Archive for September, 2009

about reputation

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009


In a comment about a recent study whose neutrality was not so clear I was asked by a reader:

If there is all this data as you say on the internet then why do you need this reputation thing at all, i mean can’t you just check wether this Greiser person is right?

The study which the reader meant to be checked used data about leukemia occurences in children who lived in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant. This data was -to a great extend- gathered together via the internet and was then statistically evaluated. So the reader assumed that -given that all the necessary information is available- that one could just check wether the study is right.

My answer:
In principle -given that all information is provided in the study- and – given that oneself can access all data (this is unfortunately not always that easy) one can check wether all the in the study given data was correctly evaluated, one can follow the statistic reasoning and the methods which were used a.s.o. The question wether the study is correct or not should thus not be expected to be answered plainly with a yes or no, but at least include explanations about the involved methodology. All that takes a lot of knowledge and experience which is -for an outsider- not so easy to acquire. That is even though I am a mathematician it would take me probably quite some time to understand and evaluate the involved reasoning (it is not exactly my field), it is quite likely that I would end up with open questions and thus would need to consult other people.

One can compare this a little bit with a medical diagnosis, that is in principle all the medical information is available in text books, articles etc. and without having studied medicine one can have a “feeling” about how correct a diagnosis is, however – depending on the symptoms and ones own knowledge- people usually prefer to see a doctor instead of feeling inclined to cure themselves. The craftmanship of a mathematician -although this may not be so obvious- is comparable to that of a physician.

Nevertheless it happens that people won’t go see a doctor. This may happen because people can’t afford to pay a doctor and/or because they are convinced that their methods (or those of a non-medical-doctor) are better. And there are indeed cases were non-doctors may have better results. Nevertheless the typical scenario is that a learned doctor knows more and can help you better than a non-doctor. This holds also true for “crowd knowledge” that is you may ask around in fora about what to do with what symptoms, but typically you wouldnt like to rely on them completely.

Here one should note an important feature: Among others a doctor is someone who was evaluated by a certain group of people who know the subject. That is professional organisations, universities etc. hand out certificates which should give you some trust that this person knows what he/she is saying and doing. This is mostly what reputation is about. It is a guideline. Or put differently: Given a specified task the chance that you will end up with a completely incapable person which had been certified for this task by a respectable institution should be smaller than the chance that an uncertified person is incapable. This doesnt exclude the case that there are uncertified persons with a better knowledge than certified ones. This is just -at the moment- on average less likely.

I wrote “at the moment”, because there are unfortunately tendencies which dilute this rather helpful feature, as can be seen e.g. in the certification problem in the already mentioned outsourced learning environments/online classes. Certification problems can also be found in “cheap education” e.g. by certifying large amounts of students, which makes cheating easier (for example by handing in essays, which were not authored by oneself), academic misconduct and/or corruption e.g. due to financial interests etc. Moreover the possibilities for free autonomous learning are much, much better than before (which is good), so the number of highly trained individuals without a certificate are most probably on the rise. Traditional systems of evaluation may thus be loosing their influence. Personal recomendations would thus become more important, which makes it on the other hand harder to enter a foreign field as an outsider.

The above (unemployed) patient in the foto had a bad bike accident, which resulted unfortunately not only in a torn muscle. Thanks to a “still” rather good medical care in Germany within one week and with the help of several specialists and MRI a not so common injury could be diagnostized fastly and within 2 months the patient should be able to walk properly again….

Why do I write “still”?

Because in Germany the costs for health care are on the rise. This is not only due to an aging population but also to a great extend due to rising costs for pharmaceutical products, where new, patented products play a major role. According to this article in Berliner Zeitung on total the costs for physicians in Germany are meanwhile smaller than the costs for pharmaceutical products. Nevertheless suggestions of politicians which are about to form Germanys new government suggest to cut down on health care on the whole and instead secure a socalled “basic care” for the masses which could be supplemented by additional care – if you have the money. As a result the stockmarket for certain pharmaceutical companies soared right after the elections.

historical reading: -> hippocratic oath


Saturday, September 19th, 2009

little artwork in between, video: “herfortragendes abtragen im untertagungsbau”

math comment: the involved tranformations are not using Moebius transformations like in In2, but are similar to those used in Leiden.

About the “Concept for an integrated energy-research program for Germany”

Friday, September 18th, 2009

There had been some uproar in mediascape-Germany about a study with the title “Konzept für ein integriertes Energieforschungsprogramm für Deutschland” (“Concept for an integrated energy-research program for Germany”). According to Financial times Deutschland” (FTD) the study was commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research however the study had been withheld from the public for 3 months.

