#375) The Sometimes Dubious “Self-Correcting” Nature of Science: The “40% Phytoplankton Decline” Mess
December 9th, 2014
As people scold Rolling Stone this week for their inaccurate rape story, scientists should take a look at their own profession and realize how equally poor the policing of accuracy is. Last week I shouted out at a public event when I heard, once again, an environmental alarmist citing the blatantly erroneous number of 40% decline in the world’s phytoplankton population that was published in Nature four years ago then discredited by numerous scientists later in Nature. But that person can hardly be blamed when the entire profession is run in such a sloppy manner. And “sloppy” is the right term. Had the number been 4% then “self correcting” would be appropriate. But 40%? It was a surreal headline that was only barely addressed later.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN HAD NO TROUBLE PARROTING THE ERRONEOUS REPORT. Nature published a study in 2010 by Boyce et al. claiming the world’s phytoplankton had declined by 40% since 1950. To those of us with a background in plankton ecology the number was bizarre. Eventually a series of papers also in Nature showed how far off the mark that headline was. One of the papers questioned whether phytoplankton levels today were at all different from 1950. Bottom line, what a mess, yet allowed to just vanish with a tiny, “oops!” — less scolded publicly than Texas Governor Rick Perry’s inability to remember three things.
SAME AS ROLLING STONE
As the public rightfully pillories Rolling Stone this week for their inaccurate treatment of a rape story, the science world should keep in mind that it also makes plenty of mistakes and is not as perfectly “self-correcting” as it likes to think.
Three years ago at the Aspen Environment Forum in a Q&A a fellow who was certain the world is falling to pieces, in the middle of his rant about world decline, cited the Nature-published factoid of “40% decline in phytoplankton worldwide.” I later pointed out to the group that the factoid was nonsensical and was eventually completely discredited. Which then prompted the guy to come after me later accusing me of being a climate skeptic. When I tried to point him to the detailed, thoughtful treatment of the phytoplankton study Andy Revkin gave it on his Dot Earth NY Times blog (he did an excellent post titled, “On Plankton, Warming and Whiplash”) the guy shouted, “He’s a climate skeptic, too.” Such is the treatment you get for trying to police the truth in the science world.
Last Thursday night I attended a talk by Naomi Oreskes, also about the decline of our planet, where yet another rabid alarmist in the Q&A cited the same 40% study which irked me so much I rudely shouted out, “THAT’S WRONG,” causing members of the audience to glare at me as if I was Representative Joe Wilson shouting, “You lie!” at Obama. What can I say — I still have delusions of living in a world built around well established science.
Phytoplankton are responsible for half of the primary production on the planet. How do you reduce their biomass by almost half and not have utter and complete calamity? That was my first thought in 2010 when I saw the bizarre headline. And before you answer, “There is indeed utter and complete calamity in the world’s oceans,” let me cite the same sort of words of skepticism from Paul Falkowski, a member of the National Academy of Sciences who is one of the definitive voices on this branch of science. He dismissed the Boyce et al. paper by saying:
Inspection of the data reveal (not too surprisingly) large gaps in several areas of the oceans and I seriously doubt their conclusion that phytoplankton biomass declined by 40% over the past century. Were that so, we almost certainly wouldn’t be seeing the deoxygenation of large areas of the open ocean today.
DESTROYING PUBLIC TRUST
I really still can’t get over the Boyce et al. paper and the follow through. How does Nature publish such a cockamamie finding? Four percent would have been plausible, but 40%? An entire order of magnitude? And why isn’t there a public discrediting of the scientists who reached so far? All they ever got was a set of papers that politely said pretty much all of the world’s data “are not in accordance with their conclusions.”
But the real world problem today is that if you search “40% phytoplankton decline” you find pages and pages of websites citing the factoid uncritically — like the Scientific American article above that instantly propagated the crazy headline, presumably without running it by at least a few phytoplankton biologists.
Which is the problem with the whole retraction thing. Nobody hears about the retractions. And in this case, there wasn’t even a retraction — just the authors replying to all the papers discrediting their findings by basically saying they agree, more research is needed.
It’s pretty bad for a profession where credibility is its life’s blood. That’s really all I can say about it. The truth matters, and is supposed to matter to scientists, but this ends up being a case study of the Hollywood mentality of, “Next.” Meaning that rather than cleaning up the mess we made with the last project, let’s just forget about it and move on to something new. I see it all the time in Hollywood. But I expect better from science.
