Thursday, 20 December 2007

Racehorse success in genes ... or not

Interesting how different news outlets interpret a story. The Telegraph's High price may not make champion horse reports an interesting result of a study by Alastair Wilson and Andrew Rambaut at the University of Edinburgh finding that stud fees are a poor marker for genetic quality of racehorses. The Guardian concludes And now the racing results ... 1st: Nurture, 2nd: Nature. The Times focuses on the small genetic component as crucial: 10% factor that makes a champion. Go figure.
      None of the coverage mentions a further source of confusion: that the breeders themselves are unlikely to select stock optimally, due to working by outdated folk theories of horse genetics. This Pedigree Dynamics article, Conception and Misconceptions - A light hearted look at breeding theories of the past, look at some of them, mentioning how theories such as telegony and "mental impression" survived in the thoroughbred horse breeding industry well into the 20th century.
      Even now, racehorse breeding is governed by many semi-empirical racehorse breeding theories that don't bear much relation to real-world genetics. For instance, some breeders place store in the "X factor" (possession of a Large Heart gene). Others rate the horse's heritage according to its place in the Bruce Lowe Family Numbers classification. Yet others go by Dosage (closeness of relationship to chefs-de-race, the relatively rare consistently winning stallions) or "nicking patterns" (the belief, debunked here, that particular pairs of bloodlines may be statistically identified as producing winners when mated); or even rules-of-thumb that smack of outright numerology ("a mare’s third foal, if born when the mare is seven years old, is the most likely to be a successful racehorse").
      Given such a muddle of beliefs, it's unsurprising that nurture should turn out to be the dominant factor in racehorse success.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

BBC diet stories: more failure to investigate agendas

From the BBC recently: Medieval diets 'far more healthy', which links to an older item, Americans look to Jesus for diet. Spot the connection. They're both stories about diets attributed to doctors: the first, "Dr Roger Henderson ... a Shropshire GP"; the second, "Don Colbert, a Florida doctor". The problem is that this completely fails to explain to the reader where these sources are coming from.
      Dr Roger Henderson is not just any old GP, but a media newspaper columnist and PR consultant, and as the ''Telegraph'' version of this story reports and you can read in the press release, Romans and Tudors were healthier than modern Britons, the research was commissioned by Lloydspharmacy. The thrust appears to be scare readers about cholesterol in the modern diet and, handily, Andy Murdock, Pharmacy Director for Lloydspharmacy has the remedy: "’s vital that people take whatever steps they can to reduce their chances of suffering modern conditions such as high cholesterol. To help people identify their level of risk we’ve launched a heart and cholesterol check at Lloydspharmacy".
      Don Colbert is likewise not just any Florida doctor but a celebrity TV doctor/evangelist (see whose products include What Would Jesus Eat? The Ultimate Program for Eating Well, Feeling Great and Living Longer, the What Would Jesus Eat Cookbook and various associated supplements.
      This was findable with trivial Googling, and in any case would be in the press releases behind the stories. Why does the BBC not report this? Perhaps it's policy and they think it makes the stories non-commercial. But it doesn't; omitting the commercial back-story makes those interests effectively covert, and hides from readers that they're being sold something.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Cod formula alert: perfect Christmas

From the Western Morning News (and I'm sure we'll see more of it elsewhere): Scientist sums up perfect Christmas: "A university mathematician has calculated a formula for the perfect Christmas - and it includes plenty of food and drink. Professor Rudi Dallos, from the University of Plymouth, has analysed what makes Christmas swing and produced the above equation".
      You can see the formula at the original press release from the Cake Group. It's in aid of promoting a booklet from the Children's Society, Batteries Not Included, giving hints and tips for celebrating Christmas economically. It's in a good cause and can be defended as being lighthearted in intent.
      Even so, this is a standard news story format - Google scientists formula perfect and see Formula for the perfect formula - based on the discovery, usually in some promotional context, of a claimed formula (often, as in this case, mathematically malformed) for some commonplace situation. It trivialises mathematics in the popular eye, and academics really ought to consider its effect on the reputation of their field before they sell out to this kind of fluff.

