Misleading “State of the Polar Bear” graphic cost advocate scientists more than US$50,000

UPDATE FEBRUARY 19, 2014The misleading “State of the Polar Bear” graphic is now GONE (as of January 31, 2014). A new 2013 status table is offered by the PBSG here. It has detailed text explanations and harvest information, with references, hyperlinked to each subpopulation entry (“Press the subpopulation hyperlink and more information will appear“) and may have replaced the “State of the Polar Bear” graphic that the PBSG commissioned for upwards of US$50,000, although the PBSG website says it is being “updated [A pdf copy of the 2013 colour table is here, and my commentary on it is here.] I have left the original post as is, below.

I’ve had some time to do a little digging regarding the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) State of the Polar Bear web graphic. It turns out this fancy but misleading document was designed by a US company called Periscopic (Portland, Oregon) at a cost of US$50, 000-70,000. So apparently, rather than put $70,000 towards much-needed polar bear research, the PBSG chose to use the money to tell people, in a slightly different way, that it thinks polar bears are doomed. [see UPDATE: April 1 2013]

Just to refresh your memory, last month I pointed out that this fancy summary “tool,” which sits prominently on the home page of the PBSG website, suggests that there are now 22,600-32,000 polar bears worldwide, when tallied by nation (when you add up the individual population estimates provided on each of the two maps on this web “tool” (without clicking through to more detail), you get two different numbers that have no resemblance to the “official” estimate of 20,000-25,000: the page “Nations” gives totals by country that add up to 22,600-32,000 and the numbers given on the “Subpopulations” page (when you hover your mouse over each of the 19 regions) add up to only 13,036 – a far cry from 20,000-25,000 official estimate).

A few days later, I got a response to the email I’d sent to Norwegian polar bear biologist Dag Vongraven, who said it was his job to supervise work on this summary. But, he said, he had “not yet had time to review all details in it as well as I should.” So it seems that without a careful review of the final product, the graphic was posted on the home page of the PBSG website (sometime in October 2012).

It turns out there had been a discussion at the 2009 PBSG meeting, documented in its official report (Obbard et al. 2010:11, Fig. 1 below), about their intention to hire Periscopic as part of on-going PBSG website developments supervised by Vongraven. Several PBSG members agreed this would be a good idea and offered to help by providing data.

Figure 1. Notes from the 2009 PBSG meeting (Obbard et al. 2010:11) about their intention to hire Periscopic as part of on-going PBSG website developments.

Figure 1. Notes from the 2009 PBSG meeting (Obbard et al. 2010:11) about their intention to hire Periscopic. Click to enlarge.

Pericopic is visibly proud of the work it did for the PBSG. In fact, a thumbnail of The State of the Polar Bear is featured on its home page (see below) along with other examples of their work and there is a full-page feature devoted to showcasing it.

Figure 2. Home page of Periscopic.

Here’s what the Periscopic company website says about itself:

Periscopic is a socially-conscious data visualization firm that helps companies and organizations promote information transparency and public awareness

From endangered species, to politics, to social justice, it is our goal to engage the public and deliver a message of responsibility and action.

Wow. That’s a corporate goal sure to attract the best objective scientists as clients: “deliver a message of responsibility and action.”

No wonder the PBSG biologists were so keen to have this company create a graphic to represent their work. As I said in an earlier post, the 15th meeting of this group in 2009 marked the point where the PBSG signaled to the world that it is ready to be seen as an advocate association first and a scientific organization second and this is just another example.

As for who paid the US$50,000-70,000 cost of the graphic, the minutes of the 2009 PBSG meeting indicate that the president of advocacy organization Polar Bears International (an “invited expert”- see comment and link above) had this to say:

R. Buchanan emphasized that the mission of Polar Bears International is research and education and would like to provide infrastructure and support for the website and other ventures (e.g., through volunteers).” [so, rather than give money for research, he chose to support “education,” in this case, propaganda used to send a message of responsibility and action]

The luscious irony here is that the PBSG paid around US$70,000 to expose its penchant for advocacy over science and demonstrated in no uncertain terms just how little progress they’ve made over the last 40 years in getting reasonably accurate and up-to-date population estimates for all 19 polar bear subpopulations. PBSG biologists just don’t seem to get that this a problem for objective biologists and scientists in other fields – and for many members of the general public, who pay the salaries of government-employed “polar bear specialists” through their taxes. Note I have not heard anything more from Vongraven on this issue since I emailed him in early January and the original graphic is still up on the PBSG website (and linked to by Periscopic’s website) for all the world to see.

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