John Brignell

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Professor John Brignell held the Chair in Industrial Instrumentation at University of Southampton (UK) from 1980 to the late 1990s. [1]

Brignell retired in the late 1990's from his academic career and now devotes his time to his interest in debunking the use of what he claims to be false statistics common in much of today's media. He presents his views on his website Numberwatch, which was launched in July 2000, and is "devoted to the monitoring of the misleading numbers that rain down on us via the media. Whether they are generated by Single Issue Fanatics (SIFs), politicians, bureaucrats, quasi-scientists (junk, pseudo- or just bad), such numbers swamp the media, generating unnecessary alarm and panic. They are seized upon by media, hungry for eye-catching stories. There is a growing band of people whose livelihoods depend on creating and maintaining panic." [2]

Brignell has expressed delight with the feedback from the "encouragement and support I have received from some of the giants of the pro-science movement in the USA -- in no particular order Steve Milloy, Alan Coruba [sic], James Randi, Bob Caroll, Michael Fumento and S. Fred Singer." [3].

Brignell has self-published two books debunking the mathematics behind media scares, Sorry, wrong number! and The epidemiologists: Have they got scares for you!, under the name Brignell Associates.

Brignell's Point of View

Brignell is a trained mathematician and scientist who has spent much of his life working with statistics. His point of view can be summed up as follows:

  • A theory is only as good as the evidence that supports it. Theories supported by weak evidence should not be given much credence.
  • Evidence drawn from mathematics is only as sound as the underlying mathematics. This is particularly true in the field of statistics.
  • Most people are not qualified to judge the soundness of mathematics presented as evidence. They instead choose to rely on the testimony of experts. Many people who present themselves as experts are either themselves not qualified to judge, or are self interested.
  • The result is that much evidence is presented as sound when it is not. Consequently many theories are given a great deal more credence by most people than they deserve.

Brignell has made it his task to seek out media articles where conclusions are drawn from unsound mathematical evidence and debunk them on his website.

A number of popular, politically correct theories are based on unsound mathematical evidence. In choosing to debunk such theories Brignell occasionally provokes the wrath of self interested supporters. He seems to enjoy this.

DDT

On his website Brignell rails against what he calls the "deadly legacy of Rachel Carson" in curtailing the use of DDT. The Environnental Protection Agency, he wrote, "and its allies used their influence with international organisations to enforce the ban throughout the world. Some poor countries were actually blackmailed into banning it under threat of withdrawal of aid. As a result two and a half million people die of malaria every year, most of them poor children in Africa." [4]

Brignell claimed that the resurgence of malaria in Sri Lanka was a case in point. He claimed that Sri Lanka banned DDT in 1964 "under the influence of the sainted Rachel" whose book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962. Brignell notes that the number of cases of malaria has been reduced to 17 in 1963 before rising once more to 2.5 million at the end of the decade.

The author of the Deltoid blog, Tim Lambert, took issue with Brignell and others claims. "Now when you think about it, the story that they tell just isn't credible. If DDT spraying had almost eliminated malaria, and they got a new outbreak, then no environmentalists would be able to stop them from resuming spraying," he wrote. On investigating Lambert found that Sri Lanka did restart spraying with DDT but found that the target mosquito had grown resistant to DDT.

"So in 1977 they switched to the more expensive malathion and were able to reduce the number of cases to about 50,000 by 1980. In 2004, the number was down to 3,000, without using DDT," he wrote. "And the reason why they stopped spraying in 1964? It wasn't environmentalist pressure. With only 17 cases in 1963, they didn't think it was needed any more ... The anti-environmentalist version of what happened is a hoax. That doesn't mean that all the writers above were being deliberately misleading: they might be just repeating what another anti-environmentalist wrote and be unaware of the true story," he wrote. [5]

Brignell responded to Tim Lambert's blog entry as follows: "Tim Lambert supplies a reference that is certainly well worth reading, which suggests that DDT was abandoned rather than banned. It is possible that the Government in Sri Lanka, when it decided its budget priorities, was unaware of the international hype surrounding Rachel Carson at the time, but whatever the motivation the result was the same." [6]

Brignell and his ideological supporters believe that that the use of DDT, by reducing the number of deaths per year from malaria from 2.8 million in 1948 to 18 in 1963, had by 1970 saved about 56 million lives. Brignell states that the number of deaths due to malaria "makes The Holocaust look like a dress rehearsal." However, their argument willfully omits a number of important facts.

For starters, Rachel Carson herself was not opposed to all pesticide use. Prophetically, she worried that widespread agricultural use of pesticides would endanger efforts to control malaria, typhus and other diseases. In Silent Spring, she wrote, "No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story - the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting." Carson noted that the widespread use of DDT created selection pressure that led to the emergence of DDT-resistance mosquitoes and flies.

As science writer Laurie Garrett notes in her 1994 book, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases In a World Out of Balance, the early success of efforts to control malaria contributed to the disease's later resurgence. The effort to control the disease was led by malariologist Paul Russell, who promised in 1956 that a multimillion-dollar effort could eliminate the disease by 1963: "Thus, in 1958 Russell's battle for malaria eradication began, backed directly by $23.3 million a year from Congress. Because Russell had been so adamant about the time frame, Congress stipulated that the funds would stop flowing in 1963. ... It was a staggering economic commitment, the equivalent of billions of dollars in 1990." By 1963, however, malaria "had indeed reached its nadir. But it had not been eliminated. ... But a deal's a deal. Russell promised success by 1963, and Congress was in no mood to entertain extending funds for another year, or two. As far as Congress was concerned, failure to reach eradication by 1963 simply meant it couldn't be done, in any time frame. And at the time virtually all the spare cash was American; without steady infusions of U.S. dollars, the effort tied abruptly." Worse yet,

Thanks to the near-eradication effort, hundreds of millions of people now lacked immunity to the disease, but lived in areas where the Anopheles [mosquitos that carry the disease] would undoubtedly return. Pulling the plug abruptly on their control programs virtually guaranteed future surges in malaria deaths, particularly in poor countries lacking their own disease control infrastructures. As malaria relentlessly increased again after 1963, developing countries were forced to commit ever-larger amounts of scarce public health dollars to the problem. India, for example, dedicated over a third of its entire health budget to malaria control. ...
At the very time malaria control efforts were splintering or collapsing, the agricultural use of DDT and its sister compounds was soaring. Almost overnight resistant mosquito populations appeared all over the world. ... By the time the smallpox campaign was approaching victory in 1975, parasite resistance to chloroquine and mosquito resistance to DDT and other pesticides were so widespread that nobody spoke of eliminating malaria. (The Coming Plague, pp. 46-52)

Counting the dead

In the discussion that followed a study published in The Lancet estimating the number of people killed in Iraq since the invasion, Brignell wrote that the use of a relative risk figure of 1.5 was inappropriate. "A relative risk of 1.5 is not acceptable as significant," he wrote. [7] Brignell argues that increases of risk less than 100% should be ignored.

However, as Tim Lambert pointed out, the increased risk is statistically significant. "You won't find support for Brignell's claim in any conventional statistical text or paper. To support his claim he cites a book called Sorry, wrong number!. Trouble is, that book was written by? John Brignell. Not only that, it was published by? John Brignell," he wrote. It should be noted that Brignell does provide a number of supporting statements from recognised authorities. [8]

Lambert suggests a thought experiment:

Suppose we had perfect records of every death in Iraq and there were 200,000 in the year before the invasion, and 300,000 in the year after. Then the relative risk would be 1.5 and Brignell would dismiss the increase as not significant even though in this case we have absolutely certainty that there were 100,000 extra deaths. [9]

This is what's called a "straw man" argument, where you make an unrelated claim and then attack it as though it were the original claim. The statistics in these surveys are not drawn from hundreds of thousands of results, but from dozens, and the samples are not "perfect records", they are samples from populations, which means they are randomly distributed. So the "thought experiment" is obviously invalid.

In fact, the journal Science published in 1995 a list of published risks for cancer from the previous 8 years; among those were

  • Smoking more than 100 cigarettes in a lifetime--rr 1.2 for breast cancer (February 1990)
  • Lengthy occupational exposure to dioxin--rr 1.5 for all cancers (January 1991)
  • Regular use of high-alcohol mouthwash--rr 1.5 for mouth cancer (June 1991)
  • Use of phenoxy herbicides on lawns--rr 1.3 for malignant lymphoma in dogs (September 1991)
  • Weighing 3.6 kilograms or more at birth--rr 1.3 for breast cancer (October 1992)
  • Occupational exposure to electromagnetic fields--rr 1.38 for breast cancer (June 1994)
  • Ever having used a sun lamp--rr 1.3 for melanoma (November 1994)
  • Abortion--rr 1.5 for breast cancer (November 1994)
  • Consuming olive oil only once a day or less--rr 1.25 for breast cancer (January 1995)

(Sizing Up the Cancer Risks, Science 269, p. 165, 1995). Although the validity of some of these relationships is still controversial, it is clear that "A relative risk of 1.5 is not acceptable as significant," is not true as far as scientific publication is concerned.

Publication, of course, is not the same as being significant. The above example supports Professor Brignell's demonstration that publication bias causes a relative risk that can be approximated to 1.6.

Attention should also be drawn to the publication of studies which produce contradictory results. For example, the Nurse's Health Study found that the use of hormone treatments reduced the risk of cancer (relative risk 1.3), whereas the Women's Health Initiative found that the same hormone treatments increased the risk of cancer (relative risk 1.4). (Gina Kolata, Hormone Studies: What Went Wrong?, The New York Times, 22 April 2003). These results are not due to faults in the studies themselves, but rather to the acceptance of low levels of relative risk as significant.

The hole in the ozone layer

In another article Brignell complained about restrictions imposed in the U.K. on people being able to dump old refrigerators due to concerns about the release of ozone depeleting gases. "It is now illegal to dispose of both the coolant and the insulant in fridges, but in Britain there is no legal way of doing it. All because of a hole in the ozone layer that was probably always there and an unproven theory as to how it was caused," he wrote. [10]

Once more Lambert challenged Brignell's claim and cited Antarctic scientific data. "It is perfectly clear that the hole was not always there. There is not one scrap of evidence to support Brignell's claim. Yet even when confronted with the evidence that proves his claim is false he continues to maintain that it is true," Lambert wrote. [11]

Second Hand Smoke

Bob Carroll (author of the Skeptic's Dictionary) initially accepted Brignell's argument against the EPA's finding that second hand smoke caused lung cancer. However, he changed his mind when he found that the "scientific principle" (relative risk less than 2) that Brignell used to reject the finding was not recognized by epidemiologists, just tobacco companies.

Books

  • John Brignell, Sorry, wrong number!, Brignell Associates, September 2000. ISBN 0-9539108-0-6
  • John Brignell, The epidemiologists:Have they got scares for you!, Brignell Associates, July 2004. ISBN 0-9539108-2-2.

Contact details

Department of Electronics & Computer Science,
University of Southampton,
Highfield, Southampton SO17 1BJ
Telephone: (01703) 594450
FAX: (01703) 592901
Email: jeb AT numberwatch.co.uk
Web: http://www.numberwatch.co.uk

External links