Friday, January 9, 2015

Disappearing "it's the sun" at WUWT

Sou | 12:14 PM Go to the first of 12 comments. Add a comment

Every now and then, well just about every day, Anthony Watts provides evidence that supports what his good buddy, Willis Eschenbach, wrote about him:
"So it is not Anthony’s job to determine whether or not the work of the guest authors will stand the harsh light of public exposure. ... . Even if Anthony had a year to analyze and dissect each piece, he couldn’t do that job."

Today Anthony seems to have decided that a paper published in the Royal Society Proceedings  B will not stand the harsh light of public exposure. Or not at WUWT at any rate. It's getting a modest amount of exposure elsewhere - like at RichardDawkins.net and at livescience.com and at wunderground.com and at medicaldaily.com, and even at ChinaDaily.com.cn.

Anthony published an article by David "funny sunny" Archibald. For a change it was a fairly straight bit of reporting although I won't vouch for the WUWT diagrams.

Anthony had the WUWT article up for a while, attracting at least 58 "thoughts", but now it's disappeared. It could simply be a glitch in the WUWT system, of course. Someone might have accidentally deleted it. The evidence in favour of that is that Anthony's tweet about it was still up when I last looked.

The paper was about a study of people born in Norway between between 1676 and 1878. The abstract makes a strong claim, stronger than some might think is warranted. It states:
...we show that solar activity (total solar irradiance) at birth decreased the probability of survival to adulthood for both men and women.

If you're scratching your head at this point, it's because the wording is sloppy and imprecise.  What they meant to say was that people born at a time in the solar cycle when there was highest solar activity, had a decreased probability of survival to adulthood.

What the scientists are arguing is that when there is more sunspot activity then it affects pregnant women, and there is higher infant mortality. People born during solar minima will, on average, live about five years longer than people born during a solar max.

There are lots of ifs and buts etc. The authors found a correlation between solar cycles and survival, and they attempted to see if there was causation. They eliminated some factors and suggested it was because of "folate degradation during pregnancy caused by UVR".

These authors weren't the first to see a correlation between sunspot activity and human life span. There was a study in 1993 that found a correlation too. Except it wasn't to do with infant mortality, it was a study of adults.

Anyway, thought I'd just put it out there. Firstly because WUWT apparently decided it wasn't suitable for climate science deniers. (Is that because they think more sun is good for you, whereas this study suggests that less sun might be better - if you are poor and live in Norway?)

Also because it's the sort of paper that invites lots of scepticism, of the real kind - not the fake kind you get at WUWT.

(Also because, while I'm flat out on other things, I didn't want to totally neglect HotWhopper - and this didn't take long to write :D)

Gine Roll Skjærvø, Frode Fossøy, Eivin Røskaft. "Solar activity at birth predicted infant survival and women's fertility in historical Norway" Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.2032 (open access)

Juckett, David A., and Barnett Rosenberg. "Correlation of human longevity oscillations with sunspot cycles." Radiation research 133, no. 3 (1993): 312-320. (paywalled here)


  1. Sou,

    I'm not saying I killed it, but it got disappeared after I made a few satirical comments in follow up to this particular piece of snark:


    "Clearly this paper isn’t meant to be part of the AGW debate. As everyone knows, global warming is inversely correlated with the number of pirates:"

    Basically what happened is someone asked me if a hockey stick emerges when we extrapolate backward to 1600. I said something in return along the lines of:

    I think only if we consider Caribbean pirates. The IPCC buried the raw data in a footnote to a WWF brochure, so I can't tell. Clearly we need to consider the recent piracy rates in the Strait of Malacca and off the coast of Somalia as no proper warmunist can blame anything on Muslims. If I have time, I'll build a quick model. I fully expect a sinusoidal curve to emerge demonstrating that once again natural variability is the culprit, however a non-centered PCA will give me the hockey stick I want. I'll let you know.

    Or something like that. Maybe 30 minutes later I hit refresh (on the comment link) and got a 404 page not found error. Thinking I might have been moderated out I tried pulling up the article-only link and saw it was gone.

    1. I don't know why it was pulled. It was in a very respectable journal (high impact factor and the probably the oldest, most revered scientific society in existence), and it got publicity from respectable quarters.

      Not only that but David Archibald, who wrote the WUWT article, is a denier "respected" by WUWT.

      There are a zillion articles a year at WUWT that should never have been posted because they are ridiculous to the extreme. This one is challenging, but not ridiculous. In fact it's the sort of paper that deniers could discuss without getting snark, because it's not about AGW. So they could take off their tin foil hat and freely discuss the merits or otherwise of the content of the paper. In other words, it provided an opportunity to see if deniers could ever act like normal people when discussing stuff that wasn't AGW-related.

      WUWT missed a good opportunity there and demonstrated, once again, that deniers and disinformers are unable to critically evaluate science.

      Of course, it still could have been deleted in error - or it could have been an overzealous and supremely ignorant mod. I think it happened past Anthony's bedtime :)

      I thought there'd be comments here about correlation and causation, and sample sizes, and other stuff. Biology papers might be okay. I've often seen medical papers with very poor stats, not a patch on climate science. Not saying this one is deficient. I've not looked in detail - but I'd think there are any number of factors that could produce such a result, not just the direct dietary/metabolic link they've discussed. While what they've deduced isn't totally implausible, I'd need more evidence/analysis to find the suggestion convincing.