It's usually enlightening, when you see these formula stories in the press, to check out of the background and see who is trying to sell you what. This story is at least open about its agenda, but this is not always the case. For example, for the much-publicised "perfect bacon butty" story that appeared earlier this year, it's easy to find that this isn't some kind of blue-sky food science research at the University of Liverpool (as you might naively expect from the BBC's Scientists' 'perfect' bacon butty). The bacon research was conducted at the Food Chain Centre of Industrial Collaboration ("delivering the power of science to food and drink companies since 2004") and unsurprisingly commissioned by Danish Bacon.
      Such checks are general good advice with "scientific discovery" stories. They can be genuine academic interest stories, but often they hide situations where even the researchers turn out to be selling the product the story reports. News reportage is lax if it fails to identify such a conflict of interest.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Bringing up Baby - Ofcom whitewash

Returning to the topic of Channel 4's Bringing up Baby series (see Bringing Up Baby - theatre or bad science? and Bringing Up Baby - update), the Ofcom judgement on complaints about has just come out. Broadcast Bulletin Issue number 98 - 03|12|07 concludes "Not in Breach".
      I think it's a complete whitewash. Others will no doubt find further specifics, but I noticed two points immediately. Firstly, the issue of mentor Claire Verity's qualifications (since shown to be questionable) is dismissed on a technicality: that since the programme made no reference to professional qualifications, audiences were not misled. Never mind the strong implication and not unreasonable assumption that if someone turns up on TV as a babycare "mentor" and "maternity nurse", they would have qualifications for that role.
      Secondly, Ofcom closes ranks with the still unnamed experts who advised the programme - "a senior psychologist", "a neurologist", "a GP" and a "senior consultant paediatrician" - and appears not to have taken wider advice, or any notice of the many criticisms from professional childcare organisations, on the current consensus about developmental psychology: that Truby King's tenets such as minimal cuddling and making no eye contact are not merely outdated, but wildly wrong.
      The Ofcom ruling furthermore upholds Truby King's methods on grounds of mere established historical authority, because of being "previously published and well-known books and theories ... in the public domain and legal". Ofcom describes its starting point as "that a programme which explores and discusses these approaches cannot in itself be problematic, so long as the broadcaster ensures that the material is put in context and that the audience is fully informed ... The methods were put in an historical perspective". This is not true. We never saw the full background of the Truby King's colonial-era nationalist eugenic control-freakery that viewed maternal affection as "a dangerous indulgence".

Monday, 3 December 2007

Playing the "natural" card

From the BBC yesterday: Ozone protects against superbugs: "A nursing home in Suffolk is using a new natural oxygen-based disinfectant to counter the threat of superbugs ... Foxearth Nursing Home, near Woodbridge, has established new laundry systems using ozone - a natural disinfectant ... James Cantrell, home manager, said the new system gives them a great deal of confidence and it uses natural and freely available materials like oxygen".
      This is hardly cutting-edge: ozone-based laundry systems are increasingly popular, and it's a little hard to see why the BBC picked up on such a non-story. However, my criticism is that the story repeats a common and fallacious implication that being a natural substance imparts some touchy-feely positive quality. It doesn't. Ozone is toxic and irritant, and needs to be well-contained.
      Chemistry and biology don't care about the origins of a substance. A disinfectant could be made from moonbeams and the laughter of fluffy baa-lambs: but if it's toxic, it's toxic. One might consider that carbon and nitrogen are both natural and freely available materials, but no-one would argue for the naturalness of disinfecting laundry with cyanide.
      By the way, the Foxearth Lodge (the nursing home's full name) has some seriously strange equipment in its laundry: I wonder what the steam disaffection machines do?