Sjostrom: Admit it; sometimes, science stinks

This week, an industry commentator called our family of publications on the carpet for comments by Chuck Jolley – a regular contributor to Drovers/Cattle Network and our other Vance Agribusiness publications – in his interview with Mercy for Animals (MFA) founder, Nathan Runkle.
(Note: Loos wrote that the piece Jolley wrote for Drovers had been pulled down due to the lack of integrity, but it"s available in the link below – he likely just happened to try to look it up during the 8-hour period our website was down due to technical difficulties on December 29, when he posted the article).
Trent Loos, the author, is someone I consider an agriculturalist ally. He invited me to join him for one of his 40-minute radio programs this spring, called me during the Muck Boots debacle, and he"s spoken at a few conventions I attended. He is a passionate man in a cowboy hat whom I respect.
As Trent knows, criticism and alternative viewpoints are welcome parts of good journalism and we appreciate his perspective. In Loos" recent commentary, said to "share with you the facts," Loos suggested that Jolley celebrated a few actions of animal rights activists.
As I re-read Jolley"s article, that doesn"t seem to be the case at all. You, our readers, and Loos can disagree, but as Jolley describes in a follow-up article, he approaches interviews with MFA and HSUS affiliates in a ‘you need to know this" manner; not in aim to strengthen their cause. For the guts to take on the interviews, I thank him.
Mercy for Animals looks for animal abuse, finds it, makes a video to raise money, and may or may not contact law enforcement along the way. To me, the only real sin in that plot is that they are finding animal abuse, and that is not their fault. It"s ours.
If they were not finding real animal abuse, we would not be talking about them. I realize some or even most of it looks far worse than it actually is due to the cameras, editing, and context (an attached placenta looks pretty raunchy a few minutes after birth). But at least some seconds of some MFA videos are illegal, unethical, and counter-productive forms of animal handling by some individuals. There is no excuse for those moments.

Science won"t save us

Loos then berates Jolley for citing Temple Grandin as an animal welfare expert, and establishes that she has no credibility because she"s never published any science.
Luckily for all of us, this is not true. Grandin"s scientific accomplishments are vast – and that"s likely the reason she does not list them all on her website. You may have read her book(s) or watched the biographical movie about her life. She obtained her M.S. and Ph.D. in animal science from two land grant institutions, and now serves as a professor at a third.
I searched scientific journals and found that Temple Grandin is listed on three Journal of Dairy Science papers, one each in 2007, 2008, and 2014. While that"s more recent, her listings in the Journal of Animal Science number 13, spanning from her work on electro-immobilization versus mechanical restraints for ewes in 1986 to temperament research in beef cattle in 2013. She may have even more articles in other journals.
Some of Grandin"s quotes are listed at the end of the Loos article. Indeed, most of it is not science, but her opinion.
Loos sees this as the final straw, but we don"t interview researchers to ask for more data. We want their opinion, based on the data they know intimately. They are not always right, but they are the experts with the opinion.
I admire Temple Grandin. There"s a reason they made a movie about her. She got us thinking about animal handling, for both profit and welfare, when no one else was. I admire her passion, see her at several scientific conferences each year, and my favorite quote of hers is "Science can only take us so far."
And let"s face it, sometimes science stinks.
Animal science is "valid" if there"s a 1 in 20 chance, or better, that it"s a true scientific difference. Because animal research is so expensive, there"s probably an even better chance that if we get a 95% statistical significance, we"re not going to try it 19 more times unless it"s a pharmaceutical trial.
While we cannot ignore science, we also cannot ignore that science is not the only answer. Public perception, based on reality or not, continues to become a more important part of our business. We need to focus on continuous improvement and that means change. Change is tough and not fun, but needed. We cannot, as agriculture, just blame other parts of our industry for causing problems.
Here"s some real science: If people stop buying your product because of bad things they see in a YouTube video, pretty soon you will no longer need to make it.  


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