Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The well-defended fortresses of denial

They’re everywhere, you’ve seen them. They guard outdated power structures, revealed truths, and other things that can’t stand on their own—like the sad ruin of our oceans.

You can find these fortresses wherever people use money and power to protect privilege. Each time a challenge arises, a new fortress is built to overwhelm with superior force. Even if the victory is not assured by merit, building a large fortress of denial can do the job…for a while…

Venture near these denial fortresses at your peril. Challenge a hallowed claim, even obliquely, and you get your reward of reactionary zeal, attacking your character. Undermine established practice and expect to enjoy an old-style fraternity hazing by the guardians of jewels.

Of course there are limits to these attempts to arrest interlopers and freeze change. The bluster won’t work forever. They may drive off some critiques, but the weakness will eventually show. Good vision clarifies the situation and what looked like an impenetrable wall resolves as just a few feeble defenses in a vast field.

Case in point: the stunning paper by Myers and Worm in 2003, concluding that 90% of the world’s big ocean fish are gone. The well-defended fortresses of denial roared, launched invective, waxed lyrical and satirical, belched outrage and otherwise challenged Myers and Worm for methodological heresy and faulty ritual. Once the heat and noise settled, the leading critique by Sibert, Hampton, Kleiber, and Maunder amounted to a rather overblown nitpick.

Sibert & Co. conceded an 80% decline of the largest fish. But they used this to strongly critique the 90% claimed by Myers and Worm and they added the "fact" that fish depletion is what happens when you catch fish. The planned fish decline is what managers euphemistically call “fishing down” a fish population. Depletion defined as a Goal. The well defended fortress of denial says that fish declines are not a problem, it’s just The Good Depletion, the cost of doing business in fish.

Even according to their most vehement critics, Myers and Worm had uncovered something true. Large-scale fishing has removed most of the largest fish out of the ocean. Any differences were mere details. The vision of Myers and Worm saw through the sad status quo of ocean fish depletion and spoke the truth. Of course they were rewarded with the expected hazing. It was unpleasant agreement to receive from Sibert & Co., but conceding 80% decline really amounted to agreement.

The Myers and Worm example is one among many, as fishery managers and their scientific defenders struggle to protect their over-exploitation of ocean fish. But bluster can’t work forever.

The well-defended fortresses of denial may look imposing, but they’re little more than the windmills of Don Quixote.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I recently participated in a forum organized by graduate students in the Fisheries Science department at VIMS to discuss the Myers and Worm paper and the issue of "advocacy in science". The Science paper by Sibert et al that you refer to was sent around in advance.

One of the several talking points that you frequently hear used against the M&W paper is that they "cherry-picked" their data. I won't go into the rationale for why M&W used the particular data set they did, since they have already done so in print. But I find it quite ironic that some of the same critics who have been hounding Myers and Worm via unrefered rants on websites for the past few years are now "refuting" the M&W argument using a data set for a few species of tuna from one region in the western Pacific, in which one of three species studied appears not to fit the M&W pattern.

Who's cherry picking?

The Natural Patriot
"In order to form a more perfect union"

Mark Powell said...

Thanks Natural, Or should I call you Patriot? Either way, thanks for the great example of a well-defended fortress of denial. I think this one's going down fairly soon, but that's just my opinion.