It’s not the way to build trust.
November 20th, 2014
Elizabeth Mclean, Ph.D. student at University of Rhode Island in Natural Resource Sciences wanted to improve her teaching and communications skills. She’s 6 weeks into her improv class. It’s working and she’s having huge fun. If you want to do something truly transformative with your life, I beg you to take an improv class.
IMPROV IN ACTION. Elizabeth Mclean (right) after her presentation at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society meeting with her co-presenters Dr. A.D. Cropper (left), his daughter, and Dr. Rafael E. Luna, author of The Art of Scientific Storytelling. Her new improv training played a central role in her relaxed delivery and successful presentation.
THE GOOD NEWS: NO ONE HAS EVER DIED TAKING THEIR FIRST IMPROV CLASS
Guess where Elizabeth Mclean is every Sunday evening. Here’s a hint — it doesn’t involve any Natural Resource Science, and in fact works best if she mostly shuts her brain down and just lives “in the moment,” with little critical thought.
Yes, just like British molecular biologist Dr. Vicky Miller who contacted me last year, she has taken a walk on the social wild side and is enrolled in an improv acting class. And just like Dr. Miller, she loves it. She had to show some initiative to track down a class — eventually asking a fellow scientist who guided her to an improv class offered in Wakefield, Rhode Island.
She was nervous her first night, as every non-actor is nervous when they enter their first night of an acting class. But unlike my experience in the Meisner acting class that opened my first book, where the instructor ripped my head off in front of a class full of laughing hyenas, she encountered incredibly friendly people — both instructor and students — who did something she wasn’t accustomed to in her daily life — they “acknowledged” her. They looked into her eyes, acknowledging the look that was passed on within a trusting circle, and “wow” “how powerful and simple it was, to be acknowledged and to acknowledge others whom she had just met”. That sort of experience is rare in most people’s daily lives where everyone is more into themselves and just doing what they’re doing.
IT’S ABOUT “COMMUNICATING AT A DIFFERENT LEVEL”
After six weeks she’s finding herself overcoming at least a little bit of her shyness and introversion. And this is important because some of the work she is doing in her scientific research involves working with fishermen she doesn’t know. That’s a social process. Improv strengthens social interactions. Bottom line, she’s getting exactly the right training for what she does.
“For me it’s about communicating at a different level,” Elizabeth says. That’s what it’s all about. And she said the other day, when she was teaching an introductory biology lab and was talking about physiology models, and asked the class, “What makes for a really good model?” and the student replied, “Dashing handsome looks”.”
She felt the improv training kick in. Instead of having a first impulse of negation and wanting to say, “No, that’s not what I’m talking about,” she found herself going in the opposite direction, at least just for a moment, affirming the comment with a good old fashioned improv, “Yes, and … what if that handsome fashion model were into a physiology model system, then what…?”
Improv can be life changing in the best way possible. I encourage you to look into it, and if you join a class, definitely get in touch with me as Elizabeth, Vicky Miller and others have. We’re all interested in your experience with improv.
November 18th, 2014
I went to a screening of the new Reese Witherspoon movie, “Wild,” for which she was both producer and lead actor. It’s a really “lovely” film which I enjoyed — Thumbs Up! But … in the end, she needed the help of famed geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky. Had he read her script he would have called it “a pile of sundry facts, some of which are interesting and even curious, but ultimately fails to paint a meaningful picture.” Bottom line, it’s a solid film, but still just an, “and, and, and” presentation.
WILD SCREENING. After a special Writers Guild screening of “Wild,” actor/producer Reese Witherspoon (second from left) and actor Laura Dern (far right) joined the panel discussion to talk about the movie. A good movie, but the basic story was, “I got divorced, and then my mother died, and then I went on a hike, and then I encountered a fox, and then I ran out of water, and then I got a ride with a scary man, and then …”
WHAT ARE WE TRYING TO SAY HERE?
I don’t think geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky had any aspirations of giving Hollywood knowledge they could use, nor do I think Hollywood is ever likely to listen to the words of a geneticist when it comes to narrative structure, but they should. In my upcoming book I will formally present what I have come to call The Dobzhansky Template. It’s a simple sentence, derived from his famous evolution quote, in which you fill in the blanks. Here’s the sentence:
“Nothing in _______ makes sense except in the light of _______ .”
