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I’ll Have the Sushi, Hold the Guilt

Conservationists say they don’t want to put a price tag on a whale. But right now, the price of a whale is zero.”

Chris Costello, Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics at UC Santa Barbara

I always feel guilty about eating sushi, but I don’t want to. I am a marine biologist, and I study fisheries science.  But whenever I eat sushi, I don’t care who caught the fish, how fishermen caught the fish, or where the fish came from. I just want to savor the light, salty flavors of raw fish in peace. Maguro (tuna) sashimi and nigiri are my favorite types of sushi for their purity and simplicity: one slice of fish, a grain of wasabi, a dip of soy sauce, and maybe a thumb of rice. The focal point of the meal is the fish, not the potentially unsustainable chain of events that brought the fish to my plate.

The guilt sets in on the drive home. I should have asked more – any – questions about the restaurant’s fish. I should have used that knowledge to determine which restaurants to frequent and which to avoid. I should spread that information among friends and family and support restaurants that highly value sustainability. But I don’t. I continually follow the path of least resistance by not questioning sushi restaurants, and in doing so, I relinquish the restaurants of any responsibility to support sustainable seafood. My apathy is selfish, even though maintaining the world’s fish for generations to come is and will be the focus of my academic research.

01_07_2013_expensive-tunaIt’s as if I am two different people. There’s me at a sushi restaurant. I want to eat sushi, I want to enjoy it, and nothing else matters. Then there’s me at school, dedicating my research towards marine conservation. Sushi-me is a consumer, and consumer demand for seafood drives overfishing around the world. Academic-me believes that consumers like sushi-me should choose their seafood and seafood restaurants wisely, taking the advice of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program or the Marine Stewardship Council. Academic-me believes that some sacrifices need to be made i order to preserve fish in the future.

Fish were once considered an inexhaustible resource, but today, we know that such is not the case. Fisheries management strategies limit fishermen’s ability to catch fish in order to preserve fish populations in the long-term future. Governments may prevent fishermen from using a certain number of boats, limit fishing to a certain time of the year, or set a ceiling on the amount of fish fishermen can catch. Limitations can have significant economic costs on the people and communities that rely on fish for their incomes. I believe that the future sustainability of seafood will depend on our ability to agree on goals.

I spent six months studying Japanese language and culture in Japan and gained a deeper understanding of how complex people’s relationship to fish can be. Japan is a nation that lacks natural resources, like arable land or natural oil supplies, but it does have seas full of seafood. Fish has been a central staple of the Japanese diet since the earliest days of Japanese civilization. Today, Japan consumes 135.5 pounds of seafood per person each year, nearly three times the amount of seafood consumption in the United States. I lived in a rural town called Tsuru, about two hours west of Tokyo and near the base of Mt. Fuji, yet I could buy bluefin tuna and kujira, whale meat, on a daily basis. Bluefin and whale are even easier to buy in big cities like Tokyo or Osaka, despite their classifications as “Avoid” and “Red List” species by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and Greenpeace, respectively. The Japanese government has resisted international calls to reduce whaling, perhaps for financial reasons or perhaps because of this deep national tie to seafood. As a result, any seafood reform in Japan will likely need to come from the people.

WhaleI study catch shares which scientists have proposed could solve whaling issues worldwide. Scientists at UC Santa Barbara argue, in a Nature article, that catch shares could create a market for whales and focus conservation groups’ efforts. Despite the IWC’s anti-whaling mandates, an estimated 1,600 fin and minke whales are killed off Norway, Japan, and Iceland. Commercial whaling operations earn an estimated $31 million in profits while conservation groups spend about $25 million in anti-whaling efforts. Despite $25 million worth of conservation, nearly twice as many whales are killed today compared to the early 1990s. Under a catch share system, conservation groups would be able to purchase whale shares and eliminate financial incentives to catch whales. $25 million spent on whale catch shares instead of chasing whaling boats around the ocean would save 81% of the world’s whales. Critics argue that whales are not resources and a price can’t be put on a whale’s life, but while these ideals are understandable, it is clear that they lead to little whale conservation.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council implemented a catch share program for fish on the west coast of the U.S. in 2010.  Under a catch share system, individual fishermen or groups of fishermen are allocated a set amount of fish. This share represents a fraction of the total allowable catch (TAC), a value calculated by fisheries scientists that represents a sustainable fishing level in the long run. Fishermen can sell or lease their catch shares to others, much like someone can sell or lease their house. A catch share in a collapsed fishery will have little or no value, just as a home in disrepair will have little or no value. As a result, fishermen have financial incentive to follow established fishing rules and regulations. Fishery health is represented in the catch share’s value, and older fishermen often fund their retirements by selling their catch shares.

Catch shares account for fishermen’s livelihoods and sustainability, perhaps better than any other fisheries management strategy. I want to be able to sit down at a sushi restaurant, order whatever I want on the menu, and not feel guilty about my choices. I think catch shares are the most plausible way to make my vision a reality.


The ecological detective: Sifting and sorting to uncover pattern

The author hikes through the Big Creek Gorge, on the lookout for pictographs.

The author hikes through the Big Creek Gorge, on the lookout for pictographs.

