Mythbusting Citizen Science Roundup

Over where I hang my workday hat, recently we’ve thought a lot about the field of citizen science and how it’s developing. Specifically, the push from leaders and scholars in the field to “retake citizen science” by broadening the definition to include the many formulations of decentralized expertise present in our world in the quest for new knowledge.

As part of that ‘re-taking’, I’ve taken on some of the major stereotypes about citizen science and volunteers. I hope to take on more, and would appreciate suggestions, Mythbusters-style, of stereotypes to investigate. But for now, here’s a roundup of the perceptions thus far:

Participation is Empowering: the verdict is still out Read More

Farming Salmon in Hiddenfjord, Faroe Islands

amysquareIf you treat yourself to a salmon dinner in Manhattan, that delicious fish most likely came from the Faroe Islands. Should you be scratching your head and trying to remember your geography, you’re not alone. Yet, this tiny country in the North Atlantic is one of the world leaders in salmon aquaculture. While in the Faroes, I had the good fortune  of a tour of a site run by the company Hiddenfjord in the town of Vestmanna by Jogvan Egholm. Since aquaculture is still a new and developing field, it’s always nice to see how things are done. Once I learned of the market connections to the US, however, I began to consider the tour the story of our food as well.

Salmon happily jumping for food in their pen. Soon to be on a plate near you. Credit: Andrew Thaler

Salmon happily jumping for food in their pen. Soon to be on a plate near you. Credit: Andrew Thaler

The salmon we visited  were destined for the US and China, countries with the best market price. Recently, we’ve had salmon on the brain after a controversial taste-test by the Washington Post revealed testers preferred frozen, farmed salmon. Bottom line of the controversy: understand where your fish come from and the environmental and health implications of certain production styles. Not all farming is created equal – Europe does a much better job using salmon from their native range than us westerners. So here’s a story of a fish. After fully grown in the Faroes, they’ll be shipped to the UK by boat and flown the rest of the way by plane. Smaller fish stay in the European market. But it starts with an egg…

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I’m a scientist. A social scientist. Please opine on the validity of my discipline.

amysquareI was incredibly disheartened to find a link to a blog post questioning, yet again, whether social science counts as science, this time by John Horgan at Scientific American. I’ve taken on the myths surrounding my career before, and quite frankly I’m getting sick of it. So this time, I’m going to pick myself up off the floor of frustration and hopefully help move the discussion beyond the same uninformed stereotypes we’ve all heard a million times before. Taken to the extreme, I feel as inaccurately portrayed as the scientist with crazy hair and colored test tubes.

Before I delve into the nitty-gritty, I’d like to tackle the definition of science. There are a number of mostly narrow definitions out there. The one I ascribe to is evidence-based. The research I do is theoretically-grounded, connects research methods to that theory, makes observations using those methods, and then draws conclusions based on that evidence. While this may sound general, science is a broad approach that rapidly sub-divides by discipline and philosophy from there. Now to the less philosophical part…

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Why a California great white shark scientist opposes CA Endangered Species Act protections

csulb shark labChris Lowe -CSULBDr. Chris Lowe is a Professor of Marine Biology at California State University Long Beach, and is Director of the  CSULB Shark Lab. He has studied  California’s great white sharks for more than 10 years, and has written more than 75 peer-reviewed scientific publications. Dr. Lowe also serves on the Board of Directors for the American Elasmobranch Society, the world’s largest professional organization of shark scientists. The following guest post was also submitted as a public comment to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

 

Comments for consideration on the petition to list white shark as threatened or endangered species:

I am a Professor of Marine Biology and the Director of the CSULB Shark Lab at California State University Long Beach and have been conducting State and Federally permitted white shark research in California since 2002. In addition, as a professional and published shark scientist who has studied a variety of shark species around the world, including white sharks in California, I would like to take this opportunity to express my personal professional opinion in regards to the petition request and the science behind it.

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Alberta, Canada is the proud owner of the largest man-made pyramid on the planet

Great Pyramid of Giza. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune.

Pharaoh Khufu must be rolling in his monumental grave. Since its construction in 2560 BC, the Great Pyramid of Giza stood as the largest man-made pyramid ever built*. For 3800 years, it held the title of the tallest man-made structure of any kind. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that our buildings began dwarfing this wonder of the ancient world. Even still, the Great Pyramid is massive, with a volume of 2,580,000 cubic meters. But there is another pyramid, more massive than Giza, and it wasn’t built to entomb a mighty king. It’s not a monument of any kind. The largest (by volume) pyramid in the world resides in Alberta, Canada and it’s made entirely of sulfur.

Wait, what?

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The horrifying physiological and psychological consequences of being Aquaman

Aquaman. DC Comics.

Aquaman. DC Comics. A rational response to seal poaching is to lob a polar bear at the aggressors.

Aquaman may not be everybody’s favorite superhero, but since his creation in 1941, he has been among DC’s most enduring icons. During the Golden Age of comic books, he held his own against Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Silver Age Aquaman was a founding member of the Justice League. His powers, tied to the ocean, forced writers to create a compelling, complex hero with explicit limitations. In the early days, when Superman’s strength was practically infinite, and Batman’s brilliance was unmatched, Aquaman had to become more than just a superhero, he had to be a person.

If Superman existed to show us how high the human spirit could fly, and Batman to show us the darkness within even our most noble, Aquaman is here to show us the world that triumphs in our absence. The ocean is not ours, and no matter how great our technology, we will never master it as we have mastered land, but Aquaman has. Through this lonely ocean wanderer, we can experience a world that we can never truly command. In many ways, Aquaman was stronger than the Man of Steel and darker than the Dark Knight. He knew loneliness that the orphan and the alien exile never could.

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin – his control
Stops with the shore; — upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, not does remain
A shadow of man’s ravage, save his own,
When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknell’d, uncoffin’d, and unknown.

Byron

Even though Aquaman had to fight harder, endure the jokes of other, less limited heroes, and find relevance in an ecosystem hostile to the humans that had to empathize with him, Aquaman was never forced to confront the truly horrifying consequences of life in the ocean.

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VentBase – securing the conservation of deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems

As a marine biologists just beginning my deep-sea education, conservation as a priority was an alien concept. The deep sea was the last true wilderness, distant and alien, impossibly difficult to access. We knew that exploitation was coming, companies had been exploring the potential of deep-sea mining for decades, but they always seemed to be generation away. Conservation was a question for my scientific descendants. For my peers and me, we still had a few good decades left in the golden age of exploration that began in the 1970’s with the first discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents. That age is about to end.

The reality of deep-sea exploitation is imminent. The first hydrothermal vent mining lease has been issued in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea. The International Seabed Authority, which regulates seafloor extraction in international waters, has approved the first two mining exploration permits for seafloor massive sulfides in international waters. Manganese nodule extraction, once quashed by a global decline in metal prices, has recently reappeared. Crustal metal deposits are fast becoming a viable resource. The isolation of rare earth elements from the seafloor, a newcomer in deep-sea exploitation, could open up new, massive deposit for critical electronic components. All of these are likely to occur within the next few decades.

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If fish evolved on land, where did they all go? Evolution and Biodiversity in the Ocean

This ray-finned fish was my dinner last night. Photo by Andrew David Thaler

When Carl Sagan described our planet as a “pale blue dot” he was invoking the fact that, despite being called Earth, our world is mostly Ocean. The surface of the Earth is a little more than 70% water and the ocean accounts for 98-99% of our total biosphere–the volume of the planet that can support life. Most contemporary theories point to ocean ecosystems–like deep-sea hydrothermal vents–as the launching point for the emergence and evolution of life. Ocean processes dominate biological interactions, even among unwitting terrestrial actors. A new paper, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, revisits an old debate about the ocean biodiversity and challenges the notion the ray-finned fishes have a marine origin.

In Why are there so few fish in the sea? the authors begin with the seemingly innocuous question–why are there so many more species in terrestrial environments than in marine environments?  From there, they look at species counts, phylogenetic relationships, and diversification rates to determine the ancestral state of the most recent common ancestor of one fish class, Actinopterygii, the ray-finned fish. What they found was that, despite the vastly smaller habitat available for freshwater fish, the number of actinopterygian species found those ecosystems was roughly equivalent to the number of species found in marine systems. In both systems, the dominant groups are relative newcomers on the evolutionary stage, with superorder-level radiations happening between 111 – 150 million years ago.  Most surprising, the authors discovered that the most recent common ancestor of actinopterygians may have been a freshwater, not marine, fish. Ray-finned fishes may have invaded the ocean from lakes and rivers.

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Core Themes of 2012: Challenging the Conventional Narrative

Isaac Newton, after experiencing the bottom end of a falling apple, used that experience to formulate the theory of gravity. The inductive process Newton used is common to the goals of most scientific endeavors and a deeply ingrained part of the human psyche. As humans, we love to generalize. It helps us understand the world around us by categorizing parts of it and explaining natural dynamics by the “laws of nature”. We also stereotype each other by race, hometown, or favorite basketball team. Some would say these tendencies help us prepare – to predict and expect the logical outcome of the set of clues presented in our everyday lives. But just like the reasons your mother told you not to stereotype, sometimes nature has its own surprises that defy prediction, categorization, or law-following. Especially if you don’t quite know what the law is yet.

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