Saturday, May 05, 2012

"We're Losing our grip on science"

That is according to Steve Urbon, who writes a twice weekly column for the The Standard-Times of New Bedford, MA and echoed on-line at

His May 4th item was largely an entirely welcome objection to the know-nothing anti-science mobs, and a reference to a poll of professionals, and students in "higher education." More on that later.

But tacked on at the end, Mr. Urbon wrote,
The trouble is, if Americans are doubting or despising science, a part of it is the fault of the scientists — or some of them, at least. How many of them are employed by industries seeking to evade the oversight of the government, or to duck accountability for environmental damage, or to get a drug approved?

How many scientists write reports for tobacco companies for fat salaries? How many write research papers for such things as environmental organizations fueled by the oil industry?

I direct your attention to biologist Jane Lubchenco, the head of NOAA, who in her previous job at the Environmental Defense Fund, asserted that because of overfishing, the ocean was in imminent danger of being full of nothing but jellyfish.

Her self-serving scare mongering was quoted around the world, and is driving fishing policy in this country.

But in February, a team of researchers at the Dauphin Island (Alabama) Sea Lab totally debunked Lubchenco's claim earlier this year, saying there's no evidence at all to back it. Yet I will bet that even if you are in the fishing industry, you are reading it here for the first time. What does that tell you?

For openers, few Americans other than professional scientists ever read a science journal. What little science they are exposed to comes from the news media, or re-runs of The Big Bang. There are whores with PhDs. They are a tiny fraction of one percent of professionals. The largest concentration in the USA are in the Heartland Institute, a nest of radical far-right vipers (apologies to vipers everywhere). Then, there are the creationists who work for the anti-science gangs of the Discovery Institute, Answers in Genesis Ministries, or the Institute for Creation Research. These people are not necessarily whores- most are more likely mentally ill.

But, Mr. Urbon goes off into the ozone by associating Dr. Jane Lubchenco with the likes of the Heartland biostitutes, or the Disco'tutes.

Let's start with the biography of Dr. Jane Lubchenco. She received her doctorate in biology from Harvard University, and taught at Oregon State University from 1977 to 2009 when she was appointed to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She is past-president of the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS), the International Council for Science, and the Ecological Society of America. She is one of the most highly cited, and respected scientists of her generation. She is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Royal Society, and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, Europe and Chile.

Mr. Urbon lied. Dr. Lubchenco was on the Board of Directors of the EDF- it was hardly her job.

A bibliographic search for Dr. Jane Lubchenco and jellyfish finally revealed an Environmental Defense Foundation report, (link opens a PDF) "Oceans of Abundance." This 10 page report had 28 co-authors. It had the following sentence, "There is scientific consensus that fishing is fundamentally altering ocean ecosystems, (5) which are increasingly likely to yield massive swarms of jellyfish rather than food fish (6). A press release from the EDF opened with, "Will jellyfish replace our favorite kinds of seafood? That appears to be the way we're headed — but a 2008 report, Oceans of Abundance, from leading U.S. policy makers and fisheries experts, says this does not have to be."

Mr. Urbon lied some more; The EDF report didn't claim the oceans were "in imminent danger of being full of nothing but jellyfish." Even the rather florid press release didn't go that far.

The relevant cited article from the EDF document is, "Ecological extinction and evolution in the brave new ocean," (Jackson, J.B.C. 2008. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105: 11458-11465). Jackson makes an entirely data driven observation of the biomass of the hypoxic “dead zone” covering ≈20,000 km2 ~500 km west of the Mississippi delta. The major large species surviving those conditions are jellyfish, and has wiped out a formerly productive commercial fishery.

The recent jellyfish article indirectly mentioned by Mr. Urbon was, "Questioning the Rise of Gelatinous Zooplankton in the World's Oceans," (Robert H. Condon et al, BioScience, Vol. 62, No. 2 (February 2012), pp. 160-169). In no way could it have "totally debunked Lubchenco's claim." For one thing, it was never her claim. The paper never even cited any publication by Dr. Lubchenco, nor the EDF. The authors did note that popular media accounts, like Mr. Urbon's, were far different from the scientific studies. They also concluded that much more funding should be provided to jellyfish experts like themselves so that they could do much more research. Reading the actual studies he is 'interpreting' to the public will apparently be a new experience for Mr. Urbon.

Mr. Urbon is losing his grip on reality.

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