The media often misinterprets hypothesis as fact
To the Expositor:
The April 22 edition of this paper contained an op-ed written by Sarah Baron. It wanders from “we are destroying our planet” to “thinkers are proposing radical changes to our systems of capitalism, colonialism, democracy” and then the last half of the article dealt with plastic pollution.
Are we really destroying the planet? I suppose the answer depends on how “destroy” is defined but Environment Canada does put some numbers to the issue. For example, the National Air Pollution Surveillance Program (NAPS) established in 1969 has a database with 286 sites across the country. Sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and ground level ozone are some of the pollutants measured. Since 1970, sulphur dioxide has been reduced by 96 percent, nitrogen dioxide by 75 percent and the same pattern is evident in all measured substances. In the US, the big five air pollutants have been reduced by ~67 percent in spite of population growing by 40 percent. A perfect record—hardly! Has progress been made? Most certainly and although much remains to be done, we ought to be encouraged with the trends captured by the NAPS.
I look forward to the “thinkers” revealing what they have in mind for the “exciting changes” to our system of colonialism. I can probably guess what will be proposed for democracy etc.
Now to the plastics issue, anyone who wants to experience hyperbole can try an internet search for microplastics (MPs). If anyone is interested in some interesting reading, I recommend the following publication in the Wiley Online Library: ‘Microplastics in the Environment: Much Ado about Nothing? A Debate.’ The authors are Thomas Backhaus and Martin Wagner. They both are toxicology researchers; for example, MW studies what plastics and other synthetic agents do to human and ecosystem health.
They began an online debate when a third professor, G. Allen Burton, published an article in 2017 entitled ‘Stressor Exposures Determine Risk: Why do Fellow Scientists Continue to focus on Superficial MP Risk?’ Here is a very brief/incomplete summary but hopefully captures the essence of the exchange. Plastics pollution is a global problem simply because of the amount of the material produced. The media often misinterprets hypotheses as facts, “MPs may be a toxic” is received as “MPs are toxic.” Researchers compete for limited funds and such a system rewards those that exaggerate leading to scientific fraud. Empirical data and modeling show that MP concentrations are very low in relation to their toxicity to humans and environmental organisms. Going forward there is much to learn and much more research is required before the science can do a satisfactory job of measuring the risks associated with MPs. Finally, hyperbolic statements have real-world consequences. Flagging MPs as “the most pressing environmental concern” of our times simply trivializes truly critical environmental problems which are in ample supply. I would like to insert one example of a “real” environmental problem that perhaps Thomas Backhaus and Martin Wagner would endorse. Bruce Gordon working with the World Health Organization states that, “We need to keep the focus on known risks, two billion people drink contaminated water causing almost one million deaths per year.” As this is but a small sample of what is contained in the article, interested readers will find the paper great reading. In summary, there might be cause for concern but statements like those contained in the Baron op-ed are not supported by the science.
Before closing, a few words regarding Rachel Carson. We owe her our gratitude for drawing attention to the massive overuse of pesticides. It is unfortunate that in the writing of her book, ‘Silent Spring,’ she also drops her mantle as a scientist and engages in the hyperbolic practices of the current green movement. For example, she was certainly aware of the Christmas bird count data available at the time of her writing. The data shows that in general, bird count numbers were increasing steadily since 1900. She chose to ignore this prominent source. Her book also tries to establish a link between pesticide use and cancer which caused great concern at the time.