Lord Krebs on Badgers

By Yerpo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Lord Krebs. Photo: Yerpo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
My old boss, Prof Lord Krebs, was on Farming Today (8 mins in) being interviewed by Anna Hill on Wednesday morning. Lord Krebs provided a masterclass in sticking to the facts, despite some niggling questions from Ms Hill, and getting the message across very clearly.

The message was that the ‘too-early-to-tell-really-but-the-figures-are-out-there’ results from the Badger cull trials seem to show no beneficial impact of culling on bovine TB (yet?).  That isn’t how the NFU has portrayed the results but the NFU wasn’t prepared to argue the results with a proper scientist it seems.

But I think that the interview also demonstrates Ms Hill’s leaning towards the ‘farming’ side of the case, which is the non-scientific side of the case I’m afraid to say (and I believe she has form in this respect  – see here as an example).

Anna Hill said of Lord Krebs ‘He believes that figures showing a fall in bovine TB cases in areas where the current cull has taken place are not enough to claim a success’ which is an example of the interviewer expressing a strong opinion on what the real position is of the facts which are being discussed before she introduces the interviewee.  It’s the broadcasting equivalent of ‘leading the witness’ – it’s leading the listener. We’ll come back to it. And because this is a recorded programme, I imagine the introductory words were chosen after Lord Krebs had set out the real figures (because otherwise you don’t know what you are introducing).

By Andrew Gray (local userpage) (p1140372) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
A dead Badger: Photo: Andrew Gray (local userpage) (p1140372) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Anna Hill introduces Lord Krebs by saying ‘I asked Lord Krebs why he had accused the NFU of deliberately misleading the farming community about the figures’ rather than ‘I asked Lord Krebs to tell me what he thought the figures showed’. She starts the interview by pre-judging what the facts are and asking the interviewee why he had done something that sounds like a bad thing.

So before we hear Lord Krebs, we’ve been told that the figures show a fall in bovine TB and Lord Krebs has been a bit mean to the poor old NFU!  That’s how the scene was set.

Now, because John (I’m a bit fed up calling him Lord Krebs) knows his stuff, is a very clear thinker, and is unlikely to be rattled by Ms Hill, gives a very clear exposition of the fact (I assume they are facts, I haven’t checked, but someone would have shouted by now if they were wrong) that in Somerset the number of reactor herds increased from 28 to 29 (no decline there) and in Gloucestershire they increased from 17 to 28 (big increase there).

Ms Hill goes on to say ‘Well there are statistics and statistics’ as though she has a feeling that Lord Krebs is hiding something (and therefore puts that thought in the listener’s mind where I suggest it wouldn’t be otherwise), and brings up the number of reacting individuals. She cites the figures from Somerset as showing a reduction in number of herds affected as though that is her and the NFU’s trump card against Lord Krebs’s interpretation. But John comes back with the information that in Somerset the number of reacting individuals did decrease from 246 (or 248 – Hill and Krebs differ by 2 – it doesn’t make any difference) to 208 (that’s by 16%) and then adds that in the ‘comparison area’ numbers also decreased (from 2354 to 2164  – a fall of 8%). He then goes on to Gloucestershire, where the number of individuals went up in the core area (91 to 161, up by 77%) but went down in the comparison area (2287 to 1917, down by 16%) strongly suggesting the trial culling wasn’t doing any good, and might be doing some harm.

So let’s go back to Anna Hill’s introduction to the interview. She said ‘He believes that figures showing a fall in bovine TB cases in areas where the current cull has taken place are not enough to show it’s a success’ and I imagine those words were recorded after the interview. The interview disclosed that of four sets of figures (Somerset and Gloucestershire; herds and individuals) three out of the four figures went up. So why introduce the interviewee with words that might suggest to any sleepy farmer or townie that the figures showed a decrease – only one in four did (and even then the control data showed a decline too (albeit a smaller one)).

I think it’s a bit shoddy really. It’s certainly possible to believe that the interviewer is rather biased in her view, and that is an opinion that is growing on me, although it could be that Ms Hill chose her words carelessly or through an attempt to sensationalise the story, rather than from any desire to mislead.

