Lazy hazy crazy summer days, but climate goes right on changing.


August has been a quiet month.  Around here the very warm days of July moderated a bit, and we’ve had some wonderful summer weather.  It’s hard to believe our lakes will be frozen over in about four months’ time.  Locally, nationally, internationally life has slowed to a crawl.  Television news shows have been more than usually filled with fluff.  The Olympics came and went, never quite deciding if they were successful, or a financial disaster for Brazil (probably both), and I’ve recovered my self-esteem now that the parade of magnificent bodies accomplishing impossible feats has faded from my memory.  The USA is trapped in the middle of an interminable reality TV show called the Presidential Campaign – this year we get to see two candidates, both widely disliked, trying to prove the other guy is worse.  One of them, facing the very real prospect of losing, is apparently already seeing losing as winning.  Donald Trump is playing a game nobody else really understands, and will likely leave a lot of damage in his wake.  Even this early he has planted the seeds that will sprout in some minds as deep suspicion that the election was rigged against him all along.  Still, the country is trapped, and little else seems to be happening there.  In Canada, everyone is in summer mode, and the political class has been keeping a remarkably low profile, although there is a sense afoot that Fall is coming and Justin Trudeau’s honeymoon period may finally be over.  Viewed from afar, Australia seems flummoxed by the realization that its election seems to have achieved little.  The Liberal (= conservative) government is still in power, barely, and continues to advocate for increased coal mining while professing to be taking care of the Great Barrier Reef.

But what about the global environment.

NOAA’s State of the Climate global analysis for July began with:

“For the 15th consecutive month, the global land and ocean temperature departure from average was the highest since global temperature records began in 1880.  This marks the longest such streak in NOAA’s 137 years of record keeping.  The July 2016 combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces was 0.87°C (1.57°F) above the 20th century average, besting the previous July record set in 2015 by 0.06°C (0.11°F).  July 2016 marks the 40th consecutive July with temperatures at least nominally above the 20th century average.  The last time July global land and ocean temperatures were below average was in 1976 (-0.09°C / -0.16°F).  Although continuing a record streak, July 2016 was also the lowest monthly temperature departure from average since August 2015 and tied with August 2015 as the 15th highest monthly temperature departure among all months (1,639) on record.  However, since July is climatologically the globe’s warmest month of the year, the July 2016 global land and ocean temperature (16.67°C / 62.01°F) was the highest temperature for any month on record, surpassing the previous record set in July 2015.  July 2016 was the 379th consecutive month with temperatures at least nominally above the 20th century average. The last month with temperatures below the 20th century average was December 1984 (-0.09°C / -0.16°F).”

Okay…  I think we got that.  July was hot globally, way hot, hotter than ever.  The statistic I particularly like is the last one: every single one of the past 379 months was above average in global land and sea temperature.  We are in a climatic town of Lake Wobegone, where all the months are above average.  Something is definitely happening to our global climate.

NOAA July temperature anomaly 2016 201607

This map is almost uniformly pink to red in color, meaning that temperatures everywhere are above the long-term climatic average.  Could any of those politicians in the US or Australia explain this result while maintaining that climate is not warming?  Especially after we put this map at the end of 15 very similar maps for the past 15 months?  Better burn more coal, frack more gas, and boil up more bitumen – got to keep our economies healthy.  Image courtesy NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

Needless to say, climate change is not just warming.  On 16th August, NASA’s National Snow and Ice Data Center reported on the status of Arctic sea ice.  By mid-August, ice cover had fallen to 5.61 million km2, the third lowest on record for this date.  NSIDC does not expect the low point, expected mid-September, to exceed that in 2012, but the trend of melting this year is well above average.  As for the rate of melting, in the first half of August, Arctic ice was melting at the rate of 87,400 km2 per day, almost the same rate as in 2012.

NSIDC Arctic sea ice extent 14 Aug 2016 Figure1-1

In this image, the orange line marks the median limits of ice pack for 14th August.  Figure courtesy NSIDC.

The North-west Passage through Canada’s northern islands (I said that bit about the islands because Uncle Sam thinks these are international waters) is now open, and, sure enough, where there is a new place to sail, along come the cruise ships.  Or at least, along comes the Crystal Serenity, a smallish cruise ship owned by Crystal Cruises.  With 1000 passengers and 600 crew, it sailed into the 400-person hamlet of Ulukhaktok on August 26th, its first scheduled stop in Canada.  The CBC reported that “In order not to overwhelm the small community, every two hours 150 to 200 passengers will be shuttled off the ship in inflatable boats and brought into Ulukhaktok.”  So, people…Here’s the plan:  approximately every two hours, a number of people equal to half your population will arrive via Zodiac, to stand around and gawk at you, and this will go on with a fresh group of gawkers every two hours all day.  Sounds like fun?  Now the citizens of Ulukhaktok get to experience what it is like to be specimens in a zoo.

When the ship proceeded to its second port of call, the somewhat larger small settlement of Cambridge Bay, CBC reported that many of the Inuit artists hoping to make some substantial sales were disappointed.  About 85% of the passengers on board are American, and US law prohibits the importation of seal products or ivory (narwhale, walrus), two of the main materials used in Inuit arts.  Sales were not being made.  While the cruise line seems to have tried to be sensitive to its potential impacts on the residents, and while the strange regulations by the US Department of Fish and Game were not its doing, I predict that Canada’s northern communities are going to see lots of disappointment as the country is ‘developed’ in coming warmer years.  We actually could learn from what has happened in other developing countries impacted by globally driven economic development including mass tourism.  But I predict we won’t.  We will rape the land and the sea, and sere the peoples’ souls.

The rate of warming

But I was talking about climate.  The Guardian, commenting at the end of August on the July record warmth, quoted NASA as reporting that the current rate of warming is the most rapid for the last 1000 years and then going still further.  Using data from NOAA, NASA scientists were able to compare the rate of warming over the past 30 years to the average rate per 5000 years during deglaciations in the Pleistocene.  The rate appears to be about 10 times faster at present, with the warming projected for this century some 20 times greater than in a typical Pleistocene warming period.  The Guardian also reported that Gavin Schmidt, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, had recently stated that in his view the aspirational 1.5oC limit discussed in Paris is already almost beyond our capacity to achieve, because of the rate at which we continue to burn fossil fuels.  We definitely live in interesting times.

Earlier in August, the Washington Post had reported a new step in clarifying what has been happening to sea level.  The headline reported that “sea level is not just rising – it is worse than that” but the article dealt with a paper published 10th August in Scientific Reports by John Fasullo, National Center for Climate Research, Univ of Colorado, and two colleagues.  Fasullo’s paper helps clear up a paradox – we know that the amount of heat in the oceans is increasing and that glaciers are melting at an increasing rate, yet our most sensitive measurement of sea level rise suggests its rate has decreased since 1992!  In late 1992, with the launch of the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite, it became possible to measure sea level, at any point on the ocean surface with millimeter accuracy using radar altimetry.  But examination of these measurements taken over the two decades since reveals a declining rate of sea level rise.

While climate deniers may have loved this confusion, Fasullo’s paper reveals the paradox to be due to the cooling effects of the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991.  The particulates sent skyward shaded and cooled the Earth; once they fell back to earth, temperatures bounced back up, and the consequent sea level rise starting in 1992 was also rapid.  Warming, in the sense of delivery of heat to the planet, was continuous through this period, but the temperature response was a rapid jump as particulate clouds dispersed, followed by a slower subsequent increase, in step with the delivery of heat.  Because the radar altimetry data missed the cooling that followed the eruption, the high initial rates of sea level rise measured were assumed to be ‘normal’.  Sea level is currently rising at a rapid, and an increasing rate.  If Pinatubo had not erupted that pattern would have been evident in the new radar altimetry data.  So long as we are spared another Pinatubo-sized eruption to again distort things, the acceleration of sea level rise should become evident in the data stream in about another 10 years.  Until then the acceleration is masked by Pinatubo.  I predict, of course, that denialists will not bother to read Fasullo’s paper.

Impacts on corals

Meanwhile, corals around the world continued to bleach.  I was struck by the headline of another Washington Post article on 3rd August:  “I cried – right into my mask”.  Coral ecologist Laurie Raymundo, University of Guam, was diving Guam’s Tumon Bay reefs, and reported on Facebook,

“I consider myself to be fairly objective and logical about science, but sometimes that approach fails me. Today, for the first time in the 50 years I’ve been in the water, I cried for an hour, right into my mask, as I witnessed the extent to which our lovely Tumon Bay corals were bleaching and dying.”

Laurie cried.  Australian reef ecologist Terry Hughes apparently cried while doing aerial surveys of the northern Great Barrier Reef earlier this year.  Crying by scientists is OK to talk about, when the ecosystem you love is being damaged so extensively.  Those are living creatures, dying prematurely because of something we have done.  We are the disease of this planet and many scientists get it.  As for Tumon Bay – Guam’s reefs have been bleached in 2013, 2014, 2015 and now in 2016 it is happening again, and this year’s peak temperatures are not expected until later this September.  Accumulated mortality will almost certainly exceed 50% — that is, the amount of coral after the 2016 bleaching is over will be about half what it was in 2013.  That is a trajectory that does not take very long to devastate a reef system.

Guam bleachedcoral_dburdicknoaa

Wouldn’t be so bad if they were cauliflowers.  While these bleached corals are mostly fast-growing Acropora species, they will still take several years to repopulate.  These Guam corals bleached in 2013, and serious bleaching has occurred every year since.  Not good.  Photo © Dave Burdick/NOAA.

Coral reef politics in Australia

In Australia, the full, peer-reviewed, scientific report from the scientist-led ‘coral reef task force’ on the losses caused by bleaching on the northern Great Barrier Reef is not yet available, but argument about what just happened seems to have worsened following the ineffectual election (I call an election that does not remove an incompetent government ineffectual, but I guess it shows that the Australian electorate was not totally driven by concern for the environment).  Prior to the election the bleaching event had already become politicized, given that the Australian government seems so deeply interested in digging up coal and shipping it through GBR ports and waterways to India and China, despite the obvious direct (siltation) and indirect (warming) damage that shipping all that dusty coal would mean for the reef.  The politicization appears, from long distance, not to have improved now the election is over.

Some tourism operators have jumped into the fray recently, mounting a survey of their own to a series of outer barrier reefs off Lizard Island.  In reporting this on 22nd August, the Courier Mail, a relatively right-wing Queensland rag, stated, “Latest findings exclusively obtained by The Courier-Mail show coral mortality in the outer shelf reefs north of Lizard Island was between one and five per cent with “spectacular” fish life and coral coverage.”  The article went on to quote the tourism team leader saying, “We expected the worst.  But it is tremendous condition, most of it is pristine, the rest is in full recovery.  It shows the resilience of the reef.’’  The Courier Mail also managed to imply that the scientific survey by the task force was all done by looking down from a helicopter, presumably while enjoying a cool beer, and that this was not quite as good an approach as having a bunch of tourism operators in the water.  Science is so easily cheapened.

Incidentally, the Courier Mail report quickly got picked up by such well-known right-wing North American rags as the Breitbart News Network (home of one of Donald Trump’s main campaign organizers) and The Daily Caller.  Of course, back on the 4th June, The Australian, Rupert Murdock’s flagship paper, had started the scientist-bashing with an article headlined Great Barrier Reef: scientists “exaggerated” coral bleaching.  Yes, when the message is not to your liking, shoot the messenger.

The Australian article, by Graham Lloyd, which appears to have been pulled behind a paywall between the 2nd and 3rd of September so I can no longer access it, is worth a serious look as an example of how to spread confusion and give a sense that the science is unclear.  Lloyd’s article does this by means of innuendo about the scientists’ motives, and by careful partial quoting out of context from a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority press release making it sound as if this management agency had data that contradicts what the task force has been claiming.  (It does not, but, in fairness, the press release was written in a way to dampen down any concerns of citizens that the reef may be in danger – hey, they are a government agency and it was in the middle of an election.)  Subsequent articles by the same reporter have continued to chip away at the evidence being reported from the task force, and the Courier-Mail has happily chimed in.  Do the Koch Brothers have any business interests in Australia, or are there Aussie equivalents?

Wait a minute, maybe there are!  An item on alerted me to a report by the Australia Institute (self-described as an independent, public policy think tank) and the Australian Conservation Foundation titled Greasing the Wheels which was released on 28th July.  Between 2010 and 2015 the Liberal Party of Australia and Queensland’s Liberal National Party received a total of $2 million in political donations from 6 mining companies, Beach Energy, Sibelco, Karreman Quarries, New Hope Corp., Adani Mining, and Linc Energy & Carbon Energy.  The report details the amounts donated, and tracks the access received and the favorable decisions made.  The amounts of money are small by North American standards (which are not anything for us to be proud of) but these are significant amounts in the less money-driven Australian political scene.  The report makes interesting reading and confirms my view that big, powerful business interests throw their weight around as much as they are able to in all democracies.  Usually in order to get special favors for themselves.

Well, enough about the fate of the Great Barrier Reef.  Australia will solve its schizophrenia regarding the reef and coal in due course and hopefully a lot sooner than the coal mining corporations would prefer.  But not just yet – The government’s approval of the huge Carmichael Mine to be developed by Adani was recently upheld as a new legal challenge from the Australian Conservation Foundation was dismissed last Monday.

