About the time I asked a challenging question at a global warming workshop

When you really want to challenge a speaker at a scientific meeting or public lecture, deciding what’s the best question to ask is often difficult. Here’s an example that might inspire you.

In 2009, I asked polar bear biologist Lily Peacock what appeared to be an innocuous question about Foxe Basin sea ice1 at a scientific workshop that got everyone’s attention.

The question — and the reaction — might surprise you.

Arctic sea ice 2009 vs 2014 NSIDC BIST Foxe Basin marked_PolarBearScience

For a number of reasons, this finally seems to be the right time to reveal the details of an event that occurred in back in 2009, at a workshop held in advance of the 18th Biennial Conference of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, held in Quebec City, Canada, 12-16 October.2

This was long before I was blogging, although my awareness about the bias in polar bear research and reporting by fellow polar bear researchers had already been raised.

At this meeting, I happened to ask a pivotal question that woke the audience up and seemed to jump-start their critical thinking enough to shift the tenor of the meeting.

The following account, edited slightly for clarity from a description written down as soon as I got home from the conference in 2009 and emailed to a few friends, has not been made public before now:

“I am just back from the biennial conference of the Society for Marine Mammalogy (SMM) in Quebec City, where I got to watch real science claw its way back from the edge of the precipice created by proponents of anthropogenic global warming (with some high drama under the covers).

The SMM is an organization whose membership includes biologists who study whales, dolphins/porpoises, sea otters, seals and sea lions, and polar bears. Many of the people who work on Arctic and Antarctic animals were in attendance at this meeting, including our own (Canadian) Ian Stirling, the patriarch of all polar bear researchers and a vocal proponent of the perils of global warming.

Andrew Derocher and several other polar bear biologists were also there. [list of participants]

I attended the workshop along with long-standing SMM member and marine mammal biologist/illustrator Pieter Folkens (who has produced, for virtually all of the SMM meetings up to 2009, a poster commemorating each event — hopefully, more on that later).[3] It was a half-day meeting called “Global Warming And Arctic Marine Mammals” and it was organized and chaired by Steve Ferguson (DFO) and Tara Bortoluzzi (DFO), and its purpose was:

“…to better understand and predict climate change effects on marine mammals and provide baseline data to assess future change….”

Unfortunately, almost half of the presenters (5 out of the 12) did not bother to show up (finding it more important, apparently, to attend another workshop). This left one of the organizers (Ferguson) to present their talks and attempt to answer questions about work that was not his own.

About half way through the program, Elizabeth (Lily) Peacock (USGS), got up to talk about her team’s work on polar bears in Foxe Basin (northern Hudson Bay). She described Hudson Bay “as a microcosm of world polar bear ecology and threats from global warming” and mentioned concerns of what earlier and earlier spring breakup of sea ice (as a result of global warming) would do to polar bear populations. After she concluded, I asked this question:

“There were reports in the media this year that the breakup of Hudson Bay ice was three weeks LATER than average – was ice breakup also late up in Foxe Basin?”

[This was all I said — I did not editorialize]

“Yes,” she answered — “breakup was late all over the Arctic and in fact, the ice didn’t completely leave Foxe Basin.” She said their research team had to do much of their work on the ice, which they had not anticipated. She also admitted that the polar bears were in very good condition because of this late breakup.

[I did not say anything more except “thank you”]

The audience was very quiet after this. I don’t think they were very impressed by her leaving this information out of her talk. It appeared that many in the audience had not heard the reports that sea ice breakup was late on Hudson Bay and this was real news to them.

And I noticed changes in the kind of questions raised after the talks that followed Peacock’s: some, like mine, made it clear some pertinent details had been omitted or glossed over.

Then, during the closing discussion at the end of the workshop, Ian Stirling (who was not a speaker but was present in the audience) tried to mitigate the damage done by the answer to my question by saying that the Arctic experiences huge swings in sea ice extent and that while this enormous variability makes discerning trends difficult, that overall the Arctic is warming.

