Dec 202017

There is a video of a Polar Bear that went viral on the internet a few days ago. It has generated quite a buzz. The footage shows an adult Polar Bear in obvious distress struggling to move across a barren landscape. Later in the same video the bear is shown picking inedible-looking scraps from a trash bin. The implication, as developed in the supporting article, suggests that the bear is starving, and that he is starving because of global warming.

The video was first presented on National Geographic’s website along with an article whose narrative was laden with political assertions. A few days later National Geographic posted a follow up article containing questions and answers inspired by the video. This post also included a not-so-subtle editorial slant. Both articles can be found by following the links below…

Many websites across the internet soon picked up on the disturbing video, and each tended to present the compelling story inline with their own political bent. Some sites offered it up as powerful proof that global warming was wreaking havoc, while others questioned the veracity of the claim. Below is a selection of some of these articles, both for and against…

The assertion that global warming is responsible for the plight of the Polar Bear is a powerful one. But is it correct? It’s important to ask such a question because the veracity of global warming is such a critical issue. It is said that proponents of one side of the global warming issue value science and the scientific method, while the other side does not. That makes the way a video like this is interpreted extremely important.

Science and Not Science.

Merriam-Webster defines science in this way… the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. What that means is that when a phenomenon is observed, purveyors of science will develop hypotheses that attempt to explain the observation. Scientists will then test the hypotheses with carefully planned experiments in order to determine which answers produce the best and most consistent results. A pragmatism is necessary in this pursuit. Exotic possibilities should be excluded when the commonplace will do.

Can it be shown—in a scientific way— that this bear is starving due to global warming given the supporting data provided by the video and accompanying narrative? Objectively, the answer to that question is an unequivocal NO.

Certainly the emotional persuasiveness of this video is strong. Many people will come away from viewing this video firmly believing they have seen conclusive and heartrending evidence that global warming is occurring and impacting wildlife. They will see this video as proof.

But, people who feel this way are not analyzing the information objectively. Instead, they are experiencing something know as confirmation bias—a tendency to perceive as proof anything that reinforces an already established belief system. One way confirmation bias manifests itself is by diluting reasonable and prudent skepticism. We should all try to stay self aware when it comes to confirmation bias. This kind of bias should be recognized and challenged with reasonable skepticism and self-evaluation in order to maintain fair and balanced positions. It is always important to foster a healthy skepticism.

In the case of the Polar Bear in the video, starvation due to global warming and the shrinking of the polar ice is the assertion. It’s what the people who recorded and presented the video want you to believe. But the evidence they provide is only anecdotal.

Real science needs to be much more disciplined and conservative than that. Real science would begin by considering simple and commonplace possible explanations before moving on to the more exotic. Of course, it’s OK to explore extreme possibilities, but only after commonplace answers have proven insufficient. If there is a solid hypothesis that leaves out the exotic, it should be considered first.

If you are going to claim to own the scientific position, then your evidence needs to be scientific. To make a complete case, additional data concerning this situation would need to be collected over an extended period of time. Then a thorough analysis of that data would need to be done.

The presentation provided by National Geographic left many important questions unanswered. How long had the Polar Bear been observed? What was his condition in the beginning? Is there anything else unusual about the bear or his situation? Are other bears in the area suffering in a similar way? What are the normal and expected weather patterns for this location? How different are conditions from the norm? How do we know that the norm was optimal for Polar Bears? The list goes on and on.

As it turns out, Polar Bears are mortal creatures just like the rest of us. They live and then they die. Polar Bears are subject to disease, parasites, injury, and old age just like all other creatures. There are a multitude of commonplace reasons for a bear to find itself at the end of the road. Polar Bears have no natural predators—because of this most do die of starvation. When a sick, injured, or aged Polar Bear no longer has the strength to fend for itself, it will go hungry. That is just the way of things. A scene like this one has surely played itself out time and time again over the eons. Polar Bears get weak and die, global warming or no.

With only the information provided by the video and accompanying text, there are very few conclusions that can be drawn about the bear’s plight, other than the video illustrates a Polar Bear in some degree of distress. That’s it, nothing more. Taking the leap to global warming causation is a leap too far, and it is NOT science.

This is important to recognize, because global warming is an issue whose solution will likely require massive societal and economic changes. A problem of this magnitude demands that evidence in the affirmative be presented with great discipline, and in a scientific and objective way. Anything less only serves to undermine the foundational position at a time when so many people are already skeptical and only see the issue of global warming as nothing more than an unbridled attempt at a massive political power grab.

