Category Archives: Science

An open letter to Natural England on the badger cull

This letter was sent to btb@naturalengland.org.uk concerning their eight-week extension to the badger culling “trials” in Gloucestershire. I’d encourage as many like-minded people as possible to send emails of their own.

Dear Sir/Madam,

Though I understand that this letter will in all likelihood be ignored, I had to write to express my concern and profound disgust that Natural England has agreed to an eight-week extension of the badger cull in Gloucestershire. As a biological science graduate with an interest in conservation issues, I hold Natural England’s attitude toward this issue and the science surrounding it in deep disdain.No one denies that bovine TB is a harmful disease with devastating effects on the UK’s agricultural sector. However, it is also undeniable that the balance of evidence is strongly against culling badgers as an effective method of TB control, and that this evidence is becoming ever more damning with the continued failure of the cull programme to achieve its stated aims.

The badger cull was originally justified as a six-week trial to determine the effectiveness of such a policy in reducing the badger population and controlling the spread of TB. Now that the six weeks have elapsed, and nothing close to the cull target of 70% of the population has been reached, surely it is time to deem the experiment a failure and consider other methods of TB control, such as vaccination of badgers or imposing tougher biosecurity controls on dairy farmers.

To extend the cull by eight weeks totally contradicts the idea that this was a trial period, and strongly suggests that the intention all along was to allow the slaughter of badgers to proceed regardless of the results. Moreover, it defies the advice of numerous experts in the field, who have repeatedly warned that the botched cull – and its extension – may result in the spread of bovine TB getting worse, not better.

Natural England has also failed to take into account the extremely worrying allegations that illegal methods of culling, such as gassing badger setts, have been practiced by those carrying out the cull. It seems that Natural England is totally blasé about these allegations, which are not only a gross violation of the law, but also an act tantamount to environmental vandalism. The correct course of action would have been to immediately suspend the cull until a proper police investigation was conducted, with prosecutions if necessary.

According to the organisation’s web site, Natural England is there to provide “practical advice, grounded in science, on how best to safeguard England’s natural wealth for the benefit of everyone.”

In taking this decision, Natural England has ignored the overwhelming consensus of scientific evidence on this subject, and agreed to sacrifice part of “England’s natural wealth” – of which our wildlife is surely a part – for the benefit not of “everyone,” but of a small number of farmers and landowners who cannot be bothered to look after their livestock properly.

I urge Natural England to reconsider the decision, and to advise the government – with reasoning grounded in science, and a desire to safeguard England’s natural wealth, of course – that the emphasis on bovine TB control needs to move towards a vaccination programme and improved biosecurity on farms as quickly as possible.

Yours faithfully,
Andy Shaw

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Private degrees will be bad for science education

This morning, the government’s proposals to shake up higher education by compelling universities to compete for student places have met with criticism for a number of reasons. Particularly scandalous is the option – being considered – of allowing wealthier students to pay off their loans early, so that poorer graduates end up in greater amounts of debt than their richer counterparts.

That, I suspect, will be for another post. The issue that I want to focus on here is that, if the proposals outlined in Universities Minister David Willetts’ White Paper are taken forward, private companies will be allowed to offer degrees, and compete with mainstream universities for student places.

This government’s free-market fetishism has already encroached upon the hitherto National Health Service, and it appears that the same will happen in higher education also. Quite why competition is touted as the solution to all of life’s problems (even, it would seem, those that most of us weren’t even aware existed) isn’t clear, but whatever the reasons behind it, the introduction of private providers of degrees into the university system is one that must be resisted at all cost.

As Shadow Universities Minister John Denham pointed out this morning, opening universities up to this kind of competition will likely incentivise the mass creation of cheap humanities places at the expense of more costly science and engineering courses. At a time when science and engineering graduates are needed more than ever, this seems to be a reckless move. Recall that, whenever higher education is discussed, conversation always seems to drift towards the stereotype of the lazy, feckless humanities student, who spends four hours a week in the classroom and the rest of the time squandering his student loan on cheap alcohol. The reality is very different, of course – particularly for students of the sciences, who generally have more contact hours, for instance – but the stereotype persists, and the government’s response to this is apparently to create more humanities places and fewer in the sciences.

The other danger concerns the kind of private providers who might emerge, in the post-Willetts “degrees market,” and what kind of threat they might pose to useful, honest science education. Plenty of universities today offer courses in medicinal quackery like reflexology and herbalism, and this can surely only get worse under an unregulated market system. Indeed, as David Colquhoun, tireless campaigner against this kind of nonsense, pointed out on Twitter when I raised the issue, private degree providers would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, making the kind of work he does much harder.

The slope from there, to a situation where private universities could offer degrees in other ignorant pseudosciences like Creationism (as is the case in the US), would probably be sufficiently steep and well-oiled for it to be traversed with a minimum of fuss, to paraphrase Douglas Adams.

It is in nobody’s interest to have universities offering degrees in quackery and pseudoscience, muddying the waters of what constitutes honest science and what does not. It is unconscionable for them to be able to rake in massive profits while doing so. It is vitally important, therefore, that this dangerous element of the government’s plans for universities is dropped immediately, if not sooner.

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Are Lib Dem supporters more credulous?

I decided to have some fun with statistics today. YouGov have recently completed a survey on public attitudes to various “alternative medicine” practices. Rather than get depressed about the sheer numbers of people who are taken in by these varying degrees of nonsense (66% of people believe acupuncture is possibly or definitely an effective treatment; 47% for reflexology and a staggering 70% for chiropracty, to pull some headline figures out), I looked a little closer into the tables YouGov provide for their survey.

YouGov break down their sample in various ways, including both current and past voting intention. Looking through the figures I noticed that the numbers in the “Lib Dem” column appeared to be slightly higher, for those “effective treatment” responses, than either their Labour or Conservative counterparts. I wondered whether this could be borne out statistically – in other words, are Liberal Democrat supporters more likely to believe in the effectiveness of “alternative medicine?”

Firstly I added together the “definitely” and “possibly an effective treatment” scores for each treatment within each voter ID group, then I averaged between the Conservative and Labour scores to produce two columns: Lib Dem belief in each treatment compared with the average of the other two major parties.

I then performed a paired t-test on these two sets of figures, to determine whether the Lib Dem scores really were higher than for the other parties, or whether this was just a statistical fluke.

Using individuals’ current voting intention, I found that on average, 4.8% more Lib Dems believe a treatment is effective than their Labour or Conservative counterparts, with a standard deviation of 4.0%. This gives a value for t of 3.7, and a p-value of 0.006. In layman’s language, this means that we can be 99.4 per cent certain that Lib Dems are more likely to believe a treatment is effective than Labour supporters or Conservatives. In many applications of statistics (including biology, which I work in), 95% confidence (i.e. a p-value of less than 0.05) is the threshold level beyond which an effect is inferred to be genuine rather than a statistical anomaly.

For voting intention in May 2010, the figures are similar. An average of 5.9% more people who voted Lib Dem at the general election believe each of the treatments is effective, compared to those who voted for one of the other two major parties. The standard deviation here is 3.8, the t value 4.7, and the p-value is 0.002 – so our confidence that people who voted for the Lib Dems are more likely to believe in these quackeries than other voters rises to 99.8 per cent.

Incidentally, there is no significant difference between the likelihood of Labour and Conservative supporters believing in these therapies, which provides some justification for aggregating them as I have done here.

So what does all of this mean? In all likelihood, not a lot. One thing to consider is the size of the effect – only about 5%. While the statistics show that the effect is very likely to be real, it isn’t very big.

Another thing is sample sizes – there are only 189 current Lib Dem supporters in YouGov’s sample, weighted down to 183. There are 542 people who voted Lib Dem last May, weighted down to 518. The margin of error associated with these small sample sizes is likely to be quite large.

That being said, it is still an interesting observation to make. Lib Dem supporters, it would seem, are slightly more likely to believe in the effectiveness of these treatments than supporters of the other two major parties. I wonder if there are any clear reasons for this?

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Why the disconnect between science and society?

Here in the UK we’ve tended to be quite complacent about the whole Creation/evolution “controversy,” and its bastard spawn the Intelligent Design movement. While good people in the US continue to be up to their neck in efforts to reinforce science teaching in places like Louisiana and New Mexico, it’s easy to be lulled into the assumption that Creationism is something that happens to other people.

I’ve blogged before about efforts to establish Creationist orthodoxy in the UK, such as through the risible Noah’s Ark Zoo near Bristol. But this week Jerry Coyne posted about a much more serious issue in British education, concerning the introduction of Creationist rhetoric into GCSE revision materials.

Now, this is just one revision guide, by one publisher, for one GCSE Biology syllabus, but its inclusion is nonetheless startling. Many of us who value a sensible science education were beginning to think that the threat of this nonsense entering our classrooms had been halted once and for all, thanks in no small part to a series of damning court judgements in the United States stopping the ID movement in its tracks. But when a revision guide, “written by GCSE examiners,” no less, can state that some “scientists have used the gaps in the fossil record to argue against evolution” (a patent falsehood, unless you think that any whackjob with a diploma-mill degree in Bigotry and Shouting counts as a “scientist”), there has to be cause for concern.

But this brings me onto a broader topic: why is there such a disconnect between what scientists do, in the confines of their peer-reviewed journals, and what the wider public think they do? In recent weeks I’ve been reading about anti-vaccine groups (that is, people who continue to believe Andrew Wakefield’s discredited, fanciful study linking autism to the MMR vaccine, and other scare-stories, in spite of all the evidence) courtesy of Respectful Insolence, as well as other science-denying movements like Creationism and the climate change deniers. And proponents of “alternative medicine” quackery will be heartened, too, to hear that despite repeated calls for them to stop, a third of NHS trusts still spend money on useless homeopathic “treatments.” In all these cases, the science-deniers imply that there is a legitimate scientific controversy between two competing viewpoints, and that the debate is by no means settled.

Of course, all of this is wrong. Scientists rejected the idea of a special creation of the Earth almost as soon as they began thinking about it; no climatological organisation anywhere in the world rejects the idea that human activities contribute to global climate change; and the fact that Wakefield’s results could never be satisfactorily replicated has to be a cause for concern – as is the fact that his study has been shown to be fraudulent.

I had a discussion with a self-proclaimed Creationist earlier in the week, who claimed that evolution had “never been proven” and that he found scientists’ refusal to acknowledge “other ideas” extremely disappointing. Bluntly, the reason scientists don’t engage with Creationists or other science-deniers is that these questions, scientifically speaking, have been settled years ago. But this gives the impression – often perpetuated by science-deniers – that scientists are locking themselves away in their ivory towers, refusing to acknowledge the existence of dissenting voices.

So, what’s the answer? It’s understandable that scientists don’t want to spend their time answering the queries of those who are resolutely stuck with their 18th-century (or Bronze Age!) worldviews. But scientists cannot continue to blithely ignore them and hope that everyone else will do the same – all that will do is attract sympathy to the science-deniers’ cause.

Actually, the solution to this problem is probably already gathering momentum. As long as scientists like Orac of Respectful Insolence, or Tim Lambert of Deltoid (an Australian climate change blog) do take some of their time to respond to the science-deniers, it cuts off their key argument – the arrogance and ignorance of scientists – at source. It also allows scientists to give thoughtful, rational responses to overblown denier rhetoric, allowing the public to view both sides of the “controversy” and make up their own minds.

Science is not decided by public opinion, but that doesn’t mean the public should be excluded from the process: by making science accessible to everyone, we stand a chance of killing off parasitic denier movements and engendering a better-educated populace to boot. How can that be a bad thing?

All that is required is a few more scientists to be a little more open about their research. The fact that they’re doing research at all already gives them a head-start over their adversaries.

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“Breeding breakthrough” alone will not save the giant panda

The BBC’s Science and Environment pages are currently carrying a story about a breakthrough in the breeding of giant pandas in China. Presumably this is part of an advertising push for a panda documentary that will air on BBC 2 tomorrow night (Panda Makers, BBC2, 8pm on Tuesday 07/12/10), but it reports the news that Chinese conservationists have reached their target of successfully raising 300 cubs in captivity, reportedly creating for the first time a viable breeding population.

I was in China this summer, and I spent four weeks at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda at Bifengxia, Sichuan Province, volunteering as a keeper thanks to the UK organisation Frontier. If you look closely at my picture in the sidebar to the right, you can see one of the pandas in the enclosure behind me.

Spending so long on the panda base gave me the opportunity to assess panda conservation efforts. Breeding has been the single focus of panda conservationists for the past few years, presumably in pursuit of this target of theirs. The historical problems with getting pandas to breed – female apathy towards mating, a frustratingly long reproductive cycle and so on – still exist, but captive panda numbers have nonetheless literally exploded in recent years.

Mei Sheng was born in San Diego and later moved to Bifengxia

During my time at Bifengxia, virtually all of the adult female pandas on the base were pregnant, suspected to be pregnant, or recent mothers. The reason for this is, of course, the use of artificial insemination techniques, which may increase the numbers of panda cubs born each year but do nothing for the long-term future of the species.

Perhaps the most dangerous part of Bifengxia’s modus operandi is its dual purpose as both a conservation centre and a tourist attraction. In my role as a volunteer keeper, one of my duties was to feed the bears – by hand. Visitors can make a “donation” to the centre – sometimes of the order of hundreds of pounds – to have a photograph with or “play” with a panda cub. The result of this extensive human contact is that the pandas have become incredibly domesticated, to the extent that natural behaviours such as foraging and territoriality are “forgotten.”

An example of the reality of all this came from what I am told is the only attempt, so far, to release a captive panda into the wild. The individual in question, a male, survived only a handful of hours before being killed by a wild male, into whose territory he had encroached.

Everyone loves baby pandas, but is it really right for them to have so much human contact?

The BBC article suggests that the next step in the panda conservation programme is to start wild reintroductions. As well as the problems with reversing the trend of increasing domestication, conservationists have also to deal with the fact that there may not be much space for the reintroductions to happen. Already the modern range of the giant panda is fragmented into distinct sub-populations with no overlap; though steps have been taken to reduce deforestation in their natural habitats, the damage has in many places already been done.

Having a large range is of incredible importance for wild giant pandas because bamboo has an irritating habit of flowering and dying at irregular intervals (every 25 years or so). Worse, all of the bamboo in a given area will flower and die at the same time – leaving pandas without a food source, unless they can move to another area. Their ability to do so is now constrained by widespread deforestation.

Unfortunately, forest conservation programmes don’t bring in the tourist dollars in the same way as baby pandas do. The somewhat less glamorous, but no less important, process of keeping wild panda habitats viable has been neglected over the years, and I wonder whether the lofty ideals of the optimistic researchers cited in the BBC report can really be reconciled with the reality that faces them in the mountains and forests of Sichuan.

My experience at Bifengxia taught me that while captive breeding is necessary for the continued survival of the giant panda, it is by no means sufficient. Steps need to be taken to properly prepare captive pandas for reintroduction, and to ensure that they have a habitat where they can be released. I’ll be watching the BBC documentary to see how, or whether, they have addressed these issues. Let me know what you think.

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Museums of misinformation are not just an American phenomenon

Scienceblogger and “godless liberal” PZ Myers has posted the disconcerting news that the Creationist organisation Answers in Genesis are to open a theme park as well as expanding their existing “Creation Museum,” which seeks to misinform the public about evolution and Creationism, promoting AiG founder Ken Ham’s personal brand of pseudoscience and evangelism.

Myers laments the success of the Creation Museum as a “gigantic, growing symbol of the failure of American education,” and it’s true that having such a massive tourist attraction devoted exclusively to the cause of Lying for Jesus is hardly symptomatic of a rational, well-educated populace, such as we might like the world’s only (current) superpower to have. But such flights of fundamentalist whimsy are not confined to the United States; we’ve got one on our shores, too.

I’m referring to the Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm near Bristol, which presents itself as a cuddly, hands-on site where visitors can get up close to captive animals. Some of its more unorthodox selling points include the opportunity to feed animals like llamas and tapirs, and a “keeper experience” whereby you can volunteer to muck out the lions and engage in other such wholesome activities.

The problem comes when you consider the “Noah’s Ark” part of what would otherwise be a fairly normal and friendly small zoo. You don’t have to scratch very far beneath the surface, on their web site at least, to discover what they’re really all about. One of the tabs on the homepage leads to a section called “Evolution & Creation,” which should strike fear into the heart of any rational person. We are, after all, dealing with a zoo that has significant resources devoted to education, and is a popular destination for school trips.

The “Evolution & Creation” section is headed “Research @ Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm,” but I haven’t yet found any indication of any evolutionary research that is actually done at the zoo – certainly nothing peer-reviewed, or indeed robust enough to stand up to any application of critical thinking or, you know, actual science.

The research page claims, “we believe the earth is much older than 6000 years but much younger than 4.5 billion years,” presumably as a way of distancing themselves from the sheer batshit insanity of the likes of Ham and AiG, but without giving away too much ground to those atheistic scientists. Despite this “concession,” most of the pages are filled with the usual Creationist nonsense, including a host of lies and distortions about evolutionary science.

Some examples: “Darwinism has no explanation of how the atoms and all the laws of nature should just come to ‘be there’” (true, but since when was that biology?); “[Darwinism says that] complexity accumulated gradually and accidentally” (which is a lie); evolution “requires more faith, more willingness to believe, than the biblical view” (also a lie).

By the way, I use the term “lie” advisedly – I’ve read a lot of Creationist material over the years (not compulsory for evolutionary biologists, but I find it interesting), and a lot of material that addresses the allegations and distortions that routinely make their way into every Creationist tract. Any Creationist that’s done their homework can’t have avoided all of this, much of which is freely available on the Internet (and I thoroughly recommend the Talk.Origins Archive for anyone wanting to learn more about science and Creationism) – so when they peddle falsehoods about evolution, they are doing so deliberately. On the other hand, if they haven’t done their homework, then they aren’t qualified to be talking about evolution in the first place. Misinformation and ignorance are the two cornerstones of the Creationist movement, and when deployed effectively – as in Ham’s Creation Museum and the Noah’s Ark Zoo – they can be superficially convincing even though they are very, very wrong.

The Noah’s Ark Zoo pages make a lot of the fact that the fossil record apparently shows no evidence for evolution beyond a certain point in geological time, which they use as evidence that certain original “kinds” were created and have diversified since then (a common belief among Young Earth Creationists who want to explain how Noah fit all of those animals on his Ark). But they also deny that apes and humans share a common ancestry, using “evidence” from modern morphology and genetics, yet completely ignoring the fossil record! Incidentally, the transition between ape-like and humanlike forms in the fossil record is so good that even Creationists can’t agree which ones are apes and which ones are humans, which should be easy if they were separate lineages that never shared an ancestry, as Creationists contend. That’s before we even get onto the fact that when they do mention the fossil record, they’re wrong about that as well.

So: lies, misinformation and selective use of evidence – all the hallmarks of your typical Creationist. Myers is right, in the post linked to at the top of this one, that “The way we’ll fix it is not to shut down the stupid place, but to teach people that creationism is foolishness.” Sadly, such a campaign cannot be exclusive to that side of the Atlantic – we have some teaching to do in the UK as well.

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Learn to science! The value (or otherwise) of personal testimony

According to one of the quotes I just Googled, CSI’s Gil Grissom believes that one piece of physical evidence is worth the testimony of ten eyewitnesses. Now, Grissom may not be the authority on science we’d like to believe he is, but he has a point – personal testimony, however heartfelt, is no substitute for scientific evidence.

Homeopathic medicines, or, more probably, sugar pills (click for source)

I had this concept vaguely in mind when I started looking at the BBC News take on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s recent statement that the use of public money on homeopathic “medicine” was unjustified. It is estimated that about £4 million of the NHS’s budget is spent annually on homeopathic treatments. In their infinite wisdom, the BBC decided to open this topic to the floor, allowing readers to voice their views – a selection of which were published on this page. Helpfully, the BBC chose to divide the comments into two sections: those “against” the public funding of homeopathy, and those “for.”

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