Framing the Pacific Garbage Patch

Various environmental organizations have been using imagery of dead baby birds with toothbrushes in their guts and solid floating masses of garbage to describe and raise alarm about what has become known as the North Pacific Central Garbage Patch. Yet, the small but important amount of research that has been done there shows that the NPCGP consists of many (alarmingly many) pieces of plastic that are very small, the largest being “about the size of the fingernail on your pinkey.”

Albatross may or may not be affected by garbage, but it is not likely that the garbage shown in the guts of the baby birds in these particular media comes from the NPCGP. Yes, the plastic in the NPCGP and elsewhere may have a negative environmental effect, but the pictures of floating garbage, which are all from coastal estuarine regions down river from major “third world” population centers, are NOT of the NPCGP and thus constitute bald faced lies. Bald faced lies by organizations like Green Peace is the fuel that right wing anti-environmental pro-business neo conservative yahoos run on.

But the situation is even worse than that because of what appear to be the misguided efforts of a British Billionaire who has managed to frighten those best in a position to criticize him into remaining silent. In fact, I’m a little nervous writing this blog post.


One of the elements of the War on Ocanic Plastic is a recently launched boat, and the attending organization and marketing, called Plastiki. “Plastiki” is a play on words, and it turns out to be a meaning-drenched play on words.

Plastiki comes from the name of the boat “Kon Tiki” which was an effort by rich-guy Thor Heyerdahl, many years back, to prove that people could have survived long distance travel across the pacific in a boat made of local materials using traditional methods. He wanted to prove that Polynesians did not end up populating the various Polynesian island in the form of barely surviving pregnant females clinging to logs washed by major storms from island to island, but rather, on purpose, because they could, and they could becauase they were oceanic travelers of some significant prowess.

This effort by Heyerdahl was done in the context of a racist Western world that preferred to see all brown people as less than capable (it’s easier to define some as lesser if all are lesser) so his stunt … building a Polynesian style boat and replicating a trans-Pacific voyage … was under the microscope. And, because he framed it wrong, he screwed it up.

Kon Tiki was a huge failure (at the time) for several reasons. In my mind, the fact that Heyerdahl was eventually able to make the trip is part of the proof that long distance sailing using traditional boats is possible. But he was unable to launch (or, really, land) the boat in surf. The boat was not able to handle the chop, which also means that if he had run into serious storms along the way, he would have sunk. He had modern maps and modern geographical knowledge, and modern (for the time) navigation equipment, and perhaps most importantly, a certain amount of modern food stored on the boat. So, people who did not want little brown Polynesian people to succeed in the bright light of history cold look at Kon Tiki and say “Heyerdahl cheated! Those “living archaeologist” hippies are liars!!!!11!!”

And they were. Thor Heyerdahl pretended to have been doing what the ancient Polynesians did, but he wasn’t. He cheated. But there is a lost lesson here: If Heyerdahl could have brought forward in time ancient Polynesian mariners, they would have pointed out dozens of things he was doing wrong. Only heteronomrative postmodern cauaseo-European hubris (which was a feature of the pre-processual European archaeolgical community) wold allow Thor to think that a decade or two of working on this problem would give him the knowledge and skills that the ancient Polynesians would have had. So, a partial success is a success.

Unless you claim that a total success is the litmus test, fail at that level, then lie about it.

So, it is uber-ironic that this new boat …. Plastiki … is named in part after Kon Tiki. Plastiki seems to be making the claim to be self-sustaining.. .they have a garden to grow their food, and a solar collector to run their motor, and a sail to drive them across the ocean. The boat is made out of discarded plastic bottles. They will sail into the Gyre and do battle witih the plastic.

Except it is all lies!

A sail boat can’t sail into the plastic gyre because it is a gyre!!!! It is a part of the ocean that sail boats have to sail AROUND because the wind is calm. That’s why the plastic accumulates there! By definition, by physics, by Neptune, Plastiki can not sail into the gyre!

But it can use it’s motor. Powered by the sun. I do not know this for a fact, but I’d bet money that there is also a fossil fuel motor on board, and that this solar panel will not be sufficient to motor the boat into the gyre. Or, they simply are not going to the gyre.

I doubt the boat is “made out of plastic bottles.” Yes, I’m sure there are lots of bottles used to make the boat (I’ve seen pictures) but it is ALSO made out of other stuff. The main ingredient of a boat is … air! Right? It is the ingredient that gives a boat buoyancy. The main ingredient in Plastic Bottles is … air! Do the math. This plastic bottle thing is probably not a complete hoax but it probably is a bit of creative framing, and when we learn that the boat is actually made out of baby bunny rabbits (or whatever) the shine on this project may dull a bit. OK, it won’t be baby bunnies, but it will be something. And I’ve got a feeling it won’t be pretty.

Are they actually going to live off the food in their garden? I’m not sure they’ve said they will, but they’ve said they’ve got a garden and they’ve not said how much of their food will come from it. My money is on the garden failing and the parts getting tossed overboard in a storm. A storm of irony, it will turn out.

None of the Plastiki rhetoric I’ve seen mentions a chase vessel … a large deisel powered boat that would follow close behind the Plastiki in case anything goes wrong. Or perhaps some other way of getting a boat or a chopper to the Plastiki quickly. I’m not saying there is such a boat, but we don’t know there is not such a boat. If we find out later, when the boat is actually used to rescue the crew, or deliver supplies (like a bunch of bottled water?!?!?) or to tow the boat into or out of the gyre, we will be witnissing a public relations failure which will cause MORE suffering among the baby albatross, not less. I could be wrong about the follow boat. I simply don’t know. But I wait patiently to find out.

In fact, the bottle part of the story is already starting to fall apart:

…anonymous sources involved with the project revealed to Earth Island Journal recently that the project team was not able to get as many used bottles as were needed to build Plastiki; some of the bottles used are actually new. Of the used bottles, many were found in dumpsters and washed by underpaid and poorly treated workers from Mexico and Guatemala, according to one source. EIJ

In the end, Plastiki may do as much damage, or more, to efforts to address the problem of the NPCGP as Kon Tiki did (for a while) to experimental archaeology and the concept that Polynesians although brown and tribal and all, could do smart stuff. Earth Island Journal’s article (quoted above) references a number of other problems with Plastiki, and the overall strategy of the boat’s owner, British billionaire David de Rothschild.

Go read that article, but when you do, I want you to take note of something more important than any of the details I’ve given here or given in the EIJ article.

In that article, you will see two references to apparently important facts that are attributed to anonymous sources … to sources that are afraid to speak out loud because they are afraid of Rothchild. I’ve blogged about this topic before, and I also have sources on which I’m relying, who have asked me to keep their names out of this for similar reasons.

Is it really true that David de Rothschild is some sort off media-hound-of-the-Baskervilles, ready to pounce on anyone who stands in his way? Sounds like it. I can only hope that our collective contacts in the Pacific are overly sensitive. If Rothschild, or Greenpeace, or other entities that seem willing to make stuff up to frame their argument really are dangerous, then the Ocean Conservation Movement is a ship with a leaky hull.

It has been said that marketing is more important than facts, that framing is more powerful than truth. I disagree. And by saying so, I appear to be putting myself at some risk.

That makes me laugh. But not in a funny, ha ha way.

Comments

  1. #1 The Science Pundit
    April 1, 2010

    I think you’re right about the chase vessel. I would add that the chase vessel will have plenty of video equipment; when you see the documentary (perhaps in IMAX, assuming the voyage is successful), ask yourself where all the remote shots of the Plastiki came from.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    April 1, 2010

    … good point!

    And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with having a chase vessel.. Indeed, it may be that the Coast Guard would not let this vessel sail in US coastal waters (which they do at the beginning and end) without a chase vessel, because it is untested technology (if half their claims are true) and thus a potential hazzard.

    But they have constructed a story with clear meanings many of which are false, and created by systematic omission.

  3. #3 Walt
    April 1, 2010

    I wanted to thank you for your insight into the whole Pacific Garbage thing. I had heard of this and had not done any research on the web to check what I was hearing on TV. Based on comments in your blog I have looked at other sources and feel I have a much better understanding of this issue.
    Thanks

    Walt

  4. #4 luna1580
    April 1, 2010

    well, on their own official site

    http://www.theplastiki.com/2010/04/plastiki-garden-show/

    it looks like a hydroponic greens garden in a tube, “planted” with too-close to mature and all the same age bare root plants on the day of launch. none of the plants have the appearance of having developed new roots to stabilize themselves in the hydroponic netting medium.

    then they put the whole thing in a tube which doesn’t have an obvious ventilation system to prevent the greens from cooking in the sun/rotting in the humid tube, but i assume it’s somehow incorporated into the “cap-ends” of the tube.

    so, in a best-case scenario they could get a few weeks of kale out of it, assuming the plants don’t cook, rot, fall out, outgrow the tube, or bolt. and when the plants do bolt (as they don’t seem staggered in maturity at all) they have no shown method to replace them with new seedlings. and well kale was selected because they said it is salt tolerant, it fairs badly in temps over 80F -and that tube looks like it will be very hot and humid in the sun…

    their garden is definitely not their main food source, it may give them some garnishes and a few plates of greens for small amount of time….

