Resisting the Sirens of Doom

July 24, 2022

Just a heads up on a recent extremely doomy, and viral, news item about ocean plankton that’s gotten a lot of traction. Oceans are in trouble, but we have not yet killed them.

Ars Technica:

For the past few days, it has been hard to look at social media without coming across a scary-looking report from the Scottish newspaper The Sunday Post. “Scots team’s research finds Atlantic plankton all but wiped out in catastrophic loss of life,” reads the breathless headline. The article claims that a survey of plankton in the ocean found that “evidence… suggest[s] 90% has now vanished.” The article then goes on to predict the imminent collapse of our biosphere.

There’s just one problem: The article is utter rubbish.

The Sunday Post uses as its source a preprint manuscript—meaning it hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet—from lead author Howard Dryden at the Global Oceanic Environmental Survey.

There’s no denying that our oceans are in trouble—the study notes in its introduction that they have lost 50 percent of all marine life over the past 70 years, and that number is rising at around 1 percent per year. But the Post’s article goes further than the preprint, citing plankton counts collected by 13 ships with 500 data points.

Specifically, the article claims that the survey “expected to find up to five visible pieces of plankton in every 10 liters of water—but found an average of less than one. The discovery suggests that plankton faces complete wipe-out sooner than was expected.”

Five hundred data points collected from 13 vessels sounds impressive, but David Johns, head of the Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey, describes it as “a literal drop in the ocean.” Johns would know—the Continuous Plankton Recorder Surveyhas been running since 1958 and has accumulated more than 265,000 samples.

The Continuous Plankton Survey has indeed cataloged a loss of plankton over the years—but nothing close to the 90 percent loss claimed by Dryden. “We have noticed long-term changes—northerly movements of plankton species as surface water warms, changes in seasonality in some taxa, invasives, etc.,” Johns told Ars by email. “And we work with a wide group of scientists and governmental bodies, providing evidence for marine policy. As a group, we had an email discussion, and no one agreed with this report—and no one had heard of the guy (other than one person, and she was not complimentary at all).”

In addition to the small sample size, the preprint makes no mention of how or when the plankton samples were collected. “If those samples were taken during the day, in surface waters, there is likely lower numbers of zooplankton,” Johns explained. “Also, [there is] no mention of what magnification [the researchers] were using. If you were using a low-power microscope, you would struggle to see the small stuff—in warm open ocean Atlantic waters, much of the zooplankton is pretty small, and they might have trouble picking them out.”

As noted above, the paper that the Post based its article on has not been peer-reviewed, an apparent theme for Dryden. “It seems he doesn’t really have a scientific profile—none of his work seems to be peer reviewed, which is obviously important when you are making any bold claims,” Johns told Ars.

And Dryden is making bold claims. Although he raises the very real problem of ocean acidification, he has appeared to blame the problem on microplastics and not climate change caused by a massive increase of atmospheric CO2 levels. However, in this preprint, Dryden and his co-authors do identify atmospheric CO2 as the driver of ocean acidification, which they warn will result in the loss of 80–90 percent of all marine life by 2045.

In the early days of the pandemic, I was alarmed by the credence given by some in the media to unreviewed studies about COVID-19. It seems we can add marine biology to that list as well.

Update 8:52 am EST, 7/21: Howard Dryden reached out to me to express his dismay at having been misquoted by the Sunday Post, which should have reported a “90% reduction in marine plankton in the Equatorial Atlantic, not the whole Atlantic.”

“The issue is that the findings are accurate and what is stated in the report are true. We are the first to identify the huge concentration of PCC, and the drop in Plankton. We are working with some academic institutes to prepare a formal peer reviewed report, but this takes time and I was so depressed by the results and the fact that we did not see a single whale or big fish, except for a few flying fish for 20 days at sea. This was the same for all the vessels and anyone now sailing in the equatorial Atlantic,” Dryden told Ars.

Jane Coasten in the New York Times:

If the idea of doomerism is to use hyperbole to spur readers or listeners to greater action, it’s not very effective. It seems to make our situation worse. As the climate scientist Michael Mann told Mother Jones in May, after Wynn Bruce died by self-immolation outside the Supreme Court, “Climate doomerism can be harmful because it robs us of agency, the agency we still have in determining our future.”

If you want people to do something, they need to be motivated — and impending doom doesn’t seem to do it. Yes, it seems like it would be the equivalent of setting someone’s couch on fire to get them to move, but doomerism seems to have the same effect as depression, bringing about a loss of interest in taking action.

It makes sense. If you believe that your fate is sealed by climate change or the Supreme Court or the Republican Party, well, why would you do anything about it? As Mann told The Guardian, doomerism causes people to be “led down a path of disengagement.”

It might surprise you to know that I am an increasingly optimistic person. I am much more positive about the future now than I was as a teenager. (I blame the very bad time that is “being a teenager.”) And I’m even sunnier today than I was in my 20s. (I’m now in my 30s.) Some of that is because of the gift of marriage, and some of that is because of the improvements I’ve seen in my work and in the lives of people around me. Plus, things I would have never thought possible in politics and culture have happened in my lifetime because people refused to give into cynicism or accept that everything is actually terrible.

I have found that the best way to spur action is to begin from a place of optimism — a belief that the thing you want really is possible. (That also means having a realistic vision for what life would look like if you got the thing you wanted.) I’ve used optimism to help people around me change their minds on marriage equality and qualified immunity reform, and argued in favor of those ideas because I believe they are good, not because those are the only ideas stopping us from dying in a horrifying cataclysm. Optimism also borrows from Christianity, because in order for it to work, you have to have faith in possibility. And I do.


6 Responses to “Resisting the Sirens of Doom”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Although I have fairly well-managed my Type II bipolar depression, I don’t think it’s only people like me that cycle through different periods of frustration, anger, depression, resignation and occasional delight at a breakthrough.

    I still think it’s important to impress upon people the gravity and the reality of what’s already baked in, and what is techno-politically likely in the near future. People really do need to know that there won’t be money or FEMA to save or even temporarily protect coastal communities, or places in the US Southwest that are facing imminent loss of water and/or hydropower, or the Great Salt Lake turning into a toxic dust bowl while people are making stupid plans to bring ocean water >700 miles from and more than 4000 feet above the Pacific.

    We can’t insure against a worsening situation the way we can against things with fixed risks, like earthquakes or meteor strikes. Like the increase in women who are getting tubal ligations and hysterectomies in the face of loss of control of their bodies, people should be making their own preparations to address the reasonable possibility that their community will be too poor or too slow to protect them.

    We have to undo the naive and unprepared thinking, like the classic Ben Shapiro blithely dismissing the problem by saying people will sell their houses if it starts to flood a lot.

    • jimbills Says:

      People like Shapiro are unconsciously pointing out the rich/poor divide (while simultaneously working for policies that increase that divide) involved in climate change in environmental degradation. The rich can ‘just move’ – Shapiro could if he wanted – and he just assumes everyone else is like him, when they are very, very not like him.

      The future you see above is possible, where wealth decreases for all groups of people. But I think it will be one where the rich do continue to dominate, make the decisions, and live how they want to live, while the poor increasingly suffer because of it. I actually think there’s a darned good chance they’ll build that pipeline to the Great Salt Lake. All the while, we (or rather the wealthy decision makers) will be fighting tooth and nail to prolong the economic systems that are destroying the environment piece by piece.

      The poor can’t afford to make preparations now, let alone in the future. The wealthy can do so, and the wealthy prioritize their own wants and needs first. As a result, my vision of the future is more Blade Runner than Mad Max, at least until things get so ridiculously bad that nothing works.

      On the phytoplankton study, okay, 90% of their populations haven’t died off, although something like 50% have (according to an earlier study). Well, give us time! We’ll get there.

      • jimbills Says:

        zooplankton + phyto

        Jane Coasten in the NYT article above has faith in possibilities. I put more faith in probabilities, and the probability is that humans will act as they always have – putting human short-term desires and needs (economic growth) before anything else (other species and the environment) for many decades into the future. This differs from marriage equality significantly in that marriage equality doesn’t threaten anyone’s pocketbook (or it shouldn’t).

        That doesn’t -at all- mean we shouldn’t try to do what is right – it’s a moral imperative that we try. We’ve failed miserably the past century, we’re failing miserably now, but we should still try.

      • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

        The Soylent Green scenario looks probable.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          Sol: “Global warming! Heat waves all year round!”

          • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

            Good one, missed it.

            Meanwhile, a small elite live luxurious guarded lifestyles, as the Masses are controlled by a brutal and untouchable police.

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