Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The nuclear renaissance is here

Applications boom for new nuclear power plants, as the need for zero-carbon power rekindles the nuclear power industry.

Remember the Bellefonte nuclear plant? The one that was partially built and then mothballed? Well, it's back. The Tennessee Valley Authority plans to build the first of a new generation of advanced nuclear power plants on the site of the failed Bellefonte plant.

Is nuclear power an answer to global warming and the need to cut CO2 emissions? Some say yes, what do you think? The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (remember them?) expects upwards of 30 applications to build new nuke plants in the US over the next several years.

It's a hard sell here in the northwest, where we're still getting over the WPPSS debacle. The Washington Public Power Supply System (with the unfortunate name "WHOOPS") created a massive public bond default that we're still repaying. We owe $2.25 BILLION and most of the power generation never came online.

Even so, nuclear power is coming back. Who knew in the 1980s that CO2 would turn out to be scarier than plutonium?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Acid oceans movie: A Sea Change

Wanna get scared this halloween? Here's something scarier than ghosts and goblins. It's a new movie about our acid ocean future, thanks to CO2 from fossil fuels poisoning our oceans.

It's ocean acidification, it's a CO2 emission problem, it's real, and it's already happening.

I can't vouch for the movie, I haven't seen it yet. But it claims to be a scientific look at the issues, and here's the trailer. Ocean acidification is real, and I hope the movie raises awareness.

Then comes the hard part, finding solutions.

Hat tip: Ocean acidification

You may have eaten the oldest animal on earth in your clam chowder

A 405 year old clam is the new oldest animal, but someone has probably eaten an older clam since most end up in chowder. Anyone for some ancient clam chowder?

The ocean quahog is a clam that lives upwards of several hundred years. Fishermen use dredges to scoop them out of the sand, and turn them into clam chowder. Without knowing, you may have eaten a 500 year old clam.

The real fate of the world's oldest animal is missing from the news. Everyone's talking about one old clam, without noticing that we eat these little buggers. Scientists found a 405 year old ocean quahog in the ocean off Iceland, from a depth of 260 feet. This "Shakespeare" clam, alive when the bard was still writing plays, was only about 3 1/2 inches long.

Fox News notes ironically that scientists found the oldest animal on earth and killed it. The real news is that people are busy turning the world's oldest animal into clam chowder. Do you want to eat 500 year old animals? Can that be sustainable? Fishery managers think so, but I'm not so sure.

These clams live in the sandy ocean bottom, and there are no fancy corals or other dramatic habitat features that will lead to protection. And typical fishery management lets the biggest and oldest animals get sent to the fish market, so normal management won't protect them. These unsexy old animals will probably keep finding their way into chowder unless we value them simply for being old.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Acid oceans threaten ocean life

It's the little known CO2 problem that is real, scary and already happening. It's acid oceans, brought to you by human CO2 production.

Our oceans are becomming more acid, and this problem threatens to dissolve corals and other important ocean animals, and it looks like it's already happening. YIKES! The acid levels don't sound too bad, in the language of chemistry. Just a few tenths of a pH unit--doesn't sound too bad, right?

But ask a coral and you might get a different answer. If there were such a thing, newspapers written for corals would be screaming bloody murder. Or maybe screaming "acid threatens to dissolve you and your family!" Let's think like a coral and get worried about acid oceans.

Out of sight, out of mind? Or will we rally to the cause and save our oceans from the acid plague?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Best ocean-theme horror movie

Thanks to Rick and PZ, here's a task I can't resist, name a horror movie with an ocean theme.

The Lost Continent, after watching this you'll never again go on a marginal ship into dangerous waters with a cast of sketchy characters (wait a minute, that's oceanography!). Weird, not just horrific.

Honorable Mentions:

Classic, but too easy--Jaws, a movie that made me scared to swim in a lake!

Modern and obvious--Pirates of the Caribbean series, great effects and villian (kraken!)

Awesome, would have been my choice, but it's not quite ocean--Creature from the Black Lagoon, with a truly outrageous "synchronized swimming" scene where the creature swims beneath the babe.

