Sunday, 28 July 2013

Ragwort is actually decreasing in the UK.

There has been a lot of activity recently on twitter and this tweet is rather typical.

Believe me it is no different in the Midlands. Ragwort everywhere, increases every year!
Well actually we know that ragwort is DECREASING in the UK. How do we know that?
Well there has been a survey and contrary to the propaganda we see regularly in the press it shows a decrease. This is a proper government survey  using proper methods to ensure accuracy.

One of the problems is that people have been making things up about ragwort  these have been drawing attention to ragwort unnecessarily. This then leads to a well known phenomenon in psychology sometimes called the "Recency effect" or the "Baader Meinhoff phenomenon" ( after a researcher noticed it happening with research on the terrorist group). This phenomenon is where something is drawn to your attention that was there all along, but you think it is commoner because you now notice it.

I myself have noticed this. There is a plant called Brachyglottis grayi. It is a close relative to ragwort and contains the same alkaloids. It is planted commonly as a shrubby flower all over the place. It never causes any problems despite it containing those alkaloids that cause such panic when described in lurid terms in the press.
I didn't notice it for years until I noticed how similar the flowers are to ragwort and looked it up.
Now it seems to be common everywhere. I know I have been missing it because it has been in several places that I visit regularly and being a shrub it doesn't grow up overnight. On the way to a local library that I visit most weeks and in a planter outside a local supermarket where I buy food several times a week. Indeed I have been eating snacks outside on a bench right next to a large shrubby plant for several years, without realising.

I also want to say that I have really good proof ( and I mean proof) that Defra's advice contains serious mathematical flaws and the advice they give out is really poor.  To put it briefly, and I will have more to say, they are extrapolating from an unrepresentative sample for poisoning statistics (and a seemingly unreliable source anyway) so they have their maths wrong and because this is mathematics is one of the few areas where you can be absolutely black and white about it.

We have the science now to show that they have been taking advice from rather suspect sources. Any serious scientist knows anyway that you should get your information from evidence not from government departments.

A lot of this is being prepared for the web.It is fairly clear from the first principles of science but being methodical about ragwort  I have spent many hours firing off emails to experts around the world and pouring over scientific papers on psychology, evolutionary biology, enzymeology , statistical methods and  toxicology to ensure accuracy and it will be on-line soon.

In one case Defra have accepted evidence without checking from a source who has also claimed that Ragwort is a problem in South Africa. The experts there tell me they have no evidence that our ragwort grows there!

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Thursday, 18 July 2013

Telling the truth about ragwort.

There are several of postings on twitter again and as I often do I reply on this blog.
Twitter is very good at short pithy messages , but you cannot get longer messages across easily.
It is almost the epitome of the phenomenon described centuries ago by the Roman writer Horace.
"Brevis esse laboro, obscurus fio." ( I labour to be brief, I become obscure.)

There are a several tweets by Guy Gagen like this one.

Guy Gagen @AgricPolicy
@OliverDowding I understand there is a highly active pro-ragwort campaign lobbying to down play the impact on agriculture
Actually this is not true at all. No one is playing down the impact on agriculture. People are using science, reason, evidence  and rational thought to tell the truth.

As well as being a science buff I am also interested in music. I come from a very musical family and I have a strong musical sense. Indeed as I am typing this I have some nice Bach playing in the background.
A while ago I was subjected to having to put up with the sound of someone singing off key for a long period. In the end I plugged the Classic FM radio station into my earphones to drown it out. The discordant off-key singing was intensely irritating . It is the same thing with the hysteria about ragwort. If you look at the research you will find that rational minded people are very irritated by irrational nonsense. It is the motivation of debunkers everywhere and this is what the people who tell the truth about ragwort are doing. They are using their rational senses to debunk nonsense.

This is another of his tweets which illustrates the problem.

Guy Gagen ‏@AgricPolicy
@ecology_digest @Buzz_dont_tweet not really sure that is a gd example of balanced argument on ragwort, ignores harm to agricultural animals

At this point I can honestly and rationally ask, "what harm to agricultural animals?"
What we have had is a constant stream of exaggerations and falsehoods. As I previously blogged there has been a lot of made up stuff on ragwort. Yes, the plant is poisonous and the properly collected figures and surveys show that occasionally, when it is in hay and when animals are abused by starving, ragwort is a problem, but it is really clear that there are far far worse problems which should be tackled first rather than what is, reason and science tells us, actually a tiny  problem.

It isn't just the stuff mentioned in that old posting. The Daily Mail told us, falsely, that ragwort is increasing by 10% per year. There have been motions in parliament with clear falsehoods. And what  I rationally described as a bonkers letter in the press, Politicians making false statements to get the law changed and so on ad nauseam. I am currently compiling a time line of the campaign. It takes a while because unlike the anti-ragwort lobby I care about the truth so I collate my evidence carefully.

If you want the confirmation that this stuff is false. The Advertising Standards Authority who are unbiased and simply have a rational code to guide them acted against a number of adverts repeating the hysteria last year.

Guy Gagen  also wrote

Guy Gagen ‏@AgricPolicy
@ecology_digest @NFUtweets @Buzz_dont_tweet all for supporting invert sp, but are you seriously suggesting there is a shortage of ragwort?
 I can honestly and rationally say yes to this. There are fewer wildflowers generally than there used to be. The recent State of Nature report shows that 60% of wildlife species are in decline. We know that ragwort has declined seriously in the UK. We know this not because of a daft,  "Them plants is yellow, like. They is ragwort. I seen more of it. It is increasin' ", survey that is run  but a proper survey run by the government on proper scientific lines.

If you really want an example of how the campaigning  exaggerates the risk with apparent  "Cargo Cult Science", stuff that looks scientific but isn't. You only have to look at the original stuff from the National Farmers Union which started the debate.
It is not the worst example,but ironically placed in a science and environment section it is rather ignorant of the facts.

Grazing land should be regularly inspected when animals are present and the plant should be pulled, removed and disposed of responsibly.
Ragwort poses a real risk to animal health with potentially fatal consequences if it is ingested by horses or livestock, either in its green or dried state

It is a problem in hay but we know that animals are extremely reluctant to eat the green plant unless they are starved into it,. It isn't so much that the plant tastes bitter but it is because of a basic, simple to understand, element of science. So simple and fundamental in fact that it is now to be taught to primary school children.
This primary school science says that animals that eat poison do not pass their genes on to their offspring and that nature creates a system that will prevent this happening. Nature's reaction to this is the sensation of intense bitterness when consuming the alkaloids in ragwort, which actually occur in 3% of all plants.
 The man who discovered this, Charles Darwin, is so revered in the UK that his picture appears on the Bank of England £10 note.

The NFU continue:-

 And left unchecked the problem is likely to become worse, as growth acts as a reservoir for seeds and spread.
Cut and pulled flowering ragwort plants may still set seed and ragwort has a 70% seed germination rate.
Here we go again. You know that this comes from the circulating propaganda when you see that 70% figure.
It is constantly trotted out, It may be about accurate but it doesn't paint a truthful  picture. It is high and scary  but normal figure for almost any flower. In using rational thought to determine what will grow it is irrelevant. On average in the UK , because ragwort is declining, each plant produces less than one offspring. Of course a high figure like 70% sounds scary. Who cares about being rational when you want to scare people into action.

The reality of the matter is that people fight against the anti-ragwort propaganda because it is characterised by a hideous web of falsehoods and lies. It damages the environment for no benefit to anyone and it preys on the cognitively deficient to spread itself. Anyone with proper critical thinking skills should see this clearly.
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