May 10, 2010

Misconceptions in the Wake of BP’s Spill

by Heather Falconer

Back in March, we spent some time on this blog discussing a few of the misconceptions students (and the general public) often hold about science and its process. We talked about the importance of understanding that scientists do not work in a vacuum, that disagreement is common — our answers aren’t always right, but it’s not always because we’re wrong — and that scientific problems are not something you “solve.” Today, we’d like to offer a gentle reminder of another misconception: what we hear in the media is not always true.

Yesterday, President Obama told students at Hampton University: “You’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t rank all that high on the truth meter.” Nothing could be more true in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill. It’s easy to forget that the spokespeople we rely on each day for our national and international news have ideological biases. There is a stark difference, let’s say, between the day’s news reported by John Stewart and the same news reported by Bill O’Reilly. Regardless of political affiliations, we need to remember that each has a slant, a perspective they want to get across. (There is a reason journalists study persuasive writing.)

So as we watch the oil spill in the Gulf grow into the worst spill in US history and hear the latest reports on the efforts to clean it up, let’s take a few moments to think objectively and use the science to questions some of the statements being bantered around in the media.

1: “The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there… It’s natural. It’s as natural as the ocean water is.” [Rush Limbaugh] While Limbaugh’s optimism is noteworthy, let us not forget that the natural earth cycles, like the carbon cycle, have a process that often takes millions of years. So, yes, while biological systems can accommodate for some degree of ‘spillage’, it’s not quite the same as a man-made drill poking a hole in the earth’s crust and releasing millions of gallons of crude oil in a heavy stream. Our ecosystems (aquatic or not) are not equipped to respond to such abrupt and significant changes. Also,  the term “natural” does not always mean healthy or good. Would he say the same if it were a sudden release of mercury into the environment?

2: “Way too much is being made of the oil that is coming out there in the Gulf. All of that will get cleaned up.” [T. Boone Pickens] Again, noteworthy for the optimism, but a bit dismissive of the significance of the effect it has, and will continue to have, on the delicate ecosystems along the coast. Plankton, the tiny microbial organisms (plant and animal) living in water, are the basis for the wetland and oceanic food chain. Their die-off effects the long-term productivity of the ecosystem, throwing a big chink into the food chain. In the short term, larger creatures such as fish, turtles and birds are suffocating and dying from exposure as a result of coming in contact with the oil. The death toll from the Exxon Valdez was significant, in part, because of the slow response to clean up.

3. All fishing in the Gulf has been halted because the sea food is contaminated. [Reported by various national news agencies.] While a specific area of the Gulf has been closed off to fishing — the area near the spill — there is plenty of fishing going on in other areas. Obviously, with the effect on wildlife already starting to show, everyone is concerned about the quality of seafood coming from the region. But it is important to remember that fishing has only been closed off in areas where there is possible contamination. There is a significant area of the Gulf that has not seen oil contamination yet, and so the fishery stocks are untouched.

There are many statements being thrown around in the media, including this being an act of eco-terrorism from ‘tree-huggers’. As we navigate the maze of opinion, let’s remember to take each with a bit of skepticism and look for the elements of truth that can be supported by evidence. Rather than take a spokesperson’s opinion as fact, do the research and figure out what really makes sense. Learn more about different biological processes and environmental cycles at Visionlearning.

Have a misconception that is bothering you? Share it with us here, or on our Facebook page.

Heather Falconer

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Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.