Journalists do put interviewees under pressure sometimes and that’s a fair technique (I’ve given some of my best interviewees on the Today programme when John Humphrys has got a bit shirty with me, for instance) but I feel that this interview was framed in terms of Lord Krebs having to defend his position and the NFU, who appear to be in the wrong, getting off pretty much scot-free. That’s not quite right – even for a programme called Farming Today. It’s supposed, I think, to be about farming, not about how farmers are always right even when they are wrong.

It is this type of approach on Farming Today that makes me listen to it less and less as I find myself analysing the technique of the interview and feeling unhappy with it.  What do you think?

An alternative way to end the piece might have been to criticise the NFU for getting the figures wrong? Or to say something like ‘It’s too early to say, but things aren’t looking good for Defra who caved in to pressure from the NFU to conduct these badger culls, despite the science suggesting they might not work, as the preliminary figures, and they are preliminary, suggest that the cull isn’t working. Maybe the scientists were right all along and the NFU were wrong. Maybe Defra picked the wrong side – if so, questions should be asked’.


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37 Replies to “Lord Krebs on Badgers”

  1. I think you’ve identified something important here – I hope you’ve submitted this as a complaint to the BBC.

  2. I was shouting at the radio on Wednesday morning too! But, I think, in spite of the interviewing style I felt John Krebs had the upper hand. I particularly liked the part where he said something along the lines of being just a scientist who simply looks a the numbers. But then I’m just a amateur naturalist, countryside dweller with a degree in Environmental Science, so what would I know?

    1. Wendy – yes John certainly had the upper hand but that was partly down to skill on his part. Someone else, someone a bit less confident and a bit less eloquent would have been less convincing.

      The interviewee shouldn’t be fighting against the interviewer in an interview like that. The interviewer’s job is to get the best and the truth out of the interviewee – not to beat them!

      I did like the bit where John said he was just a humble scientist. I know him well, and it would take me a long time to come up with that description – great guy, and great brain, though he is.

  3. Last month George Monbiot published an excellent article about the BBC’s obsequious attitude to rural interests (Rural Idiocy – 10 Sept 2015) which is available on his website (www.monbiot.com). He considers that virtually all of their output on farming is propaganda for the farming community with little attempt at impartiality. This week there has been a BBC series called ‘Harvest’ which was fronted by Greg Wallace and which basically talked up the farming community as a bunch of national heroes for the huge crops of food they produce. It was 100% propaganda on behalf of farmers. There were no awkward questions about how they have decimated wildlife in the process, about the use of neonicotinoids or about the spraying of wheat with glyphosate (considered to be a carcinogen) which, according to a recent Defra report, contaminates around 30% of our bread. Badgers weren’t mentioned either. It presented an idyllic world of wonderful people working hard against the elements to keep us all fed. No wonder we have problems getting the public to appreciate the problems of declining wildlife in our countryside when they are always presented with this biased picture.

    1. John,a lot of truth in what you say but have you never considered that often scientists are really praise and yet two things in your comment like what affects Bees and gets into bread which you seem to blame farmers for I would guess were made by scientists and approved by them and yet not a mention against scientists.

    2. We were privileged to have Lord Krebs interviewed rather than the BBC’s go-to experts Vivienne Westwood and Caroline Lucas. I was impressed that he was concerned about data and its massaging. FT did later put out a statement by the NFU to the effect that Lord K was talking about a different set of data. Irregardless – he should replace Lord Burger on the CCC forthwith.

      As for the “Harvest” programme – the clue is in the name. It was rather well done, IMHO, apart from the irritating insistence on the presenters “having a go” on every piece of farm kit. There was plenty of accurate information about crop characteristics and breeding, and a goodly coverage of crops that can be eaten directly or with minimum processing. The innovative young farmer in Shroppy involved in developing low-saponin quinoa should get a medal for enterprise and for undermining the export trade for this staple from South America.

