vendredi 14 avril 2017

Air pollution sceptic refuses comment

from the start-with-cholera department

Euan Mearns is an honorary research fellow at Aberdeen University and a former oil industry consultant. His admirably active blog exerts a pitiless scrutiny on the renewable energy business, and I like to read it as part of a conscious effort of escape from my bubble.
He recently posted a long article which attempted to unpick a claim made by Channel 4 News that air pollution from diesel engines causes 40,000 deaths annually, following the publication of a Royal College of Physicians report. As Mearns points out, diesel engines are not the only source of air pollution, and so the headline figure is certainly open to scrutiny and debate. But this does not really entitle him (or the commenters he has attracted) to accuse the RCP of publishing "fake science" based on "green thinking." As is my wont, I composed a comment for his delectation, which he has chosen not to add to the other 69 he has published. So it is here instead:
Yep, the statistics of the effects on air pollution aren't easy to interpret. If you want to pursue this line a masters degree in epidemiology would provide a good foundation for your further studies e.g.

Look, it's quite clear fine particulates and gaseous oxides aren't good for your health. The evidence that I find most convincing is that all-cause mortality rises in pollution peaks: e.g. Note that the people who die acutely are those with the least cardiorespiratory reserve due to pre-existing illness, but the fact that this increase in mortality is observable suggests that a harmful effect is occurring in everyone's cardiorespiratory systems, and thus, long-term, risks diminishing everyone's cardiorespiratory reserve. Note also that the mechanism of fatal illness is not necessarily directly linked to the peak itself (e.g. someone with asthma suffering an acute attack and dying of respiratory failure immediately), but in increased rates of respiratory tract infection for several months after the peak.

Even if the epidemiologists' best estimates were out ten-fold either way (say 4000 dead/year—400,000 dead/year) either figure would still constitute ample evidence for tightening the regulatory screw on those who indulge in the antisocial practice of burning hydrocarbons in the atmosphere in the pursuit of an inefficient method of personal transportation.

So the issue must be addressed. The choice is not between petrol or diesel. The choice is between the private motor car and the other less polluting modes of transport. Although there is some justice in that motorists themselves receive the highest doses of air pollution (e.g., everyone is affected. You're no longer allowed to blow smoke in my face in a bar—why should you be allowed to blow smoke in my face at the traffic lights?
 M. Mearns himself runs a 1.6L diesel-engined Volvo, and I suspect has classified me a "green troll." Ho hum!

Update 0820h, 16/4/2017. Following reorganisation, all participants in the interdisciplinary "Engineer in the clinic!" programme are being encouraged to attend Epidemiology 101.

mardi 21 février 2017

The unbearable asymmetry of bullshit

 from the department of anti-link-rot-action 

Somewhat at random it has been my custom to follow the blog of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics in my RSS reader, and occasionally I would even feel moved by the spirit of enlightenment to offer up a comment to the august minds philosophizing there. Sadly the blog now seems to be in a state of permanent technical failure, effectively removing these comments from public view. My cacheing system has worked nicely though, so I guess it's up to me to take over the hosting from here on. I was particularly pleased with this comment, which pulls together my thinking on attention, agnotology, peer review and bullshit, written in response to this article by Brian Earp:

The key problem with bullshit that enjoys a certain "truthiness" is attentional: its presence is a time-wasting distraction from the good stuff. The agnotological processes whereby e.g. the tobacco companies, or climate change denialists, skew "debates" by creating false controversy is well-studied. In theory scholarly publishing should be relatively resistant to this process by the diligent application of peer review, but this merely displaces the reader's attentional process to a consideration of the judgement of the peer reviewers, potentially also prone to the retransmission of bullshit. The detail and verbosity of scholarly refutation amplifies the attentional problem.

Whilst freedom of expression worthy of the name must surely include the freedom to bullshit, the solution surely lies in maintaining reputational systems that offer the user efficient filtering systems that enable the basic command "never show content by this author again." It would be an error to universalise such judgement, for we all have our own foibles and tolerances. For example the Facebook system assigns a single "interest score" to each post which is then used to rate each post for all users. Twitter's "follow/unfollow" mechanism, which delegates filtering to the judgement of each individual user is much closer to what is required. The Pirate Party's attempts to implement "liquid democracy," whereby rank and file members anoint experts as delegates on any particular issue is also worthy of study.
Drinking at the commenting firehose at a heavily-trafficked site can be made less overwhelming using ranking systems (see Slashdot). And so on.

Frankfurt's book is of course itself somewhat bullshitty, devoting as it does, a substantial part of its rather slender discussion to a lengthy argument establishing that bullshit is synonymous with humbug. (What is humbug?) But hey! It's a fun cite on any reference list.

Harry Frankfurt seems a most charming man. This interview is a better outline to his thought than the book. He has humbly acknowledged elsewhere his surprise that his university press wished to work up his essay into a slender book:

mercredi 8 février 2017

On Scout's pace

from the department of getting-around-easily

A friend's remark made me consider of which piece of writing I am proudest. Two things spring to mind: this thing I wrote for "The Listserv" about Scout's pace (more about the venue here):
Scout's pace means moving at a brisk pace by alternately walking and running. Baden-Powell himself recommended alternating every fifty paces, but I prefer twenties as it's easier to count. My perennial optimism about how long it takes to walk somewhere makes me do it, and I enjoy breaking records for regular trips. I like the control that comes from having a number of "gears" at my disposal--easy strolling, brisk marching, an unpressured trot, the truth of a life lived under my own steam, and feeling... fit and well.

