Science

No, We Aren’t Going To Run Out Of Oxygen

Or, newspapers really need better science reporters.

I first saw this Bangor Daily News story linked at Shakesville, but I think it’s making the rounds generally.

The article discusses a study from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences of decreased phytoplankton reproduction rates in the Gulf of Maine — which, to be clear, is a real issue, and cause for some concern — and extrapolates the study’s findings into an apocalyptic-sounding threat to the atmosphere of the entire planet: “such a change in organisms at the bottom of the planetary food chain and at the top of planetary oxygen production could have disastrous consequences for virtually every species on Earth, from lobsters and fish that fuel Maine’s marine industries to your grandchildren.”

And it’s certainly true: if phytoplankton reproduction rates across the world’s oceans had dropped to 20% of their normal level, and showed no sign of bouncing back, that would pretty much be a doomsday scenario.

But it turns out that while ocean warming and acidification are still real long-term problems, there’s very little reason to expect that these findings have any major implications outside the actual area they cover. The Gulf of Maine’s problems are specific and localized; the world’s oxygen supply is not in immediate danger.

It happens that both my parents are marine invertebrate zoologists; my father is the director of research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution after spending decades in the biology department researching zooplankton and jellies, and my mother is a science writer in the education department. I asked them about the Bangor Daily News article and the study it discusses, and they said I could quote their responses (sent to me, amusingly, within about five minutes of each other).

Here’s Dad:

It’s only about the Gulf of Maine, where more sediment runoff from recently undammed rivers and some increase in temperature are affecting phytoplankton photosynthesis. It  may have an effect on fish populations in the Gulf in years to come, but there isn’t direct evidence of that yet. The flushing of sediment from the rivers will probably stabilize in a year or so, and water conditions would get clearer in the Gulf. Climate related changes in ocean temperature and acidity may start to affect productivity in some places but won’t affect overall oxygen production.

And Mom added:

[I]n the Gulf of Maine, maybe lobster and groundfish (cod or haddock) will decline in a couple of years, but it might be transient, if the sediment gets flushed out in a year or two. We don’t really know yet how the ocean’s organisms will respond to slightly higher temperatures (maybe some phytoplankton will grow more under those circumstances.).

We’re not going to run out of air. I DO think humans are having an effect on the ocean. But we don’t know the extent yet, or all the implications, so that’s why we need to keep watching.

I’m concerned about overfishing, rising temperatures, and acidification. However, U.S. fish stocks are becoming increasingly well-managed, and are very carefully monitored, so overfishing along U.S. coasts is not so serious as it was[.]

They also checked with a phytoplankton expert at WHOI, who offered some remarks (with the caveat that this is a personal perspective, and not a scientific analysis of the findings):

I think this is a extremely interesting finding that provides a wake up call about the kinds of impacts of environmental change can have on marine ecosystems. In general I think we tend to be too cavalier about ocean impacts. … The impacts noted in the paper are large, but the findings so far are local-to-regional in scope. I don’t think anyone is responsibly ready to project this indicates a massive die off of primary producers at much larger scales. … I think it’s a good bet a lot of those nutrients will be used by phytoplankton eventually. This kind of shift could seriously impact the spatial structure of the ecosystem and how it functions, with potentially big effects for particular species, etc. … but it probably won’t mean anything like a full scale shutdown in productivity or large scale decrease in O2 production or anything along those alarmist lines of reasoning.

My thoughts on this are, mainly, that it shows the importance of better science reporting. The impending-doom spin here seems to have come almost entirely from the newspaper, not the study or the lab that produced it. Responsible news organizations need to ensure their science reporting is accurate and accessible (not always an easy task, I realize, and certainly not made easier by shrinking newsroom budgets and staff). Sensationalist reporting like this may sell papers in the short term, but in the long run — when the dire consequences don’t materialize — it erodes the lay public’s trust in science reporting, and ultimately in science itself, and it often makes people of good will, who earnestly directed others’ attention toward the bad reporting because they trusted they’d been given accurate information, into targets of mockery and derision by the more cynical.

There are very real reasons to be worried about the effect of climate change, and other consequences of human action, some linked and some not, on the ecosystem of the oceans, and it’s certainly true that overall phytoplankton health in the oceans is of crucial importance to the global food chain. But specific, local effects in the Gulf of Maine related to high sediment runoff in recent years are not the right place to look for the worst dangers, and focusing too much on this kind of article can cause us to miss or ignore bigger problems which might not seem as spectacular at first.

Quick Hit: The Dumb Rolls On

I am shocked — shocked! — to see that Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum have failed to take my sage advice, and are going ahead with an ill-fated attempt to rebut PZ Myers’s criticisms (which he’s, of course, continuing to make) of them and their book.  They give a list of reasons why they’re responding (and indicate that the series of response posts is already drafted, so I guess it’s too late for a final plea from my tiny little blog to stop them), but none of them are good reasons.  And no one old enough to no longer be getting into fights on the grade school playground should need it explained to them why those aren’t good reasons.

As Mooney and Kirshenbaum have already noted several times, there are lots of positive reviews out there.  If the book itself, plus all the positive reviews, aren’t sufficient to counter one negative review, maybe the book really isn’t all that good — now, I haven’t read it, so I don’t have any opinion on whether it’s actually good or not, but this dogged insistence on countering every point Myers makes makes Mooney and Kirshenbaum (I implicate both here because the latest was posted under both their names, although it has mostly seemed that Mooney has been leading the charge on this dumb-ass blogfight) look thin-skinned, petty, and severely lacking confidence in the quality of their own work.

Seriously, Chris and Sheril.  I like your blog, and I think you mostly do good work.  If PZ’s attacks are wrong, then anyone who reads your book and/or other reviews will know so — and anyone who only reads PZ’s review was never going to accept your arguments anyway.  Let it go!  “New Atheists” are not your enemy.

And PZ, I like your blog too, and I think you mostly do good work too.  “Accomodationists” are not your enemy.

Theocrats are the enemy.  Fight them, not each other.  Disband the circular firing squad.  I don’t know which one of you is the Judean People’s Front and which the People’s Front of Judea, but quit yelling “splitter!” at each other and fight the Romans.  It’s OK if you don’t both fight them the same way.

Could This Get Any Stupider?

I’ll save you the suspense: the answer is no.

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum wrote this book called Unscientific America.  One of the things they argue is that public understanding of, and willingness to understand, science is impeded by the perception that scientists are intolerant of religion.  In particular, they criticize PZ Myers and other “New Atheists” (a ridiculous term, in my opinion) for their aggressive approach and their insistence that religion and science are incompatible.  Mooney is himself an atheist, but is the sort Myers and others deride as an “accommodationist,” and has been having an ongoing argument with Jerry Coyne on whether or not science and religion are necessarily incompatible (Coyne agrees with Myers and others that they are).

When review copies of the book went out, Myers didn’t receive his immediately, and some other people had already put up their own reviews, from which he learned that he came in for criticism.  He assumed this was why he hadn’t received a copy — which would be a breach of good etiquette if true, though one might equally consider his assumption of bad faith on Mooney’s and Kirshenbaum’s part to be such a breach — and Mooney and Kirshenbaum responded that the process of sending out review copies had just been disorganized, and that he had always been on the recipient list.

Myers then received his copy, and posted an extremely negative review.  Then Mooney responded, citing other, positive reviews, and promising to have “much more” to say about Myers’s review.  Up to this point, it was a pretty dumb blogfight, but far from the stupidest ever.  (more…)

Quick Hit: Pando

(I’m not dead!)

This is just about the most amazing thing I’ve read all year.  It’s a post at Cosmic Variance about Pando, the largest, and almost certainly the oldest multicellular, organism on Earth.  Pando weighs over 6600 tons, occupies 107 acres, and is estimated to be 80,000 years old or more.  Pando is, depending on how you look at it, either an entire forest of Quaking Aspen, or a single tree: all the trunks share an enormous root system and are genetically identical.

My mind, it is blown.

Implicit Bias

It’s taken me a long time to get around to writing about it, unfortunately, but there was what I think was a very important article in Scientific American back in May about “implicit bias” — unconscious prejudices we all have, no matter how enlightened we think we are, and which affect our day-to-day behavior in ways we generally don’t notice.  Perhaps I’ve just missed it, but I feel like there was woefully insufficient recognition and discussion of the significance of this report (so there’s an additional mea culpa for my being so late in writing about it).

The key findings of this study, assuming I’m understanding the SciAm article correctly, are that these prejudices largely match stereotypes common in the culture; that they are generally things that, individually, seem quite small, rather than big, blatant, overtly hateful ideas; that even people who don’t consider themselves prejudiced do in fact display these biases; that denying the bias doesn’t reduce the degree to which it affects one’s behavior; and that acknowledging and being aware of the bias does.

Why does this seem so important to me?  Because this is (roughly) how liberals have always said prejudice works, and it’s not how conservatives think it works.  This is yet another example of reality’s well-known liberal bias, and it shows why (to take racism in particular as an example) “colorblindness,” high-dudgeon objections to “the race card” and attacks on affirmative action are not only based on a misguided understanding of the nature of prejudice, but actually work to reinforce prejudice, by silencing efforts to point it out and discuss it openly.

To my knowledge, the liberal/progressive view of prejudice has always held that it’s a systemic problem, reinforced by social norms and inculcated unconsciously, and only enforced by overt, ugly, violent hate at the very extremes — that to think of “racism” as being epitomized by the KKK missed the point entirely.  And the conservative view, by contrast, holds that prejudice is only that explicit hatred demonstrated by fringe hate groups, that bias is a characteristic of certain twisted individuals who make up those groups and not at all a trait embedded in the fabric of society.  So on the conservative view, to point out perceived bias is just an attempt by “special interest groups” to garner attention and guilt-trip society into awarding them special privileges; and if everyone stopped claiming to see prejudice everywhere, and thereby making people think about it, there wouldn’t be any more prejudice, because Americans are naturally fair-minded, and all those nasty extremist hate groups would just fade away into obscurity.

But as the SciAm article makes clear, that’s just not true at all, while the liberal view is pretty close to reality; and behaving according to the conservative view — discouraging any discussion of bias in the hopes that if ignored, those nasty prejudiced people (who of course aren’t us) will just go away — actually reinforces and encourages societal prejudice.

Surely I’m not the only one who sees how important this is; it’s very strange to me that I’ve seen so little discussion of it on other liberal blogs.  Many differences between conservatives and liberals are essentially matters of opinion, on which reasonable people can disagree, wherein each side seems “clearly” right if you accept their set of starting assumptions, and “clearly” wrong if you accept the other side’s (yes, of course, this “liberal vs. conservative” two-sides construction is a gross oversimplification).  This issue is no longer one of them, however.  One view — as it happens, the conservative one — is in fact simply, demonstrably, factually incorrect.