The study is now -after the uproar- openly available. The reasons for the ministries policy of secrecy gave of course way to speculations in the press. So among others the study suggests that besides studying halite rock formations as a suitable geological formation for a final nuclear dump site, like the one in Gorleben it is meanwhile scientifically established that also Claystone formations may provide an alternative for a final nuclear waste repository. Since most of these rock formations can (according to FTD) be found in the current ministers “electoral homeland” Baden-Würtemberg and since the german elections will take place in about one and a half weeks it is understandable that the press identified this fact as a possible reason for the withheld (i.e. nobody wants a nuclear dump site in ones own backyard).

Another possible reason why the study was withheld was seen in the fact that the study suggests that an enforced research in nuclear power generation – and in particular in new nuclear fission technology could be a politically desired pathway in energy research (note the subtlety: the study does not suggest to pursue enforced research in nuclear energy, but states that enforced research in nuclear energy, in particular in new reactor types, may be a political request). This is in contrast to the current official political line of the minister and chancelor Angela Merkels party the CDU. Their official line (towards voters) is basically that power genration via nuclear fission should play NO role in Germanys future energy generation.

I have unfortunately currently not the time to study the study in full detail but nevertheless – here are some remarks to the study:

The study was made under the auspices of two german science/humanities academies, namely the National academy of science and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities a third collaborator was the German Academy of Science and Engineering (Acatech), which claims itself to be a non profit agency, which represents the interests of German sciences and technology. Acatech has a strong connection to business, last but not least via funding. This has advantages and disadvantages.

Responsible for the text of the study are Prof. Dr. Frank Behrendt (Institut für Energietechnik, TU Berlin), Prof. Dr. Ortwin Renn (Abteilung für Technik – und Umweltsoziologie, Universität Stuttgart), Prof. Dr. Ferdi Schüth (Max- Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim/Ruhr) and Prof. Dr. Eberhard Umbach (Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe), however the study encompasses contributions from numerous individuals (p.58 of the study) which are researchers from universities but also representatives of companies such as Siemens. As a remark: the company Siemens seems to intent to terminate its engagement within the french nuclear company AREVA, however according to this article it may replace its french engagement with a cooperation with the russian nuclear company Atomenergoprom. This should put the neutrality at least of parts of the study -namely those concerning nuclear power generation- under scrutiny.

A main argument of the study is that the challenges of Germany’s future power generation can only be dealt with in a – what the authors call- “systemic perspective” that is with an approach which integrates not only the scientific and technological demands of power generation but also the juridicial, sociological etc. aspects which are connected with it. The arguments are similar to the IPCC conclusions. For accomplishing this integration approach the study suggests among others to establish energy research clusters (similar to the US american Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC), public-private partnerships like the british Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) and one central german energy research center which bundles the research activity and which serves as an outside representative for Germany’s energy research. The tasks and concrete realizations of such a center havent been yet not very much specified, however integrating and coordinating energy research is in my opinion definitely sound.

Moreover the study collects “no-regret” research options, like research in insulation improvements, energy efficiency, research in how necessary behavioural changes may be adressed appropriately, in how international agreements could be furthered etc. At this place I would have liked to see a stronger discussion of the problems related to patents/intellectual property rights obstructing technological development and international agreement processes.

Within the technological component the study identifies three main research sectors according to which politics can choose to put emphasis on. These are: regenerative energies, carbon based energies and finally -although as pointed out above there is currently no official political backing for this- nuclear energy. The technological aspects of each sector are introduced in the study in a socalled module.

I’d like to concentrate a bit on the nuclear energy module, since the text of the nuclear energy module is mildly put indeed controversial.

As already indicated the aspect that nuclear fission research may be pursued only with the goal of securing its safe pullback (which is the official political line!) is just a little side remark in the text.

In particular it is argued that in order to keep a fall back option on nuclear (fission) energy, Germany could feel strongly advised to support research in new fission technology and thus could feel the need to support the development of fast breeders and in particular in 4′th generation reactorsystems:

Deutschland kann sich aufgrund seiner Expertise hier an vorderster Stelle beteiligen, um unter anderem höchste Sicherheitsstandards zu etablieren.

(translation without guarantee: Germany may – based on its expertise – take part in this in the front row in order to establish among others highest security standards.)

The option that a fallback option on nuclear fission technology could also exist without a german research effort or accomplished with just a small german contribution like within an international noncommercially oriented community research project (my favoured option) is not mentioned.

The study mentions the necessity to keep a fallback option on nuclear fission due to the reason that climate change could have more dramatic consequences than expected, this was also annotated in an earlier randform post.

However the study suggests that such a fallback option may also be justified by the strong pressure which may be due to an international renaissance of nuclear fission technology and which may be due to raising energy needs (p.15) especially in regard to financial feasibility (p.12).

Yet the most problematic part of the nuclear module was the sentence:

“Außerdem müssen bei einer Wiederaufnahme der Forschungsarbeiten zu neuen Reaktoren bereits frühzeitig Ansätze entwickelt werden, mittels derer die Technologie gegebenenfalls umgesetzt werden könnte, ohne Widerständen zu begegnen oder – für den Fall, das dies nicht möglich ist – mit diesen Widerständen konstruktiv umzugehen.”

(translation without guarantee: Furthermore in case of a resumption of the research efforts concerning new reactor types one has to develop at an early stage approaches with which the technology could be realized without encountering resistance or – if this is not possible – develop approaches on how to deal with this resistances in a constructive way.)

I hope this sentence was a very unfortunate phrasing accident and that the authors do not really mean what they write here.

College for $99 a Month

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009


Just a quick link to an interesting article in the Washington monthly about possible future developments within the US and other high-tuition-dependent-educational systems ->College for $99 a Month

very, very short summary: the article explains that cheap online education (eventually outsourced to India etc.) may lure college students into taking standard classes in the internet instead of in a typical college. This development could be accelerated due to the economic crisis. Standard courses usually “nurture” the more specialized classes, hence it can be feared that the overall quality may suffer from this.

On the socalled Greiser-study

Sunday, September 6th, 2009


According to Spiegel a new study by Eberhard Greiser on the correlation between living in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant and children Leukemia had been brought forward.

randform reported recently in a blog post about an earlier study (the socalled KIKK-study, see also: Kaatsch P, Spix C, Schulze-Rath R, Schmiedel S, Blettner M. Leukemia in young children living in the vicinity of German nuclear power plants. Int J Cancer 2008; 122 (4): 721-726) in which a correlation between living next to a german nuclear power plant and childhood leukemia was asserted. This very comprehensive study gave way to many discussions about nuclear power, however although the study established a correlation between children getting sick of Leukemia and living next to a nuclear power plant the KIKK-study could not identify a cause for that correlation. May be this was the reason why no political measures, like sending out warnings for those living close to a nuclear power plant were enforced. In particular it was argued that the measured radiation in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant could – due to its low value – not be accounted for an increased risk of developping Leukemia. However as pointed out earlier the KIKK-study doesn’t rule out this possibility either and there may be other risk factors, which could (and should) in principle be investigated.

The study by Eberhard Greiser (shortly called Greiser-study) is interesting. It is however of a different kind than the KIKK-study. First of all the KIKK study had been commissioned by the german Ministry of Environment and the Federal Office for Radiation Protection. The Greiser-Study had been commisioned by the german green party (which is against nuclear power generation). This shall put the neutrality of the Greiser-study under strong scrutiny. The KIKK study had been undertaken by the Institut for Medical Biometry, Epidemiology and Informatics at the University of Mainz and the German Childhood Cancer Registry (Kinderkrebsregister), the study by Greiser had been performed by him as a consultant at a consultant company called epi.consult, a company of which I couldn’t find a website. Nevertheless Eberhard Greiser seems to be a distinguished scholar (Biomedexperts link1,link2?), in particular he is mentioned as the founder of the Bremen Institute for Prevention Research and Social Medicine, given his publications on Biomedexperts and e.g. this book he seems to be an expert for epidemiological investigations. So in short – the academic reputation of this person could in principle reinforce some trust in the neutrality of the study.

Greisers study investigates given data in journal articles and cancer registries (in particular he includes the KIKK study). So Eberhard Greiser used more or less open accessible data (see also here in this randform post about cancer in Marine county) in order to perform a statistical analysis. He analyzed data of 80 nuclear power plants in the five countries: Germany, France, Great Britain, USA and Canada.

Main result of Greiser-study:

The Greiser-study displayed a statistically increased risk for children (up to age 24) to develop Leukemia due to living next to a nuclear power plant. The risk was increased by 13% to 24% with respect to the respective national average risk of developping Leukemia.

E. Greiser lists all his data sources, in particular he lists which source was used for investigating each of the 80 nuclear power plants. The data from each facility is then weighted in a socalled meta-analysis (a method which seems to be described in DerSimonean R., Laird N. Meta-analysis in clinical trials, 1986;7:177-188 and Greenland S. Quantitative Methods in the review of epidemiologic literature, Epidemiol Rev 1987; 9:1-30). This method was used in order to gain a statistically relevant evidence for the international comparision.

In order to understand the implications of the main result Eberhard Greiser mentions that passive smoking increases the risk of lung cancer by 13% to 19%.

Concluding it can be said that there is plenty of data about cancer occurrences available, especially on an international level. The Greiser-study displays this already at the example of only 5 countries. This data however should be analysed in a more neutral (and international) setting than in the Greiser-study in order to obtain a neutral matter-of-fact scientifically sound analysis of the health risks of nuclear energy. The above mentioned studies strongly indicate that such a health risk seems to exist. Moreover the risk seems to be high enough so that political measures may be necessary as they were e.g. undertaken in the case of passive smoking.


Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

graphics looking as from cellular automata (game of life?) and fluids in a psychadelic 1970 animation by Schwartz and Knowlton.
via dataisnoture