Tuesday, March 17, 2015

One more thought on Galileo's Middle Finger

One more thought on the book...

When I think of the role of science in broader society, one of the dominant ideas is that political ideology trumps knowledge. There is research to show that, if I remember correctly, for understanding climate change, the more educated the individuals, the more views diverge between political affiliations. In the US, the greatest divide in opinions on climate change is between the most, not the least, educated Democrats and Republicans.

The corollary from this research is that scientific knowledge does not matter.

The idea that knowledge doesn't matter is corrosive. And it plays into the doubts of scientists that have been steadily and progressively witnessed increased attacks and financial pressures.

Dreger's book offers an alternative: evidence does matter.

And not theoretically. She provides example after example of where evidence came to effect change.

Her most concentrated thoughts on this are found in the epilogue.

"When I run into such academics--people who will ignore and, if necessary, outright reject any fact that might challenge their ideology, who declare scientific methodologies 'just another way of knowing'--I feel this crazy desire to institute a purge. It smells like fungal rot in the hoof of a plow horse we can't afford to lose. Call me ideological for wanting us all to share a belief in the importance of seeking reliable, verifiable knowledge, but surely that is supposed to be the common value of the learned...These must be people who have never had to fear enough to desperately need truth, the longing for truth, the gift of truth. Surely, the 'scholar' who thinks truth is for children at Christmastime is the person who has never had to fear the knock of the secret police at her door."

Knowledge is not the answer to all problems. And truth can be illusory as competing hypotheses can be stubborn to separate. Yet, there must be a counterpoint to the idea that evidence carries not weight.

Dreger offers that counterpoint. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Book Review: Galileo's Middle Finger

There aren't too many books that would have blurbs on its cover from both Dan Savage and E. O. Wilson. This is probably the only one. And I've never read a book like it.

Dreger is a science historian. The book has really little to do with Galileo**. It is mostly a memoir of her battles as a historian and activist over scientific issues.

**The short introduction on Galileo is still an important read. Dreger uses it to anchor the importance of evidence-based evaluation. Galileo once got into a discussion of whether ancient Babylonians could cook an egg by twirling it around in a sling. His uniformitarian response? "If we do not achieve an effect which others formerly achieved, it must be that in our operations we lack something which was the cause of this effect succeeding, and if we lack but one single thing, then this alone can be the cause. Now we do not lack eggs, of slings, or sturdy fellows to whirl them; and still they do not cook, but rather they cool down faster if hot. And since nothing is lacking to us except being Babylonians, then being Babylonians is the cause of the eggs hardening…"

Dreger has been a pivotal player in a number of battles over the science of sex and related social justice. Hermaphrodism, genital mutilation of intersex babies, defining transgender, hormonal therapy for embryos...she was in the thick of it. Add to that debates over sociobiology, attacks on scientists for research on rape, and homosexuality in animals. She was involved.

All within 10 years by my count.

These stories are not easy reads. These are stories of the role in science in influencing what often become life and death decisions. And the attacks on the scientists (and her) attempting to collect evidence on the issues are ferocious. She chronicles it well.

What stands out about her craft is her intensity for fact-checking. Her thesis is the importance of evidence. She articulates this better than almost any modern writer. In her writing, she assembles evidence to ensure there are no loose threads, yet not to the detriment of the narrative. If Sagan had once said that "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", Dreger methodically accumulates evidence to often show that a person's extraordinary claim does not have the extraordinary evidence required. She's thorough and it shows.

Somehow, the book ends on a hopeful note. Evidence comes to light. Positions are changed. Careers are restored. The importance of academia is reaffirmed.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Reviewing literature on bison and nutrition

I'm going through the old literature on bison...not that there is much new literature.

One thing I still haven't found is whether bison gain weight better with low-quality forage than cattle.

The feeding trials on these are often suspect because bison don't like to be penned up. So, part of the problem is the wrong types of studies have been run. Another problem is that they don't push the nutritional envelope hard enough, e.g. feeding the animals 5-6% protein.

The question that evolves parallels the C-S debate in plants. Are cattle better at putting on weight than bison at all nutritional levels while bison just are better at tolerating stresses? Or do bison actually grow better on low-quality diets?

We know bison are better adapted to cold. They are thermoneutral down to -40°C. Cattle (like Hereford) are thermoneutral down to about -5°C.

We also know bison drop their metabolic rate by half in the winter.

They just don't need to eat much. They also seem to have better digestive efficiency than cattle. What they consume gets digested to a greater degree than what cattle consume.

But the definitive study that shows a nutritional niche still hasn't been found.

It's a bit frustrating this work hasn't been done and isn't slated to be done any time soon.

When we don't have the basics, it's hard to get at the more complicated questions...

some notes for me...

Schaeffer et al. 1978.
--longer retention time than cattle.
--greater digestive efficiency (food is digested to a greater degree).
--greater nitrogen absorption from food.

Keith 1981
--when fed a diet higher in N, there are greater concentrations of urea in their blood, saliva, and urine

Rutley and Hudson 2000
--during the winter, bison take in about half the energy they do in the summer.
--food remains in the digestive system for twice as long in the winter as summer (46 vs. 24 h).
--when it’s snowy, bison intake rate drops a lot. 

Christopherson et al. 1978.
--stuck bison, yak, Scottish Highland, and Hereford calves in a freezer (20°C, 0°C, and -30°C).
--The metabolic rate of bison at -30°C was the lowest as other animals increased their metabolic rate when exposed to extreme cold. 
--Authors estimate that bison are thermoneutral below -40°C. In contrast, Hereford were good down to just -3°C in March.

Hawley et al. 1981.
--bison digest their food better than cattle (Hereford).
--during the summer, dry matter intake was 1.6% of body mass.

Galbraith et al. 1998
--bison switch on metabolically by April
--the digest their food more efficiently than deer or wapiti
--they also produce more methane

Koch et al. 1995.
--bison don’t gain weight at a higher rate than cattle on a low-protein diet
--bison don’t like to be penned in feeding trials like these, which may reduce weight gain.