It’s a shame Reese Witherspoon couldn’t have sat down with the template before making her new movie, “Wild.” The movie is beautifully shot and she is of course as endlessly watchable as she was in 1991 in her wonderful debut movie, “The Man in the Moon.” But in the end, the story doesn’t really say much.
It’s based on the book by Cheryl Strayed. In the Q&A Reese told about how Cheryl, living in Oregon, sent her a copy of the book six months before publication. Reese said she read it in 48 hours and knew she wanted to make the movie version of it.
It’s a nice movie — a bit of “Into the Wild,” a bit of “Eat, Pray, Love” as well as even, “Shirley Valentine” — basically another story of the great things that can happen when you go walkabout. But what it lacks is a deeper theme, which it could have had. And that’s where the Dobzhansky template comes in.
All you have to do is look at one of the greatest American movies ever made, “Ordinary People” which won four Oscars in 1980 including Best Picture. The Dobzhansky Template would be: Nothing in that family’s existence made sense except in the light of the death of their son. There’s your clear, simple narrative that wins you Oscars and creates enduring stories.
November 10th, 2014
The climate movement is a communications train wreck. It’s been 7 years since Pat Michaels made fun of the, “We’ve only got 10 years left” line from climate worriers in my movie “Sizzle.” Now the head of the UN comes out with “We’ve only got 30 years left.” I’m sorry, you can’t do that sort of “making it up as we go along” nonsense and expect the public to trust you.
“WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING IN TEN YEARS — THEY’VE BEEN SAYING THAT FOR TWO YEARS — WHY DON’T THEY AT LEAST SUBTRACT TWO AND MAKE IT EIGHT?” This is the kind of clever critique that makes you want to be a climate skeptic (not really).
I am forever quoting Daniel Kahneman’s line about how the public needs a voice that is “trusted and liked,” otherwise all your evidence is worthless. Here’s a case study in “not building trust.”
Now the head of the U.N. offers up his own 30 year urgency deadline. To which I’m sure nobody cares because there just isn’t any sort of careful strategic messaging associated with the climate movement. It’s just endless “throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.”
The problem is, we have to do something about this in ten years. We only have ten years to act on climate communication.
November 7th, 2014
800 unraised hands, all in response to the question I opened my keynote with at the Agronomy/Crop Science/Soil Science meeting. Only one fellow raised his hand and guess who he was — the author of a book on science writing. Science is a narrative profession that is narratively oblivious. I know this in part because I spent twenty years as a scientist and knew zippo about narrative. Which means if I’d been in this audience, I wouldn’t have raised my hand either.
SO WHAT IF WE DON’T KNOW THE ACRONYM, WHO CARES?
This will be one of the opening vignettes of my new book next year on narrative in the science world. On Wednesday afternoon I gave the closing keynote address to the meeting of the societies for Agronomy, Crop Science and Soil Science at the Long Beach Convention Center. The meeting had 4200 scientists and students in attendance. They estimated 800 or so stuck around for my talk which ended the week.
In the first moment of my talk I asked the audience to raise their hand if they were certain they knew the meaning of a certain acronym. I advanced the slides. On the screen was the acronym IMRAD. I scanned the ballroom and even took the above photo for the historical record, proving that no hands went up.
But then finally everyone to my left was pointing to one lone individual. That fellow turned out to be Josh Schimel, author of the popular and excellent book on writing scientific research papers, Writing Science Papers: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded.
And there you have it — the exception which proves the rule.
SCIENTISTS ARE NOT TAUGHT NARRATIVE, WHICH IS A PROBLEM
In case you didn’t know — and I personally absolutely did NOT know until 6 months ago — IMRAD stands for the structural elements of just about every scientific research paper you read — Introduction, Methods, Results And Discussion.
So now you know. And you’re maybe saying, “hunh, okay, that’s interesting,” and thinking that’s it. But I’m here to tell you it shows something — the fact that out of 800 scientists only one knew this. And you can add to that sample size the 200 doctors, scientists and students at Johns Hopkins Medical School a month ago when I did the same exercise. Nobody in that crowd raised their hand.
And yet, there is an entire sub-discpline of folks who study the IMRAD. Try searching it on Google — you’ll get hundreds of pages of websites talking about it.
What this little experiment reflects is the idea that the narrative template that is at the core of how scientists communicate is not even taught in any formal way. There is no one pointing out to students from the first day of their science courses that this is an entire discipline that is built upon narrative dynamics. Science is a narrative profession, both in the doing and the communicating, yet there is very, very little awareness or thought given to it. This is the subject of my book that will come out next year — the identification of this as a serious problem in science, and my recommendations on how to address it.
November 4th, 2014
Wednesday evening in Long Beach I will be giving the closing keynote at the 2014 meeting of the three organizations of Agronomy, Crop Science and Soil Science. I will also be running a workshop on Sunday plus screening “Sizzle” on Tuesday night which is always fun.
CABIN FEVER CURED
October 27th, 2014
The evolutionist/creationist debate dynamic seems to be a fairly universal thing. Last night I attended the public debate of Measure R for the City of Malibu. The legislation has been spearheaded by actor/director Rob Reiner. He was challenged by long time Malibu developer and good guy Steve Soboroff. The event was pretty much of a sad train wreck as the honest, decent and humble Soboroff tried to go toe-to-toe with the freewheeling comic actor and made a pretty big mess of it. Reiner used humor, fire and brimstone to play to a crowd of sycophantic hyenas while Soboroff flailed awkwardly. The whole thing was a disgrace.
WHEN STEVE MET ROB. For the same reason you don’t want to debate a creationist, you also don’t want to “debate” Rob Reiner (on the right). Businessman Steve Soboroff (left) tried and got his arse handed to him.
THE TRUTH FLAMES OUT
It was a sad evening for the City of Malibu. What should have been an informative and enlightening debate on a complex set of issues turned into a clown show between a comedian and a flustered businessman. The whole thing felt like it was straight out of the debates between evolutionists and creationists, as well as climate scientists versus climate skeptics.
In a nutshell, Rob Reiner, who has had a beach house in Malibu for 20 years, decided to lead the charge to “protect the city” from rampant development (even though there isn’t any — in the past 22 years the population has grown from 12,000 to 13,000 and a grand total of two buildings have been added). He raised $400,000, brought in a team from San Francisco and launched Measure R which will be voted on in another week.
The problem, according to the opponents of Measure R, is that he circumvented the system and now has a piece of legislation that if passed will cause all sorts of problems for the city including law suits and the loss of some key resources such as the local Urgent Care facility and movie theater.
There’s tons of details you don’t want to know, but the main point is I was seated among the 4 City Council Members who kept shaking their head no to most of the “facts” Rob Reiner cited (like a creationist citing evolution “facts” in debating an evolutionist). Which would have been fine — if only Soboroff would have just played the humble scientist, laying out the information, letting Reiner go on the record with all his mistakes. But that’s not what happened.
TAKING THE BAIT
Sadly, Soboroff tried to match Reiner for showmanship. It was a bad decision. As his humor missed and he failed to land zingers, he eventually dove in with the ad hominem attacks — accusing Reiner of making “back room deals” for which he didn’t have the specifics, implying he was on the take with wealthy developers and trying to occasionally be funny but not managing anything to compare with the actor once known as Meathead. He also tried a few lame references to Rob’s father, Carl Reiner, and “When Harry Met Sally,” that clanked. By the end he was totally in flames.
But at the same time, Reiner’s behavior was disgraceful — eventually shouting repeatedly and LOUDLY and angrily at Soboroff. Reiner played to his side of the room who behaved like a pack of Tea Party morons, refusing to obey the rules of keeping quiet.
It was pretty much an amateur presentation of, “Inherit the Wind,” with Reiner being the William Jennings Bryan buffoon playing to the rabble and Soboroff being a smart but clumsy, less charismatic version of Clarence Darrow.
Overall, it was sad to see the truth get so completely outgunned by theatrics, but that’s definitely what happened. And this is why Genie Scott, when she was head of the National Center for Science Education advised evolutionists to simply not debate creationists. It’s a no-win situation, as it was for Soboroff. Everyone I spoke with felt Rob Reiner “won” the debate. What a mess.
October 8th, 2014
I’ve been consumed with the writing of my new book, but on Friday night I did catch the heated “debate” between Bill Maher and Sam Harris versus Ben Affleck and (somewhat) Nicolas Kristof. Aside from being such a huge fan of Kristof that I would automatically take whatever side of an issue he does, I found myself stirred by Ben Affleck’s somewhat reckless and crude but deeply impassioned defense of the idea of respecting people’s religious beliefs, even if some criminals have tried to co-opt a religion. It’s been almost a decade since I made “Flock of Dodos” and found myself involved in a lot of those discussions. I was thankful for the things he was saying. And thankful that despite being an actor and not one hundred percent articulate, you could hear Kristof backing him up repeatedly. They were a good combination — the style backed up by the substance.
A BRIDGE TOO FAR FOR SAM HARRIS? His quote that Islam is “the motherlode of bad ideas,” didn’t sit well with a lot of people. He might not have wanted to blurt that out on national TV.
STYLE AND SUBSTANCE CONFRONT ANGER
I’m busy writing. The deadline for the first draft of my new book, “Houston, We Have A Narrative” for University of Chicago Press is next week. Plus I’ll be at John Hopkins University School of Medicine next week speaking and running workshops. Which is why I’ve posted nothing on the Benshi for the past month. But watching the Bill Maher-Ben Affleck “debate” resurrected some old thoughts.
There’s really nothing I could say that could be any better or more articulate than what H.A. Goodman said in detail on the Huffington Post (it was refreshing to see someone on that site take on Bill Maher).
I’m generally a fan of Bill Maher and his show, but that said, he spends a lot of time blindly hating all things conservative, Republican and right wing, but then occasionally tossing out a comment about how terrible it is that our society is so polarized these days. The yin is connected to the yang. You really don’t get to spew hatred then be surprised you’re not making the world a better place.
I think that was the basic dynamic on Friday night when Ben Affleck finally had to be the one to call him out. The Sam Harris line about the motherlode, as Affleck tried to get in, was just such a broad brush comment. And said with such smug certainty.
Human existence isn’t that simple. And that’s what H.A. Goodman explains nicely. It was a good “debate.” And also Howard Fineman, on MSNBC’s Hardball, did a great job of understanding the importance of it. Eugene Robinson tried to dismiss it as a bunch of silliness among white guys with no background in the issue, but Fineman rightfully pointed out it was a heated debate on a show with large viewership.
If you understand the media, you understand that is the definition of an important event. Doesn’t matter how ill-informed the argumentation is — it was widely watched and reflective of a million ill-informed debates throughout America at the moment.
It’s difficult to stand up to hatred, but that’s what Ben Affleck was doing. Somebody had to.
September 8th, 2014
Talking on Friday at USC’s Children’s Hospital. I shall do my best to be a “communicator extraordinaire.”
September 4th, 2014
I’m a long time fan of Ocean Champions as I said in this post on Andy Revkin’s NY Times blog Dot Earth a couple days ago. It’s the vision thing. Dave Wilmot and Jack Sterne had a clear vision more than a decade ago which they have stuck to and created a very effective political voice for the oceans. They are true icons of environmental leadership.
CHAMPIONS OF THE OCEANS. In 2009 I did this 90 second video for Ocean Champions. They understand how the American political system works.
THE LONG VIEW
I met Dave Wilmot and Jack Sterne in 2003 when they were first formulating their Ocean Champions project. They had conducted a Packard-funded study asking the simple, blunt question of why the ocean conservation movement was accomplishing so little. Their conclusion was it lacked a real-world perspective on the American political system.
Out of that study they crafted a clear vision of what they felt was needed which is not another non-profit conservation group for the oceans, but rather a very different beast — a political action committee (PAC) for the oceans. They laid out their vision, they built it, and they now have a great deal of accomplishments to point to as a result. I’m such a fan of what they do that I convinced Andy Revkin to let me do a post on his blog.
And the most impressive thing they have going now is simply longevity. This is a huge attribute on Capital Hill. The vast majority of people working with environmental groups stay with an organization for a couple or a few years, then move on. Dave has been hard at it for a long time and now has the sort of relationships that translate into effectiveness.
I saw the results in 2009 when I shot a video for them. We walked into the offices of one member of Congress after another. The first thing I heard from everyone in the office, including the member of Congress, was, “Hey, Dave!”
It’s called relationships. That’s how real politics works. It takes time, but there is an increasingly large payoff as the relationships grow.
I can’t say enough good things about Ocean Champions. They are a model for how to make things work in the real world of American politics.