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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#491: Hard Science... Hard to Swallow for Some

I grew up in the 1950s and 60s with a strong interest in science. When the Soviets sent Sputnik into orbit, I bought a 4 1/4" telescope so I could observe it and the natural heavenly bodies. My interest in astronomy, a science with important ramifications for biology and the evolution of life on Earth, continued here on the island where I taught the subject at the Catalina Island School and held Halley's Comet viewing sessions here back in 1986. In those days I used to wow the ladies up on my sun deck late at night after promising I'd make them see stars. I think they expected something else other than looking at the Milky Way.

I still own two telescopes, although they don't get near as much use these days (I guess the ladies caught on to my innocent meaning). Sadly, I think many still do not understand the incredible technological breakthroughs and new products that emerged thanks to our space program. Whole new industries were born from them, and the economy boomed. The purely scientific knowledge about the solar system and galaxies derived from these explorations is also good evidence of how science adapts to new information. Much of what I taught in high school astronomy back in the early 1970s is now known to be wrong. Scientists adapt to new information.

I spent two years of my early youth living close to the beach in northern Florida where I collected and studied ocean life, and developed a strong love of marine biology. When we moved back to largely landlocked Chicago (Lake Michigan does look like an ocean... without the sharks), I had to fulfill my scientific urges in this direction by collecting snapping turtles, various snakes, rabbits and other critters more common in the creeks, grasslands and cornfields of the Midwest. However, I never lost my love of the sea and studied marine biology at Harvard with some of the best biologists in the world. Upon graduation, these classes led to my gaining a job teaching marine biology on SCUBA here at Toyon Bay.

Science has been a passion of mine throughout my life. For a long time my father couldn't comprehend that since, as a staunch business person he couldn't understand how one could make money doing it. Of course in many respects he was right! The mindset required for success in science is usually very different than that which leads others into business. Scientists seek a true picture of how the world around us works. If they adopt an hypothesis which is later proven to be untrue, a good scientist will abandon it and seek out alternatives to explain observed reality. So science as a process tends to be a self-correcting one. Anyone familiar with used car sales people and advertising knows by now that "truth" is not always an integral part of such activities (although business people can be, and are, very ethical).

When I first undertook my graduate studies, I had an hypothesis about the distribution of giant kelp (Macrocystis) around Catalina Island. My hypothesis was based on years of experience studying kelp in our waters. However, when I analyzed the data I had collected, it quickly became apparent (even to me) that my hypothesis was not true. Of course one does not receive a Ph.D. by proving one's own hypothesis to be false, and rather than hold onto mine despite the overwhelming evidence against it, I looked for... and found... alternate explanations that eventually earned me a "Piled higher and Deeper."

Although I had a sense that some in the general population were not comfortable with science, I didn't really experience the hostility towards it until I became Vice President for Science, Education and Ecological Restoration for the Catalina Conservancy in 1995. I honestly thought that people would listen to the findings of our science, see the logic in them and understand what we were trying to do as we moved the Conservancy into a higher level of scientific management of our ecosystems. Instead there were many who claimed the science was bad and scientists were using "trickery" in coming to their conclusions. Many did not understand the need to protect the dozens of native species here threatened by animals such as pigs and goats which weren't even native to North America! Others suggested the canine distemper which crashed our fox population came from the IWS dogs hunting pigs on the West End, yet the facts showed the disease spread from the Avalon area and stopped before it went past the Isthmus.

After I left the Conservancy in 2000 and returned to my first love, the ocean, I soon encountered the same hostility towards science in a new campaign. For decades I have longed to see greater protection for our marine ecosystems after watching the changes that occurred just within my short 43 years here on the island. No longer could I wait and watch for several years before harvesting a tasty abalone in the shallows as I had in the late 60s and early 70s. The size of certain species of sport and commercial fish began declining as harvests increased with the expanding population of the greater Los Angeles area. The huge bull lobster taken in the 50s and 60s are a rarity today, largely a result of recreational take since commercial traps are limited in the size bug they can capture.

Yet there were forces, both commercial and recreational, that fought attempts to set aside even what I consider to be an inappropriately small area of our coast as marine protected areas (MPAs). Claims were made that the fisheries were still healthy, yet the "baselines" used in many of these claims were less than a decade or two old. Proper comparisons of species' populations require much longer timelines than that to be good assessments. Going back to the end of World War II, when the population in southern California began its meteoric rise, would be better... and if we had the data, looking at conditions around the beginning of the previous century might be even more appropriate. The opposition's thinking was much too short-term and reminded me of Wall Street and its emphasis on daily stock quotes and quarterly profits rather than long-term trends as a means of assessing economic health. Short term indicators may work for those involved in speculation wanting to make a quick buck, but not for measuring the stability of the system itself. I think we found that to be true recently.

Lately the findings of global climate change science have been taking it on the chin. More than 95% of scientists who actually study climate change agree that the planet is warming dangerously and that one of the primary causes is human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels. Yet a large number of the population has failed to understand and accept this, issuing once again the cry of "bad science." Actually the "bad science" comes from the "other" side (the less than 5%) who accept funding from the energy industries and billionaires like the Koch brothers, and come up with "scientific" findings that satisfy the hand that feeds them. Recently even a few of the most ardent of climate change deniers have revisited their own data and switched over to the majority opinion. Yet the people, thanks to deceptive "findings" published with the support of industries that may be affected financially (and therefore have motives other than truth) if we truly address climate change, still believe otherwise.

The anti-science positions of many politicians, especially those in the GOP's former circus of presidential "candidates," and the general public is appalling. Denying climate change and its human causes is just one example. Denying evolution is one that has been with us much longer. Denying the discoveries about the Universe dating back to Einstein (not to mention the reaction to Galileo!) is equally sad. I think it is the ones who adopt these anti-science positions that are really the ones in denial (and I don't mean the river in Egypt and the Sudan). Such a shame that distortions and outright lies, funded by big money, can discredit science in the eyes of so many... not to mention what it is doing to our political process.

© 2012 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Scientists Vanessa and Albert at work in their lab (my friend Vanessa courtesy of ThongFoto.com), Dr. Bill at one of his telescopes;
the stellar explosions which create the matter necessary for life and one possible outcome of global climate change.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2012 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia