Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Thing Not As Big As Was Originally Claimed

"None of us on that cruise had been to the patch, but we had all heard that it's twice the size of Texas. That's in a textbook. These statements are so frequent and in so many places that they are accepted as fact. But they undermine the credibility of those advocating for reduction of plastic pollution in the terrestrial and marine environments. Plastic is everywhere. But it's not a patch."
Oregon State University in Corvallis microbial oceanographer Angel White sets the record straight. Having once mentioned the alarming original claim myself, I feel an obligation to also further the debunking: There is not a patch of garbage twice as big as Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean. So that's good. But I hope this stops here. Because if Ms. White goes poking her nose into everything I've ever reported as being twice the size of Texas, I'm in big trouble.

11 Comments / Post A Comment

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

That first link don't work.

Dave Bry (#422)

I am your density.

(Fixed now. Thank you, Boy.)

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Hmm. Crying wolf or not, I think we're better off with the "zomg, it's Garbage Alaska in the middle of the ocean." It seems much more persuasive than three tiny pieces of plastic in a thousand Nalgene bottles.

While it may be the case that "the truth might actually be worse and far more insidious," the truth is also nuanced and far more difficult to wrap your head around.

deepomega (#1,720)

And yet, if Glenn Beck can put up a satellite photo of the pacific and point out the lack of a Texas of Trash (reality show coming to TLC this fall!) then environmentalists will look like the lying fear-mongerers he's already trying to paint us as.

Dave Bry (#422)

Yeah. I think scientists have to take the high road. As difficult as it is to combat the proud ignorance and head-in-the-sand attitudes with the sometimes difficult explanation of complicated stuff, it seems like there's more to lose by stooping to the level of sensationalism and truth-bending. So much damage was done by the exposure of the scientists emails questioning the global warming findings. And the "cover-up" aspect of the story, the "see, i told you they were lying!" i think, becomes the best ammunition for the stupids. People are too eager to believe that its all a conspiracy. (Because, like, whadaya mean global warming? It's really cold out today!) Scientists, and believers in science, have to be even better at crossing the T's and dotting the I's.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You guys are both right! And not that I actually wanted there to be an island of garbage twice the size of Texas floating out there, but at least it was something tangible that even the craziest of crazies could appreciate was a problem. Now we've got the worst of both worlds: scientists exposed as overzealous charlatans, and a legitimate environmental problem whose scale is hard to understand and easy to dismiss. It's a hopeless and desperate situation!

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

THANK YOU god I always thought this was bullshit.

I'm not sure what to make of this. Earlier articles and studies do point out that much of the plastic pollution is small fragments and particles, not large pieces. That's part of the problem. As the Discover article notes "their numbers were just about the same as what other studies have found." Meaning they were able to confirm the prior science.

The lead researcher, White, then says "You might see a piece of Styrofoam or a bit of fishing line float by at random intervals after hours or 20 minutes, but greater than 90 percent of the plastic was less than 10 millimeters in diameter." Again, this is exactly what the previous research has documented.

I come away with the impression that researchers themselves only bothered to read some hyperbolic news articles rather than the actual scientific papers before embarking on their expedition. It's the only way to explain that she was truly thinking there would be "floating towers of junk" across the Pacific. And she's at OSU! Which has awesome oceanography faculty! I am baffled.

Also, she hasn't published any of this data. Perhaps one should do that, especially if one complains about claims in the media unsupported by data.

Thus begins my science-and-media rage blackout for the week.

Dave Bry (#422)

Yeah. Good points. and i don't blame for instituting this week's blackout.

I think much of the problem came from the usage of the phrase "patch of garbage" and the photos that ran with stories that did show large, very visible floating piles of garbage. The original reporting should have made it clear that the 2x-Texas-sized patch (or the "gyre," as it was also sometimes called) was not actually solid-thick with visible garbage like that you could stand on. But was instead just a large area of the ocean wherein the water had a particularly high concentration of garbage floating in it. of course, that takes longer to say, and is less sensational than "garbage patch twice the size of texas." And then, with the photos, it's natural for the reader to picture a solid, texas-sized raft of garbage floating in the water that, like, people could stand on. Like how you can stand on texas. That is definitely what i envisioned.

Worst of all: now we all do the "oh, it's not as bad as we thought," articles. (Because it is not.) But, sadly, and importantly, it is still very very bad. All the tiny, less-visible bits in such high concentration.

Exactly. It comes across as "Gosh, those scientists were all wrong," rather than popular term results in a misleading perception. The latter is bad, to be sure, and it's the fault of scientists and reporters alike, but I worry more about the anti-science part.

Also, the lead sentence lumps in research on seabird deaths with the actual research being disputed, even though the study described in the article in no way, shape, or form, examined the affect of plastics on seabirds. It leaves the impression that the effects of plastics on seabirds is also in question, even though those effects are well documented. OK, shutting up now.

I don't know… I don't think it would be that awful to debunk your butt.

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