might deserve to get richer don't, but this is not an immediate cost to the economy.

People downloading music without paying the artists might cost the artists the net retail value of the music (although this is debatable): it certainly doesn't cost the economy that much. Goldacre's article points out that the numbers involved are utterly implausible, and that in fact they have been misreported by a factor of 10, but that's not the point: the numbers are not just implausible they are irrelevant.

A proper cost-benefit analysis of internet piracy would take into account the pleasure that people get from listening to downloaded music as well as the cost of failing to incentivise musicians to make more: people who download music are people, and their economic gains are just as real as those of record companies.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Completely Inane Newspaper Stories Part II: Locker Spaniel!

Sat in the café just up the road from our university having lunch today, I mentioned my quest for completely inane newspaper stories, which started at the end of last week with the classic story from the Sun (and the Metro) 'Dog Eat Dog', in which a dog swallowed a plastic toy. We came across a couple of contenders for the title of todays most pointless story, including 'some ducks went into a paddling pool' (that's pretty much all that story says). But there was a clear winner, especially given the context: Locker Spaniel

A NURSE was left stranded after her cocker spaniel ATE her car key.

Yes, the Sun had once again decided that the nation needed to know that.. erm... dogs sometimes swallow stuff they're not supposed to. If you read the article, you'll notice that in actual fact, the nurse wasn't even left stranded - she was in the house when the incident happened, and took the dog to the vet a few days later.. presumably she had a spare key. And this week's headline is way less snappy than last week's too.

What really amazes me about this story is that last week's gem was from Chesire, and this one is set in Leeds - so it isn't just some maverick vet who's sent himself up sending in mildly amusing xrays to the Sun: there are two separate incidents of someone thinking that their dog swallowing something they weren't supposed to is interesting enough to make national news!

Anyway - hopefully the next instalment will be non-dog related, but if these xrays keep on coming, who knows?

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Completely Inane Newspaper Stories Part I: Dog Eat Dog

When I came home after our university's Postgraduate Research Day (and the subsequent inevitable trip to the Senior Common Room Bar...) on Thursday night, I saw The Sun on the couch, open at the astounding headine: Dog Eats Dog.

What, you might ask, could the story be? Some new species of cannibal dog just been discovered in the Amazon? Maybe one of the 'dogs' is just a metaphor? Maybe both are? Maybe it's commentary on ruthlessness in the corporate world? No... to put it in the Sun's own words:

ALFIE the spaniel was sick as a dog after swallowing a toy pup.

Yes, that's right. Almost a full page in a national "newspaper" was devoted to the fact that a dog had swallowed a plastic toy. Now, I know that the Sun is not renowned for its in-depth coverage of topical issues, I know that it only requires a reading age of 3.5 weeks, or whatever it is, but seriously, how slow does a news day does it have to be for a dog's not-particularly-unusual eating habits to make the headlines? Yes, I know it makes for a nice headline, but so what? If they had a photograph of it, would they actually lead with 'Bear Shits in the Woods'? If I send them a video of myself pressing a shirt next week, will they run it with the caption 'Iron Man'?

I'm starting a new quest to find the most inane story I can in a national newspaper (I'm not yet sure whether to count The Metro, which, incidentally, also reported on Alfie's tragic mishap)

Thursday, 7 May 2009

The worst thing about illegal drugs it that they're illegal

No, seriously... According to this article, Portugal decriminalised all drugs about 8 years ago (how I didn't know this, I have no idea) and the results have been exactly what you would expect... less drug-related crime, fewer drug related deaths, more drug addicts seeking treatment and even reduced HIV infection rates:
"Judging by every meric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success," says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. "It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does."
Ok, so the Cato Institute might not exactly be the most unbiased source in the world on this topic, but the fact is that this is exactly what you would expect. Most of the problems related to illegal drugs can be traced back to the fact that they are illegal. I mean, if Ben Elton can figure it out, how difficult can it be?

Unfortunately, I can't see the Tory government that we're pretty much destined to have in the next couple of years following in the Portugese footsteps.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Young Person's Railcard Oyster Discount

This should probably be my facebook status or something, rather than an entire blog post, but I was astounded to discover this week that it is possible to get a discount on (at least.. I haven't bothered to look up the details) off-peak day travelcards on Oyster with a young person's railcard. I have so far saved about £3 since I found this out less than three days ago. Ok, so it's not a massive amount of money, but it's certainly non-trivial. In order to get this discount, all you do is go into the ticket office of any Tube station with both cards, and they'll do it for you (the Oyster card has to be registered, but that's probably a good thing to do anyway).

