Scientific Self-help

What can you do about a report on millions of dead bees in Ontario?
This post may not be what you expect but it could give you the power to understand articles like the one with this headline: ‘37 Million Dead Bees in Ontario‘.

What could empower you to understand the science behind such stories?

Wisdom. The wisdom to put stories into the right context and make your own decisions.

Back to the bees. I’ll use this story as an example of a method I’m developing for non-scientists on how to interpret articles on social, environmental or other issues based on scientific findings. My method helps you understand and make informed decisions about the issues. The wisdom comes from something you already know how to do – ask questions.

The method consists of asking these five questions which can be applied to most news stories:

  1. What do the numbers really mean?
  2. Are all facts from a reliable source? Are the quotes in the context that they were intended?
  3. What is ‘proven’ and what is inferred from the facts?
  4. What else is at stake or who else could benefit by the reported conclusion?
  5. Why haven’t you heard about this before? Or if you have, why hasn’ t something been done about it?

Before applying these questions to the story, let me say:

  • I don’t know if bees are being killed by neonicotinoid pesticides sprayed on seeds and planted in the fields. What I do know is how to analyze the way the evidence is presented.
  • This is not a judgement on the value of the story. I chose it as an example because I saw it on Facebook recently. My plan is to follow with many other examples. 

1. What do the numbers really mean?
The implication of the title is that a large number (37 million) of bees have died.

How many bees are there in Ontario? If there are 37 billion bees in Ontario, then the death of 0.1% of them is not all that significant. If there are 37.4 million, then we are indeed in trouble as we’ve lost 99%. Here’s an interesting article with numbers about Canadian bee populations. From these, I make the Canadian bee population to be about 70 billion.

In what time frame did the 37 million bees die? Under normal circumstances, bees would die all the time. How long would it take for 37 million to die of natural causes (whatever those are). How unusual is it for an entire hive to die? This article reports losses over the past decade of over-wintering colonies.

2. Are all facts from a reliable source? Are all the quotes in the context that they were intended? and
3. What is proven and what is inferred from the facts?
The article cites the findings of a study publication (Oct. 2013) in a scientific journal. The journal, PNAS, is very reputable. The study shows that at a certain dose, the neonicotinoid pesticides can change the level of a protein in the bees responsible for mediating immune response. And that makes the bees more susceptible to viral infection. This is cause and effect.

However, I understand from other sources, such as this CBC story, that the question about the neonicotinoids is whether a sufficient dose reaches the bees to have the effect that the scientific paper describes. The pesticides are sprayed on the corn seeds, which are planted in the ground, so how much pesticide gets to the bees, even if some is airborne in the planting process?

The article quotes one of the study authors on the significance of the work as it ‘will allow additional toxicological tests to be defined to assess if chronic exposure of bees to sub-lethal doses of agrochemicals can adversely affect their immune system and health conditions’. In other words, the scientists are not concluding that their work shows the pesticides are killing bees on the farm – their work was done in a laboratory and not directly applicable to the field. It is only by inference that the same effect might happen in the field.

4. What else is at stake or who else could benefit by the reported conclusion?
Bees are important, for many reasons, including pollination of our food crops. But what else is at stake? One of the criteria for certified organic food is that it is GMO free. Thus both producers of organic food and GMOs have a stake in this issue.

5. Why haven’t you heard about this before? Or if you have, why hasn’ t something been done about it?
There is a wealth of information about the impact of neonicotinoids on bees, for example, from the Ontario government (with links to many other sources) and from the government of Canada . Investigations are on-going.

Is asking questions useful? (punt intended) Maybe you feel less satisfied than if you believed the story, or that it’s too much work to be a skeptic. Asking questions helps to see all sides of the story, lets you decide, even if you decide there isn’t enough information to decide.

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2 thoughts on “Scientific Self-help

  1. Pingback: My Passion for Communication about Science | AnnD Rites

  2. Pingback: A Taste of my own Medicine. (The Beginning of a Fish Saga.) | The Spiders Edge

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