The litmus test

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

02 March 2016

Shipping is an easy whipping boy, most of the time the owners of the ships that bring prosperity along with trade are deemed to be wealthy magnates more concerned with profit than improving the human condition. It is true that shipping is not a charity but as most within it know the rewards lately are very thin on the ground. But what about the polluting claims. Most are being addressed through ECAs and the EEDI but there are still those that believe shipping was let off the hook at COP21 in Paris last December. Through the effect of CO2, shipping is blamed for both global warming and more recently for ocean acidification. Leaving aside the former and addressing acidification, it is true that all three gases can form acids when they react with atmospheric water but the amounts they form are a very small percentage of what occurs naturally in any event. As for ocean acidification, the worse effect we are told is that it can prevent sea creatures from forming shells and skeletons and destroys coral reefs and the effects are rapid and catastrophic. Maybe it is true but likely it is not. A recent article in the Times newspaper covered a paper titled Applying organized scepticism to ocean acidification research that was published in the highly respectable ICES Journal of Marine Science. The paper by Dr Howard Browman, the editor of the journal and principal research scientist at the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research and the coverage of it in the Times that included quotes from the author make for interesting reading. The paper which was in effect a review of several scientific studies found that many had used flawed methods, subjecting marine creatures to sudden increases in CO2 that would never be experienced in real life.
“In some cases it was levels far beyond what would ever be reached even if we burnt every molecule of carbon on the planet,” Howard Browman, said.
He added that this had distracted attention from more urgent threats to reefs such as agricultural pollution, overfishing and tourism. Dr Browman found there had been huge increase in articles on ocean acidification in recent years, rising from five in 2005 to 600 last year. He said that a handful of influential scientific journals and lobbying by international organisations had turned ocean acidification into a major issue.
“Such journals tend to publish doom and gloom stories . . . stated without equivocation,” he said.
The bias in favour of doom-laden articles was partly the result of pressure on scientists to produce eye-catching work, he added.
“You won’t get a job unless you publish an article that is viewed as of significant importance to society. People often forget that scientists are people and have the same pressures on them and the same kind of human foibles. Some are driven by different things. They want to be prominent.”
Perhaps the professor’s words should be borne in mind when the next sensationalist press release hits the desks of national and maritime media outlets. At the very least it is wrong to attack shipping without first asking a few searching questions. A healthy degree of scepticism is the hallmark of both a good scientist and a good journalist.