Galileo and the Inquisition (1)

A couple of recent events demonstrate chillingly that the human dynamic that drove the Inquisition, and ruthlessly suppressed the scientist Galileo, is alive and well in the UK today. The subjects are of course different: astronomy and even cosmology no longer violate deep taboos.

I’m too tired tonight to do justice to the Big One, so let’s just have a little rant about a normal-size scandal. Nothing abnormally controversial or perilous to a blogger. Just another proposed genocide. Call it a prelude. It doesn’t do justice to the title, but what the heck?

OK, the background. There is tuberculosis. It’s no longer a serious problem amongst humans, but cattle suffer from it. Badgers also suffer from it. The hypothesis is that badgers spread it amongst cattle (vice versa is not an issue, because nobody cares). The proposal advanced by the farmers union, representing big, multi-millionaire farmers (not least the landed aristocracy)[1] is that badgers be scapegoated and exterminated.

So far, the question has been left open. A scientific study was conducted over nine years, to determine whether killing badgers would protect cows. It concluded that anything short of a Final Solution would in fact have the opposite effect, not least because it would increase mobility amongst badgers, and hence the likelihood of their carrying infection to cattle that weren’t already infected.

But that’s the “wrong” conclusion for those whose agenda is extermination. Now the government’s chief scientist has spoken in favour of it, throwing up a clear gulf between science and Politicised Science. I find myself somewhat bemused by this, but it reeks of political agenda: if the science doesn’t support our agenda, let’s fudge it (hmm, anyone for Weapons of Mass Destruction?).

An heretical hypothesis

Since the subject of infection falls way outside my expertise, I can only rant. But one thing that looks very relevant is the nature and history of the disease itself. Historically it was a major killer amongst humans. But it was always a disease of poverty. It was the advance of living standards, notably slum clearance, that caused it’s decline to negligible levels in humans. Could it be that the disgraceful conditions in which cattle are kept (for economic reasons, of course), are the real culprit?

That’s an heretical hypothesis. It cannot be discussed anywhere more significant than a blog. Let alone investigated. Because the consequences of the wrong outcome would be unthinkable.

[1] Not all NFU members fit that description. But they’re the ones with influence in high places. Others are incidental.

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Posted on October 24, 2007, in politics, rants, science, uk. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. The bacteria that causes Bovine TB (mycobacterium bovis), is the one that was used to produce the TB vaccine (BCG) for humans. It is thus incredibly well researched in the vaccine community.

    Indeed the human BCG vaccine will have some protective effect on cattle, especially if given when young. It seems that older cattle (and humans) develop immune responses which can destroy these types of mycobacteria, without developing long term immunity, which may explain why these vaccinations become less effective as you you get older (as your immune system kills the attenuated mycobacterium bovis in the vaccine without needing to develop a specific response for the antigen that is being presented, and thus not developing a specific immunity which would help you were you later exposed to substantially more of the same infectious agent), and also varies widely with geography.

    It is estimated that the cost of vaccine development is substantially lower than the cost of badger elimination, and would be pretty much guaranteed to deal with more than 50% of TB in cattle, where as even the optimists are putting the badger cull at 15% of transmission.

    I suspect if the government stopped compensating farmers for lost animals the problem would go away very quickly for the reasons you outline. The government is effectively subsidizing farmers to raise cattle in poor conditions. If the farmers had to buy private insurance for same, the insurers would impose immediate requirements on how the cattle are looked after, based on the analysis of the risks by actuaries (not newspapers or the NFU).

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