Saturday, July 22, 2006

Open Letter to the Marine Science Community: Has Personal Bias Derailed Science?

Has Personal Bias Been Allowed to Derail the Normal Progression of Ocean Fertilization Science?

An Open Letter to the Marine Science Community

Given the extreme hazard of global warming, the recent revelations of ocean acidity, and reports of bio-system collapse of various sorts, one would think that the concept of Ocean Iron Fertilization would get be treated most seriously. Although controversial and not yet completely proven, this technology still might be very important to the world. As Ken Johnson of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute said: “We’re headed towards climate conditions that Earth hasn’t experienced in millions of years…We can’t afford to ditch any potential solutions just now.”

For a technology of such potential, one would think that marine scientists would have been diligently researching it, discovering in detail the underlying mechanisms, proposing methods to optimize or control such a process, and preparing to advise, in a rational and unbiased fashion, the decision makers and public of the world.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to have happened. Reviewing the literature of the past decade, there seems to be an inexplicable lack of progress understanding the science. Worse, there seems to be a general hesitation and even hostility by the marine sciences to the progress of this field, and in many cases arguments of political feasibility are being substituted for factual arguments.

We cannot help but suspect that this is because certain key individuals are personally opposed to the concept. These people have political and personal convictions that the process is immoral, or that the world community cannot be trusted to have it. Based on these personal convictions, these scientists have steadily opposed the field the field, in some cases quite openly, slowing down research and discouraging advancement. It’s a process of “negativization” of science which is so pernicious and difficult to fight.

Some may believe that scientists have an ethical and moral right to discourage research that they believe is dangerous. That may be true in the case of weapons or obvious dangers. But this is not that kind of technology. It is not obviously harmful or destructive. In fact, if finally proven out and used smartly and carefully, this technology could be extremely beneficial to world, not only as a carbon sink but as a one tool for restoring damaged sections of the ocean. Contrary to the somewhat frantic rhetoric of the opponents, there is absolutely no reason to assume that the technology will be “easy to abuse” or will spin out of control; quite the contrary, the very size of the ocean and the scale of effort precludes such abuse. There is every reason to assume it will be possible to control and monitor to the satisfaction of all, especially on a small-to-medium scale. Yes this will require a lot of hard science and engineering, to identify the proper procedures and protocols, but this is nothing unusual – other fields such as terrestrial ecological restoration have successfully overcome similar uncertainties, and there is no reason ocean fertilization couldn’t do the same.

Critics are opposed not because it’s inherently bad, or because they possess a complete understanding of it, but because they “believe” that it’s impossible for the human race to use it smartly or carefully, they “worry” that it “might” be misused at some unspecified time in the future. They believe that commercial firms or corporations, driven by the profit motive, are inherently abusive and will “pollute the commons” for greed. These people don’t appear to have come to these conclusions based on facts or analysis, but because they disliked the concept from the very first moment they heard it, and have subsequently filtered all new data to fit their pre-conceived views.

These views aren’t science, not based on facts are logic. They are just opinions (and rather emotional, extreme opinions at that) of a few individuals. And so may we ask: why are personal beliefs detouring the progress of a major science? Is this appropriate?

Case in Point: Dr. Sallie Chisholm

Dr. Chisholm is an accomplished and respected head of an MIT laboratory and a member of the first iron experiment cruise. Yet Dr. Chisholm’s entire contribution to the field has been to oppose it, apparently from the very beginning.

From Science News, September 30 1995, p 220:

(Before the first cruise, which Chisholm was on) Oceanographer Sallie W. Chisholm of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology often argued with him (Martin) about the ethics of geo-engineering, or even of conducting research toward that goal…

“I think it’s folly. It would just cause another environmental problem,” says Chisholm. “It’s so naive to think that we can do one thing and it’s going to have a predictable effect. The arrogance of human beings is just astounding.”

The picture here is quite clear. Dr. Chisholm has thought the concept was “folly” and was actively lobbying to prevent even the research towards it, even before the first cruise. She
believes that the human race – the other 6 billion human beings and their elected representatives – are too arrogant to even have the chance to choose. Her mind appears set was set before any data was even collected, and has not changed since.

In keeping with her views, Chisholm has written papers, convened symposiums (see below), and lobbied government agencies, all for the single purpose: to ensure that her view of right and wrong is upheld.

None of these actions are by themselves inappropriate. Dr. Chisholm has ever right to lobby for her views. However, it is important to understand that by these actions, Dr. Chisholm is has assumed the role of an activist, or political partisan, not a scientist. She has made it her mission to stop any development of the field, and has used her scientific position to do this, fighting by every means possible to slow down or block this technology, for reasons of personal ideology.

Most likely her views will continue to be debated in the political sphere, at some point in the future when and if a large scale process is proposed. But right now, it’s important to ask the question: Is the ocean science community making a clear distinction between Chisholm the activist and Chisholm the respected scientist? Are they making the necessary allowance for her personal bias? And finally, are her personal views, as strongly worded as they are, acting to obstruct or prevent the normal process of scientific investigation for this nascent field, thus preventing the world community from getting a complete presentation of the facts necessary to make informed decisions?

Case In Point: Dr. Kenneth Coale

From Science News, September 30 1995, p 220:

“We had predicted the response, but none of us was really prepared for what it would look or feel like,” says (Kenneth) Coale, a researcher at the Moss Landing (Calif.) Marine Laboratories. “There were some of us who were quite pleased and others of us who would walk out on the fantail and burst into tears. It was a profoundly disturbing experience for me"

Coale and many others who witnessed iron’s tremendous greening effect loathe the idea of tinkering with the globe in such a heavy-handed way.

From Discover, October 2003 “Watery Grave”

Coale thinks it's unfair, if not impossible, to expect the oceans to absorb more than 6 billion tons of excess carbon each year. "There are many of us who consider the oceans to be sacred," he says. But "we've let the cat out of the bag. We have to keep looking at it now, whether we like it or not."

“Iron fertilization for geo-engineering or fish product has been driven by a kind of quick-buck philosophy…”
Note the phrases “burst into tears” “profoundly disturbing” “loath” “sacred”. Clearly Dr. Coale has strong emotional feelings about the entire business. Again, Coale is entitled to his opinions, but we must point out: he is the director of the Moss Landing Laboratory, and is therefore in charge of what is arguably the central lab studying the effect.

If Coale has such virulent feelings on the topic, which he expresses in almost every article written on the subject, how can he support unbiased research into the topic? How could any young researcher or student working under him dare to work optimistically on the subject when the leader of their group is so firmly opposed to it?

It seems more likely that Coale’s conflict of conscience spills over into the field that he leads, and that this negativity creates a wet blanket smothering progress.

Again, this should not be taken as personal criticism of Coale. We have no doubt that he is a dedicated leader of his group who honesty tries to do justice to the problem. But it seems unlikely he is able to do so.

Case in Point: American Society of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) 2001 Ocean Fertilization Symposium.

The ASLO conference was billed as a symposium with presentations by a wide variety of interested parties. From this description, an average scientifically-literate citizen or government regulator would suppose that it represented an unbiased, or at least broad, view of the issues. This symposium created a “Policy Statement” which warns against ocean iron fertilization. Such a warning might very strongly affect the views of the public.

The problem is, this conference appears to have been biased from the start, organized for the sole purpose of creating such a warning. The lead-off speakers for the conference were the two mentioned above, Chisholm and Coale. Chisholm gave the overview presentation, in which she made it very clear the purpose of the conference was to warn against the technology. So the question must be asked: how can such an event, organized in this way, possibly have arrived at an unbiased consensus of views? Of course it couldn’t and wasn’t intended for that purpose. Thus it is not a “scientific” event but an “activism” event, the equivalent of a political rally, which has been clothed as science to gain it increased respect.

If this meeting was nothing more than a meeting of activists for one particular side of the debate, then it needs to be clearly labeled as such, so that future decision-makers won’t give it more consideration than is due such activism.

Withholding Science From Society?

Scientists are entitled to their political opinions. But when those opinions become the driving force for an entire scientific field, we question if this veers into ethical conflict.

Individuals, no matter how strongly they may feel, do not have the right to obstruct the normal progress of scientific discovery and commercialization, in order to satisfy their personal beliefs. In fact, to some extent scientists have a larger obligation to research diligently and present unbiased facts so that the world community and elected representatives can make their own decisions. There are billions of citizens of the world who, through taxes, grant money, and goodwill, are funding scientific research, and who expect in return to get conclusions untainted by the personal beliefs.


· We respectfully suggest that the ocean science community needs do some “soul searching” if systemic bias has affected the progress of this research.

· We believe that the literature of the field deserves a complete review to identify places where “negative spin” has been added prematurely, or where political or social commentary has been used to argue feasibility.

· We suggest that the 2001 ASLO Symposium findings (Summary Statement April 25, 2001) be formally stricken and a new symposium be convened, in which a legitimate and valid cross-section of opinions, both pro and con, are represented.

· Finally, we suggest that researchers refrain from such negative remarks about commercial firms. Academic-commercial partnerships are a well-proven structure for making progress and solving problems. There is no need for scorn.

If we are off-base or over-stating the problem, then we apologize. This letter is certainly not meant as an accusation, but instead, a serious question: has the Marine Science community gotten “off track” in regards to Ocean Fertilization, and if so, can it get back on track?

Steve Kerry
CarbonSequestration Blog

Note: Responses welcome, and will be published in entirety in the Carbon Sequestration Blog. Please address or visit

For more information on Ocean Iron Fertilization visit Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia:

Prior posts on this subject:

7/26/2006 Addendum

Once criticism that might be levelled at this open letter--it didn't address any of the specific pros and cons of iron fertilization. Some might complain that we've only discuss the tone of the debate but not the actual issues. This omission was intentional. There simply wasn't room to address the issues in detail.

We did make a few points in the "Top 3" post. In summary:

1. It seems the biggest problem is that iron fertilization is debated primarily as a "geoengineering" technology. This is fallacious. The world climate change community is not looking for "big" technologies that are going to "fix the entire problem." That is no longer viewed as a realistic or even preferred approach. Instead the current consensus is for a large mix (or portfolio) of many efforts, some that reduce carbon emissions and some that sequester or remove carbon, which are applied across the globe in a multitude of ways, and which add up to the solution.

Iron fertilization therefore should be viewed just as one of many of these different techniques -- yes, a very promising one, but not a single point solution. By looking at it on this more moderate scale, we can avoid the exaggerated claims and extremist arguments seen from both sides.

2. It has not been clear which arguments are scientific and which are philosophical. For example, when someone says, "we shouldn't use iron fertilization, we should reduce energy consumption" that argument has nothing to do with science or even risk--it's about ideology.

7/27/2006 Addendum

This article has received a few emails both pro and con. One thing I want to make very clear: this is not intended specifically as an endorsement of commercial iron fertilization. This is purely an attempt to start open debate on a wider scale. If this post in any way facilitate wider debate, then it's a success.