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Brave New Epsilons

 Imagine going to a job interview in twenty years time. Chances are, you’ll have to take along your ID, your CV, and your personal genomic profile.  One of the gene variants an employer might be looking for is Epsilon 4, which is thought to significantly increase your likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Some notable genome self-publishers like Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker are choosing not to publish the Epsilon 4 part of their genome, perhaps understandably. As one researcher remarks, “I wouldn’t want to know whether I’ve got one and I certainly wouldn’t want other people to know” (New Scientist, 13 February).

The problem for workers is, genome-sequencing is already in the 3-figure dollar range and it won’t be long before we will be expected to provide a genome survey in order to get work, just like house sellers will now be required to provide the buyer with a house survey. The more privileged members of this brave new capitalism will no doubt ‘do a Pinker’, but workers in all probability will not be allowed to keep quiet about Epsilon 4,  or anything else for that matter, and will be entirely at the mercy of what the bosses decide they don’t like. Unless more workers start inserting copies of this magazine into their jeans, we could all end up as Epsilon-class workers.

‘Just out driving my new Toyota Prius. Text later. Can’t stop.’

Possibly last month’s best SMS joke. In the midst of the fuss over the large-scale recall of the accursed vehicle, some engineers are doing the predictable thing and, with a knowing stroke of the greying whiskers, remarking that “O’course, they be too damn complicated these days, too much to go wrong. That’s their problem right there, I tell ‘ee.” Although the Prius problem was entirely and mundanely mechanical, speculation also centres round another of Toyota’s products, the Lexus. The more that modern car designs move from mechanical to electronic systems the greater the risk of electromagnetic interference (EMI), and designs like the Lexus with electronically-controlled acceleration or ‘drive by wire’ are now thought to be at risk of EMI-induced ‘sudden unintended acceleration’(New Scientist, 13 February).

Meanwhile, reports that increasing sunspot activity is likely to interfere with sat-nav systems provide a double-whammy (‘Sat-nav devices face big errors as solar activity rises’, BBC Online, 10 Feb). One can envisage whole convoys of flashy car drivers all roaring off down arbitrary highways like bats into hell, the blind leading the blindingly fast. Still, it could be worse. At least dodgy cars are being recalled these days. If the free-market capitalists got their way we might return to the unregulated days of the notorious Ford Pinto, whose manufacturers allegedly decided to pay off accident fatalities’ families rather than stop selling the dangerous car. All in all it makes you think about oiling that pushbike.

Public no longer believes poll findings, poll finds

Two recent polls commissioned by the Times newspaper and the BBC suggest that the UK public are becoming more climate sceptical, no doubt because they imagine the unusually heavy snow on their front lawn has blanketed the entire world and heralds a ten thousand year ice age. As the snow piled up, so did the column inches, with journalists speculating about why climate catastrophe has fallen so out of favour (see for instance ‘Climate scepticism 'on the rise'’, BBC poll shows’, BBC Online, 7 February).


Favourite theories are the East Anglia email scandal, the hopeless effort at Copenhagen, and most recently the raw wet omelette served on the face of the International Panel on Climate Change by their careless and spectacularly erroneous claim that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035, rather than the original and more accurate date of 2350. Interestingly this error has been traced back to an article in New Scientist, which observed that the panel has been ‘severely criticised for citing a non-peer-reviewed magazine’ (see New Scientist, 23 January, p5 – in a very small box).

But wait a moment, isn’t everyone getting a bit carried away? Scientists can make mistakes, can’t they? In fact the ability to make and identify mistakes forms the basis of all science. There may be some buffoons out there bonkers enough to think that if scientists get one thing wrong then they must have everything else wrong too, but that surely can’t apply to the whole population.

In all the journalistic hoo-ha about rising climate scepticism there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of poll scepticism, yet are the polls really significant or just a blip? As most people no doubt realise, polls are the journalist’s best buddy but make for unreliable real-world guides, especially in areas other than elections where they are unlikely to be corroborated later by hard facts. In the first place, they can be designed to produce the findings the poll-funders are looking for (or else, if they don’t, the funders don’t publish the findings). Even supposing the funder is genuinely disinterested in the findings (the BBC and Murdoch-owned Times are not climate sceptics so presumably weren’t hoping for this result, unless the idea was to manufacture some controversial headlines) there is no peer-review or general oversight of the polling methodology employed. What suggests the polls are a blip is the timing. One would, for instance, have to question the wisdom of asking people standing in two feet of snow whether they were especially concerned about global warming at the present time. One further wonders whether the BBC and the Times will be doing follow-up polls in flaming June or blue-sky July. Finally there is the question, admittedly a cynic’s recourse: do people tell pollsters the truth anyway, or merely make a little devilment out of the business? Why would they lie, you might ask? But equally, why shouldn’t they? Anyone who doesn’t believe this is possible has clearly never filled in a market survey report on branded products. In view of all this, does anyone apart from material-hungry journalists actually believe in polls? Maybe we should have a poll and find out.

Note to self

Lastly and a propos none of the above, a quick word from our BBC economics advisor Robert Peston: “It's plainly better for banks to make profits, than not (unless you are actively working for the destruction of capitalism)” (BBC blog entry, 16th February). Ok Bob, now there’s an idea