Thoughts on the “Talking Trash” section at Science Online

January 3, 2010

Welcome to the zombie Oyster’s Garter, resurrected from the blogular grave to eat your braaains. Or at least to pick your brains (which in the context of zombies sounds most distressing.). At the upcoming Science Online conference, I will be co-moderating a panel called “Talking Trash: Online Outreach from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” The other panelists are freelance journalist Lindsey Hoshaw, who made news this summer by crowdsourcing her trip to the North Pacific and writing about it in the New York Times, and photographer/videographer/ocean advocate Annie Crawley, who was with me on the R/V New Horizon as a documentarian for Project Kaisei. (Bonnie Monteleone was originally going to be on the panel but unfortunately had a scheduling conflict.)

We are planning on letting our panel be largely audience-driven, but we would like to get a feel for what you are interested in. (If you are not attending Science Online, fret not – our session will be either livestreamed or recorded or both – if livestreamed you can ask questions on the web.) I can’t speak for my co-moderators, but I don’t want this session to get too hung up on specific marine debris issues – I think it would be much more interesting to talk about our experience trying to meld real-time science, nonprofit advocacy, outreach, and journalism.

Here are some preliminary questions. Please comment and tell us what you think. This is also posted at the Science Online wiki, and you are invited to comment there as well.

  • Why is the media & the public so interested in trash in the ocean? Can this interest be leveraged/created for other issues?
  • We are three people with different perspectives on what is important in communication: a scientist, a journalist, and a journalist-artist-filmmaker-documentarian.
    • What were our disagreements? Here’s a few examples off the top of my head: I did not agree with much of Lindsey’s NYT article; Annie had a tough time getting stressed-out scientists (me included!) to work with her while at sea, SIO is an academic institution while Project Kaisei and AMRF are nonprofit advocacy groups.
    • Do we as scientists/journalist/artists have a common goal? Beyond Littering Is Bad? Is loving the ocean enough?
    • If we do have a common goal, what are lessons learned from this summer? What would we do differently next time?
    • Can we offer advice to other scientists/journalists/artists trying to work together?
  • How can scientists, journalists, and educators balance “exciting findings live from the field!” with “highly preliminary unpublished non-peer-reviewed data that our labwork might contradict”? For example, one thing that is tough with advocacy and education is the scientific emphasis on peer-reviewed publication – the timescale is waaaay too slow for good real-time communication. How can we be accurate, entertaining, and educational?

Here’s some background on our experiences in the Gyre:





Off-duty kayaking not ok if you work for the Army Corps

December 11, 2008

It can be tough to be a governmental scientist. An Army Corps of Engineer scientist was recently exonerated from the dread charge of “off-duty kayaking.” Heather Wylie disagreed with the Army Corps’ ruling that the LA River was not a river because it was not navigable. This is critical to the enforcement of the Clean Water Act, since it applies only to navigable waters. So Wylie kayaked the LA River to demonstrate that the river was in fact a river.

The Corps hit her with a 30-day suspension for “off-duty kayaking” and “circulating a news article via e-mail documenting Clean Water Act enforcement problems.” The second one at least makes sense, but how on earth can the Army Corps regulate its employees leisure time?

The Army Corps settled the case yesterday, and Wylie will not face a suspension. Unsurprisingly she’s leaving the Corps anyway to become an environmental lawyer.

And what of the poor polluted concrete-lined LA River? The EPA is taking over from the Army Corps, rendering the navigation question irrelevant. Idealistic reaction: Yay, this will help restore a much-abused urban river! Cynical reaction: Sure, the EPA makes everything better. The Simpsons warned us about EPA!

Thanks to Oceana for the Philly Inquirer article!

I can’t stand the rain – and neither can this autism study

November 6, 2008

Though the Republicans are famed for their War on Science, the left has plenty of anti-science anti-evidence faith-based cranks, too. A prime example is some of the anti-vaccine dribble published on the Huffington Post. David Kirby is best known for his thoroughly debunked book Evidence of Harm, and has now written a HuffPo column on the alleged link between autism prevalence and precipitation. Kirby takes the poorly done original study and runs wild, linking mercury and autism and rainfall and coal and vaccines in a positive orgy of denialism.

Respectful Insolence explains better than I can why the original study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, fails to establish a link between precipitation and autism. Here’s some select quotes from his excellent analysis:

Note that the authors did not correlate autism prevalence directly with raw mean precipitations but instead used a “relative precipitation variable.” When I see something like that, I know right away that there was no correlation between raw mean precipitation levels and autism…

The authors of the current study, although they tried to correlate for household income, didn’t even attempt to control for urbanicity. That alone makes this study highly suspect, at least to me…

Another problem with this study is that it examines only the Pacific Coast, specifically California, Oregon, and Washington. There is no indication that the observations made in this study are generalizable….

Now, It’s possible there may be a genetic susceptibility to autism that is triggered by an environmental factor or factors, but nothing–I repeat, nothing–in this study supports that hypothesis. Measures of genetic susceptibility were not even a part of the study–or even looked at! To use the words “genetic susceptibility” in the conclusions and to say that this study somehow supports an interaction of genetic susceptibility and environmental factors is just plain incorrect.

So back to the Kirby column. Kirby is an anti-science crank because he refuses to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that there is NO LINK between vaccines and autism. From Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Autism’s False Prophets:

In response to the concern that vaccines caused autism, the public health and academic communities responded, performing a series of large, carefully controlled, epidemiological studies. Ten separate groups of investigators found no link between MMR and autism and six groups found no link between thimerosal and autism. Because of the strength, consistency, and reproducibility of these studies, the notion that MMR or thimerosal cause autism is no longer a scientific controversy.

Kirby is an utterly unreliable source – note that he’s still plugging the vaccine-autism connection in this column.  Unfortunately, he’s not alone. There are rumors that Obama is considering making Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. the head of the EPA – and RFK is an anti-vaccine crank as well. If Obama truly values science – and I believe that he does – than I hope that he will appoint people who can make scientific decisions based on the evidence. Because fear-mongering and denialism sure don’t sound like change.

Thanks to Martini-Corona, who requested that I unleash the Oyster Hounds upon this Kirby column. Now released, the Oyster Hounds are frolicking in the rain and gnawing on David Kirby’s femur.

How’s the air down there?

October 13, 2008

ResearchBlogging.orgAll animals need oxygen. Land animals have it easy, with all this air just floating about free for the breathing, but marine animals rely on oxygen that is dissolved in the water. Oxygen can only dissolve into the ocean from the surface, so it’s a limited resource. That’s why there’s natural low-oxygen habitats, like deep in the mud where oxygen can’t penetrate, and unnatural low-oxygen habitats, like in the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone or in the Chesapeake. The unnatural low-oxygen habitats are caused by sewage and fertilizer pollution – the nutrients cause an algae bloom, the algae dies, falls to the bottom, decays, and the decaying process sucks out all the oxygen. (In the US Northwest, there’s a different process involving naturally low-oxygen waters getting blown onshore by the wind.) This process is called hypoxia.

During a hypoxic event, everything that can’t get out of the way can die. Fish and crabs flee into shallow waters (which are closer to the surface, so they have more oxygen) and there can be massive die-offs of everything from mussels to sea stars. So hypoxia is considered to be a kind of toxin by regulatory agencies such as the EPA. Like all toxins, it’s important to know what dose is harmful. In the case of hypoxia, it’s considered to be less than 2 milligrams of oxygen per liter of water.

However, a recent analysis in PNAS from Raquel Vaquer-Sunyer and Carlos Duarte has found that significant harm occurs way before oxygen sinks to 2 mg/L. They analyzed 872 experiments that examined oxygen tolerance in 206 species of marine bottom-dwelling organisms. Though the median lethal concentration (LC50, when half of the organisms die) was around 2 mg/L, crustaceans were far more sensitive – some species died when oxygen was double that of hypoxia. Fish and crustacean showed physical distress and avoidance behavior at three times the hypoxic limit, with poor overfished cod becoming stressed at an airy 10 mg/L.

The researchers also looked at the amount of time different groups could tolerate 2 mg/L hypoxia before half of them died. (LT50, median lethal time). Once again, fish and crustaceans were most sensitive, with flounder only able to tolerate 23 minutes of hypoxia before expiring. Animals that don’t move very much were more tolerant, with molluscs being able to take over 100 hours of hypoxia. In all cases, larvae were far more sensitive than adults.

So why is this important? The key is in the variance – the little bars sticking out of the box plot. That means that while some species in each group are relatively tolerant of hypoxia, others are so sensitive that they die far before oxygen levels fall to 2 mg/L. Essentially, hypoxia is more “toxic” to ecosystems than we have thought – damage to the ecosystem can occur well before oxygen levels fall to hypoxic levels.

There are more than 400 hypoxic “dead zones” worldwide, and they’re growing. A recent paper in Science found that they cover an area the size of Oregon and are doubling in size every decade. And this only counts the areas that meet ther 2 mg/L definition of hypoxic – Vaquer-Sunyer and Duarte’s work shows that damage could be occuring on an even more massive scale.

To end on a cheery note (because I’m just filled with California sunshine!), the good news about hypoxia is that it has a clear cause and a clear solution. Stop putting fertilizer into the ocean and the problem goes away. The Black Sea began to recover when the collapse of eastern European economies in the 1990s meant that they could no longer afford fertilizer. So there you go – the economic crisis in the US could reduce the size of the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone! Now, don’t you feel better?

R. Vaquer-Sunyer, C. M. Duarte (2008). Thresholds of hypoxia for marine biodiversity Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (40), 15452-15457 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0803833105

Coastal Cleanup Day is tomorrow!

September 19, 2008

Moss Landing reminded me that tomorrow is Coastal Cleanup Day! Celebrate your local waterways by helping to pick up trash and remove invasive vegetation. Eric and I are going to be volunteering in San Diego Bay – I’ll be diving and he’ll be on land support duty. If we find AWESOME TRASH, we will post photos. Head over to Ocean Conservancy to find a cleanup near you.

Organic produce: healthful snack or POISON FOR HIPPIES???

September 8, 2008

I am not an organic food believer. Like the inimitable farmer in Omnivore’s Dilemma, I think eating locally is much more important than buying mass-produced organic produce grown in a different hemisphere with (for example) ecologically-toxic pyrethrins. So I’m quite open – even eager – for intelligent criticism of organic food, particularly of the “everything organic is healthy and happy” marketing. But this Slate article by James E. McWilliams wasn’t it.

Essentially, McWilliams claims that heavy metals from organic fertilizers (manure, bird guano, and so on) lead to a greater amount of metals in organic produce, and thus to a greater risk of health problems But it is written in a misleading way. For example:

George Kuepper, an agriculture specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology, observed in a 2003 report that composting manure actually concentrates the fertilizer’s metal content, which could lead to greater levels of the contaminants in organic soil.

Composting manure concentrates the metal content relative to raw manure, certainly. But the Kuepper report doesn’t say anything about the concentration of heavy metals in organically-farmed soils compared to that of conventionally-farmed soils. It just notes that contaminated source materials lead to contaminated compost, and suggests that farmers “inquire about the feeding practices at the source or have the material tested.” This is a problem of sloppy farmers, not organic farming.

But it gets worse. McWilliams does not seem to understand that twice as much of very little is still very little.

Recent studies have lent Kuepper’s concern tentative support. For example, in 2007, researchers conducted an analysis of wheat grown on various farms in Belgium; based on the results, they estimate that consumers of organically grown wheat take in more than twice as much lead, slightly more cadmium, and nearly equivalent levels of mercury as consumers of wheat grown on conventional farms.

When I went to the source, I found that “twice as much lead” was 0.28 ug lead per kg body weight for organic consumers, and 0.12 ug lead per kg body weight for conventional consumers. 0.28 is indeed more than twice as much as 0.12. However, according to that very same study, this is less than 10% of the Belgian tolerable daily intake (TDI) and is very unlikely to lead to health problems.

McWilliams also mentions a Greek study that found that:

As it turned out, “certified” organic cereals, leafy greens, pulses, and alcoholic beverages had slightly less heavy-metal contamination than conventional products, but “uncertified” organic products had “far larger concentrations” than conventional ones.

This probably has more to do with farms that are uncertified and unregulated than with organic farming methods. McWilliams’s very own source, the Kuepper report, explains why. In the United States, certified organic produce cannot be fertilized with, for example, arsenic-contaminated chicken bedding. Uncertified products are not similarly restricted.

I think it’s good to be reminded that organic agriculture is not the end-all be-all solution to perfect human and environmental health. But I think the McWilliams piece comes dangerously close to OMG POISON IN UR FOOD!!!! There is nothing inherent about organic farming that makes it more metal-filled than conventional farming, and no data to suggest that there is enough metal in organic food to harm your health.

How quickly nature falls into revolt when gold becomes her object!

August 28, 2008

Alaska has voted for gold instead of salmon. The Pebble Mine will be located right on the headwaters of one of the last great wild sockeye salmon runs. The salmon would have run for thousands of years, bringing at least $300 million to Alaska’s economy each and every year, but Alaska has traded them for 40 years of enriching foreign investors. Alaska seems to be hell-bent on becoming Nauru writ large.

The most painful and ridiculous part of the NY Times article was this quote:

“Perhaps it was God who put these two great resources right next to each other,” said John T. Shively, the chief executive of a foreign consortium that wants to mine the copper and gold deposit. “Just to see what people would do with them.”

I expect that God would weep. (I’m not a Christian, but I can Google like one!) From Christian Ecology:

Lev. 25:23-24. The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

Ezekiel 34:17-18. As for you, my flock… Is it not enough for you to feed on good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?

Luke 16:2,10,13. And He called him and said to him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward. He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous in much. You cannot serve both God and mammon.

Title quote from Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth.