Month: September 2015

The irrationality of being rational.

The Boyd Orr Blog is back! Hopefully with greater regularity than ever before.

Its now been over a year between posts, and it seemed like time to either put up (i.e. with my regular promises to self and other to restart the blog) or shut up – and those who were hoping for the latter, will be sorely disappointed! Many reasons for the hiatus, including the natural inertia that arises from not doing something regularly, through to the desire, as time between posts increases, to make the next one REALLY significant (a possible reason for some of the long-tailed distribution between correspondence times that has been observed in famous and ordinary people, through to realising that I was unsure about the direction that this blog should be taking – is it a personal view on science-related events, a blog meant to inform others, a blog to promote the Boyd Orr Centre, or … ? In the end I’ve decided that it perhaps doesn’t really matter too much, so long as there is some overall relevance to the scientific arena. After all, you as readers can quickly decide for yourselves if what is posted here is worth the time to read it. I would still encourage other Boyd Orr Centre members to contribute if you’ve the time – when I was blogging more regularly, there were a surprising number of views (though predictably, an awful lot of them seemed to be related to a post I did relating Star Wars Imperial Walkers to elephants).

And on to the post. Bovine TB has been in the news a lot over the last year, most recently because of a recent government strategy announcement. Badger culls have not only been continued, but rules for what is viewed as acceptable have also been relaxed. This has been supported by a seemingly innocuous statement that it is supported by the scientific evidence. Leaving aside any comment on the scientific debate itself, it is somewhat disturbing that such a blanket statement is made. Which scientists? And of course, such statements, in the face of the ongoing often vociferous debates going on in both the scientific community and in public, are a misrepresentation of the ongoing debate, refinement and synthesis that should be a defining process of science, and the scientific community itself.

Related to this, my group recently published a paper that looked at how evidence of disturbance of badger setts (from a cross-Northern Ireland survey) was related to incidence of farm breakdowns due to bovine TB. We found that (while somewhat less important than cattle herd related risk factors), a combination of sett disturbance and high badger sett density was a significant and important risk factor. In my view an interesting and useful finding, and one that broadly speaking is in line with studies in England showing that, while badger-related risk factors were important for starting outbreaks, cattle-related factors were primary factors in continuing them. It was also the subject of a rather intense peer review, which our lead author, David Wright, handled with impressive thoroughness (as he did with the entire paper – well done David). The paper received some media attention (including some good radio coverage on the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 and on BBC Scotland) and there was also a fair bit of controversy over the use of the term ‘persecution’ to describe the unauthorised and illegal activities referred to in the paper. While in no way abrogating my responsibility as senior author for the content of the paper, I must admit that I was initially uncomfortable with this usage, however one of our co-authors insisted that this was, in fact, the standard term used for such activities, and it was on this basis that I was convinced. And indeed, it would in some ways seem to be a reasonable way to describe an activity that is both illegal and for which there is no evidence that it is even creating a positive outcome. And yet even while agreeing, I was well aware how emotive such a term really is (and perhaps, at least subconsciously, seeking out controversy). Insistence on being ‘right’ even when you are aware that it is likely to provoke a response that ends up obscuring the larger, more important debate (I don’t suppose you are reading, Richard Dawkins?) would appear to be a form of irrationality that is not exactly peculiar to scientists, but one which I suspect scientists are unusually susceptible to. Including, apparently, me.