This comes from the hallo-meme started by Rick at Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice, and Sunsets, by way of Pharyngula.

Now it's my job to tag some others (sorry all, they made me do it):

Shiftingbaselines (this is a job for Randy Olson)


Framing science: gossip trumps facts

What's the best way to figure out whether someone is likely to cheat you? Look at facts on their past behavior? Or listen to what others are saying about the other person?

A new study says people rely on gossip more than facts. Why does this surprise anyone? Facts never speak for themselves, and a good story will always trump a set of facts.

What's the value of a good story? A good story provides everything people need to make sense of information, including a relevant context for facts. Facts become the illustration that verifies the story. Naked facts are less useful since they require interpretation and analysis, which is a slow and uncertain process at best.

This adds to the debate over how best to communicate science. Since even questionable gossip trumps a set of facts, this study warns us about the futility of relying on "just the facts" type arguments. In competition with a good story, naked facts will probably be neglected or even ignored.

The study's authors were a bit disturbed that gossip can outweigh facts. But they shouldn't be upset or surprised.

Let's look a little deeper at gossip. What is gossip? Tittering junior high girls talking about clothes and boyfriends? Yes. But gossip is also important communication that builds trust networks and clarifies social behavior rules. In other words, gossip can convey important information. In some cases, failure to gossip can be viewed as a problem in social groups, because important information is withheld from those who need it.

This study reminds us that context is important for facts. A good story can trump a set of facts, so beware of relying on a set of facts alone. In fact, why not build important facts into a story? Embedding facts into a compelling narrative works with normal communication styles rather than fighting against them.

Will this study help? I don't think any of this will matter to a "just the facts" person. Why? Because the messy world of social communication has probably always mystified the type of people who find a safe refuge in the world of facts.

"We all know people who are not calibrated to the social world at all, who if they participated in gossip sessions would learn a whole lot of stuff they need to know and can't learn anywhere else, like how reliable people are, how trustworthy," said Sarah Wert, a psychologist at Yale. "Not participating in gossip at some level can be unhealthy, and abnormal."

The social context of communication matters, and this includes scientific communication. Of course data matters, along with analysis and conclusions. But also important are social factors such as the reputations of the scientists who publish a paper.

Is this surprising? No, scientists are people, often irascible people, and why would anyone expect them to avoid jealousies, rivalries, and stubborness? Do these social factors dominate? No, but they do matter.

So the next time you want to communicate a set of facts, try building them into an interesting narrative and see whether it works better than plain facts. Who knows, you may notice your audiences getting smarter.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Glow in the dark seafood

Imagine making a shrimp dinner and dimming the lights, only to find the shrimp glowing in the dark. That's just what happened to Randall Peters of Seattle last week.

Nervous, he was worried about radiation making the shrimp glow. But a more mundane explanation is likely, bacterial luminescence. Glow in the dark bacteria are not rare, and glowing seafood has been uncovered before.

So if you find your seafood glowing, you probably don't need to worry about being poisoned. Unless you forgot to refrigerate it or otherwise created a risk of food poisoning from bad handling.

Now these genetically modified glowing zebrafish, that's a horse of a different color. Fluorescent transgenic fish that you can buy for your home aquarium.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sandy River runs free, after dammed century

Well folks, it happened last Friday. High flows blew out the last remaing earthworks of the old Marmot Dam, and the Sandy River now runs free once again.

The undamming era took a new step forward; this dam is now GONE. Not huge at 47 feet tall, but significant as it once produced enough power for 12,000 homes. The biggest dam yet removed in Oregon.

We knew this was going to happen, it was all planned. I invite you to take a moment and celebrate un-development for the sake of fish. It CAN and DOES happen. Click here for video of the blessed event.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Great swallower eats fish 4 times bigger than itself

Like B. Kliban said: never eat anything bigger than your head. Unless you're a great swallower, that is.

A fisherman from Grand Cayman island found a small great swallower floating on the surface with a much larger whole fish in it's stomach. Four times bigger than the great swallower.

The great swallower is a deep sea fish with a huge jaw and a balloon stomach. Known for eating huge prey, this looks like record catch for a great swallower. Of course, the fact that it was dead may mean that it was a bit too big.

Friday, October 19, 2007

What's right with Kansas? Plenty

Grabbing the lead on climate change action, Kansas blocked a coal plant permit because of CO2 emissions. This is a stunning move for a state stereotyped as anti-environmental and anti-science because of right-wing Republican tendencies.

The statement from Dept. Secretary Roderick Bremby is fabulous. It says, among other things:

“I believe it would be irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health if we do nothing,"

This is further proof, as if it were needed, that environmental protection is NOT a partisan issue.

There has been considerable talk in the blogosphere lately that religious beliefs are inherently anti-science and in opposition to important science-based causes like education and environmental protection. Much of this has emanated from the battles over the teaching of evolution and intelligent design in places like Kansas. I guess Kansas is not so one-sided as some might claim.

One sidelight, the permit was rejected by the Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, a progressive alignment of state functions. Protection of our environment is a health issue, and I wish more states acted on that basis.

Go Kansas!

...and it's not just Kansas...

Fish in a tree, how can that be?

Not just in Dr. Seuss books, this is for real. Scientists slogging through swamps in Belize and Florida found hundreds of mangrove killifish lined up inside rotten branches. The fish can last for months inside trees when nearby pools of water go dry.

To survive out of water, the fish need to make drastic changes in their metabolism and physiology. They alter their gills to retain water and excrete nitrogen through their skin. In a perhaps unrelated adaptation, female killifish can reproduce without needing males.

Now there's a stereotype-buster for you. More evidence in support of the pioneering but controversial biological work of Dr. Seuss. Anyone want to join me in my expedition in search of the last truffula tree?

hat tip: Brad

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Seafood benefits vs. mercury risks

Seafood is good for you, and tasty besides. But mercury in seafood is bad for babies' brains. What's a person to do?

Conflicting advice leads to confusion, but there are places you can turn. Purdue University scientist Dr. Charles Santerre is my favorite authority, he offers clear advice untainted by bias.

I talked to Dr. Santerre in order to educate myself after some of my earlier comments raised questions, and...I learned quite a bit. That's always fun.

What's the bottom line? Careful consumption can make mercury risks minimal, and deliver the positive health benefits of seafood. Even pregnant and nursing women can support healthy babies by careful seafood consumption. See Dr. Santerre's website for details on what to eat, including a handy wallet card you can download and print.

For you biochemists, seafood offers healthy omega-3 fatty acids, including the necessary long chain variety (EPA and DHA). Under the right circumstances, our bodies can synthesize long chain omega-3s, but a typical western diet can hinder the ability of our bodies to make these fats vital for brain health and other needs. So relying on synthesis may be a mistake unless you're very careful with what you eat.

A recent controversy was created when a group pushed a new recommendation that pregnant women eat more fish than FDA guidelines, based on a study funded by the seafood industry. Now some health authorities are questioning that new advice.

Hope that clears up any confusion. In the future, I'll be recommending that pregnant women eat seafood that's low in mercury.

Now about that tainted science post...I still worry about the tainted science in the recent advice from the healthy mothers, healthy babies coalition. And now public health officials seem to agree. That doesn't change the fact that babies can benefit from seafood eaten by their mothers, so long as the mothers are careful to avoid fish with high mercury levels.

Republican global warming denial begins to melt

One sad trend in recent years has been the partisan divide on climate change. Seemingly it has become important for Republicans to insist that global warming isn't happening, or isn't caused by people. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats wave the flag over global warming.

The partisan divide on global warming seems to be melting, according to an article in the New York Times. Republican presidential contenders are beginning to acknowledge the reality of human-caused global warming.

One interesting development is a religious flavor to some of the right-wing support for battling climate change (from the NY Times article):

Two candidates appealing to religious conservatives, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, call for strong actions to ease the effects of people on the climate, at times casting the effort in spiritual terms just as some evangelical groups have taken up the cause.

Thankfully, the need for action on climate change seems to be losing some of the partisan rancor that has hindered progress. Conservation and environmental protection need not be partisan issues, and here's another demonstration of that important truth.

What's driving this conversion? One comment from the NY Times is that "The issue had been gradually bubbling up among leading Republicans as top corporations, including some in petroleum, have been pushing to address it."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Small scale fisheries can cause major ocean harm

Small is not always beautiful when it comes to fisheries. This conclusion may come as a surprise to some ocean lovers (and ocean scientists--see "solution 2").

A new study documents harm to sea turtles caused by some small-scale fisheries in Mexico. Because the fisheries operate where turtles aggregate (see diagram above left), the small-scale fisheries are probably worse for turtles than the industrial fisheries that affect these same turtles but operate where turtles are more dispersed.

Or should I say these fisheries WERE a problem. Conservation groups recently sponsored a gear buyout and some research and funding for new fishing methods that have greatly reduced the impact of these fisheries on turtles. Way to go everyone!

This study shows that small-scale fisheries are not always lower impact than large industrial fisheries. Supporting small-scale fisheries may make sense from a social perspective, but not necessarily from a conservation perspective. It's not the size of the boat or the gear, but how you use it.

Cape Wind, the right way to use our ocean?

What's the "environmental" position on Cape Wind, the proposed windmill project in Nantucket Sound off Cape Cod? We can't rely on a simple reading of who's in favor and who's opposed, because credible enviros are on both sides. So I guess we have to think a bit and dig in.

First of all, opponents are not JUST rich people trying to protect their views. There's undoubtably some of that going on, but they do have some good arguments on their side.

Proponents are doing more than building a clean & green energy facility. They're planning to make a pile of money in a place where almost no other industry would stand a chance of building a facility.

Passions are running high, what's an ocean advocate to think? Well, a few people have asked for a blogfish take on Cape Wind, so I guess I gotta go there.

The start of an answer comes from taking a somewhat larger perspective...what's the best and highest use of the ocean in the area proposed for Cape Wind? Is it wind power, freeing us a little bit from the CO2 treadmill? Is it commercial fishing, a traditional practice that has given us food but also a sadly crashed cod fishery? Is it shipping and boating, using the water's surface for transportation?

And how would we begin to answer these questions? We'll never get there if we do it one project at a time. That approach will probably tend to favor the highly intensive, big infrastructure projects that make the most money.

This reminds me of the dam-building frenzy of the middle 1900s, when all the "good" river sites were built up with dams. River conservation didn't stand a chance and salmon harm was mitigated with hatcheries that failed us and the fish.

We could easily get into an ocean project feeding frenzy, with wind farms and carbon seqeustration taking the sites with the best potential to succeed, regardless of the low intensity ocean values that exist at these sites.

I think we need a comprehensive ocean zoning process before we do Cape Wind or any other major construction project, whether it's green energy or oil drilling or whatever. If we build a wind farm in Nantucket Sound, I want to know that the piece of ocean used isn't better used for fishing, shipping, or a marine refuge.

Asking whether we should do Cape Wind is the wrong question. We should be asking where should we build wind farms in the ocean. This might be the right spot, but we won't know if we don't ask all of the right questions. What are the ocean bottom values? Is this place uniquely valuable as pristine ocean? Is it the right place to end all uses, so that those poor cod can live unmolested somewhere and repopulate Cape Cod waters?

Maybe somebody already knows the answers to these questions, but I don't see them in my brief perusal of the facts and figures. Anybody in blogfishland know the answers?

Here's a few places to look for some thoughts:

National Resources Defense Council

The Conservation Report

Note added: Existing offshore wind farms in Denmark are reported to have few harmful environmental impacts, after a rigorous process to make sure they're put in the right places.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

If you've ever wanted to blow up a dam

Check out this video. Concrete Marmot dam has been largely removed, and now we await high water (could come as soon as Thursday) to blow out the remaining structures and sediment buildup. The video is a scale model of what's left blowing out in high water.

Dam destruction and it's legal!!

Environmental politics need not be partisan

We'll have cleaner rivers, bays and oceans in the future, thanks to some Democrats and Republicans working together in California.

California's maverick Republican Governor signed some environmental bills introduced by Democrats. These new laws show California's typical leadership by doing more than merely cleaning up messes. Instead, some messes will actually be PREVENTED. Nice work by the legislature and the Governor in advancing environmental protection in a politically divided government.

Some key new laws will:
-require collection and disposal programs for unwanted medicines
-ban phthalates, toxic softeners used in plastics
-ban lead bullets which can poison wildlife

One of the key species to benefit will be the endangered California Condor. And of course, blogfish has brought you the sad news of fish harmed by medicines that make it into waterways by starting in your toilet.

How does this Republican rank on environmental issues?

"Arnold is unpredictable. With other governors, we are used to very strong partisan lines when it comes to environmental support one way or another," said Rico Mastrodonato, spokesman for the California League of Conservation Voters.

"He just blows that whole model up. We don't know where he is going to come down most of the time. But you always feel like you have a shot."

This is in the fine tradition of Teddy Roosevelt conservation, and it defies the notion that environmentalists should hitch their wagon to partisan politics. Conservation is everyone's issue, there's almost nobody who will say they're anti-conservation. If we all agree on that conservation is necessary, then we're halfway to a solution. For the rest, conservation leaders need to articulate and implement a compelling vision that doesn't leave half the population behind at the outset.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Good news for cod on blog action day

Reduce overfishing and fish will recover, even in the severely overfished North Sea. Wow, who wouldda thunk it?! It's just the early signs of recovery, but let's enjoy the good news today.

Because, it's BLOG ACTION DAY for the environment. Today, bloggers worldwide are posting on environmental issues. The hope is that concerted action by bloggers will help lead to concerted action by others. It's worth a try.

Good news is the best way to do this work, I think. So let's all enjoy a deep breath or two while we notice that the North Sea's fabled cod are showing the early signs of recovery after decades (more like centuries) of overfishing. Maybe we can enjoy COD fish and chips again in London someday, instead of the dogfish that are typically used now.

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Big spending fails to save fish in California

Billions spent to save fish, with no progress? That's Cal-Fed, the partnership between California and the US Government, designed to save fish and restore the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta. Reports say it ain't working.

Wow, it's the Columbia River failures all over again. What's wrong? We're ducking the hard decisions, trying to have everything. Spend money but not on fixing natural river processes that fish need. Buy projects that mitigate harm, but don't really solve anything. It's a recipe for wasting money and not bringing back fish.

How can we build these megaprojects that deal with big impacts, and make them real? I don't know, but we're trying again with Puget Sound restoration in the Seattle area. Will we find a newer, better model for success? Or pour money down the drain like most of these big projects? Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Fishermen and no fishing zones

Is there any common ground between marine ENGOs and recreational fishermen on the difficult subject of no fishing zones (or marine reserves, or no take MPAs)? The answer is yes, after some interesting time spent in Florida considering exactly that question.

I was invited by Mike Nussman, president of the American Sportfishing Association to represent “MPA proponents” on a panel with fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn and NOAA’s Donald Kennedy. In the panel presentations, discussion, and side conversations there were many areas of agreement.

Many noted that fisherman have been some of the world’s best conservationists in the past, and I agree with that because I've seen it. Then, of course, there's the obvious shared interest in conserving fish.

On the hard stuff, we talked about what should be the basis for MPAs. Most seemed to agree that MPAs should be designed to achieve clear objectives and that fishing restrictions in MPAs should be focused on achieving the objectives. Some felt that recreational fishing was not the problem, and that restrictions should focus on commercial fishing. I noted that impacts don't fall neatly along sector lines, rec fishing can be harmful and sometimes commercial fishing uses hook and line gear similar to rec fishing (it's not all bottom trawling or gillnets. So OK, we had some disagreement on fishing impacts.

Now I’m flying back from Florida, after a paltry 22 hours on the ground. Not my favorite kind of travel, but the meeting seemed worthwhile. I hope we can take this common ground and go further with it. Am I alone in that hope?

Of course, there is other common ground on the easier subjects of ending pollution, protecting habitat, etc. This was a meeting designed to talk about the hard stuff, the issues where we’ve been fighting for the last few years. Even on the tough subjects like MPAs, I’m optimistic.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Ocean sounds you can download

Wow, my life has been changed by a fantastic "beach sounds" podcast. OK, just a bit of hyperbole there, but it's great to have the ocean and seabirds in the background as I'm in deskworld.

I suppose there must be a million sites out there with beach sounds and the like. Maybe now I'll be motivated to go look for them. Anyone have any tips for online sources of beach sounds? I do have a whale sounds library that I'll write up for you sometime soon. Until we get further with this ocean sounds project, try the link above...I'll hear you there.

Thanks to the Cape May (NJ) County Herald, and the Nature Conservancy for the beach podcast.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Shampoo in the Columbia River

Wanna know where to find clean fish? Try the lower Columbia River, where a recent study found plenty of household products like coffee, antibiotics, and yes, shampoo.

We've heard some similar news before, but this is the first time I've heard of shampoo in a river. And the especially bad news is that these chemicals were found at levels that might harm fish in a river as big as the Columbia. With so much water flowing, that's a lot of shampoo.

Are peole in the northwest just a lot more particular about being clean? Maybe we can launch a "share a shower" campaign, inviting people to shower with a friend to conserve shampoo.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Are cephalopods safe from overfishing?

Almost everyone assumes that cephalopod overfishing won't happen. Yeah, well people used to say that about sardines too. I don't buy the argument. The rationale for squid is the same for sardines: they're short-lived, prolific, and fluctuate naturally, so they'll never be overfished.

Sardines famously crashed in California in the 1940s, illustrating the problem. During a down cycle of low reproduction, heavy fishing continued. Instead of dropping naturally to something like 20% of peak numbers, the overfished sardine collapsed to around 0.1%, and took decades to recover. They missed the next "boom" period because there were too few breeding sardines left.

So what's the future for cephalopod fisheries? Some squid fisheries have collapsed in the past, in California and elsewhere, and future crashes are likely if management doesn't improve. The blame is usually placed on natural fluctuations, but fishing has certainly played at least a contributing factor. For the most part, squid are fished with few restraints worldwide, based on nothing little more than hope. This is not a good long-term strategy.

OK, so squid may be vulnerable, how about other cephalopods? Will there be major fisheries for other cephalopods someday? Seem unlikely? Well, nothing is unlikely in ocean fisheries. If there's a market for hagfish (aka slime eels), then there's a market for anything.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Making science matter in public policy--framing

Last night in Seattle, Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney gave an informative and engaging presentation of their "Framing Science" work that has stirred some blogging scientists to react with great umbrage.

I was eager to hear the presentation and meet the speakers to see for myself what this controversy is all about. Last night's presentation was a thoroughly cogent explanation of framing and how they came to their conclusions. It included lots of supporting data and analysis, along with good and bad examples. I learned quite a bit, enough to see new light shining on some things that I thought I already understood fairly well. Lots to think about.

I suppose it helps that I've been studying framing since reading a consultant's report telling me to frame my work better back in about 2003. I didn't want to hear it then, and so I didn't. After about 2 years and much study and practice, I started to get it, and now the value of framing science is clear.

I won't recapitulate all of the issues and criticisms here. They're available online and can be accessed through the links above or a google search.

In my view, Chris and Matt are advancing the cause of getting public policy to be better informed by science. They're not out to undermine science or turn scientists into spinmeisters. They have a well-reasoned argument, some compelling case studies, and they're not saying they have all the answers. Afterwards, they expressed satisfaction at getting framing on the table for people who want to communicate science, and they're open to seeing the conversation evolve based on input and analysis from all quarters.

There's not much to object to here, which brings me back to the blogospherics. My best answer to why some people are upset is that framing requires scientists to drop superior airs, and that's hard for some scientists to do when they view the general public as deeply ignorant and ill-informed. Note to scientists: understanding evolution doesn't confer superiority any more than a silky smooth jump shot.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The limits of science

Most scientists know as much about science as a fish knows about water. And because of this, scientists often fail to note the limits of science and, more broadly, the limits of the rationalist approach to problems.

An editorial in The Scientist by Richard Gallagher points to this issue, as a companion piece to the lead article on framing science, noting that he once thought the world would be better if run by scientists, but now he knows otherwise. Why? Because public life must account for the irrational as well as the rational.

When AIDs activists challenged the scientific method over the ethics of medical research, they were greeted with scorn initially. But now the conduct of science is different because of public activism from non-scientists. The changes could never have come from inside, or certainly they never could have come about so quickly. This change is a scientific success, but elements outside the purely rational were necessary for the change.

Then there's the old will-o'-the-wisp, inspiration. What is the source of the "eureka" moment for a scientist, when some major discoveries seem to crystallize into clear view from seemingly nowhere? Malcolm Gladwell's Blink is a fascinating account of things such as this, and they're certainly hard to pin down. Are they rational? Maybe, but not in the traditional sense.

Many of us want public policies to be informed by science, and some of us have widely varying approaches and even divergent goals. I wonder how we can integrate our goals, align our approaches, and push this boulder uphill together? Will our differences prevent us from working together? Do we need to attack religion and "superstition?" Or can we work around the edges of people's irrationality? Can we -gasp- figure out what parts of irrationality to embrace?

What would be the experience of a goldfish jumping between two fish bowls? Would the world seem somehow broken in the interim?

This is what I'm thinking as I head off to Framing Science in Seattle. Thanks to Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney for teeing this up and taking the first big lumps in this year's version of the ongoing debate. I think there's more to come.

Fish hatcheries produce lame fish

We've known for years that domesticated hatchery fish aren't much good in the wild. But newer, better hatcheries that spawn wild fish are said to be...well...newer and better.

A new study says that even one or two generations in a hatchery reduces the fitness of steelhead (salmon cousin). This study supports recent decisions that hatchery fish should not be counted in considering whether salmon or trout require protection as threatened or endangered species.

We've made a gross error in the northwest, in relying on hatcheries to compensate for habitat destruction. We were warned, but the attraction was too great. We bought the promise that we could have overdeveloped rivers and salmon too. It didn't work, and there were voices raised at the time that said it wouldn't work. I hope we learn our lesson someday.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Rivers are a waste of water?

"The idea that we let millions of acre feet of water every year run to the ocean totally wasted is insanity," said GOP California State Assembly leader Mike Villines of Fresno.

California Republicans want to put a stop to the waste by building more dams so the water can be put to use by people. Democrats say the state should emphasize water conservation and underground storage instead of dams. Republicans are blocking progress on a water supply package unless it includes new dams, presumably to stop the insane waste of water by rivers.

I hate to be a partisan, but there's one side that really stuck foot in mouth on this issue.

Rivers have value, and water is good for more than sprinkling on crops. Are we so poor in spirit that we can't leave any water in rivers?

Tainted science about mercury in fish

A new study suggests pregnant women should eat more fish than government agencies advise. But look who's talking.

The Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies coalition produced the study, with funding from the National Fisheries Institute. But wait, isn't that the advocacy arm of the seafood industry? The NFI website says the group is "A trade Association committed to assisting its members to succeed in the global seafood marketplace." that a conflict of interest? Might the advice be skewed to assist NFI members to succeed in the marketplace?

The Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies coalition looks credible with membership that includes the American Academy of Pediatrics and the March of Dimes, the Centers for Disease Control, and subunits of the National Institutes of Health. Interestingly, some of the most credible coalition members are now backing away from the new mercury advice, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the March of Dimes, the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Institutes of Health.

At this time, with the story just hours old, we can't be sure what the truth is. This will take some time to sort out. But the new "eat more fish" advice is not quite what it seemed earlier today, and I have a feeling this is going to play out badly for the seafood industry.

I love fish, I eat a lot of fish, and I think it's healthy food. But I know a bit about mercury in fish and my wife is an environmental toxicologist and we agreed she should not eat fish just before pregnancy, during pregnancy, and while nursing because we studied the risks and the mercury risk is too high. Now she gladly eats fish again with me. We're very cautious in what seafood we feed our young children (3 and 6 yrs old).

Mercury risks in seafood are real. They shouldn't scare people away from seafood. But the seafood industry MUST BE STRAIGHTFORWARD AND HONEST about these risks or they may burn bridges with consumers. Mercury in seafood is a real risk to pregnant women. Admit it and move on.

Will this new advice turn into a fiasco that harms public confidence? It's too soon to tell. But the National Fisheries Institute isn't doing the industry any favors with this apparently ham-handed effort to push seafood on pregnant women.

Blogfish has been here before, and I think we'll end up back here again, on the seafood/mercury carousel.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The real world of oceanography

Ever wonder what it's like to be a real oceanographer on a research cruise? Check out Cruise Cruise Baby, a rapper's take on doing science at sea. It gets the flavor right.

I don't know who did this, but it's great. Here's a link to the original posting.

hat tip: surf.bird.scribble

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Framing science in Seattle

The Framing Science show comes to Seattle this Friday, and I'll be there to see if I can get one of the Nisbet/Mooney bobblehead sets for the first 50 people in the door (ok, just kidding about the bobbleheads). In case any friends of blogfish show up, please say hello.

What is framing science? The rather obvious proposition that facts don't speak for themselves, so somebody needs to set the context in order for facts to matter. Obvious to anyone who does this type of work, but strangely not obvious to a subset of grouchy practicing scientists who find framing to be an affront to their values. Harumph!

New framing article just out in The Scientist, by Matt Nisbet and coauthor Dietram Scheufele. Blogfish found air time at The Scientist with a blog post comment that they chose to print and a point/counterpoint interview that will soon be a podcast on The Scientist's website. Hmmm...they seem very smart on integrating new media with print.

March of the environmentalists

Great things happening in New York, where environmentalists find themselves (once again, thankfully) at the helm of the apparatus of the state.

So now we can expect progress in curbing toxics, protection of natural places, etc., right? Well maybe. It seems that Governor Sptizer's adminisration cautions the enviros turned agency leaders that they must become pragmatists to work in their apppointed roles.

This model is tired. It's so tired that it won't even work where it's working. Governor Spitzer, a tough-minded prosecutor scared of nothing, won't even unleash enviros to exercise their will in Blue state New York.

What is the model? It's the Great Technocratic Hope that flourished in the 1970s, when even Richard Nixon was an environmentalist. It's expecting policy and regulatory environmental solutions from the hand of government. We can only win using this model when we have the full support of the American public.

We can't lead with legislation, regulation, and legal victories. If we use these tools to take people where they don't want to go, then the victories will be undone. We need to lead with public opinion, and the other stuff will follow. In fact, if we lead with public opinion, then the other stuff will follow fast and furious.

The same holds true for getting businesses to promote sustainability. There are limits to how far we can get with even economic giants on our side, if we lack public support.

We enviros need to do better at showing people how we're building a better future that includes them. Otherwise, we face a dire future of heroic struggles for very limited gains. Ask the greenies leading the state government in New York.

Or ask the state agencies under California Governor Shwarzenegger, our new age green hero on at least some issues...and the champion of a brown future on other things like toxics.

Monday, October 01, 2007

A green and joyless future?

Save the world? Why?

These are the questions raised by a blog post on Angry Toxicologist. Angry Tox comments on an idea that we should shrink the human population to help natural systems. Great idea, but as Angry Tox points out, it falls into the trap of advocating a green and joyless future.

If we can't find a joyful green future to talk about, then I don't think we're going to find very many supporters.

Environmentalism shouldn't be an excuse for hating people.

Carnival of the blue 5

Stop by for a great meal of ocean blogging at Carnival of the Blue 5, hosted by Jennifer at Shifting Baselines.

Thanks to Jennifer for her work combating ocean amnesia, so that we never forget how magnificent our oceans can be.