Fear of facts

12/05/2013

When I was a student at Stanford, one of the things I enjoyed most was the way scientists debated facts. No claim could be made without data to back it up, and all data were subject to robust scrutiny and examined for holes and errors. That was how we were taught to seek truth. We were encouraged to ask tough questions, and were taught that science is just as much about disproving old hypotheses as deriving new ones. It was the same culture of science I taught to my students throughout my career.

Thus it came as a shock when, nearly 40 years later, I first got involved in the oyster farm debate and discovered that none of the National Park Service scientists or their local supporters wanted to discuss the data. At Supervisor Steve Kinsey’s request, I examined that data. As I reported at the county hearing on May 8, 2007, the data did not support their accusations.  

At that same hearing, Dr. Sarah Allen made her infamous 80 percent claim—that harbor seals were down 80 percent at one location due to the oyster farm. The next day I did what any scientist would do: I wrote and asked her to share the data and methods on which she had based the claim. She never replied.  

By that point I had been a practicing scientist for more than 30 years and was an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences. Never in my career had I written such a request and not received an answer. As a result, I did something I had never before done: I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request. I didn’t know how to do it; my friend Mark Dowie taught me.  

Then I got another surprise. Park Service Regional Director Jon Jarvis responded and refused to share the data. He even refused to reveal the location at which the 80 percent decline occurred. Later, in the summer of 2007, Senator Dianne Feinstein instructed Mr. Jarvis to give me the data. He did so, and my analysis was clear: the 80 percent decline took place in the wilderness area, far from the oyster farm. When park scientists continued to refuse to talk, I published my findings in this newspaper. 

For several years afterward, park supporters publicly said I was wrong. Dr. Allen remained silent. Finally, in 2010, nearly three years after she made her claim, Dr. Allen retracted it.  

Since 2007, the park and its supporters have continued to make erroneous claims of environmental harm by the oyster farm, and as each claim is debunked, they abandon it and move on to a new
accusation.  

At first their focus was harbor seal disturbances. Those claims were put to rest when Dr. Brent Stewart, the marine mammal expert hired by the park to analyze the hundreds of thousands of secret photographs taken of seals and oyster boats, found “no evidence of disturbance.”  

One supporter, Dr. Sylvia Earle, evidently hasn’t read Dr. Stewart’s report. Earlier this year, she wrote to the federal court that “seals are being disturbed” by oyster boats. I wrote to her several times and asked to discuss the data. She never replied.

Park supporters have also focused on impacts to eelgrass, but according to the National Academy, eelgrass coverage has doubled in Drakes Estero in recent years. In the environmental impact statement, the focus was on soundscape, but that too was shown to be bogus.

Beginning in 2013, attention shifted to the colonial tunicate Didemnum vexillum, or Dvex. The first thing that should make you suspicious is that park supporters call the organism “marine vomit.” A Google Scholar search shows that serious scientists don’t use such words in their publications. A Google search shows that Amy Trainer of the Environmental Action Committee and her colleagues have used it. It also appears on a website called Street Carnage, under the headline “Marine vomit attacks British coast.” That website has a photo of Clint Eastwood with a rifle pointed at a poster of “Archie Bunker for President” on its home page.

Dvex is an invasive tunicate that colonizes bays and estuaries throughout the temperate waters of the world, from Venice Lagoon to the New Zealand coast. It was observed in Drakes Estero a decade ago, and has been found in San Francisco Bay, Half Moon Bay, Monterey Bay, Elkhorn Slough, Morro Bay, Tomales Bay, Humbolt Bay, Port San Luis and Bodega Bay. 

According to the National Academy, Dvex and other “non-indigenous species” are present in Drakes Estero, their “avenue of introduction is mostly unknown” and they “appear to be much less conspicuous than in nearby San Francisco Bay.” (Dvex most likely first washed into Drakes Estero in the tides.) Thus, there is nothing surprising about Dvex in Drakes Estero, given its worldwide distribution and appearance up and down the California coast.  

Dvex was also reported on eelgrass at both Martha’s Vineyard and Tomales Bay. In 2011, Dr. Ted Grosholz reported it on eelgrass in Drakes Estero.

But in 2013, as other claims of harm were disproven, park supporters sounded a note of alarm about Dvex. In January and October 2013, Jude Stalker, at the request of EAC, studied Dvex in Drakes Estero. She called it “marine vomit” in a letter to EAC, suggesting advocacy, not science. Ms. Stalker ended by writing “please do not hesitate to contact me with questions.” I did just that, contacting her four times, asking to discuss her data. She never replied.

Ms. Stalker found Dvex on some eelgrass in one arm of Drakes Estero, in essentially the same location where Dr. Grosholz found it in 2011. There is no reason to conclude that anything has changed, or that Drakes Estero is more imperiled by this tunicate than any other bay along the California coast or around the world.  

Responding to these alarms, the California Coastal Commission now demands that the oyster farm douse Drakes Estero with bleach and vinegar and wrap the oyster racks with massive amounts of plastic, to try to kill the ubiquitous tunicate. Such impaired judgment is another good reason to openly discuss and debate the facts.  

Seven years into this debate, the pattern is clear: I keep offering to discuss the data—a normal part of the scientific process—and people on the other side steadfastly refuse. This, to me, is evidence that they are advocates and not scientists. As the court case moves forward, expect more alarming claims. But don’t expect them to have any more merit than the many previous false, and retracted, claims. Science, after all, is about debate and discourse, not twisting facts to fit a preconceived ideology. Scientists have three words for such behavior: fear of facts. 

 

Corey Goodman, a biologist, University of California, San Francisco faculty member and elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, lives in Marshall.