      The negatives were the assault on the chili market by the Big Successful Farmer in Sussex, to the probable detriment of the existing small producers who have grown the demand, and sugar beet: personally I would ban the production of sugar beet to improve human health and take the pressure off soils but Hey Ho that won’t happen so I will just not consume sugar or anything containing it. The OSR grower was assessing infection thresholds of pollen beetle and taking a decision not to spray – as he should do. No prophylactic spraying there. But – we didn’t see the apple sawfly control measures in use at Thatcher’s, and because we don’t have Smell-o-Vision we couldn’t fully appreciate the full impact of the mushroom factory. I’ve driven along the B3133.

      As for glyphosate: used as a pre-harvest desiccant on ~90% of combinables it stops late secondary growth and speeds harvest (timeliness), reduces the energy required to cut, thresh and shred straw, and massively reduces the use of fossil energy for grain drying. Thus complying with the reduction in emissions required by the CCA 2008. I’m really surprised there is not more recourse to the CCA – it’s Law – to justify the ruthless control of all weeds, diseases, insects, vectors and predators that increase GHG emissions of food production. Ah but it’s them politicians what passed the law what find it’s not politically acceptable to apply it. And that’s how they hobbled the scope of the RBCT before it had started.

      Dennis is right. Farmers may use only the pesticide tools that are authorised for use in a process addressed by scientists, commercial interests and governments. They make mistakes – and when they do the mechanisms for withdrawal of approvals are slow, cumbersome and expensive.

      Whatever – decades and £Squillions down the road we still have bTB and no prospect of its elimination. And very few hedgehogs.

      1. Filbert, I agree that the ‘Harvest’ programmes were well produced and interesting but these are the type of farming programmes that the BBC always produces. They want to say what is good about farming without telling the other side of the story. In his article George Monbiot suggests that he has attempted to get the BBC to make a series about the more problematic aspects of farming but it has been ‘dismissed out of hand’. I have to admit that I am not qualified to discuss the technical merits of using glyphosate as a pre-harvest treatment of wheat. I just know that I don’t want to have to eat it. I therefore buy organic bread. I have read of research that suggests that over-use of glyphosate on GM crops in the USA has caused wider environmental problems such as glyphosate-tolerance in target weeds. You say that one of the benefits of using it is as a pre-harvest treatment is the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The same objective could be attained by taking better care of soils, ensuring that they hold more organic matter and therefore store more carbon but that this has not been a high priority for many intensive farms.

        1. “type of farming programmes that the BBC always produces”

          Beyond FT the Beeb produces very little on farming and it’s mostly dross – just the odd glimmer of light on Countryfile from Adam, some nostalgic re-enactments from the Golden Age that never existed, and the daily dose of Eastenders with Fields. A programme about aspects of this year’s harvest around GB was not the vehicle to examine the failings of the current agricultural model on a national or world scale. A Harvest Festival congregation would be non-plussed by a pulpit rant about land-use and taxation but a series on farming problems would indeed be enlightening. The issues are neatly summarised in “Farming’s Value to Society” (Oxford Farming Conference, 2013) and in “Lie of the Land” (Duncan Pickard, The Land Trust 2004). No need to indulge Monbiot’s insatiable appetite for publicity.

          Glyphosate: avoidance by eating organic is fine – the carcinogenic aspect is far from clear but IACR find an apparent link with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma among people who have occupational exposure to glyphosate. The appearance of glyphosate-tolerance in weeds was entirely predictable – that’s how selection operates – it’s less of an environmental problem as it will lead to less glyphosate use but more of a problem for the manufacturers. Sparing GHG emissions from fossil fuel use at harvest is not – of course – the main driver for its use by UK farmers. It’s the saving on the UK cost of energy to produce commodities that trade at world prices that is the main attraction. Thinking of soil improvemement merely as an alternative lacks ambition. Increasing soil OM improves valuable soil functions like water-holding, erosion resistance and fertility in the Here and Now – and as a bonus keeps the Klima Polizei happy.

  4. Perhaps we should start a petition to get the BBC to sack Anna Hill because of her biased attitude… or better yet, perhaps we should suggest that the Countryside Alliance, as well known gallant defenders of BBC impartiality, should do so.

    1. Brad – thanks for that. I hadn’t heard that.

      But my points about the interview remain the same – and Anna Hill seemed to be working off the same figures as Lord Krebs (just picking a subset). And it seems like the NFU are working off no real figures at all – just anecdote (and maybe conjecture).

    2. & interestingly (?) they [NFU] have been allowed a statement on the BBC website. Is it usual practice for vested interest to be allowed such a right of reply?

      The BBC need the public to support it, isn’t it us who pay the licence fee not the NFU, CA, CLA et. al. as organisations? Seemingly they [BBC] are more interested in establishment types?

      1. To be fair Lord Krebs is himself very much an establishment figure. The problem at the moment is that the BBC is completely unwilling to hold Government to account in any shape or form. Critical analysis and difficult questions are most definitely not the order of the day. Listening to breakfast news this week, and the reporting of trends (i.e. Govt Statistics) for inflation/average wage was presented with no critical analysis whatsoever. Look at how programmes like Panorama have been dumbed down and lost from the schedules.

        1. “Critical analysis and difficult questions are most definitely not …”

          …allowed on certain topics

      2. Factor in that despite an invitation to ‘take part in the programme’ but they declined – why one might ask did they chicken out? To answer questions about their evidence base, ooops anecdotal etc.? Given this then one is dismayed that they were allowed web space for their excuse statement?

  5. Where oh where is it all going wrong??
    Vaccination in Wales seems to be working,we have volunteers in Devon vaccinating for £30 each Badger,we have volunteers in Dorset doing vaccination of Badgers for £20 each.Farmers in cull zones as I understand it are contributing in my opinion quite large sums of money also NFU seem to be contributing which must mean all members are putting money towards it and also investors as NFU take money for various investments.
    With the cost of individual shots of vaccine at £14 surely seeing as the NFU are not interested in vaccination I am bitterly disappointed that the Badger trust seem to be doing less than the volunteers and certainly would have expected them to have a campaign and get the same scheme as Wales.
    Why wouldn’t the Badger Trust seriously have a campaign for vaccination or am I missing something.
    They just seem to be stop the cull.
    Someone said something like the farmers need to campaign for vaccination but surely if they do not do so then Badger lovers lead by Badger Trust need to.
    My thoughts on why they are not doing so are so awful that even I am loath to put them in print.

    1. I’m no spokesperson for BT, but suspect reasoning goes something like this: badgers are only responsible for ~6% of btb infections (direct) and the vast majority is cattle to cattle. Campaigning for badger vaccination potentially does two things. 1. Suggest that badgers are indeed the problem and 2. Diverts the attention from what the real issues and solutions are. (Better cattle controls and cattle vaccination).

      1. Jo,two things,cattle vaccination at the moment is out of the question as it is not yet in production or at least if it is it is not good enough to work to acceptable levels.
        Secondly,I have heard this better cattle controls from badger people must be hundreds of times and I must have asked them dozens of times to enlighten me on how the controls could be tighter and still allow reasonable working farms.
        No one not even once have provided any answer whatsoever,please remember that we had far less BTB in the last half of last century with less strict controls on cattle movements.
        The true controls on cattle movements are on the internet and should be read by everyone who thinks they are not as good as they should be and not just believed from biased badger people.
        It is just impossible to move cattle without them being tested clear.(Of course there are always the risk of law breaking in all walks of life but the risk of BTB and subsequent restrictions make this just about the most unlikely illegal activity of all)Every cattle movement is tracked from birth.
        Sorry a third thing just came to mind,the Badger trust seem happy that cattle vaccination would solve the problem accepting that Badgers would have BTB forever and meaning cattle would be vaccinated forever.
        This surely is no answer as I have a foot in both camps I consider myself impartial and at some stage,the sooner the better in fact I would really really like a clean Badger population, why should clean Badgers in this area stand the risk of other Badgers infecting them in the future.

