How to help sustain our Blue Planet

By Simon Moore & Simon Hoyte

In the wake of Blue Planet II you might be wondering what you can do to have a positive impact on our oceans. How can you help sustain those jumping fish taking birds out of the sky, stop the oceans from rising or the corals from bleaching, and ensure turtles don’t go extinct on our watch?

Leatherback turtle on the beach

If you haven’t been watching (where’ve you been?), David Attenborough has just showcased the incredible life inhabiting our oceans in seven glorious episodes, but under the surface of each story humans are causing damage to the great blue.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problems we face with our oceans (and in nature more generally), after all, they’re massive and individual actions feel like just a drop in the ocean. And there’s always plenty more fish in the sea, right? Well, no, not at the rate we’re going.

But there is plenty of reason to have hope – people all across the world are fighting to protect the natural world. And every single person can make an enormous difference, as long as each of us ensures we are part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Here are five easy things you can do to make a positive difference to help sustain our Blue Planet:

  1. Use less plastic! Refuse plastic as much as possible, and avoid plastic straws, microbeads, disposable plastic bottles and plastic-wrapped vegetables
  2. Know your seafood! Ensure your food is sourced sustainably through Marine Stewardship Council certification, and buy food locally where you can see exactly how it’s produced
  3. Fight climate change! One of the easiest ways to do this is to eat less meat and animal products, but also walk more, use public transport, fly less, improve your household energy efficiency and switch to a renewable energy supplier
  4. Support good conservation charities! Join and donate to campaigns by organisations such as SeaShepherd, Greenpeace and Fauna & Flora International, who devote their lives to defending the seas and the wider natural world
  5. Vote and get active! Vote for people who share your concern for the environment, tell your MP what you care about, join communities of likeminded individuals and try to promote conservation issues however and wherever you can

This article also appears on Simon Hoyte’s blog Hunt and Gather

A video version of this article appears on Matthew Shribman’s Science in the Bath

Photo by JuliasTravels

What the Health – an awful documentary

If anyone fancies watching the documentary ‘What the Health’ on Netflix I’ll save you the trouble.

This is a documentary that supposedly exposes some concealed truths about diets and health. Their main conclusion seems to be that eating meat causes diabetes, and eating sugar does not. They propagate the common myth that eating fat makes you fat (it doesn’t). And they will cause more diabetes if people watch it and eat more sugar as a consequence.

Their agenda is undoubtedly to promote veganism and meat-free diets. Reducing meat consumption is hugely important, as animal agriculture is a massive contributor to climate change. And over-consumption of processed meats in particular can have detrimental health impacts, but this film unnecessarily spreads abundant false information. It has a worthy cause but totally misrepresents the science and evidence in trying to pursue its goals. This can not only lead to less trust of scientists, experts and health organisations, but can actively push people towards unhealthy choices.

Therefore, I don’t recommend it. And it provides a perfect example of why you can’t believe everything you see or read, just because it has quality production value and some Dr’s in lab coats.

For a full debunking please see the link below.

https://robbwolf.com/2017/07/03/what-the-health-a-wolfs-eye-review/

Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism

vaccine baby

You may have heard the worrying suggestion that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Thankfully, this is most certainly not true. So why exactly is it suggested?

Bad science

In 1998, a paper was published in a scientific journal called The Lancet, authored by Andrew Wakefield, in which he argued that 12 children with autism had developed the condition from the MMR vaccine. This paper was later retracted by the journal as it provided no actual evidence for a link between autism and the vaccine, included falsified data, and Wakefield had failed to declare a massive conflict of interest. Before the study started, the parents of some of the children were trying to sue MMR manufacturers, because they believed the MMR vaccine had caused their children’s autism, and Wakefield was recruited and paid by lawyers to find that link1.

Consequently, Wakefield was struck off the medical register for his deeply unethical actions, although many would suggest that his punishment was not great enough. Wakefield is responsible for initiating the deeply troubling anti-vaccination movement, which is allowing infectious diseases that we were doing quite well to control, to kill more and more people. Even today, he continues to publish books and “whistle-blowing” documentaries which claim to reveal an institutional cover-up of the link between MMR vaccines and autism.

