When You Know Better than the Expert

John Bradshaw, a scientist at Bristol, wrote two fabulous books: Dog Sense and Cat Sense. They are some of the best popular science books I’ve ever read, and helped me to decide that the Animal Personality book could be a good pop science book. I cite Bradshaw a lot in this blog, if you take a look over the companion animal and cats tags you’ll see his name come up a lot.

So I was interested to see the Guardian’s regular “You Googled It So We Asked the Experts” column had been given to John Bradshaw to answer “Why Aren’t Cats Loyal?

You know from the number of Guardian links that appear on this blog that I enjoy a good Guardian article, but there is the phenomenon “Below The Line” where the Guardian commenters turn their rabid, foaming fingers to the columnist.

In this article I was near in stitches reading the likes of:

I thought that study was pretty superficial. My cat is more out going and more assured when I’m around. It may not be immediate like for a dog but they do miss us. At least mine does.

Superficial, this is why I have decided to go into great depth and talk about my one animal.

My cats have a range of facial expressions and have several vocal expressions to let you know what they want.

Which is why your cats have ten times the facial muscles everybody else’s have . . . oh, they don’t? Perhaps your ability to ‘understand’ them is part of this whole scientific question? Who knew.

The studies are a heap of crap I reckon, my cats are totally loyal more loyal than dogs I’d say without a doubt. With dogs its their nature, cats choose who they are loyal to, there is a big difference when comparing the two.

Science communciation, what a joy.

To all those who read the article and feel their cats were misrepresented, I urge you to pick up Cat Sense which is a sublime read and puts a huge amount of effort into communicating the science, because as another recent Guardian article points out, it is everybody’s responsibility to try and understand the science.

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Science Outreach All Day, Erry Day

Hi all,

Check out this amazing blog about my good friend Lucy’s work in the Antarctic.

And if that’s not enough science for you, on the 2nd October I have wrangled some of our SRUC Animal Behaviour and Welfare scientists together to talk about the Five Freedoms at Fifty.

You can watch by signing up at the Google + Page here, or watching direct on YouTube.  If you want to submit a question, please feel free to do so by tweeting @SRUCResearch using the #Freedoms50 hashtag 🙂

You can read more about the event on the SRUC webpage.

Ethical Eating – The Climate

We’ve come to the last of my three considerations for ethical eating, eating with a climate conscious. Much as we have been discovering throughout this set of themed posts, there is no ‘easy’ answer to this. The climate is a complex system that is definitely heating up, but the best way to mitigate these changes is not so obvious.

It’s common to hear about two main challenges here: the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that come from our agriculture, and the GHG emissions that come from our food transport.

Agricultural GHGs

This has been a huge topic within agricultural science lately, and it never fails to make people giggle because it’s all about farts and burps, and as someone who has regularly been farted and burped on by cattle in my life, I’m aware of their abilities in this area. There’s a fairly old (2007!) article about this in the Guardian which I think lays out the issues well, and then almost the exact same article was run in 2010.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of United Nations, worldwide, the agricultural sector accounts for 18% of our global greenhouse gas emissions (FAO). This is unequally split between methane emissions (35% of global emissions), CO2 (only 9% of global emissions) and Nitrous Oxide (a whopping 65% of global emissions). Check out their comprehensive infographic here.

The methane comes mostly from the digestive process of our livestock (from 2001-2010 they emitted 40% of the agricultural GHGs) and this is what the Guardian articles were getting at when suggesting we should eat less animal products. This is not just meat, but dairy products are a big emitter here. (Seems like dairy just can’t catch a break, and seeing as it certainly makes me emit methane . . . well, less said about that the better I suppose).

There are attempts to mitigate livestock emissions, most often through changing their diet (Boadi, 2004; Beuchemin et al 2007; Several PhDs I know), as the fermentation process inside the gut which produces methane is heavily influenced by the microbiota in there too.

De Vries & De Boer (2009) reviewed the entire life cycle of various products and ranked the production of 1kg of each animal product in terms of their global warming potential. Their ranks end up being:

  • Beef, most global warming potential
  • Pork
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Milk, least global warming potential

However, they are quick to point out the difficulty of comparing all these different life cycles. All the same it’s very convincing evidence that at the very least we need to be drastically reducing our meat consumption.

But what about other produce . . .

Food Miles

Weber & Matthews (2008) have an open access paper looking again at the life cycles of food, but they also investigated transport. Their abstract is really good from a science communication point of view, finishing with a succinct and relateable statement that even non-experts can understand:

Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

How can this be the case? Well as the paper details, transport is only a small part of the overall chain. Edward-Jones et al (2008) have a critical review of the ‘buy local’ ethos and point out that without taking into account the whole life cycle (for which information can be limited), you can’t comment on whether local grown is better (in GHG terms) than imported food. But can it really be better for my Braeburn apples to come from New Zealand than England? Gonzalez et al (2011) conducted a study in Sweden investigating this and the culprit is the amount of heat these non-seasonal and non-native products need to grow. Better to grow them in season in their native ranges and fly them over.

Eating Ethically

With all of these posts I think there’s a common theme, which isn’t going to surprise anyone. We need to eat less meat, waste less food, and buy from sustainable sources. The ethics of buying from the right communities is the part that I find the most difficult, but I also know I lack the food-based skills I need to waste less food.

So here are some resources to get me, and maybe you, started:

Have you got any others I should know about?

Ethical Eating – Quality of Human Life

If you’re based in the UK, you will have heard about the problems facing our dairy industry due to the plummeting price of milk, and even if you’re not, you’ll have seen me talk about it in the Ethical Eating Introduction. The welfare of our producers is another thorny issue.

The archetypal story here is the middle class handwringing buzz around Bolivian quinoa farmers. Is it true that the Bolivian can no longer afford their staple grain because it’s suddenly the green food of choice in the west? The Slate has an interesting article explaining some of this but I’m not going to focus on this particular example (I confess I don’t think I’ve ever tasted quinoa). Instead I’m going to talk about the ubiquitous symbol of buying ethically, ‘Fairtrade’.

The Fairtrade Foundation (http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/) describes their mark thusly:

When you buy products with the FAIRTRADE Mark, you support farmers and workers as they work to improve their lives and their communities. The Mark means that the Fairtrade ingredients in the product have been produced by small-scale farmer organisations or plantations that meet Fairtrade social, economic and environmental standards. The standards include protection of workers’ rights and the environment, payment of the Fairtrade Minimum Price and an additional Fairtrade Premium to invest in business or community projects 

Do you look for the Fairtrade mark when you shop? I do, particularly for the equitorial products like coffee and chocolate, which made this paper (Beuchelt & Zeller, 2011) depressing reading. From the abstract:

Certified producers are more often found below the absolute poverty line than conventional producers. Over a period of ten years, our analysis shows that organic and organic-fairtrade farmers have become poorer relative to conventional producers. We conclude that coffee yield levels, profitability and efficiency need to be increased, because prices for certified coffee cannot compensate for low productivity, land or labor constraints.

How can this be so? There’s another paper (Dolan, 2010), whose abstract contains the most amazing piece of writing:

the paper explores how certain neoliberal rationalities are emboldened through Fairtrade, as a process of mainstreaming installs new metrics of governance (standards, certification, participation) that are at once moral and technocratic, voluntary and coercive, and inclusionary and marginalizing

Holy Hera, how is anyone supposed to know what to buy? “A process at one voluntary and coercive, inclusionary and marginalising” – I mean I love it as a piece of prose, but as a communication piece it only tells me that I’m still confused.

Oh, and wine isn’t receiving a pass either, with the Argentinian Fairtrade wine market ‘further marginalising’ the sector (Staricco and Ponte, 2015

I should say that not all papers are critical, Fairtrade cotton in West Africa was found to empower women (Bassett, 2010), the same was also possible for coffee farmers in Mesoamerica (Lyon et al, 2010).

It may be that it is our supermarkets influencing the Fairtrade market that is causing the ethical problems (Smith, 2010), which is interesting because some of the researchers think that Fair Trade only works when building communities and empowering the community’s interactions (Renard, 2003). Something that many of us would say supermarkets really lack.

