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EPIC Discussion on the Future of the Oceans

July 8, 2011

Wow, there is some serious blog love happening here.  The SeaMonster has again produced an epic online discussion, this time on “The Future of the Oceans”.  You can find that here.

Unlike the last forum, I don’t think I can write cliff notes that will do the discussion justice.  So if you are interested in marine policy, you should read it all.  I mean, it’s only a collection of thoughts from some of the biggest names in ocean science and advocacy.  And, thankfully, they’ve made it very easy with the creation of a PDF file.

I will give you a few takeaways and some thoughts of my own.

1. The discussion is based around the content and production method of a report recently released by the International Program on the State of the Oceans (IPSO).  Most everyone agreed that the report’s warnings are solid: the ocean is highly threatened and maintaining the status quo is unacceptable.   And they agreed that better communicating ocean science to the public is needed if we are to succeed in conserving marine environments into the next century and beyond.  What the discussion participants did not agree upon is whether or not the report – I’ll paraphrase – was the ‘right’ report.

2. What do I think?  Yes. Yes. And…No.  Yes, the report had the right message and, yes, we need to communicate the science better.  But the report was a little rickety.  In my view, a communication tool that does not stand strongly on its own should not be put out there.  I’ve shared this view in the past (e.g. on a certain video that was making the rounds) and I’ll do it here again.

So, a few things that don’t work for me, from smallest to largest.  First, the report’s content doesn’t support all the recommendations (even though these recommendations are widely accepted already).  Second, it was rushed.  The summary was sent along to the press before the report was even released.  And the summary was written in a way that a report co-author dropped out, apparently due to how it was packaged for the press.  Not kosher in my view.

And third, and most importantly, I don’t think the report had enough to comfortably qualify its authors as an authoritative, international panel of experts.  Don Boesch of the University of Maryland hit it right on the head:

I found the brief report suffering problems of legitimacy and rigor, despite how much I might agree with its observations and recommendations.  First, the title clearly implies the report was produced by international Earth system experts, yet of the 27 participants only 15 have scientific credentials (an advanced degree relevant to the conclusions drawn), all but one of these scientists are biologists and two-thirds reside in the U.K. (2 scientists are from Canada, 1 from Germany, 1 from Australia and one from Chile, now residing in Switzerland).  Lacking are experts on the geophysical aspects of the Earth system that are essential for understanding and projecting climate change and the impacts described.  Although the distribution of participants meets the minimum definition of “international,” one would expect more diversity given the lofty descriptor.

And continuing:

The heavy participation by environmental activists—don’t get me wrong, I respect the work these folks do and am grateful they are doing it—opens the report to the kind of criticism of agenda-driven bias that the Climate Resistance blogger leveled.   Indeed, if we are honest—now don’t shoot the messenger—the blogger is probably correct that the participants were indeed a preselected group who shared beliefs and assembled, not to assess the evidence critically, but assemble it in a way to make their case for a call to action (“the scientific outcomes . . . will be used first and foremost to strengthen the case for greater action”).  Now this is a fine and noble thing to do, but it does reduce the authority founded on inclusive, objective appraisal by scientists.

Report co-leader Alex Rogers responded to these comments, but I didn’t find them very persuasive, especially when Boesch followed up.

But perhaps what most concerns me is that the report authors – all very smart guys and gals – may not come to see this legitimacy problem.  I think this risk is demonstated with a comment from Tony Pitcher, editor of Fish and Fisheries:

Weathering the backlash on the Climate Solutions website is not too hard. And as the large, well-funded, Nobel prize-winning IPCC has experienced backlash – so should we expect to have to deal with that!

What’s wrong with this statement?  Well, it’s that Pitcher is analogizing the IPSO panel to the IPCC.  That’s 27 participants, only 15 of which have scientific credentials to the 2500 scientific expert reviewers, 800+ contributing authors, and more than 450 lead authors for the most recent assessment report.  ‘Nuff said.

I’ll close by noting that I’ve made a big deal of one point when there’s a great more to discover in the discussion.  I hope you decide to read the full forum.

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