   By Emily Davis

  Patterns are what make disparate facts, random events, signify.  –David Quammen, science journalist

Six-thirty a.m., and the air is already warming, the sky above the canyon rim a pale, pale yellow.  I gulp the rest of my coffee and hurriedly lace my boots.  The grouse foraging in the pasture around the cabin cluck at me as I nearly trip down the porch steps and jog down through the tall grass to the bridge, backpack jouncing.  Today, I’m going eight miles upriver to one of my study sites at Cave Creek, and it is a race between me and the sun.  Once it peeks out from over the canyon rim, it will dissolve the shadows and evaporate the scant dew from the tinder-dry snowberries and Saskatoon in this charred, arid landscape.

I am forty miles from the nearest trailhead in Idaho’s Frank Church wilderness, a chunk of public land larger than Rhode Island, frantically racing the sun, because I am trying to be a detective.  An ecological detective, that is.  I’m a graduate student in aquatic ecology, and all this pre-dawn racing around is in pursuit of data for a thesis.  In this semiarid landscape high in the interior Columbia basin, wildfire is a frequent and important part of the natural history. The steep slopes around me are covered with what appear to be giant black toothpicks: hundreds of thousands of dead trees, snags that went up in flames in one of several recent wildfires.  These rocky coulees have seen more than a dozen severe wildfires over the last thirty years, not to speak of countless smaller burns. Below, Big Creek—a misnomer, as it’s really more river-sized—carves down through the granite bedrock.

I am hunting for clues, clues to the puzzle of how wildfire, a catastrophic disturbance in the terrestrial environment, shapes and sculpts both physical form and invisible process in the dozens of networked streams that make up the Big Creek watershed.  Over hundreds of miles of stream and thousands of square kilometers of land, how does the ecological drama of disturbance play out?

Natural disturbance events, like fire or flood, aren’t necessarily catastrophes, as we humans might think of them.  It all depends on your perspective.  Looked at in the short term, we might seea disturbance  as something bad, something that temporarily wreaks havoc on a population of fish or frogs or bankside willows.  But when examined over decades and centuries, it becomes clear that these events are part of an important process of ecosystem self-rejuvenation.  The landslides and extreme sediment erosion that choke a stream after a fire will eventually spread down the stream, becoming important habitat structure for riverine critters.  Dead trees slide down hills and become logjams where baby fish can hide from great blue herons and otters.  Gravel eroding off the hillside helps rebuild streambeds so they don’t scour to bare rock.  Soil erosion downslope brings nutrients from the land to the water.

Disturbance doesn’t hurt OR benefit ecosystems.  It is nowhere near that simple.  Disturbance hurts AND benefits ecosystems.  It’s all in the context: the when, the how, the where.  In a landscape, there is no such thing as “balance” or “harmony.”  Everything is in motion, a complex suite of dynamic, fluctuating forces, pushing and pulling evolution this way and that.

Space as well as time makes a difference to how we view and study disturbance.  Fires burn hot in some places, cool in others, and leave others unscathed, creating patches of different kinds of habitat across a landscape. When I flew in to the Taylor Ranch Research Station in June on a tiny, three-passenger bush plane, from the air I saw a breathtaking patchwork quilt of barrenness and productivity in the canyons and ridgetops.  Some slopes had burned, nothing left but brown soil and black snags; others had not, still fuzzy with greenery; and some were in between.  Some burns were old, their snags a silvery gray, charred bark weathered off.  Disparate facts, random events.  But string the beads together, and there is pattern.

Seven-thirty a.m., and it’s already at least 80 degrees.  Sweat beads on my forehead. Every time I round a bend in the trail, which follows the river, there is a blessed patch of shade.  Each charred downed log I clamber over in the trail leaves me smudged with ash that mixes with sweat to form a salty black slurry on my skin. There’s no way I’ll make it to Cave Creek before the temperatures hit 100 degrees, but at least once I get there I get to slosh around in the creek, cooling off before the dreaded hike back.

In the Big Creek watershed where I work, streams in severely burned areas experience a “pulse” of productivity after fire.  Fire clears the forest canopy, letting more light into the stream; burnt organic material brings nutrients.  Streams start churning out more aquatic insects like caddisflies and midges, and in turn attracting more predators like bats and spiders to the surrounding woods.  Whether or not fish also benefit from this pulse, whether it propagates up to the highest level of the food chain, no one really knows.  Which is part of why I’m out here slogging upriver in an early-morning panic, trying to beat the heat – to find out.

The Frank Church wilderness is vast, as big as Ireland, and the most recent severe fire in the Big Creek watershed—the Diamond Peak fire—covered thousands of acres.  So studying its effects in just one tiny stream won’t do.  Instead, to see the varied and aggregate effects on aquatic life —algae, zooplankton, stream bugs and fish—my task is much larger.  I must “zoom out” my perspective, taking into account the whole watershed, how one stream is connected to another, and how a fire in one part of a tributary might eventually impact the river downstream.

To gain this “riverscape” perspective, I hike up to twenty miles per day, each day, to reach my many stream sites throughout the basin.  My sites range from the cool, spring-fed headwaters ringed with fir and spruce, to the dry, shrub-steppe desert of its confluence with the Middle Fork of the Salmon forty miles downstream. The network is as labyrinthine as neurons in the brain, made of many interconnecting cogs. Rivulets link the canyon slopes to the gravel bars of streams, which link to the swirling waters of each tributary confluence.  Nutrients, sediment, gravel, logs, nutritious detritus and insects, zooplankton: they all eventually move downstream.  Nothing is isolated in an interconnected stream network.

My work lies at the fertile intersection of landscape ecology, disturbance ecology and aquatic ecology.  As an ecological detective searching for pattern and link in this overwhelmingly complex environment, my job is to decide: how will I look, where, and how? Will I concentrate on the smallest details—algae growing on rocks, caddis cases scattered across a sandy bottom—or will I look at the big picture, the polygons of brown and green, burned and live, I can see from the air? Landscape ecology is like looking at a painting by Monet.  You walk up close to the painting and it looks like a bunch of random brushstrokes.  Back away, and the brushstrokes resolve themselves into something with order and meaning.  It’s choosing how close you need to be to inspect the “painting” that is the important part.

Like archaeology, ecology requires a lot of sifting. Archaeologists in this particular Idaho canyon sift through the garbage middens of the vanished Tukudeka people. The Tukudeka, or Sheepeaters, were bighorn-sheep hunters, related to the contemporary Shoshone-Bannock tribes. They were banished to Fort Hall reservation after the 1868 Sheepeater War, where they assimilated into the other Shoshone groups.  Now archaeologists spend years seeking and brushing clean the thousands of bone, basket, house and tool fragments scattered throughout the silty soil, until a picture emerges of the village that used to occupy a river bar. Here, the pit house, made of thatched giant Idaho ryegrass, with wooden platform beds. And there, the village fishing spot, where the people constructed weirs of woven willow and alder to trap migrating salmon.

I see these places on a daily basis while walking the trails, and wonder about the people who occupied them.  The Tukudeka, too, were ecological detectives, in their way.  They used the patterns they observed over decades and centuries of residence in this place to learn how best to live here.  When to travel into the mountains for huckleberries, where to find the bighorn sheep in the spring, what those clouds in the western sky meant for tomorrow’s weather.  They read the landscape and used the information for their livelihoods.  Archaeologists also use the patterns evident on the landscape—structural remains or buried items—to infer the answers to their questions.  How many people lived here, what did they eat, what did they trade, what gods did they pray to, and what did they value most?

I am also trying to read the landscape.  But the patterns I’m interested in—stream productivity, temperature, light and dissolved oxygen, water chemistry—are much more elusive, leaving ephemeral, intangible marks that require sophisticated instrumentation to measure.  I am scrutinizing the hills and the waters for things that are really hard to find, while trying not to invent patterns out of nowhere.  It’s possible that the data I gather will show that there is no cause-effect, push-pull influence of wildfire and productivity, that disturbance doesn’t generate strong, predictable effects: in other words, that things are just operating at random.  No scientist likes putting in time and effort to discover that their cherished hypotheses are null, that things are just arbitrary.  We humans like pattern.  We like story. It’s in our nature to give things a narrative. If there’s no pattern, then there’s no story: just a bunch of haphazard data points.  But worse than finding no effect would be accidentally (or purposefully) imposing a pattern where there was none to begin with, perhaps by mis-reading the data, perhaps by wishful thinking or deliberate spin.  Nature is messy as hell, and trying to shoehorn it into equations or make it conform to your personal hypotheses rarely turns out well for the investigator.

Unlike archaeologists, who sift through tangible, physical objects, I sift through numerical data to find patterns.  But much like them, I will probably never have a totally complete model to answer the questions I seek.  There is always guesswork, always gaps.  The Tukudeka drew pictographs in red paint on the walls of the Big Creek Gorge, in places they could only have reached by scrambling up rocky overhangs, dangling out over the turbulent water.  Some of the pictographs look like tally marks.  Some are clearly animals, and one looks like the sun.  But we can only make educated guesses about the stories they were telling and why they were told.  I am trying to piece together a story about disturbance in this landscape, but sometimes I feel like my data are as mysterious, as silent, as the ancient red pictographs.

In science, the aim is to tell a story, as accurately as possible, about an organism or process or system of interest. You frame and build a narrative through the collection and analysis of data, then weave it into a believable fable. Unfortunately, enthusiasm doesn’t guarantee success.  Months of fieldwork and labwork might result in nothing, no catchy headline for Science or Nature.  More likely, you’ll chase red herrings for years, and if you’re very lucky, maybe you’ll uncover some well-supported, replicable conclusions a couple of times in your career.  So you better enjoy what you do.  While normal, regular, happy people hike on well-maintained trails to mountain peaks and scenic overlooks, biologists, who have probably forgotten their lunches, must crash through thornbushes and spiderwebs to get to their study sites in the mosquito-ridden mud flats.  Here I am, risking heatstroke and bear attacks to take a few water samples and scoop up some bugs on the bottom of rocks, and all for the sake of some scientific storytelling that might not even play out.  The science I do, trying to integrate a whole damn watershed into one or two well-appointed sentences about what’s happening, can seem pretty futile sometimes, like chipping away at Half Dome with a needle, trying to make a sculpture.

But the process of incrementally searching for clues can be rewarding. The slow collection of building blocks is calming (if not eventually fruitful).  You have to listen and you have to look, or you’ll miss the patterns you’ve come to gather up so that, from thousands and thousands of numbers, you can weave a tapestry that tells a story about a landscape. In listening and in looking, in this pattern-gathering, your mind gets engaged and slows down and stops chewing itself ragged.

The sun was high once I reached Cave Creek that day.  I walked up the stream, stepping slowly over rocks and scouting for a good place to take samples.  My mind slowed down and switched into a mode of extreme lucidity. I noticed everything: moose and otter tracks in the mud, blooming elderberry, the raspy call of a magpie. I wondered if Tukudeka people had lived on the flats here.

Once I reached my study site, I finally put down my backpack.  The sun was now directly overhead, but up to my shins in cold water, the heat now felt good. I measured water velocity, installed my water chemistry sensor and lightmeter, collected algae samples, and finally prepared to suit up for my favorite part of the survey: counting fish populations in the stream.  The idea is that severely burned streams undergoing the “fire pulse” of productivity will attract more fish.

Covered head to toe in neoprene, I donned my dorky-looking snorkel and mask, shuffled down the gravel bar to water’s edge, flopped belly-down into the water, took a gurgly breath through the snorkel, and took my bearings.  The bottom of the river was darkly cobbled with mussels, and just to my left I perceived movement: the quick-flash of a tail, gone into the shadow under a boulder. I craned my neck downwards, peering under the boulder, and almost bumped noses with a big female Chinook salmon. She sat quietly in the dark, gilling rhythmically in and out, waiting until a cooler time of day to move upriver.

The hard work of scientific storytelling may result in a Monet, or maybe the data will just disappoint with a scattershot Jackson Pollock.  But even if my data don’t bear out my own hypotheses about disturbance and aquatic ecosystems, it’s moments like these that make up for it. Leaving the salmon to her own devices, I kicked my legs and floated downstream to the next pool.

Emily Davis spends her summers clawing her way through riparian vegetation, scrubbing algae off of rocks, and constantly re-applying sunscreen.  She is a Master’s student at the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

Global overfishing study points the way forward


Small Fisheries are in Trouble

Fish are food, and fish are money.

In the Lesser Sunda Islands on the southern border of Indonesia a fisherman pushes off the dock in a wooden boat wide enough to fit only his seated body. His paddle dips into the still-dark, glassy surface of the Indian Ocean sending ripples that radiate out of sight. He sets off to fish, much like his father and his father’s father.

His ancestors tell stories of the ocean’s bounty, when fish were plentiful, fish were big, and fishing was easy. Today, the fisherman goes to the same places, but now, he has to fish for a week to catch what they caught in a day. The fish are small and sell for next to nothing.

The fishing woes of the Lesser Sunda are no doubt caused by overfishing, but taking protectionist actions which could let the fish rebound has in the past been hindered by weak regulations and government corruption which hinders enforcement.

The Indonesian people know that their fish are in trouble, but nobody has known exactly how dire the situation nor exactly what to do about it.

Indonesia’s situation is far from unique.

A study published in Science in September shows that 65% of the world’s small previously unassessed fisheries are overfished. Most are in developing nations, like Indonesia, where declining fish populations are having a devastating effect on the people whose lives and livelihoods revolve around fishing.

Prior to the study, experts had evaluated the status of only one third of the world’s fisheries, leaving the vast majority of fish uncounted. Without assessments, it’s nearly impossible for fishing communities, biologists and governments to make decisions about how to better manage fishing efforts so that species — and catch rates — could rebound.

But the days of unassessed fisheries may be coming to a close as the study describes a cheaper, faster, but more crude method for performing the much-needed assessments for previously unaccounted for fisheries.

Behind the study, a reason for optimism

Indonesia’s fishing industry leaders saw that their situation was dire, and banded together to improve longterm prospects. Though the nation lacked the resources to conduct formal fisheries stock assessments, which are notoriously expensive. So fishing leaders collaborated to hire fisheries experts in the Sustainable Fisheries Group at the  Uuniversity of California, Santa Barbara, (UCSB) to figure out how to conduct faster, cheaper but still effective fisheries assessments. These scientists partnered with ecologists at the University of Washington (WHO?).

pic2The researchers then analyzed existing data collected by the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which has annually recorded the total weights of fish caught in nations around the world since the 1950s. The authors figured out how to extrapolate that data and create assessments for the 70 percent of fisheries that were previously unaccounted for.

The new assessment method tells the story of a fish population in the past and present, with a fraction of the data necessary for a traditional stock assessment. Results indicate that if all small, unassessed fisheries were able to implement management strategies like territorial user rights fisheries, that do not require strong government infrastructure , and recover to sustainable levels, sustainable harvest levels would increase by 60%. While painful in the short term, the increased yields would benefit fishing communities in the longterm.

Fishermen will always have stories of the way things were. But hopefully research like this and effective, grassroots management will improve global fisheries. Perhaps someday the fishermen’s stories will be about how much worse things once were.

Peter Kuriyama is a graduate student at University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

Pseudoscience and journalistic responsibility: CNN’s ‘Women, Hormones, and Voting’ article isn’t all bad

IMG_0471By Emily Davis

There’s been a fair bit of kerfuffle on the Interwebs recently regarding an article about women, hormones, and voting at The article, based on a study forthcoming in Psychological Science entitled “The Fluctuating Female Vote: Politics, Religion, and the Ovulatory Cycle,” asserts that female voting behavior and political ideology is closely tied to where a woman is in her ovulatory cycle.  Silly women.  Always getting their periods! Always influencing elections with their hormone-crazed voting behaviors!

Go ahead and cringe: everyone else is doing it, including CNN.

