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The Next Big Thing - The Reality of Risk

With Colin Blakemore


Colin Blakemore : Life's a risky business,storms,road accidents,even being struck by lightning,the worst can happening many ways.We continually weight benefits against the likelihood of disaster.But how do scientists assess the risks of new technologies like GM food [Ref: Miller] and mobile phones .How dangerous is BSE ,and how safe is vaccination? To discuss the scientific risks we face and how we manage them,I'm joined by Sir Colin Berry,Professor of Pathology at the Royal London Hospital,Kenneth Macrae,Professor of Medical Statistics at the University of Surrey,Lynn Frewer who's head of Consumer Science at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich and one of our regular contributors Mike Maier,psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Imperial College London. Colin,what is risk? How do we define it?

Colin Berry : Well,it's perhaps easier to begin by saying what it isn't.It isn't hazard,which a lot of people confuse it with.Mountains are dangerous and the sea's dangerous,but none of us here in the studio are likely to be bothered by mountains or the sea at the moment.If we went swimming in the sea,or if we tried to climb the mountain,we expose ourselves to a risk,if we climb the mountain in the winter,the risk will be different from the summer.If we go swimming when we're drunk the risk will be different and so on.
[First point : Comparative risk is obviously an existent phenomena,and Colin has characterised the intuitive notion of it.No doubt everyone would admit it's more dangerous to swim when drunk,so how do you measure this variation? Let's see.... -LB]
So risk defines a particular circumstance.If you climb the North face of the Eiger a thousand times,what's your chance of falling off one of those times? The hazard is the mountain,the risk is the statistic if you like.
[News flash: An ITV reporter from Westminster says regarding paedophiles and the Sarah Payne case that the government wish to "assess the risk" .The BBC report said similarly that the data had to be "risk assessed" -LB]

Colin Blakemore : And is it really...is it really correct...I mean who was it? Ulricht Bech [see Bornholdt- Beck] ,a sociologist said that we are a "risk society",  that risks are increasing and we're more aware of them,are there more risks in life?

Is the Pope the Pope?

SIR - Beck-Bornholdt and Dubben (Nature 381, 730; 1996) describe a common misinterpretation of the P-value of a classical statistical test using the following example. The chance that a randomly chosen human being is the Pope is about 1 in 6 billion. John Paul II is the Pope. What are the chances that John Paul II is human? By analogy to syllogistic reasoning, Beck-Bornholdt and Dubben suggest 1 in 6 billion but point out that this is ''obviously not sensible".
It certainly isn't.The probability of data given a hypothesis, P(D |H), is not the same as the probability of the hypothesis given the data, P(H |D). This is an elementary error regardless of one's preferred statistical approach.
Bayesian [Ref: Video: N30 The Numbers Game {Bayesian Statistics};Red File1: Newsci1.wri] statistical inference, which includes syllogistic reasoning as a special case, is particularly well-suited for avoiding this sort of mistake (H.Jeffreys, Theory of Probability, Oxford University Press, 1939) .
A similar pitfall is the infamous 'prosecutor's fallacy', in which a probability that a DNA fingerprint match would occur in someone other than the true criminal - P(match | innocent) - is used incorrectly as the probability that a suspect is innocent - P(innocent | match).
In a city of ten million people, a one-in-a-million DNA fingerprint match will give ten other people the same fingerprint as the true criminal. In the absence of other evidence, the odds that the suspect is innocent are better than 90%, not one in a million. Let H represent the class (hypothesis) of humanness, A represent the class (hypothesis) of alienness, and J represent the observation (data) that a randomly chosen individual is Pope John Paul II.
Bayes's theorem tells us how to infer the probability that the Pope is human,

P(H | J): P(H | J)= P(J | H)P(H)

P(J | H)P(H) + P(J | A)P(A)

Thus, to infer the probability that the Pope is human, P(H | J), we have to have two more numbers in addition to the probability P(J | H) of drawing the Pope at random from the class of humans:
(1) P(J | A), the probability of choosing the Pope at random from the class of aliens.
(2) P(A), the a priori probability that a randomly chosen individual is an alien instead of a human.
P(H) is just 1 - P(A), if only these two hypotheses are considered. Presumably the probability P(J | A) of choosing the Pope from the class of aliens is infinitesimal. The prior probability of choosing an alien as opposed to a human, P(A), is also expected to be quite small,except perhaps near secret US Air Force bases. As either P(J | A) or P(A) approaches zero,the probability that the pope is human approaches one.
It is a shame that Bayesian methods are not part of all introductory statistics classes. In this case, they quickly reassure us that the Pope is (probably) not an alien.
Sean R. Eddy Department of Genetics, Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis, Missouri 63110, USA
David J. C. MacKay Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0HE, UK

Sir - In their syllogistic reasoning to present a papal paradox, surely Beck-Bornholdt and Dubben's sequence is incorrect. It should be as follows: (1) If an individual is human s/he is probably not the Pope (premise);
(2) John Paul II is human (premise);
(3) therefore John Paul II is probably not the Pope (conclusion).
In fact, of course, he is the Pope, but probability allows for this possibility (it was just extremely unlikely) and the logical progression holds. Their sequence made the classic mistake of assuming that "if A, then not B" implies "if B, then not A" , which can be disproved by many examples more trivial than the papal paradox.
Indeed, if applied to their first example, it would imply that all mortals are human, a hypothesis easily disproved by considering any other living being. If the logical sequence they describe for statistical hypothesis testing is actually the one in use, then it too makes the same mistake, and is therefore in error, but not for the reason they suggest. I think the conclusion in the sequence should be " (3) therefore the null hypothesis is PROBABLY wrong", with probability theory providing the degree of uncertainty, leading to conclusions such as "it is extremely unlikely (5% probability) that this result arose by chance" - but I'm probably wrong!
Stephen P. Gosden Chaussee de Wavre, B-116O Brussels, Belgium e-mail: stephen.gosden@dg12.cec.be

Sir - The argument of Beck-Bornholdt and Dubben can be paraphrased as follows.We have a human-looking organism before us and wish to test the hypothesis that it is in fact human. We know that if it is human,it is very unlikely to be the Pope. We find out that it is indeed John Paul II, and have to conclude that it is unlikely to be human.
In claiming that this conclusion (and with it, statistical hypothesis testing) is absurd,Beck-Bornholdt and Dubben not only contradict one of their own assumptions but also describe bad scientific practice. We use statistics to test hypotheses because we know that the same set of data could arise whether or not a given hypothesis is true. [See Ian Stewart in chess-Falsifiability]
In making the comparison with statistical hypothesis testing, Beck-Bornholdt and Dubben assume at the outset that a non-human could be the Pope.They cannot therefore claim that the conclusion of their argument is ridiculous, merely that it is factually wrong. Furthermore, this incorrect conclusion arises only if the randomly picked human-looking organism happens to be the Pope.On the many other occasions when we perform the experiment, we will quite reasonably fail to reject the hypothesis that our subject is human. The same applies to statistical reasoning: we will occasionally observe highly improbable data, and incorrectly reject the null hypothesis. In their statement of their argument,Beck-Bornholdt and Dubben have implicitly allowed themselves the luxury of observing subjects until they find one that is the Pope. This procedure is equivalent to a scientist, anxious to reject a null hypothesis, repeating an experiment until a suitable result turns up.
B. J. Craven Department of Psychology, University of Stirling, Stirling FK9 4LA, UK L.
S. Craven 49 Broompark East, Menstrie, Clackmannanshire FK11 7AN, UK

Sir - Beck-Bornholdt and Dubben have shown at most that the Pope is not a random sample. Their 'syllogism':
Premise: "If.. we randomly pick a human being, the probability that it is the Holy Father is extremely low...."
Conclusion: "Therefore, if an individual is human, it is probably not the Pope"
A syllogism states that an attribute shared by all members of a class is possessed by each member. Their conclusion ignores the fact that the attribute of probable nonidentity with the Pope was limited explicitly to the class of randomly chosen human beings. If the sampling method is not part of the class specification, why not just give as the premise "The Pope is, with high probability, not the Holy Father," thus suggesting an even wittier title for the published letter?
Statistical inference about membership in a hypothesized distribution applies to data randomly sampled from the population of inference. The failure of inference here results from no philosophical paradox about probability, but only from verbal shiftiness about the population and the sampling method.
James C. Nelson Department of Plant Breeding and Biometry, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA e-mail : jcn5@cornell.edu

NATURE VOL 382 . 8 AUGUST 1996



Colin Berry : I think in practical terms there are very many less.We're all living longer and we're healthier while we're alive.If we were having this discussion two generations ago,many women would have lost a child ....they'd have had more children and it wouldn't have been exceptional for anyone have them to have lost a child while that child was under five say.That doesn't happen almost now.

Colin Blakemore : Ken,is it that the risks are increasing,I mean there are more hazards in life as technology changes and so on,but we're just better at avoiding them,that's why we live longer.
[I doubt there are more hazards in the sense Colin has defined them,sure we have cars and nuclear power stations,but we're unlikely to be attacked by a wild predator,all that's happened is which threats are uppermost has changed,and our ability to counter others has increased.Typhoons and "Acts of God" have always been a threat,but meteorological science and super computers have even lessened the chances of being killed by a storm or a an avalanche [Ref: Horizon].
The idea that the past was safer or that halcyon days existed in the past is a fabrication,people were more likely to die of pestilence and disease in the past than now.If you check the average age of a person a couple of centuries ago they were dying at 30-45,now we can expect to live to 90+. Rick Wakeman has just related the origin of the phrase "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water". In the 15th century people mostly got married in June as they were still vaguely clean from their yearly bath in May.The hierarchy of using the same bath water started with men,then young men, women and girls finishing with babies who were washed in the dirtiest water.It's no wonder they caught diseases and had a high mortality rate.How true this is I don't know,but I wouldn't like to live in those times -LB]


Kenneth Macrae : I think we're much more aware of risks now,because there are so many more people professionally employed to study risks.The New York Times for example is almost like an epidemiology journal,they like nothing better than a story about a new terrible thing that might happen.
[So we don't live in a more dangerous society,we just make more of the risks that do exist. The emphasis on doom-laden scenarios,especially in the US,perhaps stems from apocalyptic (see Frayling doc) thinking borne of Revelations,and our history of distrust of science (see world30) means that we're likely to be pessimistic as opposed to optimistic -LB]

Actual Newspaper Headlines
1. Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says
2. Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
3. Safety Experts Say School Bus Passengers Should Be Belted
4. Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case
5. Survivor of Siamese Twins Joins Parents
6. Farmer Bill Dies in House
7. Iraqi Head Seeks Arms
8. Is There a Ring of Debris around Uranus?
9. Stud Tires Out
10. Prostitutes Appeal to Pope
11. Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over
12. Soviet Virgin Lands Short of Goal Again
13. British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands
14. Lung Cancer in Women Mushrooms
15. Eye Drops off Shelf
16. Teacher Strikes Idle Kids
17. Reagan Wins on Budget, But More Lies Ahead
18. Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim
19. Shot Off Woman's Leg Helps Nicklaus to 66
20. Enraged Cow Injures Farmer with Ax
21. Plane Too Close to ground, Crash Probe Told
22. Miners Refuse to Work after Death
23. Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
24. Stolen Painting Found by Tree
25. Two Soviet Ships Collide, One Dies
26. Two Sisters Reunited after 18 Years in Checkout Counter
27. Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years
28. Never Withhold Herpes Infection from Loved One
29. Drunken Drivers Paid $1000 in '84
30. War Dims Hope for Peace
31. If Strike isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last a While
32. Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures
33. Enfields Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide
34. Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge
35. Deer Kill 17,000
36. Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead
37. Man Struck by Lightning Faces Battery Charge
38. New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
39. Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft
40. Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
41. Chef Throws His Heart into Helping Feed Needy
42. Arson Suspect is Held in Massachusetts Fire
43. British Union Finds Dwarfs in Short Supply
44. Ban On Soliciting Dead in Trotwood
45. Lansing Residents Can Drop Off Trees
46. Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
47. New Vaccine May Contain Rabies
48. Man Minus Ear Waives Hearing
49. Deaf College Opens Doors to Hearing
50. Air Head Fired


You know,Claude Colburn,when he was on The Times,in his autobiography mentioned that the journalists had a competition to write the most boring headline of the week, such as "Small earthquake in Chile,not many killed" ,and what people like reading about are catastrophes,disasters bad news,they sell newspapers.
[Do they? Or is that all newspapers are prepared to print as news? -LB]


Colin Blakemore : Lynn,do you agree with that? People are fascinated with the macabre?
[I think it's fair to say that the head turning that goes on with motorway pileups and the crowd that gathers round a killing and the Hollywood movies that graphically portray death,make us seem obsessed with with sex,death,money and goods. When something good happens I guess this is subject to the notion that if things are okay then no intervention is necessary,it's only when circumstances change for the worst that we need to change our behaviour. Perhaps its also because of the rarity of failures that we are intensely curious about them when they do happen,and that's why in the case of the concorde disaster there was such coverage. It may also be that tabloid journalists are obsessed with gutter level navel contemplation,and a disaster gives them a respite from their usual waffling about nothing - LB]


Lynn Frewer : They're very interested in these kinds of issues,but I would dispute the fact that the media is creating this risk society.I mean people are intelligent,
[Like Lisa Jardine in world30,Lynn is crediting the populace with an intelligence that they don't appear to have (see sci-mat).I think people in general do not understand risk and this is brought out in their inability to compute probability as shown by Sue Blackmore (see sci-mat3). Those interested in paranormal phenomena are especially unable to do this and that's why they see coincidences and miscompute likelihoods, giving them the idea that things are less or more probable,depending on their view.For example creationists think the the suppose improbability of the universe (see trans -Hugh Ross doc) means that it requires a creator,because they cannot conceive that an extreme improbability nevertheless CAN happen.Oddly those same people play the lottery and expect to win -LB]
they look at the way risk is reported in the press,and it's a conflict between different actors in the debate.All these different individuals who're providing different messages.But I think if people have a fixed idea about a hazard they'll just filter the information from the media so that it agrees with what they already believe,and I don't think we can always accuse the media of creating this....these risk problems,that we're discussing.
[Maybe not,but the media DO exploit innumeracy by emphasising a volume measure over an area or linear dimension to make it seem worse than it is,or contrariwise using linear measure to diminish the apparent size of something to play on our fears. A 100 centimetres SOUNDS bigger than 1 metre and scale can make something seem worse.Percentages can mislead by not mentioning absolute numbers,or vice versa using large absolute numbers instead of percentages or rates. Numeracy skills allow one to filter data effectively and see how one is being conned in the news (see JA Paulos "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper") -LB]


Mike Maier : I think it is a construct that the media brings about because as Ken said "bad news is good news.You don't hear about all the successful things that happen,you do hear about the 20 food poisoning cases,you don't hear about all the people who successfully had dinner without being food poisoned,
[This is possibly another reason for the public fear of science.Biased reporting makes it seem like nothing but failures happen. In all the recent food scares the number of deaths is negligible, and yet the papers make it seem like a scene from "Outbreak".When science facilitates a benefit it goes unreported except in the scientific journals,which as it said in world30.html,are beyond the lay language of the common person,though I doubt "New Scientist" (www.newscientist.com) is above the comprehension of most people.Given that journalists are invariably scientifically illiterate (excepting the specialist writers) possibly the journalists own misinformed fears get passed to the public.The journalists are also victims of the "I will never need maths when I grow up" syndrome,and make fundamental errors in their recounting of scientific data (see JA Paulos) -LB]
and generally I think we have a sophisticated society now,that is preoccupied with trying to maximise their quality of life and their length of life,and if there are risks and dangers...

Colin Berry : I think that's very important,I mean infant mortality now in this country is 6 per thousand births.
[This is an example of what I mean. 0.6% sounds less than 6 per thousand -LB]
Now that in the 1950s,would probably have been considered an unobtainable figure.Now it's very....it's a remarkable change in a comparatively recent time.But you know nobody produces articles saying "Isn't it marvellous how low the infant mortality rate has become?".It is marvellous,but we tend to disregard benefits,and I think one of the things that's missing in all the discussion of risk is benefit,we never do "what's the benefit of a pesticide,what's the risk of a pesticide?",we never do "what's the benefit of changes in cars?" as opposed to "what's the risk of change?" and so on.

Colin Blakemore : Well,we all get bombarded with news about risks,what do we actually make of all that information? Our reporter Dan Rowland went out to find out.

Dan Rowland : I don't know about you,but I'm a bit confused about what's good for me and what isn't.There seems to be a new health scare every day in the newspapers,be it on beef or GM foods, mobile telephones or even driving your own car.Well I've come down to London's busy Covent Garden to see if the people here actually heed any of the numerous health warnings. (Cellphone tune sounds) Are you worried about using your mobile phone?

1st Man : Sometimes yeah.After I've used my phone I can feel my ear like hot,but I just don't think about it,'coz I need the phone.
[Your ear will heat up ANYWAY when pressed next to the earpiece of a phone,as your own body heat fails to escape from your skin's surface and is insulated by the surface of the phone,this will happen with conventional phones as well -LB]


Dan Rowland : So why are you smoking?

2nd : Er,,just to relieve stress,that kind of thing.I've just finished my exams.

Dan Rowland : What if the statistics suddenly said that,you know 1 in 2 cycle couriers in London got killed riding a bike,would you stop then.
[See www.statistics.gov.uk -LB]


3rd Man : Definitely yeah. There was woman killed last week on a bicycle.

Dan Rowland : Didn't that put you off?

3rd Man : It puts you off,it knocks you for the day,but it does happen.

1st Man : I listen to myself.If my ear...if I woke up and my ear was really throbbing and I had bad headaches,then I suppose I'd cut down on using it.
[This is idiotic.The whole idea of risk assessment is to avoid damage BEFORE it happens.If this man is feeling physical symptoms he's probably already damaged his ear and it's tool late to do anything about it. This line of thinking is like saying " I'll wait and see whether an avalanche happens and smashes the village before I decide not to live there". Notably politicians like the "wait and see" approach as they don't wish to panic the public unnecessarily. Seismic scientists and CDC scientists (such as Dustin Hoffman's character in "Outbreak") are similarly in a position of being wary of making wild claims.But as in "Outbreak" the bias should be towards saving life,which means that if there is doubt it's best to play it safe.This alludes to the "precautionary principle" described later.Politicians don't wish to take notice of alarms until the very last minute in case they spend taxpayers money unnecessarily.But history has shown that when they haven't heeded warnings and played the "wait and see" game,they've had to pay out more in repairing damage done that they might have prevented had they assessed risk properly -LB]


Dan Rowland : Do you like beef?

1st Woman : I love beef! (she and her friend giggle)

Dan Rowland : Did you eat it all the way through the BSE crisis?

1st Woman : Yep.

Dan Rowland : Why?

1st Woman : 'Coz I like it.

Dan Rowland : Were you worried about CJD at all?

2nd Woman : No,I didn't even really think about it.

Dan Rowland : You didn't think about it at all?
[These are the people (who are NOT THINKING) credited as intelligent by Lynn and Lisa -LB]

4th Man : I think that big business has too much say in policy making quite frankly.

Dan Rowland : Under what circumstances would you not eat genetically modified food? When would the risk factor be too large for you to want to eat it?

5th Man : It's a very difficult question,because unless you're a scientist,you don't understand what the risk factor is.
[Here we have an answer to the question posed in world30.html - "Should science be left in the hands of the scientists?".This man recognises that there are smarter people than he who understand such things and that people "don't understand" risk factor.That's a bit odd coming from an "intelligent" person,but then perhaps his intelligence is recognising that trained people are best placed to advise on things that require specialist knowledge -LB]


3rd Woman : I don't like anything,I'm natural,I don't like messing around with nature,but more than anything I don't like something that's tried out on the public before it's been proven.
[This is a chronically ignorant view (and is indicative of the "intelligent public). First of all there isn't anything that's not natural (see natural.html),unless the suggestion is that man- made is something that couldn't exist of its own volition.One cannot mess around with nature,and science certainly is not "messing".As Channel 4 pointed out in "Secret History" the myths of tribal cultures such as American Indians being at one with the Earth and not manipulating nature is a far cry from what they actually did.In those terms modernity is actually better than some of those ways.Certain tribes of red Indian in that programme asked why other people had any right to stop them killing whales,and furthermore they WERE killing whales contrary to what Greenpeace would have us believe. Secondly I'd like to know what this woman's idea of proven is if we can't do anything "unnatural" or use the public to test things out on.As is shown in sci-mat1.html Michael Baum has to receive assent from patients to test new procedures out on them in double blind trials to see if they work. If we left it to this woman we'd do nothing at all not be able to prove anything. Proving necessitates public participation and doing "unnatural" things.She has contradicted herself -LB]

5th Man : If you believed everything that you read or heard in the media,you'd be...you couldn't live your life you'd be so scared to go out the door,you'd wrap yourself in cotton wool and never get out of bed.

6th Man : I'd stop using a phone if I could get work without having a mobile phone.

