Saturday, July 30, 2011

Polars bears...

Monnett and Gleason detailed their observations in an article published two years later in the journal Polar Biology. In the peer-reviewed article, they said they were reporting, to the best of their knowledge, the first observations of the bears floating dead and presumed drowned while apparently swimming long distances.
Thus sayeth the AP News story reporting that Charles Monnett had been put on leave and was under investigation for "integrity issues" by his employer, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.  Let's move past the astonishing fact that the USBOEMRE actually exists and consider the even more astonishing fact that said agency, which owes its very existence to "settled science" of anthropogenic climate change, is investigating one of the "rock stars" of global warming for "integrity issues."

If you haven't heard of Charles Monnett, you have certainly heard of his work, referenced in the quote above.  Messrs Monnett and Gleason reported famously that, because of global warming and the shrinking Arctic ice cap, polar bears were being forced to swim greater distances and were, consequently, drowning in greater numbers.  This report was grasped onto immediately by the media who turned polar bears into the poster children of global warming.

In fairness, a "source familiar with the investigation" has said that Monnett's "integrity issues" have nothing to do with with his now-famous Polar Biology paper, but the nature of these "issues" has not been disclosed.'s worth taking another look at said paper to get a flavor for Mr. Monnett's body of work.  You can find the abstract here.

In brief, Monnett and Gleason were counting polar bears from the air; a very sensible approach to counting polar bears given videos like this one (Thanks to Sheri Gilmour for bringing my attention to this).  In September, 2004, they observed, from their airplane, what they described as four floating polar bear carcasses.  This is the data on which this paper is based, period.  We'll assume, pending conclusion of the USBOEMRE's investigation, that Monnett and Gleason were sufficiently practiced to correctly identify a floating polar bear and to further correctly assess that said floating bear was dead.  From this observation, our intrepid bear counters concluded that 1) the bears had drowned, 2) the drownings were a result of fatigue from too much swimming, 3) polar bears were being forced to swim longer distances due to a anthropogenic global warming-caused shrinking Arctic ice cap, and 4) humans are a disgusting blight on the planet.  The authors themselves admit that the bears "presumably" drowned...and that "presumably" moves their paper out of the realm of serious scientific investigation into pure editorializing that has no place in a serious peer-reviewed journal.

Clearly, there are many reasons polar bears might die in the wild; disease, starvation, predation - even a polar bear might look to be a tasty snack to a killer whale, poisoning from eating red tide-tainted fish, and all manner of calamities that the indigent humans might visit upon them.  By failing to eliminate any of these other potential causes and confirming their observations by similar surveys in subsequent years (or other areas, their survey was apparently limited to the Beaufort Sea), Monnett and Gleason are able to "presume" a commonality and conjure up a logic train that ends up supporting their apparent foregone conclusion.  This is blatant and obvious intellectual dishonesty.  Shame.

But more than Monnett and Gleason have behaved shamefully on this.  Polar Biology is allegedly a peer-reviewed journal, which means that three to five other scientists with direct knowledge of the subject would have been given copies of this paper to review and comment on prior to its publication.  Shame on the majority of these reviewers who, apparently, did not reject this paper out-of-hand.  Shame on the editors of Polar Biology who published this paper in spite of the sophomoric, glaring gaps of logic it contained.  Finally, shame on the readers of Polar Biology, none of whom seem to have called Monnett and Gleason out on what, at best, was an embarrassingly sloppy piece of work.  Scientists tend to be a rather argumentative and contentious group and most scientific journals routinely publish criticisms and comments on previously published articles.  In reviewing the table of contents of Polar Biology issues published after the Monnett and Gleason paper, I've found no such comments.  Sad.

...and finally, let's not forget Monnett's employer, the arcanely-named U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.  Never forget that an alarming report of the dire consequences of anthropogenic climate change would be translated into a funding increase for the USBOEMRE to enable more "study" of said dire consequences.  Could that have at all influenced the obvious jumping to conclusions in this paper?  Hmmmm...?

The publication of a badly researched and poorly reasoned paper such as "Observations of mortality associated with extended open-water swimming by polar bears in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea" (the title itself is a stretch of logic), reduces Polar Biology to the level of being a National Enquirer of scientific literature and reveals its readers and contributors to be the WalMart shoppers of their technical community.

1 comment:

  1. My goodness how I wish my co-advisor was in this area of science. He's the one who actually checks all of an author's citations when he gets an article to review. He takes that job very seriously, and is not shy to let you know when you're full of shit. And he's a Texan to boot!