Biggest PBS stories of 2013 involved polar bear experts fudging data

The two top posts I published this year had one thing in common – they exposed polar bear researchers dodging full disclosure of scientific information in a way that outraged a lot of people. These two posts still draw a regular crowd of readers.

#1. “Global population of polar bears has increased by 2,650-5,700 since 2001” (published July 15, 2013) – 8,786 views as of December 30.

#2. “Ian Stirling’s latest howler: the polar bear who died of climate change” (August 7, 2013) – 7,872 views as of December 30.

[Note that #3 was the summary essay, “Ten good reasons not to worry about polar bears” (February 26, 2013), at 5,491 views. Dr. Matt Ridley wrote a foreword introducing that essay (“We should be listening to Susan Crockford”) that appeared in Canada's Financial Post]

On this last day of the year, I thought I’d make an attempt to put these results into a wider perspective.

Fudging global population numbers
In the “global population” post, I noted that between 2001 and 2009, several regional estimates for polar bear subpopulations had been replaced by “0” while the overall total did not change. I concluded:

“… in order for the worldwide estimate of polar bears to have remained virtually unchanged since 2001, the global population must have increased by 2,650-5,700 bears (average 4,175) between 2001 and 2013. These increases did not off-set the slight declines in other subpopulations, as the unchanging totals imply, but were in addition to them.

In other words, it appears that the global population of polar bears could not have remained stable since 2001 – it had to have increased by an average of almost 4,200 bears!” [my bold]

Many other blogs and news outlets re-posted this essay, and recently, someone added a note about this to the Wikipedia entry for “polar bears” (reference 130).

Now, I expect that the polar bear scientists of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), who are responsible for these figures, will contend that the “fudging” I exposed [fudging = “avoidance,” “dodging,” skirting”; i.e., not telling the whole truth] was merely their attempt to more accurately report polar bear population data that has changed in quality over the years. However, as I also pointed out:

“…nowhere do the PBSG explain how these dropped figures [previous estimates replaced by “0”] and other adjustments were accounted for in the estimated totals.”

What outraged people was the continued public pronouncements that polar bear numbers worldwide remained stable between 2001 and 2009 (with increases in some regions offsetting declines in others) when that was clearly not true. In accounting, where the numbers represent money, this kind of manipulation of figures is called fraud.

Fudging details about a death by starvation
“Ian Stirling’s latest howler” post was my off-the-cuff response to a story in The Guardian newspaper (accompanied animal tragedy porn photos) of a male polar bear that Stirling said had died of starvation due to lack of sea ice (“climate change,” said the headline writers). However, it was clear from the few details supplied about the bear that he almost certainly died of starvation as a result of old age.

I followed up my immediate response with more supporting evidence for my conclusion a few days later (blog post here), which included data from an ongoing study on body condition of adult male bears in the same area.

Stirling did not respond to the outpouring of indignation that showed up in The Guardian comments section (and elsewhere online), until two days after story ran. He responded with a blog post at Polar Bears International (PBI), which I expect few people saw.

Stirling insisted that he had never said the bear unequivocally died of starvation, as if this was why people were upset. I reblogged his post and responded to it in “Featured Quote” #44:

Let me spell it out for others, since Stirling still doesn’t get it: the problem with the story was Stirling’s assertion that the “most likely” cause of the death by starvation was lack of sea ice, without acknowledging the very real possibility that the bear could have died of starvation due to old age. Death by starvation was a pretty obvious conclusion and the fact that a necropsy was not performed was a minor issue – what was unscientific was Stirling’s virtually unqualified assertion that the bear died of starvation due to lack of sea ice. It was unscientific to leave out the fact that 16 years old is near the maximum for a polar bear in the wild and that starvation is a common cause of death for old and young bears alike – see this quote from my essay on cannibalism here.” [my bold]

In other words, my point (from the original post) was this:

“…when adult polar bears die, it is almost always a death by starvation.”

Stirling should have made that clear – it was his duty as a scientist to do so and it is what people expect from the world’s most famous polar bear scientist. His failure to do so in this case explains why many people were incensed. Suggesting that global warming was likely to blame for this particular death showed appallingly bad judgment on Stirling’s part and as a consequence, it seemed a lot of folks lost their trust in him that day.

Erosion of trust
Most readers, judging by comments sent to me and discussions posted online elsewhere, were understandably outraged by both incidents. Links to “Stirling’s latest howler” even made it to the comments section of PBI’s Facebook page, where a number of faithful supporters expressed their disapproval.

In 2013, erosion of trust in PBSG biologists was a strong undercurrent to a number of other news items as well.

In addition to the incidents discussed in my two top posts, we had the revelations that polar bears have been doing much better than predicted despite marked declines in sea ice in the Chukchi Sea and Davis Strait – information so actively down-played by PBSG members it appeared they were trying to hide the good news.

We also became aware that PBSG scientists have been withholding critical data on sea ice, condition of bears, and population size in Western Hudson Bay, yet continued to insist those data support their assertions that polar bears are in trouble (see the most recent example here).

It is apparent that PBSG biologists believe that being persistent and vocal advocates for polar bear conservation is an essential part of their job (see this recent NPR radio interview for a recent example). Other scientists and members of the public disagree with this approach, including me.

And over this last year, we’ve seen some prime examples of why polar bear biologists acting as strident advocates for polar bears conservation is a bad idea — the ensuing corruption of information has eroded the public’s trust in PBSG researchers as truthful scientists.

Will 2014 be the year they learn their lesson and work towards a turn-around? Time will tell…but in the course of writing this, I made a very interesting discovery that suggests they might be doing just that — see my next post. [HERE]

Wishing you all a prosperous, thoughtful new year.

My WordPress-generated “Year in review for 2013″ is here.

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