Drowning in An Ocean of Misinformation?

The oceans are dying, says . . . just about everyone. Well at least the New York Times, which reported last month that “Ocean Life Faces Mass Extinction, Broad Study Says.” And the Times never makes any factual mistakes; I checked to make sure this story wasn’t from Gail Collins.

Biosience copyBut to my amazement, there’s a broad study out in the latest issue of BioScience, a premier journal in the Oxford University family, written by eight scientists from universities on several continents, that bravely takes issue with the conventional wisdom. “Reconsidering Ocean Calamities” argues that there is an “absence of robust evidence” for many of the most common claims about ocean perils. Even though the article is written in the usual dry and technical language of scientific journal articles, it is not hard to make out that the authors think a lot of the popular claims, such as ocean acidification, are exaggerated or badly overestimated. It takes direct aim at some of the leading catastrophist journal articles:

However, an analysis of some of the calamities reported in doom and gloom media accounts (e.g., table 1) shows some—at times, severe—disconnect with actual observations. For instance, there is no evidence that ocean acidification has killed jellyfish predators, nor that jellyfish are taking over the ocean, and predictions that the killer algae, Caulerpa taxifolia, was going to devastate the Mediterranean ecosystem have not been realized, despite claims to the contrary from the media (table 1). It may be, therefore, that some of the calamities composing the syndrome of collapse of coastal ecosystems may not be as severe as is portrayed in some accounts. . .

[W]e contend that the marine research community may not have remained sufficiently skeptical in sending and receiving information on the problems caused by human pressures in the ocean and that there is a need to revisit the process by which potential or isolated problems escalate to the status of ocean calamities. . .

The authors walk through a number of purported ocean calamities, debunking or qualifying them one by one. Of special note is their argument about ocean acidification from CO2:

[T]here have been a few claims for already realized impacts of ocean acidification on calcifiers, such as a decline in the number of oysters on the West Coast of North America (Barton et al. 2012) and in Chesapeake Bay (Waldbusser et al. 2011). However, the link between these declines and ocean acidification through anthropogenic CO2 is unclear. Corrosive waters affecting oysters in hatcheries along the Oregon coast were associated with upwelling (Barton et al. 2012), not anthropogenic CO2. The decline in pH affecting oysters in Chesapeake Bay (Waldbusser et al. 2011) was not attributable to anthropogenic CO2 but was likely attributable to excess respiration associated with eutrophication. Therefore, there is, as yet, no robust evidence for realized severe disruptions of marine socioecological links from ocean acidification to anthropogenic CO2, and there are significant uncertainties regarding the level of pH change that would prompt such impacts.

Ditto for coral bleaching:

[D]espite the strong mechanistic or physiological basis for a role of warming in coral bleaching and coral growth, a robust demonstration of a direct causal link between global warming and global coral bleaching over decadal time scales has not yet been produced.

They don’t hold back with their closing arguments:

[O]nce hypothetical problems have risen to the status of calamities in the literature, they seem to become self-perpetuating. Indeed, the marine research community seems much better endowed with the capacity to add new calamities to the list than they are to remove them following critical scrutiny. As an example, the newest calamity extends the problem of the expansion of coastal hypoxia to a concept of global ocean deoxygenation (Keeling et al. 2010). The possible explanation that the list of calamities only experiences growth because all calamities are real is inconsistent with the examples provided above that some of them may not withstand close scrutiny. The alternative explanation is that there are flaws in the processes in place to sanction scientific evidence, such as organized skepticism, that need to be addressed to help weed out robust from weak cases for ocean calamities. . .

The rise of ocean calamities has generated a worldview in which a host of ecological syndromes resulting from human-driven pressures is leading to the collapse of the ocean. The addition of new problems, such as new invasive species, ocean acidification and deoxygenation, or the perils from plastic pollution, to the litany validates and strengthens this worldview, forming a more compelling case for action to reduce human pressures. Although reducing human pressures on the marine environment is a positive outcome, this may provide a motivation to inadvertently—or, in worst cases, deliberately—fall into the white hat bias, defined as “bias leading to distortion of information in the service of what may be perceived to be righteous ends” (Cope and Allison 2009, p. 84). Clearly, no righteous end justifies the perpetuation of scientific bias. . .

Most important, we should remain skeptical and, in exerting organized skepticism, will ensure a depiction of global ocean problems devoid of unsupported claims and statements, which will help organize management and policy options targeting the most pressing problems to limit the deterioration and to provide effective stewardship of the oceans.

I sure hope all of the authors of this paper have tenure.


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