  5. #5 luna1580
    April 1, 2010

    and it is april first, but that vid has been on youtube about a week.

    doesn’t it seem odd that every visible 2-liter is clear (none are green) and perfectly, spotlessly without a label?

  6. #6 DVMKurmes
    April 1, 2010

    I remember being bothered even as a kid about Heyerdal’s inability to steer enough to land through the surf, and then being fascinated upon learning about much more seaworthy dugouts and outriggers that the polynesians actually used, and the interesting and intelligent navigation techniques they used. It was one of the first times I remember learning to question what people are saying and think critically about it.

  7. #7 Douglas Watts
    April 1, 2010

    So the science says that tons of plastic in the ocean is a good thing?

  8. #8 Douglas Watts
    April 1, 2010

    Greg, the size of a bird chick’s esophagus is no bigger than a pinky. So a pinky sized bit of hard, sharp plastic is like you or I swallowing a golf ball.

    Amirite?

  9. #9 Amy Westervelt
    April 1, 2010

    Thanks for the shout-out Greg, and for the great, informative piece. It’s true about the media thing — the whole reason I started looking into this was that I kept reading the same fawning puff piece over and over again about Plastiki and thought someone must surely be missing something. I hadn’t even thought about the chase vessel, not, as you point out, that there’s any problem with them having one. It just strikes me as odd that they would be lying about so many things, when the truth would sound just as good, and they have an opportunity here to REALLY teach a lot of people about what’s actually going on. More and more it seems the attention, not the message, is the point.

  10. #10 Douglas Watts
    April 1, 2010

    “but the pictures of floating garbage, which are all from coastal estuarine regions down river from major “third world” population centers …”

    So how is all this stuff “magically” prevented from going into the ocean?

    Do they have big nets at the river mouths to catch it all?

  11. #11 Stephanie Z
    April 1, 2010

    Douglas, learn to read. Not read what you want, but read what is actually there.

  12. #12 Nathan Myers
    April 1, 2010

    They were preceded, less implausibly, by Marcus Eriksen and Joel Paschal the JUNK.

    http://yachtpals.com/junk-raft-3045

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    April 1, 2010

    So the science says that tons of plastic in the ocean is a good thing?

    No. A priori, the science says nothing, as it should, but there are concerns. This is why there are scientists studying it. There are many possible problems, all of which are probably small compare to ocean acidification, but that could still be serious.

    My point here is not that the garbage patch is a good thing (if you read even really closely you won’t see that stated or implied). My point is that making shit up is a bad thing.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    April 1, 2010

    Greg, the size of a bird chick’s esophagus is no bigger than a pinky. So a pinky sized bit of hard, sharp plastic is like you or I swallowing a golf ball.

    No it is not. You and I are primates, we have no beaks, no gizzards, and as infants we drink mother’s milk. Anthropomorphizing the situation and extending what you would feel good or bad about is not helpful.

    It may be that the pinky-bits are bad. But the images shown by greepeace are not that. They made shit up. Making shit up is to be avoided. amirite? Or is bald face lying OK with you?

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    April 1, 2010

    So how is all this stuff “magically” prevented from going into the ocean?

    Douglas, it is not magically prevented from going into the ocean.

    At the moment, we don’t know where the garbage patch garbage comes from, but probably some from these estuarine floating dumps.

  16. #16 Nemo
    April 1, 2010

    Douglas, if you’d read Greg’s earlier posts about the garbage patch, you might get a better idea of where he’s coming from.

  17. #17 Douglas Watts
    April 2, 2010

    Greg, your small admission destroys your larger point. The plastic is coming from us. Penguins and squid and diatoms don’t make plastic. Plastic is pollution. So it’s either point-source pollution or non-point source pollution or a combination of both. Both sources (point and non-point) are indistinguishable when you get far enough from their source (since all non-point ultimately has a source, it’s just more diffuse). Once the plastic is floating in the ocean this is a distinction without a difference. It’s there. We can stop this discharge of plastic into the ocean, no matter it’s ultimate source or vector. It is quite easy to do. Don’t litter. It’s what we teach our kids.

