Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Ragwort He Who Burns His Buttocks Must Sit On The Blisters

A piece appeared in the Daily Telegraph recently. It appeared only in the print edition it would seem since
I cannot find it on-line.

Professor Derek Knottenbelt a well known figure in the ragwort debate has been complaining that people don't like what he says.

There is quite a bit of research into scientific type people and it seems fairly clear that they get irritated by nonsense. You will find debunkers all over the net debunking nonsensical claims and I am afraid that the same appears true for many of  the professors claims. There are, it seems, rational people who debunk him.

Derek Knottenbelt , professor of equine medicine at the University
 of Liverpool, has spoken out about the lethal effect the plant can have if the
 animals are exposed to it over a period of time, and has advocated measures to
 control its spread.

But since he began raising his concerns over what he calls
 a "silent killer", he has received a torrent of angry letters and emails,
 and even anonymous phone calls, from opponents claiming to be concerned
about the environment. 
He has done a little bit more than argue for control measures. He has argued, it seems,for the total elimination of a native wildflower. Now of course it would be wrong to harass someone, but he has been making some pretty strong statements that are not, it seems, supported by the evidence.
For example, claiming that ragwort is a severe problem in South Africa when the experts there say that there is no evidence that it grows there!

The article continues
 A solution to the problem is necessary, he said, but with such bitter opposition
 to ragwort control, the debate has become polarised.
 "I just can't get my mind around why people are so defensive around
it on the one hand, and so irrational on the other," he said.
This really does seem to be the pot calling the kettle black. Professor Knottenbelt is quoted in a number of places saying "It is toxic to humans, so what the hell are we doing with it in this country"
To someone with a detailed knowledge of botany this seems highly irrational indeed. There are many many poisonous plants in Britain. Even oak trees contain toxins. Potatoes and tomatoes grow on plants that have poisonous parts. Bluebells and daffodils are poisonous too. If we were to eliminate anything possibly toxic we would wreck our environment. 

An earlier wave of malicious letters had arrived after he warned several
 years ago that around 500 horses and ponies were struck down with ragwort
 poisoning annually, he said.

"I got hate mail saying 'this is rubbish and we're going to lose more of our
 summer beauty', that it's not called summer gold for nothing, and so on,"
he said. He has nevertheless continued to speak out about what he fears is a
"ticking time bomb" for horses.
It is entirely possible that he may have had mail criticising him over his claim of 500 horses dying a year, because he has apparently published the method by which he makes this claim in a newspaper and it appears entirely based on a nonsensical use of statistics. This is coupled with the fact that a Freedom of Information Act request to his university showed that , despite his saying that he gets more than ten cases a year, that they had recorded not one single case  in a five year period.

This link goes to a page giving a list of questionable claims by the professor 
These are examples through the years, such as saying  that ragwort is increasing ,when a government survey said it decreased.; that the number of horse deaths would double because of this; that ragwort could cause problems  with the meat , when the experts and a standard textbook say not; that the cinnabar moth ( which isn't the main issue anyway) could survive without ragwort, when the evidence says not. It even seems that he has claimed that the moth is poisoned by this plant when it is its main a natural food.

To people reading this blog I say nobody should be harassed but when an academic seems to make claims apparently using poor evidence and doesn't seem to check his facts then he deserves some criticism.

The is an old Dutch proverb that seems to fit this situation. "He who burns his buttocks must sit on the blisters"


Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps the oddest thing about the Telegraph article (page 9 Monday 19 Aug 2013) is that Telegraph staff member Rosa Silverman (@RosaSilverman)wrote the story without apparently bothering to contact Merseyside Police or BT to check whether they were aware of Knottenbelt's allegations. On 20 Aug I tweeted a comment to that effect that both Ms Silverman and the Telegraph will have seen, but there has been no response from either.
    I doubt that many local journalists would have written such a story without checking with the police.