Scout's pace is obviously only the English term: do it a bit harder and you're speaking Norwegian: a fartlek. As for what the technique's most legendary exponents--the nomads of the Kalahari--call it, I have !kno idea! It is only the blink of an evolutionary eye since we were all hunter-gatherers; and yet we have forgotten Scout's pace, with dreadful consequences. Many ills of the Western lifestyle--obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, stress and depression--can be traced to our lack of exercise.

I, too lazy and too ambitious to walk all my life, have transferred this knowledge to the bicycle. I could have discussed the virtues of a 24:32 minimum development, or the necessity of mudguards, or the late 19th century campaign by cyclists for paved roads, that led, in time, to the lamentable car culture, but I wanted to stick to the basics.
And maybe the editorial I wrote for the BMJ before bike week one time, which its then editor was kind enough to describe as "a poem." (He rode a bike too). But it's hard to decide. The best paid thing I ever did had my name sawed off (thus the generous cheque). My online commenting has never earned me a thing, but the satisfaction that I might just, maybe, have changed one person's mind somewhere, just as they were ready to, is ample reward.

[ et en français ?  ]

lundi 30 janvier 2017

On the virtues of mechanical autonomy

from the keeping-it-on-the-road department

A dear Facebook chum wrote:
I love learning how to do new stuff on the bike and of course "having" to buy new tools....but it's just not a very good use of my time.
I replied:
You can't really ignore the technical aspects of cycling, and the fact that a bike is mostly fixable with only a few simple tools is part of its genius. You'll get quicker with practice. The availability of online video of expert mechanics performing just about any procedure is transformational.* It's well worth putting in a bit of effort, for your own comfort and efficiency, not to mention the manifold possibility of future gallantry. And even if you do decide to delegate to the bikeshop in future, you'll be a better informed client, which is a good thing both sides of the deal.
Cycling involves both a human and a machine. It's easy to feel developing mechanical skill is too difficult or complicated, but it really is all one: you'll be more confident out on the road, knowing you can handle any problem that arises—and you'll be riding on a bike that you know is set up just right for you, for maximum comfort and efficiency.

*This sorta thing:

samedi 28 janvier 2017

Why cars don't work in towns

from the its-very-simple department

jeudi 1 décembre 2016

Don't send a doctor to do a politician's job

from the department of radical-wheelchair-ectomy
NICE logo in 2000 (C.E.) (source:
Somewhere between ~2001 and 2016 NICE morphed from being about "clinical excellence" to "health and care excellence".
At its inception, NICE was the British
medical establishment's co-option of the evidence-based medicine movement, which believed that medical treatment should be based on the best available (scientific) evidence, rather than, say, the doctor's personal experience or the blandishments of the last drug rep they'd seen. Very good.

At the heart of the approach was the systematic review of available studies on any clinical topic. This is a limited paradigm. Although one of the purposes of a systematic review is to identify avenues of future research, the problem remains that all the world is not a clinic, and so not all questions are amenable to study by methods available to the clinician.

Public health is different. Controlled experimentation is difficult, and is much more likely to be based on ecological study (i.e. non-experimental observations). And policy prescription based on it will be prone to all kinds of perverse effects, political compromise and subversion, partial implementation, and general motherfuckery. Put it this way: you can trust doctors to identify and quantify the scale of health problems; but you certainly can't rely on them to solve them alone.

The latest NICE guidance, on air pollution, which kills about 30,000 people each year in both the UK and France, was interpreted both as "anti-motorist" by the right-wing press, and a recommendation to remove traffic-calming speed bumps. Of course it says no such thing, and I saw it as my immediate duty to subvert this:

I don't like the NICE guidance for a different reason. A medical perspective of society is inevitably conservative: there is no social critique, no examination of the source of the problem, which is motor exhaust fumes of the ever-increasing numbers of motor vehicles on the roads. This is accepted as inevitable, or, if it is not, the authors of the report seem to have been unable to summon the courage to say so.

Well done if you can be bothered to comment on their advice:

Maybe they'll tweak it. But the guidance will be ineffectual without a clear overall demand for motor traffic reduction. Instead NICE contents itself with describing the existing evaluations of "clean air zones" as being of poor quality, and takes comfort in the forthcoming tighter Euro-6 standard for emissions with nary a mention of the VW scandal, nor the successful lobbying of the motor manufacturers to postpone tightening the regulations. So let's look elsewhere for solutions. The growing political recognition in Paris of the injustice of the present situation is heartening:

If memory serves, about 7% of trips to central London are made by car, so both cities are in roughly the same ballpark. But the less densely populated suburbs where providing frequent public transport is difficult, are a more difficult problem. It is an acute irony that moving out to the suburbs for a better lifestyle is poisoning everyone left behind. 30,000 dead! It's not quite the first day of the Battle of the Somme, more like a couple of 747s crashing each week of the year. And it dwarfs direct death from road trauma.
Any policy that does not address the overuse of the private motor car as a central issue in better urban air quality is doomed to ineffectiveness. Yet for all its claim to scientific excellence, NICE seems to consider a frank statement in favour of this treatment to be so radical as to be unworthy of evaluation. Ho hum!

mercredi 30 novembre 2016

Presumed liability for cyclists too?

I had an exchange with Bob Davis of the Road Danger Reduction forum earlier today about presumed liability in cycle-pedestrian crashes. The Blogger interface makes embedding tweets a bit of a fag compared with Storify, so I made this.