    2. The actual study is quite interesting, but I was rather dubious at first until I saw the authors proposed folate as a possible mechanism. Most of the comments ran along those lines, but predictably it quickly veered off into yet another "teh IPCC is trying to sp00k us" cluster#$% and I was rather, er, warming to the task of mocking them for their abject buffoonery at trying to turn every single piece of literature published on any subject into another article of faith in their wingnutted conspiracy theories.

      Correlation v. causation was in there. rgb was getting into a decent conversation about how epidemiology starts off with p < .05 for a hypothesis (which is how RA Fischer intended) and then, how did he put it, systemically reduces to p < .001, p < .0001 as further research is done.

      I think what happened is too much real science actually started getting talked about, and we can't be having that. But my prejudices are howling right now, I don't actually know, I do think it is incredibly odd. I'm so glad you got an archive of it -- I actually checked and couldn't find one myself -- because it's the first time I've been in on the ground floor of a weird WUWT goof like that whereas in the past I've only ever heard about them after the fact.

    3. One difficulty I had was the leap from solar max via increased UV to folate deficiency, with nothing in between to support it. Yes, there's a lot more UV in a solar max, but how much of that reaches the surface and what effect does it have when it does. To what extent is there a direct effect on humans vs an effect on crops, for example. What about other climate variations - eg precipitation changes that might impact the local food supply.

      Another was that the paper seemed to be trying to prove the link, rather than exploring or testing for other correlations and potential causal links. (Your pirate example was appropriate IMO.) There was a bit of lip service given to one or two ideas, but the focus seemed to be very narrow.

      I'm not arguing the paper is "wrong". Just saying that as it stands, it's less than convincing.

    4. Basically it's a hypothesis paper. Nothing wrong with that in my book. I didn't read the thing, but if it's a good paper it won't be making strong conclusions at this point. I go batty myself trying to explain the concept of iterative research to nutters who don't get that publishing interesting, but not definitive, results is the way scientific communication and knowledge-sharing is done. Aaak!

      The pirate thing is a fav of mine. I especially love it when people use it on me not understanding that its whole purpose is to combat just the kind of nitwitted sloppy thinking they're projecting on me.

    5. Yeah, well there's no doubting the importance of folate and Vitamin D. I guess being in a biology paper, they can be forgiven for not delving into the atmospheric physics. Still, I'd like to have seen a bit more reference to the UV side of things. The abstract wasn't presented as a hypothesis - "solar activity (total solar irradiance) at birth decreased the probability of survival" would have been better written as "solar activity at birth was inversely correlated with infant survival" or similar.

    6. I know you're not snarking at biologists now .... :D

      Well now, that abstract does sound a mite strongly worded.

  2. I just skimmed a little, but I'd heard a plausible explanation years ago.
    think a key paragraph is:
    "Another candidate explanation may be the selection for specific genotypes associated with folate loss and vitamin D biosynthesis at the time of conception or early pregnancy in relation to solar activity. While folate is UV labile, vitamin D biosynthesis is UV dependent. Previous studies have found that photoperiod can influence both vitamin D receptor and nuclear folate gene variants via differential embryo survival [11,19]. Importantly, the genotypes that influence embryo survival are also associated with late-life clinical phenotypes [11,19]. Thus, the selection of these vitamin D and folate-related gene variants could partly explain the association between mortality and solar activity found in this study."

    Let me try to translate: UV lessens folates and helps Vitamin-D, and there is some optimum range of during pregnancy, since both are needed. I'm no biochemist to know, but I've heard this before proposed for an obvious fact: people of Norwegian ancestry are much lighter skinned than those whose ancestors have lived near the Equator. See Wikipedia.

    It seems plausible that people are adapted to their latitude/insolation, and departures outside some range will cause trouble. Some people tan, some burn. African women moving to Norway might need to take Vitamin D supplements.

    1. John, if it helps, skin demelanization in Caucasians on the basis of Vitamin-D production was presented to me as established fact my freshman year at college. That was 1992.

  3. Sou wrote: The evidence in favour of that is that Anthony's tweet about it was still up when I last looked.

    The link you gave now goes to a no-such-tweet page. It looks like the tweet may have been deleted, too. So the page being erased doesn't seem to have been an accident.

  4. I'm sceptical. The obvious problem with the hypothesis is that solar variability is not the only only determinant of UV dose. Cloud cover is probably an order of magnitude more variable than solar UV output.

    I'm wondering how their statistical method will cope with trends in life expectancy etc across two centuries.

  5. My preliminary view of this paper is now up at https://quantpalaeo.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/apollo-uv-arrows/


Instead of commenting as "Anonymous", please comment using "Name/URL" and your name, initials or pseudonym or whatever. You can leave the "URL" box blank. This isn't mandatory. You can also sign in using your Google ID, Wordpress ID etc as indicated. NOTE: Some Wordpress users are having trouble signing in. If that's you, try signing in using Name/URL. Details here.

Click here to read the HotWhopper comment policy.