Proof by Omission
The might of US scientific analysis and know how has combined to produce a report on CCD, the syndrome of the disappearing bee, the key ecological issue of our time and one which constitutes nothing less than an existential crisis for humanity, such is the importance of pollination within the ecosystem.
An impressive array of experts are involved including some familiar names to those who have been following the CCD affair. Even the Department of Defence is involved. Is this a national security issue? Why not get Homeland Security in on it; or the CIA? They’ve been known to set up a sting or two.
This report is the result of a “ a collaborative effort to define an approach to CCD”. This approach is presumably a scientific method, but what would a layman such as myself know about that? I proceed on the basis that it isn’t entirely divorced from common sense.
The report at no point actually defines CCD. This is an important omission as it is important to make clear from the start that CCD is a syndrome rather than a disease, an infection, a pathogen, a thing. It is a phenomena, an observed pattern of behaviour, a condition of hives being deserted. This is important since this can give rise to confusion, a confusion which the authors themselves fall into when they speak of the need to better define CCD symptoms, whereas elsewhere they refer, correctly to CCD as being itself “ a set of symptoms”.
They would have done well to specify what these symptoms are in order to set the investigation on a sound footing: namely, the bees are behaving in a certain manner; what is causing them to behave in this way? Instead, as we will see, the authors, seem to maintain the underlying conviction that CCD is, if anything at all, a disease, the cause of which is an agent which can be detected inside bees.
Had we stuck to the much more expressive Marie Celeste Syndrome, this confusion would have been avoided and we would know that the phenomena to which we we’re referring is the sudden and mysterious disappearance of bees.
But, on the down side, opportunities for a little sophistry, here and there, would have been lost.
The first part of the report involves survey and sample collection
“resulting in better defined CCD symptoms, documented evidence of increasing honey bee losses, and evidence of increased pathogen and pesticide levels in colonies with poor health.”
This reinforces my points above: we are getting the unmistakable impression that CCD is a disease resulting from infection or toxicity. Of course, we know pathogens and pesticides can cause “poor health” in bees but do they cause the disappearance of bees without trace? That is the question.
Part two of the study involves sample analysis and contrasts results in CCD and non-CCD samples. This is probably a bit of a layman’s stupid question, but how do you analyse bees which have disappeared? Where do you get your CCD samples from since dead bees are not usually found near the hives. How do you know that your non-CCD samples aren’t about to become CCD samples? I should imagine the answer to be that you have collapsed colonies and collapsing colonies, where the bees are visibly declining but not all have disappeared. And, of course, you can analyse the hives themselves, the pollen, the honey and any remaining bees including queen bees and brood. But I do think it is important to make clear what you are talking about. That the distinction is not clear cut is confirmed by the fact that pathogens, parasites and chemicals are here admitted to be found in both groups, the difference being only one of degree. We have seen elsewhere that declining immunity and increased infection or infestation are widespread. The question would then be, “What is the relationship between that fact and the disappearance the bees?”
But there is a more general point arising from the authors emphasis on samples. This looks like a classic case of something happening because of a change in the environment. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to look at what environmental changes have occurred in recent years (since CCD is a fairly recent phenomena)? Of course, looking at bees themselves for clues is a good idea, but bees have been OK for millions of years- something new around them must be affecting them? What could it be?
Section 3 looks at causes for CCD although it has to be said that they muddy the waters considerably by confusing, or conflating, CCD and bee health in general. It’s fair enough going from the particular to the general, looking at CCD in the context of bee health overall, as long as you return to the specific syndrome you’re examining. The tendency here is not to do that. So we get statements such as
“scientists have demonstrated a synergistic effect of two pesticides in at least two studies, where the combination of the two compounds was shown to be more toxic than either compound alone”
which could deceive the reader into thinking a CCD link has been established where, in fact, there is none or, at least, none has been demonstrated.
The authors then make this rather astounding statement:
“no one factor alone is responsible for CCD”
Have they considered all possible factors? As we shall see they haven’t. I simply take this statement to mean that none of the factors examined by the authors has been shown to cause CCD. This is very important: CCD is not caused by varroa, or nosema, or pesticides according to this top level report.
Instead, the report claims “CCD may be a syndrome caused by many different factors, working in combination or synergistically.”
This sounds good but I must say I find I have philosophical or logical problems with the idea of a combination of non-causal factors being a cause. Many factors contribute to catching flu or a couple succeeding in conceiving a child but no one denies there is a precise mechanism in each case. This report is telling us that there is no mechanism which causes CCD. It merely happens as a result of a conjuncture, a coming together of circumstances: a freak event almost. We are entering into the realms of chaos theory, and yet CCD is not a chaotic event in the sense that we are seeing a pattern repeating itself with fatal consistency across the globe.
Worse, the absence of a mechanism, a direct cause, leaves little room for mitigation. If you believed, for example, that CCD was caused by exposure to electromagnetic radiation you could try, at least, to protect the hives using screening. Without identifying a direct cause, you can, of course, try various things to see if they worked but, from a layman’s point of view, it would be seen as a bit of a long shot.
Nonetheless, the authors proceed to consider mitigation in the last section, section 4, and to boast that “accomplishments to date include the development of new, varroa-mite-resistant bee stocks, a new strategy (comb irradiation) to reduce pathogen levels, and several alternative pollinators to honey bees.” What use would varroa-resistant bees be if you awoke one day to find they had all disappeared? Haven’t they ruled out every single pathogen they’ve looked at as a cause for CCD?
Various appendices go on to look at micro aspects of the case. This epitomises the approach. You get the impression that as long as they are dissecting something or looking at it under a microscope or analysing DNA, these scientists are within their comfort zone. Even when they stray across an environmental factor such as stress caused by transportation they fail to see a possible clue and follow it up with the question “why does transportation cause stress.” They insist on looking inside bees whereas the answer may lie more with humans interventions in the environment. A more global approach seems to be required.
A more global vision would also take in similar things happening to other species, especially other insects and birds,many of which are disappearing. The evidence that pigeons and migratory birds are showing an inability to navigate is highly suggestive as to what may be happening to the bees.
Scientists love to hear talk about the need for more research but wouldn’t it be a good idea to start with a review of existing research and to make sure that all likely hypotheses are followed up and whole areas of investigation aren’t neglected.
The authors don’t really seem to believe in what they are doing and the fact that they are looking for alternative pollinators reinforces this impression. Have their efforts then been in vain, a chronicle of wasted time?
A detective is called in to investigate a murder. A certain suspect X appears to be linked to the crime and his history shows him to have a predisposition to precisely this type of murder. Ignoring this, the detective goes on to look at a series of other suspects, all of whom have cast-iron alibis and are progressively ruled out. The detective claims that several people may have had a hand in the crime, but that no one is actually responsible individually for putting the knife into the victim found lying in a pool of blood. He begins to despair of solving the case, all the while refusing to question suspect X. Would people not begin to suspect that he was protecting X and that suspect X was the real culprit? Could it not be claimed that he had provided us with a proof by omission?
The US CCD investigation have done us a similar service. By resolutely refusing to investigate the EM connection to CCD and by showing that all other lines of investigation lead nowhere they have helped to lead us to the solution.
23rd July, 2009
Click here for full report of CCD Steering Committee
The might of US scientific analysis and know- how has combined to produce a report on CCD, the syndrome of the disappearing bee, the key ecological issue of our time and one which constitutes nothing less than an existential crisis for humanity, such is the importance of pollination within the ecosystem.
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