January 6, 2011

Science, not Sensationalism

Marc Comtois

Many have probably heard about the "Great Garbage Patch" in the Pacific Ocean, which is "roughly the size of Texas" though some have claimed it's even bigger. Well, maybe not.

Claims that the "Great Garbage Patch" between California and Japan is twice the size of Texas is "grossly exaggerated" said the research which reckons it is more like one per cent the size....Oregon State University professor of oceanography Angelicque White...said: "There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world's oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists.

"We have data that allow us to make reasonable estimates. We don't need the hyperbole.

I think most scientists believe this. But "just the facts" don't play as well in today's media, so we get sensationalized reports on "the latest study" about something that overturns the previously over-hyped findings (think of caffeine/coffee, for instance). Or worse, we learn of fraudulent studies--the Lancet's MMR/Autism piece--that do damage to the reputation of science in general. Basically, good scientists take a less hyperbolic, one could even say an--ahem--more conservative, approach.

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Most wouldn't even notice if they were in the 'trash gyre', it's teeny bits of plastic (think: 1mm spheres) spread out one per square meter. It's basically the density of a fingernail clipping on a square of sidewalk.

Same for those 'plumes' in the BP spill. Those multi-mile plumes were actually so sparse that they would need to be 22 times as dense to be considered toxic. You could literally drink the water (if you removed the salt) from these 'plumes', not that it would be tasty or particularly healthy.

Posted by: mangeek at January 6, 2011 2:54 PM

wrt the BP oil spill, anyone else notice the spike in shrimp prices, or difficulty in finding shrimp anywhere? I thought the whole gulf region was decimated for generations to come?


Ok, nevermind.

Posted by: Patrick at January 6, 2011 4:22 PM

"One popular claim is that the size of the patch is twice that of the state of Texas – half a million square miles or the equivalent of 20 times the size of England.

But while the plastic stretches across the surface, its mass compared to the amount of water means it only takes up a tiny fraction of its proclaimed area, said Prof White.

"The amount of plastic out there isn't trivial," she said.
[end quote]

Um, so the statement about the size is not inaccurate unless one was under the impression tha that the plastic covered 100% of the surface area. You guys really hate scientific evidence supporting environmental issues, don't you? It's an interesting clarification, but hardly anything disproving the scale of the problem as you seem to suggest.

Posted by: Russ at January 6, 2011 4:40 PM

"Um, so the statement about the size is not inaccurate unless one was under the impression tha that the plastic covered 100% of the surface area."

There's no 'right way' to look at it... The best way would probably be to discuss the real appearance of the stuff, and then ecological impacts.

Right now the imagery (even in the linked article) is always of a giant floating pile of milk cartons and sharpies. In reality, it's more like a toenail clipping in every bathtub's worth of surface water.

Everyone agrees that this is an ecological problem. The issue is that by blowing the scope out of proportion, environmentalists actually -lose- credibility. I could say the same thing about the BP spill, dead birds, fish kills, or global warming. As long as environmentalists hype every event way beyond it's likely scope, I'm putting them in the same camp as religious wingnuts who are waiting for the rapture to snap them up.

Posted by: mangeek at January 6, 2011 5:07 PM

Actually, in view of the hysterical statements about the patch made by various members of the enviro-wacko Left, the article quoted in the post is both useful and timely. Russ can allude to "evidence" but until he show some to support his ridiculous assertions, they will remain ridiculous.

Posted by: BobN at January 6, 2011 6:34 PM

Almost makes you doubt the Coming Ice Age...oh, I mean Global warming.

Posted by: Tommy Cranston at January 6, 2011 8:05 PM

Why not use that converted supertanker, "The Whale", to skim the plastic up in the ocean, and then sell it to the Chinese so they can make plastic baby furniture sold in Wal-Mart?

Posted by: Justanotherjoe at January 7, 2011 12:09 AM

"Why not use that converted supertanker, 'The Whale', to skim the plastic up in the ocean..."

Case point as to why it's important to note the vast amount of ocean we're talking about. I think most Americans have little idea just how big and remote the south Pacific is.

Notably the claim of a "vast island" floating in the Pacific does not appear on the link above to the environmentalist site, but rather appears in the article from a UPI journalist. I don't see anything in the links above about scientists who are making the claim of giant floating islands. Marc looks to me to have made that up based on his own antiscientific bent.

Posted by: Russ at January 7, 2011 10:17 AM

Russ, I was making a joke. There may be a few clusters of plastic garbage floating around, but the area covered is equivalent to the size of Texas but spread over an area larger than that. This is the Junk Science of the left.

Posted by: Justanotherjoe at January 7, 2011 10:27 AM

Admittedly it's hard to tell when you guys are being serious (I've always suspected that global warming denial must be a ruse to get a rise out of lefties).

As to this case, I'm still waiting for anyone to show me any actual junk scientific conclusions. Everything I've read in the scientific literature speaks to the difficulty of determining exactly how much material is floating. For instance, here's what NOAA says on the matter...

** quote **
The reported size and mass of these "patches" have differed from media article to article. Due to the limited sample size, as well as a tendency for observing ships to explore only areas thought to concentrate debris, there is really no accurate estimate on the size or mass of the “garbage patch” or any other concentrations of marine debris in the open ocean. Additionally, many oceanographic features do not have distinct boundaries or a permanent extent, and thus the amount of marine debris (both number and weight) in this zone would be very difficult to measure accurately. The “patchiness” of debris in this expansive area would make a statistically sound survey quite labor-intensive and likely expensive.

Again, regardless of the exact size, mass, and location of the “garbage patch,” manmade debris does not belong in our oceans and waterways.
** end quote **

That I pulled that off the FAQ page of a Web site on marine debris, should make us suspicious of the newsworthiness of someone claiming to refute these supposedly rampant hyperbolic claims.

Posted by: Russ at January 7, 2011 4:53 PM

Russ, the core science is usually right-on, but the inflammatory statements that the people who do the research come out with (probably to get more attention, and therefore more funding) are tuned to set-off the media, which then relays the message to armchair environmentalists who repeat the story with exaggeration.

A scientific study might say 'the worst case scenario involves a 1C rise in temperature over the next fifty years, leading to wetter weather in the northeast, and faster melting of Greenland's ice, which might affect the Gulf Stream'

The media might take that and say 'Temperatures are expected to rise an unprecedented degree in just fifty years, leading to more Katrina-like events, or even stopping the Gulf Stream, which could mean another 'little ice age' for the northeast.'

And an armchair environmentalist will repeat to their friends that 'it's going to get a lot hotter in the next few years, and it's going to cause monster hurricanes and a second ice age in New England, and the water level will go up ten feet!'

I stand by my assertion that a LOT of folks on the left have taken up 'environmentalism' in the parts of the brain that normally facilitate 'religion'. The results are such foolishness that I can't abide most of them anymore.

Posted by: mangeek at January 7, 2011 6:21 PM
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