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by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 8
April 2021

On the AstraZeneca jab, I may have been wrong about Europe

First things first: if you are offered a vaccine, take it.

Second things second: I was wrong, and overconfident. I wrote a piece back when certain European countries suspended the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, implying that the regulators were innumerate: that they saw 37 blood clots among people who’d had the Ox/AZ vaccine and leapt to ban it, even though 37 was far fewer than you’d expect among a perfectly healthy population.

It’s become clear since then that the clot was of a particular, rare type, cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST), combined with a reduced number of platelets — clotting cells in our blood. I’m told that it’s a particularly unusual presentation, so you can’t easily compare it to the base rate of CVST in the population (between 2 and 5 per million); it looks plausible, though not yet confirmed, that it is a causal relationship. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 1
April 2021

It’s a techbro’s world now — we just live in it

A little over a year ago, I went to visit the robotics lab of a well-known tech company for a piece I was writing, and spoke to a bunch of roboticists. It was incredible. The challenges of robotics are particular. With image recognition, say, you can train an AI on 10 billion images of dogs that you take from the internet. You can’t make a robot do a backflip 10 billion times to learn how it’s done; it would take about 600 years and would probably break the robot. The way they approached those challenges was absolutely fascinating.

The tech company wasn’t in Silicon Valley, but it was very much of Silicon Valley. Silicon-Valley-ish companies do incredible things. Last year, DeepMind solved the protein-folding problem. SpaceX launched humans into space, then landed the rocket again neatly on its pad. Just Meat started selling commercially available lab-grown meat...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Wednesday, 24
March 2021

The US-AstraZeneca vaccine spat will cost lives

I wanted to say a few things about the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The US National Institutes of Health have released a statement saying that AZ’s press release claiming 79% effectiveness in its US trial was based on “outdated information”; AZ have responded. It’s caused a big furore.

Here’s what I have to say. About 28 million people have been given the first dose of a vaccine in the UK so far. How many of them have had the Ox/AZ jab isn’t completely clear to me, but let’s say half. (It started later than the Pfizer jab, but we have much more of it, so that’s probably a reasonable guess.) So about 14 million people. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Wednesday, 17
March 2021

How far are we from World War III?

The new integrated defence review has been released, and there’s a line in it which is interesting. It is “likely”, it says, that a terrorist group will launch a “successful CRBN [chemical, radiological, biological or nuclear] attack by 2030”.

That sounds bad. But … what does it mean?

I’m not sure. For one thing, it’s not clear whether it means a successful attack in the UK, or a successful attack anywhere. Obviously, an attack somewhere in the world is more likely than attack in a particular place in the world.

Also, it’s not clear what “likely” means. When I hear the word “likely” I tend to assume it means “more likely than not”, i.e. a greater than 50% chance; but people interpret these words differently. (“A real possibility” means a 20% chance to some people and an 80% chance to others, for instance.) ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Friday, 12
March 2021

The Fukushima ‘disaster’ was hardly worth the name

The actual “disaster” part of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear “disaster” was not worthy of the name. It is absolutely astonishing to me that 10 years later, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami which devastated coastal Japan is largely forgotten in the West. It killed more than 15,000 people, ruined whole cities, and rendered hundreds of thousands of people homeless. But I bet if you said the word “Tōhoku”, only a fraction of people would know what you’re talking about.

If you say “Fukushima”, on the other hand, everyone will know exactly what you meant. What they might not know, of course, is that there were no deaths directly attributable to Fukushima; it may have led to some detectable rise in cases of thyroid cancer, and the Japanese government attributed one lung cancer death to it later on, plus about 500 people died from the stress of the evacuation. Certainly it was nothing compared to the tsunami that caused it.  ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Friday, 5
March 2021

No, social media is not as bad as heroin

If you’re a parent, imagine that someone comes up to you and offers you two choices. One, your daughter will become a regular user of social media. Or two, she will become a regular user of heroin. Which would you prefer?

Obviously you answered “social media”. Many millions of girls around the world use social media, and while it would be silly to say that there aren’t negative consequences to it, most of those girls seem to have grown up all right. Some people have been using Instagram for 11 years; there will be people, just about, who started in their teens and are now in their 30s. Twitter and Facebook have been around longer still, and while they were not at their present level of ubiquity 15 years ago, millions have used them for years.  ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 25
February 2021

A second helping of Eat Out to Help Out? Don’t make me sick!

I partook of Eat Out to Help Out, last summer. It was an accident. We were driving to a holiday let and stopped to buy lunch (which we ate outside); the cost for all four of us was only a tenner, because, it turned out, Rishi Sunak was picking up the tab.

EOTHO ended in August, but now there are rumours that Sunak wants to bring it back. I don’t like criticising political decisions much, because I don’t have to make them, and it’s easy to criticise from the sidelines — but in this case, I’ll make an exception. It seems absolutely insane to me.

A study last October suggested that EOTHO caused “between 8 to 17 percent of all new local infection clusters” while it was in place. It’s very hard to use observational studies like this to say what caused what, and I’ve seen some criticism of the methods, but it’s hardly a shocking, implausible hypothesis that incentivising people to sit in badly ventilated rooms for two hours might have driven infections. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 18
February 2021

Let’s face it: Test, Trace and Isolate was an expensive failure

You may have forgotten that we have a test-trace-and-isolate (TTI) system. I almost had. But it was quite an expensive thing; £22 billion has been made available for it, although I don’t know exactly how much has actually been spent. It’s also widely said that it didn’t work very well.

Interestingly, a Government report came out last week which seemed to confirm that point. But it’s been (as far as I can see) largely ignored; the estimable Full Fact has just published a piece on it as I’ve been writing this, and the Guardian mentioned it a few days ago, but other than that I don’t think it’s got much attention. ...  Continue reading

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