Day: 3 October 2021

News Round-Up

New Zealand Extends Lockdown in Futile Attempt to Eliminate Virus

New Zealand has extended its lockdown, introducing more restrictions as the Delta variant spreads beyond Auckland. MailOnline has more.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced 32 new coronavirus cases on Sunday in Auckland, the country’s largest city, which has been in lockdown since mid-August.

There were also two cases in the Waikato region, some 91 miles south of Auckland, prompting Ardern to bring parts of that region into a five-day lockdown.

She added that the government will decide on Monday whether Auckland’s 1.7 million residents will remain sealed off from the rest of New Zealand.

Ardern enforced what was meant to be a ‘short and sharp’ nationwide lockdown in mid-August in response to the Auckland outbreak, which now stands at 1,328 cases.

But while the rest of the country has largely returned to normal life, the North Island city has remained in lockdown.

“We are doing everything that we can to keep cases confined to Auckland, and managing them there,” Ardern said.

While New Zealand was among just a handful of countries to bring COVID-19 cases down to zero last year and largely stayed virus-free until the latest outbreak in August, difficulties in quashing the Delta variant have put Ardern’s elimination strategy in question.

Worth reading in full.

Israelis Without Booster Jab Could Be Stripped of Vaccine Passports

More than a million Israelis could be stripped of their vaccine passports because they’ve not received a booster jab, meaning they will be barred from indoor venues (unless they have proof of having recently recovered from Covid). Thousands have been pushed to get their third dose after the Government updated the definition of ‘full immunity’. The Financial Times has the story.

“I believe the fourth wave is coming to an end,” the Health Ministry’s Director General Nachman Ash said in a radio speech, attributing the success to the booster campaign. “We are on our way, but I say this with caution.”

Simultaneously, the Health Ministry released data saying common side effects like fatigue or pain in the arm were all measurably lower after the third jab than after the first or the second.

Israel, which was the first nation to use the Pfizer vaccine, used boosters to avert an August lockdown as the vaccine’s efficacy waned and infections soared, especially among the elderly, who started filling up Israeli hospitals with severe illness.

Faced with the possibility that its hospitals could be overrun, Israel offered to give third shots, first to the immune-compromised, then to the elderly, and eventually, to the entire adult population before either Pfizer or other international health bodies like the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) had fully studied the subject.

Prime minister Naftali Bennett outlined the virtues of booster shots, first to U.S. President Joe Biden in late August, then at the U.N. General Assembly two weeks ago. Faced with the choice of another lockdown or doubling down on vaccines, “we chose the latter – we pioneer the booster shot,” Bennett told world leaders. “Two months later, I can report that it works.”

So far, Israel is the outlier in offering boosters to the entirety of its population over 12, not just the clinically vulnerable. After fierce debate, and strong suggestions from the White House that the U.S. would soon follow suit, the FDA limited Pfizer booster shots to people over 65, those at severe risk and to those in jobs where they are likely to be exposed to a lot of virus in their daily interactions.

In all cases, their second shots had to be at least six months ago, as in France, which was the first European country to start administering booster jabs to its over 65 years old last month.

Worth reading in full.

BULLSHIT-19

We’re publishing an original essay today by regular contributor James Alexander, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey. In this piece, he surveys the academic literature on bullshit – yes, there is a substantial body of work – and concludes that there is a strong strain of bullshit in the response by governments around the world to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is an extract:

Bullshit is obviously essential to politics. Consider the following description, in effect, of a politician: “The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristics is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to”. The consequence of the existence of bullshit, of this trading in truth or perhaps untruth in a careless but extremely purposeful manner, is that it creates a bullshit world. Truth has never mattered much in politics. Much is symbol, or magic, or illusion. Consider ‘representation’ for instance: it is nothing but symbol, magic and illusion. Consider crown, unction, sceptre, sword, wig, robe, and the ultimate English bullshit of the phrase ‘My right honourable friend’. Voltaire famously said that the Holy Roman Empire was not holy, not Roman and not an empire. In the same way, our ‘right honourable friend’ is not right, not honourable and not our friend. I jest, so let us quote Frankfurt again: “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” Again, and in the spirit of being generous to politicians, this is eminently political. For politics, certainly parliamentary and deliberative and consultative and counselling politics, involves everyone talking about things they know nothing about: the future, or the facts. Bertrand de Jouvenel brilliantly defined politics as being whatever is left over when the engineers, technocrats and experts have solved all our problems. He defined politics as being composed of problems which cannot be solved but only settled, through compromise and accommodation, and, we might add, in a less decorous age than Jouvenel’s, by bluster, balderdash and bullshit.

