Reflections on my House of Lords lecture: Healthy polar bears, less than healthy science

Here is an excerpt of an essay I wrote reflecting on the recent (11 June 2014) lecture I gave at the House of Lords in London (“Healthy polar bears, less than healthy science”). The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) has just published that 14 page essay in its entirety as its 10th such report but you can get a taste of it here.

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My piece addressed the following issues that I talked about in the lecture or which came up afterwards during the question period and discussions later:

•  On what do you base your assertion that polar bear populations are “healthy”?
•  Are the media — or polar bear scientists — to blame for hyping the “polar bears are dying” meme?
•  How significant was the recent dismissal of a petition to force Canada into listing polar bears as ‘threatened with extinction’?
•  What do the recent actions of the Polar Bear Specialist Group say about their commitment to good science?
•  Is my blog helping to “self-correct” the science on polar bears?

The highlighted point is copied in full below. See the full essay here.

Is my blog helping to “self-correct” the science on polar bears?

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That’s a bit hard to judge but I believe the answer is yes. I’ve tried to present a fuller spectrum of information than has been available online to date (including maps and other relevant background data), in an attempt to help scientist and non-scientist readers alike make up their own minds about various polar bear issues.

For example, a journalist or a polar bear biologist may glibly say (as they often do) that “polar bears need sea ice and the ice is melting.” But when you know that only late summer ice has declined dramatically and that spring and early summer ice is what polar bears really need for survival (backed up by peer-reviewed research and sea ice maps you can download and examine yourself), you won’t be fooled by such half-truths.

Most days, more than half of the readers of my blog get there via a search engine, which suggests there are a lot of people looking for information about polar bears. Those readers could be fellow scientists as well as non-scientists, including politicians and government administrators. That suggests to me that my goal to provide a useful information resource has been effective.

I suggest that three recent events indicate that my blog has helped raise awareness about the many half-truths that are being told about the current status of the polar bear:

1) I got a significant spike of readers to my blog from Thailand during the 2013 CITES meeting in Bangkok, which I blogged about beforehand. Ultimately, CITES members rejected the petition submitted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (for the second time) to impose severe trade restrictions on polar bears and polar bear products (like skins and claws).

2) The 2013 PBSG status report, with its good news changes and admissions of faulty and missing data, was published by PBSG officials on their website without fanfare of any kind – one might almost call it surreptitious (in 2009 they issued a press release). Without my blog posts about the report (here and here), few people would be aware of this update. See Fig. 1 below.

Figure 1. Graphic depicting the latest PBSG polar bear population status update (14 February 2013).

Figure 1. Graphic depicting the latest PBSG polar bear population status update (14 February 2013).

[Note a couple of critical points about Figure 1: Chukchi Sea (CS), Norwegian Bay (NW) and Lancaster Sound (LS) have been upgraded from ‘declining’ to ‘data deficient,’ due to indications of increased population health but out-of-date population counts; Baffin Bay (BB) and Kane Basin (KB) are still listed as ‘declining’ because of presumed over-hunting. Southern Beaufort (SB) and Western Hudson Bay (WHB) are still listed as ‘declining’ but these caveats should be noted: the PBSG admits in this report that the last population count for SB, conducted 2004-2006, used flawed methodology, so a new count is currently underway (due 2014); while major future declines were predicted by PBSG biologists for WHB, a recent (2011) survey showed no decline in WHB since 2004, and no data supporting the claims of reduced survival of females and cubs have yet been published]

3) The chairman of the PBSG sent me an unsolicited email announcing a crucial caveat to their global population estimates (copied below, intended to be a footnote to an upcoming report), rather than issue a press release or publishing a statement on their own website. To me, this seems to be an admission by the PBSG (or at least their chairman) that they realize I have people’s attention.

“As part of past status reports, the PBSG has traditionally estimated a range for the total number of polar bears in the circumpolar Arctic. Since 2005, this range has been 20-25,000. It is important to realize that this range never has been an estimate of total abundance in a scientific sense, but simply a qualified guess given to satisfy public demand. It is also important to note that even though we have scientifically valid estimates for a majority of the subpopulations, some are dated. Furthermore, there are no abundance estimates for the Arctic Basin, East Greenland, and the Russian subpopulations. Consequently, there is either no, or only rudimentary, knowledge to support guesses about the possible abundance of polar bears in approximately half the areas they occupy. Thus, the range given for total global population should be viewed with great caution as it cannot be used to assess population trend over the long term. [my bold]

Let’s look at the last issue, regarding global population estimates, in more detail. It appears that my essay revealing the PBSG “clarification” of their population estimates inflamed people who were already confused and irritated by prior antics of the group, to which I had already drawn attention.

That post prompted firefighter/author Zac Unger to write his follow-up essay (“Polarizing Bears”), which I referred to above. http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/conservation-and-development/polarizing-bears He rightly called out news outlets that referred to these numbers as “fudged” or “made up” – those descriptions are indeed unfair characterizations of what’s been going on. However, he underplayed how truly outraged people have been by the PBSG admission (“made quietly public” according to Unger) that their global population estimates were not what they have been made out to be.

Here is why it matters: the conservation determination of ‘threatened with extinction’ in the United States in 2008 (and ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN in 2006) is based entirely on mathematically predicted future population reductions, which by definition must anticipate a decline of at least 30% within three generations. Can such predictions be made with the required accuracy if scientific estimates are so imprecise as to be called “qualified guesses” and the global population is actually unknown?

I have written a number of blog posts about the confusing and often misleading manner in which the PBSG has communicated its global polar bear population estimates over the past few years. There was the laughable 2012 “State of the Polar Bear” graphic, commissioned by the PBSG at a cost of at least US$50,000, and which, by their own admission (to me, via email, in response to my inquiry), they did not review before publishing on their website.

