Archives for posts with tag: statistics

This is the fifth and last part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1Part 2,  Part 3 and Part 4.

This is my final write-up from QED 2016. I know I’ve left out a ton of stuff – inevitable given that there were so many simultaneous tracks. I also realise I haven’t written much about the awards or the Saturday evening activities, but as I wasn’t taking any notes, my writings would be purely from memory, which is highly dodgy at the best of times. I will note however that the QED Award to Crispian Jago was thoroughly well deserved. Crispian has been a force of nature over the past years, bringing satire to a whole new level and crystallising how so many of us felt about pseudoscience. This has not been an easy time, as he has been afflicted by cancer in the last year. He was inundated by well-wishers throughout the conference. I wish him the very best in the months ahead.

Of Mousetraps and Men


The penultimate speaker on the main stage was broadcaster Michael Blastland, with a talk about how seemingly trivial things may form the most important part of life for all of us. We are brought up to believe in simple stories, that A causes B, and so if we implement seemingly simple solutions to complex problems, the outcome will be predictable. Of course this is not what happens. Life is more like a Heath Robinson machine with things constantly going wrong and taking different paths. Just because A happens, B might not.

We are lazy storytelling machines.

He talked about great artists and great achievers – Darwin and Lennon for example – who might not have achieved greatness were it not for serendipity. He looked at chain smokers and red meat eaters who lived to a hundred years old, despite the odds. He discussed studies where teenage delinquents from similar backgrounds had massively different life outcomes.

Science is all about the average, the aggregate, the loss of individuality. But what if it’s the particular that drive the cause?

He talked then about prescription drugs, such as statins and heartburn medications, where the lifetime benefit to people on the medications vs those not taking additional medications, while scientifically significant, is somewhat marginal. What we know at a global level may often tell us little at a local level.

Some big effects will almost certainly never affect you. But some little fuckers almost certainly will.

So what? Well, apart from some suggestions on getting into the details, adapting and experimenting, we are left with far more questions than answers. We all know that life is hugely complex and that chaos and complexity dominate our lives. We all know that we cannot predict our individual futures, but we can extrapolate some general trends, and these trends are important, no matter how chaotic the raw data. The fact that some people will beat the smoking lottery is not an argument for telling people to keep smoking. The fact that some unvaccinated kids will be mildly affected by measles if they get it, is not an argument for telling everyone not to get immunised. The fact that we can’t predict next week’s weather over Slough or Cleethorpes is not an argument against climate change. Is his argument that science is shit just because it cannot predict individual outcomes in every situation? But then again, when did science ever make such claims?

Here’s Michael Blastland talking to the RSA on a related topic.

The Deadly Dowsing Rod

If you were asked what the most dangerous pseudoscience is, the answer is unlikely to be water divining. It’s first cousin, however, is certainly way up there. When the art of water divining is extended to bomb detection the cost in human lives is enormous, as the people of Iraq unfortunately discovered.


Meirion Jones is an investigative journalist who reported this incredible story to the world.  He handed us a small, cheaply made dowsing rod that looks eerily similar to a retractable antenna on old TV sets attached to a hand-grip. During the Iraq War, this device  – the ADE 651 – got approved by armies around the world without a shred of evidence that it actually worked. The mastermind behind the device was Jim McCormick, a small time crook who became fabulously wealthy as the devices, costing up to 40,000 dollars each, sold in staggeringly large quantities.

It does exactly what it’s designed to do. It makes money.

Jim McCormick

Meirion asked around, and eventually found a whistleblower who was able to provide parts for the device. The device was tested by scientists and was shown to be completely inert, unable to detect anything. It turned out that the British military had a role in facilitating its distribution, so they were disinclined to help the BBC investigation.

Speaking as a professional, I would say that’s an empty plastic case.

Sydney Alford, engineer who tested the device.

McCormick and his accomplices were arrested and tried. McCormick was convicted of fraud in 2013 and is currently serving a 10 year sentence. The device has been withdrawn from most militaries, but clones and similar devices that claim to detect HIV and other diseases continue to pop up on a regular basis.


