The power of baselines

From today’s Guardian:


It took decades to establish that smoking causes lung cancer. Heavy smoking increases the risk of lung cancer by a factor of about 11, the largest risk ratio for any common risk factor for any disease. But that doesn’t make it peculiar that there should be any non-smokers with lung cancer.

As with my discussion of the horrified accounts of obesity someday overtaking smoking as a cause of cancer, the main cause is a change in the baseline level of smoking. As fewer people smoke, and as non-smokers stubbornly continue to age and die, the proportional mortality of non-smokers will inevitably increase.

It is perfectly reasonable to say we should consider diverting public-health resources from tobacco toward other causes of disease, as the fraction of disease caused by smoking declines. And it’s particularly of concern for physicians, who tend toward essentialism in their view of risk factors — “lung cancer is a smoker’s disease” — to the neglect of base rates. But the Guardian article frames the lung cancer deaths in non-smokers as a worrying “rise”:

They blame the rise on car fumes, secondhand smoke and indoor air pollution, and have urged people to stop using wood-burning stoves because the soot they generate increases risk… About 6,000 non-smoking Britons a year now die of the disease, more than lose their lives to ovarian or cervical cancer or leukaemia, according to research published on Friday in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

While the scientific article they are reporting on never explicitly says that lung cancer incidence in non-smokers [LCINS] is increasing, certainly some fault for the confusion may be found there:

the absolute numbers and rates of lung cancers in never-smokers are increasing, and this does not appear to be confounded by passive smoking or misreported smoking status.

This sounds like a serious matter. Except, the source they cite a) doesn’t provide much evidence of this and b) is itself 7 years old, and only refers to evidence that dates back well over a decade. It cites one study that found an increase in LCINS in Swedish males in the 1970s and 1980s, a much larger study that found no change over time in LCINS in the US between 1959 and 2004, and a French study that found rates increasing in women and decreasing in men, concluding finally

An increase in LCINS incidence could be real, or the result of the decrease in the proportion of ever smokers in some strata of the general population, and/or ageing within these categories.

What proportion of lung cancers should we expect to be found in non-smokers? Taking the 11:1 risk ratio, and 15% smoking rate in the UK population, we should actually expect about 85/(15×11)≈52% of lung cancer to occur in non-smokers. Why is it only 1/6, then? The effect of smoking on lu estimated that lung cancer develops after about 30 years of smoking. If we look back at the 35% smoking incidence of the mid 1980s, we would get an estimate of about 65/(35×11)≈17%.

“… in line with UK immigration rules”

For repetition is a mighty power in the domain of humor. If frequently used, nearly any precisely worded and unchanging formula will eventually compel laughter if it be gravely and earnestly repeated, at intervals, five or six times.

— Mark Twain, Autobiography

The Guardian has yet another report on the radical anti-family policies of the UK Home Office. This time it is an elderly Iranian couple with three generations of descendants in Britain, who have lived in the UK since the 1970s, who are now to be deported. This despite the fact that they are ill and wholly dependent on their children for care, and despite the fact that they currently care for an autistic grandchild. The Home Office takes the official view that the grandchild would not be affected, because

It is noted that you own the house you reside in Edinburgh, therefore you could choose to allow your daughter and grandson to live there on your return to Iran, which then would not impact on your grandson as you claim he visits you there every day.

This is close to the cruelest stereotype of the British character: cold and haughty, a nation of bookkeepers and arrogant property owners, sensitive to animal suffering but indifferent to humans. The only “equity” they care about is home equity. The Guardian has become the only effective court of appeal against this inhuman immigration policies, meaning that basic human rights end up depending on the vagaries of journalists’ attention.

The series of individual tragedies reported in The Guardian seems endless. It struck me that every one of these reports ends with the same coda:

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “All UK visa applications are considered on their individual merits, on the basis of the evidence available and in line with UK immigration rules.”

I know this conforms to ordinary journalistic standards — you have to let the government state its perspective, the government has a policy of not commenting on individual cases, blah blah blah — but, following the principle articulated by Mark Twain, this repetition — The Guardian transcribing this boilerplate again and again and again, begins to produce a darkly comic effect, satirising without comment the robotic, dehumanised and dehumanising character of the Home Office bureaucracy.

(I never cease to be fascinated by the role of bureaucracy in whitewashing tyranny. The UK Parliament could abrogate its recognition of asylum rights, eliminate family rights in immigration cases, and so on. But that would openly acknowledge what monsters they have become — and invite open resistance, at home and abroad, and might even be uncomfortable for the perpetrators themselves. We’re not splitting up families, we’re facilitating the use of modern digital technology to keep them together. It’s the same motivation that led the Nazi SS to apply the term Sonderbehandlung (special treatment) in official documents to the murder of disabled children, and the mass gassing of Jews.)

I suppose this could invite a variation on Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Kerenina: Comedy is repetitive. Tragedies are unique.

Like all tyrannies, though, the UK Home Office is endeavouring to mass-produce tragedies. And the evil wrought by Theresa May works on, even after she has moved on to greater things.

Anti-publishing

George Monbiot has launched an exceptionally dyspeptic broadside in the Guardian against academic publishing, and in support of the heroic/misguided data scraper Alexandra Elbakyan, who downloaded millions of papers, and made them available on a pirate server.

I agree with the headline “Scientific publishing is a rip-off. We fund the research – it should be free”, but disagree with most of the reasoning. Or, maybe it would be better said, from my perspective as an academic his complaints seem to me not the most significant.

Monbiot’s perspective is that of a cancer patient who found himself blocked from reading the newest research on his condition. I think, though, he has underestimated the extent to which funding bodies in the UK and US, and now in the EU as well, have placed countervailing pressure for publicly funded research to be made available in various versions of “open access”, generally within six months of journal publication. In many fields — though not the biomedical research of most interest to Monbiot — it has long been the case that journal publication is an afterthought, with research papers published first as “preprints” on freely accessible archive sites. Continue reading “Anti-publishing”

Written wordplay

Isaac Asimov, in a side-remark in his Treasury of Humor, mentioned a conversation in which a participant expressed outrage at a politician blathering about “American goals”. “His specialty is jails, not goals,” and then seeming to expect some laughter. It was only on reflection that Asimov realised that the speaker, who was British, had spelled it gaols in his mind.

I was reminded of this by this Guardian headline:

Labour has shifted focus from bingo to quinoa, say swing voters

The words bingo and quinoa look vaguely similar on the page, but they’re not pronounced anything alike. Unlike Asimov’s example, this wordplay is in writing, so spelling is important. My feeling is that wordplay has to be fundamentally sound-based, so this just doesn’t work for me. Maybe the Guardian editors believe in visual wordplay.

Alternatively, maybe they don’t know how quinoa is pronounced.

Why Israel?

The Guardian has published an “exclusive” on the future of European science funding after  Brexit. The key point:

A draft copy of the so-called Horizon Europe document, seen by the Guardian, suggests that the UK is set to be offered less generous access than countries with associate status in the current programme, known as Horizon 2020, including Israel, Turkey, Albania and Ukraine.

So why does the headline say

Brexit: UK may get poorer access than Israel to EU science scheme

Why Israel? If I had to pick a country on the list whose prominence in scientific research makes it seem insulting that they would have a higher priority in research collaboration than the UK, it might be Albania. It definitely wouldn’t be Israel. So might there be some other reason why The Guardian wants to highlight for its readers the shame of being treated worse than Israel by the EU?

From the archives: Charitable giving to universities

With The Guardian portraying the magnitude of Oxford and Cambridge college endowments on the front page as a major scandal — though taken all together they don’t reach even half of the endowment of Harvard — it seems like a good time to repost this comment I made five years ago, when the government was being attacked by Oxford’s chancellor for considering limiting the tax deduction for charitable donations to educational institutions. The post begins:

Let’s think this through:

  1. The government wants philanthropic funding of universities to replace public funding.
  2. Under current law, contributions to universities (and other charities) are matched by a 40% tax rebate for higher-earning taxpayers, so 2/5 of the costs of nominally “private” contributions are actually paid by the taxpayers. The government proposes to cap this subsidy at 15% of income or  £20,000.

Do you see the contradiction? Neither do I. In a time when the government is cutting funding for all manner of worthy projects, it seems pretty undemocratic to effectively allow wealthy citizens nearly unlimited access to the treasury to support their own favourite causes. The £560 million in charitable gifts last year presumably included more than £200 million in “gift” from the government. Whether or not this is a good thing, it seems troubling, as a point of democratic principle, that control over these £200 million has been passed from the citizenry at large (in the person of their elected representatives) to the infamous “one percent”.

For the rest, see here.

I think everyone would agree that if the wealthy elite want to spend their money on providing luxury education in medieval buildings to particularly talented young people, many but not all of whom come from privileged backgrounds, that’s probably not the most useless or antisocial thing that they’re free to do with their money. (And I can confirm, from personal experience, that Oxford colleges spend insane sums of money on maintenance for their buildings.) But as long as they’re leveraging public funds, which the current government has decided to withhold from educational institutions that serve a broader public far more efficiently, it’s no longer a simple matter of private choice.

Do loony leftists use the right-hand rule?

So Leave.EU is still active, and apparently last year they were soliciting a graphic to ridicule journalist Carole Cadwalladr:

As a mathematical scientist it strikes me as significant that she is considered to be discredited by association with three images: Flat Earth, Illuminati (though it looks to me like the Masonic eye from the US dollar bill), and what looks like a cheat sheet for an introductory electromagnetism course. Down in the corner we see that she’s been learning the right-hand rule for multiplying vectors. Right above it she has the formula for calculating power, which seems problematic.

Horse thieves and inverse probabilities

Reading Ron Chernow’s magisterial new biography of Ulysses Grant, I came across this very correct statistical inverse reasoning from the celebrated journalist Horace Greeley (whose role in the high school history curriculum has been reduced to the phrase, “Go West, young man” — that he denied having invented):

All Democrats are not horse thieves, but all horse thieves are Democrats.

This seems like an ironic bon mot, but after he became the Democratic candidate for president against Grant in 1872 he tried to use a milder version unironically as a defence of his new party colleagues:

I never said all Democrats were saloon keepers. What I said was all saloon keepers are Democrats.

Presumably he meant to add that if we knew the base rate of saloonkeeping (or horse thievery) in the population at large, we could calculate from the Democratic vote share the exact fraction of Democrats (and of Republicans) who are saloonkeepers (or horse thieves).