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Everyone's allowed to make mistakes, of course. Provided, of course, that they are not observed by one of Neue Arbeit's traffic wardens or litter wardens or correct-speak wardens or smoking wardens or obesity wardens. But making the same mistake over and over again is not just stupid, it's wicked, especially if you use it to influence the way other people live or think.

A mistake

Sadly, scientists are frequently guilty of this sin. Presumably they emerge, blinking, from their cloistered laboratories into the full glare of public attention, their piggy little eyes fix on the glittering government grants and commercial sponsorship that dance tantalisingly before them, and they just run off at the mouth. Poor things, it must be hard for them.
In December 2005 a study in the journal Nature offered the observation that the circulation in the North Atlantic Ocean, which sustains the Gulf Stream, had weakened by up to 30% over the previous few decades. This figure, set alongside the melodrama of films such as The Day after Tomorrow and amplified through the cooperation of scientists and media, brought headlines like "Alarm over dramatic weakening of Gulf Stream" (Guardian, Dec 1, 2005 - it had to be the bloody Guardian, didn't it?). The urban myth that emerged from this episode was that we were close to a mini-Ice Age in the UK and that our climate would soon be the same as Newfoundland.
Eighteen months later, however, two studies in equally reputable journals pointed out that such a trend was within the range of natural variability and signified nothing at all. This was ignored by the Guardian. Good news doesn't sell newspapers.
In 2006 the charity Christian Aid claimed that, "by the end of this century, climate change will have killed around 182 million people in sub-Saharan Africa". This number - 180 million African dead - has become one of the most widely cited numbers in the litany of doom that accompanies talk of climate change.
However, the number 180 million was sexed-up science. Christian Aid took the worst-case climate scenario, the highest population scenario and the scenario with the least public health intervention and conjured the number into being. Not too surprising, really - we shouldn't expect too strict an adherence to observable truth from people who believe the universe is ruled by an old schizophrenic with a beard.
More details on these stories here.
The same emotive, inaccurate reporting and wilful misinterpretation of the evidence is at work today in the campaign against supermarket plastic bags. As reported recently in The Times, scientists and even environmentalists have attacked the campaign which they say is based on flawed science and exaggerated claims. The widely stated accusation that the bags kill 100,000 animals and a million seabirds every year is false, according to experts who believe that bags pose only a minimal threat to most marine species, including seals, whales, dolphins and seabirds.

A plastic bag

Lord Taverne, the chairman of Sense about Science, said: "The Government is irresponsible to jump on a bandwagon that has no base in scientific evidence. This is one of many examples where you get bad science leading to bad decisions which are counter-productive. Attacking plastic bags makes people feel good but it doesn't achieve anything."
David Laist, the author of a seminal 1997 study on the subject, said that most animal deaths were caused when creatures became caught up in waste produce. "Plastic bags don't figure in entanglement," he said. "The main culprits are fishing gear, ropes, lines and strapping bands. Most mammals are too big to get caught up in a plastic bag. The impact of bags on whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals ranges from nil for most species, to very minor for perhaps a few species. For birds, plastic bags are not a problem either."

A wildlife

The central claim of campaigners that bags kill more than 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds every year, is based on a misinterpretation of a 1987 Canadian study in Newfoundland, which found that, between 1981 and 1984, more than 100,000 marine mammals, including birds, were killed by discarded nets, not plastic bags.
Fifteen years later in 2002, when the Australian Government commissioned a report into the effects of plastic bags, its authors misquoted the Newfoundland study, and the figure was latched on to by conservationists as proof that the bags were killers. It was only in 2006 that the authors altered the report, replacing "plastic bags" with "plastic debris".
David Santillo, a marine biologist at Greenpeace, said that bad science was undermining the Government's case for banning the bags. "It's very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags," he said. "The evidence shows just the opposite. We are not going to solve the problem of waste by focusing on plastic bags. It doesn't do the Government's case any favours if you've got statements being made that aren't supported by the scientific literature that's out there. With larger mammals it's fishing gear that's the big problem. On a global basis plastic bags aren't an issue. It would be great if statements like these weren't made."
Professor Geoff Boxshall, a marine biologist at the Natural History Museum, said: "I've never seen a bird killed by a plastic bag. Other forms of plastic in the ocean are much more damaging. Only a very small proportion is caused by bags." Plastic particles known as nurdles, dumped in the sea by industrial companies, form a much greater threat as they can be easily consumed by birds and animals.
Many British groups are now questioning whether a ban on bags would cost consumers more than the environmental benefits. Charlie Mayfield, chairman of retailer John Lewis, said that tackling packaging waste and reducing carbon emissions were far more important goals. "We don't see reducing the use of plastic bags as our biggest priority," he said. "Of all the waste that goes to landfill, 20% is household waste and 0.3% is plastic bags." John Lewis added that a scheme in Ireland had reduced plastic bag usage, but sales of bin liners had increased 400 per cent.
Marks & Spencers, on the other hand, see the opportunity for a bit of extra profit - they're charging customers 5p a bag. Seeing that their food products are some of the most elaborately-packaged on the High Street, it's difficult to understand how they can be so smug about it.

The GOS says: I'm quite looking forward to my next visit to M&S. I shall collect a huge pile of shopping, put it all on the moving belt at the checkout, then say "You're what? You're charging 5p for each bag? I had no idea! That's outrageous - I'm not paying!"
Then I'll walk off.
All right, I know it's mean and petty, but these days, you have to take your pleasures where you can, don't you?


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