Anyway, the reason I'm writing this as a blog post is because it made me think: what the Hell is the student union doing? Does everyone else in the world already know this, in which case how come I'm the last to find out? If not, why on Earth is QMSU (and the NUS, for that matter) not shouting it from the rooftops? This could be saving a lot of students fairly significant sums of money, and most of them (ok... some unacceptably high percentage of them) have no idea about it. Seriously, this is probably the one useful thing the student union could have done for me in my time at QMUL (apart from my Topshop discount...), and they haven't. What are these people there for?

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Astonishing new learning method, which doesn't actually work!!

Apparently some pupils at a school in North Tyneside recently took part in an experiment. They crammed for a GCSE for a few hours, while taking exercise breaks in between, and then they took a multiple choice paper on the material. A year later, after four months of traditional teaching, they took a similar paper on different material. The results were... well, I don't know what the results were. The Times article had this to say:
Their average scores were higher for the second paper than for the first one (68 vs 58 per cent). But more than a quarter of students did worse in the second paper, despite the months of preparation.
Yep, that's right. That says absolutely nothing. Who's to say that 1 quarter of students wouldn't have done worse if they'd taken exactly the same paper the very next day? 75% of the students had better grades after traditional teaching than after the new method - whose to say the rest wasn't noise? They don't seem to have a control group cramming in a different manner. According to the article "the repetition is key", but there's exactly nothing in the results that indicates this is the case - they didn't have some other group trying to cram the material in 1h 30 minutes without repeating it.

This might well be a preliminary study, and the techniques it suggests might well prove to be useful in a broader context, but at the moment what they have proven is that trying to cram lots of material in 1 and a half hours is less effective than teaching it over the course of 4 months. Amazing!!

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Science Minister can't answer questions about Science because of his Religion

A Canadian Science Minister Gary Goodyear was asked whether he believed in evolution. His response?
I'm not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate,


Imagine the situation: an economics minister is asked "Do you believe that increasing the minimum wage helps poor people?". His response: "I'm not going to answer that question. I am a Keynesian and I don't think anyone asking a question about my Economic Beliefs is appropriate".

This is just too completely ridiculous for words - if your religious beliefs affect your ability to do your job, then asking questions about them damned well is appropriate. Given that he didn't answer the question, this guy presumably is some sort of creationist, and this is certain to affect his decisions regarding funding for biology (evolution is the organising principle of the whole of modern biology - if you don't believe in it, you have to throw the whole lot out of the window). There is no reason why religious beliefs should sacred (and yes, I know that's a bad word, but I never have been able to think of a better one), any belief which makes you incapable of doing your job is fair game.

Monday, 9 March 2009

CPS takes ridiculous law to its logical conclusion

According to the Mail on Sunday, the CPS has decided to treat Scientology in the same way as other religions when it comes to protections under the Race and Religious Hatred Act.

Now, don't get me wrong - Scientology is a really, really stupid religion - for God's sakes, it was founded by a man who said (something like)
"You don't get rich writing science fiction, if you want to get rich, you start a religion"
For more on this quote, see here - to quote that page:

To summarize: we have nine witnesses: Neison Himmel, Sam Merwin, Sam Moskowitz, Theodore Sturgeon, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, Harlan Ellison, and the three unnamed witnesses of Robert Vaughn Young. There is some confusion and doubt about one of them (Sam Moskowitz). Two are reported via Russel Miller: one is reported via Mike Jittlov: one reported in his autobiography; one reported in an affidavit; and one reported to me in person. The reports describe different events, meaning that Hubbard said it perhaps six times, in six different venues - definitely not just once. And the Church's official disclaimer is now reportedly a flat lie.
It's a really, really stupid religion, it has some utterly ridiculous beliefs as part of its credo, and it does some pretty nasty things to people - but that's not my point here (there are other people far more qualified to comment on the stupidity and cupidity of Scientologists than I am. My point is that if you have laws which explicitly protect religious belief, then you're going to have to use them to protect "religions" like Scientology.