Emotional based appeals serve only to muddy the waters. A skeptic will view a video like this one and perceive the disconnect—possibly rejecting the affirmative argument in its entirety—even if they don’t quite understand why. Few people will have the time or energy to do a comprehensive analysis and enumerate all of the issues with the case presented, but anyone with even a semi-working BS detector should perceive a problem here.

Persuasion by emotional manipulation is effective in some ways. It definitely gets people’s attention. But, recruits attracted to a cause using this technique may not be high quality advocates. They will believe simply because they want to believe, not because they are knowledgeable and well-informed. What you are left with is a position that is hard to defend, and easy for the opposition to discredit. It’s very unlikely a tactic like this will ultimately strengthen the case or advance the cause. The best persuasion will always come from a position based on rock solid integrity. In the end, emotional manipulation does not strengthen a position. It undermines it.

Conservation and environmentalism are important causes. The effort to pursue solutions to issues in these realms must be tempered with discipline. When flawed or manipulative cases are presented, they only serve to sabotage the ultimate objective of conserving as much of the natural world as possible.

It is OK to be skeptical. A flawed or erroneous case should be rejected by everyone, regardless of politics or the argument’s emotional power to persuade. Integrity and scientific purity should remain the foundation for making appeals to reason—especially in instances of the potential magnitude and importance of global warming.

  6 Responses to “Science and Not Science”

  1. Chris, when I saw the photos (I didn’t watch the video — I didn’t see any point in doing so), my biological background told me that this was a bear reaching the end of its life, just as most others do. Animals without predators generally die of disease, general debility, or are they eventually succumb when rations are short, the oldest and therefore the weakest first. You are correct that that is what seems to be happening to this bear.

    You are also absolutely correct that if those who recognize the reality of global warming, found to be occurring through the very process of science that you describe, make unsupportable claims, then the very solid science that supports their conclusions will be more likely to be rejected by others.

    It is worth recognizing however that this bear was found on Baffin Island, late in the year when seasonal ice is beginning to recover from its low point of the year. The Baffin Island area supports only seasonal, not year round, ice. Bears in that area absolutely depend on being able to get onto the ice in early winter. Did this bear succumb because of lack of sea ice? It could have, or it could just be an old bear. But in the latter case, such bears would indeed be the first to fall victim to an absence of ice, and therefore to what amounts to an absence of food.

    I’m not going to say that there being less ice this year than in the past starved this bear. That I don’t know, and neither do the authors who DID NOT SAY THAT IT DID. What they did was show what a starving bear looks like, and argue that when the sea ice retreats still further, more bears will look like this one. Yes, they made an emotional appeal. But the National Geographic articles also pointed out that bear populations remain seemingly healthy, especially in the eastern Arctic, though little information reaches the West regarding Russian populations.

    All in all, I can’t be as hard on the authors as you are. It seems that rather than arguing that this bear suffered due to lack of sea ice, they argued that this bear was starving, and that with future reduced ice, more bears will starve. On that last point, those who have studied the Canadian and Alaskan bear populations scientifically agree.

    • The National Geographic article is clearly politicized. The language was carefully crafted to avoid unsupportable absolutes, but the narrative is obviously designed to lead readers to a specific conclusion. That just tells me the author was well aware of what she was doing. There are important omissions. No where is the article is it mentioned that this is the way MOST ALL Polar Bears die—with or without global warming being a factor. No where do they describe wildlife benefiting from the changing conditions.

      The real illustration of how irresponsible this article is comes from how the various new aggregators picked up the political football provided by National Geographic and ran with it. Read those articles and the comments that follow to get a better sense of the damage that is done with an article like this one.

      It might be easier to see what National Geographic is doing here by imagining the opposite case.
      Suppose that this article had been written about White-wing Doves and how they have been able to increase their numbers and and expand their range recently. Imagine that the narrative had been carefully crafted to suggest global warming was not a problem because White-winged doves were benefiting from it.

      Could you support an article biased in such away? It could be defended in the same way this Polar Bear article is being defended. If the article was deliberately written, every bit of it could be claimed to be factual… but the emotional manipulation would lead in completely different direction than that of the Polar Bear article.

  2. Chris, where you see bias, I see reasonable projection based on known trends. National Geographic has no obligation to make projections not reasonably drawn from known information. So, it cannot speculate on beneficial effects of global warming in the arctic environment regarding extant arctic mammals. I would, however, be interested in any studies that show or predict such beneficial effects, as I am sure that National Geographic would. As it stands, the fossil fuel industry is doing a cracker jack job of claiming benefits where none are known.

    Were I to read an article providing photos and other documentation of northward expansion of subtropical birds into temperate zones, including white winged doves, and projecting that that trend will continue, possibly due to global warming, I would accept that. It comports with the known facts despite lack of any definitive study (so far as I know) regarding the role of global warming. I would also expect such an article however to explain the discord between the bird’s responses and the responses of their food sources (which have been documented to lag those of the birds as they migrate earlier in spring than historically). There has been no analogous study of contradictory trends in polar bears and other arctic mammals, so far as I know, though there is evidence that eastern arctic populations of polar bears remain healthy. Again, I would be interested in any such studies.

    Having said all of the above, I will reveal to you that I consider many consequences of the Endangered Species Act to be detrimental to conservation. The act has caused far too much focus on individual species with less focus on ecosystem process and protection, and actually has caused neglect of habitat preservation and restoration other than in narrow areas where a target species occurs. Even a great deal of historical range of seriously declining wildlife species has been declared as essentially not worthy of restoration because it does not support currently that same seriously declining wildlife species. Lesser and greater prairie chicken ranges are of particular note in Texas.

    I know that we both have the same conservation values, and I greatly appreciate your expressing your concerns regarding the use of the decrepit bear as a “poster child” for the plight of the arctic when that bear in all likelihood is simply living out its natural life as all bears do. Certainly the bear never asked for this attention. And as I said, when I saw the photos, I noted that this bear is undergoing what all bears must, unpleasant to our human sensibilities or not. Certainly _The Education of Little Tree_, a fictional description of the life of a young Cherokee that was used at one time to raise awareness that Native Americans had a distinct and legitimate way of life disillusioned more than a few when it was revealed as complete fiction written by a Caucasian while supposedly being autobiographical. But these authors never claimed that this bear suffered due to global warming. They simply projected that bears likely will decline (and some will actually starve, like this one is doing) should global warming continue unabated.

    Would I write an article like this? No, but emotional appeals are what catch the public’s attention. Polar bears are among the “charismatic megafauna” that appeal to people and get them to support conservation. They will pay lots of money for koalas, essentially nothing for spiny rats. If a particular plankton species declines due to global warming, almost no humans will care. But the overall consequences may be very large. If preserving habitat for bears protects the plankter (and it might), then the ecosystem concerns I expressed above may be consequentially benefited.

    None of this is a simple matter of scientific correctness. Much of it is political.

    Let’s you and I continue on the side of education and conservation.

    Dave McNeely

  3. Thank you both for the thought-provoking exchange above. I appreciate both Chris’s concern that we had better be careful and responsible in discussing the science of climate change, and Dave’s suggestion that some responsible projections beyond the data are helpful, because the kind of systematic, extensive data collection that supports specific hypotheses is slow, underfunded, and often simply not being done (where are the studies demonstrating the effect of climate change on Ambystomatid salamanders in Texas?). It seems like a tough challenge to be careful in our claims, so as to (a) maintain integrity, and (b) not to feed the anti-conservation “here’s proof that environmentalists are liars” groups, while at the same time getting the word out effectively to non-scientists. Anyway, the point of my comment is that we need more thoughtful exchanges like this.

  4. I’m too young to remember whether there were as many Americans who doubted tobacco caused cancer as there are who doubt global warming today. But I’ve seen comparisons of how fossil fuel companies have used Big Tobacco’s playbook to sew doubt among conservative partisans regarding global warming. And, just in the last couple of years, the NY Times published some investigative pieces revealing that Exxon’s in-house scientists raised internal concerns about global warming in the late 80’s or early 90’s, and were, of course, silenced.

    At this point, the only large population of global warming holdouts are American conservatives. Nowhere else in the world is there such mainstream doubt.

    Was this specific polar bear old or diseased rather than starving due to lack of food in a warming habitat? It’s possible.

    But that’s about as interesting as finding someone in the path of a tornado who happened to die of a heart attack rather than from the funnel. Sure, worth knowing. But it has no impact on whether to consider a tornado dangerous.

    Global warming is settled science, and, frankly, we’ve passed the point of no return for adjusting our global greenhouse emissions to counter the warming already in progress. It’s looking more and more like scientists will need to come up with ways to remove massive amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. And there are indeed some ideas out there that don’t seem too far-fetched.

    You’ve got a fantastic blog here, Chris. It’s a local treasure, really.

    Just felt compelled to leave this here.

    Peace to you and keep up the great work!

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