Posted by: Miriam Goldstein | November 13, 2009

Response to NYT Article

On Tuesday, the New York Times published an article on the North Pacific Gyre called “Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash.” Written by Lindsey Hoshaw, it was the culmination of a $10,000 freelance journalism project* in which she visited the gyre with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Unfortunately, this NYT article was far below their usual standards. Not only did it not add anything new to the discussion, but it significantly misrepresented the state of the science, presenting broad estimates & conjecture as facts.

I sent a list of corrections to the New York Times, and I am republishing them here as well. They are in the order they appear in the article. Because there are so many, I have kept each explanation brief, but please ask in the comments if you would like elaboration. Thanks to my SIO colleagues Kristen Marhaver and Mike Navarro for their suggestions!

In this remote patch of the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles from any national boundary, the detritus of human life is collecting in a swirling current so large that it defies precise measurement.

The gyre is not a current, but a lack of currents. Please see Pete’s explanation of convergence zones for more detail.

…an area of widely dispersed trash that doubles in size every decade and is now believed to be roughly twice the size of Texas.

There is no evidence for this. There certainly is a lot of trash, but there have been no measurements of either the trash’s total area or its growth rate.

But one research organization estimates that the garbage now actually pervades the Pacific, though most of it is caught in what oceanographers call a gyre like this one — an area of heavy currents and slack winds that keep the trash swirling in a giant whirlpool.

There is evidence for debris in some other areas of the Pacific, namely in the California Current, off Japan, and in the Alaskan Gyre, but there are few measurements from the southern hemisphere. A few studies have studied macrodebris – big stuff floating around or washed up on islands – but I am not aware of any microdebris studies there. And again, the gyre is defined by a LACK of currents, not “heavy currents.”

Scientists say the garbage patch is just one of five that may be caught in giant gyres scattered around the world’s oceans.

This is a very poor description of oceanic circulation. There are five major gyres, but lots of minor ones (e.g., the Alaskan Gyre). There is no evidence for all five major oceanic gyres containing large amounts of trash – only the North Atlantic and North Pacific have been studied. It certainly could be the case, but we don’t know yet.

Millions, billions, trillions and more of these particles are floating in the world’s trash-filled gyres.

As above, there is no evidence for all gyres being filled with trash. Also, though I realize writing is trying to be poetic, we do not know how many particles there are, but there may not be “trillions.”

Scientists…say that fish tissues contain some of the same chemicals as the plastic. The scientists speculate that toxic chemicals are leaching into fish tissue from the plastic they eat.

This is highly misleading. Fish tissues may contain pollutants, but no current evidence that they contain chemicals transferred from ingestion of plastic. There is only one study of this kind, and it was done on birds in the laboratory. To be fair, the article did say “speculate,” but it should have been clearer on the current state of the science.

Fish that feed on plankton ingest the tiny plastic particles.

We do not know if significant numbers or important species of fish are ingesting plastic. We are studying this now, and it continues to be unclear.

The researchers say that when a predator — a larger fish or a person — eats the fish that eats the plastic, that predator may be transferring toxins to its own tissues, and in greater concentrations since toxins from multiple food sources can accumulate in the body.

There is no current evidence of this, particularly since food species of fish (e.g., tuna) do not inhabit the gyre. The gyre is a biological desert – it is an area of very low productivity and there are very few large fish there. Top predators certainly do accumulate toxins like methylmercury, but that is not related to plastic ingestion.

“I saw much higher concentrations of trash in the Pacific garbage patch than in the Sargasso,” Ms. Monteleone said, while acknowledging that she might not have found the Atlantic gyre.

The Sargasso Sea is in the North Atlantic Gyre, and nearly synonymous with it, so I don’t know what this means. It might be possible to be in part of the North Atlantic Gyre without seeing the seaweed Sargassum, but it is impossible to be in the Sargasso Sea without being in the North Atlantic Gyre.

Water samples from February contained twice as much plastic as samples from a decade ago.

This is a very difficult claim to make without controlling for the medium- and small-scale variation of plastic abundance. Even in the same year, some areas have little plastic and some areas have a lot of plastic. Without controlling for these variations, the increase in plastic can’t be measured accurately.

—-

*If you’re interested in how the story was funded, I recommend checking out Hoshaw’s fundraising page at Spot.us, as well as Megan Garber’s critical article at the Columbia Journalism Review and John Zhu’s thoughtful blog post.

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Responses

  1. [...] to determine the effects it may have on marine life. She has a new blog post up entitled ‘“Millions, billions, trillions”…of scientific errors in the NYT‘. Yikes! Here’s how her post begins: On Tuesday, the New York Times published an [...]

