Get a Man To Help You!

This post was going to be an introduction to another blog run by a fellow knowledge transfer enthusiast,  Cultured Primate, but I got completely sidetracked by the last thing Lewis retweeted (but do check him out, he’s awesome):

 

Peer review is still broken, corrupt and outdated. In other news, the sky is blue and Athena needs more cuddles.

There’s really nothing to say to this. Not only did a peer reviewer think this was an acceptable thing to say, but an editorial team thought this was an acceptable thing to hand over to authors. Oi vay.

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Chronicles of Athena – 39 Weeks

After what’s been a rough few weeks, we’re in need of some family time. So I’ve packed Athena up and brought her to mum’s. The rest of my family is distinctly more theatrical than me so I’ll be spending tonight dressed in forties gear watching their production of Allo Allo, which is very exciting.

Athena is coping very well with the temporary change in venue (and was even extremely well behaved in the car). An ulterior motive for this little bit of family time is to get Athena used to other people looking after her. It’s not outside the realms of possibility that she might have to come here for a week if I’m off at a conference (or, unlikely having just bought a flat, an actual holiday).

It’s a sign of how I overthink every little part of Athena’s care that I very carefully weighed up the pros and cons of taking Athena (who has been here before as a kitten, who has moved house three times, and who has never shown much in the way of nervousness around new environments), before I agreed to the plan. While I’m much more confident with her than I was thirty weeks ago, I still find myself second guessing sometimes.

Is she happy?

Does she have everything she needs?

Am I doing a good job?

When we arrived last night, she found herself a high spot in the kitchen to perch. When I came over she gave me a big kitty kiss, rubbing her jaw over cheek, and after five minutes she was off exploring. As ever, Athena is much more confident about life than I am.

So I take that as a compliment. Over the last thirty weeks I still haven’t irreparably broken the little life I have taken responsibility for. Gold star for me. And for Athena.

Learning Objects and Politics

I’m a big fan of learning objects, as I’m sure we can probably all agree on. They’re a great way to teach, giving the user a lot of flexibility and the ones that give a result you can share online are particularly cool.

In Scotland and the rest of the UK we have a general election coming up. I’ve seen some great learning objects in the lead up:

The BBC’s Create Your Own Manifesto

What works about this one is the roleplay aspect. If you were one of these waffling politicians, how would you waffle? I love the puzzle piece aspect to it and the way you can pick and choose your key issues. Makes it a very flexible object that you can take a lot of time over, or just fly through if you want to see where various parties stand on the issues that matter to you.

Unlock Democracy’s Vote Match

This is more like a standard ‘personality test’ style quiz, and it’s the sharing aspect that really works, as well as the level of detail they’ve gone into. Splitting the quiz into the four home nations is so important in this post-devolution, post-referendum world. It immediately saves people from turning off, but still allows the full range of political views to be expressed. I particularly like the neutrality in this one (not that you’d expect anything less from Unlock Democracy). Unfortunately you are required to give an email address and they do collect data on you.

ThoughtPlay’s Who Should You Vote For?

This is like a simplified version of Unlock Democracy’s LO, and I do think it’s simplification hurts it’s appeal. It’s not as glossy or good looking as the others, and the unwieldy ‘Choose England vs Scotland’ drop down menu is an irritant. That being said, their results do reflect your personal politics (even if at the expense of any tactical voting you have in mind).

As for accuracy, I felt the pick-and-mix BBC option expressed my feelings best of all, Vote Match got something VERY wrong, or perhaps I should have added another party to the “I would never vote for this party” line up, and one thing I felt all three lacked was the element of trust. How much do you trust the politicians?

 

And then as a bonus extra, the BBC have a ‘Form Your Own Coalition

Depending on random (within a margin) election results, you can choose your own coalition government. Almost all options equally depressing!

 

All in all, though, it’s nice to see learning objects get out there. I always use the BBC as an example of good practice in producing learning objects, and if there’s any topic that needs being made accessible, it’s politics!

Anatomy of a Break – Part Two

This is a post I have tried to put off writing.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Bobo, who had badly broken a leg. This was missed by a vet, and so poor Bobo had spent time in pain, and now was faced with a complicated operation to save the leg.

Almost unbelievably, Bobo died under general anaesthetic last Friday.

I wrote up a case study on the subject, and I’ve had the chance to explain it to her old owner Sophie in person, thanks to a helpfully timed genetics conference. And I’ve talked about it to mum over and over. I won’t go into the detail again here. Suffice to say, the operation to save her leg didn’t work. When she was brought back under anaesthetic to amputate her leg, she suffered a cardiac arrest and could not be revived.

It’s incredibly unusual to lose a cat under general anaesthetic these days, even one who has been through several with some infections. The staff were shocked, and have been very kind to my mum, sending her a card and Forget-Me-Not seeds.

In a horrible echo, Mum’s new neighbour found her own cat returning home with a half-severed tongue. It appears as though there’s something in the area attacking cats, be it another cat in the area, or a dog, or whatever.

And I have just submitted my old MSc project for publication, about how online pet obituaries can help shine a light on successful human-animal bonds. One of the interesting little results we found in that project was the preponderance of people justifying their choice to euthanise, if that’s what they did. People recite clinical information, talk about lack of pain, the need for a ‘good death’. I find myself doing this too, going over the advice I gave, analysing where I could have saved Bobo. And I know that Mum has been doing the exact same.

Some theories suggest we have companion animals because the short nature of those bonds prepare us for what happens in human-human bonds. It prepares us to look after children, it prepares us to grieve, it prepares us to have someone depending on us. The nature of our bond with our pets is unique, though.  When Athena was moaning at me this week I was able to say to her “You know, some other little cats are dead, how would you like that?” which you would never say to a human, child or adult, but you can completely say to an animal. When Athena was trying to upturn her water fountain on Friday night, I sang, to the tune of ‘Maria’, a song about a kitten who got wet paws.

The nature of the human-pet bond is such that we can be brutally honest with them, exposing a part of ourselves that we wouldn’t normally expose to other humans. The loss of a companion animal does not just encompass the loss of something you love, but a specific and unique loss – the loss of a confidant, the loss of a proxy family member, the loss of a little extension of yourself.

Hug your babies close, if they’ll let you, and tell them you love them, which they might not fully understand. What we have with our pets is special, and when it’s unexpectedly robbed from you, that is a break that is hard to heal.

Goodbye Bobo, you will be very much missed.

Why Science Probably Hates You

There was a great article on Gawker recently about the Food Babe blog, calling out her bad science.

Now I’ve never come across the Food Babe blog, as a scientist working in agriculture I don’t think our circles mix. The article is really interesting though. I do follow It’s Okay To Be Smart, though, and Joe posted a really interesting question in his reblog of the article.

Anyway, I shared the above article on my personal Facebook page yesterday, and one of my friends left a comment that really made me think. By calling her out, by trashing her ideas and shining light on her unscientific fearmongering, are we actually helping her? To paraphrase my friend Scott, by using scientific expertise as a bullying tactic and by spreading this story around in the Name of Science™, could this be the best PR she could ask for? Does this play into her hands, The Food Babe vs. The Establishment?

Misinformation like this needs to be called out. People should not be lied to and made to fear science. But do articles like this help her more than they hurt? How do we continue to battle misinformation without creating martyrs for the misinformed?

I don’t have the answer, but I do have another component of the question I want to ask. Last week, io9, Gawker’s sister site, posted an article titled “Your Pet Rabbit Hates You”. That was the title on the page, the title on Twitter, the key to making people click on the article. It certainly made me click.

The article itself is an interesting piece on tonic immobility, where some species of animals go immobile when placed on their backs. Jones (1986) describes tonic immobility as an unlearned response, e.g. instinctive, where the animal goes catatonic-like state with reduced reaction to external stimuli.  People like to show off tonic immobility, and it does have a place in animal management, but it’s also related to fear, either causing it, or caused by it (Gallup, 1977) – as a side note, I like the fact that one of the more recent studies linking tonic immobility to a personality trait uses Bayesian statistics. Consider my brain melted (Edelaar et al, 2012).

And this is really just the point the io9 article is making – that people who turn their rabbits upside down are subjecting it to unnecessary and unpleasant stress. That’s good for rabbit welfare on the whole, right? It gives people evidence to come to their own conclusions.

But that title, “Your Rabbit Probably Hates You”, immediately pits the article (and ergo the science) against the rabbit caretaker. Against the people whose behaviour your are trying to change for the good of the animal. It’s what I said last week, it’s what I said in the MOOC, it’s what I’ve been saying for ages.

If you want to improve an animal’s welfare, you have to be an ally of their owner. This smug, click-bait style reporting of scientific news innately pits the uninformed audience against the facts. Hungerford and Volk (2005) talk about the importance of empowering people when getting them to change their behaviours regarding the environment. By giving people solutions and tapping into their attention to act, you may find it easier to change their behaviours.

What if, instead of “Your Rabbit Hates You”, people saw “Your Rabbit Will Love You Even More If . . .”

What if, instead of “The Food Babe Blogger is Full of Shit,” people saw: “The Evidence Behind Food Claims”.

Not as clickworthy, possibly, but would it help people change their behaviours?

Pig’s For Dinner

One of the things that was raised during the MOOC was scientists’ usage of euphemistic language (and also, my dislike of provocative language when I’m trying to promote animal welfare). It’s a topic I’ve been interested in for a while too.

I was browsing reddit over the weekend and came across this interesting factoid:

On a farm you see a cow, chicken, deer, sheep, etc. In a store you find beef, poultry, venison, mutton, etc.

It’s a divide between Germanic and French words in English.

nickdim

…The english speakers were the ones who raised the animals, and the normans (french speakers) were the ones who ate the meat.

roastpotatothief

I, like a lot of animal welfare people, had just generally assumed this language divide came from a sort of prissiness about naming the foods we eat. I had an idea of a 1950s housewife getting marketed to, Man Men style. In reality, I know this is silly. I have a Mrs Beeton cookbook (one of my favourite vintage books I own) that talks about poultry, mutton, beef, etc., and I have an assumption that these words were used in medieval times (based mainly on Karen Maitland and George RR Martin books). And if I think about it in more detail, I realise that my vague idea about housewives is nonsense. Another of my favourite books, Nella Last’s War, shows me that our lack of connection with our food is far more recent than the 40s or 50s.

This is a very good example of how I will start researching a problem. I start with “What do I know, and where do I know it from?”

The next question on the list is “is this the case?” and so I turned to google to explore the initial hypoethesis.

Google: etymology “pig” = old English (picbred which apparently meant acorn), middle English (pig)

Google: etymology “pork” = latin (porcus), old French (porc), middle English (pork)

Google: etymology “chicken” = Germanic, old English (cycen), English (chicken)

Google: etymology “poultry” = Old French (poulet, pouletrie), English (poultry)

So far, so interesting. There does appear to be a divide where the old French and German words are used for food, while the old English words are used for the producing. While this appeals to my inner class warrior, who is never too far from the surface, I am also aware that English is a language that “pursues other languages down dark alleys to beat them unconscious and riffle through their pockets for spare vocabulary“. I’m also vividly aware that there are some very strange quirks in the way we name and identify animals. Did you know that cattle are the only species that do not have a non gendered singular noun? In English you can’t refer to a single member of the species Bos without implying something about gender or function (cow vs bull, ox vs steer). I wrote a 60000 word thesis on the personality of beef steers and dairy cows, I am deeply aware of how awkward this little linguistic quirk can make life.

The point is that my google exercise breaks down here. We call it beef (old French) and veal (anglo Norman French) when it’s a steer (Germanic through to Old English) or a calf (Germanic through to old English), its oxtail when it’s ox (Germanic through to Old English) and milk (Germanic to Old English) when it’s a cow (Germanic to Old English).

Assuming that Google is pretty good at etymology, and at the very least I can confidently say it knows more about etymology than I do, I am reasonably confident that at least for some foods in the English language, the division of animal and food may be down to class. Now this is far from a theory, that is to say something that we would widely accept to be true, but it’s a pretty solid hypothesis.

And it’s certainly made me think differently about my old assumption. It’s a nice hypothesis, I like it, and I think it’s interesting that from an animal welfare point of view, we’ve all moved to the landed gentry – and we use the posh language, the language that provides a line of demarcation, between us and the fields.