  6. Surprised by looking further into the Badger problem the Badger Trust are seriously anti farmer,seems they think farmers in general kill almost everything particularly against Badgers.
    Seems rather ridiculous as although I have no scientific facts the simple fact that there are Badgers on literally thousands of farms where it would be relatively easy to kill them must mean that in general farmers and Badgers live in harmony.
    Badger people say the BTB in Badgers is very low well at the risk of being wrong in my calculation a incidence of 0.3% in cattle would be considered low as well but of course whereas almost certainly all cattle farmers want the disease cleared up in both species the Badger Trust seem to only be concerned with clearing it up in cattle and consider the fact that it would always be in Badgers forever in the future as of no consequence.
    Needless to say I find the attitude of the Badger Trust really strange and unhelpful to progress.
    Just wish both sides could sort things out better,when the claim is that it costs over £600 to vaccinate a Badger then as the cost of vaccine is so low where does all the cost come into it.Guess it must be the checking of traps but as there is a army of volunteers trying to stop the cull then they would be better employed in helping vaccination by checking the traps.
    Maybe underneath it all for some reason the Badger Trust is not keen on Vaccinating all Badgers in England.

  7. To paraphrase Ben Goldacre, the basic problem is that a lot of people who opine on science have never done an experiment in their lives. They’ve never thought of a question, designed a way to test it, collected data and considered what their results mean. To them, science is just an arbitrary set of beliefs.

    The NFU comment that they were relying on anecdotes for their information, was a true face-palm moment. Where do you even start with an argument like that?

    As Zack, Penny’s dopey boyfriend in ‘The Big Bang Theory’ says, “That’s the great thing about science. Everyone can have an opinion, and there’s no one right answer.”

  8. You’re absolutely correct Andrew.
    There is literally no arguing with these people.

    This badger cull thing is just silly now isn’t it?
    I mean DEMONSTRABLY so.

    Deemed (worryingly?) ineffective and “inhumane” by the (now of course dropped like a hot potato) independent monitors, we now have a set of hard figures which demonstrate (beyond any serious debate) that the “trials” were actually ineffective. Indeed perhaps worse than ineffective.

    And yet the hugely expensive (alongside ineffective and inhumane) cull is rolled out to Dorset.

    There’s no debate to be had with big business, at least no serious debate it seems.

    One day the farmers that genuinely believed a badger cull might be the answer to all this (despite scientists saying “no it won’t”), might realise that they’ve been hoodwinked by “their” Tory govt….. remember that “carrot” anyone?
    That “wake-up day” can’t come soon enough.

  9. Most worrying of all.. for me anyway.
    Who in their right mind would choose to be “a scientist” in the future… and if so… when will progress grind to a halt?

    I mean you’ll be paid a really crap salary.

    If you’re even listened to at all, your qualified (that’s qualified, not uneducated) advice will be ignored by policy makers, before policy is made anyway.

    Your qualified inference after any “experiment” (or “trial”) will be ignored too.

    Then finally (to add a literal insult to injury) you’ll be blamed for actually causing any problem in the first place… be that problem bee deaths due to neonics or health issues due to glyphosphate or everything because of climate change or anything at all really… Ohhhh those dratted, pesky “scientists”…


    1. DMackD,Scientists would hardly believe that 152,000 farmers would get any party into power or indeed have any significant effect on any election or on any party’s policy.
      In my comment I was not blaming scientists but just pointing out farmers are allowed to use the tools they provide just like yourself and as it is all passed and legal it is pointless blaming farmers but of course par for the course.
      I very much doubt that many farmers have faith in a cull of this kind,they have not been offered options but no one would listen to what they would want to sort out the mess created by the long spell in power by Labour.

  10. Dennis, thanks. I’m glad to hear you’re not blaming scientists for anything.

    As for your 152,000 farmers… we will have to disagree on that one I’m afraid.
    Farming is a HUGE industry. The cornerstone of the entire food and drink industry in the UK.
    That whole F&D industry is worth about 100 billion pounds to our economy. Quick bit of fag packet maths…that’s maybe around 6% ish.
    That industry (the entire food and drink industry) also has about 4 million people working in it. It wouldn’t exist without farming.
    But if you really think the farming (cornerstone) industry (farming alone … itself contributing about 10 billion to the economy) has little bearing on policy or politics … well… I can’t agree on thattun I’m afraid.
    Like I couldn’t agree if anyone said to me that big business has little lobbying relevance or power in this day and age.
    How I wish that were true though.