Worth reading in full.

NHS Vaccine Passports Being Sold to Unvaccinated Brits for up to £750

Amid threats of unvaccinated Brits being barred from certain jobs and events, genuine NHS vaccine passports are being sold to those who have chosen not to get ‘jabbed’ on the messaging app Telegram. The Mail on Sunday has the story.

The certificates – which are uploaded on to the NHS’s mobile phone app – should only be available to those who have been fully inoculated.

They can be used for foreign travel and to gain access to nightclubs, stadiums and other venues for big events. They will also be used to ensure that care home staff have been fully vaccinated when it becomes mandatory next month.

But [the Mail on Sunday’s] investigation exposes the fraudsters who are selling genuine passes for up to £750 each on the messaging app Telegram to people who won’t have the jab.

An undercover reporter bought an NHS vaccine pass, including a unique digital QR code, on behalf of someone who has not yet been vaccinated. It was uploaded on to the official NHS app four days after the order was taken.

After verifying the pass was genuine, the QR code was used to gain access to a nightclub in London and the Louvre Museum in Paris. It was also used to successfully fill in the Government’s passenger locator form, which is intended to protect Britain’s borders by ensuring that those entering the U.K. have been double-jabbed.

After being alerted by the MoS, NHS England said it had launched an investigation and had passed our dossier of evidence to the relevant authorities. …

The illicit trade also throws into doubt strict new rules in Scotland and Wales. Since Friday people in Scotland have had to prove they are doubled-jabbed before entering certain venues and events. Proof of vaccination, or a negative Covid test, will be mandatory for some venues in Wales from October 11th.

Worth reading in full.

More than 40 Countries Could Be Removed from ‘Red List’ This Week

The Prime Minister is reportedly planning to remove up to 45 countries from the ‘Red List’ – including Mexico, Thailand and Brazil – this week, in time for the October half term. This move comes as the Government finally says it doesn’t want its overseas travel policy to be “unnecessarily restricted”. The Sunday Telegraph has the story.

The Telegraph understands that the 54 countries on the Government’s Red List will be slashed to as few as nine this week – with South Africa, Brazil and Mexico all expected to be opened up to quarantine-free travel in time for the October half-term break.

Cape Verde and Indonesia are also due to be struck off the Red List – which requires travellers to quarantine in designated hotels. 

Thailand could also become a quarantine-free destination, but was said to be a “more marginal call”.

The changes, which will allow fully vaccinated travellers to visit each of the countries without having to self-isolate on their return, are expected to be announced on Thursday following a review of the current list.

The move would lead to a spike in bookings by business travellers and holidaymakers, as it significantly opens up the number of destinations offering winter sun.

The planned easing of restrictions marks a dramatic shift in the Government’s approach to foreign travel following months of protests by industry bodies and Conservative backbenchers over the restrictions. 

In a particularly ferocious attack, former Prime Minister Theresa May warned in the summer that Britain was “falling behind the rest of Europe in our decisions to open up”.

Covid hospitalisation rates have confounded modelling which suggested that daily admissions could number 7,000 this month, when in fact they appear to have plateaued at 600.

The move comes as Mr. Johnson prepares to reboot the Conservatives’ domestic agenda in the wake of the devastating impact of Covid and the Government’s restrictions. …

A Whitehall source said: “We are expecting sharp reductions in the Red List. It could be as few as nine countries left on the list.”

The source said that ministers still wanted to keep restrictions in place to guard against Covid variants, but that the Government wanted to avoid a travel policy that “is unnecessarily restricted”.  

“Targeted quarantine will remain, but in fewer places,” the source said. A second source confirmed that the red list was due to be cut back “substantially”.

Worth reading in full.

Vaccine Effectiveness Hits as Low as Minus-66% in the Over-40s, New PHE Data Shows

The new Public Health England (PHE) Vaccine Surveillance report was released on Thursday, allowing us to update our estimates of unadjusted vaccine effectiveness from real-world data.

Oddly, the report appeared on a new webpage this week, but the old page didn’t include a note to let you know, so it took me a while to discover it had appeared and where it was.

Following last week’s ‘fact check‘ from Full Fatuous – ostensibly of my piece but with some words of admonition for PHE as well, particularly over the accuracy of the population data – a new note appeared in the report: “Interpretation of the case rates in vaccinated and unvaccinated population is particularly susceptible to changes in denominators and should be interpreted with extra caution.” So there you go. All estimates in this post are based on the data PHE uses and are valid insofar as that data is accurate.

As before, the data is just for a four-week period, which, given that the early part of the Delta surge was dominated by the unvaccinated and the latter part has seen infections rise in the vaccinated, seems to me a mistake. A fairer view would cover the whole Delta surge (as with the estimates I make from the data in the Technical Briefings), but in any case the report gives a snapshot of current relative infection rates.

As Full Fatuous pointed out, PHE don’t recommend using this data to estimate vaccine effectiveness, saying it’s “not the most appropriate method” because it’s unadjusted for risk factors (and, inevitably, they don’t provide the data you’d need to adjust it). However, even if not recommended by PHE, it is certainly a valid method of calculating vaccine effectiveness, which is just a figure which states the relative risk reduction in the vaccinated group, as long as you bear in mind its limitations. All vaccine effectiveness estimates have limitations, and while adjusting for confounding factors is in principle important, it is helpful only if done well, and many studies do not do it well. Unadjusted estimates from raw data are a necessary starting point.

436 Randomly Generated ‘Peer Reviewed’ Papers Published by Springer Nature

There follows a guest post by Daily Sceptic contributing editor Mike Hearn about the ongoing problem of apparently respectable scientific journals publishing computer-generated ‘research’ papers that are complete gibberish.

The publisher Springer Nature has released an “expression of concern” for more than four hundred papers they published in the Arabian Journal of Geosciences. All these papers supposedly passed through both peer review and editorial control, yet no expertise in geoscience is required to notice the problem:

The paper can’t decide if it’s about organic pollutants or the beauty of Latin dancing, and switches instantly from one to the other half way through the abstract.

The publisher claims this went through about two months of review, during which time the editors proved their value by assigning it helpful keywords:

If you’re intrigued by this fusion of environmental science and fun hobbies, you’ll be overjoyed to learn that the full article will only cost you about £30 and there are many more available if that one doesn’t take your fancy, e.g.

Background

Peer-reviewed science is the type of evidence policymakers respect most. Nonetheless, a frequent topic on this site is scientific reports containing errors so basic that any layman can spot them immediately, leading to the question of whether anyone actually read the papers before publication. An example is the recent article by Imperial College London, published in Nature Scientific Reports, in which the first sentence was a factually false claim about public statistics.

Evidence is now accruing that it’s indeed possible for “peer reviewed” scientific papers to be published which have not only never been reviewed by anybody at all, but might not have even been written by anybody, and that these papers can be published by well known firms like Springer Nature and Elsevier. In August we wrote about the phenomenon of nonsensical “tortured phrases” that indicate the usage of thesaurus-driven paper rewriting programs, probably the work of professional science forging operations called “paper mills”. Thousands of papers have been spotted using this technique; the true extent of the problem is unknown. In July, I reported on the prevalence of Photoshopped images and Chinese paper-forging efforts in the medical literature. Papers are often found that are entirely unintelligible, for example this paper, or this one whose abstract ends by saying, “Clean the information for the preparation set for finding valuable highlights to speak to the information by relying upon the objective of the undertaking.” – a random stream of words that means nothing.

Where does this kind of text come from?

The most plausible explanation is that these papers are being auto-generated using something called a context-free grammar. The goal is probably to create the appearance of interest in the authors they cite. In academia promotions are linked to publications and citations, creating a financial incentive to engage in this sort of metric gaming. The signs are all there: inexplicable topic switches half way through sentences or paragraphs, rampant grammatical errors, the repetitive title structure, citations of real papers and so on. Another sign is the explanation the journal supplied for how it occurred: the editor claims that his email address was hacked.

