Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.

The Corals That Don’t Exist

Peer-reviewed science is contradicted by the real world.

 

In December 2015 Peter Ridd, then a physics professor at Australia’s James Cook University, contacted a journalist. Researchers affiliated with his own institution, he said, were misleading the public about the Great Barrier Reef.

As an example, Ridd cited photos taken approximately 100 years apart near Bowen, a community of 10,000 on the Australian coast in the vicinity of the Reef. These photos tell a stark story: previously vibrant coral expanses are now desolate wastelands.

Ridd complained that this pair of photos was spreading across the Internet. They were appearing in official reports and news stories. Even though the 1995 paper in which they’d first been published had cautioned against viewing them as evidence the Reef was in “broad scale decline,” that’s exactly how they were being used.

Ridd supplied the journalist with recent photos from the same area. These showed healthy, abundant coral.

A few weeks later, matters took another turn. Scientific Reports published a paper titled Historical photographs revisited: A case study for dating and characterizing recent loss of coral cover on the inshore Great Barrier Reef. The authors said they’d found “very little sign of coral re-establishment” during a visit to Stone Island in 2012, approximately a mile offshore from Bowen. In their words:

At Stone Island, the reef crest was similar to that observed in 1994 with a substrate almost completely devoid of living corals. [bold added by me]

Ridd knew this wasn’t the case. As he’d explained to the journalist:

any decent marine scientist or boat owner around Bowen, could have told you that there is lots of coral…and that it is spectacular. It was always a very unlikely proposition that this area had suddenly lost all its coral. [page 22]

Yet a journal that boasts about its “rigorous peer review” had just declared otherwise. The real world and the scholarly record were in stark conflict.

So let’s fast forward three-and-a-half years. Late this summer, Australian scientist Jennifer Marohasy enlisted underwater cinematographer Clint Hempsall and coral reef expert Walter Starck. Together, they investigated the waters near Stone Island firsthand.

With the help of a drone and underwater cameras, this team documented extensive coral. Marohasy’s account of the expedition, illustrated with fabulous photos, is here: Found: 25 Hectares of Acropora at Stone Island

acropora_Marohasy

Some of the coral currently thriving at Stone Island. Photo credit: Jennifer Marohasey, 2019.

Last week, she gave the world a gift, a spectacular 13-minute film (see the top of this page). Her blog post, My First Film: Beige Reef, provides further detail. At the 11:55-minute mark on the video, Marohasy tells us that “Filming these corals, at this reef, is a form of resistance.” Her purpose, she says, is simple: to acknowledge that these corals exist. To make an accurate record – for today as well as for tomorrow.

Oh, and that Courier-Mail journalist who Peter Ridd had contacted? His name is Peter MichaelDid he help whistleblower Ridd tell the public about those misleading photographs?

Actually, he betrayed him. He forwarded Ridd’s full e-mail to biologist Terry Hughes, Ridd’s professional rival at James Cook. Which immediately set in motion a chain of events that led to Ridd being fired.

That’s the world we live in, folks.

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LINKS:

51EGVmK+IqL._SL250_ Climate Change: The Facts 2017
Anthony Watts, Matt Ridley, et al
  • UPDATE 19 Nov. 2019: The PDF of the ‘Historical Photographs…’ paper reads, in the top right corner, www.nature.com/scientificreports (see photo here). Both Marohasy and I mistook this for a paper that had been published in Nature. In fact, the paper was published in Scientific Reports, which is a separate journal, albeit closely associated with Nature. I’ve corrected the above accordingly.
  • see my previous commentary: The Splendid Peter Ridd Court Judgment
  • and Peter Ridd vs The Dishonourables
  • the photos, taken 100 years apart, are shown on page 19 of this 79-page court ruling in Ridd’s favour (backed up here)
  • the paper in which the 100-year-span photos originally appeared can be downloaded here; the massive, 565-page PDF from which it has been extracted, is here
  • Peter Ridd’s essay, “The Extraordinary Resilience of Great Barrier Reef Corals, and Problems With Policy Science,” is published in the book shown above

 

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This entry was posted on November 18, 2019 by in ethical & philosophical, media, peer-review and tagged , , , .
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