  2. I have heard the measurement of the trash being twice the size of Texas in several articles before. I was under the impression that some rudimentary measurement had taken place? Is there no estimate of how much trash is being researched here?

    • Hi Callie,

      Debris has not been directly measured over the vast majority of the Gyre, so we can’t say how large the high-trash area might be. Since a cruise track is linear, it is very hard to estimate area from it. We are in the process of measuring how much trash we encountered on the SEAPLEX cruise, but we won’t be able to get a large-scale area since we just didn’t have enough time at sea. You can also see measurements taken by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation here.

    • You might also be interested in NOAA’s take on the actual size of the high-trash area.

  3. I didn’t tackle the claims in this article specifically, but I’ve been fed up with the coverage of this for some time now (I used to do some work in ocean modelling), so I blogged it earlier today (http://layscience.net/node/767).

    • Thanks Martin! I think your blog post is great. If you haven’t already, you might be interested in browsing this blog to get our perspective about what we found out in the gyre this summer.

  4. [...] to understand the effects it may have on marine life. She has a new blog post up entitled ‘“Millions, billions, trillions”…of scientific errors in the NYT‘. Yikes! Here’s how it begins: On Tuesday, the New York Times published an article on [...]

  5. If you call yourself a journalist, you might want to spell the journalist in question’s name right in your article. I think she was simply trying to inform people of what’s going on in the world, are we jealous we did not get published in the Times?

    • Thank you for pointing out my typo, anonymous. I have corrected it. However, I do not call myself a journalist – I am a scientist researching this topic for my dissertation in biological oceanography.

  6. Miriam: great job and thanks for fighting the good fight here. This isn’t just about reporting on the gyre, it’s about demanding rigour in science journalism.

    Anonymous: way to miss the point, way to be too cowardly to tell us your name while suggesting that Miriam’s painstaking work here was really just scrawled in a fit of jealousy and way to not recognize the enormous chasm between NYT-caliber journalism and ‘simply trying to inform people of what’s going on in the world’.

  7. [...] science is inaccurate better than no media coverage? I fear that inflated claims like the ones in the NYT article may cause the public to discount the whole issue, once they find out that some of the facts are [...]

  8. Ms. Goldstein – The stridency of your critique is a little distressing. You’ve commented twice on the supposed definition of what a “gyre” is. You say, “The gyre is not a current but a lack of currents.” I think perhaps you’re referring to the CENTER of the gyre, where there is a lack of currents. If look at what Wikipedia presents for the term “ocean gyre” you see they say, “An oceanic gyre is any large-scale system of ocean currents.” You’re welcome to parse that further, but the bottom line is you’re speaking with all too much force on an issue which is at best trivia, if not incorrect in your assessment.

    • Dr. Olson,

      I’m sorry that you find my passion for accurate science reporting “strident.” I have been to your lectures at SIO and it was my understanding that you encouraged scientists to speak with passion about their research areas.

      Regarding the definition of a gyre, and the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre in particular, here’s how Karl 1999 (Ecosystems 2(3):181-214) defines the currents in the North Pacific (Subtropical) Gyre. “The geostrophic nature of the major clockwise (anticyclonic) circulation assures wind-driven convergence of surface waters in the NPSG (Reid and others 1978). It serves to isolate these relatively large gyre ecosystems and to restrict exchanges with adjacent current systems (Figure 1). The advective field suggests horizontal currents less than 4 cm s-1 and implies, by Ekman convergence, a mean vertical downwelling of 2–3 cm d􏰃1 through the main thermocline (Niiler and Reynolds 1984).”

      Now, I entirely agree that the public does not care about the definition of the NPSG. But describing the area of the gyre sampled as a “swirling current” is misleading. The currents (California, Kuroshio) are the borders; the central gyre itself, which is where most of the plastic is, has little horizontal motion.

  9. What a missed opportunity. Ms Gordon, you and Ms Hoshaw are two young people with a clear passion for the plastic marine pollution issue. What if – instead of criticizing this article line by line, you instead reached out, gave kudos to Ms. Hoshaw for bringing this issue to the NYT, and engaged her in a dialogue off line about a few of the inaccuracies you found.

    This issue will only be solved by groups working together, not competing. There are enough natural competitors in this field without making new ones of those on your side.

    • To be clear, my name is Goldstein, not Gordon.

      I am not a journalist – I am a scientist. And while I love the ocean and hate seeing it trashed, I also love the scientific process, which demands critical thinking, criticism, and debate. I have engaged in this debate publicly so that anyone researching this issue can see my perspective as the chief scientist of the SEAPLEX expedition. There is a great deal of misinformation on the internet, and I think it is part of our job as scientists to provide the best information that we can.

