Arrogance and egotism (or, “I like knowing things”)

That’s it.

I’ve cracked.

It began with this article on public dismissal of expertise. I heartily agreed with the article (although I took issue with the phrase “Western medicine”, as though there aren’t scientists in Asia and Eastern Europe developing advanced medical techniques). I shared it. Then, and only then, did I read the comments.

“This guy is so arrogant!”


The cycle has concluded with this article on a paediatrician who refuses to accept new patients who do not vaccinate. His reasons are sound, and his heartbroken frustration is palpable. I honestly cannot find fault with this decision.

Then I read the comments.

“This guy is so EGOTISTICAL.”

Again I say, whut.

It’s no use, dear reader, to remind me not to read the comments. I know better (or I should), but when it comes to science communication, not all the passion and all the verbal skills in all the world will do any good if you don’t know your audience. As it happens, the audience writes internet comments. Prior to last September*, if I got overwhelmed and frustrated and needed to take a few days away from the internet, it would be because I was reading the comments and they were so full of extraordinary volumes of misinformation that I would become discouraged and unmotivated. I’d need a break to recollect my passion for (polite) discussion and communication.


We abuse these words. Every time someone believes that they are right, or that they know more about a topic than we do, we label them arrogant or egotistical. That would be bad enough, but we do this regardless of their qualifications or of the weight of evidence they have provided. The belief that everyone is entitled to their own opinion (which is true) is conflated with the idea that every level of knowledge is equal and that opinions via some magical process of unicorn rainbow farts somehow become facts (“fart” is only one letter different from “fact”! Coincedence?!).

This is a well-documented phenomenon, and in the age of Google University, it is becoming increasingly problematic. People think that clicking on a few links makes them an expert on such advanced topics as climate science, immunology, animal behaviour… conspiracy theories… chemtrails…

It’s worth taking a moment to defend some aspects of Google University. The ability to undertake a swath of research in numerous fields mean that, presuming internet access and a good level of English literacy, we have the potential to make more sensibly informed decisions than ever before.

The problem is that we haven’t all learned to evaluate that evidence. Not everything that people call “evidence” is actually evidence of anything; anecdotal evidence (“I got the stupid flu vaccine and then I got the flu lol”) leads to poor decision-making (“…so I’m never getting the flu vaccine again and you shouldn’t either lol”); and emotional appeals (“WOULD YOU DO THIS TO YOUR CHILD? INJECT THEM WITH ABORTED FETUS TISSUE!!!!111!”) and shaming tactics also lead to poor decision-making.

(Disclaimer: giving your child a vaccine does not involve injecting them with aborted foetus tissue. However, if it turned out that this would prevent my hypothetical child dying in agony of whooping cough or of developing permanent brain damage from encephalitis caused by measles, then hell yes, bring on the aborted fetus tissue and let’s inject that sucker.)

It’s complicated. The world is complicated. Interactions are complicated. No-one can know everything (as much as I would like to believe otherwise), and a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

I have a tendency to heavily research big decisions. I take advantage of both my scientific background and my university library subscriptions to read review articles outside my field if I am unsure and don’t have an expert to ask. This can be a hug problem and involves my own confirmation bias issues – since they’re outside my field, I am often not familiar with the analyses, much of the terminology, problems with the studies and so on and so forth. If I have concerns, say, with a veterinary procedure, what I can do is approach my vet with the study on hand and ask if there are any glaring methodological flaws that mean I can dismiss it.

Here’s the rub, though. I have a scientific background. Hell, as of this afternoon, I actually have a PhD (there was a floppy hat and everything). This means that I have an increasingly specialised field of knowledge which culminates in a very small area in which I have solid expertise. I understand logical arguments, generalised scientific principles, basic biology, zoology, ecology, principles and methods of conservation, population genetics, molecular evolution, marine invertebrate larval development – all up to a point (I can, of course, make glaring logical errors and assumptions in spite of all this). I know more than the vast majority of the population about these things, and when someone says something that is patently, demonstrably wrong, I’m going to correct them. I feel that there is little value to having all this knowledge if I’m not going to share it. I like knowing things, I like sharing those things, I like other people knowing things.

The flipside is that, in my field, there are heaps and heaps of people who know more than me in pretty much all those areas (except my specific projects). The flipside is that when they talk, I listen. Actually, I listen, and when I don’t understand something, I ask for clarification. If I think they are wrong, I’ll argue, and then they’ll usually point out the flaw in my argument, and I will leave the conversation knowing more than when I started.

I like knowing things.

Don’t you like knowing things too?

When you know things, it’s much easier to make sensible decisions.

But we come back to the point that we can’t know everything (not even everything that is currently known, which is a dribble in the ocean of things that are out there to be known), and not everything is going to understand the explanation that comes back at them simply through a lack of background knowledge. No one person can be an expert in all things. Explanations to the layperson often involve simplifications and metaphors. I use these tools with wild abandon. Eventually, we reach the limit of what can be explained without a bachelor’s degree and we have to make a choice to trust. It is the world we live in. We simply cannot be extraordinarily well-informed about everything. We must trust people with specialised knowledge – they fix our cars, prescribe our antibiotics, fly our planes, develop our software, build our bridges…

And we have to trust that they know how to build a goddamn bridge.

Experts can be wrong. Of course they can be wrong. They are, in fact, human. But the fact that they can be wrong in their field still does not outweigh the fact that they are far, far, far more likely to be right than you are. A bad engineer is still going to build a safer suspension bridge than I am, even if I look it up online and make diagrams and take notes.

If you think your expert is wrong, interrogate them (politely is usually best). Present your evidence. When they critique it, consider that critique. Take it seriously even if it goes against what you believe. If you want to rebut the points of these, you’re going to need something more solid than “it’s a cover-up!” (the last refuge of the damned).

If I say that I know more than you about population genetics and you do not, in fact, have a PhD in population genetics, it’s very likely that I’m right. There’s a very small outside chance that you’re a self-educated wunderkind, but I wouldn’t take that bet on a dare.

It does not make me arrogant to say it (unless it’s completely irrelevant to the conversation). More importantly, it doesn’t make you stupid. It doesn’t make you a lesser person. It just means that in this particular case, I know more than you.

That is not what arrogant means. If you proposed a possible alternative explanation and I was a condescending arsehole about it, that would probably make me arrogant. If I just tell you that, actually, you’re wrong, because [reasons], then… no.

It also doesn’t make me egotistical, because that is not what egotistical means. Knowing more than you and pointing that out does not make self-centered. It just means that the last fifteen years I spent at university (yes, fifteen. Yes, I changed courses a lot at the start. My HECS/HELP debts exceed the common house deposit) weren’t a complete waste of time.

An expert explaining why a given approach in a particular situation would be ineffective can, in the present climate, be debated by a person with no education and no expertise in that field, and they will conclude with “Well, that’s what I believe, and it’s arrogant of you to tell me that I’m wrong.” The expert is not arrogant. The accuser really does not know as much as the expert. If, however, they’re arguing with you about something in which you have the expertise, then your thought-out opinion will carry more weight than theirs.

An expert saying that they find it hard when a patient will not take hard-won medical advice, the absolute standard of care endorsed globally, is not being egotistical. They are being frustrated. They have knowledge, and like me, they want to share it. They want that knowledge to do good, to make a difference. It’s their job. When someone won’t let them do their job effectively, and they have trouble with that, they are not being egotistical.

It is hard for me to back down in an argument. I’m pushy and opinionated and I love the sound of my own voice (oh, how I love!). It’s hard for me to put the brakes on when I’m in full throttle, but I’ve been working on it. I’m now a lot better at saying, “That’s a good point and I’ll have to think about it,” or, “I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right,” or even “Really? I didn’t know that. Huh.” It has taken time and work to get to this point.

Even with my scientific background, I still occasionally fall into the trap of believing that a dismissal of my position is a dismissal of me, personally. It isn’t. I still fall into the trap of believing that, if I back down, I’ll lose face. I won’t. The people in my world generally have more respect for you if you surrender to a superior argument.

If I have a take home message, it’s this:

Sometimes people know more than you.

That’s not rocket science (aside: I know nothing about rocket science. I think it involves rockets, and burny flamey things). It’s not controversial at all. It is okay, and expected, because you can’t know everything. You don’t have time. I don’t have time. I’m at home in a DNA lab, but I don’t even know how change the oil in my car. I’m comfortable with an undergraduate level of literary theory, but I don’t know jack about international relations.

Sometimes that knowledge will be important to you.

Again, not controversial. Every time you go to a doctor, you’re admitting that someone knows more than you, and their intellectual advantage in this case is something that will benefit you. Every time you drive across a suspension bridge…

It doesn’t make you stupid or lesser. It’s not an insult. It’s not a dismissal. You don’t have to win every argument. It is more important to end up knowing more, and having correct knowledge, than it is to win an argument.

More controversial, for all of us. We all do this. It’s human.

All I am saying is try not to tell someone they are arrogant or egotistical for actually knowing more than you about something. Chances are they worked very, very hard for that knowledge. You may have worked hard for other things, and other knowledge, and that’s great, but it’s often not relevant to the discussion.

(*since last September, being overwhelmed and frustrated simply involves watching what the current Australian government is doing. Goodbye World Heritage Tasmanian rainforests! Yes, go dump mining spoil on the Great Barrier Reef! Hey, sign that horrendous Trans-Pacific Partnership! Fuck over asylum-seeking refugees who have already suffered enough as much as possible! Oh, and in terms of state governments – sure, let’s cull sharks. THAT MAKES SENSE)

DOG QUEST: Rat bait

I just had a very interesting weekend.

On Sunday, we went up to visit my father in his rural township as his computer was having severe video card issues. As Husband is a software developer, he tends to get shanghaied as “family tech support” and considering that my father gets shanghaied as “the man with all the power tools and the five foot chainsaw who is helping clear the 50 metre fallen mountain ash from our yard”, we feel this is quite fair.

We decided to take Abby up for a visit, as she’s never been to Dad’s place, while Amos has, and two dogs might be a bit much to manage.

Soon after we got to Dad’s, he disappeared to run some errands, and Husband sat down at the outside table next to the barbeque to build his father-in-law a new computer. Meanwhile, I was trying to decide on the most effective and safest way to tie up Abby so that she could keep us company and sniff things but not wander off or get in the way.

While I was untangling the doggy rope, I heard a crunching sound.

Husband interrupted my rope-studying-reverie (I think I was stuck on the same knot for an extended period) to say, “Er… what’s that she’s got?”

“Abby, LEAVE!”

She’s pretty good about leaving stuff when told, so she just pulled her head up and looked at me in confusion. I swooped down on the box, scooped it up and stared at it for a moment, heart racing, because that yellow box looked fucking familiar.

