Can Environmental Scientists be Environmental Advocates? Doesn’t the advocacy degrade the objectivity of the science?

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I just learned that Daniel Pauly serves as a Director on the Oceana Board:

Dr. Daniel Pauly (The University of British Columbia)

Pauly is a renowned fisheries scientist. Since 1994, Pauly has been a professor at the Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia. He currently serves as the principal investigator of the Sea Around Us Project at the Fisheries Centre, where his global, multi-year analyses of marine ecosystems has allowed him to reach startling and important conclusions, most critical among them that fish populations are declining rapidly all over the world.”

Some selected publications by Dr. Daniel Pauly

Dr. Daniel Pauly is Principal Investigator of the Sea Around Us Project.   Source: http://www.fisheries.ubc.ca/news/dr-daniel-pauly-principal-investigator-sea-around-us-project

Dr. Daniel Pauly is Principal Investigator of the Sea Around Us Project.
Source: http://www.fisheries.ubc.ca/news/dr-daniel-pauly-principal-investigator-sea-around-us-project

What’s my point?

Should I be surprised?  Where once science and advocacy were apart, increasingly over the last 20 years or so we’ve seen them conflate and even arguably fuse, Right? Is it just that times have changed?

It seems clear that environmental scientists like Daniel Pauly are no longer troubled by any real or perceived conflict of interest that active environmental advocacy brings, nor do they seem to be troubled by the erosion of the objectivity of the science that may either lend its support or not to a cause, when they are already advocating for a cause for which their science or technical information may be used… So why should I be troubled, these scientist/advocates don’t seem to be?

Well I think it is the question as to whether…  one is able to provide the best scientific and technical information, when one is advocating a position based on that information? What about future scientific and technical information? What about changes in information parameters?  Changes as a result of peer review? Methodological changes? What if results have to be re-worked? Re-computed? Re-interpreted?

I shouldn’t be shocked… floored… disappointed… But I am… I just can’t see how scientific and technical objectivity and environmental advocacy can reside effectively in the same professional?

Am I just being naive?

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5 thoughts on “Can Environmental Scientists be Environmental Advocates? Doesn’t the advocacy degrade the objectivity of the science?

  1. Naïve? Not at all. You are on the right track, my friend. I only wish I had been smart enough to ask that pointed question, and the subject matter could not have been a better example.
    Daniel Pauly
    “Our oceans have been the victims of a giant Ponzi scheme, waged with Bernie Madoff–like callousness by the world’s fisheries.”
    Daniel Pauly and his group at the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia are among the foremost proponents of the “blame it all on fishing” brand of eco-doom. Fortunatey, his apocalyptic speculations – one hesitates to call it research – of late has been greeted with such disfavor by the scientific community, or at least that part of it that isn’t funded by the quartet of anti-fishing foundations, that he’s taken to writing for such learned journals as The New Republic. In fact, the above Pauly quote was from an article published in the September 28, 2009 issue of The New Republic titled both cleverly, provocatively and somewhat inaccurately Aquacalypse Now – the End of Fish (if you are interested, I wrote a rejoinder for the Saving Seafood website – link – titled Acrockalypse Now – link. I’m anxiously awaiting the fourth in the series.)

    The Fisheries Centre at UBC has faired quite well under Dr. Pauly’s headline grabbing leadership, having acquired $17.7 million from Pew link.

    One of Dr. Pauly’s most startling pronouncements was that the sediment plumes stirred up by shrimp trawlers. His widely circulated statement was “these images of trawler mudtrails confirm that this mode of fishing is terrible. Think of the story about China’s Great Wall being the only human artefacts (sic) visible from space. Now we can add the mudtrails of trawlers.” Somewhat puzzlingly, he made this statement in 2009, a year in which any of us with a computer, a reasonable internet conection and (free) access to Google Easrth could easily view not only the Great Wall of China but also the three skylights on my house, none of which are above 4 feet long or two feet wide. Perhaps the internet hadn’t yet made its way into British Columbia (for more on this singular phenomena I refer you again to Acrockalypse Now linked above.
    http://www.fishtruth.net/Pauly.htm
    http://www.fishtruth.net/

  2. Pingback: Can Environmental Scientists be Environmental Advocates? Doesn’t the advocacy degrade the objectivity of the science? | fisherynation.com

  3. Hmmm… I don’t have any issue with scientists having or promoting opinions that are either:
    a) Based on their personal views/beliefs/opinions
    b) Informed by scientific research

    We do want scientists to contribute to the policy debate, based on their knowledge and opinions. And it is generally legitimate for two scientists to come to different honest conclusions, even based on the same data.

    But the two should be clearly distinguished – the problem arises when the two are conflated!

    The problem should, in theory, be self correcting. The key trait of scientific research is that it should be reproducible by other scientists following the same method. Within a scientific community there will always be those whose work is seen as “less reliable”, or potentially coloured by other factors (drug-company funding anyone!?).

    But yes, advocating for a position – not based on sound science – but giving the impression it is, should (and I think will) damage that person’s scientific credibility.

  4. That’s a good question. I would have to think on it a bit. I guess that no matter how active the person is in ensuring objectivity there is always a potential for bias. However, isn’t activism just an outward display of an inner feeling or belief? Surely, simply by holding that belief the potential for bias is already there, whether they active it advocate for it or not???? It is hard to say that scientists should (or even can) operate in a vacuum, no? Perhaps just a tad naïve to think that scientists don’t hold these views even if they don’t advocate them?

  5. I served on a panel at the Society of Environmentalists Journalists meeting in Miami a couple of years ago. The following was excerpted from a piece I wrote as a follow-up to the experience (the whole critoque, In the Belly of the Big Green Beast, is at http://www.fishnet-usa.com/In_Belly_Of_Beast.pdf):

    As an example of successful cooperative research, I mentioned an ongoing program that I have been involved in with an industry group, the Monkfish Defense Fund, and NOAA/NMFS and academic researchers. Dr. Pauly followed this up – and also derailed what could have been a significant discussion on the current “catch shares revolution” mandated changes to the NOAA/NMFS research budget – with his “ugly fish” theory of commercial fishing. His theory, if I can grasp its complexities, is that fishermen have reduced the abundance of all of the “not ugly” fish in the seas to such an extent that they’re now being forced to catch the remainder – which are ugly. To whit, monkfish are one of his “ugly fish” that are being caught because, as a result of too much fishing, there are no longer enough pretty (beautiful? attractive? comely? buff?) fish to be caught.

    Perhaps that actually is the case in Dr. Pauly’s home waters of the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps all of the finny denizens of the deep out there are either gone due to rapacious fishing or are preternaturally ugly. However, that isn’t nor has it been the case with monkfish – which I will freely admit are of an appearance that even a mother monkfish might have trouble loving.

    Monkfish have long been a bycatch species in the Northeastern/Mid-Atlantic sea scallop fishery. They were a prized component of the “shack,” that part of the catch that rather than being sold was given to the crew. Then in 1979 the first celebrity chef, Julia Child, featured a quite large – and Dr. Pauly got at least one point right – quite ugly monkfish on a segment of her classic cooking show “Julia Child and Company (http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/read/popdy/monkfish/). At least outside the halls of the University of British Columbia, it’s generally agreed that its TV debut costarring with Julia Child and some helpful “tastes like lobster” word-of-mouth marketing is what got the monkfish culinary ball rolling in the U.S., not anything that was going on in other fisheries. And as far as I’ve been able to discover, monkfish (lotte in French, a requirement for an authentic Bouillabaisse) has been a staple in Mediterranean and Asian cuisine for as long as there have been fishermen plying coastal waters, and long before “overfishing” was turned into an eco-disaster by seemingly unlimited dollars from billion dollar foundations.

    And then we have sea cucumbers (bêche-de-mer in French, trepang in Indonesian). While it’s difficult to conjure up a less appealing looking critter, they have been a popular seafood product in Asian and Mediterranean countries since way before Dr. Pauly’s amusing but somewhat less than compelling theory. Eels? Wolffish? Oysters? Conchs? Palolol worms? Geoducks? For centuries and across all of the cultures with any access to the seas, we’ve been eating and enjoying finfish and shellfish that it’s hard to imagine would meet anyone’s conception of attractiveness – except, of course, for Dr. Pauly.

    But one has to give credit where credit is due, and coming up with something as entertaining as an “ugly fish” index to prove a questionable theory, even if it sounds about as unscientific as a prominent scientist can make it sound, should be recognized as such. It’s ideal “arm-chair” science for all of those researchers out there that have such an aversion to actually getting on boats and going offshore. All that you need is an active imagination, a fish market and a calibrated ugly meter. The environmental journalists in attendance at the SEJ conference seemed most appreciative of this grossly unscientific theory.

    As far as consistency is concerned, at least Dr. Pauly’s “ugly fish” theory is right in line with his controversial “Fishing Down the Food Web” concept, another of his constructs developed to demonstrate the fishing-induced decline in the health of the world’s ocean’s ecosystems (see http://blog.nature.org/2011/03/mean-trophic-level-trevor-branch-daniel-pauly-fish-catch-fisheries/).

    Nils Stolpe

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