Politics elsewhere

Here in Canada, the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings on the Energy East pipeline proposal by TransCanada, have just been shut down after one day because of security concerns following a boisterous disruption, and other unspecified security concerns.  Energy East is intended to move western tar sands oil east through Ontario and Quebec to New Brunswick and thence to a refinery and port and off to Europe.  Sometimes TransCanada suggests the oil could be used in eastern Canada so we can stop importing from the Middle East, but that fig leaf is pretty darn small given that there seems to be little need for additional oil in the east (Newfoundland is still producing and there are massive supplies of hydroelectric power coming out of Quebec).  Justin Trudeau is going to have to deal with the NEB sometime fairly soon.  Canada’s former fearless leader, the incredibly honorable Stephen Harper stuffed the board with appointees given multi-year terms not long before his government went down to defeat last October.  Those appointees, many with close ties to the industry, do not have to resign with the change in government.  Two of them are currently under investigation for meeting inappropriately with individuals linked closely to TransCanada not long before the hearings were about to get under way.  Does it look seedy or smell fishy?  Yes, most definitely.  And remember, Canada has no need of additional pipeline capacity to move the oil it is likely to produce in the future.  Not if Canada intends to honor its commitments under the Paris Climate Accord.

Not only must Trudeau deal with the NEB, he is also going to have to bring the Provinces kicking and squealing to an agreement on carbon.  Because our commitments (witness British Columbia’s recent action on its carbon tax) are woefully inadequate, even to meet our inadequate, Harper-designed, commitments under Paris.  Time to show he can lead on the difficult issues.  (Right now he is in China taking selfies with the leaders of that country.)

And now for the good news

What else happened in August?  Well, surprisingly, there was a tiny bit of good environmental news.  Let’s end on a high note or three.  In Canada, the Trudeau government announced new funding of $850000 per year towards the operating budget of the ELA (Experimental Lakes Area), the world-class whole lake research facility in northwestern Ontario.  This brings its total commitment, through Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans, to $1.95 million per year towards the total operating budget, which is also supported by $2 million per year from Ontario and $1 million per year from Manitoba.  None of this money is ‘permanent’, but funding is secure for the next couple of years, and one more piece of short-sighted, cut-off-your-nose budget-slashing by the Harper government has been repaired.  It was never the case that Canada did not need to maintain this research facility, or could not afford to support it.

Also in Canada, an opinion column in the Edmonton Journal, by Ben Dachis, Assoc. Director of the C.D. Howe Institute ( a definitely not left of center think tank) reported progress on the implementation of Alberta’s energy/carbon plan, including evidence that business supports it, and gave sensible advice on how best to use that portion of the accumulating revenue that is not simply being sent back to tax-payers.  Dachis said, support R&D in alternative energy as the best way to drive the transition.  At least some of the people in Alberta are being realistic on energy!

Ivanpah 80_630_225_stillings2

The three massive mirror arrays that make up Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System.  Photo ©

South of our border, sprawling across 5 square miles of desert on the California-Nevada border, the new Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System is now operational, delivering solar energy to California homes.  It is the largest solar energy plant in the world.  At capacity, the facility’s trio of 450-foot high towers produces a gross total of 392 megawatts (MW) of solar power, enough electricity to provide 140,000 California homes with clean energy and avoid 400,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.  Quite an achievement.

Elsewhere in the world, the New York Times has reported that a large coral reef, known as Coral Castles, which sits within a lagoon of one of the islands of the nation of Kiribati (formerly the Phoenix Islands), has come back to life!  Actually, severe bleaching and subsequent coral mortality severely damaged this reef in 2002-2003, and subsequent surveys in 2009 and 2012 had shown little improvement.  But in September 2015, a team of scientists from the New England Aquarium re-surveyed and discovered very substantial improvement.  While this is good news, it is a ‘bright spot’ story, making us all feel cheerful and optimistic despite the fact that numerous other reefs around the world have been devastated by bleaching and have not recovered.  Also, I am puzzled.  If the recovery was so dramatic and unexpected, why did it take a year for the scientists to tell the media about it?  I have a feeling there is something going on here that we are not yet being told.

ocellated wrasse male and female in nest femalefishca

Ocellated wrasse, Symphodus ocellatus, parental male with smaller female in his nest.
Photo © Susan Marsh-Rollo.

Moving towards the just plain nice news, the news that keeps concerned environmental scientists able to enjoy life, be optimistic, and sleep at night…… On August 16th, Susan Alonzo of UC Santa Cruz, and colleagues published a paper in Nature Communications reporting that female ocellated wrasses, a small fish from the Mediterranean, can preferentially select the sperm of preferred males when engaged in a group spawning event, in which several males release sperm in a cloud that surrounds the eggs released by the female.  The authors note this is the first time anyone has demonstrated female control over which sperm succeed in an animal without internal fertilization.  The mechanism appears to lie in the chemical composition of the ovarian fluids that get released with the eggs, which favors faster-swimming sperm.  While this is surprising, I am not sure I understand its significance.

As in many other fish, populations of the ocellated wrasse include males which grow larger, live longer, and build nests and take care of young.  Think of these as more responsible parent males, in contrast to the other males which stay small, live only a short time, produce copious quantities of apparently slower-swimming sperm, and spend their time interrupting the courtship of the parental males, darting in and releasing their sperm at the critical moment.  These decidedly less responsible males are called sneakers.  (In writing this, I sense a possible new plot line for the porn industry… but I digress.)  Alonzo and her colleagues have demonstrated that the females, by producing ovarian fluids that favor faster-swimming sperm, tilt the competition in favor of sperm from parental males.  I’m not sure that this is ‘choice’ in the traditional meaning of that word, and the fact that sneakers exist proves that any tilting against them is not sufficient to make their fast and furious lifestyle unsuccessful genetically.  Still it does show that nature always holds out new surprises for us to discover.

And far less kinky, and actually more nice, the annual competition for underwater photography has just announced this year’s winners.  Some wonderful photos are on line, including the two here.  There really are so many wonderful things to discover in our oceans, or indeed, in the rest of this amazing planet.

Harlequin Shrimp Visconti 210

“Spotlight” by Matteo Visconti earned him ‘commended’ in the macro category (it’s a tough competition).  A harlequin shrimp (Hymenocera picta) photographed in the Tulamben area on Bali’s west coast.  Photo © Matteo Visconti.

Shark and sponges 501

“Three pillars – Practice, Patience and Luck”  earned its photographer, Pier Mane from South Africa  ‘up and coming underwater photographer of the year’.  Image © Pier Mane

Categories: Arctic, Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, coral reef science, In the News, Politics | Leave a comment

Fighting through the static to detect real environmental and climate trends. Part II


In Part I, I discussed the nature of science, and the nature of human perception (both sensory and thought perception) and how these can result in distorted messages about science being received by the public (including other scientists).  Read it first – it’s right after Part II.  In Part II, I will consider the changing nature of the scientific enterprise – the way scientists practice their science – and the role of the media.  Both serve to distort the scientific message.  I use examples from coral reef studies to illustrate what is happening, and I close with some suggestions for things we can all do to help messages about science get transmitted accurately.


