How hooey science and saleable headlines fog our view of polar bears November 19 2015, 0 Comments

Hooey science generates headlines in a world insatiably hungry for headlines.    Unfortunately the more shocking or combative the headline, the more newsworthy and attention-getting it is--and the more potentially profitable for headline retailers.   

This means, even with regard to “science,”  outliers, crackpots, scandals, exposés, and denunciations, because they bring in the crowds, are headlined.

Lately there has been a blizzard of headlines about the “hoax” that the future of polar bears is threatened.  Accompanying articles claim the hidden truth is that polar bears are not only thriving, but experiencing a population explosion. 

The proof of this explosion is supposedly in the numbers:  in the 1960s, we are told, there were only some 5,000 polar bears in the world--and then we are told the number has since quadrupled.  There are two problems here.  One is that the 1960s number is hooey.  CNN’s Peter Dykstra--executive producer for science, technology and weather-- conducted a careful and extensive effort to document that number (   He could find only two sources.  One was a man named Clifford Krauss, who as a reporter for the New York Times in 2006, wrote a story in which he cited the 5,000-bear population figure, attributing it to unnamed “experts.”  Contacted by Dykstra in 2008, Krauss could not remember who these experts might have been, but said he believed the number was generally accepted.  The only other source Dykstra could uncover--one actually dating from 1965--was a speculative report produced by S.M. Uspensky for the Soviet Ministry of Agriculture.  Uspensky, says Dykstra,  “surveyed nesting sites on a portion of Russian turf and extrapolated an Arctic-wide population of 5,000 to 8,000 in 1965.”  Essentially Uspensky counted what he could see and then multiplied by a formula of his own invention.  Somehow the number representing the smaller end of Uspensky’s wild surmise--5,000--passed into seeming fact.

Dykstra went on to interview multiple scientists long engaged in the study of polar bears, among them the chief scientist for Polar Bears International, Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, who for 30 years has served as polar bear project leader for USGS.  All agreed that nobody in the 1960s had any reliable information about how many polar bears there were.  Biologist Dr. Andrew Derocher of the University of Alberta told Dykstra that an estimation of world polar bear population was attempted in the 1970s, but the calculation “was done very crudely for perhaps 10% of the global population and the estimates were highly questionable.”

Even today, Dykstra was told, given the polar bear’s multiple subpopulations, forbidding natural habitat and habit of movement, “we still don't have a firm count on these mobile, remote, supremely camouflaged beasts.” 

All this is to say the numbers lately being bandied about as proof there is no reason to be concerned about the future of polar bears are toothless.

They are also irrelevant.   Though we do not have precise, complete counts, the scientists Dykstra interviewed agreed that some polar bear subpopulations have obviously increased.  Can we predict from this increase that polar bears will continue to thrive?

Not on their lives.  Polar bears now face unprecedented threats.  The sea ice on which they make their livings--the ice on which they hunt, mate, and give birth--is disappearing  as the planet warms. 

Whether there are more polar bears in 2015 than there were in 1960 has nothing to do with what will happen to these animals now, as their natural habitat dwindles.  This is what it is like, to use past increases in population to predict the future of polar bears:  you are watching the growth of your creeping fig, trying to calculate how long it will take the clinging leaves to cover the whole facade of your house.   Judging from past performance, you base your prediction on a typical year’s spread, perhaps making allowances for variations in rainfall.   Every day there are more leaves, promising total success.  Then one day the house is on fire.

For polar bears now--for all of us, really--the house is on fire. 


Peter Dykstra’s article, published by the Society of Environmental Journalists, may be found online here:

An article by Steven C, Amstrup, addressing both the “persistent myth” that polar bear numbers are burgeoning and the genuine threat of climate change, may be found online here: