Friday, October 26, 2007

Reactions to the King.

Some reactions - predictably polarised - to Sir. David King's peer review of the ISG final report, in which he used quite un-scientific, but eloquently cutting phrases to describe the report's unequivocal findings.

"the data do not support such an unqualified conclusion..."
"the ISG's view...is unsound..."
"the confidence intervals are very large..."
"it was unclear whether it had been considered..."
"we are concerned about the time frame..."
"this time lag does not seem to have been taken into account..."
"the results...should be viewed with extreme caution..."
"we were not fully persuaded by it..."
"we have concerns about the biological plausibility of the ISG's interpretation of the results..."
A comment on a posting below quoted Animal Aid's predictable hype, which cited "overcrowded factory farms, dirty conditions" - conveniently forgetting 'Shambo' - and The Guardian has John Bourne as defending 'hero' and Sir. David as 'villain', in a short overview of the theatre that is EFRAcom.

The government chief scientist's recommendations to ministers on badger culling were "hastily written", "superficial" and "selective" according to the scientist who led the government's study into the problem of cattle TB.
However, it is quite apparent from ploughing through the dough of this Final Report, that much is based on 'assumption', 'rough' estimates and 'hypothoses'. And those can be skewed. And according the the person who framed its methodology, Professor Bourne, it was politically skewed from its outset.

As we have said before, the main tranche of its conclusions on the relative importance of cattle or badgers in the 'net reproduction rate of the epidemic' are summed up in para 7.24 where the ISG describe how they come to the conclusion that badgers account for 40 per cent of incidents. It is a 'tentative' prediction, they say:

...all sources of infection for cattle, local infection for example across farm boundaries, infection from animals bought in particular(ly) but not only, from high incidence areas, and infection from wildlife, especially badgers. All these are important but their relative importance, and that of cattle-to-badger transmission, cannot be estimated directly. In the following calculations, we assume all three sources to be roughly equally important"
And that lazy, contradictory (see more in our comment below) 'tentative' prediction, based on 2 parts cattle to 1 part badger, extruded through a 'simple mathematical model' in three 'roughly equal' sound bites are what the final report boils down to. That and John Bourne's infamous 'edges', which Sir David at least was at pains to reinterpret.

Sir David defended his corner well, reminding his audience that his remit was not to offer solutions but to examine the evidence for the ISG's conclusions. He also reminded them that it was his group who brought up sharp the government scientists exploring for three long and expensive years, the possibility of BSE in sheep - by examining cattle brains.

And from the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management (VAWM) comes the following:
The recent statement by the chief scientist Sir David King that badgers will have to be culled in order to control bovine tuberculosis is a welcome breath of scientific fresh air and common sense to be contrasted with the politically compromised recommendations of the so called Independent Scientific Group earlier this year.
They also point out that as control of bTb in wildlife reservoirs has been abandoned for the last ten years, after its progressive sanitation in the previous decade, its spread has effectively been allowed to "run out of control".

VAWM's response to the ISG final report and their statement on Sir. David King's response can be read here, and the farming press comments here and here.

10 comments:

George said...

Although the ISG came to the conclusion that badgers account for 40 per cent of incidents, the vets in the State Veterinary Service, actually investigating each individual incident, would put the figure very much higher. Direct spread across hedges from one farm to another and spread caused by movements of animals account for very few cases.

Matthew said...

George: Para 7,24 is not only the basis for the 'assumed' importance of cattle v. badger in Tb transmission, it is also doubly contradictory.

The ISG begin by saying that "the changes cannot be assessed directly from available data" then qualify their efforts to achieve a 'tentative predicion' with "simple mathematical models combined with the large amount of data now assembled.."
But then turn all this on its head with the explanation that results "cannot be estimated directly" so in their calculations they have offered "roughly equal importance" to all three sources.

We read this as , "we had the data in the TB99s and from local AHO - if'd we'd bothered to ask - but it was too much trouble to compute, so we 'assumed' the three most likely sources of transmission to be of equal , or 'roughly equal' importance, and saved ourselves much leg work and epidemiological investigation".

I suppose we should be grateful that they didn't input muck spreading, silage making and feeding of cattle into the blasted model, as well.

Anonymous said...

I am an innocent in all this, having only recently come across this blogsite - but have explored its recent utterances with great interest. I enjoy good balanced debate and regard it as crucial in complex situations such as this, but I sense that most contributors have started out as pro-culling, so are automatically anti-the ISG report and hence predisposed to accept (welcome even) the David King comments. Having had my interest whetted I actually went and read the ISG report (get a life, I hear you say)and as someone with a science training I have to say I found it very reasonable in its approach and presentation. I didn't understand all the detailed statistics, nor the mathemetical model at the end (how many of the rest of you did?)but the general thrust of the story it developed was pretty clear, balanced and fully discussed. I'm pretty sure the science community (leaving aside David King - I haven't seen that others of his ilk have come out in criticism) would say that it is a model of how science should be done and reported (and it's the progress of science done in this way through the decades that has established the knowledge and understanding of things that we rely on today, so don't just rubbish it).
However, just a couple of points that have struck me. You all really go to town to mock the 'simple mathematical model' of disease development. But as far as I can see that's just an appendix to the report, a kind of theoretical footnote, and seems not to be fundamental to the report's recommendations. The whole case for the role of cattle-based measures is developed, discussed and justified on vet science grounds, and the model seems to be there only to show there is a mathematical consistency or underpinning to those recommendations (which is what models are properly used for anyway, not for deriving specific 'real world' answers).
My second point is a major one. No one seems to have read (or at least no one has commented on) Chapt9, which assesses the economic aspects of badger culling. This is clearly written, straightforward, eminently readable and understandable by non-specialists, with no complicated terminology or formulas - and it's message is inescapable. Whichever way you slice it, whatever method of culling you use and whoever does it, badger culling doesn't prevent enough TB breakdowns to ever make it worthwhile. Farmers would be mad to spend their own money on it. And as a taxpayer it appears it would be a scandalous waste of scarce public money if the govt did it. How can we argue over the details of badger culling when the whole approach seems to be a non-starter economically?
In this respect, King undermines his own position in giving 'policy advice' by blithely declaring he hasn't considered its cost effectiveness? Since when is policy justified solely on the grounds that it's scientifically possible, or the outcomes would be desirable, regardless of what it costs? (I can imagine the derision an economist would rightly attract if he recommended a course of action that would save the govt a lot of money - only it wasn't technically possible to do it!)
OK, it's been an interesting debate, albeit somewhat one-sided, so I just felt like introducing some new thoughts

Anonymous said...

DON’T START HERE

Whilst everyone concerned about bTB must welcome interest from ‘anonymous’ - “I am an innocent in all this, having only recently come across this blogsite” – I hope the reading of the ISG report motivates ‘anonymous’ to further research the issue. Having now read a book of fiction ‘anonymous’ may be interested in the facts.

I refer to - for example - The Krebs Report (1997) or better still the Zuckerman Report (1980) and while the debate continues the cause of the problem and the solution to it remain the same – ie badger population management.

Put simply - in the 1980’s cattle slaughtered because of bTB numbered some 200 -300 each year. When New Labour gained office in 1997 it was some 6,000 per annum. Ten years later the current situation is some 30,000 with 7% of the faming industry - yes 7,000 rural businesses – not being able to trade properly.

The facts are obvious to all who care to listen but political corruption and electoral cowardice dictate an ‘obfuscate and do nothing policy’ because the badger’s ‘loved’ by 95% of the Nation and it’s their way of saying they love wild animals and the British countryside etc . The fact is ‘they’ do not understand either the ‘wild’ or the ‘countryside’ – and of course this too goes for most MPs.

Costs? – well this depends on the chosen method of culling – putting aside, for the moment, the use of Real Time PCR technology which incidentally worked brilliantly (didn’t it?) with the recent (current?) FMD outbreak and is feared by the current New Labour politicians because it is so accurate, speedy and cost effective and appears to nail the little blighters precisely.

There is a cost of doing something and the cost of not doing something – sooner or later the EU will tell PM Brown to do something – then he’ll be able to blame somebody else!

How much does it cost to organise the culling of badgers with local vets and farmers with their smoky out of tune tractors gassing setts during the daylight? Combine this with some pre-culling surveying with the new technology to confirm presence or otherwise of bTB. Revisit, monitor and re-gas – and the job’s done. Now this of course is simplistic – but it is simple. The only problem is the fear experienced by Politicians.

“Anonymous” – welcome to the ever spiralling unreal world of ‘Bovine TB in Badgers & Cattle’ which makes ‘THE DA VINCI CODE’ and it’s ‘prequal’ ‘Angels (cattle) & Demons (badgers)’ look unexciting! I’ve read neither but wasn’t the prequel ‘a race against time’?

The facts reveal that it’s the badger wot Dunnett!

Peter Brady

SETT

Society for the Eradication of Tuberculosis Transmission

Anonymous said...

WHOOPS

Fourth from end should read:

There is the cost of doing something and the cost of doing NOTHING – sooner or later the EU will tell PM Brown to do something – then he’ll be able to blame somebody else!

Peter Brady SETT

Jo said...

The big thing missing from chapter 9 when it writes about the cost of badger culling is the cost of not culling. How many thousands of cattle have to die, and farmers be driven to despair, before that cost is even considered?

Matt said...

Today there's a damning editorial in Nature criticising a senior Government advisor?s call for a badger cull. The prestigious scientific journal states: A government that asks for independent scientific advice had best be ready to take it. Dr Rob Atkinson, the RSPCA?s Head of Wildlife Science, says: This is a measure of the shock waves which have hit the scientific world since the King report was published last week.
See http://tinyurl.com/2voeoa for the Nature editorial


Of course the regulars here will rubbish this as it's not pro-killing

Anonymous said...

The estimated cost of culling badgers can be inflated to support a particular point of view or as a justification for doing nothing but most would find it difficult to exceed the £90 million a year we are told bovine TB is at present costing the country.

On a personal level our outbreak has cost us tens of thousands of pounds over and above the compensation paid for the many animals slaughtered. Like so many other farmers we have received nothing for the loss of milk production and loss of a calf when perfectly healthy cows were slaughtered just a week or two before calving. We have received nothing for the destruction of a viable business, something that should have been protected according to the Human Rights Act but whose listening? We are not out of trouble yet and await the next re-infection from badgers with a dull resignation borne of too many 60 day tests and too many slaughterings.

I believe disease control, at least for notifiable diseases such as bTB, is the responsibility of GOVERNMENT. They may in their usual blundering and inefficient way inflate the cost but if we, personally, were asked to rid our farm of badgers we could do the job for the price of a box of the appropriate ammunition and few cans of diesel to provide the carbon monoxide. So 'Anonymous said 9-10' please do not insult our intelligence by trying to make a case for it being cheaper not to cull.

What stops us from taking matters into our own hands is not the threat of prison or a large fine- (we are after all entitled under the Badger Protection Act to have a culling licence for the purposes of disease control - something the GOVERNMENT has without reference to Parliament refused to give us) -but the hope that very,very, shortly the GOVERNMENT will initiate a targetted cull in conjunction with the stringent testing that is already carried out on our herds.Otherwise...

As for Bourne versus King - The trials were flawed from the start and no amount of statistical analysis could put this right. King at least appears to have some common sense. His conclusion, paragraph 51, should have been obvious ten years ago, that we cannot hope to control bTB in cattle without also tackling the disease in badgers.

Matthew said...

Anon:9.10
Thankyou for your contribution.
As other comments have said, please start at the beginning. In this case the 500 PQ's which form the archive for the site. If you can plough through the ISG 290 pages, you will find them a doddle.
We are not pro culling badgers. We are against culling cattle for bTb when they are not the only source - or in our cases not the source at all.