But it seemed to me that Stirling’s comment just made it worse, since none of the speakers had made any such statement about variability and none had mentioned the remarkable cold and extended sea ice present in 2009.

The final comments of the meeting were initiated by a prominent and respected senior scientist in the audience, long-time Society member Doug DeMaster.

DeMaster cautioned Ferguson and the others to be very careful about how they presented their big-picture model for how Arctic ecology works (the final lecture, presented by Ferguson on behalf of Carie Hoover from UBC), which had been explained in the final presentation as not only a cumulative summary of Arctic research (including their own work) but as a predictive model for assessing impacts of global warming.

DeMaster thought the model was unsuitable for predictive purposes. Others chimed in with concerns about poorly supported or untested assumptions and information “black holes” with undetermined effects.

There was much murmuring of support in the audience for these comments and quite a bit of foot-shuffling and stammering from Ferguson, who had to defend on behalf of Hoover, who was one of the no-shows.

Moments later, the workshop fizzled to a close as people wandered away, leaving Ferguson looking confused.

While there was no overt retreat from global warming catastrophism by anyone, nor any kind of direct confrontation on that topic, what did transpire gave me some hope that science as it is meant to be conducted might eventually prevail.”

In retrospect, I want to be clear that I was really impressed with Lily Peacock’s response to my question: she did not hesitate to answer, and she gave an appropriately thorough and straightforward response.

Her answer effectively got across an important point to the audience: why was that information not part of her talk, even if she couched it as immaterial?

For that matter, why did no one else mention it? Many members of the group presenting at this workshop had been in the field that summer of 2009 and yet no one felt compelled to comment on the late spring sea ice breakup.

I would hazard to guess many of my colleagues felt hoodwinked, which is not at all what they expect from peers at a scientific meeting.

Peacock’s response to my question opened their eyes a bit, which was all I intended. The audience was a bit more wary, at least temporarily, as was evident in the change in mood after Peacock’s talk.

I doubt that the change really stuck: since then, some or all of them may have forgotten what transpired that afternoon and lost that wariness. Perhaps this account will remind them, perhaps not.

However, it may also serve as a reminder to others that the most effective questions in situations like these sometimes turn out to be ones that aren’t a direct challenge. Coming up with such an effective question is harder than you’d think and the topics of many lectures don’t lend themselves to this strategy. But when the opportunity arises and you go for it, the effect can be priceless.

Related posts:
Stirling and Derocher’s sea ice trick – omitting facts to make polar bears appear endangered March 6, 2013 [re: Michael Mann lecture similarities]

Reflections on my House of Lords lecture: Healthy polar bears, less than healthy science August 28 2014

Footnote 1. For background, recall this post from last month:Foxe Basin and Hudson Bay have more than average polar bear hunting habitat” as shown in the ice maps map above:

This is shaping up to be a banner year for polar bears in Foxe Basin (central Canada), with more ice in this region than there’s been since 1992. Hudson Bay still has a large patch of thick first year ice, more than there has been at this date since 2009, which was a late breakup year.”]

The boundaries of the Foxe Basin polar bear subpopulation are shown below, courtesy the PBSG.

FoxeBasin_PBSG website_Oct 2013

Footnote 2: Global Warming and Arctic Marine Mammals SMM Workshop 11 October 2009, described as:

“Knowing how polar ecosystems change with global warming will help to develop strategies for conservation and species management. A reference collection of samples from the complete food web is being developed to build a model of trophic interactions from marine mammals down to nutrients and phytoplankton. This symposium is relevant to the Society of Marine Mammal Mammalogy’s 18th biannual conference. Participants will present and review research results and progress from 2007 and 2008 field activities and discuss how to organize research findings into collaborative science capable of providing an adaptive assessment of climate change effects on Arctic marine ecosystems.”

Funnily enough, the summary pdf circulated afterward by co-organizer Tara Bortoluzzi (October 12, 2009), with photos and list of participants (prominent polar bear scientists marked), makes no mention of the no-shows or the pointed cautions about their predictive model.

Footnote 3. Hopefully, I will be able to expand on this topic shortly.

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