  11. Dennis.
    One more thing.
    Bemused by your response (as a whole) a bit.
    You start by effectively saying this has nothing to do with politics or policy making and that a tiny number of voters would not swing any election or policy. I disagreed with that above as you’ll have seen.

    But you end by effectively saying the Labour party created the mess.
    It surely then has EVERYTHING to do with politics doesn’t it?
    Political power. Policy making. Carrots.

    1. Correct. The bTB mess has spanned several successive administrations who have made progress forwards, backwards, sat on their hands or passed the hot patootie on to the next lot, and interfered with the design of trials for political, not necessarily scientific reasons. “… the ISG was directed by Ministers at the outset of the RBCT that the elimination of badgers from large tracts of the countryside was politically unacceptable” (ISG Final Report 2007)

      Notwithstanding that elimination as a scientific method doesn’t stand up because it is very unlikely to be logistically possible – eg in destroying cull heaps to control potato blight. There will always be someone trying to re-home them.

  12. DMackD,well of course you can disagree but in the piece you refer too as being bemused by hen to help you out perhaps I need to make it clear that in fact it proves exactly what I say.
    What I was referring to was not any policy in general by the Labour party or the mess they made of the economy but to the fact that when they came to power we had hardly any BTB and due to a selective culling policy of both cattle and Badgers which farmers would have wanted continued but of course Labour stopped that probably due to wanting votes in later elections from majority of public,just goes to show how ineffective farmers are with politicians and of course only the 152,000 farmers are relevant in lobbying nothing to do with the work force and connected industries,shoppers at Tesco,Sainsbury,Waitrose Asda,discounters,uncle Tom Cobley and all.
    What I do not understand about one part of a comment you made is that you seem to have great sympathy with Scientists salary,think that sympathy would be more appropriately given to those farm workers working longer hours and harder physical work feeding the rest of the population,a very underrated underpaid work force and not appreciated for what they do as in most instances everyone is well fed and for certain probably one of the most vital bunch of workers we could not manage without and not many groups can claim that.

  13. Dennis.
    The prevalence of bTB has fluctuated quite a lot since the war, we think.
    In line with red or blue in government?
    Not really… though people could argue anything I guess.
    The actual testing of cattle (amount by law) and movement of cattle has varied as much as badger culling policy during that time so it might seem churlish to ignore those as variables whilst just pointing to whether or not badgers were being gassed or shot or vaccinated or left alone would it not?
    Anyroad…. the unscientific, inhumane and ineffective culls continue.
    And bTB continues to rise.
    Gottae go now. Very important rugby match.

  14. Right. That’s that then. (Rugby). Can’t BELIEVE how that ended. 🙁

    Thought I’d quickly respond to your notion Dennis that my sympathy towards scientists’ salaries would be more appropriate directed towards farm workers… well… yes… farm workers get a crap salary too.

    Remember though… that without scientists, engineers etc… there’d be no modern farming or farmers or farm workers. No farm machinery. No modern farming techniques in fact, from modern irrigation to modern pesticides and everything in between… like combine harvesters, transportation of produce, modern milking parlours… everything.

    In fact there wouldn’t be a lot of anything at all really.
    There’d be no cars, no planes, no trains, no houses as we know them, no tarmac, no radio, no TV, no light bulbs and no computers for you and I to tap away at.

    We’d all still be living in dung huts (without scientists).
    Getting our oxen to pull our ploughs.
    And foraging for berries for tea.

    Science is everywhere.
    And everything.
    So the direction of my sympathy is unwavering I’m afraid.

  15. Thank you Mark for allowing this difference of opinion,amongst your attributes besides being a scientist is a very tolerable nature to your readers who comment(not only in this instance)including some who are extremely rude to yourself.
    Thank goodness you have a very different attitude to wildlife crime.
    Just hope DMackD has had a early night.

  16. With the past BBC problems it turned out the journalist had contacts in bloodsport promoters – might be worth checking.

  17. Ps – I particularly like the line: “Never in the field of human inquiry have so many known so little about so much.”

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