The dangers of 'don't worry'

(appeared in the Times, 26th September 2011) - pdf here

Now that the rogue US satellite has crashed into the Pacific we can all come out from under our beds. The biggest bit of the satellite was about the weight of an adult gorilla, although not as soft, and travelled at 100 mph so it sounds rather ominous, but people only take up one 80,000th of the earth’s surface so it would be more than an unlucky day if anyone had been hit. 40 tons of debris got scattered over mainland USA after the Columbia shuttle disaster and nobody was injured, although NASA afterwards concluded there had been around a 1 in 4 chance of some casualties.

Get under the table?

The remnants of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) are due to hit the earth later today and NASA have put up some details of their risk assessment. But this doesn't say where their '1 in 3200 chance of anyone being hit' comes from, and so can we get this figure from a back-of-an-envelope calculation?

Lottery league tables

The Daily Mail and other media sources have featured league tables for the 'luckiest parts of the country' based on the proportion of the population that have become millionaires by winning the lottery. Straight Statistics have done a nice demolition job on this absurd story, pointing out that any comparison should be based on the number of tickets sold, not the population.

Visualising uncertainty

We have had a review paper published in Science called Visualising uncertainty about the future, although it primarily focuses on probability forecasts.

You may access the full paper by following the links below.

Visualising uncertainty about the future

A great use of a 'spaghetti plot' of multiple model predictions for Hurricane Katia in this NBC news bulletin .


possible hurricane paths

Visualising Cochrane Summary of Findings

iconA visualisation of the Cochrane Summary of Findings table for adjuvant radiotherapy after surgery for cervical cancer.

Spotting a hoax using statistics

A report claiming that users of the Internet Explorer browser had lower IQs than users of other browsers has been revealed to be a hoax. I had been asked to comment on the report by BBC Technology and had got suspicious about the figures. The perpetrators of the hoax, which had received extensive coverage, have listed the reasons why they should have been detected, but did not include 'dubious statistics' in their list.

When does a single vote count?

1,362 Cambridge academics recently voted on ‘no confidence’ in the universities minister David Willetts, and this resulted in an exact draw with 681 voting each way: by the rules it meant the motion, or ‘Grace’, was not passed. A natural question to ask is: what was the chance of this happening?

Cats, cancer and confusion

If mobile phones don't cause brain tumours, what does? Well, according to stories today in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, it might be cats. Or at any rate a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, one of whose hosts is the domestic cat. But don't go exiling your kitties yet; the admirable Ed Yong has explained in his blog that the study in question doesn't establish anything of the sort.

Mobile phones: where did the story go?

This Friday's xkcd comic was about mobile phones and cancer. Regular readers of UU will know that I've shown an interest in that subject before, here, here and here. The main point of the comic was good, but what's this "another huge study" on phones and cancer in the first frame of the comic, and why hadn't I heard about it?


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