Friday, September 12, 2003

Global cooling?

Researchers in Russia argue that the variations in global temperature can be explained by reference to changes in solar activity. One fact they point to is falling temperatures between 1950 and 1970 which sparked discussion of a new ice age. What has happened since has been an increase in solar output.

If they are correct, then a period of declining global temperatures should be getting under way about now - which they illustrate by average annual air temperatures in Irkutsk falling over the past three years.

Not sure if I'm convinced, but I've always been rather sceptical about the global warming thesis, so it is certainly an idea that deserves to be noted for future reference.

Is the Global Warming Bubble About to Burst?

Organic maize contamination

Maybe I am being a bit cynical, but I didn't see this report of maize being withdrawn elsewhere. Could it be because it is organic, and therefore doesn't fit into the now-standard worldview that Organic is Good?

Nutra Ingredients - Nutraceuticals, Supplements & Functional Foods | UK removes maize over contamination fears

Climate change and flooding

Every time a major weather event happens - drought, flood, hurricane, etc - somebody can be relied upon to blame climate change. However, this study suggests that there is no trend to be found in terms of flooding in Europe. Flooding may become more costly, due to changes in land use, but it doesn't seem to be becoming more frequent.

New Scientist: Severe floods in Europe not rising

SARS case: reports of a new epidemic have been greatly exaggerated

On 8 September 2003, the authorities in Singapore reported a new case of SARS, over two months after the last new infection had been reported. The infected person is a postgraduate medical student who was working in a building where other workers were studying the virus that has been identified as the cause of SARS. The case raised fears of a decline in tourism, and stockmarkets in East Asia fell.

However, it would seem that this is an entirely isolated case. Even the World Health Organisation (WHO), which never seems afraid to exaggerate a health scare, has suggested there is nothing to worry about. 'The Singapore case is mild, isolated and has not produced secondary cases, and therefore is not regarded as a public health concern', it states. The student concerned doesn't even seem to have some of the main symptoms associated with SARS.

As for the stockmarkets, many analysts have argued that a correction in prices was overdue, and the SARS reports provided an opportunity. Already, prices seem to be recovering.

SARS might make a wider comeback in the future. But the main lesson of the first epidemic was that the panic caused far more harm than the disease. There were fewer than a thousand deaths, despite gloomy predictions of millions succumbing. However, the economic consequences in lost trade and tourism were substantial and reached well beyond the main countries affected.

Now that SARS is better known, and with the authorities on the lookout for new cases, the potential for the disease to do harm is much reduced. But the jittery reaction to even one new case suggests there is still plenty of potential for unwarranted panic.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Singapore, WHO, 10 September 2003

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

The truth about the Atkins Diet (no. 272)

Letter on the BBC News website:

'Positive proof that the Atkins diet does not work. My cat has been on it for over nine years and he hasn't lost one ounce.'

SARS case: update

WHO have said that this case does not meet all their current criteria to be labelled 'SARS'. The patient in question has tested positive for the SARS virus but does not have lung inflammation. Singapore are convinced it is an isolated case.

BBC NEWS | World | Asia-Pacific | Singapore man 'has Sars'

New case of SARS in Singapore

Presumably, this is a fresh infection from animals to humans since there have been no reported cases in humans for some time. However, now we're waiting for it, and we know what to expect, it should have a much smaller impact in the future.

All this assumes that this really is a case of SARS. The New York Times reports today that the outbreak of a 'SARS-like' illness in British Columbia recently was nothing of the sort - just a bog-standard coronavirus infection. Perhaps medics and scientists are rattled and are looking for SARS everywhere, now.

BBC NEWS | World | Asia-Pacific | Singapore man has Sars

Outbreak That Wasn't: A SARS False Alarm, New York Times, 9 September 2003

Questioning disaster inquiries

Sir Bernard Crossland, the man who led the scientific inquiry into the London King's Cross fire in 1987, has called public inquiries into such disasters 'time-consuming, expensive and inefficient'.

Crossland added that 'by the time the report of the inquiry is made available, the general public and the politicians have lost interest'. The inquiry into the King's Cross fire, which killed 31 people, produced 147 recommendations with a total cost of 300million. 'This figure raises the question whether, on a cost-benefit analysis, this money might have been spent more effectively in saving life, for instance in fitting and maintaining smoke detectors in private houses.'

While the particular suggestion of buying smoke detectors seems a little strange, it does seem to be the case that major incidents produce precautionary responses out of all proportion to the original accident - which lead to litigation and slower services, but not necessarily more safety. After the Hatfield train derailment in October 2000, in which four people died, repairs and checks caused massive delays across the rail network. This inconvenienced thousands of people, cost the operating company Railtrack hundreds of millions of pounds, and has fuelled a precautionary response that demands that rail travel in general puts safety above anything else: even if it means people struggling to get from A to B at all.

As for inquiries themselves, things have surely got worse since the King's Cross report, with the threat of civil litigation and prosecution hanging over the heads of all concerned. What we need is a proportionate reaction to accidents, not endless inquiries and excessive safety measures.

Safety inquiries 'inefficient', BBC News, 8 September 2003

Monday, September 08, 2003

Ecstasy study was erroneous

The furore about ecstasy has always been out of all proportion to the degree of harm it causes. While taking a strong drug regularly over a period of time isn't likely to do you much good, sudden deaths from ecstasy have always been very low and often (as in the case of Leah Betts) due to the excessive intake of water, not the drug itself.

Now, another study from the USA that suggested a link between ecstasy and Parkinsonism seems to have been a huge blunder. Basically, the lab animals that were part of the study seem to have been given metamphetamine - 'speed' - rather than 'E'. The affects on dopamine levels of metamphetamine are strong and well-known.

The Observer | Special reports | Scientists admit: we were wrong about 'E'