x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Science that harms

Humans may have the best of intentions when gathering data on others. But every observation has its consequences.

Every event is changed by the observation of that event. In quantum mechanics, that axiom is known as the Heisenberg Principle of Observation. In the field of zoology, the rule can be rephrased slightly: if you tag the wing of a penguin, you may shorten its lifespan.

As French and Norwegian naturalists working with penguins in the Antarctic have recently discovered, interfering with nature, even in the name of protection, has its consequences. Scientists at the University of Strasbourg studied a group of 100 king penguins for a decade, and found those that had been tagged with flipper bands lived shorter lives and produced 39 per cent fewer chicks than penguins that weren't tagged. Flipper tags have long been used as a research tool that enables scientists to quickly identify and track birds from afar, though their use has not been without controversy.

The scientists say their study, published in the journal Nature, illustrates the "long-term impact of banding" wildlife, and infers that studying nature is not the same as protecting it. Data from years of research involving tagged penguins, as well as other banded animals, may well be invalidated.

It also proves something researchers worked out long ago: humans may have the best of intentions when gathering data on others. But every observation has its consequences.