There's no evidence whatever that aliens flew to Earth in DC-8's, but then there's no evidence whatever that people can survive for three days in the belly of a whale, or that any of these things actually happened.

Taken at face value, almost all religious beliefs are ridiculous, and since religions don't demand any actual evidence for their beliefs, just about the only way to distinguish between a religion and a cult is that a religion has more members. This is something I've written about before, and I think it's quite important, and often missed by other people who write about this sort of thing. Once you start to officially recognise one form of unsupported nonsense, you're on a slippery slope to having to officially recognise whatever form of unsupported nonsense people happen to want to believe in tomorrow.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

FSA thinks we're all *really* stupid

There are some new posters up around Whitechapel to encourage healthy eating - not sure if they're made by the FSA or by the local council. Anyway they have some really excellent health tips on them. So far I've seen:

Eating less pastry can help reduce your saturate fat intake.

Mildly patronising, but I suppose possibly useful for people who might not know that pastry is high in saturated fats.

Swapping olive or vegetable oil for butter in cooking could help reduce your saturated fat intake.

Well... ok, if I don't cook with saturated fat as much then I won't get as much saturated fat in my diet. Again, I suppose this could theoretically be useful for people who didn't realise that vegetable oils are healthier than butter (which people these would be, exactly, I wouldn't like to say).

Simply eating healthier snacks can help reduce your saturated fat intake.

Now we're getting really patronising. Since in order for this to make sense healthier can only be defined as "containing less saturated fat", this is almost tautologous, and surely not actually new information for anyone. In fact, after seeing this sign, I suggested (in jest) to my friend that they should just put up a sign which said "eating less saturated fat could reduce your saturated fat intake."... which leads us onto the latest one I've seen:

Just reading labels and choosing options which are lower in saturates could help lower your saturated fat intake.

Yes, seriously, someone thought it was a good idea to put that on a poster. Once again, to paraphrase, because I can't imagine anyone stupid enough that this poster would actually benefit them: "eating less saturated fat could help reduce your saturated fat intake". Is it possible that there's someone out there in the world who is intelligent enough to read a poster multisyllabic words like "saturated" and not intelligent enough to realise that if they want to reduce their saturated fat intake they should eat less saturated fat? I think I've probably repeated myself too much in this final paragraph, but I just can't get over the inanity of this poster campaign - seriously, how stupid does the FSA think we are?

Of course, all this is assuming that reducing saturated fat intake is a good thing, which I am led to believe is far from proven. I'm not an expert, I don't claim Rob Grant is an expert, and I'm not about to claim that the FSA is definitely wrong, but there are certainly well-qualified people out there who are not convinced that a diet high in saturated fats actually does increase blood cholesterol levels (or that this would necessarily be a bad thing if it did). Why doesn't the FSA spend money researching this instead of placing highly irritating and patronising posters on the Tube?

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Former Greenpeace Head sees sense on Nuclear Power

For years I (and no doubt many other people) have wondered why on Earth environmentalist groups who claimed to want to reduce carbon emissions spent so much of their time opposing the only feasible alternative to carbon-based fuels - nuclear power. Finally, it seems, they are starting to see the light. In an article for the Independent, Steven Tindale (a former head of Greenpeace) and three other leading environmentalists come out in favour of nuclear power. Tindale said:

“It was kind of like a religious conversion. Being anti-nuclear was an essential part of being an environmentalist for a long time but now that I’m talking to a number of environmentalists about this, it’s actually quite widespread this view that nuclear power is not ideal but it’s better than climate change.”
That 'religious conversion' point is particularly telling. Steven Landsburg argued years ago that environmentalism was never about saving the environment, it was about following the cathecism.
Things which 'sound' wrong have always been opposed by environmentalists whether they would be a good thing or not - look at Tindale's 'Being anti-nuclear was an essential part of being an environmentalist'. This is certainly something that happens in other areas - I remember when I was a member of an anti-war group in Birmingham, it was widely accepted that in order to oppose the Iraq war you had to oppose the Israeli occupation (I had no problem with that, but why the two should be inherently linked, I have no idea), and it's both irrational and damaging to the cause.