CNN promptly rescinded the article “Study looks at hormones and voting” from its website, due to an onslaught of angry reader comments.  For touting what many are calling a pseudoscientific study, CNN and the article’s author, journalist Elizabeth Landau, have drawn the ire of the reading public, as well as bloggers and journalists from sites like Jezebel(2), DailyKos(3), and The Washington Post Opinion page(4).  CNN, which apparently can’t win on either end of the controversy, has also been lambasted for taking down the article in the first place by some outlets which invoke a journalistic double-standard(5).

I’m cringing too, but for a different reason than most other people.  The problem I see is not that CNN somehow thought this study was good science and covered it as such.  While Landau could have done a better job framing the Durante study, her piece does not play up the study’s credibility.  Rather, the issue is that CNN got cold feet from the response of a reactionary public, and self-censored what could have been a valuable opportunity for teaching scientific literacy and critical thinking. For this reason, I wish CNN had kept the article up.

The consequences of censorship

What do we lose as a society when our media chooses not to cover controversial or downright bad science like that represented by the Durante study? Most importantly, we lose an opportunity to teach critical thinking and scientific literacy; we lose an opportunity to have a dialogue about what kind of research is valid and what kind is valuable.  But there may also be more serious implications.  If journalists like Landau can be thought of as “whistleblowers,” pointing a finger at bad science, then what CNN did represents a kind of censorship.  Seeing how Landau was made an example of may dissuade other journalists from choosing to cover other controversial or bad science, causing a chilling effect—the suppression of speech or conduct from fear.

I agree that a news-media outlet like CNN should have high journalistic standards regarding the science it chooses to cover: objective coverage of important and interesting science, explained in a clear way to non-scientists, avoiding sensationalism, approaching pseudoscience with a healthy dose of skepticism. In this regard, the CNN journalist did her job, for the most part.  The CNN article that is being criticized is, itself, critical of the study it was highlighting, including skepticism and rebuttal from experts who express their concern at the methods and assumptions of the “Fluctuations” study.  The Landau article is at least 70% skepticism.

One thing our news-media could do much more of is help to educate the public on what is good science and what is not good science.  The public needs good science translated to us so we can understand what the latest developments are, and why they are important.  Just as urgently, though, we also need bad science translated to us, so we can understand why something may not be true despite its label as “science,” and why this matters. We want our journalists to cover bad politics so we can understand what our leaders are doing and why it may or may not be in our best interests—why not also cover bad science and how it might affect us?

From science to snake oil

It may help to understand some of the details of the “scientific” study in question.  To begin, it’s worth noting that the study’s author, Dr. Kristina Durante(1), is faculty in the Department of Marketing, College of Business at the University of Texas, San Antonio. Her premise builds on the fact that women who are ovulating “feel sexier,” apparently evolution’s way of saying ‘go have sex now so you can conceive.’ Biologists, psychologists, and neuroendocrinologists have been aware of this phenomenon for decades. However, beyond that well-established point, the study dives head-first from science into the realm of pure snake oil.

Durante’s “study” was conducted as a self-reporting Internet survey, composed of very few, very broadly worded multiple-choice questions—cue suspicious eyebrow raise. According to Durante, for single women, ovulating (= feeling sexier) leads to an increased likelihood of thinking and voting liberally (so we can have more abortions, DUH).  On the other hand, in married women, ovulation leads to an increased likelihood of thinking and voting conservatively.  For example, Durante posits that because a married woman “feels sexier” when ovulating, said married woman would choose a more conservative candidate as an automatic, non-conscious way of assuaging all that terrible sexytimes guilt.  This notion that married women feel guilt at their sexuality, but unmarried women do not, is just one of many unfounded conjectures that Durante blithely makes as she traipses through the study like a bull in a china shop.

The twenty-six page travesty grinds painfully, but unconvincingly, through the motions of the scientific method.  Its results are dressed up with p-values and other fancy trappings of statistical significance that are supposed to cue scientific respect (Look Ma! I’m doing Real Science!).  Yet even tables and scatterplots fail to disguise that the study is childishly simplistic and hugely presumptive in its dualistic, reductionist depictions of single vs married women and liberal vs conservative thinking. Given the enormous diversity of backgrounds and issues dealt with by women, assuming that there is a dominant driver of voting preference in women, and that it is a physical, corporeal factor, is almost adorably naïve—and dangerously reductionist.

My reaction isn’t just a knee-jerk feminist response to the premise that ladies are slaves to our hormonal urges, unable to override them using our cute little lady-brains.  I keep abreast of this sort of science, and I’ve actually read some solid studies showing that hormonal shifts can and do have subtle effects on human behavior—unlike Durante, usually the study authors are cautious about the implications of their work, and pepper it with many caveats.  Durante’s paper, on the other hand, is riddled with speculation, dangerous assumptions, and gaps.  So it’s understandable that the public reacted so strongly to Landau’s coverage of it, even though some of their reactions may have been misplaced.

Media responsibility

While studies like Durante’s are disturbing, pseudoscience has always been around, and always will be.  Bad science gets weeded out over time as fellow scientists notice it and shame its perpetrators into having higher standards, or isolate them from the rest of the scientific community.  It’s just that normally, bad science doesn’t get such widespread public attention—or, if it does, it isn’t called out as “bad” science.

Yet hardly any private citizens would have seen the study had it not been featured in a major news outlet, as most of us do not review the evolutionary psychology literature on a regular basis.  This fact speaks loudly to the important role of media in deciding for the larger culture what science is “important” and what science isn’t.

I’m always thinking about ways to best communicate my science to the public; this includes scheming up ways to make sure the media are aware of my work in ecology and conservation science, and why it’s important.  In short, I want the media to cover my science because without media coverage, political support, public buy-in, and funding for science can be sparse.  But it’s the media’s job, not us scientists’, to decide which studies are worthy of public attention and analysis.  This is no small responsibility for journalists.  After all, what the media decides is worthy of public attention is the only science most of us will ever read or be aware of.  It is part of the media’s job to increase our scientific literacy.

Many journalists are committed to helping make science more comprehensible for the public, and try to do so by covering science in an objective manner that takes complicated, jargon concepts and translates them into English.  But the other side of the coin is missing.  Outside of the op-ed sphere, there are very few journalistic articles that intentionally take on a pseudoscientific or just plain badly done study and objectively, critically deconstruct it.  Landau’s article does exactly this.

Take a closer look: The article itself

Though officially un-posted from the website, the text of Landau’s article was copy-and-pasted by several enterprising and irate journalists and can now be found at DailyKos, among other websites.   Ms. Landau’s piece started off with a more neutral or even positive tone toward the study than I approve of.  But if you actually read it through rather than simply reacting to its title or first few sentences, it actually debunks the Durante study. In that sense, Ms. Landau’s article is a valuable piece of science journalism, of a type that we are in dire need of.

Not even three sentences in, the Landau piece alerts its readers that the Durante study needs to be taken with at least one grain of salt:

Please continue reading with caution. Although the study will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science, several political scientists who read the study have expressed skepticism about its conclusions.

Landau’s article continues in this cautious vein, using the word “controversial” three separate times, and citing rebuttals from three experts in related disciplines.  One of the most scathing—which sums up how I feel about the Durante study myself—is as follows:

There is absolutely no reason to expect that women’s hormones affect how they vote any more than there is a reason to suggest that variations in testosterone levels are responsible for variations in the debate performances of Obama and Romney,” said Susan Carroll, professor of political science and women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, in an e-mail.

Carroll sees the research as following in the tradition of the “long and troubling history of using women’s hormones as an excuse to exclude them from politics and other societal opportunities.”

“It was long thought that a woman shouldn’t be president of the U.S. because, God forbid, an international crisis might happen during her period!” Carroll said.

Judging by the actual content of her article, Elizabeth Landau does not deserve the beating she has received from bloggers and journalists.  Though she could have done a better job of framing the Durante piece as pseudoscience, Landau takes the study to task and offers readers the opportunity to question it.

The American public is woefully scientifically illiterate, in that the public does not understand how science is supposed to work in general, and is largely unable to critically assess a study as a valuable contribution to science.  To many Americans, “Science” (with a capital S) is an ethereal, unfamiliar thing practiced clandestinely by eggheads in labcoats, an activity to which they will never be party.

But the core of science is not a special VIP lounge accessible only to the very brainy.  The core of science is the act of asking a question, trying to answer the question, then using the neurons we were all born with to critically assess whether the results make sense and whether the way the question was answered is valid.  You don’t need to be a specialist to think critically.  That’s what all those angry commenters, members of the general public, were demonstrating when they posted their rants to CNN about how flawed the Durante study was. The commenters were actively participating in a dialogue that we, as a society, do not have nearly often enough about good science, bad science, and everything in between.

Why not let the readers of have their say? It’s not Elizabeth Landau and her editors who should be taking the flak for publishing this article to, exposing bad science for what it is. We need more articles exposing, deconstructing, and objectively criticizing pseudoscience, in order to keep raising public scientific literacy.  Badly done, CNN: your censorship did no one any good. Instead, it’s Kristina Durante and her accomplices who should rightly be taking the heat for a poorly written, poorly conducted study that contains more speculations than actual conclusions.

Emily Davis is a female voter currently in the Master’s program at UW’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.  She hopes to produce both good science and good journalism in the coming years.


If You Can’t Take the Heat, Get Out of the River: Study finds Salmon Stressed by Warming Waters, Non-Native Predators

The author holds a female spring Chinook she found while surveying for spawner carcasses.

By Emily Davis

Most of us are aware that chronic stress can be bad for human health: studies show increased risk for diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and depression. But humans aren’t alone in suffering from chronic stress: Animals suffer, too. Researchers in the Olden Freshwater Ecology Lab (University of Washington) and the U.S. Geological Survey recently published a study in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences  (1) showing that native Chinook salmon are also stressed out. The study, led by researcher Lauren Kuehne, is one of the first to examine the effects of combined stressors on salmon behavior and health. When confronted with multiple threats like predators and warm temperatures, salmon have trouble multitasking. Using up their reserves to escape and avoid predators leaves them with less energy to grow larger or combat illness.

The study shows that everyday, low-level stress matters to wildlife—so removing even just one stressor from a habitat may improve their chances.

Salmon habitat in the Northwest is changing rapidly due to a combination of warming climate and spreading populations of non-native predator fish. These newer threats loom over an already-struggling group of wild salmon populations, previously decimated by habitat loss and overfishing, and listed as endangered throughout much of their range. Despite millions of dollars poured into restoration over the last twenty years, little has changed: fish populations continue to decline. Kuehne’s study is important because it may help explain why: it’s possible that chronic stressors are to blame.

Juvenile Chinook salmon

What do fish have to be stressed about? Quite a bit.

Chinook salmon need cold water to thrive, but the rivers these salmon call home have been warming up. According to a 2011 report by researchers at the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station (2), average daily temperatures in streams and rivers across the northwestern US have risen 1.5 degrees since 1980—not trivial for fish. The trend is predicted to continue as climate change progresses. In summer, water temperatures, especially in streams with dams or irrigation diversions. may soar above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. That can be a lethal temperature for young salmon.

As temperatures warm, conditions become more favorable for some salmon predators.  Smallmouth bass, one of the most voracious, were introduced for recreational fishing to the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s, and quickly spread throughout the Columbia Basin. Many non-native predators thrive in warmer conditions; climate change gives them the opportunity to expand their range and potential impacts on salmon.

The majority of research into temperature and predation stress in juvenile salmon has focused on what are known as lethal effects, death as a direct result of the stress. The UW study is novel because it included sublethal effects—indirect changes that may harm, but not directly kill, the young salmon. Because these indirect effects are harder to measure than a dramatic population decline, considerably less is known about them.

“Persistent and cumulative environmental change is perhaps more dangerous than dramatic, sudden changes,” explains Kuehne, “because the effects may not show up all at once.” Indirect effects may have significant long-term effects on animals in the wild, just as a desk worker experiencing chronic stress at the office might eventually come down with high blood pressure or depression, shortening his or her lifespan.

Artificial stream channels at the Western Fisheries Research Center. Photo by Julian Olden.

Kuehne used a stock of juvenile Chinook salmon native to Eastern Washington’s Yakima River, where juvenile salmon routinely encounter temperatures of 62-64 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, and where 68 degrees—a very stressful temperature for salmon—is predicted to be the norm for the region in future climate scenarios. The research took place at Seattle’s Western Fisheries Research Center (WFRC), a facility managed by the US Geological Survey.

The research team evaluated juvenile salmon response to stress using controlled lab experiments in artificial stream channels designed to mimic river conditions. Some fish were exposed to a single stress, such as warmer water, and others to multiple stresses, such as warmer water plus smallmouth bass. The authors also tested the fish for hormones such as glucose, indicating how much energy fish have available for growth, and cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol functions to jump-start a variety of anti-stress reactions in human bodies and salmon bodies alike—suppressing immune response and diverting energy from regular growth to our “fight or flight” response.

The salmon in warm water spent more time and, more importantly, energy, trying to get away from the predators. This meant that with each added stressor, fish growth was further reduced—by up to one third in the most stressful treatment.  More stress also meant higher levels of cortisol. It’s a trade-off: The fish have a limited amount of reserves and when they must use their reserves to respond to one stress, they seem to have little left over for growing and for dealing with other threats.

Kuehne believes that the fish in her experiments might represent just the tip of the iceberg: “One thing to consider is that animals in the wild are potentially facing more sources of stress than the ones in the lab experiment.”

What doesn’t outright kill the salmon makes them weaker. In warming rivers, salmon and other fish face severely compromised long-term growth, disease resistance, and ability to avoid predators.  A salmon that can’t put its energy toward growth is less likely to survive in the ocean, where smaller fish are more readily preyed upon by oceangoing predators.

If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.  And if we don’t work on improving conditions for juvenile salmon in Washington’s rivers, disease and predators might ensure they will do just that—leaving our region bereft of one of its most beloved fishes.   But there is hope.  Says Kuehne, “Any small thing we can do to stop piling on additional chronic stressors should benefit fish populations.”  Perhaps the cumulative impact of the many small conservation actions implemented by private citizens, nonprofits, and resource managers can add up to combat chronic salmon stress.



Emily Davis is a graduate student at the School of Fishery and Aquatic Sciences at the University of Washington.  Her stress levels fell considerably after finishing this article.

Do dolphins need harassment training?

By Jocelyn Robinson

In offices across corporate America, employees are required to attend sexual harassment training. While harassment seems like a distinctly human problem, new research shows that dolphins, everybody’s favorite marine mammal, also engage in what appears to be aggressive sexual harassment.

The authors of the report reviewed 22 years of behavioral studies for a particular population of Bottlenose dolphins who live in Shark Bay, on Australia’s west coast. Published in the online journal PLOS One, the authors found extensive reports of juvenile males who were routinely mounting even younger males.

Is this innocent play, you wonder? Some sort of dolphin equivalent to frat house hazing?

Hardly. This intimidating behavior inflicts high levels of stress on the calves, the Georgetown University researchers said, which can in turn cause the calves’ health to decline – and may contribute to early death.

A bottlenose dolphin surfs the wake of a research boat. (Courtesy NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

Margaret Stanton, a scientist of the Primate Behavioral Ecology Lab at George Washington University and lead researcher on the dolphin study, suggests juveniles may be inflicting this stress strategically, bullying the calves as a way of reducing future competition for mates.

Stanton and her colleagues set out to discover why death rates spiked after a calf weaned from its mother, which typically happens around age 3 or 4. They wanted to see whether the strength of a dolphin’s social network could help predict if a young dolphin would be more likely to survive as a juvenile.

Like other species, dolphins form and re-form social networks over the course of their lives. At birth, they are closely associated with the mother’s group.

“Bottlenose dolphin calves are able to swim at birth,” Stanton said via email. But, unlike primates, they are able to temporarily separate from their mothers at an early age, she said. This allows the young dolphins to interact socially with other dolphins without their mother’s supervision.

