As many of you will know, in August 2016 Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham ordered a review of golden eagle satellite tag data to see whether there was evidence of “a pattern of suspicious activity” regarding the regular disappearance of sat-tagged golden eagles in Scotland.
Scottish Natural Heritage commissioned the review, which was published in May 2017. The findings were unequivocal – YES, there was a pattern of suspicious activity and a strong association between ‘disappearing’ eagles and some areas of land managed as driven grouse moors.
[Red stars show position of sat-tagged golden eagles that have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances, 2004-2016. Note the clusters in areas of grouse moor management around the Cairngorms National Park. Data from the golden eagle sat tag review]
The review was significant in that it led to Roseanna Cunningham announcing a series of further measures to tackle illegal raptor persecution on driven grouse moors, not least the establishment of a review group to consider licensing options for grouse moor management.
Obviously, the significance of the review wasn’t lost on some within the grouse-shooting industry and for the last ten months there have been concerted efforts on social media to discredit (a) the report’s findings and (b) the report’s authors.
None of these efforts have amounted to anything – just wild accusations (many of them libellous) and uninformed commentary from those who don’t like the idea of the potential introduction of any sort of regulation or accountability of the grouse-shooting industry. Let’s call them Honorary Professors of Idiocy at the Angus Glens Institute for Critical Thinking.
Some quotes from these esteemed Honorary Professors of Idiocy include statements such as [The report would] “never stand up to scientific scrutiny and would clearly fail in any peer-reviewed process due to extremely poor science, multiple assumptions and total lack of robustness” (Mike Groves, expelled member of Tayside Raptor Study Group, scientific credentials unknown); The authors are “incompetent” and “not independent” (Bert Burnett, Director [resigned] of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, scientific credentials unknown); and the report authors are “bent” (Andy Richardson, social media troll, scientific credentials unknown).
To offset the Honorary Professors’ obvious lack of scientific credibility, the Angus Glens Institute for Critical Thinking has recently invited a ‘proper scientist’ to critique the golden eagle satellite tag review.
Who is this proper scientist? A young man called Ben Adam (BSc, Physics), who apparently works as a Revenue Officer for HM Revenue & Customs. And in which learned academic journal was his ‘scientific critique’ published? Er, that’ll be on his Dad’s blog. And who’s his Dad? That’ll be David Adam, an artist from the Angus Glens, mates with Mike Groves (see above), and who spends a lot of time and effort slagging off members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group and slagging off the practice of satellite tracking raptors for scientific research.
Ben Adam’s (BSc, Physics) ‘critique’ has been hailed by those within the Angus Glens Institute for Critical Thinking as a comprehensive demolition of the golden eagle satellite tag review, and they’re hoping lots of politicians take note of it. We’re also hoping lots of politicians take note of it because it lays bare the laughable standard of defence against the damning findings of the golden eagle satellite tag review.
Before we analyse Ben Adam’s (BSc, Physics) ‘critique’, it’s probably worth pointing out the scientific credibility of the authors of the golden eagle satellite tag review, Dr Phil Whitfield and Dr Alan Fielding.
Between them, they have over 70 years worth of ecological experience, have published over 150 peer-reviewed scientific papers, written hundreds of commissioned reports, and authored five books, including one on statistical analysis (authored by Dr Fielding, a lecturer on statistics at Manchester Metropolitan University). For good reason, they are held in extremely high regard within the academic and conservation communities and have a particular expertise on the ecology and conservation of hen harriers and golden eagles, having co-authored the respective Government-commissioned Conservation Frameworks for these species. It’s quite obvious why SNH commissioned them to undertake the golden eagle satellite tag review; they were the best qualified scientists to do this research.
So, let’s have a look at Ben Adam’s (BSc, Physics) masterful ‘critique’, amounting to six paragraphs published on his Dad’s blog:
Gosh, where to start. How about with the most glaring error? Mr Adam (BSc, Physics) claims the statistical analyses are flawed because the sample size was too low. He seems to think that the ‘sample’ used in this study was the number of satellite-tagged eagles (n = 135) and argues that had the sample size been higher (“300-500“), a “much more useful analysis could be done“. Had he been paying attention and actually read and understood the report, he should have realised that the ‘sample’ in this study was NOT the number of satellite-tagged eagles, but rather the recorded locations of those satellite-tags (n = over half a million)! It’s not rocket science, or even physics. The statistical analyses were undertaken on the tag data, not on the eagles, and most scientists would conclude that a sample size of over half a million is, er, exceptionally good.
Even if the analysis was based on the number of tagged eagles (which it wasn’t), Mr Adam (BSc, Physics) seems to have missed the section detailing the analyses done on identical tag types deployed on golden eagles in the US, Sweden and Norway (n = 784) and on bald eagles in the US (n = 83). Guess what, Mr Adam (BSc, Physics)? Of a study of 869 tags (+131 Scottish tags = 1000 tags in total), the tags deployed on golden eagles in Scotland were 25 times more likely to suffer a Stopped-no malfunction fate than any of those other comparable studies. Imagine that!
Mr Adam (BSc, Physics) claims there are clear relationships between the Stopped-no malfunction category and the type of tag used and the operator who fitted the tag. He also claims the data sets “don’t tell us which operator used which type of tag“. Er, try looking at Table 2.2 which details the tag type and the operator. In fact, try reading the report again, which explains that “there were several people involved in the tagging of eagles in Scotland, and potentially suspicious (Stopped-no malfunction) fates were not apparently due to particular operators (or, by proxy, teams of taggers), or to particular tag types“.
Disappointingly, Mr Adam (BSc, Physics) didn’t offer up any explanation for the following part of the report:
“Conservatively in these analyses, we did not include a ‘dropped suspicious’ tag fate as evidence of a killed bird, even though this record involved the discovery of an abandoned ‘dropped’ tag whose housing had been stabbed by a sharp implement and whose harness had been cut cleanly by a sharp instrument“.
It’s a shame Mr Adam (BSc, Physics) overlooked this statement as this particular tag was found in, er, the Angus Glens.
Mr Adam (BSc, Physics) argues that the review “made no indepth analysis of each tag type in detail“. Er, try reading section 6, ‘Tag Reliability’, for the detailed independent checks of tag engineering, including manufacturer ‘blind’ tests.
Mr Adam (BSc, Physics) claims the study is “incomplete and extremely limited in scope” and “does not show critical thinking or scientific method where it is truly required“. Er, this report is one of the most comprehensive, robust and forensic analyses ever undertaken on golden eagle satellite tag data. Multiple lines of evidence were used to conclude the spatial clustering was indeed suspicious. Indeed, on the spatial clustering alone, the report states: “Ten analyses were conducted, examining various alternative potential datasets to ensure that the results were robust“.
To conclude, Mr Adam’s (BSc, Physics) ‘critique’ is laughable and lamentable. It probably explains why SNH didn’t ask a Revenue Officer at HM Revenue & Customs with a BSc in Physics to peer review the report (yes, take note Honorary Professor of Idiocy Mike Groves, this report was indeed peer-reviewed as part of SNH’s quality assurance process).
Who were the peer-reviewers? Actual real life professors, as listed in the report:
Professor Ian Newton FRS, FRSE, Professor Miguel Ferrer, Professor Robert Furness, Professor Des Thompson FRSE.