I am not a social scientist, though I am interested in the discipline, and I can’t review these articles as thoroughly as I can the animal welfare ones. But it’s interesting the path that a relatively cursory scholar search of Fairtrade has brought us to. Particularly when you think about the dairy issue from the introductory post. Monopolies have a staggering amount of bargaining power, and in some cases (such as nationalised health care) this works to the community’s advantage. But is it working to our global advantage here?

In my perfect, Pinterest lifestyle, I’d be shopping at farmers markets and growing my own carrots on my windowsill, and I’d also spend less money on frivolous items, make all my dinners from scratch, and stick to the Chief Medical Officer’s recommended intake of alcohol units in a week. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be the person you are on Pinterest?

But the person I am on Pinterest isn’t also on a quest to snap a selfie with a cow in GTA V online.

On the scale of personality responsibility to nanny state, I tend to fall on the Big Brother side of the spectrum. I fully support Scotland’s minimum alcohol unit pricing for example, and I tend to think the problem of encouraging individual to eat in a globally friendly way should be tackled through legislation.

But I know I’m on the extreme side of that spectrum, and I’d be interested to hear what more liberal readers might think. How would you solve this issue?

Ethical Eating Month – Meat

The Ethical Eating month doesn’t start easily. We begin with the thorny issue of eating meat.

 

When I wrote the first draft of this post it was extremely long because I wanted to outline the ethical process that led to my personal decision to eat meat. After writing it and re-reading it, I couldn’t help feeling like I was lecturing people on why my life choices are superior to everyone else’s. I mean they are, obviously, because I’m awesome, but that’s not what you come here to read about.

So that blog, and the question of ‘should we want to eat meat’ has been shelved for now, and instead I’m going to focus on the ethics of meat production. If you don’t want to eat any meat at all, that’s your choice dudes, but this is for those who enjoy a steak now and again. How can we eat ethically?

There is a Coursera course, The Meat We Eat by the University of Florida, which many of my students have recommended. And this is really a topic that we could discuss for months on its own, so I’m going to cram a lot into this little blog post.

We’ll discuss the effect meat production has on our climate in a few weeks, today we’re concentrating on the process of producing meat. How do the most common meats end up on our table?

I often hear people saying how far removed we are from our food, or say something that either has a very idyllic picture-book idea of farming, or a gross misunderstanding based on pressure group videos, outdated or misrepresented. In the age of YouTube, there’s no excuse for not knowing what a real farming environment looks like because not only are our supermarkets, levy boards and colleges putting videos up, but so are actual farmers. I’ve cherrypicked some good resources that really demonstrate what I think of as good and realistic farm environments.

 

Chicken (Broiler Systems)

The broiler chicken is the breed we eat and they have been heavily selected for, so much so that most breeds can be patented. They grow exceptionally quickly and in intensive systems are packed into sheds without much in the way of environmental enrichment to stimulate them, which may be a good thing because they often break their bones because of their quick-growing physiology. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall made a really good program on this a few years ago, and here you can see a pretty damn good free range broiler system

 

The fact I call this a ‘pretty good’ system might surprise you, but it is. These birds are clean, active, and don’t look damaged. I agree completely with what Hugh says, that this should be the bare minimum standard for chicken production in the UK. A £1 extra per chicken, at the time of filming, that’s what you buy for it.

 

I try really hard not to buy chicken. It is the meat I am probably most squeamish about because I think their quality of life is pretty poor.

 

Which brings me neatly to . . .

 

Beef (Beef Cattle Systems)

If you were to reincarnate me as a production animal, I’d like to be reincarnated as a beef cow in Scotland. MrScottishFarmer on YouTube has a video showing the living conditions of beef steers (the castrated males we eat), and it’s a decent system I’d say. The steers aren’t too muddy, the straw is relatively clean, and they’re all calm and curious about the human.

 

The beef cows (remember ‘cow’ means female cattle) you’ll see out in the fields with calves are the mummys, who keep their calves with them until weaning age, typically around 7-8 months (although earlier weaning is a thing). Then the boys are grouped together and fattened up until slaughter. Beef cows will then have their next calf and the system starts again for them. The big welfare problems that have occurred in British beef farming systems have largely been man made.

 

Feedlots, which are what we call the area steers are raised, change country to country. Particularly in the Americas you’ll find much larger and more intensive systems.

Another video, which does contain some mild images of abbatoirs, comes from Quality Meat Scotland (and features quite a few SRUC researchers under our former ‘SAC’ banner). What you can see here is a very good beef handling system, watch how calm the steers are in handling. That’s a great sign.

 

 

Pork (Pig Production Systems)

Pig farming in Scotland has a large proportion of outdoor farming compared to many other countries producing pork meat, but we still have the intensive indoor systems.

 

You’ll be able to see examples of both in this QMS video

 

and in this great video from an Australian producer, showing a more intensive system:

 

 

Lamb (Sheep Production Systems)

Lamb is the meat of a sheep less than a year old, while mutton is the meat of a sheep older. Lamb is probably my least favourite meat (versus pork, which I would until the cows came home if I could).

 

We’re going travel south for this video, because in Scotland we tend to fling our sheep out into the hills and forget about them (gross exaggeration). Southern systems tend to be more intensive.

 

The girl who explains the lamb production system is very engaging (maybe Hugh should hire her). But how about a truly intensive system? Canada has us covered here:

 

Fish (Aquaculture)

And of course we can’t forget our fish! Fish are a hard one because it’s a huge range of species that you’re trying to cover, and we’re not so au fait with our understanding of their ability to feel pain, etc. (although note that our EU legislation considers all vertebrates to be sentient)

 

The Ethics of Meat?

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with the ethics of eating meat – well this is the welfare of how these animals live. While welfare at death is undeniably important, overall it’s a much shorter component of the animal’s overall experience. I’m more concerned about the welfare-at-life of my meat animals.

 

Farm assurance schemes such as Freedom Food  and Red Tractor  have some, possibly basic, welfare standards.  Those are two schemes that I look for when I’m buying meat as a bare minimum. There’s also the Soil Association’s animal welfare standards  if organic is a priority for you. Just as you would check calorie information, we really should be checking farming methods too before we buy.  Take a look at the welfare standards of these organisations and decide if that’s the welfare you want your meat to have experienced when it was alive, because that is what we meat eaters must understand – these burgers were animals at one point.

 

Is meat too easy? Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (such a great name to type out) used to do a show where he took a number of bad cooks and got them to re-engage with the source of their food. In this clip, he makes the point of taking responsibility for the life and death of his chickens. Definitely worth a watch:

 

I would love to live in a world where my tenement block looked after a number of chickens in our garden, but my tenement block can’t even look after our garden. Our lifestyles encourage cheap, butchered meat. The last meat I ate was pollock  steaks that I buy frozen and keep by to make curries with when I need to make a quick cupboard meal. It’s hugely convenient.

 

Reducing the number of animals we need to farm would greatly improve the overall welfare of production animals (the welfare of the farmers however is a topic to come . . . ) But is it realistic? What about people under financial pressure? Can we ask them to stop buying cheap meat? Well, yes, we can. A Girl Called Jack blogs about cooking on a very tight budget, and the majority of her recipes are meat free.

 

These are all strangely complicated questions, featuring a lot of human behaviour and many interconnecting issues that we’ll discuss later in the month.

 

But I think the biggest step in helping production animal welfare is showing people what farms are really like, and as you can see from this post, the internet is a vast repository of resources. Really, neither side of the ethical debate has any excuse to be ignorant about what real farming is like. 

Ethical Eating Month – Introduction

For someone who works in an agricultural college, I struggle with how to eat ethically. As we know, ethics are a personal thing, and my ethics may not be yours. My version of ethical eating is one that provides a good quality of life for the animals I eat, provides a good industry and quality of life for the people involved in the food chain, and minimises my carbon footprint.

So how do I try and eat ethically with these three goals? Well it’s surprisingly hard. In part this is because I am a deeply lazy person and the lure of pre-processed and delightfully packaged meals is hugely appealing, even if it as detrimental to my waistline as it is my world. In part, it’s because I’m also a hedonist (and I believe most people are). I don’t derive much joy from cooking and would rather skip the process entirely, and I get a lot of joy from the taste and smell and process of eating meat.  And in part because I’m a single person household, preparing food ahead of time is not always easy, and I do end up wasting food.

I’m an awful person.

You might have seen in the news further discussion of the price of milk in the UK, especially as Morrison’s has announced they will sell a milk brand ‘for farmers‘, that will pay them what the milk is worth. There was also Monbiot’s latest Guardian column about the difficulty of treating the obesity epidemic. I thought there was a curious parallel in these two stories. In the first, Sean Rickard, former National Farmer’s Union chief economist said:

“I think it’s unrealistic for anyone [receiving £28,000 per annum from the tax payer] to expect us just to pay them whatever price they think is needed to cover their cost of production.”

In the second, after Monbiot details the scientific evidence behind why obesity is so difficult to control, Guardian commenter ScottMa says:

“But for the majority it is entirely controllable. <ore [sic] difficult for some than others due to genes, maybe, but by no means impossible.

Monbiot has just absolved the overweight without a medical cause of all responsibility for their situation. Why does the Left have such a problem with that concept? Always someone else’s fault, everyone’s a victim.”

 

I have got to stop reading Guardian comments. But I think both of these comments share a few elements. Firstly, a great lack of sympathy for the people actually affected by the problems, and secondly, that food really does go hand in hand with opinion.

So many of us have been lectured at by bystanders, well-meaning family members, that one person in work, that we instinctively get riled about food discussions. Just this week I was saying that the ‘One Hour After a Coke’ Infographic that was going around had me rabidly proclaiming Coke as a health drink before I checked myself. We just don’t like being told about food.

I’m not going to tell you about food, but I am going to devote this month to the ethics of my eating, and giving myself time to refresh my understanding of my evidence. Welcome then to Ethical Eating Month, and I hope I don’t enrage you as much as food posts enrage me . . . .

Bon appetit!

Fox Hunting in British Politics

Today, the UK’s House of Commons was supposed to vote on relaxing the fox hunting with hounds ban in England and Wales. But they’re not going to. If you’re not a citizen of the United Kingdom (and even if you are) you might be very confused by the situation.

The United Kingdom is composed of several countries, check out C. G. P. Grey’s video for a very good explanation of terms. A proportion of these countries want to be independent. Recently, 45% of the Scottish electorate wanted to become independent, which manifested itself in a massive swelling of the ranks of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) elected to the United Kingdom’s government of Westminster.

Before we go further, I think I have to say something about my own voting here. I don’t make a secret of my political affiliation and you could find out without much difficulty, but in my role as communicator/educator on this blog, I want to present you with the science and let you make up your own opinion. Although I’m open to hearing if you think I should make my affiliations public in relation to this post.

The right wing conservative government therefore only has one supporter in Scotland, an MP from the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.  In Scotland there is also a Labour MP who opposes the majority conservative UK government but still supports the union. And there is also one Liberal Democrat MP who outright lied about the SNP party’s leader and who is currently being sued by his constituents.

This means that 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in Westminster are held by a party who want independence from the rest of the UK and who are there to increase devolved powers (the SNP believes that independence can only come from a mandate set by Scotland’s devolved parliament, not from Westminster – the impetus for independence must come from the Scottish voters.). But what does any of this have to do with animal welfare? For this I should direct you towards another YouTube video:

For some reason, possibly because we still live in what is technically a theocracy, class matters in the United Kingdom’s politics. The conservatives are the party for the upper class, and the upper class like to go fox hunting. So despite the fact that fox hunting with hounds (note this terminology, because you won’t hear it in much of the media) has been banned in England and Wales by the Hunting Act in 2004. In Scotland, similar legislation had been in place since 2002. The Conservatives wanted to relax this ban to allow foxes to be pursued by a pack of hounds, in essence to allow fox hunting as we think of it to happen again.

Although foxes in Scotland were never at risk (although our legislation is not without criticism), the SNP finally decided they would vote on this matter, and their vote would not be in favour of relaxing the ban. So we have a party which wants independence voting on an issue which does not affect their constituents (although their constituents have very strong feelings about the issue, because foxes are cute, presumably, or more cynically: because the average Scottish voter has no love of the aristocracy and hunting). And Nicola Sturgeon, the party’s leader, said the choice to vote on this issue was made, in part, to jerk the leash of the Conservative government and remind them how much power the SNP has.

Here’s the thing – it’s taken 600 words to summarise the political situation around this lack of a vote, but this is no victory for animal welfare. Nowhere in those 600 words do we consider the scientific evidence behind fox hunting. So here it is:

Hunting with hounds does not control fox populations (Rushton et al, 2006). In fact, fox numbers may increase (Lozano et al, 2013). Managing foxes as an agricultural pest needs to be done in a sustainable, long-term model covering large areas (McLeod et al, 2010). To top it off, farmers aren’t really convinced that foxes are an agricultural pest (Baker and Mcdonald, 2001) and only tolerate hunting-with-hounds that happens on their land. Pursuit hunting is not humane, and the method of death that hounds enact on hunting is not humane either. The ban is resisted because it is spoiling peoples’ fun (Marvin, 2007). Even though drag hunting is still supported and allowed, but somehow is less fun than smearing blood on one another.

We have no scientific evidence supporting fox hunting with hounds other than the fact that a very small, but very rich segment of the population want to do it occasionally and they’re slightly put out when they don’t get a chance. It’s not an effective pest control method and it’s not a humane death. Of all the issues to draw a line in the sand on, we’ve chosen one where a utilitarian would come to a clear conclusion after reviewing the scientific evidence. We’ve chosen an issue where it’s more important to posture about on what side of Hadrian’s Wall we come down on, than to review the scientific evidence.

Bacon Double Down

There was an interesting pair of articles in io9 last week, the report of double muscled pigs being bred by researchers in South Korea and China, and differences between how American scientists and the American public view science related issues.

Seeing these two articles so closely together was interesting.

The first thing that jumps out is that in America, there is a 51 percentage point gap between scientists and the public regarding whether or not it’s safe to eat genetically modified foods. You can play about with the day at the Pew Research Centre’s site where they have a fun inforgraphic to demonstrate how this changes with gender, age, science knowledge, etc. The story of the double muscled pigs then should evoke some concern in these people, no? Scientists meddling where they don’t belong?

But of course double muscling is old news – in fact we understand it pretty well. It’s a genetic mutation that inhibits the production or uptake of myostatin, a muscle growth regulator. So these animals have big muscles. There are a few breeds of cattle that have been selected for this mutation, such as the Piedmontese breed, and it’s a mutation that occurs in some whippets too. Deliberately adding the gene in a line of pigs is cool, but we also have pigs that glow in the dark.

The concern about double muscled pigs might come from the idea that humans shouldn’t genetically manipulate animals, but seeing as we’ve been doing it for a long time, I think it’s more the tool that some people object to. This innate distrust of the mad scientist.

But what really interested me in the double muscling article was the assertion that this development might help feed the world. I agree that it could, but not because we’re suddenly doubling down on our bacon production. After all, the world’s beef production isn’t purely carried by the Piedmontese and Belgian Blue (although they are important breeds). But the technical capacity we have to engineer our animals, with appropriate ethical supervision, really will help us in one of the theatres of world food production.

We just need to overcome that 50% point difference between us and the public to help us get there.

Cow Safety

When the manic teaching and marking periods hit my posting schedule falls apart, and even when it goes quiet, because I haven’t built up a backlog of posts, there’s less on the blog. I’m sorry about that, and I hope to have a proper sciencey post up soon before taking a short summer break.

But in the meantime there has been in a story in the news I wanted to talk about.

The Glasgow Herald reports on the inquest into the death of a professor in a field of cows. This is a sad and all-too frequent story. Cows are often put on ‘world’s most dangerous animals‘ lists, particularly used to juxtapose sharks and animals we think we should be afraid of.

The reasons for the number and severity of cattle-related deaths are fairly self explanatory. They are big, powerful animals with high economic impact and who often come into close contact with humans because of how we keep them (Watts et al 2013). Bulls tend to trample and cows tend to kick, both of which cause huge trauma to the human body, sometimes not survivable (Norwood et al, 2000).

Generally these accidents happen when people come into close contact with beef suckler herds, these are the cows we use to raise our beef meat, the calves you see with them in the fields. In Britain at least, if you forced me to be choose which production animal to be reincarnated as, I’d take a beef suckler cow. They have a pretty relaxed and natural life, left to raise their babies, and that’s part of why they become so aggressive when they’re with their calves. They’re simply trying to protect their babies against a perceived threat, because they’re not in regular contact with humans.

By contrast, dairy breeds are more likely to be dangerous because they are so used to contact with humans, and a bolshy dairy cow with no fear is a very frightening thing indeed. I remember taking a pressure washer through a pen one day instead of around it and being chased the whole way by a very angry girl. That’s not a mistake you make twice.

When dealing with cows, even when posing with cows, I always know how I’m going to get out of the pen. I watch them carefully for any warning signs, aggressive behaviours, foot stamping, head tossing, head swinging, vocalisations, and I definitely don’t ever trust them.

If you’re taking advantage of the warm weather this summer, be careful around cows. These girls don’t take no bullshit.

Implicit Bias – Representation Matters

Our tea breaks (and a certain someone’s 30th birthday) last week was abuzz about a seminar we got from @fatwhitebloke who was talking about implicit bias.

STEM has a problem with women, and the UK in general has a problem with immigrants, so the talk was very relevant to us. Dr Jones was talking to us about implicit bias, and how our subconscious mind makes decisions that our conscious minds would not. Jones was very explicit about his own implicit biases, which I appreciated. Having a bias does not make you a bad person, but allowing that bias to control your decisions, and being unwilling to change that, does.

They have a little youtube vid about it here:

But one of the things Jones said really stuck out to me, because I spend a lot of time on places like Tumblr and seeing ‘representation matters‘. I ‘know’ this on an instinctive level, I know that Gadget and Captain Janeway are part of the reason I’m here today. When I was little, I identified with the women, and I know that I’m very happy with my life and where I’ve ended. Representation matters to me.

But I’d never thought of it as Dr Jones explained it – and he did this off the cuff, noting to us that this one audience where he didn’t need to explain ‘mylenation of the neurons’.

It certainly sparked some of mine.

You know that electricity is messy. You may have seen electricity jump before (though perhaps not so spectacularly), and you know that electrical wires must be insulated with plastic. Our brains are collections of neurons, a kind of cell that can transmit electrical energy – just like a wire. When babies are young, unable to walk, or to coordinate their movements, all these neurons are ‘firing’ and the electricity is going everywhere. The important neurons coordinating where hands go need to be insulated to keep that signal going along the right path, so with us, those neurons become insulated with a fatty sheath that does not conduct electricity. We call this myelination.

Important pathways in the brain (like the parts that help you to touch your finger to your nose) get well insulated.

Jones asked us to imagine we were walking into an office and we saw the receptionist – who is the receptionist? What are they wearing? How do they compose themselves? Don’t cheat – like most of us you probably saw an attractive (white?) woman, well (sexily?) dressed. It’s how we see secretaries in the media, it’s not necessarily what we know of secretaries from our own personal experience. And our conscious mind doesn’t believe it, but our conscious mind often passes off those decisions to the part of our mind that made all of those connections.

And when you reinforced those connections, what happened? The more we see that, the more those connections get insulated. They become easier to reach next time, and the time after that, and the time after that. And then as we get older, they become our go-to position.

Now there might be one more argument here – that  hey, perhaps a lot of secretaries ARE sexily dressed white women so what’s the problem?

Here we have two choices. This person is a secretary. This person is a secretary who is a sexy woman. Most people will choose the second option with more detail, because humans are terrible at probability. We see that extra information and say “yes, that fits with what I think about secretaries”, forgetting that the subpopulation of sexy female secretaries will ALWAYS be smaller than the larger population just described by ‘secretary’. (See the io9 post on the fallacy here).

Our implicit biases make assumptions and decisions for us. Representation matters because it can stop the insulation of the connections – it makes us less likely to jump to that conclusion. Which leads me to the amazing Guillermo del Toro quote:

I think that every choice is political. When you decide that a woman can be a character of her own and not have to fall in love with the f***ing guy, that’s a political choice. When you choose that they can speak in their own language and be subtitled, that’s a political choice. I think it’s very important for us to understand that we are all — the whole world — in the same robot. It’s this f***ing planet. No matter who you are, what you like to do, whatever your race or whatever your religion, we’re all human. And I think it’s really great to make a movie that celebrates that diversity.

So yes, representation matters. And science agrees.