Dan Rowland : As ever it seems to be risk versus convenience,and certainly for most people we've spoken to here today,the old adage "you can't teach an old dog -or even a new puppy - new tricks" seems to ring true. As for me,well I could get run over by a bus tomorrow couldn't I? Excuse me (Dan picks up his cellphone) Hi mum,yeah,yeah.
[The point is that the odds of being hit by a bus on any given day are quite low -LB]

Colin Blakemore : Ken, what did that reveal? A certain amount of risk fatigue really didn't it?

Kenneth Macrae : Oh absolutely.I think first of all there is a general air of cynicism because scientists say one week that something is dangerous and a few weeks later they contradict themselves
[That's not quite true.What you hear is various views from different scientists who may have different agendas or different data. The poll later shows that the public trust environmental scientists as if they were impartial or looking after the public's concerns.In actual fact they have perhaps more of a political agenda than anyone else.In "Secret History" it became clear that environmental groups have seconded the mythical notion of tribal peoples as being environmentally friendly by virtue of their lack of technology as a means to selling their ideas to the public,and that the view of a tribal person as somehow better for the Earth is misinformed. If such people have less impact,it's not through choice or belief,but through being limited in terms of their technology. The media polarise the views that are put forward into safe/not safe,and this gives the impression that scientists haven't got a consistent view.Given that scientists can represent industry,the government or be independent or represent a concern such as the environment,there will be a cross section of views representing those interests.Also the nature of the inquiry means that something is never "proven" in the way that the woman above wished it to be.All that can happen is we become more sure than not depending on context,and over time what was true in one situation might not be in another.
The gross over simplification for the benefit of the lay person does not give them due credit as "intelligent",and part of the problem is that people do not understand complex issues because they don't understand the science behind it,nor do they speak the lingo (see world30.html),and so a dumbed down version is proffered so that it IS understood.This can overlook the subtleties in issues to the detriment of consistency,and thus it appears that there is no definitive answer,which usually there isn't anyway,that's why "probability" is used,because no one can say for certain and "prove" it one way or another incontrovertibly,it can only be "proven beyond a reasonable doubt" as in court. Oddly Mo Mowlam is on Room 101 and has just referred to "Red wine being bad for you one week and bad the next",as a government member,she's obviously subject to the same oversimplification as the public,and thus we can't presume that government members are any wiser than the public -LB]

Also I think how people interpret risks is sometimes very unsophisticated,and it's not necessarily their fault.Risk is actually confusing to people,because it's complicated.It's not because they are in any way unintelligent.It's just that they get mixed messages and it's not an easy concept to explain in a straightforward way.

[I've now heard Lisa Jardine ( world30),Peter Dale ( toynbee8),and now Lynn Frewer and Richard Shepard ( sci-mat3) all attest to the public's ability to make informed decisions,and yet the vox populi interviews shows they are thick as too short planks. Perhaps professional people daren't call a spade a spade for fear of alienating the public and make them feel inadequate enough not to listen.Whereas I as a lay person, myself,can tell it like it is,without being bothered by public sensitivities to their own inadequacies,the fact is the public are largely innumerate,and do not like maths,and this is a source of their inability to discriminate when faced with conflicting views put by scientists with possibly vested interests and agenda.had they not said "I'll never need maths when I grow up" ,they wouldn't be in a pickle now.From Ken's comment we can deduce that the lay person is uncomplicated and easily confused.He then makes apologies for them and tries to make out that they can handle complexity.If they were intelligent,complexity would not phase them.Note that Ken says "it's not an easy concept to explain in a straightforward way" contrary to Neil Chalmers assertion that plain English suffices ( world30). The real explanation involves complex maths,but your average lay person cannot handle that,so they get the Chinese whisper version,that does not clue them in completely,they are thus confused,because they don't have all the information.That information is kept from them,because the smart guys know that the public finds numbers and algebra unpalatable.If we were only honest and accepted that innumeracy was the source of the problem and that the idea that maths is boring is in our culture,then we could do something about.As it is this is going to continue indefinitely - LB]


Colin Blakemore : Are there attempts to devise new ways of expressing risks,that are more easily understood and are appreciated by the public?
[Note that instead of educating the public the solution is to accommodate the ignorance and find a "more easily understood" message.If the public were so intelligent then the complex message would be able to be accommodated -LB]


Kenneth Macrae : Well there's a method which is technically known as "bootstrapping"
[Not to be confused with the computer term "bootstrapping" -LB]
,which is to compare a risk of something new with the risk of something old that people have accepted for a long time.So for example,you can compare the risk of spending 2 days in New York with the risk of eating 40 table spoons of peanut butter,they both actually have the same risk of death,which is 1 in a million! (some giggles from around the table)
[Note that who you are makes a difference.If you're peanut sensitive,then this might not be the case -LB]
And on the same sort of basis,some that I remember - smoking 1.4 cigarettes or drinking 0.7 of a litre of wine or driving 150 miles in a motor car,or spending 6 minutes in a canoe,these are all ways of sort of sort of comparing a risk of one thing with risks of other things you can understand.
[Note that Ken has mixed metric and imperial measure a definite no-no in science,and for those clock turners who think imperial measure is viable (see weight.html),they might not know how much a litre is,and thus the comparison would be lost on them through not being smart enough to be educated in metric measure.Further most people don't understand what is meant by 1.7 cigarettes since cigarettes come in whole numbers.The comparison with something that does not exist thus becomes incomprehensible to them.This goes to show that something as simple as decimal notation is sufficient to confuse your average lay person let alone complex probability problems -LB]
And that is probably the most straightforward way of looking at risk,because people can relate to travelling 150 miles in a motor car and say "Well that doesn't feel very dangerous to me",of ...depends who's driving of course.
[Besides who is driving,the conditions of the road matter amongst other things.But the main point here, is that subjective judgement has entered into it,and that should have nothing to do with it.Driving 150 miles might feel very safe to an individual ,but cars have been built to give the illusion of safety,and what someone thinks is safe is not how risk is assessed.What matters is how many people have ACTUALLY been injured or killed in cars on journeys of 150 miles.Of course speed also matters,and risk might increase disproportionately with speed,or given the laws of physics the chances of being killed maybe correlated with how much force is generated by a force which accelerates (F=ma).A lethal risk can be generated at 30mph which is why there is a government campaign to "kill your speed". Intuitively most people would think a car could kill,but it might not be obvious that the relationship between mass and speed,means that a large slow thing can be as lethal as a fast light thing.This is why small pieces of space junk can be lethal to space ships even though only the size of a grain of sand.Travelling fast enough the effect is amplified.Similarly one can drown in much less water than might be imagined so leaving risk assessment to how someone intuits it is not a good idea.If they are misinformed of the first thing comparing it only compound the problem -LB]


Colin Blakemore : Risk also has to be weighted,doesn't it? By the susceptibility of individuals,the risk of a particular activity is not the same for very person.

Colin Berry : It's interesting that as the genome becomes unravelled,
[Colin makes it sound like a woolly jumper -LB]
we're going to have more and more information that will enable us to define risky groups if you like,groups who are at risk I should say.There already is a considerable amount of data in the toxicological literature showing how people handle compounds better than others,and it's true of course to say that a lot of people who smoke won't get cancer of the lung,they'll get a lot of the other damage due to smoking,I'm not suggesting it's a good thing,but there a are some of them that simply will not get cancer of the lung,because they handle the compounds differently.
[Right.So there's enough natural variation to make smoking risky to some and not to others,which means that medicines tested on some people and found safe MIGHT be dangerous to other people IN PRINCIPLE,and thus nothing can be proven safe.Furthermore upon this premise how likely is it that Mr Blakemore's favourite pastime of testing upon animals is going to yield helpful data,when animals are more different from us than we are to each other.Animal testing is thus more dangerous than testing on other humans,since their bodies are less likely to give accurate indication of how drug will act upon us.Case in point Thalidomide,chiral molecule (as is DNA see symmetry.html ) Thus animal testing is opening up human beings to a greater risk,so even if it weren't unethical,such experiments increase the danger of a problem for human beings,even after being shown "safe" via animal testing- as happened with Thalidomide.Animal testing is thus no means to securing safety -LB]
So all of these risks - I think we're getting better and better at defining,that will generate other problems about how you advise people about what they should do for a living,for example.But nevertheless it's a real advance in risk management I suspect,or will be.

Lynn Frewer : I think the problem here is that we're missing the point that people don't think about risk in terms of probabilities, I mean some hazards are associated with ethical concerns,GM Foods would be an example of that kind of hazard.If risk benefit communication focuses on risk and probability then people won't be interested because the information is not addressing the concerns which is important to them.
[That assumes that public concerns are valid concerns.In the case of the petrol blockades unilateral action that did not see the wider picture was taken,similarly with the Sarah Payne case.The blockaders were heard to say things like "my business is suffering",and took selfish undemocratic decisions to cut fuel off from the rest of us.I didn't vote for them I voted for the government.I didn't vote for the News of the World I voted for the government.Minority dictatorships (as Peter Hitchens and Ms Heseltine Observed on Kilroy) are tantamount to terrorism and insurrection. The uninformed minority of the electorate should not be able to dictate to a government with a majority.Greenpeace had "ethical concerns" -broke the law and trashed crops.The ALF break the law and save animals.Ethical concerns should not be allowed to ignore actual risk factors. I sympathise with the ALF because the vast majority of people are speciesist and they would not tolerate racism,I don't advocate breaking the law,but I can see how one reaches that point.I don't think it was justified over fuel or over GM crops. This perhaps identifies why the Two Cultures exists even today.Romantics work on emotion and rationalists use their brain (the act that is supposed to elevate us above animals).I'm not hard nosed and cold,because I think Mr Blakemore was wrong to advocate vivisection,but I had REASONS why he was wrong,I just didn't go of emotions and hand-wringing.Similarly ethical concerns seem to engender "worries" that one can't pin down,or gut feelings that something is awry.What is important to people might not be what is important because they may have a very narrow set of concerns - "my business is failing" - it's a free market that you voted for-businesses fail from time to time.It's dog eat dog and survival of the fittest -except for farmers who we keep afloat by subsidy. Contrariwise,the government should not be allowed to dictate to the populace or ignore legitimate concerns,as it did over the poll tax.There is suppose to be a dialogue,the hauliers claim that their 2 year dialogue fell on deaf ears,and that's probably the case with anti-hunt protesters and the ALF,but where a risk issue is concerned such as radiation the figures should count. There is though,little point in telling someone in Sellafield that the risk of cancer from radiation is only the same or a little above the national average (it maybe above average elsewhere where there isn't a nuclear power station) because one of the mistakes BNFL made when speaking on this (as did biologist Lois Wolpert in sci-mat.html) is to fail to take into account the consequences of something that may have low risk of happening. Thus the chance of a Chernobyl type accident at Sellafield maybe 1 in a million years,that doesn't mean it can't happen this year,it just rates how unlikely it is.Nevertheless if it DID happen the consequences might be devastating. This is probably what worries Greenpeace and other activists over GM.But I think they are overestimating the capacity of a gene to go walkabout,after all our genes don't get out of our body and go wandering about until we pass them on purpose via sex.The passing of a trait issue is similar to the "can CJD enter the human food chain?" problem,and in both cases we'd like a yes/no answer.What we know for sure,(ironically) is that certainty is not likely to be delivered,and that the public are not experts on genes and CJD,and thus are not well placed to say what should and shouldn't happen unless they educate themselves as Augusto Odone did,to take issue with the experts. Where a gene company makes sterile seeds and forces people to buy them rather than harvest their own ,their maybe moral or ethical considerations,but that's a different issue from GM in principle,and is not a risk issue. In essence,you can't have uninformed people dictating to informed people about their personal concerns which may have no bearing on the issue at hand,even though their narrow view makes it look like they do -LB]
Long term unknown effects,the fact that a risk is unknown to science,but also those people who are exposed to it is important.I mean they are all increasing the fright factor if you like.

Colin Blakemore : Who do people look to for information about risk? Actually we've got some data about this,the people who are trusted by the public when ...what we're looking at here is the level of public confidence here in different sources of information about risk. Government statements,the media,scientists all grouped together -different types of scientists,and green organisations,and finally the family. Now,do you find it curious that people should put much more trust in what members of their own family say about risk.
["Does science matter?" found that the greens were the most trusted.The main point there is that TRUST should not be the means by which one decides what to accept,and neither should that acceptance be a belief borne of how convincing someone is. Con men are convincing and if one trusted them,one could lose your livelihood.One should not be intuiting here or going off gut instincts and feelings.One should KNOW what is being said - UNDERSTAND it,and draw a conclusion based on FACTS.This requires hard thinking and bothering to listen,instead of superficially passing judgement upon how convincing or heartfelt a view is. Green views sound heartfelt but maybe based in myth or upon the emotional reactions of the spokesperson,and I say this as once supporter of Greenpeace.As James le Fanu points out in sci-mat3 a small amount of something in a large amount of water might not be of concern.Similarly if someone says these cellphones emit 200% more radiation than this one that DOESN'T mean it's dangerous,because the two values involved might be .0000001 and .0000002 and be even incapable of causing damage even if they are above legal safety limits.Those limits maybe set low to give a margin of error.An example - I once heard someone talking about engineering bridges - He said "Engineers calculate the load bearing capacity of a bridge,and then double it,just to be on the safe side." Note that such precaution costs money in labour and building materials,and so one should do "cost benefit analysis".When this is done sometimes what seem like unethical results can occur, such as the kind of seemingly inhuman statements heard from hospital officials - "We had to turn out all those patients who were close to death as we could not afford to keep them in the beds".Such statements arouse people's emotions and in that state they are quick to judge and slow to think -LB]


Lynn Frewer : I think what's happening here is that people perceive that their family members are honest,but might not necessarily be conveying accurate information,and I think we have to distinguish between perceptions of honesty - a source is telling the truth as far as it knows - and credibility - whether a source is perhaps distorting information to protect a vested interest,or some.....

True lies?

From Mr John Hicks:-
Sir, You report today that, in a test devised by a management expert, anyone who answers "true" to the question "I have never unknowingly told a lie - true or false?" is placed under suspicion. That is unfortunate, because to anyone who understands the ordinary use of the English language there can be no other answer. We all often unknowingly say things which are not true, but that is not lying. A false statement is a lie only if intentional. To lie unknowingly is a contradiction.
Yours faithfully,
JOHN HICKS,
17 Montagu Square, W1H 1RD. mandjhicks@btinternet.com January 7.

From the Reverend Dr Peter Cameron:-
Sir, The only appropriate answer to the question "Have you ever unknowingly told a lie" is the one Mr Gromyko is reputed to have given to a journalist who asked him at a summit conference if he had had a good breakfast: "Possibly."
Yours faithfully,
PETER CAMERON,
St Mary's Rectory, Birnam, Dunkeld, Perthshire PH8 0BJ. January 8.

[This puts paid to the idea that speaking plain English in any way aids passing scientific information to the public (see world30 -Lisa Jardine).If they can't even understand their own language what chance have they of following mathematics? And in this case the mathematics is embedded IN the language,showing that they aren't two separate entities.I note here also that a Rev can perfectly well deal with logic and reasoning in case anyone thought I didn't think that they could -LB]




Mike Maier : There must obviously be a sort of component of conflict of interest,because the classic paranoia is the sort of the industrial complex against the individual,and you know when you see industrial scientists give advice people,nobody believes them,because they feel that they are in the pocket of industry.
[Notice once again that they are going of feelings and not facts -LB]


Colin Blakemore : That's certainly borne out by an analysis of trust within the group of scientists.I think the polls show very clearly that scientists associated with industry are trusted much less than academic scientists,with government scientists in the middle somewhere,so the level of trust is weighted by this vested interest.

Lynn Frewer : There's also an element of increasing distrust in science,scientific institutions which as been going on since the 1950s.

Colin Berry : I mean there are plenty of scientists that see research opportunities in investigating particular risks and then are happy to contribute I think to the media,their view of this being a major public problem,I mean I think that can be a difficult area.

Colin Blakemore : Isn't it surprising that trust in the government is so low,and that trust in scientists,at least some scientists is relatively high.
[I don't think so.Who do politicians ask to inform them about what to do.When Gummer was pumping a burger into a child's mouth,he was doing so because he had been told that the risk from BSE was very low. The source of information is science,and people know that politicians will say anything to stay in power for another term,whereas scientists like other public servants aren't voted for and have no real reason to warp the results in order to get voted.They may have other agenda but that's not one of them.Perhaps this is one case where the public have risk assessed and deduced that (Tory) politicians are a bad bet if you want the truth,considering how many times they've been shown up as liars.Scientists on the other hand say X and time usually shows that X was the truth. The X-files are in scientists hands so to speak! -LB]
When of course the government should be advised,and is advised by scientists....

Colin Berry : And of course Colin that....there's a piece of nonsense there.The committee of safety of medicines for example,has looked at every drug we've been given,and has decided whether it's safe to give people.Now you may say there have been some wrong decisions in that,but of course that's partly because most drugs have only been tested on say, what? 3- 5000 people before they're given to a population,so it's not surprising that other things turn up.
[This is one way that it could look as if scientists have got it wrong,when in fact there was a given likelihood that a "safe" drug as proven in trials,nevertheless shows up an effect in one of those people for whom smoking might not posit a cancer risk.This does not mean that the testing method is faulty,it's just that nothing can be proved 100% safe -LB]
But the whole of our pharmacopoeia has been tested by government agencies in effect, though advised as you say by independent scientists.So there's not a very close,sort of logical consideration of what are the issues taking place here.It goes back to what Lynn said earlier,about how people's emotional reactions...

Colin Blakemore : Yes,yes.

Lynn Frewer : Could I just perhaps quickly add,that perhaps a little distrust in regulatory bodies and regulatory practices is rather healthy.(Agreement from the table)
[You can,because it is. No person should accept what anyone says verbatim as true,which is why mindless unquestioning allegiance to biblical or textual authority is unhealthy.If people are going to take issue with science,they should (and sometimes because of biblical or textual precedent) do so from a position of scepticism commensurate with its track record at delivering benefits. Similarly,the same degree of scepticism (if not more) should be applied to those authorities which have failed to produce similar results. The bible fails to deliver miracles,praying and chants and other texts fail to deliver.Science has systematically delivered all but the most perverse and extremely wild claims that it said it would.If it were a religion there would be no reason not to have faith in it.But it ISN'T a religion and it is NOT a belief system.One is not supposed to functioning after a process of trust and belief,one should understand why something is so and accept it because one cannot see any other way that it could be -LB]


Colin Blakemore : Well of course quite a lot of the concern recently has been about food. Everyone wants to believe that what they eat is safe.But in recent years that confidence has been severely tested.When BSE first emerged in the 1980s,scientists began to suspect the source of the infection was cattle feed,containing offal from sheep.
[Our country "guardians" the farmers who know much more than us "townies" (see waugh1.html and rspca.html) about animal husbandry and how to run a business,showed us once and for all how truly ignorant we are about country ways,and crippled our agriculture business so that now we're having to pay them to make a loss.Nice going guys- I wish I was as informed as you are about nature and the biology of animals so that I could be such a great success.Next thing,you'll be telling us that foxes need shooting because they are so much a pest that their numbers need controlling by ripping them to shred with hounds showing us again how much you understand the environment and the "ethical" concerns that should be taken into account when trying to maximise profit margins. It's quite obvious that you guys know all about bull shit,you have your own local source in close proximity to your body. The fuel blockades showed clearly how much your knowledge of straw surpasses mine. Perhaps this is also because you have your own local source between your ears,the latter, like as not being made of corn.But this could be just a straw man argument -LB]
The feeding method was banned,and although any risk to human health was deemed "highly unlikely",the government still took drastic steps to try to allay public suspicion,with limited success.While BSE was headline news here, Americans were in uproar over apples and apple juice. A pesticide called Alar had been linked to childhood cancer.
[And who linked it? A lay person? A mystic? A politician? A farmer? -LB]
The doses being talked about for any serious effects were enormous,but the manufacturer soon announced it would abandon Alar production.
[So the link which may have been speculative,and which would possibly have only have produced less cancers than people get through self inflicted smoking,and which may have yielded a benefit was curtailed because it posed a "risk".How much benefit is smoking? And how risky is driving a car?-LB]
In the mid 1990s,the government announced a probable link between new cases of human new -variant CJD and BSE infected beef.The renewed scare set the scene of another test of public faith in science - genetically modified food.Some now feel that concerns over the risks of GM technology are drowning out pleas for rational argument over its possible benefits. Lynn why this obsession with the safety of food?

Lynn Frewer : People have to eat,I mean they have no choice.
[They do-it's just Hobson's - LB]
So they can't avoid risks associated with food,but beyond that food embodies people's culture,the kind of social norms which they use to regulate their lives.Food taboos are very important,there are religious links.
[Recently I witnessed a debate about whether soap operas affect out lives.On it,a person who considered themselves "black" argued that she was not represented properly on TV dramas claiming her food preparation techniques were peculiarly cultural.She then went on to say that she washed her food before seasoning it,something that I guess most people do. People might not understand that a lot of rituals are based on facts that they do not know,for instance the removal of blood from organisms that many faiths subscribe to is not done purely because God said so,this is probably an observed wisdom picked up fro the fact that those who ingested blood were given to pick up diseases from the corpse. Today we know that there IS risk associated with that,and as Anthony Giddens explains in reith992.html the concept of risk is relatively new,so religious texts may contain old wives tales or pieces of basic wisdom -this does not lend them credence as virtuous authorities,it just means that some things our ancestors got right by accident or by empirical observation.Similarly, some of those things can be catastrophically wrong,because something is old does not add value (No matter what Antiques Roadshow says),and given that there have been myths as ludicrous as thunder being created by a god or the sun being a god in all probability such authorities are highly ignorant-containing all the inadequacies of mankind without the benefit of modern technology.I dare say there've been Cadfael characters in the past,but that doesn't means that such people could outwit a modern toxicologist who understands molecular structure.I note here also that in world30.html Lisa Jardine made up a 1/4 of the speakers in terms of gender,and here Lynn is 1/5 of the speakers as the only female.In both cases it is the female that asserts the "emotion/romantic/intuition" or people orientated type approach,and even though in these cases it isn't extreme (Lynn said "If you use probability people won't be interested") it nevertheless does nothing to dispel the idea that females are hand-wringing emotionally distraught anxiety mongerers who believe in 6th senses,and supports my (and the guy on"Soul of the UK") idea that post radical feministic Germaine Greer ranting has produced a female populace that is essentially anti-science by virtue of being anti-male establishment.If true, it would be a shame to lose a powerful tool that worked merely because females were attacking anything thought to be male and establishment. Science should not suffer merely because females are retaliating for being subjugated,after all there are now and have been female scientists,and for the benefit of those PC idiots that think everything has to be reflected by ratio.There were no "black" people on either panel ,partly because there's no such thing as "black" person,contrary to what Jim Davidson continues to say,and it is not necessary to have 50% women on a panel at every opportunity,or N% Irish Scots or Welsh people,because everyone is an individual not a group heading -LB]

Sex and sensibility

Sue Birchmore on the problems in interpreting statistics

Why can't a woman be more like a man? Two scientific studies . . . say it's impossible. ''Women, apparently, are inherently worse at driving and map-reading (inferior spatial skills) but better at talking and listening (superior verbal skills). It appears that such differences turn up even among rats; male rats are better at getting out of mazes than female rats. My apologies if I am misrepresenting Glenn Wilson , author of The Great Sex Divide (Peter Owen, October 1989); I'm quoting from reports on his book in the popular press, because my moan is against the reporting, not the research.
I don't doubt the excellence of the science, but I'm desperately tired of the debates reports of this kind induce. Thanks to the rats, we are in for another flurry of fruitless, angry arguments, during which a lot of men will be accused of chauvinism, a lot of women will be accused of hysteria, and when the dust finally settles we will all be more or less where we were before except that my temper will be a little more frayed.
The trouble has all to do with statistics. An ex-colleague of mine used to describe statistics as "the science which tells you that if you lie with your head in the oven and your feet in the fridge, on average you'll be comfortably warm".
Don't get me wrong: I'm not anti-statistics.I don't at all subscribe to the "Lies, damned lies and..." school of thought.
The discipline of statistics is a marvellously useful tool. In fact, I think an intensive course on statistics should be a compulsory component of every schoolchild's education.Then, perhaps, we might breed a nation which actually understands how to use them.
I became very fond of statistics while working in quality control. Once we had acquired some computing power to do the number crunching, it became magically easy to cut through all the heated arguments as to whether a suspect batch of components was or was not out of specification. And statistical process control put paid to the old machine-setting routine, where the setter would make adjustments on the basis of a single measurement and wonder why the rest of the batch didn't come out the same. Wonderful. But dangerous.
Statistics are tricky things,to be handled with care. The new-found enthusiasm for statistics of one of our customers was very nearly extremely expensive for us. Testing to destruction of components for car seat belts had produced a large scatter: none of the parts actually tested had failed below the specified limit, but the capability study predicted that a large percentage of the batch would. I steamed down the motorway without delay to investigate this disturbing finding.
Closer examination of the results showed that most of the failure loads were around about the expected level, with a few "flyers" much higher. The distribution was, in fact, not normal at all but highly skewed. Analysing it on the assumption of a nice, symmetrical normal distribution predicted that there would be a corresponding set of failures at loads which were lower than the average. But there wasn't.
Statistics can be dangerously mesmerising if not interpreted with a large dose of common sense. In a similar way , I was able to still the worries of one of our suppliers, who had analysed tensile-test results from samples of wire and come up with a spread that was well out of limits. A little probing revealed that the test results weren't all from the same batch. It was actually a double distribution.--- two intermixed normal distributions with different means. [See JA Paulos - paulos2.html] Combining the two resulted in a "mean" somewhere between the two peaks, and a calculated spread that went right off the graph , but had no relation to real life.
The most common statistical fallacy, though, is to argue from individual cases to whole populations and vice versa. The machine setter used to make this error when he measured a single component-which Murphy's Law ensured would be somewhere from the tail end of the distribution.---and assumed that it was typical of the batch. When it comes to interpreting measurements concerning people, we tend to make a more subtle error. The initial statistics may be impeccable; a large, well-randomised sample, yielding a statistically significant result, showing that, on average, men have better spatial reasoning abilities than women-scientifically proven! Yes, and on average men are taller than women. But, even though I'm only a woman of average height, I've met several men who are shorter than me. The distributions overlap--but the digested versions of the scientific results in the popular press don't tell you that. Instead, they present the case as "men are better than women" without even the qualifying "on average".
The readers go away with the fuzzy notion that it means all men are better than any woman, which is manifest nonsense if you stop to think about it clearly. I'm quite prepared to believe the results of research which say that-on average- males are better at mathematics than females. However, that hasn't prevented a series of brilliant female mathematical minds from Hypatia of Alexandria right down to the youthful prodigy Ruth Lawrence outdoing their male contemporaries. The distributions overlap.
My contention, which I tend to propound at excessive length when drawn into men- versus-women arguments, is that the variation between individuals is far more significant than small statistical differences between large groups, whether they're divided by sex, race, hair colour or shoe size. Be all that as it may, I can make two sure-fire predictions about the outcome of the present debate without the aid of statistics.
One: those who always did believe than men are, in some mystical way , superior to women will go on believing that.
Two: those who didn't still won't.
Sue Birchmore is a technical writer living in Birmingham.

In matters of sex,we're stuck in a time warp

By PATRICIA ROBERTS

We're used to women at the top. After all, female prime Ministers are no longer a novelty, and "the girls" have breached most male bastions. So its sad, as well as sick, isn't it, that when a woman tried to join the boys-only fire brigade at Manchester Airport, the reaction of the lads was allegedly to have a sweepstake on whether any of them could have sex with her. Now a furious row has erupted about the whole affair and there is to be an independent investigation which will cover several issues, including why the woman did not pass the various tests to become the airport's first female firefighter.
We're just a garter-stretch from the 21st century, yet when it comes to sex equality. we still seem stuck in a time warp. Britain's firefighting service must be the best in the world It has a fine reputation for top class professionalism arid dedication to the job. But Ringway's firefighters, reputed to be among the highest paid in the country, now seem to want to short- change the opposite sex with the lowest common denominator response to a female colleague joining them, and the allegation, if it proves to be true, does them no credit, and lets down all of their colleagues. Wearying, really, isn't it? Childish even.
But should we really be surprised? Men still tend to guard their male preserves jealously... after all, the 15th hole of any golf club is still a man's domain and gentlemen's clubs in London are still just that - clubs for men only. Common sense has dawned up north, however, where only this week a gents' club in Liverpool bent to pressure to open its portals to women. The thing is lads, we women can run countries. or companies, at the same time as doing the washing, stuffing a mushroom, doing the cleaning and the ironing and mending a fuse (only don't ask us to set the video PLEASE).
Millions of working women also get few thanks and only poor pay for juggling work and home, for they still make up the bulk of the lowest paid of the workforce. Most of the time the fellas are happy to let us slave away, because it's the chaps that usually benefit. But do us one favour please,leave the smutty and demeaning remarks in the dark ages - where they belong.
Manchester Evening News Apr22 1996


Lynn Frewer : Food permeates the whole of people's lives and defines culture.So to start linking food consumption with risk is affecting not only human health but all these other elements that are important to people.

Colin Blakemore : But it also generates all sorts of myths,doesn't it?

Colin Berry : The Alar's a very good example,you'd had have to...first of all the study that caused concern was a mouse study,where rather odd tumours developed.It was probably due to a hydrazine in the compound that was being tested. Now the...you pointed out the enormous dose that was necessary,and I calculated at that time,there were 28,000 apples a day is what you'd have had to eat in order to get the same dose that the mice got,even assuming that the mice are relevant in this context. Now there's much more hydrazine in mushrooms.One sort of serving of mushrooms would...might well do the same sort of thing.So there's no rationality in this.

Mike Maier : Why wasn't it sufficient to give an explanation as you've just given to the American public,why was it necessary to ban it then?

Colin Berry : Well first of all of course,if you generate a story of this kind,it takes time....I mean not....the experiments were done,it would have taken a week to do the calculations and work out,and that's too long.Once a risk is established in this sort of way,and obtains a momentum,denying it a week or a month later,or merely pointing out that it's daft doesn't work.
[So now we see how the confusing "One week red wine is good the next week it isn't" stories come about. First of all a risk is speculated upon doses to mice that far exceed anything a human is likely to ingest,and the mice get cancers (when humans might not through being not like mice),the media then report this as a risk and set the agenda.The scientists then has to back-peddle and allay fears because innumerate journalists have failed to explain that no one is likely to eat 28,000 apples a day.This has all happened because animals are given excessive doses "just to be on the safe side" in the way that an engineer doubles a bridges load carrying capacity to ensure the public isn't put in danger.Perhaps the answer is not to be over excessive in doses used on animals,or better still use people who volunteer,and have the media informed properly about test does levels and what the risks actually are -LB]


Lynn Frewer : The problem we've got though is that the public are very well able to conceptualise uncertainty,but science and scientific institutions have been operating to date in such a way as to deny that those uncertainties exist in risk management,
[Whether or not the public conceptualise it they can't calculate it (See Sue Blackmore sci- mat3.html) -LB]
,and I think the problem-the reason for this decline and trust in science - is that the public see uncertainty in risk management - particularly when scientific knowledge changes - we know more about a particular risk - but to date - and BSE would be an example - science,scientific institutions have been denying that that uncertainty exists.
[That's not true.The public demand certainty,and science does it's best to deliver to the demand.People prefer to gloss over the uncertainty,that's why when faced with conflicting reports rather than go with what makes rational sense,they stay with their inherent beliefs,or warp the data to suit what they would like to believe.Those who smoke shrug the risk off an continue smoking,no one drives slower if told the risk of death is double at 40kph than what it is at 30kph because they figure there's enough uncertainty about it that it might not be true.In fact the uncertainty is overplayed.For things like global warming there maybe data that shows both an increase or a decrease,or even no change.But there certainly is an ozone hole,there is no uncertainty about that.What maybe the dubious in that case is just how profound an effect it may have,if the diminishing in ozone is only 1 part in a billion it might not be a threat (it could be a product of sensitive measuring equipment),but if that deterioration is part of a trend to lose 1 part in a billion compounding over a series of months or years,and shows a trend,then it could be serious -LB]
So,it looks as though science is protecting some kind of vested interest.