Spilling out of the box was this:


Rat poison. Lethal doses of blood thinner.

The label on the box was yellow and said “RAT AND MOUSE BAIT.”

This is the kind of thing that strikes absolute terror into the hearts of dog owners.

On the back: “Causes death in 4 to 7 days.” That’s rats, true, which are rather smaller than even gangly adolescent rottweilers, but past a certain point blood thinner is blood thinner and enough internal bleeding will kill pretty much anything.

Had she actually eaten any? I took a few seconds to feel around inside the box for any dog slobber. She’s a messy eater, and when the pellets turned out to be dry, I briefly relaxed.

Then I pried open her jaws and stared blankly at the blue-green mush smeared over her teeth.

When something potentially disastrous (but not immediately catastrophic) happens, there’s always a moment where you just pause and think, Really? Really? Is this what we’re doing today? This is what we’re doing today, isn’t it? Alright. Let’s get moving.

There was a lot of simultaneous back-and-forth with Husband while I was doing all this, and then I grabbed my phone and googled “[town] vet emergency”. Sure enough, there was a 24 hour number, so I navigated through the “The office is closed! If this is an emergency, press 9…” menu and reached a pleasant young man who, after I explained that my 32 kg dog had eaten some rat bait and I didn’t know how much, agreed that, yes, rat bait was an emergency, and he’d meet me at the clinic in twenty minutes.

Incidentally, this was not only a Sunday; it was also a long weekend in our state, so I did pull the vet into the office on his holiday.

The clinic was about five minutes from Dad’s place, so I basically threw the dog in the car (correction: I didn’t really have to. At this point she felt perfectly fine, so as far as she was concerned we were just going on another adventure, and she leapt in happily), hooked her harness around the cargo barrier, and headed up the driveway.

Five minutes is enough time to imagine the worst, an image of your sweet-natured, happy, half-grown little girl dog dying with blood streaming out of her ears and eyes and nose. It’s enough time for self-recrimination – why wasn’t I watching her? – and subsequent transfer of blame – Dad’s never used rat poison, why didn’t he tell me? – and then the determination to calm oneself down – she probably hasn’t even absorbed it yet, and even if she has, there are things we can do, she’ll be okay – and of course the brief, selfish, embarrassed practical concern – fuck, this is going to be expensive.

I got there before the vet, as expected, so I flipped up the rear door and sat in the back with Abby, who was quite content to flop down next to me, receive pats, and occasionally lick my face.

“You idiot,” I said severely, and then reminded myself (rather, Husband had reminded me earlier) that rat bait is designed to be appealing to, well, non-specific mammals, and Abby eats anything anyway, so she really couldn’t be blamed for this. “Alright, it’s not your fault.”

This commentary was rewarded with an affectionate *slurrp*.

The rest of the story is fairly unremarkable. The vet turned up in short order (sooner than expected), and we trudged inside. I gave the girl a bear hug while the vet injected apomorphine and then, since it’s a rural area and they regularly deal with large animals like cows, horses and (reportedly) alpacas, we took Abby out the back to a concrete area strewn with straw. She was quite happy sniffing around at cow poo for a few minutes, until she stopped still and dropped her head. The wagging tail flopped down and stopped moving.

She proceeded to, as expected, chuck her guts up. Undigested, bright turquoise rat bait pellets were spotted in the mush of dog food and the small number of treats she’d received for sits and drops that morning.

The vet went off to prepare another shot to stop the endless regurgitation, and by the time he came back she was only bringing up thin streams of bile and she looked very miserable indeed. All the same, she wagged her tail at the vet and leaned into him for a pat.

Nothing keeps our girl down for long.

She threw up three more times while we took care of the insurance paperwork (yes. We have pet insurance, thank fucking Christ, since a public holiday call out fee is not exactly peanuts), before the second shot kicked in.

I actually had to pick her up and put her in the back of the car, since she was so worn out and unhappy by the time we had to leave. In order to avoid giving an inflated sense of my upper body strength, I do this “half a dog” at a time: pick up the front half of dog, put paws on floor of car. Dog stays there, looking groggy. Then bend down (use your knees!) and scoop up back half of dog. At this point dog’s reflexes kick in and even a very very tired and unhappy dog will scramble into the back.

Then we went back to Dad’s place.

The rest of the afternoon was uneventful. I went for a “run” (what passes for a run for me; as I’ve said elsewhere, it’s mostly walking until my muscles can support my joints and stop me injuring myself). Husband built a computer for Dad. Dad was mortified at the dog-poisoning and explained that he hardly ever uses rat bait – he’s been getting bush rats due to the dry spell, and normally it’s way under various pieces of low furniture where dogs can’t fit their heads, except that it got moved out of the way to bring the new tiles in and…

It’s totally understandable, how it happened. I know where I get my absent-mindedness, don’t worry, and Dad’s not in trouble. Shit happens.

When your dog eats rat bait, there’s a follow up blood test to make sure they didn’t absorb enough to affect clotting. Both follow-up test results are in. We did the four-day test a well as the two-day test. It’s very rare that a result appears in the second test that wasn’t detected in the first, but I love my dogs and I have no idea how to assess that risk properly, so we didn’t take that chance (pet insurance made that choice much easier. Get pet insurance, I’m not even kidding). Even if she has absorbed it, the treatment is – as I understand it – a bucketload of vitamin K to counteract the effects until it’s out of her system.

So I’ll keep you posted, but at the moment Abby is happy and healthy and friendly and generally fine.

As an antidote to the sheer terror, here’s a cute picture of the dog in question.

Abby relaxing and enjoying the cafe scene after her second blood test.

Abby relaxing and enjoying the cafe scene after her second blood test.

On Rhetoric: “Locked Up” vs Environmentalism

As a rule – and I didn’t even realise I was thinking this way until just this morning – I will not be writing about politics per se on this blog. I may write about political ideas and ideals, and given my career (marine science, conservation genetics) there may be a couple of barbed grumbles about “the (no-longer-so) recent Australian election” but generally speaking, there won’t be any rants ranted or names named in regard to the horror that is currently Australian politics.

There are multiple reasons for this.

Firstly, there are a lot of people who already do it a lot better than I ever could (I’m not sure where to start linking, so I advise Googling “Australian political blogs” and going from there) and I have little if any interest in reinventing the wheel.

Secondly, I strongly suspect that I would continue to be surrounded by people with whom I share most of the aforementioned ideas and ieals, and thus there wouldn’t be much point if I couldn’t provide an informative analysis. We already have a perfectly functional wheel, we all agree that it’s round, move on.

Thirdly, I can’t provide that informative analysis, because I just don’t know enough – I would quickly get out of my depth and the last thing the internet needs is more uninformed political waffle. Or, to continue the metaphor, a square wheel.

In regard to political analysis, however, there is one thing – and only one thing – that I can do properly.

I can understand and dissect rhetoric. I think that rhetoric (also media delivery of same) is the key to the situation we find ourselves in, in Australia, and of course in other parts of the world. I think that understanding rhetoric, cognitive biases, and how determined people are to believe what they want to believe, regardless of evidence, is the goddamn Holy Grail of politics in a country with compulsory voting.

It’s not really about understanding people. It’s about understanding how people respond to language.

I’m going to provide one example, and then I’m going to stop there, because there is so much I could give that I’m thinking about making this a weekly series. This example is near and dear to my heart, and it involves naming names (which as I said above, I won’t make a habit of. Yes, I just ended a sentence with a preposition. Take a moment to weep quietly, my grammarian friends, then move on).

The mistake we made with regard to Tony Abbott, the “Mad Monk” who is now our Prime Minister (“we” meaning the left, I suppose, if I align myself anywhere, but even the more liberal version of the “right”), was underestimating him in the first year or so after he acquired leadership of the conservative party. Speaking for myself, I thought the man was laughable. He was so hilariously wrong, so poorly spoken, so utterly lacking in charisma, I couldn’t imagine how even the most staunchly conservative right wing anti-Labor anti-Union anti-Greens voter could consider numbering “1” in that box. He was anti-choice. He was clearly homophobic. He said things that were so misogynistic I almost thought they were satirical, because in this day, in this age, who says that? Seriously?

He got caught out by journalists in ways that ranged from hilarious (skip past the propaganda commentary at the start – it’s accurate enough, but it’s really not the point) to actually worrying and piteous (I actually couldn’t find this footage; it appears to be taken down. It’s the one where Abbott got caught saying nothing in particular and a journalist pressed him for more details and he just started nodding and twitching and zoning out – it really looked like he was having a seizure and I’m not 100% convinced that he wasn’t). He was caught lying. He was caught displaying his ignorance for all and sundry.

I made a mistake. I thought he was a fucking idiot. Most of us did.

The man’s a Rhodes scholar. You don’t get to be a Rhodes scholar by being an idiot. You can get to be a Rhodes scholar by lying to a certain extent about your extracurricular activities, and perhaps your political involvement, but you don’t get to do it by being stupid.

He’s not an idiot. He just thinks everyone else is, and in September last year, we all went and proved the man right. I wonder if that hurts more than anything else.

I was reminded of this again, this morning, when I was exposed to the man’s execrable views on national parks of any kind.

Even before the election, Abbott referred to Marine National Parks as being “locked up”. “We don’t want to lock up our oceans,” he is quoted as saying.

Lock up.

Now he is quoted as saying that “Too many of our forests are ‘locked up.’”

Locked up.

Yeah. The man’s not stupid. Sure, I could go on a conservation rant, I could talk about biodiversity and ecosystem function, I could talk on population connectivity (my own career specialty) and how we still don’t know enough to know if we have enough area spaced out in parks to sustain natural populations – I could do that. And the people who agree with me already, or the people who are very interested in environmental science, or the rare people who actually haven’t decided either way on an issue and want to hear the evidence – they’d read it. They’d take it in. They might debate or discuss on points. I’d look up references. We’d have a fantastic conversation and precisely nothing would change.

This is how you end up feeling helpless.

Here’s what you need to hear: the words “locked up” are simple, straightforward, and terribly evocative. You might not have finished a book since that report you had to finish in year eight, or maybe you fudged that in a sneaky way by watching the movie instead and managed to avoid reading more than three pages of text at a time throughout your entire educational experience, or maybe you’re an English Literature major and your house is walled with books, but you know what those words mean. We all know.

There’s an image. It will be slightly different for everyone. Maybe you envision a locked door, or a barred cell (perhaps a lonesome bar of moonlight shafting in through the window, or if you’re feeling particularly whimsical, strains of harmonica music). Maybe it’s just a feeling. Maybe you feel yourself locked away from the mountains or the sea, the wilderness taken away from you.

Maybe you feel separated from that wilderness.

I’m not a person who enjoys hunting or fishing, nor am I involved in any wild harvesting practices overall, so I’m going to see it slightly differently from someone in that bracket, but perhaps they (or you, if that’s you) see a world of profitable or enjoyable or healthsome resources rotting on the vine or on the wing or fin or paw, wasted for no good reason (setting aside for a moment that ecosystem function). Maybe you look around at a denuded landscape and feel frustrated that there’s all those resources locked up.

And maybe you get angry. Maybe you start resenting people who lock those things up, keeping them from you, something you think is part of your heritage and that should be part of your future. You start thinking of those people as very different from yourself (they’re not).

And it’s not too long before you start spitting, “Bloody greenies” (or some sentiment along those lines). This is instead of actually having a conversation about conservation (see what I did there?), or wilderness preservation policies, or even basic ideals with someone who might identify as a greeny, or even ecosystem function with an ecologist, or population connectivity and biodiversity with someone like myself.

Those conservations would be infinitely more productive.

What this language – this manipulative and downright patronising language (I don’t make a habit of trying to tell people what to feel, but if you don’t feel insulted by this sort of tactic, you probably should) – is doing is making those conversations more difficult or even impossible before they even start. It also makes it look like there’s been no compromise, or no discussion, those autocratic fascist environmentalist folk have just drawn the line and now they’re telling you what to do. It is basically alienation on demand (which has been achieved a thousand times over regarding the refugee situation).

That’s not the case. National parks are already a compromise. The wilderness can’t be “locked up”. It can’t be set aside. We’re too dependent on these resources, either in an economic sense or simply for what we now consider to be basic infrastructure. What we can do is try to select threatened and representative pieces of wilderness – small chunks – and say, “Okay, you can hunt and fish and harvest everywhere except these spaces. Everywhere else? Go forth! This one? Go camping.”

What you feel when you go and explore the wilderness, when you hike or camp or (I presume) raft, that glory and freedom and frank admiration – that’s one of many reasons we have national parks. We have them because that feeling should be sustained. We want people to have access to that feeling, to remember that part of our country, to be able to delight in the little wilderness we have left.

And without being too blunt about it, or indeed adopting too many manipulative and condescending rhetorical tactics, we can’t delight in what we don’t have, and over-harvesting will result in a loss of wilderness. That’s not made up. That’s already happened.

This isn’t about locking it away. It’s not about putting money in a bank account you can’t access. It’s simply making sure that the nice things are kept where everyone can see them, and keep seeing them, for generations to come.

But with two words, words that everyone understands, words that have a hefty cultural weight to them and cause an instinctive emotional reaction, the Mad Monk has made it about something very different.

When do you Science?

[I am now working out this blogging thing. What I’ve determined is that if something needs references and images, it gets delayed – so my new policy is that, for every post that needs references and images, I’ll put up a few that are just basically mental screeds on things I care about. That speeds things up. –KN]

Nearly a year ago now, I was at a conference dinner,  discussing the fact that some scientists appear to have a bit of a cognitive disconnect. Scientists, I lamented in that post-one-or-two-glasses-of-wine sort of way, are so often only scientists from nine to five. Then they go home and stop being rational.

The woman sitting next to me looked taken aback. You can’t be rational all the time, she pointed out. That would be awful.

Since then, I’ve decided that what we are stuck on is our use of the word rational. Take it to mean sensible. Take it to mean, essentially, that most advertising should be taken with a grain of salt, that media rhetoric should be dissected to find the underlying message and to assess whether or not it is supported, that herbal foot baths are not going to remove “toxins” from your bloodstream and that fish oil probably isn’t going to boost your kids’ brainpower.

Don’t take my use of the word rational to mean “unemotional” or “robotic.” That seems to be a common misunderstanding. You can be passionately rational. Being rational – sensible – isn’t at odds with being passionate, or loving, or miserable, or creative. It isn’t at odds with expression or the exploration of ideas and symbolism. It isn’t at odds with artistic or cultural pursuits or loving your children.

To be confessional about my own sins in this regard: I have a guilty irrational pleasure (well, one that I know about, anyways). It’s skincare. I like having soft skin that smells nice. It’s part of a physical indulgence for me. At the same time, I am well aware that stimulating the production of collagen is probably not what is going to happen in response to the use of eye cream. I don’t believe that, every five minutes, someone discovers a new soothing flower oil that magically dissolves wrinkles, clears pores, tightens skin and – how convenient! – doesn’t smell like a horse’s arse (although I appear to be one of the few people in the entire world who hates the smell of both jasmine and lavender, so that’s a qualified feature right there).

I like massages and facials, but I let my eyes glaze over when they start talking about toxins and so forth. There are some truisms in skincare (“sorbolene is an excellent moisturiser”, “barrier creams help stop your skin drying out when you have to wash your hands fifty times a day because you work in a lab” and “antibiotic skin treatments do seem to reduce acne for sensible and obvious reasons”) and it appears to be true that you can make oily skin less oily, dry skin less dry, and neither-oily-nor-dry-skin stay neither-oily-nor-dry. Other than that, I’m not game to commit. I’m not a dermatologist. The only time a dermatologist recommended I use a particular skin product, it was in the well-over-$50-per-jar range which was way out of my budget (if anyone’s curious, it was all that alpha-hydroxy-acid stuff. This was after I finished a course of Roaccutane and my face was feeling rather traumatised).

It’s worth mentioning that when many serums and so forth say “supported by clinical trials!” the actual data is something like “Ten out of ten respondents reported that their skin felt better.” This doesn’t distinguish it from a placebo effect. I pretty much use skincare as a placebo effect, for the most part, unless I have some environmental exposure I need to guard against (i.e. the aforementioned lab work, or SCUBA diving. Diving wrecks my skin. You have no idea), and yes, I am aware that this means I drizzle away money when I do this.

A friend suggested I should use a product on half my face for a while and use that as a test, but I admitted I was too vain to do that. If it was going to work, I wanted it to work, and if it didn’t, well, then it didn’t, and either way I wasn’t willing to look like Harvey Two-Face.


In the end I decided (based on some before and after selfies) that it had a decent effect, but not enough to justify the expenditure, and I moved on to slightly cheaper pastures.

Skincare is just one example. We can stand around in a lab in our seasonally-inappropriate closed-toed shoes, and still someone might recommend homeopathy, or multi-vitamins, or reiki, or one of any number of things that don’t do you any good at all outside of a placebo effect (although the placebo effect can be very powerful, and for reiki and homeopaths in particular, being in an environment where you get to sit down or lie down and relax, where someone is going to actually have the time to listen to your problems, really is a recipe for feeling better. It won’t cure illnesses, but it could definitely reduce stress, and, alright, if stress is causing your illness…) (and having said that, I have no patience with homeopaths. At. All).

The fact is that, sometimes, being rational can be exhausting. Unless it comes from a trusted source with access to solid facts, you can’t take anything on faith. You constantly question your assumptions. You spend most of your time living inside an interrogative framework (when you’re not just mechanically pipetting samples and reagents from one place to another place, which is how I spent half my day yesterday). Does this work? Why does it work? How do I know that this is why it works? Is there a loophole in this reasoning?

I try to do the same thing with my dogs. As any half-decent dog owner knows, you do have to be rational with dogs. You have to remember what you are expecting from them, what signals you are giving them and, crucially, that dogs don’t speak English and don’t necessarily know that the vague fluffy hand signal you’re giving them now means the same as the decisive hand signal you gave them this morning. They don’t necessarily know that the same word, in a different tone of voice, means the same thing (that is a hard one for English speaking humans to learn). They don’t know that the same gesture or command in a different situation means the same thing – or perhaps something different (which is why, in our house, “Down” means “get off the damn couch”, “No jumping!” means exactly that, and the command to lie down is “drop”. If I used “Down” to mean both “drop” and “get off the damn couch”, I have no right to tell off or correct my dogs if they get confused).

It can get messy. Sometimes someone will say something that you know is not supported by the evidence, and you have to choose whether to simply say “Hmmm,” or nod and smile,” or to bite the bullet and say, “Well, actually, there have been a few studies on that…”

Everyone can get butthurt when you challenge them on their use of the word “holistic” or the phrase “Western medicine” no matter how gentle and tactful you are about it. The alternative is to let people muddle on and make inaccurate and potentially harmful decisions based on crappy information.

Now, I was under the (mistaken, naïve, egotistical) impression that scientists would be less butthurt if they were challenged on misunderstandings, instead open to the possibility of “Oh? Really? I didn’t know that. I should look into it!” as a response, since that is what we have to do all day. It turns out even someone who is rigorous and consistent within their area of research and work can start to sulk if you suggest that perhaps homeopathic vaccines are not going to do them any good.

To be fair (and this is important), people don’t necessarily go to work to debate their lifestyle and medical choices, so I can see how it would be confronting regardless of your scientific training.

I don’t have an answer to this issue. It’s not just scientists who need to be rational outside of working hours, of course: everyone does. Irrational decisions lead to, at best, wasted time and money (homeopathy, erm… expensive skincare products) and, at worst, death and suffering (vaccine refusal, terrorist activities). In spite of what I just said, you can’t really expect yourself to be rational all the time – you’re human. You have a number of built-in cognitive biases that actively work to prevent you from being rational, from seeing the big picture, from breaking things down into useful statistical blocks. Humans as a group are bad at risk assessment, bad at probability and statistics, and absolute slaves to confirmation bias (i.e. placing more weight on arguments that support what they already believe rather than the opposite, instead of evaluating the merits of those arguments).

As a take-home message, it would obviously be beneficial for people to think more about some of their decisions as they make them, and try to be more honest about whether they’re rationalising or not. This includes me, looking down upon everyone from my lofty perch on the couch, in my pyjamas. We have to go easy on ourselves (see the aforementioned cognitive biases), but we really should give it a go.

I mostly mentioned the pyjamas because no matter how I edit it, this post sounds a little sanctimonious. I just get frustrated sometimes.

Also, they’re cute pyjamas.

DOG QUEST: Introduction – The Amos and Abby Show

At the start of this year, we had one (1) dog.


Amos enjoying the cool kitchen slate on a very hot day.

This is Amos, our two year old Rottweiler. At two years old, he’s not grown up yet. He’s still very excitable and bouncy. He thinks everyone wants to be his friend (which can be a problem, since he has a “Play with me!” bark and, being a rottie, that bark sounds anything but playful to the uninitiated. And no, this isn’t a naïve dog owner saying “schnoogy woogums just wants to play with you!” There’s a whole lot of body language involved and trust me, I know what his unfriendly bark sounds like…). He understands that he is not supposed to jump, but sometimes his enthusiasm gets the better of him. He sits before he comes inside. He sits before he gets food, which he won’t eat until he’s told that he’s allowed. He does drop, and stand, and will hold these positions until released (as long as it’s not for too long. We’re working on it). He knows he can’t steal food or, in fact, anything from the coffee table, and he respects the psychological barrier.


The gate between “Dog Territory” and “Cat Territory” (we have elderly cats. Having to deal with bouncy young enormous dogs is a bit too much for them)

For a rottweiler, that is a psychological barrier. He could go over it or straight through it, but he is not allowed. It even worked when all we had was this…


“OH NOES! My human is on one side of the plank! I am on the other! I am not allowed to cross the plank! WOE AND DESPAIR!”

He knows that if tooth touches skin even in play, even if it’s an accident, then play time is over and he is in big trouble. He will spend some time working out the best way to jump for the tug toy without accidentally getting a hand.

He knows to sit quietly and raise his paws when I want to put his car harness on him. He turns his head and opens his mouth when I want to give him pills. If he has something he shouldn’t have, and I tell him “Out!”, he knows to drop it (and usually he gets a reward if he does so. He sometimes guards resources, so we have to really reinforce that behaviour).

His recall is… not great… (read: fucking terrible, yes, that’s our fault entirely) so he’s not allowed off lead when out and about. If he is distracted, he often sees obedience as optional and has to be reminded that it is a command, not a request. He heels and walks quite well once he settles down.

He’s a big, goofy, licky, drooling, enthusiastic, 40 kg pain in the bum, but he’s basically a good boy and a clever dog and I love him to bits.

It’s March now, of 2014.

We now have two (2) dogs. Here’s the new one:


Abby, post-surgery and high on morphine. Photo taken by her carer at Homeless Hounds just before we picked her up (Abby, not the carer). Just as an aside, she looks this goofy even when she isn’t stoned.

This is the lovely Abby. She is cruising into eleven months old now, and was between nine and ten months when we got her [edit: recent evidence on the vet desexing certificate suggests she might be a couple of months younger than we thought]. She is very fluffy where Amos is smooth; her head is more rounded (she still has rottie puppy head – it will flatten out a bit, but not as much because she is, firstly, a girl and secondly, more of an American line rottie than an Australian line. Australian line rotties tend to be more like the German rotties, just a bit smaller); she is amazingly gangly just as he is starting to fill out properly; and as near as I can tell her ears are about as big as her head (her tongue is also way bigger than one would expect and she uses it with wild abandon).

Her feet are also very large. We suspect she will exceed Amos in size.

She has a tendency to tilt her head at you and have her tongue lolling sideways out of her mouth, at which point we refer to her as Moon Moon. Suddenly we look at our “goofy” dog Amos, and he takes on an air of dignity and nobility in contrast (as I have said elsewhere, then he will fart loudly or lick his penis and the spell is broken).

Moon Moon

Moon Moon

We forgot what this age [edit: see above, “ten months” might be “eight months” which would explain the level of dufus] was like for a dog. We’d forgotten how much Amos has grown up and settled down over the last year.

We adopted Abby from Homeless Hounds. They took wonderful care of her, but the signs of neglect were still upon her (we adopted her before they even advertised her). She had untreated fly-strike on her ears, a low-grade ear infection (and thanks to Susan at HH for the eardrops), was severely underweight (not as underweight as some rescue dogs, but still way, way too skinny for a growing rottie), was missing part of her tail and, unsurprisingly, had a certain amount of separation anxiety.

Here’s how it happened. Husband and I had been checking PetRescue religiously on a daily basis in search of the rescue dog we wanted. There was a dog we were going to go and see – a Great Dane x Mastiff – that we were excited about, but Husband still kept checking the websites. He came across a rottie cross, contacted them, and was told that, since this was a rottie cross working line (Huntaway – New Zealand herding dog I hadn’t heard of before), it probably wouldn’t be suitable for us (high prey drive, we have low fences, don’t go running or riding with a dog generally), but they had three female purebred rotties that were looking for homes…

We got the callback as we were heading home during the heatwave, on the M1, and made a quick exit from the freeway to go and meet this Abby dog.

I still call her Abby-dog.

We had Amos in the car (due to the over 40°C temperatures, we’d taken Amos in to Husband’s work where there is substantial air conditioning. Rotties are not good in the heat – they can get very sick), and our main concern was will he try to hump her and freak her out? (he had not been desexed by this stage, although he has been now. That’s a topic for another post) As well as will he act up and embarrass us and make the foster carer think we can’t train a dog to save ourselves?

As it turns out, the answer to both questions was no, but it most likely reflected more on the fact that it was very hot and Amos was lethargic as hell than on our amazing dog handling skills. He was interested in Abby, had a sniff and a lick, and the tails wagged companionably, but he was just too tired to get excited about anything.

It quickly became apparent that this dog was extraordinarily sweet-natured and a bit needy. Husband knelt down to give her a pat, and Abby’s immediate response was to curl up against his chest. LOVE ME.

We may have melted into a puddle of dog-loving goo.

We slept on it, but the decision was made, and we ended up emailing the carers for the other dog to cancel, not wanting to waste their time, and taking Abby home the next day. If that seems fast, we’d already done all the hard thinking on “Do we want a second dog?” and “What sort of dog do we want to adopt?” After that, the question “Do we want this particular dog?” is a lot easier, and simply involved a quick trip to a pet supply warehouse for a new harness, lead, crate blanket, and bag of puppy food suitable for a young dog.

