Monday, 18 June 2012

Mob mentality of True Believers

There is a discussion on the Horse and Hound forum, where ragwort expert Esther Hegt has tried valiantly to explain to them about the hysteria and myths  surrounding the plant.She gets many responses that are just  full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Esther, a keen horsewoman, is known to people working on ragwort for her towering intellect. She has written a magnificent website with the help of quite a stellar cast of experts. If you want to know anything about the plant Esther will have a reference or a scientific  paper to hand.

Unfortunately, this intelligent woman is casting pearls before swine on that forum. There are  some there who are  "True Believers" in the hysteria and who dismiss her out of hand. I know the regular scientific readers of this blog will be holding their heads  in horror as a time after time one   ignoramus after another  repeats the endless ragwort myths and uses poor cognitive skills to do so. Ignoramus is the word all right. It comes from a the name of a  character in a play and means "we don't know" in Latin.

It is perhaps understandable that some people.think that reading things on-line or in newspapers or magazines is the correct way to get information and there has been some really bad information in the horsey press. Like this stuff from your horse magazine a few years ago

The reality of course is that  the international consensus is that ragwort poisoning  is quite  rare.
The only significant problems being caused by hay and starvation. Liverpool University, for example, tells me that despite having records of treating a number of horses with liver damage at their  animal hospital, they have no record of any case of diagnosed ragwort poisoning at all for the five year period 2006-2010.

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Friday, 15 June 2012

RSPCA frighten people with hysteria and misinformation

Yesterday I blogged about the RSPCA campaign in Eastern England which was scaring people with poor information. Today I am blogging about a pretty egregious example of frightening people. Th4y are not giving out the false story that children are at risk.

An article in the Ashbourne News contains much of the poor stuff from yesterday but it also contains these quotes.
“We are certain that if the animals’ owners were aware of the dangers, then they would remove this weed immediately"
 Actually this is the kind of certainty that is often the problem. The certainty of ignorance. There is as I have mentioned before a phenomenon called the Dunning Kruger Effect where people lacking in knowledge are overconfident about things. Owners who are knowledgeable about biology may well realise quickly that animals are designed by nature and evolution to avoid eating poisons.

“We hope to raise awareness across the region of the dangers and will be posting leaflets in all local vets and drawing it to the attention of landowners.” While ragwort should be dug up and burnt in late June, once the weed starts to flower, some farmers have admitted they are “unconcerned” about the effects of the plant and refuse to dedicate time to removing it, despite it’s potentially harmful effects on their livestock and young children."
Farmers may actually know what they are talking about. They may actually spot hysteria when they see it.

Now this is a really bad example of spreading hysteria. Now they are telling people that their children are potentially at risk  This is really questionable for a supposedly respected charity to do this. There is no evidence at all that children are put at risk in anyway from the presence of ragwort. There probably are far more dangerous things in every house than ragwort.

This is another classic example of the problem of people repeating things that they feel should be true on the basis of flimsy evidence. Feeling type people tend, some of the psychological theories tell us, not to be good at the rational thinking needed for a good understanding of what constitutes a rationally establishable scientific fact.
Oh yes, and to top it all the picture on the website isn't correct. It isn't Common Ragwort, the plant in question, but Oxford Ragwort a plant of waste ground, and cracks in the pavement!

As ever there are pages of good information at
Ragwort Facts
Ragwort Myths and Facts
The second site is written by top class  European ragwort expert Esther Hegt who has gathered a stellar cast of international experts to help her explain the science.

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Thursday, 14 June 2012

RSPCA distributes poor information on ragwort

All over the press in Eastern England over the last few days  there has been a poor and misleading story about ragwort which is the result of publicity by the RSPCA. I will be distributing this post to the press so in case anyone wonders I am not just some guy with a blog saying things. I have been studying this plant and the hysteria around it for over a decade and I can back up everything I am saying with solid reference to the scientific literature and statistics.
Last year I got a load of ragwort adverts stopped by the Advertising Standards Authority who backed me rather than the adverts which basically derived from the kind of hysteria which is being put out in these articles. If you are from the press and want to know more Buglife - The Invertebrate Conservation Society
took press released this. Advertising Standards Authority crack down on misleading information about Ragwort - a British wildflower

The articles are all very similar so this gives us a good idea what the press release looks like.They create panic where none is needed.

For example let's take the one in the Louth Leader

This creates an entirely misleading impression.

Just a small intake of ragwort over a long period of time can be just as damaging as a large intake on a single occasion
What we know from the biochemistry here is that this is not necessarily  true at all. The stuff in the plants actually isn't toxic, it has to be converted into a toxic product via processes in the gut and the liver. There are a whole series of mechanisms which reduce the amount of actual toxins formed. Then there are also repair mechanisms which sort the problem. I blogged about it some time ago. At some point I really need to write this up in technical detail for my main website but for now look at this previous blog entry for a bit more detail

Branch chairman Sally Phillips said: “It is heartbreaking when we see fields covered with this potentially lethal plant and it is growing next to where horses or livestock are happily grazing.
This creates a real impression of urgent danger. Horses, like all other animals have evolved to avoid poisons.
Ragwort poisoning is rare. The only real problem is if it is in hay, when it loses its taste or if animals are starved into eating absolutely anything out of desperation.

There are claims that hundreds or thousands or horses die every year and these are really at the route of the problem here. The RSPCA should as a proper charity check their facts. I have, using Freedom of Information requests and other techniques I get the actual statistics. These have no basis in establishable facts.

I blogged about this in this blog entry recently.They made it up you know!

This is what appears in another newspaper

Ragwort plants can produce up to 150,000 seeds which can remain dormant in the soil for up to 20 years.
Th is is real exaggeration after 20 years there are unlikely to be many seeds that survive. and the seeds figure is like saying men can grow up to 8 foot tall.  It is possible but rare.
These are some real figures from the research for normal plants at 8 different sites

Horse and livestock owners that find ragwort on their land are urged to move the animal to another area immediately.

This is real hysteria. As I said this isn't how poisoning occurs. The animals know instinctively to avoid it.
 To put this in context, both problems are rare, but it would appear from the available statistics that Equine Grass Sickness, which has complicated origins but which associated with grazing on grass rather than using hay, causes more horse deaths. Therefore it seems that the grass in those fields poses a greater risk

Let's not forget that ragwort is an important plant for much wildlife and that there are animals that rely on it entirely for survival. The RSPCA should be thinking about them too and if the newspaper articles correctly reflect what they say should take more care to check its facts.

It is also important to realise that despite being a common plant ( althought the evidence does actually show a decline in its abundance) there are a whole range of wild animals that rely on ragwort as a food and nectar source and we know from key elements of modern ecological science that loosing any habitat patch from within a group of habitat patches or loosing connectivity between habitat patches can have a wide ranging effect on a species beyond just the local damage. Indeed, one of  the standard textbooks on this branch of modern science actually has an entire chapter on the interactions of ragwort. As ever there are pages of good information at
Ragwort Facts
Ragwort Myths and Facts
The second site is written by top class  European ragwort expert Esther Hegt who has gathered a stellar cast of international experts to help her explain the science.

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Saturday, 9 June 2012

Cancer scare debunked

In this morning's routine trawl for items on ragwort. I came across this posting on a discussion on breast cancer.
Some poor sufferers were wondering if years of pulling ragwort had caused their cancers.
This is another example of one of the pernicious rumours that cause me to blog about this subject. I could blog every single day in the summer about something or other that is incorrect that is being said about ragwort.

As regular followers of this blog will know whilst ragwort can be poisonous, much of the fuss about ragwort is made up and the Advertising Standards Authority has forced the removal of false claims from adverts.

I have every genuine sympathy with those poor ladies on that forum. Breast cancer is awful. It killed my grandmother so I do not criticise them for wondering.  The problem is certain people campaigning and promoting their products which causes people to worry unnecessarily.

I covered the ragwort skin absorption myth in another posting some time ago. It is one of the most popular postings on this entire blog according to the logs. So people must be worried about the myth.

That blog entry covers the origin of the myth and its debunking by Esther Hegt  a horse enthusiast and a leading European ragwort expert and  Dr Pieter Pelser, a world authority on ragwort with a PhD on the plant.

Basically it is like this. Ragwort's alkaloids are very poorly absorbed through the skin. If they are they are not in a toxic form and will be filtered out and excreted. The alkaloids only get changed into a toxic form if they pass through the gut after being eaten.
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