Landsburg's classic example of a basic tenet of enviornmentalistm that may or may not have anything to do with the good of the environment is recycing paper. There is at least a possibility that recycling paper reduces the total number of trees on the planet, by making owning trees less profitable - this may or may not be true, but how many environmentalists would even bother to entertain the notion. Recyling is a Good Thing, wasting paper is a Bad Thing - and you will be shunned for suggesting otherwise (seriously - try it with one of your green friends some time).

Conformity bias is a powerful force, as is consistency bias - the fact that four powerful figures have changed their minds about such a major issue is surely an encouraging sign for environmentalism - whether or not nuclear power is a good thing (I'm pretty convinced it is, but that's not the issue), it's good that environmentalists are willing to actually look at the facts, maybe one day they'll even give their backing to GM....

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The Perfect Pancake

Ok, so I'm probably not the first, and I'm sure I won't be the last, to deconstruct this utterly ridiculous formula, but I mean, seriously... which utterly ridiculous formula you may ask? There are, of course at least two a week in the Metro. Well, for now let's do this one. Dr. Ruth Fairclough who is a "maths expert" and teaches at Wolverhampton University has come up with the following formula for the perfect pancake:

Dr Ruth, who teaches at Wolverhampton University found that
100 - [10L - 7F + C(k - C) + T(m - T)]/(S - E) created the tastiest snack.

In the complex formula L represents the number of lumps in the batter and C equals its consistency.
The letter F stands for the flipping score, k is the ideal consistency and T is the temperature of the pan.
Ideal temp of pan is represented by m, S is the length of time the batter stands before cooking and E is the length of time the cooked pancake sits before being eaten.

The closer to 100 the result is - the better the pancake.
Now we all know how this bit goes. I decide to vary the inputs and see how utterly ridiculous the formula becomes. First let's start with the units. So far as I can tell we have units of "lumps + consistency^2 + Temperature^2)/time". It's a long time since I did any dimensional analysis, but I don't think this is a dimensionless parameter.

Second, let's see what happens if we increase S. In fact, let's increase S a lot, let's leave the batter to stand for, say, 2 million years before we cook it. Then (assuming that the units make some sort of sense) it doesn't matter how bad we get our consistency, or how many lumps we have, it's going to be damn-near perfect. (Anything divided by 2 million years is pretty small).

Now let's see what happens if we let S and e be really close together. Say we let the pancake batter stand for a minute before we cook it, and then eat the pancakes a minute after we have cooked them. Well then, unfortunately, our (S-e) term goes rapidly towards infinity, and it doesn't matter how perfect our consistency was, or how hot the pan - the pancakes are going to be terrible.

We'll skip over the question of what "flipping score" is supposed to mean, and resist the urge to make the obvious play on words...

Finally let's consider those consistency and temperature terms. They are, remember: C(k - C) and T(m - T) where C and T are actual temperature and consistency and k and m are ideal temperature and consistency (why the strange choice of letters I have no idea. Now, depending on the value of (10L-7F), we are either trying to maximise or minimise these terms. If we are maximising them, a little calculus shows that we want to choose C = k/2 and T= m/2. So then we don't actually want to set the pan to the ideal temperature, we want half of the ideal temperature.

But we're probably minimising them (that seems to make more sense.. although why that should affect anything to do with this formula I have no idea). Then we want to choose either T to be one of 0 and m and C to be one of k and M (of course, as these functions are continuous, T arbitarily close to zero will give arbitrarily close to the minimum value. So the optimal temperature for cooking pancakes is either the ideal temperature or zero. And the optimal consistency is either the ideal consistency or zero... remind me again what ideal meant?

Of course, there's no reason why that term we subtract from 100 should be positive. If you're damn good at flipping pancakes, (F is very high) then you might be wanting to minimise those temperature and consistency terms, in order to stop the whole lot being 'too negative'.

Of course, this is all nonsense. I haven't even gone into how one is supposed to give a numerical value to 'consistency' and 'lumps', or the fact that we're not even told what units we're measuring temperature in. It's poppycock, and balderdash. No wonder people think scientists waste all their time doing pointless things when some idiots are willing to put their name to a formula like this. It doesn't help anyone, it's completely uneducational, and it just adds to the idea that maths is something complicated and useless.