Imagine, if you will, a hospital ward of patients. MRSA is circulating from some patients, and others are being infected. Test six beds on the left and remove the inmates. Leave the other six on the right, some of whom are infected as well. Why be surprised when a replacement 6 patients on the left succomb to MRSA?

We are not against pure science, but we are against 'political ' science - which the ISG have indicated they are a part of.

You say you find the ISG final report " very reasonable in its approach and presentation".

It is. Very reasonable. But much of its basal data is hypothetical and assumed. As we have explained, it was weighted 2:1 in favour of cattle transmission. And that is fundemental to the report's thrust. The actual badger culling was done in such a way as to ensure dispersal of an endemically infected badger population, thus causing maximum opportunity for disease transmission. All this was known before the trial started, and was warned against by Professor, Sir John Krebbs. It was also covered in PQs.

You say "I didn't understand all the detailed statistics, nor the mathemetical model at the end (how many of the rest of you did?)"
Some of our contributers do understand mathematical modelling, and statistics and have fuelled the debate on the 'robustness' of the data used in the trial.

"The whole case for the role of cattle-based measures is developed, discussed and justified on vet science grounds, and the model seems to be there only to show there is a mathematical consistency or underpinning to those recommendations (which is what models are properly used for anyway, not for deriving specific 'real world' answers)"

See previous point, and the fact that 'cattle only' measures have been tried before, and don't work????

Your point on cost:" Whichever
way you slice it, whatever method of culling you use and whoever does it, badger culling doesn't prevent enough TB breakdowns to ever make it worthwhile. Farmers would be mad to spend their own money on it. And as a taxpayer it appears it would be a scandalous waste of scarce public money if the govt did it. How can we argue over the details of badger culling when the whole approach seems to be a non-starter economically?"

This is precisely what Bourne was asked to achieve.
And we'll turn that around. Culling for 8 nights only, once every couple of years with cage traps is a no-brainer. But culling a whole infected social group - even on a small scale as in the Clean Ring strategy, worked well and kept cattle herds clear of Tb for 5 - 10 years. Larger scale clearances (Thornbury) for 12 years+ . Weigh that against Defra's prediction - which they are amply fulfilling of a 20 % year on year increase in herd breakdowns if the infection in badgers is not tackled - and see the scale of the problem - and the associated cost. Table valuations for compulsorily purchased cattle are only one third of the Tb budget. The other two thirds go on 60 day testing, sampling, transport, slaughter, postmortem and cultures of reactors and all the rest of the beneficial crisis this disease explosion has spawned.

Would less that 100 herds and 600 cattle slaughtered in 1986 have mushroomed into such an industry?

You say that "King undermines his own position in giving 'policy advice' by blithely declaring he hasn't considered its cost effectiveness?" That was not his brief. He was asked to assess the ISG data, and comment on its conclusions.

Cost is for governments to argue over, and they have made it perfectly clear that they are not going to accept that responsibility for this disease in badgers. And Bourne was careful to say culling 'as it was done in the trial' rather than culling per se, if you notice. Hence the shafting of responsibility or in this case, cost, to farmers themselves.

However, since Tb is a grade 3 zoonosis, and since its incidence in GB, in the absence of any control of it primary wildlife reservoir, has now reached such levels rarely seen in the food producing counties of the world, ane since said levels have to be reported to various epizootic overlords, government policy may get a well deserved kick up the backside in the shape of yet another trade ban.

How that will balance out, with on the one side lobby fodder donations v. burgeoning balance of payments deficit, I do not know.

"OK, it's been an interesting debate, albeit somewhat one-sided, so I just felt like introducing some new thoughts"
You're welcome. What we find depressing, having been on the receiving end of this particular fiasco, is how much political chicanery applies to other departments of government?

Anon: SETT 10.30
with thanks.

Matt - no relation 4.57
Thanks. Posted it.

Jo and Anon 8.50
Thanks.

Jim said...

Matt 4.57. Would this be the same RSPCA that, in evidence to the EFRA Committee earlier this year, said that killing lots of cattle is not a welfare problem "because they are killed humanely"? Talk about being pro-killing....