Friday, 17 October 2014

Balance science & poor thinking on ragwort

I was actually planning to write this entry today anyway, but there was a great example to follow on the BBC last night. For the benefit of my many foreign readers I will explain. There is a consumer rights programme called Watchdog and part of is is something that was originally a separate series called Rogue Traders.

Rogue Traders is now a series of segments inside Watchdog. It used a wonderful example of debunking pseudoscience, which is what I do with this blog. A dodgy company was frightening people into buying unnecessary water filters and it was doing this by using a conspiracy theory that there was a plot to put to much chlorine in the water. The programme was done with the usual humour comparing the theory to the world being ruled by lizards or that Elvis was still alive, but most importantly it used evidence to show that the company's claims were false. There were some hilariously wrong claims. The company claimed that there was no regulation of chlorine in the water and that someone just "shovelled it in". This is of course simply nonsense since the chlorine added to the water supply is usually added as a gas which you can't shovel!

It is only by the means of evidence that we know that things are true and this is central to the scientific method. Now we come to a common criticism that is levelled at those of us who debunk ragwort hysteria. Our arguments are not balanced. There are two sides to the story. Well let's go back to the chlorine in tap water example. There are two sides to the story there. The company's claims and the scientific evidence.

As the programme showed these rogue traders were deceiving people with pseudoscience. So one side is wrong. It is a well-known logical fallacy called an "Argument from moderation" to argue for balance. There is no competing balance in the chlorine story. It is a hoax perpetrated by rogue traders to get money out of ignorant people. You cannot half shovel a gas into water, because it is a gas.

There are two sides to the ragwort story too but the balance is all on one side. There are those who have made claims and there is the scientific evidence. For example, the claim that a particular university records many cases of ragwort poisoning and the second claim that you can use the that figure to get a picture for the whole country. Well, we can apply the scientific method to that first claim. We can use the Freedom of Information Act in the UK to ask the university for the real figures. I did this. There were almost no cases at all so that claim was false. The balance shows I am clearly right. We can then apply the scientific method to the claim that you can use those false figures to represent the picture for the whole country. Well ,even if the false figures were correct you couldn't use them because that breaks the rules of science.  I explained this a while ago in an earlier posting. In short they are not a representative sample. You will see I quoted a famous medical expert and fellow pseudoscience debunker as saying that it you did a very similar thing you were an idiot. Again there is no competing balance the science shows that my side of the argument is right.

Incidentally, there was an interesting story in a newspaper recently a journalist asked for facts and made a request to a lab which is owned by another university for their figures on ragwort poisoning.
This is what they said:-

"A Freedom of Information request to Langford Veterinary Services in Bristol, home to the diagnostic laboratories that serve vets across mid-Somerset, revealed they have treated a total of 16 horses for forms of liver disease since 2006 – none of which died. Only one of those cases was attributed to Ragwort poisoning."
This is what always happens when people disregard the hysteria and look for the proper facts. It is shown that ragwort poisoning is rare. There are two problems, significant quantities when fed in hay and abuse by starvation forcing animals to eat anything in desperation.

There is also the false story in circulation that even the tiniest quantity is a cumulative poison. Well, paracetamol is a cumulative poison too. but it is detoxified in the body. It so happens that one of the several mechanisms that detoxifies the breakdown products of ragwort is exactly the same one that prevents normal doses of paracetamol from causing poisoning,

I can show that pretty much all the claims about ragwort that get people fired up are false and when companies repeat them the Advertising Standards Authority has taken action to stop them. They looked at the scientific evidence and decided the claims were false. There was no half way position, the science showed that the balance was all one way. I would say at this point that a lot of the people making false claims are doing so in good faith. They just aren't knowledgeable enough to know the truth.

Finally I'd like to write something about the argument put out by critics who say things like Defra has some guidance and it is your responsibility to follow it. Well there is some very powerful and research on this kind of poor thinking research which if it turns out to be incorrect means that the whole field of personality research is wrong.  It shows that that kind of unscientific thinking, which involves thinking that authority must be right because it is authority despite the evidence showing the contrary, shows a deficit of a particular personality trait. One of the names used for this trait in the research  "intellect" and you will not be surprised to see that a deficit of this "intellect" is associated with lowered intelligence.

In fact we see this all the time. Intelligence is just the capability to understand things. It comes from the Latin word "intellegere" which means to understand. In the other language I use in my day-to-day life, Welsh, the word we use translates literally to "understanding-full-ness" and we see this lack of intelligence displayed all the time amongst the anti-ragwort brigade. I was told all the attacks on me trying to make me look bad were not "derogatory" ( Don't laugh! . It happened!). For clarification of any doubt,  the Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehensive dictionary of the language, defines the word as, "Having the effect of lowering in honour or estimation; depreciatory, disparaging, disrespectful, lowering."

In short arguing from tradition or authority is known to be commonly the mark of stupidity. We have the research to show it and it seems there are many examples out there.

John Cleese humorously explains the problems this causes in terms of some other research on ability.

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