You’ve all heard that coral reefs are being seriously degraded by climate change and other human interference; that they are on their way out and could be gone globally by mid-century. You’ve also likely heard of amazing new technologies to restore, repair, or enhance coral reefs. And you’ve probably also heard about, or seen, accounts of newly discovered, amazingly healthy reefs. Globally speaking, are reefs at real risk or not? We can ask similar questions for other kinds of environmental issue: Is permafrost in danger of releasing vast quantities of methane? Is the loss of biodiversity a critical issue for human societies? Are world fisheries being managed sustainably? Turns out that getting clear answers is difficult.
There are people who deny the reality of any claims that human activities are somehow degrading the environment. For them, biodiversity loss and climate change are just myths. They have their reasons for denying, but these denialists are not the concern here. A majority of us (I hope) seeks to understand the world in which we live and do what we can to remain current with events in our world.
Mostly, we seek information informally. Seeking to remain current may be done more or less methodically, but we seldom approach it in the formal way a professional evaluator of events such as a historian, a sociologist, or a political scientist might. We have our own personal experience to draw upon, but mostly we use various sources of information (the media) that we trust, regularly or intermittently scanning them (newspapers, radio reports, websites, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and/or comments from our network of friends and acquaintances). Today we have far more media sources available than was the case just 20 years ago, and we have dedicated apps such as Google for searching them. Yet our ability to be well informed on issues remains limited – more limited than most of us realize. Far more limited.
Globally, reefs may be in great shape, or they may be degrading rapidly. They cannot be both and one photo of a healthy patch of reef does not tell us which conclusion is correct. Photo from the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, taken 2002 by James Watt, NOAA.
Let’s accept that there exists an objective reality that we should be able to learn about. Globally speaking, coral reefs are seriously threatened, or coral reefs are doing fine – they cannot be both. But here are five problems we all face in trying to keep abreast of news on environmental issues like health of coral reefs. They even include our own rationality – it’s less than we might believe!
Our first problem is Curation. Whether we believe it, or are even aware of it, all media sources of information are curated. That is, they contain items of information that have been selected and placed there. No source provides every bit of information in the world, and even if it did, there would be curation, in the sense that we’d receive some bits of information before other bits. Curation means that choices have been made concerning which information is most important, or most relevant. The nature of those choices is unique to each media source, although good sources of information on a particular topic should be expected to overlap a lot in the items of information deemed most important.
This chart shows that human editors (left, in red) choose a wider diversity and very different set of sources than do algoithms (right, yellow). Image © Digital Information World.
Traditionally, curation was the responsibility of people — editors, publishers, or librarians. Increasingly, in the on-line world, curation is done by apps. Regardless how it is done, curation means that you receive the information that the curator thought most important, and that selection is only as reliable as the curator. And, because there is so much information available, you necessarily will select from the items of information offered. If, instead of browsing favored outlets, you searched for information using an app like Google, you are provided with a curated list that is tailored to what the app ‘thinks’ you’d most like to see – source selection on steroids. Either way, you think you are getting access to all information about a topic but you are being handed a curated selection, and you are choosing from what is offered. The potential for bias is huge.
Might we reduce the curation-caused biases by choosing reliable sources? Information is seldom 100% correct, a completely factual account of reality. In many fields of enquiry 100% accuracy is simply not possible, and information sources vary in their level of accuracy. Curators have their own reasons for ranking items and correctness is not always a priority. We can improve the accuracy of information we gather, by choosing media sources that are known to be more accurate. But how do we decide?
Not an easy question. No media source is going to voluntarily advise that it delivers inaccurate information. And with the advent of so many new media outlets, deciding on reliability has become a lot more difficult. Several decades back it was possible to learn which sources were considered by informed people (usually wealthy white male informed people) to be the most reliable. A reputation for reliability was highly valued, took many years to earn, and could be squandered with a few mistakes. That’s why changes in the ownership or editorship of a major newspaper were significant news events in themselves. The reputation for reliability often carried with it a reputation for a particular political perspective, and sources based in particular countries were known to present information with a particular national flavor. All of this remains true, except that with so many sources it’s hard to keep track (plus who is to say that wealthy white male informed people know what they are talking about anyway). Today, a joe public in his basement is able to create a website that looks just as professional as one produced by the New York Times, The Times (of London), or Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (known online as FAZ.net), so simple appearance is not much of a guide.
While the news media may once have focused on ‘reporting the news’ that is no longer the case. Even the best media – the ‘serious’ newspapers, certain newsmagazines, a few websites – contain much that is not factual reporting of information. They compete for eyes (in order to sell advertising) by including lots beyond news – opinion, human interest stories, sex, and what I’ll call environmental feel-good fluff for now. While there are ‘serious’ newspapers like the New York Times which mostly have serious news on their front pages, there are hosts of other newspapers that feature scantily clad young women on the front page. As well as curating information, these media are mixing authoritative reporting with other stuff designed to make the audience of eyes feel good. The result is that even a trusted, authoritative news source contains lots of non-news, and some of this non-news is environmental. To summarize so far, there are an enormous number of media outlets all of which select items of information to include. These media sources vary in reliability and there is no easy way to determine which ones provide the best (most accurate) information. Most of them offer a mix of items including some that are a lot more accurate than others, and the media do not do much to help us sift through them. So much for the idea that the media now provide easy access to accurate information about our world.
Distortions of scientific news.
Assuming we can identify them, let’s set aside the opinion pieces, human interest stories, and sex, and focus on the reporting of scientific news. A news report is a synthesis of some more or less factual data. Presumably news reports of scientific discoveries will be reliable? Well, perhaps.
In environmental fields, those raw data on which the news report is based are usually generated by scientists using particular procedures and equipment to query the natural world. Those scientists, despite striving for objective interpretation of the data they collect, are humans with their own biases, preferences, or expectations, who ask particular questions in particular ways. The results of their investigations, hopefully after careful review by peers, are never a complete investigation of all data that might be relevant to the questions they have asked. In other words, scientists curate also, and news reports of their discoveries provide a further opportunity to select, to emphasize, or to spin the results. None of this is evident in the news article prominently displayed in a newspaper or website.
It used to be that scientists quietly published their results in the technical literature, far from the eyes of the public, and news reports came slowly, long after the excitement of discovery was over. The reporting tended to be dispassionate, often even boring.
Not any more. Now, the pressure to succeed as a scientist requires that one’s research papers get read and cited by others. Getting your new report covered by the media can help promote interest from other scientists as well as the broader public. So scientists have learned to generate press releases to coincide with the publication of virtually anything coming out of their labs, and the universities and other research institutions that house these scientists actively support this promotion. After all, if University X has lots of scientists getting quoted regularly in the media, it must be academically a much better institution than University Y.
To be effective in attracting attention, these press releases often emphasize the uniqueness of the science, or the ways the new results contradict prior knowledge. After all, why should a news organization be interested in a technical report that simply supports what is already known? One result is that scientists often go a little further out on a limb in drafting their press releases than they do in the technical publication being promoted. In my 2021 book, Coral Reefs, I discussed how this tendency is distorting the reporting of science. We have to conclude that news about science, and hence, environmental news, can be inaccurate just as easily as any other form of news.
While scientists and the reporters who feed on their press releases may exaggerate, emphasize or in other ways distort the reporting of their discoveries (any press attention is better than no press attention), there is another problem that affects the reliability of environmental news reports. This is the deliberate distortion of information about some product, process, or plan belonging to a commercial entity, or sometimes a government, to make that entity appear more environmentally responsible than it really is. Greenwashing is most obviously seen in the propaganda – sorry, in-house, factual reporting of activities and plans – produced by the fossil fuel sector, but it is not limited to these. The most skillful greenwashers, of course, feed material to journalists, seeking greenwashed articles in an apparently independent press.
As I write, a major greenwashing effort is under way by the Australian government assisted by fossil fuel corporations and by the powerful Murdock press empire in that country. The mining and export of coal and gas are a major portion of Australia’s economy, and much of the coal exports go by way of ports on the Queensland coast and therefore through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. UNESCO has been on the verge of downgrading the status of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage for several years now, and it seems Australian politicians of all stripes want to retain a reputation for sustainable management of this iconic coral reef system while also continuing and expanding the mining and export of fossil fuels.
A little sifting through government websites and downloading of key documents reveals the government’s core strategies – to ensure there are lots of (often irrelevant) images of healthy reefs on every page pertaining to reef management, and to ensure that any but the most superficial of comments re climate change are banished to parts of the metaverse far removed from the Great Barrier Reef. Thus, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s front page on “The Great Barrier Reef” includes several pretty pictures and suggests the reef is ‘under pressure’ but does not mention climate change once! That page leads to “Managing and protecting the Great Barrier Reef,” also with pretty pictures. This page reports billions of dollars’ worth of support to protect the reef and does mention climate change as one of many things being protected against. Both pages lead readers to Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan 2021-2025, as the document that guides reef management and protection. Downloaded, that document takes six pages before it states, “Global warming, and the climate change it drives, is the most serious and pervasive threat to the Reef” and “The long-term outlook for the Reef is critically dependent on limiting global temperature rise to the maximum extent possible, as quickly as possible (GBRMPA 2019b).” And that just about does it for climate change.
From then on Reef 2050 is all about just about anything other than climate change apart from a brief note that “… setting targets and policy mechanisms for Australia’s contribution to global emissions reduction is addressed through national and state sectoral-wide measures designed to meet Australia’s international commitments, including under the Paris Agreement.” Not being discussed here, but sounds like Australia has everything under control!
Reef 2050 is also filled with beautiful photos of coral reefs. And as I surfed deeper into the governmental websites and documents the pattern became clear. Tell everyone how many millions the pols are spending to ‘protect’ the Great Barrier Reef and talk in detail about all sorts of things other than the obvious need to reduce CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, far away, virtually, from these reef pages are pages about Australia’s energy policy. There I discovered, in a summary document about achieving net zero the Australian way, that Australia will meet it’s 2050 net zero CO2 emissions commitment, chiefly by using blue hydrogen and CCS.
The capture and permanent storage of carbon (CCS) will permit continued mining of fossil fuels (which will release more carbon once burned) and producing blue hydrogen fuel from natural gas also requires CCS. Neither CCS nor blue hydrogen production is yet feasible at scale, yet Australia’s reduction of emissions is fundamentally dependent on these two processes – it’s a bit like planning confidently for a manned return trip to Mars before anyone has succeeded in putting a football-sized Sputnik into low earth orbit. Wing and a prayer, anyone? Tellingly, among other things it won’t do, Australia’s net zero target will be achieved without shutting down gas and coal mining and export industries and without cost to Australians! This net zero plan, heavily promoted by Australia’s powerful fossil fuel sector, is a glorious mirage, a delaying tactic, a way to pretend while actually doing little. And it is far removed (in the metaverse) from any of the wonderfully colorful (all those photos) and expensive things Australia is doing to care for the Great Barrier Reef.
The good news about this particular greenwashing exercise is that the educated Australian people see through it. Press reports of yet more billions thrown in the direction of the Great Barrier Reef are met with pages of comment from the public, such as “the greatest barrier to the health of the reef is the federal government, which has consistently ignored the science, the experts and the evidence.” Still, with an Australian election looming, I remember the last time when the country seemed to forget about the reef, or climate change, once in the booth marking the ballot.
Greenwashing can be quite effective, and its not just Australia that does this. (Indeed, as a Canadian, I should perhaps have chosen some wonderful examples from Canada’s tar sands industry – but they seldom mention coral reefs.) Greenwashed articles, made to look like authoritative independent reporting, are a standard tool of the fossil fuel sector worldwide.
My fourth impediment to getting good information about environmental matters arises because of a Pollyanna tendency within the media. Over the years, the curators have learned that a constant diet of serious, depressing, difficult or other typical news stops the audience of eyes from looking and clicking. That’s one way of explaining why media are filled with human-interest stories, details of the private lives of people who are famous for sharing details of their private lives, scantily clad women, cat videos and so on. This Pollyanna tendency – let’s all take a minute to cheer up – has a significant impact on the reporting of environmental issues, and particularly on the reporting of coral reef issues. Stories, photos, videos about the environment can be uplifting when they reveal beauty, subtle but intriguing complexity, unexpected quirks in the lives of other species, or sheer cuteness, as in mother animals caring for their offspring.
Recently there has been a flurry of news reports of coral reefs in wonderful condition – newly discovered reefs, unexpectedly rich reefs in deep water, the largest individual coral colony ever seen. Mostly these are reported as simple stories, but they get interpreted by the audience as evidence that all is well. Probably because many of us would love to discover that all is indeed well. They are nothing more than coral cat videos. They mean nothing. If it is correct, and I believe the data show this, that, averaged across the globe, coral reefs have lost half or more of their cover of hard corals, finding one patch of reef in apparently good condition, even if nobody had even suspected it was lurking there, under the waves, does not change that sad story. Finding one giant boulder of apparently healthy Porites coral means even less. Yes, it’s wonderful, but the reefs of the world have still lost fifty percent or more of their live coral cover and their future remains grim.
A 30m deep reef, 3km long, off Tahiti, newly discovered in November 2021. But it does not tell us whether coral reefs are in trouble or not. Photo © Alexis Rosenfeld and BBC News.
Where the Pollyanna problem gets worse is when the science community begins to understand this tendency of the news curators. I think that time has now come. Press releases reporting some aspect of coral reef science typically now include a beautiful photo of a patch of healthy coral reef, even a photo quite unrelated to the core of the story. And press releases with such a photo, and with the usual tendency to hype the conclusions – ‘this is the first, most important, really exciting’ – stand an excellent chance of being picked up by the media. Especially if the story is about a technique for propagating coral, attracting fish to an otherwise dead reef, or in other ways repair a damaged reef. The fact is, most of us are not very good at recognizing the difference between the one-off or the small-scale, and the global average. The short-term success in restoring a couple of square meters of reef by planting coral of the same species that got eliminated in the last heatwave, or the discovery of a single patch of healthy reef that was not know about before, is inconsequential when compared to the much larger set of data showing that reefs, across the globe, are on the way out. Like Pollyanna, we grasp the little glimpses of hopefulness to avoid the reality we know is all around us. The crazy thing is, if coral reefs were less gloriously mysterious, photos of them would not get used by the media curators to drive attention and clicks, and we’d all get less news overall, but a more accurate picture of how coral reefs were doing.
I started with a simple question. Are coral reefs generally in good health or are they in trouble? I suggested that rationally they could not be both. But I was being a little dishonest in assuming that the bulk of us are rational beings who seek to understand the world around us in a rational way. Our lack of rationality is an underrecognized impediment that affects us all. Whenever we scan the media seeking to learn what is happening around us, we scan with a formidable set of blinkers that affect what we attend to and how we interpret what we see or hear.
Most of us live with a myth that begins, “The eye is remarkably similar to a camera…” That sentence is true as far as it goes, but our brain/mind is decidedly not like an array of pixels or a sheet of film waiting to be exposed. We commence analyzing and interpreting the information that arrives at each of our sense organs as soon as it leaves the receptor cell on its way towards the central nervous system. Simultaneously, our subconscious mind is directing our sense organs to pay attention to particular stimuli or locations or events. Our conscious mind deals with what gets delivered to it by this far from objective perceptual system. And then our conscious mind proceeds to build a model of reality based on that information, but also on what it remembers and what it expects.
If we want to believe that coral reefs are doing just fine, and climate change is nothing to be concerned about, we will. It takes real work to try and determine the true state of coral reefs around the world, and yet our conscious minds are so good at self-delusion that we accept totally our imperfect, biased, fundamentally flawed picture of reality. That’s one reason why it can be so difficult to convince someone who does not believe the world is the way you say it is. Its also why antivaxxers are behaving totally rationally in their own eyes, why truckers can block major trade routes to defend freedom, and why the Australian Prime Minister believes that his country can continue to exploit massive quantities of fossil fuels, throw a few billion dollars in the direction of the Great Barrier Reef, and commit to net zero emissions by 2050, all while keeping costs down, inconveniencing nobody, sustaining the reef, and living happily every after, confident climate change is not really something to worry too much about.
Actually seeing the reality in front of us takes the kind of effort most of us are not used to committing to. That, of course, is why the world used to rely on experts!