    For this reason I am at a loss why you are trying to debate whether it is “proven” that litter is a bad thing, unless you have been reading a lot of Ayn Rand.

    You sound like a tobacco company scientist.

  18. #18 Douglas Watts
    April 2, 2010

    “A priori, the science says nothing, as it should, but there are concerns. This is why there are scientists studying it.”

    Greg, there is nothing to “study” about dumping garbage in the ocean. In U.S. waters it is illegal. Thankfully, the law trumps science when it comes to dumping garbage in the ocean or rivers or lakes which drain into the ocean. That ship has long sailed. This is why we have laws, so ‘scientists’ don’t study things forever and debate the number of angels on a pin like cloistered monks. As a thought experiment, try throwing a few hundred pounds of finely ground plastic off your boat in front of a marine patrol or Coast Guard boat and tell them:

    “A priori, the science says nothing, as it should, but there are concerns. This is why there are scientists studying it.”

    See how far it gets you.

  19. #19 Greg Laden
    April 2, 2010

    Douglas, you truly are a piece of work. How could you be so clueless as to what this conversation is actually about?

  20. #20 Robert Ball
    April 2, 2010

    I won’t waste my time picking holes in your blog, but…

    Don’t you mean anthropology, and not archaeology?

    I think a large number of commentors on this would do well to embrace the ideology of this expedition, rather than criticise every aspect.

    They don’t have a chase boat, they didn’t for their Arctic expedition either. Read up on what this organisation is trying to do – it’s really about education.

    Educate yourselves, please!!

  21. #21 Roger Mexico
    April 2, 2010

    I’m afraid I’m picking holes too. Thor Heyerdahl’s theory was that the Pacific Islands were colonised from South America – he set out from Peru and sailed from the West not the East.

    The reason the Kon-Tiki wasn’t anything like Polynesian craft was because it was based on pre-Columban illustrations of boats used in Peru. Heyerdahl was also one of the ones who underestimated the local sailing and navigation skills.

    You could actually regard the whole thing as one of the last gasps of the diffusionist theory where all scientific or cultural advances had to derived from a “higher” civilisation. Of course this isn’t automatically racist – think of “Stonehenge was made by the Egyptians” theories – but it did ignore local excellence of knowledge.

    Given that a lot of the rest of the post is based on “I doubt” and “probably” and “anonymous sources” you could have least got the verifiable bits right.

  22. #22 Stephanie Z
    April 2, 2010

    Roger, nothing in the post contradicts anything you’ve said here.

    Robert, way to entirely miss the point.

    I have to say, it’s nice to see people comment for the first time, but it’s also nice if they’re following along.

  23. #23 Paul
    April 2, 2010

    I’ll admit that even with past hard feelings, I feel sorry for what you have to put up with in the comments. Thanks for standing up for honesty in reporting, this is serious business. I mean, imagine how Climategate would have gone if it was revealed that scientists were actually using falsified evidence to score political/emotional points. The fact that people see nothing wrong with faking or misrepresenting images, regardless of whether they’re doing it “altruistically” for helping the environment or greedily hoping to increase donations to their causes, is horrifying. It has great potential to do massive harm to the conservation movement. Giving denialists (and even simply undecided bystanders) actual, valid openings to attack is nothing short of stupid.

  24. #24 Robert Ball
    April 2, 2010

    Stephanie Z.

    Perhaps you could decipher this blog and explain precisely what the ‘point’ is.

    And while you’re at it, please ask the author to come up with some proof that de Rothschild is “a British Billionaire who has managed to frighten those best in a position to criticize him into remaining silent”.

    It all seems frightfully alarmist if you ask me.
    Seems you both need a reality check.

  25. #25 Paul
    April 2, 2010

    Perhaps you could decipher this blog and explain precisely what the ‘point’ is.

    Is “lying for the cause is counter-productive” really that opaque? Or asking for technical accuracy and transparency to forward conservationism instead of misleading propaganda pieces?

    But deliberately missing the point makes it easier to attack peripheral details, I suppose.

  26. #26 Stephanie Z
    April 2, 2010

    The point? Try the second paragraph of the article Greg links to. Read it. Think about it. All the awareness in the world doesn’t help if the spotlight only reveals the joints in your carefully constructed set. Winning your audience back after losing them is much, much harder than getting them on your side the first time.

    As for proof, read Greg’s post and the article. Evaluate it. Then make up your own damned mind like an adult. Smoking guns are pretty rare in this reality you claim to be fond of.

  27. #27 Greg Laden
    April 2, 2010

    Don’t you mean anthropology, and not archaeology?

    No, I mean archaeology. Archaeology is a subset of anthropology, so technically you could say anthropology, but there IS a field called Experimental Archaeology, which is also known as Actualist Arrchaeology (depending on what school you study it at). My advisor in PHD school was one of the founders of African experimental archaeology, and I did quite a bit of that in graduate school, though my thesis research diverged considerably.

    Robert,there can be little doubt that the intentions of Plastiki are good. No one is suggesting otherwise. My concern, and I saw this coming before Plastiki was launched with Greanpeace information that was very inaccurately, badly done, and in some cases, just plain out and out dishonest, is that if you are indifferent to the truth when making your case in an environmental cause, you get screwed later, and the part of the environment you are trying to help suffers due to your hubris.

  28. #28 Greg Laden
    April 2, 2010

    Roger Mexico: Thanks for your input. I am well aware of the goals and methods of Kon Tiki’s expedition. Of course, if he was right, then polynesians are from South Americans (at least in part).

    I did think about this when I wrote this post (which is NOT about diffusionism) and I was careful to not get it wrong. And I didn’t. Had this been a post about Kon Tiki, you might have a point, that it would be useful to explore more about what that experimental archeology program was about. But it wasn’t, so I didn’t. Nor, at any point, did I say anything that could possibly lead anyone to think this was a post about Kon Tiki.

  29. #29 Greg Laden
    April 2, 2010

    Robert Ball [24] You obviously have a stake in this, I wonder what it is?

    I could be wrong about Rothchild. All I know is that people who should not have to be scared to speak the truth are, and it is not just one or two people. I’m not sure what the real threats are, but when sane people tell other sane people “You can say this, I can’t” I worry. You should worry too. Unless, of course, you are part of it. Then maybe you should be worried for other reasons.

    And, again, do not forget: The proximate victim here is the truth, and down the line, the victim is the ocean. The truth part is important.

  30. #30 Roger Mexico
    April 2, 2010

    Greg Laden: I’m sorry, but have you actually read your own post. You took the example of the Kon-Tiki and used it (at some length) as an analogy to show what could could go wrong with the interpretation of such demonstration voyages. But if you get the facts wrong in the analogy you automatically undermine the point you’re making.

    Heyerdahl’s theory was, literally, the wrong way round from what you said it was. He said the polynesians came from South America using boat types from there, rather than stepwise back across the Pacific Islands from South East Asia over many millennia and using boats similar to those they were still using.

    Of course we now know the latter is correct: from genetics, archeology etc and indeed from the skills of surviving polynesian mariners. You could argue that Heyerdahl actually delayed recognition of the achievement of the “little brown people” by trying to prove they came from one of the “superior” civilisations of South America, rather than developing their skills themselves.

    Because another point you missed is that the Kon-Tiki thesis was highly sucessful in publicity terms for a good 20 years after the voyage. The objections you mentioned were dismissed because the intention was never to replicate the notional trip in every detail (presumably including scurvy), but to prove that such a long distance voyage was possible.

    Of course Heyerdahl’s would-be sucessors have publicity about ocean pollution as their main goal rather than any diffusionist theory, so it’s difficult to see what your objection is. There are always those among the handservants of high capitalism eager to pick at the tiniest possible inconsistencies in such an enterprise (or if not invent them), but that’s no excuse to do nothing in case you get criticised. They’ll attack you anyway – that’s what enemies do.

    So to return to my point. If you’re going to try to build a case out of analogy and supposition, it’s best to get the basic facts of your analogy right first.

    Oh and I’m not called Rothchild – I’ve never even been on a yacht with Lord Mandelson.

  31. #31 Greg Laden
    April 2, 2010

    Roger, TH’s experimental archaeology with the Kon Tiki was to prove his point about trans-pacific navigation, the effectiveness of the technology for building the boats, of carrying the food, and of navigation.

    That. Is. What. I. Said.

    In truth, he was unable to sail the boat from point a to point b without the aid of a modern vessel. In truth he used modern navigation and modern knowledge of the seas, currents, etc. In truth he has military k-rations on board along with some traditionaly supplied food. In truth, he started out with a much “purer” form of this effort than he ended up with, and in truth, he kept adding modern crutches to make it work. In truth, the romanticized version of the Kon Tiki expedition is a falsehood, and in truth, in the professional world of archaeology, Kon Tiki is more of a joke than a valid experiment.

    I have had the debate with some of my colleageus about this, including one quite public spectacle some 20 years ago at a small conference in which I argued against Rhys Jones that we can beleive that early non-modern marine technology was very capable, and he argued that Kon Tiki proved that it was not.

    My argument here is that Kon Tiki was mythified by its practitioners and thus lost credibility. It was and it did.

    You are correct to say that there was much positive publicity. The popular book sold widely. TH got on the Merv Griffin show. Etc. But today, among those debating and discussing the potentials and possibilities of sea travel in any ancient context, Kon Tiki is an example of failure.

    As I briefly say in the post, which indeed I have read, is that I personally think Kon Tiki was a success. We don’t expect perfection from a modern European compared to time capsuled ancient who would actually be smarter than the Europeans would be. Why would we? And, I argue, a more honest and open approach at the time would have enhanced the value of the experiment.

    Just as an honest and open approach with Plastiki would enhance its value as a public relations effort.

    So, you need to tell me this: Are you OK with the Plastiki promoters making stuff up? It seems as you are. If that’s true, if the only thing that counts in your mind is the public relations value of the effort and not the truth, then you will be OK with me telling you to shut up in regards to your criticisms of my post. I mean really, you think I’ve got it wrong, but who cares if it is wrong or right? As long as the message is controlled.

  32. #32 Robert Ball
    April 2, 2010

    Greg, thanks. I stand corrected on the anthro/archaeology error. Apologies, and thank you.

    I have no stake in this, have just seen many well-meaning ventures receive undue criticism from various bloggers and corporations. I’m no expert – as you can easily tell – but I do hope others reading your article don’t misinterpret your comments in the same way I clearly have.

  33. #33 Greg Laden
    April 2, 2010

    Personally, I think that Plastiki can do a great deal of good if it is played right. I just hope that the neocons and antienvironmentalists don’t use bad framing against them.

  34. #34 harbo
    April 3, 2010

    As for any doubts about the capabilities of polynesian sailors ….PLEASE refer to “We the Navigators” by David Herry Lewis.
    As for other comments please remember, Truth is Trumps.
    Thanks to Greg, and to all posters …this is why we blog.

  35. #35 Recall
    April 3, 2010

    I could be wrong about Rothchild. All I know is that people who should not have to be scared to speak the truth are, and it is not just one or two people. I’m not sure what the real threats are, but when sane people tell other sane people “You can say this, I can’t” I worry. You should worry too. Unless, of course, you are part of it. Then maybe you should be worried for other reasons.

    This is absurd. They don’t want their names attached to it because they don’t want to get fired. It’s nothing for the rest of us to get worried about.

  36. #36 Greg Laden
    April 4, 2010

    Recall, for the record, and my readers will just have to trust me on this, you are wrong. And since you are essentially making up what you are saying, you are also out of line.

    What is YOUR stake in this?

  37. #37 Recall
    April 4, 2010

    Absolutely none at all. This is the first I’ve heard of it.

  38. #38 Hank Roberts
    April 4, 2010

    http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=0001et
    is a good treatment of skepticism about presentations.

    “Corrupt Techniques in Evidence Presentations
    … The emphasis is on consuming presentations, on what alert members of an audience or readers of a report should look for in assessing the credibility of the presenter.”

    Greg, have you considered going to the National Geographic and other sites promoting the Plastiki story to clean up the facts and language used, before they lose credibility?

    Sounds like the whole Plastiki story needs the Feynmann treatment. http://www.fotuva.org/feynman/challenger-appendix.html

    It’s hard to be Feynmann — to come in with utterly devastating criticism and be ‘framed’ as contributing to saving and improving the organization. But someone has to.

  39. #39 Greg Laden
    April 4, 2010

    Hank: This has developed kind of quickly over the last several months. The first bad info I was aware of was GreenPeace, and that was different from Plastiki. Plastiki is more of the same but I think only distantly related.

    I know of at least one person who has communicated with at least one of those concerns and the response was, quite literally, “The important thing is that the message gets out there, not that it is accurate.”

    Which is frustrating. But, I’ve got this blog thing going….. that make it less frustrating.

