There are no difficult ideas in this column. Like, for example, when I tell you about the Daily Telegraph front page headline which says “Abuse of cannabis puts 500 a week in hospital”, and it turns out they’re actually quoting a figure from a report on the number of people having contact with any drug treatment service of any variety. The colossal majority of these, of course, are outpatient appointments for drugs counselling, not hospital admissions. So there are not 500 people a week suddenly being put into hospital by cannabis. But this is not a news story: like their recurring dodgy abortion figures, it is the venal moralising of a passing puritan, dressed up in posh numbers.
Similarly, there’s nothing very complicated about a report from CNW Marketing in Oregon, which the Independent’s motoring correspondent has now quoted (twice) in his attempt to demonstrate that Hummers, Jeeps, and various other cars the size of a small caravan are – “in fact” – greener than smaller hybrid cars like the Prius. Because readers love a quirky paradox.
CNW, a car industry marketing firm, manage to do this by making calculations over the lifetime of a car. They decide that about 90% of the environmental cost of a car’s lifetime environmental impact is from its manufacture and recycling, not the fuel it burns whilst tootling around. This is the polar opposite of all other life-cycle analyses. CNW include all kinds of funny things to make their numbers work, like the erosion of the road surface of the people who travel to the car factory.
They also decide, for the purposes of their calculation, that people will keep their giant, cyclist-killing Jeeps for twice as long as their green hybrid cars, and if you think that is a leap of faith, they also decide that Prius drivers will travel about half as many miles a year as Jeep drivers.
This may be true if you observe the behaviour of people who choose to buy these cars. But it’s hard to see how it is a factor for anyone making a new purchasing decision, since you’re probably going to drive as much as you’re going to drive, and buying a 4×4 is not suddenly going to turn you overnight into a chubby, middle-class parent driving your children 400 yards to school.
Although for those of us afflicted with a disproportionate anality, the most infuriating thing about this report is the contrast between its opaque methodology and its spurious, four-figure accuracy. They confidently assert that your Hummer will last “34.96 years”, which is almost as irritating as this paper slipping into bogusly accurate currency conversions for estimated figures, like last week’s “$56bn (£28.26bn) international food supplement industry”. Mind you, in the translators’ academic journal META, vol 43 no 4, p 562 they give a mean sentence length for translated texts of 24.08714286 words, with no discernible trace of a knowing smile.
I know I’m wrong to care. On the BBC news site “crews were hopeful the 20m cubic litres of water could be held back and not breach the dam wall”. And that’ll be a struggle, since “cubic litres” are a nine-dimensional measuring system, so the hyperdimensional water could breach the dam in almost any one of the five other dimensions you haven’t noticed yet.
In the Metro they reckon “solving problems is really down to keeping an open mind. Brain scans showed that volunteers who hit a mental block during verbal tests gave off strong gamma rays, which are linked with being focused and alert.”
Gamma rays are produced by sub-atomic particle interactions, like electron-positron annihilation or radioactive decay. They will sterilise your brain very nicely, before the dead, irradiated neurons start to grow over with scar tissue, and that may well affect concentration.
And meanwhile, in Elle magazine they’re promoting the scientific theories of yet another self-declared nutritional genius: “Marisa cited flour and water as the two biggest problem foods. She gave us flour and water and urged us to make a gloopy paste, with which we stuck pieces of paper to the wall. Then she said this is what’s stuck to our insides when we eat pasta and bread.”
They only do it to wind you up. If you close your eyes, it’ll all go away again.
· Please send your bad science to firstname.lastname@example.org