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Understanding Uncertainty's Blog


The Continuing Tragedy of L’Aquila

October 24, 2012 Comments (0)

As in ‘Boffins jailed for not predicting earthquake’, the 6-year sentences and massive fines handed out to the Italian seismologists have been largely portrayed by the media and commentators outside Italy as an attack on science, and the prosecution ridiculed as expecting the scientists to have been able to predict the earthquake. However, many have pointed out that it is all a bit more complicated than that. See, for example, a detailed article in Nature and these blogs by Roger Pielke and...

Rats and GM

September 20, 2012 Comments (0)

With others, I made some comments for the press about the recent paper (abstract, figures and tables freely available here) on cancer in rats fed GM maize and Monsanto's Roundup pesticide. Whatever the truth about GMOs, this is not a great contribution to the debate. The paper is not well written, to say the least, with phrases such as “In females, all treated groups died 2–3 times more than controls, and more rapidly” in the abstract. The Methods section gives a whole lot of detail about...

10 best practice guidelines for reporting science & health stories

July 18, 2012 Comments (0)

These guidelines were submitted by the Science Media Centre to the Leveson Inquiry into the press. They were produced as a consequence of Fiona Fox's appearance before the Inquiry - her submission and transcripts are here. Fiona told Lord Leveson "We have some fantastic science journalists in this country and I believe that if you put them in a room with very eminent scientists and members of the public that it would take them a couple of hours to come up with these basic guidelines for...

Explaining 5-sigma for the Higgs: how well did they do?

July 8, 2012 Comments (0)

Warning, this is for statistical pedants only. To recap, the results on the Higgs are communicated in terms of the numbers of sigmas, which has been calculated by the teams from what is generally (outside the world of CERN) termed a P-value: the probability of observing such an extreme result, were there not really anything going on. 5-sigmas corresponds to around a 1 in 3,500,000 chance. This tiny probability is applied to the data, but the common misinterpretation is to apply it to the...

Higgs: is it one-sided or two-sided?

July 3, 2012 Comments (0)

Announcements about the Higgs Boson are invariably framed in terms of the number of sigmas, with 5-sigmas needed for a ‘discovery’. Media outlets helpfully explain what this means by translating 5-sigmas to a probability, which is almost invariably misreported as a probability of the hypothesis that it is all just statistical error e.g. “meaning that it has just a 0.00006% probability that the result is due to chance” [Nature] (see bottom of this blog for comments about the...

Drinking again

June 1, 2012 Comments (0)

Alcohol can cause very serious problems, both for individuals, their families and society. But the Daily Mail’s story yesterday with the headline “Don't drink more than THREE glasses of wine a week: Oxford study claims slashing the official alcohol limit would save 4,500 lives a year” almost universally aroused derision among its many commenters. I was on World at One (31:27) discussing this Oxford study with one of the authors. I had to whip through the stats quickly so here is more of an...

Meat and dying

March 21, 2012 Comments (0)

After all the recent coverage of the possible harms of red meat, I've done an article explaining how, if we believe the figures, eating quite a lot of extra red meat each week will take, on average, a year off our life.

Cambridge Coincidence Survey

January 13, 2012 Comments (0)

Professor David Spiegelhalter of Cambridge University wants to know about your coincidences! Post your coincidence Read the coincidence stories Why? By recording your coincidence stories here, you can help him build a picture of what kinds of coincidences are out there and which ones seem to ‘get to’ us the most. Your coincidence stories can also help him explore the scientific explanations which may account for them – whether by doing the maths to calculate the chances of a coincidence, or...

Wiped Out

December 17, 2011 Comments (0)

Appearing on Winter Wipeout today. Enough said. Looking deranged at the prospect of the Big Balls Wrote an article for the Times, which appeared as this.

BBC website headline wrong shock horror

December 8, 2011 Comments (0)

Bowel cancer screening 'does cut deaths', said the BBC News website today, in a report on a study using data from the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme in England, published in the magnificently named journal Gut. Wow, I thought, that was quick, the programme has been going only since 2006 and didn't cover the whole country till 2010. Have they really found clear evidence of an effect on death rates already? Well, no, they haven't. The story is a bit more complicated and subtle than the...