Has the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef this year done irreparable harm, or will it recover quickly?  Just how unprecedented is this bleaching event?  Articles in the popular press offer a wide range of perspectives, but is the science that confused?  Photo shows bleaching at Lizard Island, GBR, March 2016.  Image © XL Catlin Seaview Survey

I am not pretending that the factors discussed are the sole reason for science stories being so often distorted or misunderstood.  Indeed, some, such as the vexing question of climate change, are being deliberately distorted or confused by actors with something to gain by ensuring the public does not understand the science story.  Then there is the fact that no matter what the scientific evidence seems to be telling us, communities make their policy decisions based on many competing interests, and never solely on science.  And, perhaps more now than in the recent past, there is the fact that political governance is seldom a completely rational response to what appear to be the facts.  Money talks and some vested interests have more money to throw around than others.  It is not a failure to understand the science that causes ‘the authorities’ in a small developing country to look the other way when a hotel operator is bending the rules and impacting nearby coral reefs.  Nor is science communication at fault when the government of a first world country, responsible for managing one of the largest reef systems in the world, seeks to expand its coal mining and export (right past parts of those reefs).  Still, if we can improve science communication, we can make all these other ‘distortions’ a little bit more obvious, and perhaps help to force greater transparency in political decision making.  Even the 0.1% need a functioning biosphere, though many of them seem not to realize this.

The changing nature of the scientific enterprise

In recent years, as the scientific process has expanded, it has become progressively more difficult for the individual scientist to get his or her work noticed.  Gone are the days, if they ever existed, when the scientist could do research, publish the results, and proceed confident that posterity will determine the value of his/her contribution.  Success in science requires that you are recognized by your peers.  This recognition draws attention to your ideas and published work, builds support for your research efforts, and helps secure success in fund-raising and career-advancement.  But how do you get this recognition when there are thousands of scientists publishing results every week?


To gain recognition, a scientist needs to be at the right places at the right times, attend and be seen at the right conferences, publish in the right journals, and publish innovative, provocative work.  Innovation and provocativeness alone will no longer suffice.  And so it has become common to issue press releases timed to the first publication on line of your latest paper.  And to be active on social media, promoting your research rather than the debauched parties you attend, or images of cats doing strange things.  In the press releases, and even more so on social media, there is a growing need to report your latest results in a breathless, ‘this is the most exciting discovery ever’ tone.  After all, if the scientist is not excited by his own work, why should anyone else bother to look at it?  And yet, is every publication an earth-shattering step forward in the quest for knowledge?

This need to generate excitement around the science being done is now creeping into the technical articles themselves.  Titles are becoming clever, at the expense of being informative.  It used to be that a scientist would try to write an interesting paper, and leave it to readers to wax eloquent in their praise of what he/she had done.  The more adventuresome might sneak a joke into the Acknowledgements section, but otherwise everything was balanced and objective.  (The need to seem objective even led in the distant past to firm instruction to write in the third person, so that ‘I think’ had to become ‘in the humble opinion of the author’.)  Not anymore.  It is not the majority yet, but of the papers editors send me to review, a sizeable minority now manage to find room in the first paragraph of the introduction, the final paragraph of the discussion, or even in the abstract to state, in the words of P.T. Barnum, that this paper is the “greatest show on earth”.  Most of them are not.

Facebook phdcomics_fb1Choosing title CepwNPOW8AAKW97author name phd072516sJorge Chan captures some of the idiocy in modern science promotion in his PHDCOMICS.  In the first strip, change ‘facebook’ to ‘twitter’, ‘researchgate’, ‘instagram’ or any other social platform.  The second strip applies equally well to titling technical papers or conference presentations, and the third presents an unusual way to game the race for citations.  All strips © Jorge Chan

The pressure of manuscripts awaiting publication has weakened the peer review process, a process vital to the integrity of science.  While there are more than enough manuscripts being offered for publication, journals vie with each other to publish the most important articles.  One way to do this is to encourage scientists to send their manuscripts to your journal by promising speedy review and publication if accepted.  With more to choose from, the editor has a better chance of publishing better articles.

With manuscripts shipped via the web, the time delays that used to occur as editors found willing reviewers, mailed out copies of the manuscript, and received reviews, have all been eliminated.  Increasingly, journals are also using features of the web to limit time for review as well.  Getting the manuscript three seconds after you agree to review it is fine, even if the editor’s friendly, personalized cover e-mail accompanying the manuscript is clearly a machine-written sham.  But getting a curt reminder to submit your review one week later can be annoying.  Scientists review as a pro bono contribution to their field, and journals used to value thoughtful reviews.  Not anymore.  Now it seems that speed is all that matters.  Complex manuscripts would benefit from more careful reviews than the journals are getting with their incessant urging to review quickly.  The quality of published science is likely going down – poorly justified conclusions are being published, when in a less frenetic past they would have been weeded out by the review process.  As a consequence, the succession of papers on any particular topic will include a more divergent set of hypotheses or conclusions than would have been the case in the past.

The high number of papers being published is forcing scientists to read much more selectively than in the past.  The title, the abstract, perhaps the first few sentences of the introduction or discussion, and a quick glance at one or more of the figures,  are all an author can reasonably hope to get read once his/her paper is published.  And that is for the papers that get read.  Most papers do not get even this much attention, and when scientists come to write a new manuscript they have rarely done a thorough review of the literature in preparation.  Instead we rely upon our network of colleagues, casual comments about neat new papers, and some faith in the idea that ‘if I have not heard of it yet, it probably is not important’ to define the papers we should know about as we sit down to write.  All that effort by scientists to get noticed pays off as the skilled promoters get their papers noticed.  The sheer number of articles being published, and the need to somehow keep reasonably abreast of what is happening can also lead to cronyism as groups of colleagues put themselves inside silos, reading and citing each other, and paying less attention to what is happening outside.  It’s possible that what emerges from nearby silos sounds quite different because each group is unaware of what is happening outside its shiny silo walls.  To the outsider attempting to understand, this is one more way in which the stream of messages sounds cacophonous.  And with all papers being self-promoted as revolutionary and vitally important, it is very difficult to sift out the few nuggets of gold.

Media spin and hype

If the scientists have made progressively more use of self-promotion to attract attention to their research, the media are also in competition with each other for attention, and play their own, increasingly intense, games of spin and hype, resulting in a further distortion of what scientists are achieving.  While the academic media, the technical journals, vie with each other by speeding up the peer review process, they also have been putting increasing amounts of editorial comment into their pages, providing news and comment on what is appearing in other journals, as well as commentary interpreting and explaining the technical articles that have been peer-reviewed and published on their own pages.  Even Science and Nature, those scientific flagships, have evolved in recent years to something very different to their staid selves of the 1990s.  While such editorial comment can be helpful when well done, it does represent a shaping by the editors of how readers see the science.

The general media also play an important role in promulgating the messages being generated by scientists.  Indeed, few outside the science community will likely look at the technical literature at all.  While responsible print and electronic media strive for accuracy in their reporting, they, like the scientists and the technical journals, are also in competition with their peers for readership/viewership.  As the number of media outlets has grown, so has the effort to be noticed.  One way to do this is to publish provocative articles, and so science reporting increasingly hypes what the scientists actually did.  With the scientist and the media outlet both striving to be noticed, exaggeration of the importance of findings is common-place.  A second frequently used way to hype the reporting is to emphasize controversy by finding what appear to be contrasting claims by different scientists and reporting this fact.  While this could be helpful to someone trying to understand what is happening in a field, the media mostly do not concern themselves too much with the quality of the science behind the conclusions that are being contrasted.  Over the past decade, the controversy over whether climate change was even occurring has been partly fueled by the willingness of the media to mix science-based and non-science-based arguments while pretending that they were presenting a rational scientific debate.  But even when dealing with ideas that are less consequential than whether we are dangerously warming the planet, the tendency of the media to hype controversy as a way of building interest, is likely to distort differences among findings by different scientists to make them appear more at odds than they really are.

climate debate Koch 15362f99fb638039d4c2d34b954b696bThe deliberate obfuscation of science by monied interests whenever developing new policy in response to the science might threaten their private economic interests is a growing problem everywhere.  In the USA, it has become almost insurmountable and is undoubtedly largely responsible for the very high proportion of citizens who still believe climate is not changing.  (If you have not heard of the Koch brothers, or Koch Industries, read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money

The recent appearance of numerous ‘sham’ journals, promising speedy review and publication so long as the author pays the steep publication costs, is likely to further complicate the task of assessing the progress of science.  Unsuspecting scientists fall victim.  Unscrupulous ‘scientists’ take advantage of these outlets’ superficial legitimacy, and scientific reports that would not be accepted by the technical journals now get published.  While I think most scientists can spot a sham journal when they see one, and while I hope the ‘sham’ journals will fade away in a few more years, for now they offer a growing set of articles of spurious validity that will be part of the literature that a reader is attempting to evaluate.

Putting it all together

So, summarizing, anyone attempting to evaluate the progress of scientific thought on a topic of current concern is confronted with a difficult task.  Science does not proceed linearly towards ultimate truth.  Humans have difficulty thinking rationally and objectively, and are constantly filtering what they see and hear because of emotional reactions and remembered patterns.  The rapid pace of scientific discovery demands a growing PR effort by the scientist in order to make his/her results stand out from the crowd.  The print and electronic media are also in competition with their peers for attention, so they report science in ways that will attract attention, but may also distort what was done.

A good example of the difficulty faced by people who attempt to interpret current science is the recent article in The Guardian by Johnny Langenheim, a journalist and film-maker.  Its title is, Are local efforts to save coral reefs bound to fail?, followed by the teaser, Two recent reports on the state of the world’s coral reefs appear to contradict each other.  But which is right?  His article concerns two recent technical papers on the global status of coral reefs.  The first, by Josh Cinner of James Cook University and 31 colleagues from all over, appeared in Nature for 21st July 2016.  Its title is Bright spots among the world’s coral reefs, and it is based on a global analysis of reef fish abundance (biomass) on some 2500 coral reef sites.  They show that biomass varies substantially across reefs, that it is related to several  socioeconomic and environmental drivers, and that among the 2514 locations there are 15 ‘bright spots’ where fish biomass is more than two standard deviations greater than would be predicted by the drivers considered.  They report that the bright spots are not all remote reefs with low or zero human populations, and argue that effective local management can maintain coral reef systems sustainably, even in the face of global impacts such as climate change.

Cinner bright spots nature18607-f2

Cinner’s ‘bright spots’ in yellow, and ‘dark spots’ in black, plotted in upper figure to show their degree of departure from expectations, based on the suite of potential drivers examined, and plotted geographically in lower figure.  The bright spots are almost entirely Pacific island locations.
Image © Josh Cinner & Nature.

The second paper, published in Scientific Reports, one of Nature’s daughter publications, appeared on line on 20th July, 2016.  (For a staid old science journal, Nature has become remarkably fecund in recent years!)  The authors, John Bruno of UNC  Chapel Hill, and Abel Valdivia of the Center for Biological Diversity, Oakland, California, titled it Coral reef degradation is not correlated with local human population density.  They also used a global data set, this time of information on coral cover and algal cover on 1758 reef sites.  They explored reef degradation by examining coral and algal abundance in relation to human population density within 50km of each site.  They show that trends in coral or algal abundance do not correlate with patterns of human population density and interpret this to mean that local human impacts are either relatively trivial in most locations, or are completely swamped by the global impacts such as ocean warming.  They conclude that while local management effort to correct such things as overfishing and pollution is definitely worthwhile, it is time to recognize that local management effort is not going to do much at all for the problem of reef decline, which is driven by factors that must be addressed at a global scale.

Bruno Valdivia coral cover vs population Sci Rep August 2016 srep29778-f2

Plots showing the lack of association between coral cover or algal cover and human population density within 50km of the reef.  Raw data are in upper figures; data corrected for spatial autocorrelation are in lower figure.  The relationships shown with log human population density are statistically significant (p<0.01 for coral cover, and p<0.03 for algal cover), but they are ecologically trivial, accounting for <1% of the variability in the data.  Figure © John Bruno

In his Guardian article, Langenheim points out that it is difficult to compare the two papers because they are measuring different things.  But he then poses the question that any reader of the two papers is likely to raise: Are Cinner and colleagues correct in saying that local action to put in place effective management of reef fisheries will help them “defy expectations of global reef degradation”, or are Bruno and Valdivia correct in stating that “local management alone cannot restore coral populations or increase the resilience of reefs to large-scale impacts” such as climate change?  He does not do a very good job of answering this question, concluding his article with “Both reports are right.  The danger is that they will be misinterpreted.”  I suspect many of his readers will end up just confused.

The two papers are very different in approach.  Cinner et al make the leap from ‘high reef fish biomass’ to ‘reef quality’ with nary a second thought, while Bruno and Valdivia stick to the more conventional ‘coral cover’ measure of ‘reef quality’, while reducing all local human impacts on reefs to a simple measure of population density.  As a fish ecologist, I think that reefs with a high abundance of fish are wonderful reefs, but a reef is far more than its fish.  It’s also far more than its coral.  While reef scientists talk a lot about reef condition, reef health, reef degradation and so on, there is no formal, agreed definition of what ‘healthy’ means when applied to a reef.  And while most scientists who set out to measure reef condition gravitate towards measuring coral cover, I’ll bet many Pacific islanders would rank a reef teeming with fish as healthier than one with very high coral cover, but substantially denuded of fish.

