Thursday, 10 July 2014

Red hair twaddle

Yes, alright, it was a windy day.
I feel the strong urge to share with you what may be the worst piece of science-based reporting I've seen this year. It's from UK free newspaper Metro and it is titled Red head? Climate change could make you and your ginger compatriots EXTINCT. (The usually respectable Independent also covered this 'story.')

It may not be obvious now, but as the slightly younger picture of me alongside demonstrates, I am a member of this apparently endangered grouping. But what does the story say exactly? I will extract some of it's joyfulness, so you don't have to read it (though admittedly in the original you get a picture of Lily Cole rather than me).

The suggestion is that due to climate change and the 'rapidly increasing temperature across the British Isles, the red hair gene could soon be a thing of the past.' And the way we are told this story makes me shudder - and not because I am an endangered ginger. Take this line:

Scientists believe that we evolved over time to have red hair in this part of the world because of a lack of sunshine.

Whoa! Now first of all, the *HMMM* detector is always alerted by being told that 'scientists say' or 'scientists believe'. Who are these scientists and where can we find their paper on this subject? I don't expect a newspaper article to give me an explicit reference (though it would be nice), but I would like to see 'Dr Hamish McSpod of the University of Life made it clear in his paper "Why gingers are doomed" published in Nature'... or whatever, so I can nip over and take a look. What do we get? Nothing. I have asked Metro for references, but strangely they haven't replied.

And second of all, we didn't evolve to have red hair 'because of a lack of sunshine.' I could accept that an accidental mutation producing red hair and pale skin resulted in preferential survival in a low sunshine location like the UK (as the pale skin makes vitamin D production easier with less sun exposure), but don't make it sound as if evolution thought 'ooh, lack of sunshine, let's try red hair'. It doesn't work that way.

We then get told by Alastair Moffat of 'Scotlands DNA' that ‘If it was to get less cloudy and there was more sun, there would be fewer people carrying the gene.’ Hang on. Alastair Moffat of what? ScotlandsDNA is a company that 'aims to provide new insights into the genetic origins of Scots and those of Scots descent'. It does this by selling DNA tests. For money. And Alastair Moffat is a former director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, so clearly knows what he is talking about when it comes to science.

But leaving aside the suspicion that this was an article driven by a press release to sell DNA tests, is what Mr Moffat said true? If there were more sun, he tells us, there would be fewer people carrying the gene. This would be true if lots of red-haired people were dying out before they could reproduce (presumably from skin cancer). But we have this high tech stuff called sunblock now, and us red-heads really know how to use it. What certainly isn't the case is that evolution will some how decide 'We don't need that gene any more, as it's sunny, let's get rid of it.' Evolution is not directed.

Then, after the obligatory picture of Prince Harry (no comment), comes the absolute cracker of a finale:

Those with the warm-toned barnet can, surprisingly, create their own vitamin D, to make up for the fact that they cannot get it from sunshine as easily as people all over the rest of the world can.

So yup, you do the math. More sunshine equals more vitamin D, which means, our hair doesn’t need to do the work for us.

Please read that at least twice, because it is wonderfully bizarre. Bear in mind that:

  1. Everyone makes their own vitamin D from sunlight hitting their skin - it's just that fair skin lets more ultraviolet through, making vitamin D faster than does a darker skin. 
  2. Our hair does not do any work for us. It is dead. If you believed this article, you'd think there was a vitamin D factory in your hair, pumping the stuff into your body.


No comments:

Post a Comment