Hunting a Rhino to Save Rhinos

BBC News reports today that a permit to hunt and kill an endangered Black Rhino in Namibia has been sold at a US auction for $350,000 (£212,000):

The auction was held amid tight security at a Dallas convention centre, where dozens of protesters had gathered. The winning bidder – who has not been named – will hunt an old, non-breeding male rhino. The organisers say such animals actually pose a threat to younger rhinos, which they sometimes charge and kill. All proceeds will be donated to the Namibian government and will be earmarked for conservation efforts, safari club officials said.

A black rhino seen head-on, standing in the grass at Ngorongoro, Tanzania.

A black rhino seen head-on, standing in the grass at Ngorongoro, Tanzania. (Photo by Demetrius John Kessy, CC BY 2.0 license. Links to source.)

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How Ayurveda Works (Not Really)

This piece appeared in The Hindu this morning – Understanding How Ayurveda Works. The Hindu does have a soft corner for “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), but normally it’s limited to the writings of B.M. Hegde in the “open page”, where anyone can write in. This is different – it appeared in the Science and Technology section.

The piece starts with a list of differences between what it calls “traditional medicine (TM)” and “modern medicine (MM)”. Including this: “TM looks at results, not how the treatment works while MM advances by understanding the mechanism of action, and cause and effect.” This is a convenient trope in CAM – convenient because it absolves CAM proponents from explaining how their drugs do what they’re claimed to do. The rest of the article describes a study done on 2 ayurvedic preparations which was published about two years ago in PLOS ONE – “In Vivo Effects Of Traditional Ayurvedic Formulations in Drosophila melanogaster Model Relate with Therapeutic Applications”.

The scientists did an experiment on the effects of these formulations on fruit flies – one formulation is based on amla (gooseberry), the other contains mercury sulphide. As if often the case with CAM substances, their supposed benefits are multitudinous – one “enhances life expectancy, body strength, intellect, fertility and gives freedom from illness”, and the other is used “in a wide variety of disorders including chronic and recurrent infections (pneumonia/bronchitis), fistula-in ano, rheumatological diseases especially those of auto-immune origin, sexual and general debility and benign and malignant neoplasms”. With an aim of analysing “effects of the whole Ayurvedic formulations rather than their “active” components”, the scientists tested the fruit flies for “effects on longevity, development, fecundity, stress-tolerance, and heterogeneous nuclear ribonucleoprotein (hnRNP) levels”.

The problem is plausibility – no plausible mechanism for these substances to have these effects is given, other than a routine mention of anti-oxidants. Science-based medicine looks at plausibility because the prior probability of a drug working makes a big difference to such studies. This article – The Plausibility Problem – explains pretty much everything you need to know on the subject, including things like true/false positives/negatives, what we mean by power and specificity of a study, prior probability and positive predictive value. (Also see this other article on science-based vs. evidence-based medicine.) This is essentially Bayesian reasoning. In a nutshell, a low prior probability matters:

Even for a well designed, powerful study, if the premise is highly unlikely, a positive result does not give us convincing evidence that the premise is true. For studies with weaker power, the results are even less persuasive. So why do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Because for implausible claims, ordinary evidence is highly unreliable. A single positive study with a P value of .05 is ordinary evidence. For a very implausible hypothesis, a result of this sort is quite likely to be a false positive.

So without any hypothesis on how amla and mercury sulphide have these beneficial effects on “life-history”, this single study cannot be taken as proof that they have these effects. The vagueness of the supposed benefits is problematic too (and is a common trope in CAM with its descriptors like “holistic”, “boosts immunity”, “removes toxins”, “promotes well-being”). The more specific the claimed benefit, the easier it is to test it. (Compare the ayurvedic vagueness with the highly specific benefits and mechanisms of gooseberry listed here.)

Here’s a contrasting example also from “ancient” medicine – the anti-malarial drug Artemisinin. Artemisinin comes from the herb Artemisia annua, and its anti-malarial properties were first described by Tu Youyou and colleagues in the 1960s when Chinese scientists investigated more than 2,000 herbal recipes found in traditional Chinese medicine. So far so good – ayurveda proponents would be happy reading this. But read a bit more and the differences start to appear – the active compound was identified, the original extraction method didn’t work, only three treatments emerged while the rest were useless (I wonder if ayurveda proponents would do such a culling instead of making blanket assertions like “Ayurveda works”), even more powerful derivatives and combination treatments have been synthesized (i.e. they’re not “natural”), and crucially, the chemical mechanism of the drug is mostly known. This is a good example of Bayesian principles applied to medicine – the combination of a good prior probability and an overwhelming amount of data confirms that the drug works.

So what the scientists investigating ayurvedic substances should do is: (1) propose mechanisms i.e. HOW does the substance do what they claim it does and (2) do proper repeated trials to gather evidence that it does do what they say it does.


What to Say When Someone Dies?

My grandmother died today – she was 97 years old and had been on the decline for some time. She had also endured a very low quality of life for years (once saying, “How long is this going to go on?”), not being able to move or read or feed or bathe herself – so her death comes more as a relief than as a shock. At work today when I told a colleague about this, they said “May her soul rest in peace”.

Awkward silence followed.

I’m sure I’m not the only atheist who’s faced this problem, so I thought I’d pen down my thoughts on what to say – for believers talking to atheists, as well as atheists talking to believers.

First, do say something – don’t remain silent. Any awkwardness you feel is irrelevant. This is not about your feelings – it’s about the feelings of the person who’s lost a loved one. Even a heartfelt oh fuck – i.e. expressing shock – is better than saying nothing.

My mother died several years ago. That death was particularly raw and painful for me, as (a) she was my mother, and (b) she died of cancer and this involved suffering. I still have the emails my friends and relatives sent me back then. Here are some snippets from the emails I appreciated:

Sunil – Extremely saddened to hear about this. Both __ & I express our condolences and hope you and your dad are ok (or as ok one can get given the circumstance). Let me know when I should call you; I’m tempted to right now, but I won’t. (I had asked people not to call.)


Sunil you have been so much in our thoughts these last few weeks, knowing that the news you sent this morning would finally arrive, but that death, however long expected, still comes as a terrible and painful shock. We are so very sorry.


I am just not sure what should I write to you. I am just thinking aloud with you and just trying to feel your feeling. This is what our life is, ups and downs, birth and death. Though we tell each other “we have to face it”, but I can feel few things are so so very much hard to face. (This person also wrote “may her soul” etc., but there was enough substance in the email for it not to matter.)


Hi Sunil, really sorry to hear about your mom, didn’t know what to write all these days. I hope you, your dad and sister are ok.


Sunil, we are very sorry.  I don’t have any words of condolence, I can’t even imagine what you must be going through right now. You have ALL our support.


And here are 2 emails which I did NOT appreciate. Both these friends were Christians, and subsequently, I mentally “downgraded” our friendship:

Dear sunil, I know you claim to be not much of a believer in God but at this moment I don’t know what else to say – may the comfort and peace of God be with you and your family during this really difficult time. Take care.


I have no idea what to say except that I would like to share with you a piece that I read out at my Nana’s memorial service. Its a beautiful piece and somehow it does bring one immense solace. (The rest of the email comprised of the poem Death is Nothing at All, which offers solace by saying that there is an afterlife, and ends with the line: “How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”.)


So basically I think the thing to do is, express empathy and acknowledge the person’s loss – that this is a horrible thing that’s happened to them. That’s pretty much it. What you should NOT do when giving condolences to an atheist is bring gods into it. Gods don’t exist, so you’re not helping us at all with that.

What about the reverse – what should an atheist say to a grieving believer? Once a colleague of mine lost their father, also to cancer. I sent them a message saying something like My condolences __, I lost my mom to cancer so I have some idea of what you’re going through. They messaged back saying Thanks Sunil, let us pray for his soul. I didn’t reply any further, which I think was all right – you don’t need to lie about your beliefs, but you don’t need to bring them up either. There is a time and place for arguments about the existence of gods, and this is not it. I heard another good example recently, from an atheist friend who was speaking to the mother of someone who had died. The mother explicitly asked if my friend was an atheist too and said that there was indeed a supernatural power. My friend didn’t react to that – “I listened quietly to whatever she said”. Again, I think this is the right approach.

If you have any tips on what to say and what not to say, feel free to leave them in the comments.