Cinner and his colleagues, including a number of fisheries scientists and social scientists, do a credible job of examining the societal factors that are important in how people and fish interact on reefs, and reveal some useful things about the types of societal structure and fishery policy that seem to favor high fish biomass.  Bruno and Valdivia, two marine ecologists, have rather little to say about the nuances of human impacts on reefs, and are content to bundle these all together in an index of population density per 50km2 around reef sites.  Both papers deal with what are called ‘weak effect sizes’, meaning that the effect of a particular factor (such as human density) on reef condition is statistically significant, but accounts for only a trivial amount of the variation among sites.  (Ecologists used to be taught that weak effect size means that while a relationship is statistically significant – meaning it is a real relationship rather than a chance artifact – it is ecologically meaningless.)  Cinner and colleagues have used an interesting approach – to look at the 2% of outliers, the sites that diverge to the greatest extent from expectations – to look beyond weak effect size, but their look beyond is a simple inspection of the individual sites, rather than the sophisticated multivariate analysis we might expect.  They believe they have found possible reasons for these divergences in the details of societal organization and fishery policy.  Perhaps they have, but the examples of societal structure or policy that they mention are the same ones that knowledgeable social scientists have been talking about for a long time: “high levels of local engagement in the management process, high dependence on coastal resources, and the presence of sociocultural governance institutions such as customary tenure or taboos.”  On Karkar Island, Papua New Guinea, for example, “resource use is restricted through an adaptive rotational harvest system based on ecological feedbacks, marine tenure that allows for the exclusion of fishers from outside the local village, and initiation rights that limit individuals’ entry into certain fisheries.”  It would have been nice to see a definitive analysis that pointed to these conclusions, yet even assuming they are correct, I fear that we still have much to learn about how to introduce such ideas into societies and have them stick.  Talking about them has been going on for some time, and does not seem to be enough.

It is also important to remember that in focusing on the 15 unusual ‘ bright spots’, Cinner and colleagues are ignoring 99.4% of the sites sampled, and hoping that good outcomes can result from learning the secrets of those 15.  On the other hand, Bruno and Valdivia have pretty much thrown in the towel on being able to improve reef resilience to climate change and other global threats by improving local management.  They may have drawn the right conclusion, but it’s a bit of a dead end and the policy ramifications could be dire – a lot of demoralized reef managers gazing listlessly at a glass more than half empty while pleading for global action on CO2.  On the other hand, maybe we all need to confront this dead end in order to realize what is happening to the world’s coral reefs.  Talking about bright spots may be another way of rearranging deck chairs.

Taken together the Cinner and Bruno papers provide a good example of how science lurches forward towards greater understanding.  It’s unfortunate that the contrast between them, in terms of hopefulness or policy preferences is so stark, and it is not the fault of either set of authors that this stark contrast exists.  But the contrast certainly impedes understanding of what scientists are learning about reef degradation.

So how do we do better?

I do not believe that scientists alone bear the responsibility for ensuring that their science is correctly interpreted and incorporated into policy.  But it is surely in scientists’ best self-interest to have their work correctly understood.  There are some things we can do to make the likelihood of that better.

We can learn to write so our stories are interesting without having to be hyped.  Just learning how to write grammatical English might be a good start, and it would help those for whom English is not the first language to understand what is being written.  But learning to write a paper which is engaging…… I still think we’d be better off if we paid more attention to that than we mostly do.  And we can learn to promote ourselves and our science without claiming that each new paper is an explosively innovative one that presents conclusive results that will sweep away old ideas and move us measurably closer to ultimate truth.  There is lots of human interest in what scientists do and in what they learn without having to pretend.

Scientists can demand that journals be more rigorous in reviewing papers, and less willing to tolerate overblown titles, or abstracts which go well beyond the data.  While many are now doing so, all scientists can become more effective, and more demanding, in their dealings with the press.  If you anticipate media interest in what you are doing, plan ahead with materials you can supply to journalists to help them tell the story effectively.

Finally, in the environmental sciences, we need to strive constantly for more rigor in how we speak, what terms we use, and what experimental procedures we use.  Increasingly, environmental science requires a multifactorial, multidimensional approach, and modern statistics can help us deal with complex data sets far more easily than was the case in the past.  But I fear we have lost the ability to look critically at our complex results in order to separate the statistically significant but ecologically trivial relationship from the ecologically meaningful one.  Let’s also be far more careful in our use of terminology.  Let’s be frank that a concept like ‘coral reef health’ is meaningless, very subjective, and burdened by value judgements, and find new ways of talking about functional, resilient ecosystems that will make these concepts accessible to the public without dumbing them down.  Above all, let’s teach our students that our science is primarily about discovering how the universe works, and sometimes about how we might change human behavior to help the universe work in a way that is in the long-term best interest of our species.  Getting your face, or page one of your paper on Twitter is not the real goal.  Without effective communication of results, a scientist has failed to complete the task at hand.

Categories: Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science | 3 Comments

Fighting through the static to detect real environmental and climate trends. Part I


Donald Trump, that peculiarly coiffed symbol of our collapsing ability to think rationally, has called repeatedly for a ban on entry of Muslims to the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”  In saying so he is admitting that it can be difficult to discern what is happening in our complex world.


Donald Trump; not known for the impeccability of his logic.

While Trump reveals little evidence of attempting to figure out anything more complex than how many words can fit into a tweet, I believe that we all face an increasingly difficult task if we attempt to figure out what is really happening in society, in politics, in international relations, or in almost anything else.  This difficulty extends to our attempts to interpret reports of scientific advances, whether we rely on secondary sources such as the media, or go directly to the technical reports in the scientific literature or presentations at conferences.


It is not surprising that many people get confused about climate change.  It is a complex, long-term, broad-scale, slow-acting change, and the diversity of messages about it is sufficient to numb many minds.

I don’t think for a moment that this difficulty is solely responsible for what may be a growing problem in translating scientific understanding into sound policy.  However, I think we have an unrecognized problem in understanding what science is telling us, and that problem is growing.  I’ll not spend time on what are now highly politicized controversies, such as whether or not climate change is occurring, whether it is possible to largely eliminate our burning of fossil fuels without collapsing the global economy, or whether our growing pressures on the biosphere are pushing the Earth system outside planetary boundaries that define the limits within which it can continue to function ecologically.  Instead, I’ll consider some ‘smaller’ questions from the world of coral reefs; ones that might be considered more tractable, less politicized, more readily answerable.  I’ll propose some reasons for our difficulty in “figuring out what is going on”, and I’ll close with some suggestions for what scientists could do to better ensure the public gets access to accurate, up-to-date science.

