Thursday, 17 May 2012

They made it all up you know!

Notice to the reader : There are some people who attack me personally about this blog . Please see the notes at the end of the article after you have read it  which explain why you should trust what I am saying.

Subsequently to writing this blog entry I have become someone who is sufficiently respected as an expert that he is allowed to sign letters to the press on behalf of Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland. ( Scotland has an independent organisation.)

I should say before I start this that ragwort is poisonous. No one denies that. It contains chemicals that are toxic and that are also found in 3 % of all flowering plants. It is a problem in hay and where animals are starved into eating it in desperation. This is not what a blog about. I blog about the hysteria that leads to environmental damage.

I should also before I start say quite clearly that none of this is about people lying. People often believe quite odd and incorrect things because they have been told them or they have misunderstood something . The usual cause is poor critical thinking skills often combined with a lack of knowledge of science.

There has been a need for a while for a posting that I could point people to which sums up why I blog on this subject. Ragwort is the subject of hysteria and is not the problem it is made out to be. The problem is essentially one that has been invented.

There is a well-known hoax about a substance called DHMO which is described as being present in cancer cells, used in nuclear power stations, killing hundreds of people a year, etc. This is actually a true description of the substance presented in an inaccurate way. DHMO is Di-Hydrogen MonOxide or water. Its true properties are overexaggerated and it has even led for some politicians to call for DHMO to be banned. It is very similar to the propaganda about ragwort as it is true it is poisonous . Poisoning is rare, however, and in the case of ragwort, they have even invented new things about it.

To say that the problem  of ragwort is invented sounds quite some charge to make . That people, organisations and public bodies have been making a fuss about an invented problem. It is however, supported by the evidence.

It is important to realise that anyone can make silly claims and publicise them. Debunking them however, is time consuming. A scientifically minded person has to have evidence for everything, and there are a lot of superficially plausible sounding myths out there. It has taken years of work for me to get through all of them Documenting every myth and error. I started with visits to the British Library. It is a magnificent world class source of information. It is a  national treasure, but even they failed me on occasions. One crucial paper on seed dispersal had apparently been discarded or something and wasn't available. Fortunately a foreign expert had a copy. It takes a lot of work to examine all of these data. The propagandists however, do not appear to have these scruples. Their literary muse is not fettered by such considerations as ensuring they have the correct facts.

It is also quite important for those who have not been following it to understand just how daft some of the claims are. We have been told that it kills hundreds or even thousands of horses a year. We are told it kills people. It is poisonous to the touch and can give you cancer if you do. We are told by the BBC no less that it is dangerous to dogs ( It is poisonous to dolphins as well as dogs but they don't eat it either!)

 These are just a few of the falsehoods that have been promoted. I can for a large part of the year find something on almost a daily basis that is being publicised about ragwort that is incorrect. Last year there was a letter in the Daily Telegraph that I blogged on. It was given pride of place as the only illustrated letter . It told us that this native plant was an illegal foreign invader,  and that it poisoned people who breathed in its seeds  etc.etc. I blogged about it as Bonkers letter in the Daily Telegraph. I really do try to avoid emotive language in discussing science but bonkers is absolutely correct. The only thing that seemed to be correct is that the author said there was a lot of ignorance about ragwort.

But surely you ask this couldn't extend to Parliament? Surely in our democracy we wouldn't create an Act of Parliament based on ignorance would we?

Let's look at some of the discussions about the Ragwort Control Act, which fortunately doesn't force the control of ragwort as was its original intent.
During this process Baroness Masham steered the bill through the House of Lords and boy did she say some silly things. She introduced herself  as a Vice-president of the British Horse Society. This is an organisation that has been central to dispersing incorrect information and their claims have fallen foul of the Advertising Standards Authority  code as I blogged about before.

These are some of the things she said.

 Ragwort has become a scourge in the countryside and has increased alarmingly in the past few years.
 Actually there has been a government survey. It shows ragwort decreasing

I am told that each plant can produce between 150,000 and 250,000 seeds that, once airborne, can travel up to 10 miles.
Even the 150,000 figure would be very exceptional let alone 250,000!
Also the Advertising Standards Authority, who are impartial and just look at the evidence, banned an advert making the claim of just 150,000 seeds being produced by each plant!

Let's look how crazy that 10 miles figure is. Ragwort seeds don't have wings they have little parachutes. This means that their general direction is downwards.  To travel 10 miles in the air they would have to have something propelling them upwards all along that distance. The wind does not in normal and typical circumstances blow up from the ground. While of course there are going to be exceptional dispersal events,  these are not significant for a quite common native plant whose seeds are going to be present in lots of places anyway. We do actually know how far ragwort seeds travel.  Most fall at the base of the plant the others travel just a few metres.

Again it doesn't matter really about seed dispersal because the plant will only grow where the conditions are right. If you don't want ragwort don't create the conditions for it to grow. The real problem here is that it causes miles of roadside to have every vaguely ragged plant or yellow flower exterminated for no sensible reason. I heard only this morning about someone wanting advice about her yellow ragwort flowers. They were actually buttercups!

It is estimated that about 500 equines die each year, but that number will rise unless something positive is done.
This is actually a figure with no basis whatsoever. There is no test that can confirm ragwort poisoning. The set of problem chemicals occur in many other British plants and 3% of plants globally. Then significantly the characteristic microscopic changes in the liver that are diagnostic have other causes including toxins from moulds that commonly grow on damp feedstuffs.

A freedom of information request to the ultimate source of this well-known myth shows that in the last 5 years for which data are available 2006-2010 they have recorded  precisely ZERO  possible cases. NOT ONE!!
This is a central part of what I mean by saying the problem has been made up! 

We also now know the statistical method under which this figure appears to have been generated. It seems to be fundamentally flawed and to break the rules of proper statistics. 

The same ultimate source has also claimed, in print, that our common ragwort is a serious problem in South Africa. The experts there tell me that they have no record of the plant even growing there!

 So we have someone getting an Act of Parliament passed with false or inaccurate information.

The same problems are repeated in DEFRA guidance, local council websites and so on ad nauseam, as I show regularly with this blog.

The misinformation continues. I blogged recently about the British Horse Society using a spokesperson who made a number of serious gaffes on radio.

You may ask well, surely even one case of an animal suffering should be avoided? This is a matter of where you concentrate your efforts. If you concentrate them on a really non-existent problem like ragwort then you neglect other problems that are worse. There is a malady called Equine Grass Sickness. It is an odd and unusual condition that kills horses that eat grass rather than hay. The available statistics show that it is much commoner than ragwort poisoning. It would seem from the evidence that grass is a worse problem than ragwort. (I should add at this point that Equine Grass Sickness is a complicated problem and that the research indicates that it may be more complicated rather than just grass in the diet, but there are other diet related problems that are much commoner and deserve more attention than all the moral panic about ragwort.)

As ever, good information can be found at these websites.

Ragwort Facts
Ragwort Myths and Facts
Ragwort the Sense and the Nonsense

The middle of these links goes to the site of Esther Hegt who was originally a member of a ragwort extermination group in the Netherlands where ragwort hysteria has spread from the UK. She is a really quite brilliantly intelligent person and she asked some experts and did her own research. Like everyone else who looks at them  properly she saw the hoaxes for what they were.

Finally, before my explanatory notes below ,here is a video with Matt Shardlow the Chief Executive of Buglife telling us all on the BBC about the hysteria. Buglife are an excellent organisation and have been  a lot of help.

The author frequently uses this blog entry to explain things about ragwort. Unfortunately there are people in social media circles who make clearly false accusations that the content of the posting is false, misleading or unbalanced. You frequently find, on researching it, that  they are members  of organisations criticised here. Often they may have the kind of cognitive or mental processing issues I mention above. The statements here are the product of over a decade of study helped by an international network of supporting scientific experts.
If you should have any doubts as to my integrity or honesty I would direct you to this page in the Daily Telegraph where the I am signatory to a letter. The three other signatories are leading figures in British conservation circles representing some of our foremost conservation organisations, with whom I work on this issue. These knowledgeable experts  evidently believe I have good judgement and integrity. (The letter was a response to the "bonkers letter" about which I write above.)

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

1 comment:

  1. I always say we live in an age of misinformation.

    It often worries me that major decisions about really important issues can be based on fiction, especially when propagated by biased lobbying.