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Scientific integrity must be paramount in a fake news world

Friday 5 June 2020

Many a beautiful theory has been killed by an ugly fact, so the saying goes, and a demonstration of that was witnessed this week when the work of one scientist was eviscerated by another.

Dr Jim Roberts is the marine scientist who performed the risk analysis for the government’s Hector’s and Maui Dolphin Threat Management Plan (TMP), which included the controversial findings that toxoplasmosis, a cat borne disease, was killing more Maui dolphins than fishing.

This was a theory that did not sit well with those who believe fishing is at the root of every marine evil.

The government is still considering the TMP, however Liz Slooten and Steve Dawson, who are marine biologists at Otago University, took it upon themselves to critique the science around the TMP. They circulated their paper to the press and the world prior to having it subject to any peer review or publication. Within days of Slooten and Dawson’s paper coming out, Jim Roberts had metaphorically torn it to shreds.

Roberts said Slooten and Dawson’s work was not only misleading it contained multiple errors of fact.

The problem with papers presented as science, however, is a layperson is unlikely to realise they are being given manipulated information and this was Roberts’ fear – that the public would swallow it as fact.

In a 13-page rebuttal, Roberts laid out his case that the paper written by Slooten and Dawson was biased towards their own foregone conclusions.

Slooten and Dawson are passionate about dolphins, particularly the fate of the Maui but crossing the line from science into advocacy is a slippery slope.

Environmental NGOs use exaggeration and shock to make their point, believing the end will always justify the means. This should not be a model adopted by scientists.

One of the more damning findings from Roberts’ full report is the complete misrepresentation of an International Whaling Commission (IWC) report by their science committee. Slooten and Dawson cite this report to assist their argument that aerial population surveys to inform the TMP were flawed. In fact, as Roberts points out in his rebuttal, the IWC actually praised the methods used as a ‘step forward’. Roberts called Slooten and Dawson’s take ‘an Orwellian misrepresentation of the facts that would be unlikely to be picked up by people who didn’t have time to read the IWC reports.’

And this is the crux of the problem. In a world where falsehoods are presented as fact it is increasingly easy to get a narrative running that has no basis in the truth. Fake news becomes news. And if we can’t trust the science, we are making decisions based on agendas and emotions. In other words, we are being manipulated.

The conclusions reached from consultation carried out on the Hector’s and Maui Dolphin TMP are due to be released ‘soon’ according to the Minister of Conservation and they will have real impacts on real fishers and their families.

Science has contributed to the TMP and we can only hope that it is science that informs the imminent decisions.

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