I don't know who Ruth Fairclough teaches at the University of Wolverhampton, but I bet she doesn't let them get away with sloppiness on this level in their coursework.

Addendum: Just noticed this excellent post, which makes much the same points as I did, but has a much prettier layout...

Friday, 6 February 2009

Enforced Quackery: Day 7

So, I wondered how long it would be, and it seems the answer is "about 6 weeks". The question? 'How long is it possible to be taught by homeopaths without hearing some nonsense about quantum mechanics?"

Day 7 consisted of a visit to the London Homeopathic Hospital. Just for added irritation value, this is on Great Ormond Street, and one has to (I am reliably informed) walk past the famous hospital where they actually do real medicine in order to get there. There was a meeting with a GP who is also a homeopath. He seemed to be the most sensible of the pracitioners they'd come into contact with so far - coming pretty close to Ben Goldacre's ideal of "ethical bullshit". He gives homeopathic remedies to patients because they seem to help, and doesn't worry about why - he was quite willing to admit that the mechanism is very probably the same mechanism as a placebo... but he made the fairly valid point - if I can give these people pills that make them feel better, why not do it? And who cares how they work?

Of course, then he was asked about how he thinks they work... while admitting that a placebo effect was a possibility, he then spouted the traditional nonsense about what he thought the mechanism might actually be, invoking the "memory of water", and something called "non-linear quantum mechanics". Now, I'm no expert, but I distinctly remember reading something about non-linear quantum mechanics fairly recently, it was this paper which no-one who isn't studying Complexity Theory should bother reading. It says that if quantum physics is non-linear, this should in theory allow us to build quantum computers which solve NP (and even #P) problems in polynomial time. It also says:

Such non-linearity is highly hypothetical: all known experiments confirm the linearity of quantum physics to a high degree of accuracy.
That's right the explanation for the extremely macro-level phenomenon of really really tiny water molecules somehow managing to remember that they once came into contact with significantly less tiny arnica molecules has something to do with the fact that the superposition principle of quantum mechanics - which has to do with things which are a lot tinier than water molecules, might possibly be violated in some cases (even though no-one has ever actually seen this happen).

This is classic bullshit. Essentially the argument goes: homeopathy works, and we don't really know why. I don't really know how quantum mechanics works either, so surely it must have something to do with that. It's not science, and it's certainly not an important part of a medical education.

Once again, there were complaints made to the people in charge about the fact that there hasn't been nearly enough patient contact (although apparently they did see a few during this session). Once again, the reason given was that the "medical practitioners" were worried about what the future doctors might say to their "patients". Again, a promising sign that they've not been brainwashed, but surely if they're not going to be allowed to see patients, then they're not going to be able to observe Medicine in Society.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Enforced Quackery: Day 5

Day 5 consisted mostly in a visit from a herbalist. Well, I say a herbalist, she seems mostly to have worked in Marketing for A Vogel - the "educational" material from this session consists of no less than 9 advertising leaflets from that company along with three or four studies which find that herbal medicine is just as effective as conventional medicine at treating certain illnesses (more cherrypicking? I don't know - maybe these medicines actually are as effective as the artificial counterparts). I would post links to the leaflets, but I can't seem to find them online, and I'm not sure I really want to give them even more free advertising. They were also given a free sample of one of the products (I think it was Echinacea throat spray).

Now, I am not a medical student, and my girlfriend has only been one for just over a year, but we're both pretty sure that it is not standard practice to invite representatives from drug companies to give a brief talk to students about how awesome their company's products are (if it is, we're pretty sure it shouldn't be). And can only imagine the reaction from the Alt. Med community if it were widely reported that Big Pharma had been having friendly one-to-ones with students in which it passed out free samples of it's products, and leaflets explaining how ibuprofen was way better than arnica for treating a sore ankle.

Anyway - the other thing to come out of day five was more details about the assessment for the module. There will be an essay on the case study from day 4, and my girlfriend has also chosen to write an essay on "The role of homeopathic medicine in the health service" (or some very similar title - it might be the role of homeopathic medicine in society, which I guess is slightly more pallatable). If anyone's still reading this, she'd be very grateful for suggestions on how it might be possible to write an essay about that, to be marked by a homeopath, without being intellectually dishonest.

Day 6 was today - I'll post something about that as soon as I've spoken to her.