And that was it!


All that was left were the many thanks to everyone involved – the organisers, speakers, volunteers and panelists who did such a good job over the weekend. Hopefully see you all again next year.

Further Reading

David Gamble discusses Susan Blackmore’s talk on Out of Body Experiences. 

Dr Marieanne reviews QED

Clairewitchfiles review of QED

Britt Hermes recaps some of the best moments of the conference

Hayley shares her thoughts on the conference

Caroline Watt’s recap of the conference. 

Some further notes from David Gamble. 





"Killers Crowd" taken by Steve Crane (Creative Commons Licensed)

In each day that goes by, almost 19 million years of human life is lived. If you were to spend twenty four hours in turn with each of the 7 billion people living on the planet, that’s how long it would take. Seven billion days. Nineteen million years.

In that span of time, whole continents can ramble about the globe, thrusting gigantic mountain ranges into the skies. Enormous tracts of land are submerged beneath the waves, while others wither in the heat. New species evolve, thrive and become extinct. Ice ages come and go like the seasons. Bolide impacts from space are a near-certainty, and catastrophes beyond our imagination, such as enormous earthquakes, tsunamis and super-volcanoes are a regular occurrence. The human race has been around for just 1% of this extraordinary time-span.

In one twenty-four hour revolution on our planet, 19 million years of human life will come to pass. You would imagine, given such extraordinary numbers, that almost anything that possibly could happen, and would happen, each and every day. Even if many billion people pass their day without event – watching TV, or taking the dog for a walk – this still leaves plenty of opportunity for far more interesting stories. Each day, every possible situation is being acted out: delight, despair, birth, death, sublime discovery and gruesome horror. These stories will remain largely unknown to us. It is impossible, therefore, to grasp anything but a thin essence of great historical events. The small stories, the petty tragedies and minor victories are doomed to be lost to posterity.

Somewhere in the world each day, one person may experience a one-in-seven-billion co-incidence: an event so extraordinarily improbable that it may seem miraculous. Such is the power of these numbers that strange events are not just expected, they must happen all the time. It’s not providence: it’s statistics.

Our media landscape serves us only a tiny slice of all the stories of the day. Television shows and newspapers often struggle to find news, and as so often happens, a single news story of two celebrities getting married, a sending off in a football match or a politician’s inane comments will dominate the media to the exclusion of everything else. The stories of the other 99.999999% of us, no matter how fascinating, will remain hidden from view.

We are oblivious to this accumulating tide of human history, because for most of us, each day is not much different to the one that went before. We spend our lives in a small corner of the world, perpetually nearby friends, aquaintances and colleagues. We are insulated from the great cacophony of our co-travellers. Knowing that we don’t know that much at all is both humbling and mind-blowing at the same time.

Photo credit: “Killers Crowd” taken by Steve Crane (Creative Commons Licensed)

Mortality in Ireland

This table is derived from the Irish Life Tables 2001-2003. (CSO) Double-click on the image to get a full view.

It’s a logarithmic graph of your likelihood of dying at any particular age, from birth right up to the ripe old age of 105.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find it fascinating. The women have us men well and truly beaten when it comes to their ability to survive. Right from the start, they seem to have a lower probability of kicking the bucket.

In addition, kids are least likely to die by an order of magnitude compared to young adults – it’s a testament to the importance of parents and guardians, I would think.

And then there’s this very subtle “bump” around the age of 25 in males. For some reason, a 31 year old man has a slightly lower probability of dying than a man ten years younger.

From age 35 in males (and age 31 in females), our probability of dying starts to increase at a faster and faster rate.

Lest anyone get too worried, we are mainly talking about very small numbers here (the above graph is logarithmic and therefore somewhat skewed). The following graph is the same, except this time it’s linear. It shows more clearly that your probability of dying in any particular year is tiny up to the age of about 80.

Mortality in Ireland2

%d bloggers like this: