Category Archives: evidence

Badger, badger, badger…

Remember those heady post-election days in summer 2010, when we were all getting used to the idea of not just a non-Labour government, but a coalition one at that? The press was awash with “what does this government mean for [insert special interest group here]?”.

Perhaps buoyed by pre-election activity to get “The Science Vote” out, the science press seemed especially keen on this sort of copy. Each publication focused on a different set of challenges. Science magazine mentioned badgers. A lot of people laughed. The weebles badger song was passed liberally around the scipolicy hashtag, along with the odd mention of mashed potatoes (cultural reference, if you don’t get it).

But badgers – or more specifically badger culling – is a serious and long-running science policy issue. Animals are killed: there’s the culling of the badgers on one side, but also the slaughter of cows with the bovine TB the badgers are thought to spread. This is understandably an emotive issue – moral and economic – for many. Badger culling is also a fascinating example of science policy actually trying an experiment, in an attempt to be as evidence-based as possible. Although this has helped give us more information, it hasn’t given firm advice one way or another and remains, inevitably, mixed in with further political, moral and cultural divides. As well as broader politics surrounding the meat and dairy industry, it is worth remembering the history of badger hunting (in the context of fox hunting). Here’s a badger fact for you: “Dachs” is the German word for badger, and dachshund dogs were originally bred to hunt badgers (though they aren’t called dachshunds in Germany).

So when I found myself co-running a science policy themed pub quiz last Monday, I did a round on badgers. Here are my questions if you want to play at home. I hope they give some of the flavour of the issue. Answers at the bottom, under the badger-badge picture.

1) 25,000 cattle were slaughtered in England in 2010 because of Bovine TB. How many millions of pounds a year does the government estimate Bovine TB cost the taxpayer?

2) One for the zoologists, though fans of Wind in the Willows might enjoy it too: Are badgers members of the weasel or skunk family?

3) Rupert the Bear’s best friend is called Bill Badger, in what town do they reside? (if you enjoy fictional badgers of British culture, I can recommend Bryan Talbot’s Grandville graphic novels)

4) It was Professor Lord John Krebs who, back in in the 1990s was the sci advisor responsible for the review which found badgers a “reservoir” for bovine TB and called for trail culls. Which party does he represent in the House of Lords?

5) Brian May is a high profile campaigner against the badger cull – do go see his site, and put the sound on – in what year did he submit his PhD to Imperial College? Bonus point if you know how many years after abandoning it to join Queen this was.

6) The website 38 Degrees have been running a “Rethink the Badger Cull” campaign, how many signatures do they have? As long as you are within 500 you can get a “right” on this.

7) The badger was the first wild mammal to be given legal protection in the UK – what year? Clue: two years before the first badger carcass riddled with bTB was found in a farm in Gloucestershire. [EDIT 3rd Jan 2012: See correction below]

1) £90m – I got this from a Defra press release from last summer, based on 2010 figures, but there are several press reports of £100 million (e.g. from the BBC and the Telegraph) so will accept that.

2) Weasel. Except for the stink badger, which reside in parts of South East Asia, which recent genetic evidence would suggest is not a badger at all.

3) Nutwood.

4) This is sort of a trick question – he is a crossbencher.

5. 2007, 36 years after leaving it to join Queen. I did my PhD at Imperial 2004-8 and did spot him on campus once.

6. Check for yourself. If you so wish, sign while you are there.

7. The 1973 Badger Act. Considering it wasn’t until the early 2000s that we saw laws against fox hunting, I think this is significant. Nerds might be interested to know there were also Badger Acts in 1991 and 1992. This piece by Patrick Barkham is good at giving some of the history of this.

Edit 3rd Jan 2012: a correction to question 7. As picked up by Angela Cassidy in comments, the Badger Act was two years AFTER the tuberculous badger was found. Moreover, as pointed out by environmental historian Rob Lambert in an email, protection of mammals started 60 years before that, with seals. The first wild mammal to be given Parliamentary legal protection in Britain was the Atlantic Grey Seal: The Grey Seals Protection Act (1914), Grey Seals Protection Act (1932) and the Conservation of Seals Act (1970, which also protected another British mammal species, the Common Seal).

I can also add a link to another Patrick Barkham piece on the apparent comeback of badger baiting (banned since 1835). Barkham’s piece from just after the culls were announced in mid December is also worth a read if you didn’t see it at the time.

The evidence "badger"

I’ve just realised that people will be coming here from my profile on Normblog. So here’s a quick re-post from Flickr which at least includes a picture of a toy.

Evidence Badger

Meet the evidence badger. Ok, it’s a cow.

This is a bit of an in-joke, which I apologise for. But explaining lets me raise a serious point. Badgers are a bit of a knotty issue for science/ agricultural policy. It’s just going to get bigger with the new coalition government. I wanted to present the new Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, Imran Khan, with a toy Badger as a joke-warning of the fuss that is to come. Sadly, the Early Learning Center on High Street Kensington had run out. So had the one in Hammersmith, and the King’s Road branch was shut (cue jokes about culls of West London). So, I presented him with a cow instead.

In some respects a cow is more fitting than a badger, anyway. Badgers are only an issue because of bovine TB. Moreover, the shadow of “mad cow disease” still influences a lot of UK science policy. And there is more. As Imran himself pointed out, if we wanted to, we could trace MMR vaccinations back to cowpox. And then there’s all the methane cows burp out, not to mention the GM soya so many are fed on, and foot and mouth… Clearly, cows are running rampant through UK science policy. You have been warned. The broader point though is that the presentation of evidence isn’t necessarily the end of a science policy discussion.

Edited to add (6pm): Listening to Willetts’ speech at the Royal Institution this morning, this final point is something I think we should bare in mind. Willetts said many things, one being:

as society becomes more diverse and cultural traditions increasingly fractured, I see the scientific way of thinking – empiricism – becoming more and more important for binding us together.

In some respects this is a lovely thought. The big and scary postmodern world brought together with science, basking in the warm glow of Baconian inductivism. Bless. It’d be all very neat if we could just silence questions and solve our problems with bits of incontrovertible evidence. But science just doesn’t work like that. The very “scientific way of thinking” Willetts is prizing here is, itself, fractured and contestable. Indeed, the delivery of evidence can often be the beginning of a debate.

Please note, this isn’t a criticism of “the scientific way of thinking”, I just define it less narrowly than Willetts. Personally I think the capacity for (even encouragement of) debate is one of the good things about science. Long live the evidence badger, in all its troubled glory.

Added 11th Aug: looking back on the last couple of weeks, we’re still obsessed.