A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Canada goose.....

This old goose is now Canada-bound for a short migration. So expect a brief lacuna in my sonorous honking, belonging, as I do, to the 'Cackling Goose' geographical race. I am looking forward to nesting in Stanley Park. I refuse, however, to moult on golf courses.

Expect some Grizzly 'Home Thoughts' (if you can bear them) from a Virtual Vancouver and a Rodeo of Ripostes from Calgary. At least, I shall miss the growing heatwave (G8 on the Ruction Scale) predicted for the UK, and especially for poor-old Scotland. Gordon Browns all round.

[And a special message for dear George 'Savonarola' Monbiot (for it is he): "I'm flying three times to get to a very special wedding. So there! Go and put your kettle on."]

In the meantime, until I report from Gastown, do read this splendid essay by Thomas R. DeGregori on: 'Magic vs. Modernity' (June 18), over at the ever-stimulating Butterflies and Wheels.

Philip, honk, honk... some lovely Albertan geese honking and cackling here: 'Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)'. Do take a gander.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Risk, science and society.....

An exceptional listen (audio on): today's edition of 'Start the Week' (BBC Radio 4, June 20: for all this week, choose: 'Listen to the most recent Start the Week'; after next Monday, choose: 'Previous Programmes', 20 June 2005). [Includes Lord Winston, one of the UK's leading scientists. He is concerned that scientists do not always understand, or give sufficient importance to, the ethical concerns that society might have about their work. His lecture, 'Should we trust the scientists?', is at Guildhall in London this evening.]

A good read to go with the above: the admirable Ben Goldacre on 'Risky business' (The Guardian, June 20):
"Competence always looks better from a distance, but I have a confession to make: I'm a doctor, and I just don't understand most of the stories on health risks in the news. I don't mean I can't understand the fuss. I mean I literally can't understand what they're trying to communicate to me....."

Philip, for once, an encouraging start to the week. The BBC discussion made such a refreshing change. A happy coffee for elevenses.
Compassion not sentimentality.....

Unfortunately, where wild animals are concerned, sentimentality is too easily the enemy of true compassion. Failing to act with respect to diseased animals is a facile option, one that, in the end, leaves the animals to suffer, unprotected and in silence, and one which can even damage the survival of native species.

Today, two stories illustrate this most vividly:

The first, for once, is well reported in The Independent: 'Britain's vanishing red squirrels face deadly virus threat' (The Independent, June 20):
"The dwindling population of red squirrels is being threatened by a virus that can kill them within 15 days.

Squirrel pox is being spread by grey squirrels, which are immune to the virus, and it is infecting red squirrels living in Scotland.

Conservationists say the estimated 160,000 population of red squirrels in the UK will almost certainly decline, since it has been noticed the virus was being spread by grey squirrels spreading north from Cumbria. The Moredun Research Institute near Edinburgh discovered the virus after taking blood samples from grey squirrels.

Red squirrels with the virus will suffer skin ulcers, lesions and scabs, with swelling and discharge around the eyes, mouth, feet and genitals. Grey squirrels are seldom harmed by the virus but red squirrels have no immunity and usually die within 15 days.

Scientists say it is the first evidence of squirrel pox virus in southern Scotland and that it has serious implications for the endangered population of red squirrels. Infected animals resemble rabbits with myxomatosis and are sometimes found shivering and lethargic....."

The case for major selected culls of the introduced grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) has been with us on ecological grounds for a long time. This new, and most serious, viral threat to our native red species, Sciurus vulgaris, makes such culls imperative. We also need special approaches to woodland management and to supporting the food supplies of the red squirrel. I doubt, however, that any action will be taken. Red squirrels will be left to suffer and to die, with ulcers, lesions and supporating organs. Their populations will inevitably decline drastically. A tragedy.

The second 'story' is found in a bold 'Letter to the Editor' from a senior vet, Chair of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management: 'Cull badgers and stop spread of bovine TB' (The Daily Telegraph, June 20):
"Ben Bradshaw, minister for animal health and welfare, quite rightly points out that if badgers were to be culled now, healthy animals, as well as those infected with bovine TB, would be killed.

So where's the problem? A desperate and rapidly increasing need already exists to drastically reduce the booming badger population in England and Wales for many good reasons, among which is the badger's unequivocal role in the spread of bovine TB and the damage done by digging.

Add to that the protracted misery that TB-infected badgers must suffer themselves when dying slowly and unseen underground, and the case for planned and humane reduction of the badger population becomes undeniable.

Such pragmatic, instead of anthropomorphic, action would best serve the health and welfare interests of cows, dairy farmers, newborn lambs and good old Brock himself."

Again, I regret that no action will be taken, despite the recent research from Ireland showing that there can be no doubt whatsoever about the role of badgers as a reservoir for TB. Both badgers and cows will be left to suffer, not to mention farmers and their families.

In our small, compact island, human actions which encourage the introduction of non-native species and which fail to face up to the problems of population and disease explosions can lead to severe ecological stress. But, more importantly, they can also result in terrible suffering for many of the individual animals involved.

Under such circumstances, there is no option but to manage wildlife at the population level. Sentimentality about an anthropomorphised 'individual' not only denies their essential 'animalness', it also, paradoxically, results in greater suffering overall. It can even lead to the loss of native species.

Genuine animal welfare and compassion demands tough decisions and action. Government is incapable of facing up to these. In consequence, animals will be allowed to experience slow and lingering deaths, but out of sight of ministers and the public.

We urgently need some political bravery from Ben Bradshaw and his colleagues.

Philip, reminding himself that Nature cares primarily for the species and for the population. By taking the same approach to management, we can, however, reduce individual animal suffering. The utilitarian approach is the compassionate option.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Guardianistas want to know what to do about us bloggers.....

Simon Waldman, The Gloomiad's director of digital publishing, is concerned about the challenge posed by weblogs. Interestingly, echoing the Archbishop of Canterbury's chilling talk of the world wide web being "unpoliced", The Groaniad cannot avoid employing words like "control" and "harness": 'Striking up conversations with strangers' (The Guardian, June 18):
"Now, as both a newspaper and a website, we are having to get used to something new: blogging. Blogs that link to us, that talk about us, that criticise us and praise us. Bloggers who have read the Guardian throughout their adult lives, and bloggers who might have stumbled across a single story on Google and decided to love or loathe us as a result...."

Reading this piece, you really do get the feeling that some journalists are gnashing their teeth because we plebs and proles no longer have to rely for our ripostes on their kindness, on a heavily-edited 'Letter to the Editor' once every blue moon (if we are lucky), a letter entirely, of course, under their control. What is more, we can now respond within minutes, and we can, on occasion, tap into news items before them:
"Even a self-declared 'digital immigrant' such as Rupert Murdoch can see how that is changing people's relationship with their newspaper. 'The digital native,' he told the American Association of Newspaper Editors, 'doesn't send a letter to the editor anymore. She goes online, and starts a blog.'"

The following is also a most revealing comment:
"A swarm of angry bloggers is not pleasant to run into; and a swarm of angry, politically motivated bloggers even less so."

This coming from The Guardian, one of the most politically-motivated of newspapers, is rich indeed. Underneath, you can sense that the gloomy Guardianistas are pretty annoyed that their rantings are no longer safely confined to their own kind, to the Dave and Deidre Sparts of this world.

Thus, bloggers are:
"...spawning a 'secondary market' in conversations and connections we have no control over" and "... conversations about our content are permanent, and global." [Just as it should be]

Lastly, "...we are currently looking at a number of ways to harness this energy. It isn't simple. It isn't easy. The challenges are technical and legal as much as anything else. But it is fascinating, and exciting..."

The arrogance behind this last sentiment is breathtaking. You harness what you want to mate, but give me and my blog the freedom and space to expose your daily ecohype for what it is.

Read by contrast: 'Blogs lauded in "freedom awards"' (BBC Online Technology News, June 17).

Philip, "Beware journalists bearing gifts." Just remember that bloggers Norman Geras and Scott Burgess are far better than nearly every print commentator - and they come for free. They write better too. Tea? Fairblog or Earl Grey? "Gunpowder, thanks."
A newspaper for grown ups.....

Yet again The Scotsman proves to be a far more grown up paper than its southern counterparts: 'Gleneagles: a Kyoto deal for grown-ups?' (The Scotsman, June 19). Just compare this comment with those linked in my blog below from The Guardian and The Observer, both full, as ever, of toddler foot-stamping and temper tantrums:
"...There are now thousands of facts backing up either side, but one political constant remains. Climate change is a politically-charged cause, close to the heart of anyone who dislikes free markets or the United States of America..."

Philip, Edinburgh still looking the best city in Britain - in more ways than one, it would seem. Only one castle in the sky. "A wee dram before luncheon, then?"
You couldn't make it up.....

A breezy hat tip to Dr. Benny Peiser for bringing to my attention this stunning juxtaposition of statements in a Gloomiad classic (one which even includes an iconic Grauniad misprint - "Sic, O, sic! [Aside] If not, I'll ne'er trust printing"): 'Europe fails to cut greenhouse gas emissions' (The Guardian, June 18):
Statement A: "Europe is failing to tackle climate change, putting further pressure on Tony Blair to come up with a fresh initiative at the G8 summit and embarrassing the European commission, which is floundering over budget cuts and the constitution treaty. The latest figures for Europe's greenhouse gas emissions, seen by The Guardian but not due to be released until next week, show that the 15 countries who were EU members in 2003 increased their overall emissions by 1.1% in the year up to 2004."

Statement B: "Yesterday, the commission played down the figures, blaming a harsh winter for the increases. 'It was very cold across Europe. The number of days that people needed to hear (sic) their homes was much higher,' said a spokeswoman."

Talk about blind faith.....

Two other comments in this piece are also worth a side swipe:

(a) "One reason the US gave for not joining the Kyoto treaty was because the US administration said it would not deliver the cuts needed to avoid serious climate change." Well done the US, say I.

(b) "... global climate change spokeswoman for Friends of the Earth, said: 'If Britain and the rest of Europe cannot get it right, then how can anyone expect the US or developing countries to?' [my emphasis]

And there was I thinking European colonialism and arrogance was a thing of the past. Raj Quartets all round. It looks like Ronald Merrick is alive and well, and policing for the Greens: "Come on you naughty children. Do what Nanny Britain says, and all will be well."

This whole 'global warming' nonsense is encapsulated to perfection in a truly dire comment in today's The Observer, the Sunday Bible of The Latterday Church of the Global Warmers: 'Fiddling as the planet burns' (The Observer, June 19). It is just too dreadful to bother quoting. So, instead.....

"We will now all sing Hymn Number 5 from the 'Cool it Dude Hymnal' (CDH)" - "If you know you're doomed and happy, clap your hands", a sentiment brilliantly analysed by Andrew Marr, the BBC's bouncy Political Correspondent, in last week's The Daily Telegraph (June 15): 'Notebook' (scroll down to second item on the psychology of climate doomsters):
"... Speaking of which, there has been some rethinking about global warming that has made me squirm. I am not talking about whether climate change is happening - there seems to be just too much solid evidence that it is. No, the question is whether it is a disaster or a good thing, overall.

There are serious scientists who point out that cooling down generally hurts biodiversity more than warming up; that climate change could help boost rainforest growth and spread trees and agriculture to new areas of the world; that the seas around us could seethe with new life; and that with the political will, global warming need not spread hunger or create impossible human disruption.

This is not the place, and I am not expert enough, to assess whether that is true or not. Selfishly, I'm more interested in my own reaction, which is queasy and half-appalled. At some level, the thought of looming environmental catastrophe gets me up in the morning, a pleasant dirge in my heart. Once, I needed looming nuclear disaster to keep interested.

When that went, climate change came along just in time: any sneaking suspicion that everything might be all right after all is profoundly unsettling.

What's going on here? Is it native Scottish pessimism, getting close to my inner Private Frazer? Do some of us need the thought of impending disaster to keep going - as in Cavafy 's poem about a Roman city waiting for barbarian attack, which doesn't come: 'Now what's going to happen to us without the barbarians? / They were, those people, a kind of solution.'

Or is it that journalists, with our notorious inability to contemplate boredom, simply find mild progress too dull? Ah well, if by any chance global warming does prove to be beneficial, there's always viral mutation."

Says it all. Well done, AM.

Philip, off for a coffee in the garden on a lovely, glorious golden day, only the second of summer. Ah! But I must be gloomy, mustn't I? So: "The nights will soon be drawing in / My life is full of fear and dim....." (Hymn Number 7 in CDH). Tambourines at the ready? One, two, three.....

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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