In response to this, the international medical community has invested huge amounts of time and money over the past 19 years, to find out if there really is any increased risk of autism from having the MMR vaccine. As a result, after all of the controversy and fear-mongering, the MMR vaccine is now the one thing which we can be most certain does not cause autism, because so much money has been spent, on study after study, looking for this alleged link2. But this has all come at a cost – fewer studies researching the true, still mostly unknown, causes of autism.

The scientific method

In science we can never say anything with absolute, 100% certainty, because as the weight of evidence grows larger and larger, we simply make it less and less likely that an alternative is true. But when all of the evidence points overwhelmingly in one direction, we allow ourselves to think of things as facts. Evolution is a fact. Climate change is a fact. “The MMR vaccine does not cause autism” is a fact.

The reason so many people put their trust in science, is that they know that one or two studies, or even half a dozen, could get things wrong for one reason or another, but eventually, with lots of different ways of looking at a problem, we will find the right answer. Nothing is ever taken for granted, everything builds upon previous work, and nothing is left unchallenged. The reason scientists feel comfortable accepting that evolution is true, is because every possible attempt to disprove it has been unsuccessful. And the UK’s National Autistic Society is clear “that there is no link between autism and the MMR vaccine”, because unbelievably, unnecessarily large amounts of time and money have been spent looking for this link, and found none3.

So what are the dangers?

Vaccines are effective because of herd immunity. If 95% of a population (for example) are vaccinated, a disease can be all but eliminated as there are not enough hosts for it to jump between. So the 5% who do not get vaccinated are also reasonably well protected from the disease. However, if more and more people forego vaccination, then there are suddenly enough hosts for the disease to spread between, and new outbreaks can occur. In 1996, 92% of people in the UK were MMR vaccinated, and there were just 56 reported cases of measles. 12 years later, the number of cases hit 1,348, after the number of people vaccinated had dropped to around 80%4. Wakefield’s falsified paper was quite clearly to blame, although equally responsible were the media, with their scaremongering and inaccurate reporting of this story. Media coverage was typically very poor – many outlets reported on Wakefield’s tiny anecdotal study whilst ignoring the enormous weight of quality evidence pointing to the safety of MMR.

Vaccines have enabled us to fight back and even wipe out infectious diseases which were killing people in their millions. Smallpox was the first human disease to be eradicated globally in 1980, and it was responsible for killing 2 million people as recently as the year 19675. Subsequently, vaccines have allowed us to eradicate a second disease, Rinderpest, which was a mass killer of livestock. Without vaccines, each of us, and each of our children, would be susceptible to horrendous, life-threatening diseases. And that is the very real danger that this anti-vaccination movement is amplifying. Just look at news reports from the past few years and you can see evidence of measles outbreaks in parts of the world that we thought had brought it under control – London in 2016, California in 2015 and Swansea in 2013. In the developing world, huge numbers of people are still dying from infectious diseases every day, and it is vital that we provide vaccines to protect people from these diseases.

So why does anyone believe it?

People like conspiracies. They like believing that mainstream science has got something completely wrong, and that government is secretly harming or controlling its people. It would not surprise me if many of the people who are anti-vaccination are also climate change deniers, or even evolution deniers. But there is no doubt that many bright, well-meaning people out there have simply got the wrong end of the stick, and that desperately needs to change.

After a turbulent 2016, it seems we are now living in the post-truth era, where made up, non-sensical, “alternative facts” can be given as much time as legitimate truths. They might sound harmless, but when decision makers use “alternative facts” as justifications for their actions it is simply a tactical way of deceiving the public, and outright ignoring the established evidence. This is an incredibly dangerous situation, and can only be avoided by ensuring that the voices of our respected experts are being heard, particularly when bad science or made up shit hits the headlines. Experts owe it to us to stand up and speak out, and we would be wise to listen carefully. 

 

Picture credit: Amanda Mills, USCDCP

References

  1. Brian Deer – “Revealed: MMR Research Scandal” Reprint of The Sunday Times
  2. University of Oxford – Vaccine Knowledge Project
  3. The National Autistic Society: Our position – MMR vaccine
  4. BBC News – Q&A: Measles 28th November 2008
  5. World Health Organisation – Smallpox

 

Wildscreen Festival 2016

Every two years experts from the wildlife and nature documentary industry come together in Bristol for Wildscreen Festival – a chance to share ideas, collaborate, and view each other’s work. I was invited along for BlueSci Magazine and reported on the festival, which you can check out on the BlueSci website. In particular I evaluate the two different broad aims apparent in wildlife films: pure entertainment vs. environmental activism.

Featuring:

Hope you enjoy the read:

http://www.srcf.ucam.org/bluesci/2016/10/wildscreen-festival-2016/

Nature Matters 2016

I recently reported from a New Networks for Nature meeting called Nature Matters in Cambridge. It was an interesting conference that combined both scientists and artists from the world of conservation, and you can read my write-up and listen to some of the speakers I interviewed in my article on the BlueSci website. You can also see Sir David Attenborough himself in the video below as he closes the meeting with a speech that left most of the room in tears of joy (I’m in the pink shirt).

 

Travel and Conservation at Steppes Beyond

I was invited to a travel and conservation festival hosted by Steppes Travel called Beyond, and I wrote about my experiences for BlueSci magazine. Check out my write-up which wrestles with the idea of tourism and conservation working together. Chris Packham and Jonathan Scott were among the speakers.scott-photography

http://www.srcf.ucam.org/bluesci/2016/09/travel-and-conservation-steppes-beyond/

Why do we need the EU (or UN)?

I am absolutely not an expert on European politics, or UN politics, but I do have a very good idea why we need large institutions and collectives, that bring countries and people together for common good. You can probably already guess what that is – we need them to facilitate cooperation instead of conflict.

We’re a social species that relies heavily on both relatives and strangers from within our group to survive, reproduce and thrive – it takes a village to raise a child. Where would any one couple be without the vast support network that the rest of society provides? Think midwives, farmers, teachers, doctors.

It is human nature to separate things, including social groups, into in-groups and out-groups. We rely on others around us, and form strong bonds with people inside our social groups whom we cooperate with, protect and sometimes even fight alongside. This comes in stark contrast with groups outside of our network – out-groups – whom we find ourselves strongly disliking, avoiding, fearing, competing with, sometimes fighting, but maybe occasionally trading with. This phenomenon is called xenophobia – fear of that which is foreign or strange – and it is shared to some degree by every one of our species.

What’s this got to do with the European Union? Well the easiest way to overcome xenophobia, and facilitate cooperation between rival groups, or countries, is to bring them together and make them feel part of a bigger whole. If we can agree upon a common identity, common goals, common values and common rights, eventually people will start feeling like they’re part of something bigger, and that ‘others’ are allies, not enemies.

Today, humans face problems that have no respect for country borders. These problems span the climate, the oceans, the river systems and the land, and they affect every single country on this planet. For too long, we have been competing and battling amongst ourselves, and polluting the environment that we depend on so utterly and completely. It’s high time we recognized that we are all in this together, and that we must all help one another if we are to survive the upcoming trials the climate and the planet will throw at us.

Only by seeing each and every other individual on this planet as one of our own – as a member of our group – do we stand a chance of cooperating on the enormous scale required. This requires understanding, compassion, empathy, and a strong sense of what binds us together as human beings.

I don’t claim to know everything about the European Union, or the United Nations, and like every man-made institution they have their significant flaws. But we’ve created global problems that require global solutions. These can only be tackled by the 7 billion of us working together as one body, with one shared vision. I feel that we desperately need to utilize organizations like the EU and UN if we are to have any success in combating the global issues we have brought upon ourselves. We must work collectively. We must unite. We must Remain.

EU Newspaper Clipping
Cambridge News 20th June 2016

Men No Longer Needed

Finally, recent uncited sciencey breakthroughs have confirmed previous findings allowing the production of eggs and sperm from the stem cells of both men and women. For the past billion years our ancestors have been required to mate with males in order to reproduce, but that wasteful system has finally been corrected. Starting soon, clinical trials will be carried out in prestigious name-less research hospitals, allowing lesbian couples to have children they can both call their own. Women will soon be rejoicing around the world, as men are no longer needed!

Let the age of Fempires begin!

Luckily for us men, no recent breakthroughs have actually made this a possibility, yet. Researchers in Newcastle and Cambridge have taken the first steps in creating sperm and eggs from stem cells, but they are still quite a long way off making this a reality. But let’s just imagine this is real, and is about to create shockwaves throughout our societies, as it might in the not too distant future.

If you’re in a lesbian relationship and hoping to have kids, this is the perfect opportunity for you. You no longer need to decide who will be the biological parent, as now you can both be. You can even take it in turns acting as the mother or fertilizing the egg (with your very own female sperm), as your family grows.

The male sex is a puzzle that biologists have been mulling over for decades. They can’t directly produce offspring and reproduce – the currency of natural selection – so why on earth are there so many of them? Clearly with just a few males in a population of females the group could produce a great number of offspring – far more than a rival group with a 50:50 ratio of males to females. Yet the small number of selfish males would have such high reproductive success, that natural selection would favour an increase in males. It currently takes one male and one female to produce an offspring, so if either sex were greater in number, then individuals of the common sex would have a lower average reproductive output than the rare sex. Thus, an equal ratio would be restored by natural selection, as the rare sex would be favoured by selection.

But now things have changed. With the advent of stem-to-sperm (STS) capabilities we can allow women to produce healthy sperm cells, which can be used to impregnate the egg of another woman. No longer are we restricted by the iron grip of natural selection. No longer are costly men required.

A fantastic side effect of lesbian couples having their own children is that, with no Y chromosome involved, couples are guaranteed to have little baby girls. So perhaps it is only a matter of time before men become obsolete – their parasitic nature finally exposed for all to see, and their legacy finally coming to an end.

It is true that these breakthroughs also bring us new stem-to-egg (STE) capabilities, meaning gay male couples now also have the chance to bring up children to which they are both the biological parents. However, two men, each the legacy of a billion years of the exploitative sex, simply don’t have the required uterus for same-sex reproduction. No, gay couples require a woman to act as the surrogate mother, thus continuing the dependency men have had for eternity.

Now before we celebrate there is one thing we should still consider, and that is that many women are quite attracted to men. Unfortunate though this now is, it is a rather general, well-supported finding both scientifically and anecdotally. So although men are technically no longer needed for reproduction, this does not mean that women will immediately stop finding them attractive and mating with them. Looking forward, we will perhaps see competition occurring between the men of the world and the growing number of lesbians, for the affections of straight women. But the outcome is far too uncertain for speculation.

Another potential use of this technology would be cutting out a reproductive partner all together, as women could make their own sperm and use it to fertilize their own egg. This self-fertilization might sound like a great idea that would result in clones, twice as related to you as normal offspring, however there are a few problems. Firstly, clones have an identical genome to the ‘parent’ whereas this would be two random halves of the same genome. This means the chance of abnormalities due to inbreeding and harmful recessive alleles is dangerously high. Additionally, reproducing with one’s self, usually known as asexual reproduction, is detrimental because it severely limits the genetic variation of the resulting offspring. Sexual reproduction evolved as it maximizes genetic variation, such that diseases and parasites cannot become accustomed to a host’s genome and thus able to rapidly attack its offspring.

There is one final pitfall that we must consider. Take our perfect lesbian couple; let one fertilize the other’s egg and watch as the child develops over the next 9 months. Now here’s the problem. What if our sperm-wielding woman does a runner? She could move to the next town, attract another lesbian partner, impregnate her and then move on again! Outrageous you might say. But this woman would be doing rather well in the gene pool, and she would be taking advantage of her ability as the sperm-giver to make a very low investment in reproduction. What does this all mean? Well, in a world full of lesbians, some would probably shift to a fast, low investment strategy and the lesbi-man would be born. All of this goes to say that when it comes to sexual reproduction, even between members of the same sex, unequal initial investment in human reproduction cannot be overcome.

Latest Research

Newcastle: “Women may be able to grow own sperm” by Roger Highfield: The Telegraph (2007)

Cambridge: “Cell breakthrough to bring two-dad babies” by Lois Rogers: The Sunday Times (2015)

The BlueSi Radio Show

BlueSci Radio logoI’ve taken on the role of Head of Radio for BlueSci, a science communication society at the University of Cambridge. We have a different guest on every week and discuss their research and a bunch of other science that takes our interest – hopefully it will take yours!

There’s two ways to listen:

– On the BlueSci website here

– On the iTunes Podcasts app – just search ‘BlueSci’ and hit Subscribe

Hope you enjoy,
Sincerely,
BlueSi

 

Simon Moore, Tom Jameson & Simon Hoyte after recording Ep 8
Simon Moore, Tom Jameson & Simon Hoyte after recording Ep 8