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Monday, 21 January 2013

Philosphy from Flying Too High, Kerry Greenwood

Now did I really read this last night in the book Flying Too High by Kerry Greenwood, or did I dream it?

They are fish; they do not feel pain.

You are not a fish, how do you know they do not feel pain.

You are not me; how do you know I do not know if a fish feels pain.

Mmmm....  what a coincidence, following all my blogs and the stuff about fish pain!

Friday, 18 January 2013

...More on fish pain arguments

Fish have no neocortex* and few c-fibres so they cannot have the capacity to feel pain.

Similar arguments:
Fish have no legs so they cannot have the capacity for locomotor activity
Neither do/can snakes.

Fish have primitive wing like structures called fins, so they can fly a bit.

Ostriches have wings so they can fly.

Ostriches have much bigger wings that swallows so they must fly much better than swallows.

Men pee through their penises (just one each I believe, thank god) ... women have no penis so presumably cannot pee.

So perhaps actual experiment and observation is a better means of determining whether or not a particular animal feels pain, rather than a comparative anatomical approach?

*outer most area of the brain where some people believe humans feel pain.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Can fish really feel pain?

This is probably going to be something I return to, but believe it or not there has long since been a debate about whether animals (and even babies) feel pain.
Combine the two of course (puppies) and you have the origins of the practice of tail docking.

Most recently, various media sources including the Telegraph and even the @MRCVSonline Twitter feed published a link to a paper which claimed that fish did NOT feel pain.  It is an old debate, and this is the latest installment of an old theory.  Direct response from fishy expert: Lynne Sneddon (her response is buried in the article comments).
So where does it come from?

The Background on Pain
Well in as un-cynical terms as possible, and technically from a neuroscience point of view, that which people in general would describe as "pain" is broken down into two parts.  The first is called "nociception" (derives from: noxious sensation).  So if you stick a pin in your leg, there are adapted nerves in the skin which detect this attack and they are called "nociceptors".  The response is "nociception" (not pain yet).  So normally, this nociception would be transmitted by nerves up to your brain where you would feel it as pain.  So the brain would be telling you that your arm hurts?  A simple illustration is that if you break your spine and all the nerves are lost not only would you be paralysed, but you would be numb!  You would not feel the pin in your leg.  So if you don't feel the pin... there is no pain!  So "nociception" and "pain" can be separated.  Another way to separate them would be with a local anaesthetic or an opioid pain killer.

Back to Fish
So, back to fish.... if you stick a pin in them, do they register it as pain?  Well... again it is more complex.  They try and escape... and they will thrash about.... so it looks like they are feeling pain, but some people argue that that is just a reflex, like the knee jerk reflex in humans.
...But absolutely any test you do shows what appears to be pain.  Yet, some people continue to reject the idea that fish feel pain.  They argue very confidently, that the areas in the brain which interpret pain are absent in fish (the structure of the fishy brain is a bit different to that of people).  Which is a bit like a man saying "obviously women can't pee because they don't have a penis". Naturally there are a vast array of mechanisms and structures which have adapted through evolution to for fill a vast array of functions and it would take a lot more evidence than this little review to convince me that "pain" just suddenly sprang from nowhere in human evolution!
Here's an idea... perhaps fish feel pain with other parts of the brain.  There are a number of very technical reasons for why it is clear that fish do feel pain in one form or another, but I am not going to go into that here. 

...and strangely, I have little problem with people fishing.
(OK I confess I do fish a little myself, but don't worry I retain the moral high ground by NEVER catching a bloody thing!!)
What I would have a problem with is people fishing and believing that trauma to a fish and apparent pain is NOT pain!  Just catch it and put it out of its misery nice and quick is all I would say!

How about another thing!  Often when one reads real scientific, peer review papers, one looks for the hidden vested interest groups.  The public frequently AND MISTAKENLY think that medical research is funded by BIG PHARMA and (we) do what we are told.  Well, that is not often the case. (I sometimes wish I did have some Big Pharma money to be honest! ), but there may be subtle things, like you published X years ago, and now you have a vested interest in proving that you were right, when people think you are wrong... but just throw back your head a laugh out loud when you realise that this paper claiming fish don't feel pain was published in "Fish and Fisheries" and funded by Fisheries money.  Well "they would say that wouldn't they".

Addendum: Comments from people:
"I couldn't inflict what I would consider pain on any animal, my personal view though."  That is obviously a very worthy and consistent approach.  I suppose it looks incredible that I would contemplate fishing if  I believe that the data says fish feel pain? Well I just like sitting in the sun and watching the world go by.  What has really put pay to fishing for me is the fact my dogs make much greater attempts to snaffle down my baited hook than the fish do.  I find the battle to not injure myself, my dogs or the environment totally puts me off.  I have caught fish for the pot when I was young and I tried to dispatch them as quickly and humanely as possible. If I saw (and I did see) people unbothered by a slowly dying fish... that broke my code and I said so and stepped in to finish the job.  Sorry if that offends anyone: but...  few people argue that chicken, cattle and sheep don't feel pain, but most eat meat.  I don't claim to be a better person than anyone else, I have just tried to explain the situation in as unbiased manner as possible.
"If they felt nothing they wouldn't survive." That is true, of course:  What we are all talking of as pain is an adaptation to facilitate survival.  However, they could be "wired" to have escape reflexes and not actually have capacity to "suffer".  Its starts to get philosophical.  However, before I asserted that any creature didn't feel pain:  I'd want to see a bit of experimental (even if observational) for that!  The paper cited in the Telegraph and elsewhere doesn't seem to have this.  When I was a baby, and I was injured; my father was told me that the medics that stitched me without anaesthetics told him I wasn't screaming and thrashing because I felt pain since the brain was not sufficiently developed yet; I was merely reacting with reflexes.[Hello Dad if you find this!].  Now few people even believe this anecdote, but I told it to the Chair of Medical Ethics in Birmingham University Prof. David Morton and he told me it was a common misconception at that time. 

Horse DNA in beefburgers

I am looking forward to finding out what the hell happened...  I guess it was corruption in someway, rather than strictly an accident?
 The tests reveal equine DNA in there.  Presumably from horse meat.
One question people are asking, is "how did it take so long to spot that".  Well, the response, for fear of defending the authorities is (a) The media have not yet found out how long it has been going on, but more importantly (b) There is no test for is there something else in there.  Before you do the test you have to have suspicion of what you are looking for?  The tests are simply is x in there.  Is y in there.  Is z in there etc., etc.

So I am guessing there was a tip off somewhere which led the scientists to make the discovery.  That, or the cows ate a load of horse meat?  No actually that is silly, because the equine (horse) DNA would be completely digested in the gut and never arrive in the meat of the cow. ....Unless the cows ate the horses and were slaughtered stomachs filled and the cow's intestines were included in the beefburger "mix" .  It is important to remember that when shops say "100% beef" they only ever meant "100% from a cow".  That would include grizzle, blood vessels etc. etc.  Not actual prime steak.

...but surely it is a little amusing to see distressed parents who have been feeding their kids bargain beefburgers when they learn that this DREADFULLY unhealthy meal has actually been contaminated with something...  a little less unhealthy. Horse meat, per say, is a little less bad for you than beef meat.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

BBC's Fairness in Chimpanzees story. Why it's flawed.

This morning, the BBC was airing a story about chimpanzees having a sense of fairness.  I am not surprised, I would have guessed that, although fairness is not something one ever really witnesses with my two dogs, it would exist in a chimp! (Humour, intelligence, fun, pretending and affection all seem to be there in dogs, but I've never noticed fairness!) BUT did you know that the very publication of that story was "unfair".

Original Link:
BBC Link: 

...I write the rest of this with a mouthful of water :-/
This is how professional science usually works:  We scientists do some work/experiments/mathematical proof whatever.  This is sent of to a "Journal" where an editor reviews it.  If the Editor thinks it's sensible s/he sends it to other anonymous (expert/qualified) scientists who review the work to check it is valid.  Only if the Editor and the Reviewers view the material as sound does it get published in the Journal as a "paper".  The most famous Journals are Nature, Science, Lancet and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), but there are thousands of other ones too.  New Scientist, BBC Focus magazine etc. are NOT journals.  They are interesting, but they do not operate the rigorous review system of "proper" Journals.  The BBC then peruse the various proper science Journals and pick stories to air on the TV/Radio/Internet, safe in the knowledge that the work has been rigorously reviewed by experts.
HOWEVER, PNAS, as a journal is a sort of club and it has a large number of papers which are NOT subject to this rigorous Editor chosen/anonymous review!  These "contributed" papers are published by MEMBERS of the National Academy of Sciences and reviewed only by their own chosen friends (see here).  Whilst it is true that the members of the National Academy of Sciences will be pretty reputable scientists in their own right... the papers have not had the same level of review as in other Journals.  So my issue, is not just that is unfair for members to have an easy route of publication compared with non-members, but it stands to reason that the papers are likely to be more wacky, or unreliable. If I were the BBC Science Editor...   I would be inclined to steer well clear of "contributed" PNAS papers...

Ironic, I thought, that a paper on the expression of fairness in apes is published in a journal known to be unfair!!

Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Meaning of Geometric and Arithmetic to CPI and RPI

...OK I thought there was scope for a non-maths explanation, by a scientist (not an economist!).  You can bandy about all your logs and nth roots and stuff, but the bottom line about arithmetic and geometric means is how they respond to "outliers".  There really is no conspiracy.


So, if you have a basket of 9 products all increased by 1% but just one item increased by 500%... how should THAT fact be reflected in the figures.

Without the math:
The Arithmetic mean gives 50.9%
the Geometric mean gives 1.9%

So in home economic terms, if turkey, chips, electricity, bread, milk, shampoo, toothpaste, washing machines and underwear have all increased by 1%, but domestic gas has increased by 500% which value; 50.9% or 1.9% better reflects a meaningful value.  Look there is no right or wrong answer! It depends on context and what you will do with it.

Since in this example it is domestic gas that has gone up, it may not really be all that sensible to say RPI is up by 51% on average, because with a whopping rise in gas price like this, we'd all switch to electric convection heaters!
...BUT, if it were bread that went up....   then we'd probably have to take it on the chin (or eat brioche?).

It is very much true that if this is the pattern of activity which is being described by the inflation figures, the geometric mean sounds favourable to government, but the whole thing could work in reverse.  If everything was going up a lot other than, say electronic goods, the geometric mean would look higher.

So the stats enquiry says geometric means are better estimators of the impact of inflation on us the general public, but government won't switch to that for the RPI.  Why is that? 
...because it will look like they are cheating, even if actually, they are not....

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Plants Feel Pain (Daily Mail Story)

Daily Mail Plants Can Talk and Feel Pain Story "Scientists say"
(AccessedJan 8th 2013)
EErrm, no they don't :-)
Shall we leave it at that? No....

There seems to be a general rule with the Daily Mail that nothing they publish should be true, or if you are being very charitable: ...nothing should be quite true.

So the story basically says that if you squish a plant bubbles of gas squeeze out which are audible (to a fancy microphone)...  There is no way that could be thought of as feeling pain or talking.  There is no citation given, but Frank K├╝hnemann of Bonn University, Germany is the name associated with the story.  I dare say (hope!) the mis-quote is not of Dr K├╝hnemann doing!!

By this logic a Jam Sandwich feels pain too.
So here is an experiment you can try for yourself, by way of :
(1) Take a jam sandwich.
(2) Place a powerful microphone along side it.
(3) Stamp on the sandwich.
(4) Analyse your audio recording.

Hey you will find that when you jumped on the sandwich there was a rapid expulsion of air and jam and the is audible as "squish" noise.  Ergo the Sandwich was alive, and screamed with pain....

And the Daily Mail comment (Newspapers and the media always do this): "Scientists say" is utterly stupid.  Scientists do not speak with one voice.  At the very least they should have said "we have found a scientist who believes that.....".  That is a mantra I shall be repeating!


My Bottom Line would be if you are interested in gossip. Great.  If you are interested in science and/or health, pop your Daily Mail into the bin along with the Sun, which hopefully has been in there since 1989*.

Thanks for stopping by.

*Ps., I never bought the Sun even before Hillsborough 1989.  It was always clear to me since I was a child that it was a

horrible "newspaper".