Has the recently ended el Niño resulted in substantial damage to coral reefs worldwide?  I think most people who follow environmental news would answer ‘yes’, but if asked how substantial that damage has been, the responses would cover a broad spectrum from ‘it’s happened before, and it will happen again’ to ‘this is just the latest nail in the coffin of coral reefs as a living ecosystem on this planet’.  Most people would be hard-pressed to specify the extent of mortality of corals, or any other quantitative measure of the extent of the impact, yet they would differ widely in evaluating its severity.

If the discussion moved to more specific questions concerning what may or may not be happening to coral reefs, responders would reveal similarly fuzzy yet quite divergent views.  Are the consequences of ocean warming for coral reefs since 1981 (the first, well-documented mass bleaching events in Panama and the Galapagos) the largest anthropogenic threat to their sustainability?  Will corals evolve greater tolerance to warmed water?  If we reduce other stresses on reefs from overfishing and pollution will that confer on them a greater capacity to withstand warmed water?  Is the propagation of coral fragments in nurseries for planting out in locations affected by bleaching an appropriate solution to the effects of warming on reefs?  Views on the societal consequences of loss of coral reefs will be equally wide-ranging, even among those individuals whose own experience makes them best able to evaluate societal benefits of coral reefs.  For many people outside the research community, of course, many of these more precise questions would fall outside the range of topics on which they could form views of any specificity at all.

northern GBR bleaching COE image[11]

The recent bleaching of the northern Great Barrier Reef, the worst in its history, raises difficult questions about whether good local management of reefs confers protection against (builds resilience to) effects of ocean warming.  The true extend of the damage, in terms of coral killed, is not yet known because mortality due to the bleaching is still taking place.
Photo © ARC COE Coral Reef Studies.

The present is a time in which more scientific discoveries are being made than ever before.  Information about those discoveries, whether the technical reports by the scientists making the discoveries, or coverage of them in the general information media, is more available, to more people, than ever before.  And commentary on the discoveries is extensive in both print and electronic media, readily accessible by anyone with access to the web.  Yet, as the availability of information grows, the clarity of messages gets diminished, and people find themselves listening to a cacophony of mixed messages, unable to extract any coherent theme.  Why is this so?

I think this wide-spread perception of a static-filled, cacophonous stream of messages about the environment has several causes that act additively, or perhaps even synergistically.  Some are specific to scientific questions, while others apply to other types of messages that we attempt to decipher.  In this post, I will talk about the nature of science, and the nature of human thought.  In a subsequent post, I’ll discuss how the scientific endeavor is changing, and the role of the media in communicating science.  Then I’ll tie it all together with some comments on a recent pair of articles dealing with global patterns of coral reef degradation.

The nature of science

To begin with, there is the nature of the scientific process, a process of creative destruction of one hypothesis after another.  Science proceeds by inventing hypotheses to explain observations.  Then further observations and experiments are done to ‘test’ each hypothesis.  Testing is an effort to prove the hypothesis incorrect, and when a hypothesis falls, a new one, or better, several new ones are created to take its place.  The creativity of science lies in a scientist’s ability to imagine novel explanations (new hypotheses), and in his/her capacity to design experiments or observations that potentially can prove a hypothesis incorrect.  This strange approach to building understanding has evolved because you can never prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that an explanation for an observed phenomenon is correct.  You can only prove it is not correct, or at least, that it is substantially unlikely to be correct.

Nor do scientists work in isolation.  A ‘hot’ topic will be being explored by multiple scientists in multiple labs testing multiple hypotheses.  The process of building scientific understanding is done by many scientists working collaboratively, cooperatively and competitively, and while it is not quite as messy as the sausage making that is politics, it is not a straight-arrow path towards ultimate truth.  At any moment there can be multiple explanations for the observations or processes being studied.  Looking at the results as they appear, hot off the press, or even earlier, as they are announced during conferences, or even sooner as they are tweeted, posted, or e-mailed among colleagues presents the outsider, seeking to understand, with a lot of red herring ideas destined to fall when the next set of experimental results shows them to be wrong.

Complicating this picture slightly is the fact that scientists generally work within conventional paradigms – sets of related ideas about how the world works that have stood the test of time and represent the conventional understanding of the community to which a scientist belongs.  Such internally coherent sets of not-yet-disproven hypotheses provide the essential framework on which scientists build their new ideas.  Usually, all is well and the paradigm persists, becoming continuously strengthened by new observations and experiments.  But sometimes paradigms collapse when the evidence against their weaker links becomes sufficient.  Because scientists want to believe they are building on a sound foundation of established understanding, there is often a tendency to cling to paradigms that should really be radically revised or put aside.  When such paradigms are eventually discarded, the change in understanding of the system can seem sudden and profound.  This adds to the non-linearity of scientific progress.

As an example of what I mean, coral reef science is currently witnessing a minor paradigmatic readjustment in connection with the control of the competition between corals and algae.  Before saying more, I must digress to talk about reef ‘health’.  A coral-dominated reefscape is highly productive, highly diverse, and can support lots of people through the fishery products it yields.  For some or all of these reasons, people mostly value reefs of this type.  Conversely, there are reefs with very little living coral now present, which are dominated by fleshy macro-algae (macroscopic seaweed growing attached to the substratum, not algal symbionts living within corals or phytoplankton in the water column).  These support less biological diversity, and seem to be less productive – both primary production and production of fishery products.  Mostly we consider reefs of this type less desirable.  We call the coral-dominated reefs ‘healthy’ because we value them, and we speak of ‘degradation’ if a coral-dominated reef changes to become dominated by algae.  This use of the word ‘health’ has nothing to do with disease, and everything to do with subjective value judgements.  There is no agreed way to measure this ‘health’, but we know it when we see it.  On such silty concepts, coral reef science is built!

coral & algae doiminated reef Line Islands Smith-header_0

Most reef scientists, and most people, prefer coral-dominated reefs such as the one on the left to algae-dominated reefs like the one on the right.  We call coral-dominated reefs healthy.  If I were a fish that fed on algae, I’d likely prefer the one on the right.  Still, since we prefer the coral-dominated ones, it’s OK to explore why such reefs sometimes become algae-dominated.
Photos of Line Island sites © Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Getting back to corals and algae, both corals and fleshy algae need space on the reef in which to grow.  Most reefs that we would consider ‘healthy’ are dominated by corals with algae quite sparse, but sometimes ‘degraded’ reefs, low in coral cover, become heavily dominated by algae, to the extent that corals can be effectively excluded.  This occurs either because their larvae cannot find suitable places to settle and attach, or because they die weeks after settling because they are shaded out by algae early in juvenile life.  Observations  and experiments beginning in the 1980s, particularly though not entirely in Jamaica, where reefs had been severely overfished, led by the late 1990s to what seemed a robust model, a paradigm of the regulation of the conflict between corals and algae.  This model was generally supported in reviews up until recently.

bolbometapon UC Berkeley

Not the most beautiful parrot, but Bolbometapon muricatum, the bumphead parrot fish is the largest, most voracious grazer on Pacific coral reefs.
Photo © UC Berkeley

In essence, this model considers corals, algae and herbivores as three actors in a classic, top-down regulatory process, in which herbivory limits algal growth permitting coral dominance.  Loss of herbivory allows algae to grow in abundance, shade out corals, and take over living space.  The result is a rapid phase-shift from coral-dominated to algae-dominated reef.  The management inference drawn is to protect herbivorous fishes from overfishing, as a way of preventing reefs becoming dominated by algae.

