Blog Rec: Next Gen Dairy

Hey folks – while I edit the book, I’d like to give you another blog recommendation.

NextGen Dairy is from a friend of mine I met at ISAE a few years ago. Amy has always had really interesting ideas and looked for practical applications for animal welfare science. Glad to see her blogging 🙂

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The Five Freedoms at Fifty – Part Two

Here at SRUC we’re having our Animal Welfare Day celebrating the Five Freedoms at Fifty – a packed day full of talks, demonstrations and a panel discussion.

You can watch the talks on our live stream: here!

And you can come join the conversation on twitter using the #Freedoms50 hashtag.

Enjoy!

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Peer review is still broken, corrupt and outdated.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.

I Lectured to 27000 Students This Week

Please do forgive the bragging in this post’s title. But I have. I have lectured to 27000 students this week.

Our MOOC went live on Monday and people are still signing up, which is all kinds of mindblowing. From the moment that button was pressed on Monday morning, people have been meeting in the forums, watching our videos, working through our interactive sessions and this has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my career.

The diversity of people on the course has amazed me, from the school kids who help out in animal shelters at the weekend, to people who have real power and influence on a global scale, and what’s more – these people are talking to each other in the same thread.

I have a confession to make. Before this week began, this post was going to be full of summary numbers, bragging, essentially, about our reach. Because I’m really proud of that. But I had always seen the MOOC as a bit of a ‘flash in the pan’. I was pleased it was on my CV, and pleased that it was running, and I was sure our students would enjoy it and would learn something, but I thought MOOCs as a concept were going to fizzle out.

I’ve changed my mind. While advertising the MOOC a little while ago I said it would ‘democratise education’. I was using buzzwords, but I don’t think I was far off. The discussions we’ve been seeing on the forums has shown me that people are genuinely interested in learning science, and will be passionate as they engage with that science. There are people logging on from areas that are threatened with terrible violence. Little girls in countries that don’t have equal rights for women. Yes, it’s ‘just’ an introductory course, but its real strength lies in its community, in the learners who are taking it and using it to build their support networks. MOOCs have a huge amount of power, not because they allow universities to share their research, but because they invite universities into peoples homes.

As somebody who has lived with universities for all of my adult life, I had underestimated this. We might complain about student fees and the business like nature of the modern university, but they are still places of tremendous innovation and power. And I am so, so proud of what our students are doing.

Fluffy Friday – MOOC Countdown

In preparation for our MOOC, we’ve become a little obsessive. Every time I check the student count the numbers go up – we’re currently sitting at a staggering 19,129 students and roughly 6.7% of you have taken part in our little data gathering exercise we’ve sent out on the emails – so a big thank you for that.

At the moment you come from 153 different countries, and you span the age ranges of 13-70+.

We are so excited to meet all of you, and I have a little clip from the Jeanne Marchig YouTube channel of our third VLog.

Do You Want to See a Magic Trick?

Do you want to see a magic trick?

As part of our Animal Welfare Indicators project I’m creating an online learning object which describes an experiment testing whether or not goats know an object is there when they can’t see it.

Now don’t go doubting the intelligence of goats just yet, this question is pretty multifaceted. It begins with human babies and the game of Peekaboo. If you’ve ever entertained a small baby, you might have fallen back on hiding behind your hands and enjoying the delighted giggles of this apparent magic trick.

There is some debate in the scientific community over whether babies are really fooled by this trick, or whether they don’t have an understanding of object permanence until they’re about two years old.

At some point babies develop the ability to understand that objects still exist even when they’re out of sight. Take a baby’s favourite toy and hide it behind a screen, the baby will look behind the screen. The fact that an object must exist outside of our perception of it can lead to some fun set ups. Check out this video to watch a magician performing a simple magic trick in front of some dogs. The dogs, fully expecting the object to reappear where it logically should, clearly act confused and start searching other logical places (such as beneath the hands, behind them, etc.)

The magic act Penn and Teller explain the anatomy of a trick that uses sleight of hand in this, slightly grainy video. The steps they include are: Palm – Switch – Ditch – Steal – Load – Simulation – Misdirection.

But none of these steps work if you can’t understand that an object should exist where you don’t know.

A psychologist named Piaget came up with a little experiment to test whether object permanance has developed in children – you can try it yourself with the nearest available baby or pet (please ask permission of the bill payer).

For this set up you will need an object and for an animal it will need to be something they’ll be motivated to look for. I suggest a treat (but preferably one which doesn’t smell too strongly).

Show your subject the object and then place it inside a cup or other container (or behind a makeshift screen, like a half open DVD case). Now for the magic trick. Place this container or screen, with the treat still hidden within, behind another screen (such as an open book propped up on the floor).

Watch what happens next. The theory goes that if your baby or pet understands that objects exist even when they cannot be observed, it will look for the treat behind the open book. This leap of logic means the subject must understand the object still exists when its inside the first container, and that when the first container is hidden, the hidden object persists even then.

Or you could hire a magician and get them to confuse the hell out of your pets and babies. Because that’s hilarious.

 

Fluffy Friday – Intermission

Hi all – it’s been a crazy week with lots of filming for our upcoming MOOC as well as thirty undergraduate essays to mark! Eek! So today’s Fluffy Friday is a little bit of a repost of a few resources we’ve been working on over the last few months:

What is Animal Pain?

How is Pain Produced?

How is Animal Pain Assessed?

Attitudes to Animal Pain.

How is Animal Pain Treated?

 

 

And finally check out this blog post from IFAW after their visit to the University of Edinburgh vet school. They’re very excited about our MOOC and rightly so!

Professor Waran and Fanta get ready to tell you all about animal welfare.
Professor Waran and Fanta get ready to tell you all about animal welfare.

The Anthropomorphism High Horse

I rarely read a piece of scientific journalism and think “what absolute tosh”, in part because I tend not to use the word ‘tosh’ and in part because I know that science journalism involves digesting and reconfirming a complex idea. It’s not easy.

But this article had me gnashing my teeth. It’s a summary of a paper by Ganea et al 2014 [in press pdf download – only link I can find]. The essence of the paper is this: children which grow up in urban environments (in this case pre-school age children from Boston and Toronto) are not exposed to animals. When they’re given anthropomorphic stories about unfamiliar animals (cavys, handfish and oxpeckers) they will agree with statements that attribute complex emotions to those animals, but not statements which attribute human physical capabilities, e.g. talking, to the animals. The conclusion is that anthropomorphic animal stories inhibit a child’s ability to learn animal facts.

The science I think is interesting – it is the conclusion and the bandying about of the word ‘anthropomorphism’ that get my goat. Let rant at you.

The article’s author says:

Setting aside the shades of grey as to whether non-human animals have analogues for things like friends, the findings suggest that for young kids, “exposure to anthropomorphized language may encourage them to attribute more human-like characteristics to other animals than exposure to factual language.”

 

 

This anthropomorphism spectre infuriates me at times. Let me put it this way, one of the questions asked of the children was “do oxpeckers have friends?” I’m asked relatively frequently if cows have friends, and if I want to answer that question accurately, I have to dance around terminology and use baffling scientific language to answer it in a way that means ‘yes but I can’t really say that because I’m a scientist’.

Cows have preferential associations within their herd. Being with these other individuals makes them more capable of physiologically coping with stressful events (Boissy & Le Neindre, 1997) such as being reintroduced to the milking herd (Neisen et al, 2009), being milked (Hasegawa et al, 1997), or feed competition (Patison et al, 2010a). They will preferentially engage in social interactions with these preferred associations, and these associations go on for longer than with other animals (Faerevik et al 2005, Patison et al, 2010b).

How do you explain this to a 2-5 year old child from Boston without using the word ‘friend’ or any synonym of it? Is it any wonder a child might reasonably assume that animals can have friends? Is it wrong to say that an animal can have a friend?

My irritation here lies with the writer of the article saying children believed ‘falsehoods’ about animals, based on anthropomorphism. We get one link, to a website I can’t access being based in the UK, to research which might suggest animals are similar to us in some ways. Then we move on to a paper I’ve referenced before talking about how dogs’ guilty looks are based on our behaviour (Hecht et al, 2012). The underlying assumption is still that animals are so different from us that children are wrong to believe that animals have the capacity for friendship and caring.

Now I’m fascinated by dogs for precisely this reason. They are so excellent at communicating with us, and reading us, that they are almost in-animal as much as they are in-human. They’re a possible model for human-child behaviour they’re so adept at this. I wouldn’t necessarily use dogs as an example for how the rest of the animal kingdom thinks if I was very worried about making cross species comparisons.

Anthropomorphism is either the attribution of human characteristics to animals. In which case it cannot be used pejoratively. For example, to say “This cow has eyes” would be anthropomorphic.

Or anthropomorphism is the inappropriate attribution of human characteristics to animals, in which case you must carefully consider why the characteristic is inappropriate when given to animals. It is not anthropomorphic in this case to say “This cow feels fear”, because fear, as we understand it, is an evolutionary mechanism to increase your chances of survival, it has physiological and behavioural components and the cow meets all of these. Ergo, this cow feels fear, and that is not an inappropriate characteristic.

Much as I lament the fact urban children have very little contact with the natural world, and I think this is a major issue for animal welfare, food sustainability, and the mental health of the children, I don’t fully agree with the paper’s conclusions, or the writing up in the Scientific American blog.

Firstly, the study found that all children learned new facts regardless of whether they read the anthropomorphic story or the non-anthropomorphic story. The results appear to indicate to me there was less fact-retention in the anthropromorphic story (and while I’m not a psychologist, I have worked with children and I do now work in education, I wonder if the anthropomorphic story, being similar to entertainment, indicated ‘you do not need to pay attention here’ to the kids. This does not appear to be discussed in the paper.).

Secondly, the study found that the children who had anthropoorphic stories told to them were more likely to describe animals in anthropomorphic terms immediately afterwards. Now again I’m no psychologist, but after I went to see Captain America I was partially convinced I was a superhero. It faded after the walk home. I’d like to know more about the extent of this effect over time before I declared anthropomorphic stories as damaging to children’s learning.

Thirdly, the Scientific American article presents some ‘realistic’ and ‘anthropomorphised’ images of the animals side by side. This is not what happened in the paper. In the first experiment the children were shown ‘realistic images and factual language books’ or ‘realistic images and anthropomoprhic language books’. The second study used ‘anthropomorphic images and factual language’ and ‘anthropomorphic images and anthropomorphic language’. The upshot of this is that the realistic image condition was not directly compared to the anthropormphic image condition, regardless of how it seems when you read the Scientific American article.

The paper says at one point:

This reveals that, like adults, young children seem to have a less clear conception of differences between humans and other animals in regard to mental characteristics, as opposed to behaviors. However, exposure to anthropomorphized language may encourage them to attribute more human-like characteristics to other animals than exposure to factual language.

 

 

Well there’s little wonder about that because even we scientists don’t have a particularly clear conception of the mental differences between humans and other animals. The paper itself is interesting and well worth a read, but it falls into the trap of thinking about anthropomorphism as a wholly negative thing. If I was a reviewer I’d suggest Serpell (2002) as an excellent starting point for a more balanced view of the phenomenon.

And I’d also suggest they watch this video before assuming that kids are daft for thinking animals feel emotions.

 

More Science Communication from VoYS

Voice of Young Science, who were instrumental in prompting me to start Fluffy Sciences, ran another one of their excellent Science Communication workshops next week.

 

Check out Chemist By Choice’s write up of the event. If you’re a young scientist I really recommend you keep up with VoYS and their Standing Up For Science Media workshops. Very useful stuff!