Mike Maier : Yes I think the lack of clarity is crucial here. The picture of John Gummer giving his daughter a four year old...er daughter,a hamburger is going to become a sort of icon of misjudged behaviour,because that picture probably made people even more concerned about the whole issue of BSE.

Colin Berry : And yet there's a pressure to indulge in that sort of thing, I think,
[That's what I mean.If Gummer hadn't done it,people would have had no image with which to go off to indicate safety. That's the fickle public for you - you just can't please all of the people all of the time! -LB]
because when estimates of the numbers of people likely to be involve range from say 200 to 30% of the population...

Colin Blakemore : This is the numbers that are likely to die from new variant CJD?

Colin Berry : ...exactly,there was enormous criticisms of the scientists for being so sloppy.What they were actually doing was making a fairly accurate statement of the uncertainty.

Mike Maier : Yes.

Colin Blakemore : Yes.Yes,so this is one of the problems isn't it Ken? That the public seems to expect that scientists are infallible.
[That's an indication of just how powerful science has been in delivering the goods,people now expect it to deliver everything with 100% capability,including their morals and spiritual views which it isn't supposed to! And nothing delivers with 100% capability-that's inhuman and science is done by human people who are fallible. It's because of a "taking fro granted" or a "resting on laurels" that people act like spoilt brats,they "never had it so good" for so long that they are used to getting high standards.Now a small error looks huge in terms of what has been delivered. We make mountains out of molehills -LB]
They're there to give absolute statements about right or wrong.
[Thus you can see ho people think they are supposed to deliver morality -LB]


Kenneth Macrae : Well I think we use words to mean different things.I remember Stephen Dorrell when he was minister for health talking about BSE,in the house of commons,and he used the word,the was a very small risk that BSE would cause CJD.What he actually meant was,he thought it was very unlikely that it did.
[Another example of how using plain English doesn't aid communication (see world30.html) - LB]
And if it did,the risk quantitatively would be very small.In other words he was confusing risk and uncertainty.Uncertainty is admitting you don't know,and I think.....I mean we're guilty as scientists,people I think like to claim that they have more certainty about the statements they make,than really often they are justified in claiming.
[The risk is the chance that it will occur. By saying "small risk that BSE causes CJD,this assumes there is a link,it's just that the BSE is unlikely to cause CJD.Whereas saying "It's uncertain that BSE causes CJD" means no link has been established,but one could be forthcoming. It just goes to show that the English language in the hands of politicians when dealing with technical points is a source of confusion not information.One would suggest that if Ken had been delivering this message,the confusion would not arise,since he knows what he is talking about.So who is best to inform the public - politicians or scientists? It's best to get the info from the horses mouth -LB]


Colin Blakemore : I would guess that it...that the BSE episode has certainly influenced the judgement of people in this country about GM food,about whether they want it,and certainly the reaction - the hostile reaction - against GM food was so much earlier and so much stronger here,and that may well be due to the BSE experience I guess.

Kenneth Macrae : Oh I think that's an example of confusing facts and values.That people have a value system that natural is either good or that scientific progress has been wonderful (see natural and trans -cblast1.wri) and I think people use reason and evidence to try to justify their opinions,rather than to form their opinions.
[That's essentially what I've found by talking to people online.People have a fixed view (some people) and try to shoehorn the facts into an a priori view.God is a prime example. One cannot assume God's existence and try to warp the facts to justify God.One must not believe either way and form an opinion upon the facts,not bend the facts into one's world model. Perhaps this is the difference that forms the two cultures (see world30) Science theoretically progresses by having no preconceptions (beliefs) and does tests to find out. Whereas romantics (or the public) have preconceptions (beliefs) that they ask to be disproved by the facts,and of course no amount of data is ever enough to remove the dogma -LB]
Because,I mean the...we just don't have the information at the moment about GM food.But some people are frightened by the uncertainty
[Fear of the unknown -LB],and it's meddling with nature
[Which puts man outside nature,when we're not- we're inside it -LB],and other people,perhaps the ones who know more,but are not trusted by the rest of us,can see the possible advantages.

Lynn Frewer : "The advantages to who?",is also very very important. (Murmurs of assent)

Colin Blakemore : Well,that's right balancing benefits against costs and not just benefit to yourself.

Colin Berry : And which population? I mean the vitamin A enhanced rice is going to be very much more significant for some populations than others,and those sorts of things affect things too.

Lynn Frewer : I think perhaps part of the problem was that the European public saw that the benefits were accruing to industries,producers in different countries,and being imported into Europe,where they had no choice,because genetically modified ingredients were not segregated,there was not a concrete and understandable labelling policy put into place.So...
[Whilst this is true,and I support labelling,to a certain extent this is like asking for 5mm grains of rice to be separated from 4mm grains of rice and packets labelled accordingly. A GM food is not necessarily any more of a threat than a normal "natural" food (which could of course be more dangerous eg Hyradazine in mushrooms),and perhaps because of this no option was taken to label.Again what the public perceive or misunderstand should not be implemented merely because they ask for it,if it costs money does not actually produce a viable choice.Having said that,the free market works by democratic choice and defaulting to no choice removes a citizens right to choose.I just think it would be a somewhat farcical choice,like separating out hard and soft water so one would choose not to have to de-fur a kettle.It's a choice which could be implemented,but water is essentially water,and food is essentially food.The Frankensteinian myths propagated by the press fail to appreciate some of the subtleties in GM -LB]


Colin Berry : Yeah but tomato paste was accepted without (Colin says something meaning "dissent")...and still I believe outsells any other sort of tomato paste.

Lynn Frewer : Which is labelled...

Colin Berry : Sure.

Lynn Frewer : ..which is cheaper,though a consumer benefit...

Colin Berry : So the benefit was the price and so on yeah,yeah.

Lynn Frewer : ...it was identifiable.

Colin Blakemore : I'd like to spend the rest of the programme talking a little bit about health risks in things like mobile phones.I have to declare an interest there because I was a member of the independent expert group,that was chaired by Sir William Stewart,that's recently produced a report,and our dilemma in considering an area of what is clearly an area of great public interest,and potentially of great concern - half the population now have,and use mobile phones - was that there were hints in the research literature of possible effects of the microwave radiation from mobile phones on the cells and tissues,but no clear evidence that any of those biological effects carried any health hazard.How does one deal with that?
[Note that the tests probably involved strapping a cellphone to a mouse and leaving it on for 6 months non stop (ie dosed it with 28,000 apples worth of microwaves),and they still didn't find anything.Humans have radiation all around them at much stronger doses than cellphones, even if proximity is an issue -LB]
Well what we decided to do was to apply what's called "the precautionary principle" or a version of it. Lynn what do you think in general of this approach of using a precautionary approach when you're just not sure of all the facts.
[It seems eminently viable.It's like treading with care on ground that was recently seismically disturbed to be wary of falling down a crevasse,it's the only sane policy -LB]


Lynn Frewer : I think one way to deal with this is to involve the public more in risk management processes,and I mean directly.
[You mean that "intelligent" public that can't accept risks in terms of probabilities and adds in its own subjective value judgements? And that will help? If they are to be involved it has to be at the level Shiela MacKeckney is,being informed of how science functions.One can't just wander in off the street and expect to be involved,any more than a someone can walk in of the street and perform brain surgery.Risk management isn't brain surgery,but it is a complex task requiring training and skill -LB]
Look at ways to try and understand what's driving public views about risk and take those views and use them to inform regulatory policy,so that we're responding to what the public want,rather than getting them to react to a particular regulatory style.
[Again we're accommodating public ignorance and value judgements,as if the customer is always right.In many TV discussion shows the kind of nagging doubts that seems to be indicative of the public mind,have been shown up to be products of their lack of information about the subject with which they take issue,by a scientist brought on to allay fears or discuss the issue.We SHOULD NOT be accommodating misinformed or uninformed views.What should happen is that the facts should be put forward as they are,and in no uncertain terms the public should be told that the facts come in a language that requires them to think and try hard,and if they want answers they have to put in effort. Accommodating their laziness and preconceptions does nothing to add to progress.You can't water down complex issues to make them palatable to a simple audience and expect to have communicated the reasons why what policy is is not what is the public wish. There seems to be an insatiable urge to ask "why?" in the public domain that is critical of policies that seem to be against the public will (ie Tony Blair's stance of fuel tax).Such decisions aren't done merely to upset and wind up the public,they are done because they make sense,and however much lack of sense they appear to make to public scrutiny,this is because public scrutiny is superficial and not penetrating.If they looked with deeper eyes,and stopped adding in their own preconceptions,then they'd see the sense.Of course this appears as a very arrogant and supercilious view,but I don't make excuses for public ignorance -LB]