The first week of having two dogs was utter chaos. I won’t lie. It was fucking horrible. We thought we were going absolutely stark raving bonkers.

First of all, due to the heatwave, Amos got gastro and started leaving puddles of diarrhoea indoors (apparently, this happens in very hot weather. Dogs always eat things they shouldn’t, like wombat poo  – just for example – and in hot weather the cultures of bacteria and whatnot that like to live in wombat poo – just for example, I said – are rather more robust than in normal temperatures, leading to stomach upsets). Euw. Euw. There was a moment where Husband I stood over one such leaving, glancing over at our dog who was slumped on the couch looking utterly miserable and sick and sorry for himself (we anthropomorphised a nice thought bubble that said “I pooped inside. I am bad. I feel sick. I can’t believe I pooped inside…”), and wondered exactly how we were supposed to clean it up. I mean, liquid, yes, we can mop that… solids, sure, that’s easy… but this was an unholy fusion of the two concepts and oh God this is not how we wanted to start the day…

Meanwhile, at the same time, Abby had just been desexed. We’d brought her home while she was still doped up on morphine (as a consequence, she had a tendency to actually fall off the car seat, even though she was harnessed in. This was both worrying and hilarious). Her bladder control was affected and she’d managed to pee in her crate (she looked miserable and horrified by this, but again, we could be anthropomorphising, since there’s probably a strong human tendency to assume that any dog that smells like its own urine is probably ashamed of itself).

Even a day or two later, she still was a bit confused about the toilet training concept. We think she’s more or less got it now, but judging from a few cues, we are fairly sure that her previous neglectful owner mostly kept her outside and thus she was never effectively toilet trained. I think I went through about 2.5 litres of Urine-Off in the first two weeks before we got a good system going. With puppies, you know you take them outside after playing, after sleeping, when you let them out of the crate, and after food, and if you wait long enough, soon enough the excretory magic will happen. Not so the adolescent dog, who just looks at you in confusion, because, unlike a puppy, they don’t have a bladder the size of a pea.

The separation anxiety also meant that, the minute one opened the crate door, you were generally pounced on by 30 kgs (yes, it should be more. She’s up to 32 kgs now and we’re increasing the amount of food as well) of needy desperate canine love. Abby had a tendency (now thankfully settled) to launch herself into the air, limbs flying out in all directions like a spectacularly uncoordinated audition for a Toyota ad, and land on you where you sat on the couch. Cute, yes. Also painful.

So in that first week, once she recovered from her surgery, Abby was desperate to interact and play. And pee everywhere. Amos was sick as a dog (forgive me), or rather, sick as a dog with gastro, and exhausted, and now his house smelt like another dog’s urine (to be fair, we weren’t happy about that either), who kept crawling all over his people and jumping on him when he felt sick. The first day, they played happily, and we had a hell of a time keeping Abby as quiet as she needed to be after major abdominal surgery. After that, Amos had absolutely no time for her.

We worried that we had made a terrible mistake – that Amos really didn’t like her, and didn’t actually want to live with another dog after all (in spite of all other indications in his behaviour prior to that). The first couple of nights we discovered that, as we were warned, Abby would express her loneliness and confusion in the crate with a despairing little howowowowwwwwl.

On top of that, we had honestly forgotten what having a young dog was like, and we learned what it was like to have a dog – even a sweet-natured dog – who had not been taught good behaviour since puppyhood. Abby steals things from the table. She jumps up to steal things from the bench. She tries to push her way inside. She mouths (note: she does not bite or chew people. She does mouth at them, although less than she did since I shout at her a lot when she does). She jumps. She whacks everything, including people, with her paws (working on that one. Amos never did it, so it’s new).

We started to think that, if we couldn’t handle two dogs, we should probably never, ever have kids.

Then Amos got over his gastro (after a ridiculous vet bill that, as an aside, led to us changing vets).

And Abby started to work out that peeing was an outside activity.

And everything just got better.

The first time we saw Abby stalking Amos around the kennel outside, and Amos play-bowing at her, his tail wagging furiously – words cannot describe the relief. Alright. Thank fucking Christ. They like each other. They get along. I have caught Amos licking Abby’s ear affectionately (he does this to me, and Husband, and other dogs he really likes. Abby’s ears are now very clean and pink). They wrestle. They play tug with sticks. They chase each other around madly. Abby has stopped howling in the crate (she occasionally runs straight into it when she is hungry, as that’s where I feed her). They both enjoy their training. Abby is less needy – we miss the excessive snuggles, but it means she is more confident. We are working on teaching them that exuberant play is for outdoors only, but it’s a work in progress.

There are so many stories to tell, but this is long enough. It’s still a lot of work to have two dogs, and while, for the most part, Abby learns good behaviour from Amos, Amos has also learned a few dodgy habits from Abby, but we’re mostly on top of that. We take them to training every weekend and work with them throughout the week.

And I bought Abby a life jacket so she could learn to swim properly (otherwise she just flails her front paws around madly and panics).


Abby in her life jacket. As we explained to the rather puzzled man at the creek with the English bulldog, no, we are not concerned about her drowning in two feet of water, we just want her to learn to swim.

Half price because it’s a discontinued colour – she’s much more confident in the water, and I can see her from a distance.