News brief from Kip Hansen – December 24, 2022
Most of the science done today is good work – solidly done. The problem arises when the press becomes involved. Let’s be honest, scientists want their work to be widely read, they want their work to be seen as “important”, meaningful and, let’s admit it, popular. They want the press to cover their latest study.
The problem this causes is not solely The Press’s fault — scientists tend to have their institutional press offices “bop up” study results and the implications of study results. The mass media (no longer printed on presses but mysteriously spreading as bits and bytes — electronic ones and zeros — across the Internet) needs to produce content that people will read — or at least headlines that the public will click on .
[Clicks produce income for digital outlets – and I will admit to having invented, with five other people, one of the most ubiquitous tracking systems ever – increasing the commercial value of websites by 80% overnight. Yes, there’s a patent, long expired now.]
Today’s example is from our old favorite The Guardian, whose journalists are easily taken by scientific stories. The latest is:
“Plastic nurdles prevent sea urchins from developing properly, study finds”
The headline is wrong at first glance, but the subheading is at least a bit more specific:
“Chemicals leaking from plastic have been shown to cause fatal abnormalities, including gut development outside the body”
Of course, that’s not entirely true either.
There is a study! (I always like this statement more as a meme…)
The actual study, which appears to have been carefully conducted in an activist-scientific manner, reads:
“Plastic leachate-induced toxicity during embryonic development in sea urchins: insights into the molecular pathways influenced by PVC”
This paper is a “In Press, Journal Pre-proof”, but it has been peer-reviewed. There is a free .pdf version.
Of course, if you read the newspaper, you find out that “Nurdles” do nothing. But when factory-fresh noodles were poured into water and then “leached for 72 h on a Heidolph orbital platform shaker (Heidolph Unimax 2010) with continuous shaking at room temperature (about 18 °C) in the dark” (at one cup of noodles to ten cups of water ) you get a leachate of fresh pasta that, unsurprisingly, contains a lot of chemicals.
If the chemical leachate is placed in beakers with freshly fertilized sea urchin eggs, the little sea urchins will not fare well. This is no surprise. Almost any combination of chemicals that are “non-seawater” can be expected to have adverse effects because, according to the paper, “development of marine invertebrates is a particularly sensitive life stage because it occurs very quickly and directly in the water.”
The conclusion of the study can be found in:
“Unfortunately, nurdle spills are a source of unwanted plastic contamination where enormous amounts of plastic nurdles can be found (Partow et al., 2021; Sewwandi et al., 2022). It is very unlikely that high concentrations of plastic pellets such as those used in our study will be found in settings other than some areas immediately after these accidents.” [my emphasis – kh]
“We have shown that new plastic noodles can leach harmful chemicals, particularly heavy metals, which at high concentrations disrupt the development of sea urchin embryosp.”
and they add speculation to good science:
“Given the highly conserved nature of developmental processes, it is not difficult to imagine that other organisms will be affected in a similar way.”
1. It’s a bad thing to spill huge amounts of freshly made plastic pellets called “nurdles” into the sea. This happened when the container ship X-Press Pearl was wrecked off Sri Lanka in 2021. But we already knew that. And of course damage to the sea urchin embryos is only possible at such massive exit points.
2. Nurdles and microbeads do not belong in the oceans. je. There have been many efforts to demonize plastic in general and microplastics in particular. Nurdles are the size of lentils and larger than microplastics – but are just as biodegradable. No kind of plastic waste belongs in the seas, in rivers, on roadsides or in the environment – it belongs in recycling plants, in waste incinerators or in landfills.
3. Throwing things into the oceans that don’t belong there is BAD. Do not do it. Anything you throw into the ocean, however, unless it’s immediately poisonous, becomes either food or a home for a creature of the deep.
4. This kind of science is “fashion science”. The anti-plastic science is a fad, like associating something bad with the science of global warming. It’s sure to get published, almost sure to get press coverage. Very little of it contributes to the base load of human knowledge. In simple words, a waste of effort and money. Quote from Dr. Judith Curry: “Research that is neither useful nor contributes to fundamental understanding.”
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We either have too many scientists and not enough things to study, or too many scientists are forced to publish or perish even if they don’t have to publish anything.
Having championed areas of science – like “is plastic a problem or not” – in their larger subject-specific panels in the past, AGU is an example of bringing their best people together and outlining which questions need answering the most urgently or most importantly . Then scientists in that field could focus on the most pressing things first. Stupid studies like this would not be funded. [It is not entirely silly – but was unneeded — their main finding that “massive spills of nurdles are bad” was already known.]
am i doing better I don’t know – I write about things that either interest me or catch my attention. I will not be offended by your opinion in the comments.
Thank you for reading.
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