Thursday, 26 July 2007

Tour de Farce gets even more farcical

After the departure of Vinokourov, I might have been forgiven for hoping the rest of Le Tour would pass without incident. Since then, yellow jersey Michael Rasmussen has been sacked by his team, nominally for lying about his whereabouts in the pre-season, and Cristian Moreni of Cofidis tested positive for testosterone.

Most of the discussion today is about the exit of Rasmussen, unsurprisingly as he was the race leader. However, he denies any wrong doing and there is no evidence he has taken banned substances. The evidence against him is that Davide Cassani supposedly saw him in Italy at a time when he told his team he was in Mexico. He has also missed a number of out-of-competition tests. Rasmussen may be a suspect character, but as Tour director Christian Proudhomme said, 'We cannot say that he cheated'.

The worst thing is the positive test of Moreni. Moreni has not denied doping, and has not asked for his B sample to be tested. He rides for Cofidis, one of the eight teams that staged an anti-doping protest following Vinokourov's exit from the race. Cofidis is supposed to be a clean team, and this is surely a bigger blow to the credibility of the sport's nascent clean up than Rasmussen being sent home.

Amid all this mayhem, the fact that yesterday ETA let off two small explosions along the race route, albeit after the riders had passed, has been almost overlooked.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Team Borat out of tour

Alexandr Vinokourov, the pre-race favourite in the Tour de France, has tested positive for blood doping, and he and his Astana team have been thrown off the race.

One of the worst things about the crisis in cycling, and especially the tour, is that the history is gradually being leached out. As a youngster just starting out racing, I remember some of the great, great rides I saw in the mountains and in time trials. Claudio Chiapucci's epic ride to Sestrieres, and Miguel Indurain putting 3 minutes into the entire field in a time trial spring instantly to mind. I remember the astonishment at the now-disgraced Bjarne Riis in 1996. Now every outstanding ride invites suspicion. If the brilliant rides that give the tour its historic backdrop become worthless, then the heart is ripped out of the event.

Vinokourov himself had only just added to that history, having won a brutal stage in the Pyrennees, after riding in an audaciously attacking style all day. He crossed the line, alone, 50 seconds ahead of anyone else. This after a spectacular collapse in a previous mountain stage that had left him over 30 minutes down overall. It was a great, great stage win, but now it's meaningless. Even worse, it further devalues all the great wins of the past.

Our very own Bradley Wiggins summed up the feelings of people who care about cycling. "It is a disaster for the sport," he said. "There will be no cycling in 10 years if this goes on." While this might be going a bit far, it certainly seems possible that there will be no cycling worth caring about in 10 years.

Then again...

It seems that there is some hope, as eight teams held an anti-drugs protest at the start of today's stage. The protesting riders left the stage depart 2 minutes after the other teams. The first group, including yellow jersey Michael Rasmussen, was roundly jeered by the crowd, while the protesters were applauded. You have to wonder what the teams not involved in the protest were thinking, but perhaps the penny will begin to drop...

Monday, 23 July 2007

Science and technology committee

When the government makes policy, especially relating to science, it would be an advantage if there was evidence that the policy was likely to work. This is what the parliamentary science and technology select committee does. Unfortunately, it seems that the committee is in danger of becoming a casualty of the recent cabinet reshuffle and associated re-organisation. What had been the Department of Education has been split into two departments: one dealing with schools and children, and another dealing with universities, innovation and skills. This second department will have its own standing select committee, and as a result the science and technology committee will be abolished. A number of influential scientists are worried that the new committee will not have time to cover the issues addressed by the science and technology committee, getting bogged down in political issues such as university tuition fees.

I found this particularly interesting, as over on Ben Goldacre's site (again) there's a very interesting discussion on how you might go about trying to make evidence-based social policy. You would think there was a need for more scientific scrutiny rather than less. One example would be members of cabinet wittering about how cannabis is getting stronger, despite all the available evidence showing that the strength has stayed roughly the same. Or telling us that prison works, even though all the evidence says quite the opposite.

Ben Goldacre tears the Observer a new arsehole

As usual, Ben Goldacre does an excellent job of deconstructing the drivelling MMR/autism piece that appeared on the front of the Absurder a couple of weeks ago. The Absurder published a 'clarification' yesterday, which somehow failed to clarify that the basic thrust of the piece was entirely wrong.

UPDATE: The original story has now been removed from the Observer website. I sent them an e-mail asking what had become of it, and they said "The article was removed from the website for legal reasons. We are unable to provide a copy."

The reasons behind this are not clear, but it seems likely that legal action has been launched by Dr. Fiona Scott, who was described in the original piece as believing that the MMR jab might be partly responsible for a purported rise in autistic spectrum disorders. Dr. Scott says she believes no such thing, was never contacted by the Observer, and her attempts to point this out have fallen on deaf ears.

This would all be to the good, and Dr. Scott does seem to have been treated particularly badly. But it seems unlikely that the Observer will have to take any action to correct its basic misunderstanding of an unpublished report, which has the potential to do further damage to the public understanding of an issue that is already surrounded by misinformation.

Monday, 16 July 2007

The great global warming non-swindle

Folks have been queuing up to try and discredit a new study that shows that changes in solar output are not responsible for recent increases in global temperature. According to Mike Lockwood, one of the authors, the study was initiated partly in response to the documentary 'The Great Global Warming Swindle', directed by Martin Durkin. There's a lot to say about this documentary, which is described in the media as 'controversial' and by most climate scientists as 'bollocks', but luckily Wikipedia contains a useful summary of the debate surrounding it. Mike Lockwood himself is reported as saying 'All the graphs they showed stopped in about 1980, and I knew why, because things diverged after that...You can't just ignore bits of data that you don't like'.

Durkin himself responded to the study in the Grauniad, claiming that global temperatures peaked in 1998, and so rising CO2 levels cannot be responsible for climate change. This is an absolutely basic error (repeated by various commentators, e.g. Christopher Booker in the Telegraph), working on the assumption that if global warming is real, then every year must be warmer than the previous one. As residents of the UK will be well aware, there's this thing called 'weather'. As a result, there will inevitably be variations around a warming trend. As ever, some years will be warmer and some cooler, but the overall trend will be upward. Durkin also talks about temperatures falling during the post-war economic boom, when CO2 levels increased dramatically. Most scientists have explained this as a result of higher particulate levels at that time, before there was much legislation to reduce air pollution. So all of this is bollocks, and known to be bollocks. But perhaps the dead give away that Durkin is full of shit is that his response is published in the letters pages of the Guardian, and not as a refereed comment in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, where the original study appeared. Mike Lockwood has now suggested that Durkin do exactly that, which ought to be entertaining if Durkin takes up the offer.

What really grates for me is the assumption amongst climate change critics that scientists are engaged in some kind of groupthink, ignoring data so they can keep the grant money rolling in. Scientists in general do not uncritically accept anything, as anyone who has presented at a conference or sent a paper to be reviewed will know. The IPCC reports are the most rigorously assessed and peer-reviewed reports in any field. It's worth remembering that letters to the Guardian are not peer-reviewed at all.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Smoking ban

Yes, at long last England has joined much of the civilised world and banned smoking in nearly all public places. Since my workplace has long been non-smoking, this really means pubs and restaurants for me.

Last night, Jolan and I dropped in to the Osborne House. This is the best pub in Rusholme by some margin, a proper local tucked away down a backstreet, next door to the mosque. The decor is fabulous and the walls are covered in Manchester City memorabilia, from the days when this was one of the nearest pubs to Maine Road. It's a friendly place, with a bit of a rough edge, and I wondered how such a place was going to cope with the ban. After all, most of the people who drink there smoke.

Well, I need not have worried. The air was clear, the Hyde's bitter was crisp and delicious, and people would good-naturedly wander out of the back of the pub if they needed a cigarette. No-one complained, and only the breathable kind of atmosphere was changed. I can even wear the same shirt as I did last night without smelling like an ashtray. It's a small thing, but it will make my life a little more joyful.