Sifting the fact from the false in an internet full of fake ‘news’

Southern Fried Science has at the forefront of trying to debunk fake news, such as faux documentaries about mermaids or giant sharks. In their article “Fish tales: combating fake science in the popular media” Andrew Thaler and David Shiffman asked that:

“scientists familiarize themselves with common sources of misinformation within their field, so that they can be better able to respond quickly when factually inaccurate content begins to spread”

morpheus

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Columbus doesn’t deserve a day ! (We should be giving credit to Cabot anyway)

Today is Columbus day in the US, and so I technically have a day off from teaching. However, despite a day of alleged freedom (I still have a stack of grading to do) the fact that we get a holiday to celebrate Columbus galls me. Firstly, because he was responsible for mass enslavement of indigenous people (over 1000 in just one round up, of which 550 were sent to Spain, with about 40% dying en route), sending an estimated 5000 Taino, Arawak and other indigenous peoples to Europe. His treatment of these enslaved people was barbaric – they were forced to bring him gold and failure to do so led to mass amputations and death. An estimated quarter of a million indigenous people died in Haiti alone due to resisting Columbus’ Governorship of Hispaniola, and many more died from diseases he and his crew introduced to the Caribbean.

columbus

However, secondly, he doesn’t deserve recognition for discovering North America. He never set foot on the North American continent*. If we should be recognizing someone from this era, it would be John Cabot.

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Let’s make America think again …

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

I think everyone would agree that the current US presidential election has been one for the history books … and not in a good way. One of the running themes in this election has been how many people do not understand the difference between a verified fact and something they saw on “the interwebs”. That “doing research” to far too many in the US means Googling until they find a website that supports their opinion (and ignoring any other source that does not). Those involved in science communication have long been aware of this problem, especially those involved in communicating issues such as climate change, evolution and health issues. However, perhaps now more of the country is aware that the lack of public understanding of what a fact is has become a major problem, and how substantive the proportion of the country is that can’t tell the difference  between a fact and a belief or opinion or, quite frankly, a bold-faced lie. Perhaps now more people realize how dangerous it can be when facts no longer matter.

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Time to release the Kraken ! Addressing controversial questions in marine conservation

A few years ago, we organized a group of marine conservation scientists to meet to discuss, and list,  the most urgent issues that need to be studied. The resulting paper  came up with 71 questions which urgently needed to be addressed, because a lack of an answer was severely impeding marine conservation. However, during this exercise we also came up with a list of other questions – these were issues that were controversial, that everyone  knew were important, but were unwilling to raise as being an issue. These were the Voldemorts of marine conservation questions (they that shall not be named), the elephant (or elephant seal) in the room questions …. or as we more aquatically termed them: “the kraken in the aquarium” questions.

love-a-kraken

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Conservation Wanted – dead or alive?

wanted

When I was an undergraduate studying conservation in the dim and distant past, we were told that the way endangered species would be saved would be to give them a financial value, and “wise use” of these species would allow them to survive. Well, that worked well, didn’t it…? The poster species of the “wise use” movement (such as elephants) are much closer to extinction today than they were decades ago.

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Trying to debunk the aquatic ape hypothesis… or not. Or the day I tried to defend David Attenborough.

The so-called aquatic ape hypothesis is one that has attracted a lot of attention and much derision. In 1960, British marine biologist Alistair Hardy posited the idea that humans might once have had an aquatic phase (or more accurately a semi-aquatic phases, spending some time in a watery habitat but a significant amount of time on land). This was picked up highlighted in popular zoologist Desmond Morris’s book The Naked Ape . However, Elaine Morgan was one of the the hypothesis’ main promoters, writing a book called The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis . There have been several debunkers of the hypothesis including Southern Fried Sciences’ own David Shiffman although Jim Moore’s website is probably one of the most comprehensive debunking sites for the hypothesis . Today Alice Roberts and Mark Maslin posted a critique of the aquatic ape hypothesis, mostly in response to a new BBC radio series The Waterside Ape which is being presented by David Attenborough.

attenborough

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Death by Renaissance Faire

I am a big fan of Renaissance Faires and Festivals – I have a sizeable collection of pirate hats, doublets and billowy shirts and even a pair of thigh-length boots that would make Blackbeard envious. But whenever I go to a Renn Faire at this time of year and see the clientele dressed up in full Tudor formal dress, I worry about their immediate expiration from massive heat stroke.

Renn Fest

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Scientific literature needs discipline – an example from a killer whale life expectancy study

If you let a puppy piddle on the carpet without discipline, it will keep doing it. It will grow into a big dog that destroys your carpeting and rugs and makes your whole house stink.

So it is with scientific literature.

puppy-pees

We all know bad papers are out there. When you read them, you’re left scratching your head and wondering, “How on earth did these pass peer-review?” Worse still, there are “ugly” science articles, where the scientific method goes by the wayside and data are cherry-picked, misinterpreted or manipulated to justify a political or ideological agenda or to undermine science that interferes with that agenda.

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Book review: the marine mammal observer’s handbook

I agree with Dr Phil Clapham, who provided the forward for the “Marine mammal observer and passive acoustic monitoring handbook” (by V. Todd, I. Todd, J. Gardner & E. Morin): the title is a bit of a mouthful. Therefore, I will refer to the book by the abbreviated title above. That said, this is a really useful book that I’ve found myself reaching for on several occasions when needing to look something up.

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Life in the Ithilien ranger service

People call them the “Dead Marshes”, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The marshes are in fact incredibly biodiverse and productive. Admittedly that productivity has a lot to do with the slow decomposition of the corpses of men and elves, but they are productive nonetheless. The marsh vegetation also plays an important part in detoxifying the ecosystem. There is a slight problem with the level of mithril contamination in the marshes, but there are several marsh plants that sequester this trace element.

 Illithien ranger2

The marshes are also important sinks for carbon. Climate change is increasingly a concern in Middle Earth, what with the dramatic rise in dragon-related emissions and the felling and burning of Fangorn Forest, not to mention the carbon dioxide plume from Mount Doom.

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