I pointed out a number of times that the graphic made a mockery of their subpopulation and global population estimates.

The PBSG would did not fix the graphic, or remove it, after the issues were brought to their attention. However, when the new status report went up in February 2013, the graphic disappeared without mention.

More recently, I pointed out the bizarre accounting methods that the PBSG has been using to arrive at a global population estimate. Over the last ten years, it has (quietly) dropped estimated numbers of four subpopulations that were previously included in their population tables and which clearly contributed to past global totals. However, over this time, the stated global estimate total remained the same (“20,000-25,000”), despite the fact that by 2010, up to 5700 bears had been removed from the tables.

I made these dropped numbers an issue to highlight the ludicrousness of this practice. The PBSG now say (see above quote) they were responding to “public demand” for a global estimate and that it was never meant to be an accurate representation of the actual total.

This admission is almost certainly a response to feedback they received after my blog posts drew attention to what they were doing. They seem to have thought their “clarification” would resolve the issue but now, people are even angrier.

Here’s why: the fact that the PBSG “global estimate” represented only the subpopulations for which some relatively recent counts had been attempted, leaving out almost half of all regions where polar bears live, was a point almost never mentioned when the number was cited in peer-reviewed papers and in their own meeting reports.

In contrast, I have repeatedly pointed out that because the PBSG global estimates left out a number of subpopulations that had never been surveyed and therefore, the estimates given were nowhere near an accurate representation of the total, even if that was not my primary emphasis (see here, here and here).

As noted above, generating a global population estimate for polar bears was an explicitly-stated high priority objective for the PBSG from its very inception in 1968. Despite 45 years of research, the PBSG is still nowhere near attaining that goal. Somewhere along the way, they should have said so explicitly – the chairman’s email to me, with the PBSG’s intended footnote caveat, is completely inadequate and too long after the fact.1

Unger pointed out that Arctic research is difficult, dangerous, and expensive, as if these factors absolve PBSG researchers from being forthright about their progress. I say that’s hogwash.

As I noted in a blog post a few weeks ago, the PBSG recently held an ‘intersessional meeting’ (i.e., one that does not generate a proceedings volume, as do their ‘working meetings’).

At this get-together, they finally made a formal resolution (Res#2-2014, copied below, published June 26, 2014) to take concrete steps toward getting population estimates for polar bears that live in Russian territory and acknowledging the research conducted by Russian polar bear biologists.

Res#2-2014: Support for scientific studies of polar bears in the Russian Arctic.
The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group:

Recognizing that Article VII of the 1973 Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears calls for each Contracting Party to “… consult with other Parties on the management of migrating polar bear populations, and exchange information on research and management programs; and

Recognizing that at the 2014 PBSG meeting members learned of significant new work conducted by Russian scientists;

Commends Russia’s recent investment in gathering scientifically rigorous data and other sources of relevant information regarding polar bears within their jurisdiction and shared populations; and

Recommends continued support for polar bear research, monitoring and management activities across Russian territory;

and also Recommends:

• Enhanced focus on collaborative research across the Russian Arctic as an important first step in closing gaps in existing polar bear population status and trend information;

• Support for publication of Russian polar bear and related research in peer reviewed international journals;

• Translation of Russian language reports related to polar bears and the ecosystems of which they are a part;

• Consultation with relevant external experts in both the design of research and monitoring protocols and where useful, the analysis of data to assure maximum benefit of new independent and collaborative work;

• Continued participation by a diversity of Russian organizations and Institutes who are actively engaged in scientific research or monitoring with the PBSG.

That it took until 2014 for the PBSG to acknowledge that they have been paying lip service to what has been going on with polar bears in Russia is truly astonishing. That this group of scientists, charged by Arctic governments with taking the pulse of the world’s polar bears – and who’s word on polar bear conservation health we are encouraged accept as gospel – could get away with ignoring virtually half of the world’s polar bears for so long is a travesty of enormous proportions. That $50,000.00 spent on the misleading “State of the Polar Bear” graphic would have made a big dent in some of the above recommendations (translation of Russian reports, for example).

Unger concluded his 2014 essay on this issue by stating the following about the PBSG:

“Allowing the public to believe that the [predicted population] decline will be linear and predictable just sets people up for a perverse kind of disappointment when occasional good news deviates from the predicted path.”

Occasional good news”? That seems to be another jab at blog posts I’ve written but if it was true, I would agree.

However, as I pointed out at the beginning of this essay, the good news about polar bears over the last few years has not only been frequent and consistent, it has overwhelmingly contradicted assumptions and predictions PBSG biologists have made.

I want to know how polar bears are doing – without the hyperbole, scaremongering, half-truths and withholding data. I’m sure there are colleagues and members of the public who want the same.

I am optimistic my blog will open the eyes of some of the scientists who review academic papers on polar bear issues and who sit on committees charged with assessing polar bear conservation status, if that hasn’t happened already. I hope these colleagues will become a bit more critical of statements being made by the current crop of polar bear biologists (especially members of the PBSG) and demand a higher standard of science.

To say that I am dismayed at the behaviour of polar bear field researchers over the last 10 years or so is an understatement – it makes me fearful for the state of science itself. Their conservation bias, which was always present but usually understated, has escalated to a deplorable level. The lack of critical scientific thinking is obvious now in everything polar bear specialists say to the media, in every presentation they make or scientific paper they publish. Their determination to keep the conservation status of polar bears as ‘threatened with extinction’ worldwide – regardless of the present health of polar bear populations, problems with sea ice projections, and noted issues with their predictive models – reveals that PBSG members and associates are simply agenda-driven collectors of data rather than objective scientists who are a bit too emotionally attached to the animals they study. That is a very unhealthy place for polar bear science to be and it needs to change.

Full essay as a PDF

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