  40. #40 AK
    April 4, 2010

    But the situation is even worse than that because of what appear to be the misguided efforts of a British Billionaire who has managed to frighten those best in a position to criticize him into remaining silent

    Greg, I don’t know if you’ve ever read John D. MacDonald’s “Nightmare in Pink“, but even though it’s fiction it points up a real issue regarding how people behave when very large amounts of money are at stake.

    To put it simply, the threats may well have come from “free-riders” close the the source of the money rather than the source himself. Indeed, IMO this is by far the most probable scenario: somebody doesn’t want word of his shortcuts to get to the boss, and is willing to make (and probably carry out) whatever threats he (or she) thinks can prevent it.

    This doesn’t mean de Rothschild definitely hasn’t made threats, rather that he may not have; may not even know about them. Either scenario is plausible, but IMO the one I’ve presented is more probable.

  41. #41 Greg Laden
    April 4, 2010

    I should clarify: I doubt very much that anyone has made any threats to anyone.

    But if X donates a million dollars a year to, let’s say, childhood canncer, and Y would like to make a living studying and/or treating childhood cancer, Y better not become known as the person who did something that could make X really really mad one day, even if in truth X may not really ever get mad at Y.

    There are many factors, many institutions, many people, many pathways, many ways in which things can turn out.

    But from the perspective of a single, given person, there is only one career to throw away needlessly.

    That is what I assume the caution comes from.

  42. #42 Monado, FCD
    April 6, 2010

    It’s coming from everywhere: everywhere that people walk or work they drop bottles, lids, cigarette cellophanes, plastic bags, food containers, and nylon straps from bundles. There’s no way we can keep some of it from getting into the ocean. I’ve seen TV shots of giant outdoor piles of plastic pellets on the coast of California , like the giant piles of highway salt we see in the north. The plastic is used for some kind of melt & mould manufacturing. The pellets are readily lifted by the wind and so some of each pile blows out to sea. I’d like to see the owners keeping the piles covered. Today I started thinking about laundry lint and wondering how much nylon, polypro, and the like flow to the ocean with our grey water.

    The Great Garbage Gyre is too big to sieve out until hydrocarbons get a lot more valuable. It seems to me that a survey in 2003 found that plankton nets in the Gyre collected 90% plastic by weight and 10% plankton. As the plastic erodes, small organisms are preferentially ingesting shrimp-coloured motes. It’s not good for them. Albatrosses are feeding plastic to their young, thinking it’s calcium-rich shell. Sea turtles are sucking down plastic bags, thinking they’re jellyfish.

    I don’t think we can get genie back into the bottle. The only way to keep it out is to educate everyone not to drop or lose the damn stuff. If Plastiki makes people more aware and more careful, then good. If they come back saying that their hydroponics should have been better planned and their energy balance was miscalculated, even better. But I like that they’re going.

    I even have a soft spot for Thor Heyerdahl. He arrived alive and thus proved a concept. The seafaring skills of an island race would improve after people colonized the islands.

  43. #43 Hank Roberts
    April 6, 2010

    Greg, have you contacted the DeSmog folks about this?

    An attempt as PR professionals to define good practice in environmental PR might be heard from them. I’m surprised it hasn’t been done (or has it? do science journalists use any higher standard for facts? From what we see in press releases at EurekAlert, maybe not).

    It’s a tough issue. I watched Connolley (Stoat) go after Romm about accuracy several times a while ago. At first I agreed with William; I’m always leaning toward precision not passion.

    But I started reading Romm more and realized his style is a rational choice and works. I think he’s improved the precision of his science without losing his convincing passion.

    I realized passionate intensity conveys conviction to readers who don’t understand that scientists emphasize uncertainty.
    And even more so, for listeners who don’t read — the conviction has to be there in the voice.

    It made me realize convincing the public about science is a big, big problem.

    I don’t like the answer you quote above _at_all_. But I fear it’s the answer from experience that as we see all the time, fake stories _do_work_ in real life, realpolitik. That’s why there are so many “environmentalists” who never read ecology.

    It might be a tragedy, technically — no good answer. I say might, not is for sure.

    You can get the facts precisely right, reach all the thinking people, and as Adlai Stevenson so famously observed “That’s not enough, madam, we need a majority!”

  44. #44 Matt S
    April 11, 2010

    “rich-guy Thor Heyerdahl”?

    Where did that come from?