In this case, something probably went wrong during the production process that caused different databases of pre-canned phrases to be mixed together incorrectly. The people generating these papers are doing it on an industrial scale, so they didn’t notice because they don’t bother reading their own output. The buyers didn’t notice – perhaps they can’t actually read English, or don’t exist. Then the journal didn’t notice because, apparently, it’s enough for just one person to get “hacked” for the journal to publish entire editions filled with nonsense. And finally none of the journal’s readers noticed either, leading to the suspicion that maybe there aren’t any.

The volunteers spotting these papers are uncovering an entire science-laundering ecosystem, hiding in plain sight.

We know randomly generated papers can get published because it’s happened hundreds of times before. Perhaps the most famous example is SCIgen, “a program that generates random Computer Science research papers, including graphs, figures, and citations” using context-free grammars. It was created in 2005 by MIT grad students as a joke, with the aim to “maximize amusement, rather than coherence“. SCIgen papers are buzzword salads that might be convincing to someone unfamiliar with computer science, albeit only if they aren’t paying attention.

Despite this origin, in 2014 over 120 SCIgen papers were withdrawn by leading publishers like the IEEE after outsiders noticed them. In 2020 two professors of computer science observed that the problem was still occurring and wrote an automatic SCIgen detector. Although it’s only about 80% reliable, it nonetheless spotted hundreds more. Their detector is now being run across a subset of new publications and finds new papers on a regular basis.

Root cause analysis

On its face, this phenomenon is extraordinary. Why can’t journals stop themselves publishing machine-generated gibberish? It’s impossible to imagine any normal newspaper or magazine publishing thousands of pages of literally random text and then blaming IT problems for it, yet this is happening repeatedly in the world of academic publishing.

The surface level problem is that many scientific journals appear to be almost or entirely automated, including journals that have been around for decades. Once papers are submitted, the reviewing, editorial and publishing process becomes handled by computers. If the system stops working properly editors can seem oblivious – they routinely discover they published nonsense only because people who don’t even subscribe to their journal complained about it.

Strong evidence for this comes from the “fixes” journals present when put under pressure. As an explanation for why the 436 “expressions of concern” wouldn’t be repeated the publisher said:

The dedicated Research Integrity team at Springer Nature is constantly searching for any irregularities in the publication process, supported by a range of tools, including an in-house-developed detection tool.

The same firm also proudly trumpeted in a press release that:

Springer announces the release of SciDetect, a new software program that automatically checks for fake scientific papers. The open source software discovers text that has been generated with the SCIgen computer program and other fake-paper generators like Mathgen and Physgen. Springer uses the software in its production workflow to provide additional, fail-safe checking.

A different journal proposed an even more ridiculous solution: ban people from submitting papers from webmail accounts. The more obvious solution of paying people to read the articles before they get published is apparently unthinkable – the problem of fake auto-generated papers is so prevalent, and the scientific peer review process so useless, that they are resorting to these feeble attempts to automate the editing process.

Diving below the surface, the problem may be that journals face functional irrelevance in the era of search engines. Clearly nobody can be reading the Arabian Journal of Geosciences, including its own editors, yet according to an interesting essay by Prof Igor Pakpublisher’s contracts with [university] libraries require them to deliver a certain number of pages each year“. What’s in those pages? The editors don’t care because the libraries pay regardless. The librarians don’t care because the universities pay. The universities don’t care because the students and granting bodies pay. The students and granting bodies don’t care because the government pays. The government doesn’t care because the citizens pay, and the citizens DO care – when they find out about this stuff – but generally can’t do anything about it because they’re forced to pay through taxes, student loan laws and a (socially engineered) culture in which people are told they must have a degree or else they won’t be able to get a professional job.

This seems to be zombie-fying scientific publishing. Non-top tier journals live on as third party proof that some work was done, which in a centrally planned economy has value for justifying funding requests to committees. But in any sort of actual market-based economy many of them would have disappeared a long time ago.

News Round-Up