Home Science Pink Flamingos, Feeding Habits And Science Done Wrong

Pink Flamingos, Feeding Habits And Science Done Wrong

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Causality matters, finding a correlation isn’t enough. This is just the posh way of saying something obvious – that something happens isn’t enough, we need to work out why it is happening.

For example, it is true that British society is racist – ingroup and outgroup is a feature of every human society we’ve ever seen and is likely to remain a feature of our species – and it’s also rather less racist than most other places around. It is also true that BAME, or to use our language properly, BAEM, suffer from Covid-19 more than the gammony among us.

So, why? Sure, structural racism is a possible explanation. But that’s just to accept the correlation. We want to know causation. Which involves thinking about skin melanin content, Vitamin D and sunshine levels in northern climes along with their influence upon immune systems. It requires thinking about immigration rates – for sure, poorer people are going to be hit by most pandemics harder than richer but who expects recent immigrants to be top of that societal pile?

And on and on – there are a number of possible explanations. Our task is to find out which is the correct one, what is actually causing this?

At which point one of the stories de jour which is a lovely example of this logical problem. Pinker flamingoes are more aggressive, eat better and have more kiddies:

The pinkest flamingos are also the most aggressive when it comes to squabbling over food, scientists have found.

Research from the University of Exeter also suggests bright pink plumage to be an indicator of good health in lesser flamingos.

Dr Paul Rose, a zoologist at the University of Exeter and lead author on the study, said: “Flamingos live in large groups with complex social structures. Colour plays an important role in this. The colour comes from carotenoids in their food, which for lesser flamingos is mostly algae that they filter from the water.

“A healthy flamingo that is an efficient feeder – demonstrated by its colourful feathers – will have more time and energy to be aggressive and dominant when feeding.”

Excellent, the correlation is demonstrated. Yet that causation, it’s being said that if they feed better then they’ve got the energy to be more aggressive.

And yet, and yet – we do need to rule out the opposite. The flamingo gets its pink from its food. So, animals that get more food will be pinker. More aggression when feeding might produce more food – logically possible, certainly. So, those birds which are more aggressive to begin with will be pinker.

That is, rather than being a better feeder allowing the flamingo to be both pinker and more aggressive, being an angry bastard causes the flamingo to be pinker.

As to which way around it is with flamingos isn’t important to the point here Which is that we have to be careful in our logic. Correlation is not causality. Further, there will be a number of possible, logically possibly true, explanations for the correlation observed. The task of science is to test such hypotheses and to narrow in on what is actually the correct causality.

Browner Britson get Covid-19 worse than pinkish ones. We want to know why and structural racism is only one of the possible causes and by no means at all clearly the correct one or even the most likely.

If it does turn out to be the cause sure we should do something about it. But let’s find out first, shall we? As with the flamingos the sequence of events does actually matter.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. One possible causation, in northern Europe anway, is that sunbathing is usually motivated by the desire to be fashionably brown. Hence those who are brown already don’t bother. But from the point of view of vitamin D production they need to do more of it than their paler neighbours.

  2. It is also true that BAME, or to use our language properly, BAEM

    Hmm, not-professor. To quote one of your earlier articles:

    The study backed up claims from black, Asian and minority ethnic employees that for years they had been subject to discrimination

    Being pendant is, the use of BAME for “Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic” – however offensive the concept is, isn’t an unreasonable acronym. I presume you are assuming “Black and (other) ethnic minority” as the putative source behind your preferred term.

    BAaME Might be considered more ‘correct’ but is as ugly as it is unwieldy.

  3. Minority is a noun not an adjective, ethic is an adjective not a noun, adjectives go before nouns, we’re not Frogs, Blacks *are* ethnic minorities, Asians *are* ethnic minorities*, so the correct English is plain and simple “ethnic minority”.

    *In the UK.

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