A Flood Tide of Numbers - The Empire of Chance

Even a superficial glance at the world around us reveals the extent and diversity of statistics. Almost daily our newspapers report public opinion, as defined by the latest poll, or the state of the economy, as measured by various econometric indicators.Articles, sports reports, and a great deal of public debate feature an assortment of descriptive statistics. Concern by eminent statisticians over political interference in the use and collection of official statistics has recently surfaced. Within industry and commerce, aspects of insurance, accounting, economic forecasting, and market research have long relied on statistical techniques, while the current revolution in quality management stems from a more sophisticated statistical approach to the variability inherent in production.
Many of the same statistical techniques are now an integral part of research methods in medicine, applied science and much of social sciences ; they have also begun to impinge on both the theory and the practice of our judicial system. At a deeper level, scientific theories of the nature of humankind and of our Universe explicitly include randomness.
Little wonder that these authors claim that "statistics and probability are all-pervasive" and that "the empire of chance sprawls over whole conceptual continents". It was not always thus. Probability theory originated about 300 years ago in the study of gambling problems. Against the backdrop of a profoundly deterministic [and fatalistic-LB] view of the world,its relevance was strictly limited to (at best) a statement about ignorance of underlying causes, or the (current, but presumed not indefinite) inability to measure with complete precision.
Statistics, in the sense of large sets of data, became available during the 19th century. The collection of techniques we now use to study data have only recently been developed. Written by historians and philosophers, The Empire of Chance seeks to trace the development of these ideas and concepts, and their symbiotic role in shaping scientific thinking. However,its subtitle "How probability changed science and everyday life'' indicates more about its content than its title. Rather than describe or delimit chance's current empire, the perspective is historical.
The authors' treatment of their chosen subject matter is thorough, if somewhat dry, and no formal background is necessary. The first two chapters detail the separate rise of probabilistic and then statistical thinking. Real progress in making inferences from uncertain data had to wait for the pioneering work in statistics of Ronald Fisher in the 1920s, but this was soon followed by the controversy between Fisher , Jerzy Neyman and Egon Pearson, and the Bayesian school [Ref: Video:N30 The Numbers Game {Bayesian Statistics};Red File1: Nature1.wri] over the "correct" approach.
Three separate chapters then each focus on a particular discipline. Correlation and regression arose through Galton's work on inheritance. More generally chance entered evolutionary theory through the field of Mendelian segregation (and possibly), random drift and mutation, and variation within populations provided the raw material for natural selection.
In physics, statistical mechanics (which arose by analogy with the "social physics", or "statistics" of the early 19th century) ,first challenged classical determinism. In the 20th century quantum mechanics explained behaviour at the atomic level in a fundamentally probabilistic way. In psychology , statistics first became institutionalised into research methodology in the and statistical ideas were actually providing theories to explain the manner in which the mind functions, and ultimately "transformed... the idea of what an explanation is".
The penultimate chapter briefly outlines some contemporary applications and the final chapter surveys important issues. Although it is an unfair criticism in view of the book's stated historical aims, I was disappointed that the authors did not extend their account sufficiently into the late 20th century to include the exciting modern role of statistics,for example, in image expert systems, the analysis of DNA sequences or in probabilistic algorithms. There is similarly only passing reference to CHAOS.It would also have been of interest to ponder on the future of the subject. While commendable on one level , the detail and style of The Empire of Chance may deter casual readers such an account is both valuable and relevant to the non-historian, not least in adding our insight and highlighting the themes that continue to recur. These include the contrast between various deterministic and stochastic world views ,and the meaning of probability.
Of particular irony is our "fascination with the numerical and the longing for certainty that the numerical symbolises" when statistical experts may still disagree both on a theoretical and practical level about which number is the ''correct'' one in any given situation. The vastness of the empire of chance is well documented. As M. G. Kendall claimed. statisticians "have already overrun every branch of science with a rapidity of conquest rivalled only by Attila, Mohommed, and the Colorado beetle" . Society has certainly institutionalised statistics. It is far from clear, however, that society understands uncertainty.
New Scientist 27Jan 1990 No1701 p67

What planet are these people from?

by David Manson

They're at it again, the statisticians with nothing better to than upset us. Just a couple of weeks after claiming that nearly half the people in Manchester who could work don't,they now assert that Manchester has the highest shopping prices in Britain. One question. How do all these people at the bottom of the first pile pay for the goods that put them at the top of the second?
[It's quite possible for the two figures to be true,just because we have the highest prices does not mean there aren't lower prices in Manchester that those who don't work can afford,I should know I am subject to both categories.An example of a journalist who can't follow figures -LB]
It's possible that we have all found incomes that don't involve work, such as winning the Lottery or joining the board of a recently- privatised monopoly. But unlikely.
["Unlikely" presumes he's calculating risk - which itself is "unlikely" -LB]
The truth is that the prices survey, like the government's work survey three weeks earlier, is nonsense. It tried to record what families spend on everything from car insurance, to furniture. And on food, the vast bulk of any family's bills. Surveying food is notoriously difficult. Europe gave up years ago after The Great Sausage Debacle, when statisticians agreed that the standard sausage was a frankfurter. During a subsequent survey in the Midlands, not one frankfurter was sold, which proved to the statisticians that no sausages were sold.
[Logically if sausages are defined as frankfurters and the data shows no frankfurters are sold,then no sausages are sold,this MUST be true. This does not mean however that sausages not defined as frankfurters continued to sell -LB]
Equally fatuous were the conclusions of a survey of what we pay for consumer goods compared to Americans, which found that some items were 50 per cent dearer here. The Office of Fair Trading got all hot and bothered and began muttering about cartels and price-fixing. An kinds of legal explanations were also offered, ranging from higher production costs to VAT. But totally ignored was the fact that we are prepared to pay more for an item we considered important.
[I'm sure US citizens are quite prepared to pay more for goods they consider important too,I don't see what that's got to do with it. In the recent fuel crisis,one Labour MP explained that our taxes are calculated on a different system to Europe (thus probably the US too),because that's what we voted for.Oddly those Euro sceptics who probably include farmers and hauliers,would not have a price discrepancy that they see with Europe had they been sympathetic to rules which would have applied to all Euro countries.The UK's opting out has left us cold shouldered.By being so patriotic and pompous,we shoot ourselves in the foot and don't gain the benefits of a co-operative buying in bulk -LB]
The recent shopping survey didn't mean, as the Reward statisticians concluded, that "Manchester must be a relatively affluent area," just that we know how to spend what money we've got. We choose to spend on food instead of designer socks, on lettuce instead of Lacroix. Good news for supermarket chains now recording record profits (there's nothing wrong with profit, except tycoons this successful should be running the country instead of messing around with cornfakes).
Bad news for statistic-lovers who read too much into too little. In fact the government's Central Statistics Office has just changed its ground rules when checking prices by including Knightsbridge and Belgravia as "test" areas and shelving several ailing towns in the midlands. Having done this, they found that Belgravians don't drink many pints of mild, an old favourite with statisticians when it comes to comparing the price of "basics." So instead they've started comparing such things as private school fees and the prices of aerobics classes.
What planet are these people from?
But the very last word on statistics must go the the Greater Manchester CID chief, who had to explain on Thursday why we had the country's worst record for solving burglaries What he said is: "In terms of figures,GMP? has at least maintained its performance oven the last year and, when you take it over-all, you see there has been a reduction per thousand head population-wise." What he meant is: "We may not be too hot at locking up burglars but by golly we know how to truncheon a bad statistic until it looks good."
Manchester Evening News Apr22 1996



Kenneth Macrae : I was curious,because I haven't read - apologies - I haven't read your writings on mobile phones,how did you apply the precautionary principle to that issue?

Colin Blakemore : Well I think we should get clear what the precautionary principle is really.I mean the way we interpreted it was just to be reasonably cautious where the costs of being cautious are not so high.I mean not so draconian...

Colin Berry : It's not always defined in that way though Colin! (slight humourous tumult)

Colin Blakemore : ...well I know,exactly,exactly,no there are lot's of...

Lynn Frewer : There are other versions.

Colin Blakemore : ...there are other versions.

Kenneth Macrae : But cautious in what way? Cautious about saying "there are dangers" or cautious about saying "they are safe"?

Colin Blakemore : Cautious,oh,cautious about the possible hazards.What we said was that while we could not at the moment state clearly that was any risk to health,there was a background of evidence that phones were causing biological effects in tissue which might conceivably carry health risks in the long run.So what we said was to be reasonably cautious until that evidence was in.

[That's like saying no one really knows if a budgie can peck you to death,so in the meanwhile keep your budgie caged,because there is a background of evidence that suggests some birds are capable of inflicting great damage on human beings -LB]
And one element of being cautious is to make moves to gather more evidence,to do more research of course.But also informing the public so that they can make their own choices we thought was terribly important.Providing more information about the level of emission from phones because they vary enormously....
[Yes but they come no where near the emissions from a microwave and no one is carping about microwave ovens,and in terms of power and proximity possibly ovens are emitting more than phones,why no oven scare? Could it be that the media/public have no conception of EM waves and are not versed in physics and maths? Oh come on now - give them credit! -LB]


Kenneth Macrae : So we might get stickers like on cigarette packets?

Colin Blakemore : ...well we won't exactly...

Kenneth Macrae : Low dose/high dose telephones?

Colin Blakemore : ...that's exactly what we suggested?

Kenneth Macrae : Really?

Colin Blakemore : Yes,and that tables should be available to show people a comparison between different phones.


[Theoretically all electronic equipment should have a power rating and radio emission data in it's instruction pamphlet.I know for a fact that my electronic keyboards are rated according to radio emission rules. My Yamaha PSS-480 is registered as a class B computing device compliant with part 15 of the FCC regulations. If people bothered to check,most likely their phones have similar data already associated with them,and if they check the FCC regulations they should be able to find out how strong an emission is,what frequency it is and what effects it's likely to have.But that requires effort which has most likely not been put in.The data is there it's just that Joe Public is too lazy to look. I noted yesterday that our Hoover affected by VDU,and thus the Hoover is emitting EM radiation and generating magnetic interference,why no Hoover scare? The comparison will mean low radiation will be a selling point much as MPG is for cars,but one would not make a selling point out of how unpowerful or small the engine was,and the radiation in a phone is a measure of it's ability to transmit a signal.If you buy a low dose phone,that is a weak phone that will be less able to do it's job! It's swings and roundabouts if you want convenience you have to accept risk.If you don't want the risk then stop asking for convenience.Science tries to deliver convenience with low risk,but 100% convenience with 0% risk is impossible -LB]
And also we suggested there should be an audit to show the levels of radiation at different parts of the country so people can see at least where they stand in the league tables of radiation.

Colin Berry : And other sources presumably?

Colin Blakemore : Well that's right yes.

Mike Maier : But again....

Colin Blakemore : And also to involve the public more in making decisions about how the phone system should grow.At the moment you don't require planning permission to put a mast up,if it's below 15 metres in height. 15 metres? And we suggested that full planning permission should be needed for that.
[Scientists working in the public interests contrary to common conception.Scientists are people to,not a breed apart,and stand to suffer from radiation as well.It's in their best interests to minimise possible problems -LB]


Mike Maier : But you are struggling with...

Lynn Frewer : But the most extreme version of the precautionary principle would mean that you would ban mobile phones. An how do you......
[Let's ban cars,and TVs and CDs and VCRs and VDUs because after all what use are they and they are so dangerous aren't they? -LB]


Colin Berry : I have a very grave suspicion about the use of the precautionary principle,from the point of view of science (murmurs of assent),because it demands that you attach a different weighting,a different -what's called an "epistemic warrant" - a different weighting to some kinds of information versus others,and that's the antithesis of science,and if you actually applied it say to some parts of pharmacy and pharmaceutical development,it would lead you down some terribly dangerous paths I think.
[Those paths are more likely to be trod if we allow public value judgements to affect policy as those weightings will become considered and applied,because the public aren't scientists and don't understand how their personal feelings and ideas are irrelevant to how science is carried out.If science worked by personal whim then the moon might be made out of cheese until the moon landings showed it weren't.Science's power exists because those personal subjective whims are outlawed and not taken into account,that's WHY it works.Accommodating public "I think this should happen because I believe in God" arguments destroys what science is and undermines our modern society.People don't realise that they are digging away at the very foundations of that which supports their standard of living -LB]


Mike Maier : Of course you forget the great benefits the mobile phones have given to people,I mean there was an article in "The Lancet" a couple of years ago,from Australia outlining the lives it's saved,you know the...in remote and far away places,(murmurs of assent) of 300,000 - I'm trying to remember 300,000 phone calls made by boats,you know from boats in distress on the sea...

Colin Berry : Even Dartmoor you don't have to go very far!

Mike Maier : ..yes,millions from people having MIs (?).Half a million from people having had accidents in remote places,it's saved countless lives,irrespective...
[And how many have died from a cellphone? None -LB]


Lynn Frewer : Isn't that an important point..

Mike Maier : ....of course it is.Yes.

Lynn Frewer : ...in the whole debate about perception? That people perceive that exposure to a risk is necessary for some other reason.I think perhaps perceptions of need are even more important than perceptions of direct personal benefit.
[I don't think that's true. The hauliers and farmers were selfishly concerned for the well being of themselves and their livelihoods and apparently negated the risk incurred to everyone else that we might be starved to death.They said "We are doing it for the country" without ever asking anyone or being voted for.I don't support farmers I think they are selfish materialist money grabbers,and what with Tony Martin,probably unstable misfits who have no idea of the rule of law,and think only of protecting their property and their interests to the exclusion of all else.The NEED for food did not seem to be a concern for them in their action -LB]


Colin Blakemore : But one area where people do seem to respond very positively to medical advice even though it may not actually make sense in an objective way,is in accepting vaccination of their children.Could you tell us about that?
[Yes! That IS indicative. A vaccination is a small weakened version of the disease in question to familiarise the immune system with the potential threat.By vaccinating the body is put at risk from the disease,and yet people accept vaccinations almost unquestioningly. Perhaps this is because their track record has been good in stemming the diseases? It's odd that acceptance of vaccination happens when issue is taken elsewhere such as with cellphones when the same policy of risk management governs both! -LB]


Colin Berry : Well I think here,if we're talking about risk evaluations,things are very clear.Let's take measles for example.A miserable disease if a child just gets simple measles,a dangerous one if it affects its lungs and it gets pneumonia and can leave - even if it recovers,which - some of them unhappily die,and particularly in other countries - may leave damage in the lungs which leads on to long term problem in the lung in Bronchiectatis(?),and rarely - as you will know very well - can affect the central nervous system,producing a very terrible disease.So there I think if there were a risk attached to the vaccine,and I am not personally convinced that there is,the risk benefit analysis is very easy for most parents to see. I think the same is true of mumps,where in a sense,the same sorts of complications are also true of mumps as a natural disease,
[Be careful Colin- some people think that you scientists manufacture these diseases! -LB]
and the rubella which is the third part of that thing,the benefit is there really quite different,it's to the next generation isn't it?

Colin Blakemore : Yes.

Colin Berry : If it's a girl,as we started wrongly in this country just immunising girls
[In the current climate this might be interpreted as "Male establishment tests out its scientific poisons on subjugated women,rather as JA Paulos quotes Mort Sahl (see paulos2) -LB]
the benefit is to their potential children.We started immunising boys,because we realised that with the herd effect - that's to say if you get a significant part of the population immunised,it depends a little bit on which disease,but something like 75-80%,the rest won't get it anyway whether they are immunised or not,because they are protected by the fact that the disease won't spread.
[Sir Robert May's work adds Chaos Theory into such equations (see beffect),and in "Outbreak",the idea of not spreading through the disease say having a short lifetime in the body (or the host dying and being unable to travel) was thought sufficient (initially) to contain the spread,this in turn depends on the medium of exchange and incubation period.AIDS (or HIV) is thought to have a long incubation period,and even though a host may not know they are a carrier,they nevertheless can be.What is certain here is that mathematics both applies and can help as a means to understanding and controlling disease patterns.I recall one programme that Robert May was on where he said that because of Chaos Theory, vaccination could actually make the potential to spread worse. Thus those parents doing "cost benefit analysis" (do they?),have Chaos Theory to consider before vaccinating a child, but I bet they don't -LB]
Those are three diseases which are terribly common and which in unimmunised populations produce devastating epidemics,with regularity.For meningitis,an interesting new vaccine,the chances of your getting meningitis are really very small as an individual,and I think we are in an uncertainty phase - we don't know about the vaccine yet,it hasn't been given to enough people for long enough,though if there are risks they are small.
[I had to recently in lieu of scientist being present say that scientists were honest enough to say "we don't know" in certain instances.Here Colin says exactly that.Note that as far as the woman who wished to be natural and not have untested things go into the public domain is concerned,the meningitis vaccine would be "unnatural" and "unproved",nevertheless unnatural things have to be done to stop natural things from killing people,any intervention by man could be seen as "unnatural" but it isn't.Under that auspices everything man has ever done is "unnatural". Similarly the vaccine cannot be proven until it shows that it is impeding meningitis in people which is the litmus test. So to some extent an "unproved" thing will always enter the public domain,it's naive to suppose it won't -LB]
Now there's a different kind of risk benefit evaluation to be done,because of the consequences of you getting meningitis are so catastrophic,
[This is the same point I made earlier over BNFL and Lois Wolpert -LB]
even...I mean firstly a high death rate.Secondly a very high morbidity and mortality,people lose limbs because of the scepticemia that often accompanies the common form.All of these mean that the risk benefit analysis,in my mind,strongly favours immunisation.I've seen fatal cases of whooping cough,and of measles,in this country,in recent years,I'm talking in the last ten.These diseases still exist,we have them controlled.If we stop immunising large segments of the population,they will reappear.That's a certainty,I mean....

Colin Blakemore : Yes.

Kenneth Macrae : We have a very good uptake of vaccinations in the UK,but we're very proactive,we have you know,health visitors and GPs who are on incentive bonuses and so on.We go out and vaccinate children.The parents who I speak to who ask me for advice, actually are not that keen on it,and it's because of the herd immunity issue,because these illnesses are not epidemic in this country and so you can get away with not vaccinating your child actually,but of course it's a high risk thing to do,for the general population,because if enough children don't get vaccinated,there will suddenly be epidemics again and all those unvaccinated children will suffer.
[This sudden tipping from one state to another due to slow variation is subject to Catastrophe Theory,which general model is that of sand grains that suddenly slide as one by one they move.I'd be interested in whether different cultural heritages have opposing views to vaccination,and if so how they justify taking the risk of not being vaccinated upon the potential to affect the rest of the population who might not share their beliefs.It's one thing for a Jehovah's Witness not to accept transfusion when only their life is on the line,but if a belief impacts on the rest of the community who don't share that belief,and those with the belief aren't vaccinated,that could mean someone dies because someone of belief didn't vaccinate,the belief thus will bear some of the responsibility for the incurred death. The sensitivity to initial conditions and potential to boom and bust are characteristic of Chaos Theory,and it amazes me that people take unilateral decisions without being informed of these ideas that fundamentally should be informing them of which decision to make -LB]
So I think it is a very important issue,and again part of the equation of this risk assessment that one has to make.

Colin Blakemore : Yes,well risk is not going to go away but unfortunately we have to,so thanks to Sir Colin Berry,Lynn Frewer,Ken Macrae,Mike Maier and to you for watching goodbye.

I.N.Stewart@warwick.ac.uk

Risk and Bayesian Statistics

Dear Prof,Sorry to bother you twice close together (but things come in threes if Ch4's maths on buses is to be accepted,so I'm the expected clumping factor!),and I hope you've eaten the right meal for breakfast , but New Scientist reports this week on the low risk of Killer Stranglets eating up the planet.My concern is not the physics of the anti matter,but the assessment of risk.I have many pages covering this online,because as Sue Blackmore points out,it is the inability to assess it properly that leads to belief in pseudo sciences and/or knee-jerk reactions to news reports.The upshot is this: Adrian Kent argues that because of the possible incurred deaths,the risk upper limit should be set higher compared to another event,ie the possible outcome is being taken into consideration.In my own pages,I think Lois Wolpert is quoted as saying that holes in the road are far more dangerous for cyclists as they are a greater risk than a nuclear accident.This may mathematically be the case,but pot holes are unlikely to wipe out large numbers of people in one catastrophic event.The director of BNFL also once said that a nuclear breakdown was likely to happen once in a million years.This may indeed be true,but we have suffered many events in recent history.The risk does not mean that events can't clump together as far as I understand it.Ie something can happen more than once in any given set of million times. What bothers me is the notion of Bayesian Analysis,where I think an extra term is added on for the possible outcome in calculating probability (I've seen Fisher Dilke talk on this but I might be a bit shy of quite wholly understanding it).It seems to me that Adrian Kent is making use of this type of argument and Lois Wolpert is not,is there any right answer here,or is it dependent on one's view?I only ask as according to one publication,you are the "most famous mathematician in the world" and I have to explain these things to those that have a tendency to the pseudo sciences and fail to understand risk,and if fame is an indication of authority,I'd like to get the info from the horses mouth,as it were.

Risk and Bayesian Statistics

I wrote a piece on risk for New Scientist, ages back, that made several points very similar to yours. In particular standard risk analysis assumes that what matters is the AVERAGE. That is, a one in ten chance of killing ten people is the same as a one in a million chance of killing a million people. To my mind, this is nuts--- and it leads to idiotic comparisons between holes in the road and nuclear accidents.

For each individual, it may be the case that the risk is the same, assuming all that matters to them is their own life. But a nuclear disaster would reduce social structure to ruins (look at the effect of a puny fuel protest) whereas a million cyclists killing themselves in holes (over a period of, say, a century) would hardly be noticed. The rest of science is going nonlinear, and I think it's high time risk analysis did the same. Ian Stewart


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