This model is attractively simple and easy to understand.  With just three actors, there are only three states and six interactions to worry about.  It ties an ‘undesirable’ change in a reef-scape – the phase-shift to algal domination – with a simple, feasible management action, controls on fishing of parrotfishes.  It is a hypothesis potentially explaining many examples of phase-shifts in the Caribbean, while offering an understandable, new argument for controls on the frequently rampant overfishing.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it became simplified into a useful new axiom for reef managers: cut fishing of parrotfishes and prevent algae from overrunning your reefs.

Meanwhile, scientists were noting that the world was not quite so simple as this model presumed.  There are many species of corals, algae and herbivorous fishes, and they do not act identically.  There are many overfished reefs in the world that have not undergone a phase-shift to become dominated by fleshy algae.  There are some reefs, for example the Abrolhos Reefs of Western Australia, in which corals flourish along-side abundant fleshy algae and abundant herbivorous fishes.  Even in the Caribbean sites that had provided the data that led to formulation of this model, many other changes had taken place in the past at the same time as fish were being over-exploited.  Reality did not simplify into the three-actor system of the model.

There are still reef managers (and reef scientists) advocating restrictions on the fishing of herbivores like parrotfishes as a useful tool for maintaining coral reefs in ‘healthy’ condition.  Undoubtedly, curtailing over-exploitation of reef fishes will be useful in places where they are heavily fished – for fishery economics (higher catch per unit of effort), for fish conservation, and for the suite of ecosystem services that fish provide to a reef, including, in some cases, control on algal abundances.  But the simple, three-actor rule is now seen by a growing number of scientists and managers as not based on rigorous scientific understanding.  Reefs are complicated places, and this model was too simple!  That it ascended to prominence and endured as long as it did is testament to the notion that science stumbles towards the truth.  Science is not choreographed.

The way people think

One of Marshall McLuhan’s less well-known aphorisms is “If I had not believed it, I never would have seen it.”  Artfully, he captured a fundamental truth about human thought processes.  The nature of human perceptual abilities and thought processes is a second factor making scientific discoveries difficult to interpret and understand.  We do not see what is in front of us, and we do a lot of interpreting of the sensory stream.  We think dichotomously, in black and white instead of in the shades of gray that reality presents to our senses.  We emphasize edges and discontinuities as a way of classifying the information stream into discrete categories, such as all corals, all algae and all herbivores, while avoiding the rich detail in the raw information.  As well as simplifying in these ways, we are only really able to count to three or seven (depending on which psychologist you believe), so that few of us can think about more than one or two processes at a time, even when we know we are dealing with complex environmental systems involving many different actors and numerous interactions.  Finally, we only think short term, and we shift baselines continuously, so that long-term, gradual processes and changes are not even noticed.

It is only since the global bleaching episode of 1997-8, or perhaps the die-off of Diadema sea urchins across the Caribbean in the early 1980s, that coral reef ecologists have begun to recognize that the reefs of the world could be travelling on a long, slow journey from the state(s) they were in in the 1950s to the state(s) they will be in in the 2050s and beyond.  (I know I was not the only coral reef ecologist in the 1970s who assumed that the processes he was unravelling were ones that had been operating on reefs long before humans arrived on nearby shores, and would continue operating into the future.)  Reef geologists do a somewhat better job of thinking about deep time, which is one of the reasons it is good for reef ecologists and geologists to talk to each other.

Come to think about it, back in the 1970s, when I was doing field research which led me to emphasize the lack of predictability in outcomes of competition for habitat among territorial reef fishes, I had to struggle hard to prevent my colleagues characterizing my ideas simplistically,  They tended to characterize my work as claiming that ‘competition among territorial reef fish species is a chaotic process’ as opposed to the conventional view that competitive interactions among coexisting species were tightly structured as hierarchical systems with predictable winner and loser species.  They were thinking dichotomously, and were simplifying my message into something it clearly was not, and some never did see what I was trying to say.

I see this as my failure, even though I tried very hard to state my ideas explicitly.  We argued back and forth for a while, but fortunately, the discovery that, much of the time, territorial reef fish were not being limited by a shortage of space, even though they fought aggressively over space, seemed to be using all available space fully, allowed us to end that controversy gracefully, while conveniently neglecting that none of us had previously suspected that there could be unused resources on a reef.  We glided gracefully to a new model!

We all turned our attention to recruitment limitation – the idea that the delivery of larval fish to reefs is normally insufficient to saturate the resources available on the reef.  In such circumstances, multiple species, using the same reef resources can coexist indefinitely without one out-competing the others.  (And of course, there were some among us who persisted in believing that recruitment was ‘always’ sufficient – I sometimes wish I lived in such an orderly universe.)  Still, I fear that today, should someone want to go back and figure out what so many reef fish ecologists were arguing about back then, they would have a difficult time interpreting the publications that appeared.  We certainly were not moving linearly towards ultimate truth.  Only with knowledge of the people and the ideas could a clear story be told (and that knowledge is disappearing as each year passes).

These seldom talked about features of our ways of thinking mean that we are all continuously shaping the information we receive, fitting it into our own personal view of reality.  Further, while some of us like to think that we are rational beings, our evaluation of information we receive – whether a new technical report, a media news item, or something conveyed by a friend in an e-mail – is not completely logical.  Emotional responses, subconscious preferences lodged deep in memory, and logical analysis all play their roles, and we are all capable of simultaneously holding contradictory opinions.  What we notice is colored; so too is how we understand it.  We don’t all see the dancing gorilla in the center of the room.  To make effective headway in understanding the science that is being reported, we have to work hard to minimize the filtering and coloring that our own ways of thinking introduce.

Coming next, the changing nature of science and the role of the media.

Gorilla expt article-1378228-0BAFCD3700000578-441_468x286

This still from a Youtube video demonstrates our failure to experience what is in front of our eyes.  Any wonder that we do not always grasp the significance of complex scientific data?
Image and video © Daniel J Simon.

Categories: Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science | Comments Off on Fighting through the static to detect real environmental and climate trends. Part I