Past research suggested these separations allow young dolphins to develop social bonds and skills that are important for the future, especially for males, who rely on other males to gain access to females.

Social bonds lend health benefits. In humans, these relationships are linked to lower rates of mortality and disease. Conversely, social stress in animals, including rodents and primates, can cause aggressive behavior and affect weight, insulin production, testosterone levels and more. In dolphins and other social mammals, the presence of stress hormones may influence the immune system’s response to other stressors.

(Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)

In the case of the bottlenose dolphins, male calves that associate mostly with juvenile males are twice as likely to die than male calves who have strong ties to dolphins of other ages or sex.

The researchers theorize that the stress from the sexual harassment they experience may be driving that death rate.

The study showed that of all the interactions noted between juveniles and calves, mounting was the most prevalent type of behavior; other interactions include beak to genital contact and fin to genital contact.

The researchers differentiate between intimidation and play by looking at the lack of reciprocity between the juveniles and the calves.

“Male calves mount each other a relatively equal proportion of the time,” she said. “Conversely, juvenile males, who are larger than their calf counterparts, mount male calves much more than they allow male calves to mount them.”

These types of interactions took place between both related and non-related dolphins, Stanton added.

Stanton suggests this and further studies could help broaden understanding of sociality among mammals, and also the potentially deadly consequences those social networks can have.

Jocelyn Robinson is a graduate student in the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs. She passed her latest sexual harassment training with flying colors.

From Cannibals on Steamships and Dogs in Zeppelins to Peer-Reviewed Websites: polar science has come a long way, but not far enough.

Aronson in the Arctic

Aronson in the Arctic


There have been only two International Polar Years, where with fanfare researchers promote their collective efforts to document the Arctic. One hundred and forty years apart, both efforts were plagued with peril, but in different ways.

Until surprisingly recently, the most important question for Arctic scientists was, “Can we actually get there and survive the trip?” Before the days of daily Alaska Airlines flights to Barrow, attaining a presence in the Arctic was a life-threatening endeavor.

The First International Polar Year, in the 1880s, was an attempt by European and North American meteorologists to take the first standardized measurements of the Arctic, from currents to the Aurora to magnetic fluctuations. One highlight of the Polar Year was the tragically ill-planned Greely steamboat expedition, where ice blocked resupply ships and most of the research party fell to insurrection and cannibalism.

Forty years later, polar expeditions were still dodgy endeavors. Though not part of the Polar Year, but worth mentioning as evidence of how much creativity it took just to get there, Roald Amundsen, 15 other men, and one tiny lapdog named Titina headed north in 1926 in the cramped metal underbelly of the airship Norge. The balloon, filled with highly explosive hydrogen, made it to the pole but became so full of holes that the expedition had to set down early in Teller, Alaska. Amundsen later died on a rescue mission for a different airship attempting to return from the pole.

Amundsen's Polar Airship

Amundsen’s Polar Airship, Norge

These days, Arctic scientists don’t expect to flirt with death, but then again, neither do representatives of multinational companies looking to exploit the region’s natural resources.

Spurred by rapidly diminishing ice due to climate change, multinational corporations are sizing up the region’s potential for shipping, mining and drilling. The first drilling permits for the Chukchi Sea were sold to oil companies for 2.6 billion dollars in 2008.

Because the Arctic is treeless, dark (at least in winter, when polar night stretches for almost three months) and cold, it is easy to forget that it is not an empty freezer at the top of the globe.. It is home to 4 million people, 30 indigenous cultures and thousands of species that can live nowhere else. This landscape rich in cultural and ecological resources, now facing the potential for rapid degradation has inspired scientists, researchers and governments in 2007 to resurrect the International Polar Year to address the threats development poses to communities.

The IPY researchers created several website where scientists could post research and reports. Rather than keep science walled up in an ivory tower, these sites are intended to help communities stay informed about environmental changes and how major industries are wielding large amounts of money and influence to develop their backyards.

For example, scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado created, which includes a broad range of information, from traditional stories of northern indigenous people to meteorological reports.

However, a closer look at the websites that came out of the IPY effort shows that the promise of the Internet for saving Arctic knowledge remains only weakly realized. The researchers failed to address how Arctic residents would use the site when many communities lack the level of internet connectivity that less-remote places take for granted.

For example, GCI, Inc., which holds an internet monopoly in the Seward Peninsula of Alaska, offers only metered internet to its customers. Installation alone is $300, and the most generous plan is $100/month and still offers barely enough data to watch one Netflix movie. In Shaktoolik, AK, for example, a tiny coastal village of 250 people, the typical yearly income for one person is $10,000. Like many other services and utilities in the Arctic, internet in many places is both expensive and of a lesser quality than typically found in more populous places. When the stakes are as high as the survival of entire cultures and ecosystems, just putting data on a website is too simple, and simply not enough.

The Alaskan Village of Shaktoolik

The Alaskan Village of Shaktoolik

The Arctic is no longer a deadly, unexplored realm, but it still requires a special attitude for scientists. As Scott Highleyman, director of the Pew Arctic Program, says, “The number one rule is that you don’t come up North with preconceived ideas. You are looking for northern conservation solutions to northern problems.”

Let’s hope that in another 100 years, our academic descendants don’t look at the Arctic websites and consider them as deadly a mistake as the old-time explorers ever made.

@RachelAronson is a graduate student in Marine and Environmental Affairs. Her own website, probably won’t save the Arctic either.