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by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 23
September 2021

If you have a cough, what are the odds it’s Covid?

Coronavirus symptoms overlap heavily with those of colds and flu

I had a cold last week. It was mild, but I felt a bit off and had a cough for a day or so.

Nowadays, of course, a cold isn’t just a cold. The symptoms of Covid, especially in vaccinated people, overlap heavily with those of colds and flu. And I really didn’t want to be spreading Covid around. So: how likely was it that it was Covid? These calculations are necessarily all very rough, but let’s see where we end up.

A starting point might be the prevalence in the population. The most recent ONS infection survey estimated that about 1.3% of people in England had detectable virus; numbers may have gone down a bit since then, but let’s use it. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 16
September 2021

Scrapping SATs will not reduce racial inequality

The alternatives are even more biased

Many US universities use standardised testing — known as SATs and ACTs — to (partly) determine who they give a place to. They also pay attention to “grade point averages”, GPAs — how well you did at school, basically — and to essays.

There’s been a move recently to drop standardised testing. The University of California colleges have scrapped it. And this week, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, announced that Florida’s universities will do the same. The concern is that standardised testing disproportionately favours wealthy, white applicants.

I think that’s likely true. But scrapping standardised testing is still probably a bad idea, because all the other things you can replace it with are worse. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Monday, 13
September 2021

At last — a system to make flying guilt free

Thanks to new technology climate apocalypse doesn't have to be our future

“Carbon capture and storage” is the technology of taking carbon dioxide out of the air or from factory emissions, and turning it into something that can be either used or sequestered away. When used to take it out of the air, it’s called “direct air capture” (DAC), and it’s a way of reducing the concentration of atmospheric carbon, not simply slowing the rate of increase.

Last week, it was announced that Orca, the world’s largest DAC plant, had been turned on. It is capable of sucking 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air every year, and turning it into deep-underground carbonate rock. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Friday, 3
September 2021

The right way to look at the Bangladesh mask study

The evidence isn't conclusive, but then again it rarely is

There’s a row going on about a study into masks. The researchers took 300,000 people in Bangladeshi villages. To hugely oversimplify: in half of the villages, they promoted mask-wearing. In the other half, they didn’t. They then looked at whether the people in the mask-promotion villages were less likely to get Covid. They did: 8.6% of people in the control villages reported Covid symptoms, compared to 7.6% in the treatment villages. 

But some people said that this result may not be statistically significant. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but let’s just take the claim at face value. The row tells us something interesting about science and evidence. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 26
August 2021

NICE has created an ‘unholy mess’

Inside sources tell me why the body's new ME guidelines were delayed

I wrote a piece this week about ME/CFS, and the mystery of the new treatment guidelines being shelved. One of the things I found weirdest was that while NICE’s decision to delay publication had (as far as I could tell) been influenced by various clinicians’ groups — notably, some Royal Colleges, including those of psychiatrists, physicians, and paediatrics and child health — no one seemed to be willing to say why.

Since I wrote it, two people with some knowledge of the internal workings of both NICE and the Royal Colleges got in touch. They’re experts in relevant fields, and I know them both and trust them, so I thought I’d try to express the points they made. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Tuesday, 17
August 2021

Don’t let your beliefs become your identity

A clumsy statement by Yanis Varoufakis reveals the dangers of tribalism

There’s a piece in Julia Galef’s marvellous book The Scout Mindset about when beliefs become identities. Beliefs aren’t solely our best guesses about the underlying reality of the world: they are also markers of who we are. That’s obvious with things like politics and religion, but it can be true about almost anything: people identify strongly as free-market capitalists, or as breastfeeding advocates, and often it’s not just because they believe those are the best ways of achieving a certain goal, but because they identify with the groups that hold those beliefs. And if a belief becomes an identity, it’s much harder to abandon in the face of new evidence. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Wednesday, 11
August 2021

Do racist Euros tweets tell us anything about the UK?

The information provided by Twitter is meaningless

Last month, in the wake of the Euro 2020 final the three players who missed their penalties — Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jaydon Sancho, all young black men — were subjected to horrible racist abuse online. 

One of the few mitigating factors there was that, according to Reuters, 70% of that abuse came from accounts registered overseas: that is, it wasn’t, mainly, British people being racist.

But now Twitter has published a blog post saying that “The UK was by far the largest country of origin for the abusive Tweets we removed on the night of the Final and in the days that followed.” So was that 70% claim wrong? ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Wednesday, 14
July 2021

Is the world finally going to banish malaria?

Relatively small investment could save a huge number of lives

I made a bit of a fool of myself the other day by excitedly tweeting about a new malaria vaccine. In my excitement, I hadn’t realised that the study was from April and I’d actually got excited about it at the time.

But I think it’s worth getting excited about. Malaria is one of the most neglected problems in the world, in terms of its impact compared to how much effort we spend on it.

For context, some numbers. At the beginning of the 21st century, more than 800,000 people died every year from the disease, according to the WHO, and that’s actually the start of a huge success story; by 2015, the number was “only” about 400,000. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) tells a similar story, although not quite as stark; it thinks it was 900,000 in 2004 and 600,000 by 2017. ...  Continue reading

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