      That said, I do want to note that Hoshaw has reached out to me, very graciously, and has offered to listen to my concerns. I admire her for it. But I really, really wish she had picked up the phone beforehand.

  10. Miriam, I would like to point out that AMRF has found significant microplastic debris ingested by myctophid fish collected during our 2008 expedition from HI to CA. Of 671 fish, representing 6 species, 35% had plastic in their guts. As you know, myctophids represent a significant percentage of the biomass feeding larger fish. You also may wish to contact AMRF for information about their recent voyage traveling over 9,000 miles of the North Pacific Gyre this summer. No trawl, even the ones near the international dateline, came up plastic-free. Whatever parameters journalists give the North Pacific Gyre, what we know now is that plastic pollution is everywhere in the North Pacific. Even ACC funded studies in the Bering Sea found plastic.

    What’s important to look at now are trends in accumulation globally and the ecological impacts of plastic pollution. The NYT article did a fantastic job of keeping the issue on the minds of the public. I hope the author continues to write on the subject.

    • Dr. Eriksen,

      The SEAPLEX graduate student researchers all follow along with AMRF’s work – we were actually inspired to work on this issue after hearing you talk at SIO. We are certainly in agreement as to the consistency and vast quantity of plastic in the North Pacific, and that this may be a huge ecological problem.

      However, I am not aware of any publication in the scientific literature regarding plastic ingestion by myctophids. (I have seen your blog & website writeups, of course, and found them interesting.) If I am mistaken, please correct me – I would be extremely interested in seeing such a paper, as would the SEAPLEX fish researchers.

      Pete Davison, who is a graduate student researcher at SIO and an expert on myctophids, wanted to add, “Myctophids are not necessarily major prey items for “fish” directly. Of course, much depends on the fish you are talking about. We know that they are minor prey items for tuna. Squid eat lots of myctophids, and are in turn consumed by (some) larger fish. Rockfish eat a lot of myctophids, but they are limited to the E. Pacific shelf. Dragonfish eat a lot of
      myctophids, but they are not consumed by humans. Myctophids are certainly important forage fish, and something eats them, but one needs to be careful about overstating their importance to certain predators.”

      Pete adds, “I agree that plastic pollution is everywhere, but because fish are so diverse, it is hard to assume that if fish eat it one place that they eat it in others, or that if one species eats it, then all species eat it.”

      The scientific process requires debate and discussion, but this certainly in no way alleviates our concern over the issue of plastic accumulation in the ocean. We look forward to following along with AMRF’s future expeditions.

  11. Interesting post and comments, Miriam! This back-and-forth is more interesting and informative than the original article, stridency and all. A big part of the reason is that newspaper editors don’t have the scientific training to judge the accuracy of an article. Apparently, this is even true at the New York Times.

    Journalists like myself are trained to wrap up everything in a story, all neat with the ribbons and bows. Reality doesn’t usually co-operate. This is especially true in science, where facts are contingent, not absolute. Yet, the conventions of journalism story-telling demand we pretend to know more than we do. So we get seriously warped science coverage, written from a template, with all the messy qualifications and uncertainties elided.

    I was really surprised to see Randy Olson cite Wikipedia as a source. Even as a lowly journalist, I know better than that!

  12. Hoshaw just followed me on Twitter, so she’s obviously lurking. I hope she decloaks and responds to the criticisms.

  13. Hi Bradley,

    Nice to meet you (albeit electronically). I am following you on Twitter as I think you have valuable insights. I usually try to refrain from commenting publicly as I want people to feel free to criticize without me hovering over their shoulders. I certainly didn’t want to seem cloaked–hope this response helps. :)

    I am really thankful that people have taken time to provide their feedback and concerns as I think this will ultimately improve the quality of science journalism.

    I appreciate Goldstein’s close reading and I think if you look closely you’ll see that we’re not so far apart on the material that really matters. The patch is an inherently difficult thing to study, and Goldstein’s studies will surely help us understand it more precisely in the future.

    The reality is, the patch is there now. In the limited space available, I chose to focus on what we know now, so that we can start thinking about how we can respond.

    I have offered to drive down to San Diego to meet with Goldstein and others at Scripps so they may express their concerns. I am definitely not one to shoo off critics, I think we both have a lot to learn here. I’ll be watching eagerly as Goldstein’s research progresses, as I’m sure many of you will be too.

    Yours,
    Lindsey

  14. But you didn’t focus on what we know now! You made up things that are inherently unknowable – like the quantity of plastic in the gyre – and you said things that are actually incorrect – like the heavy currents.

    Saying “if you look closely you’ll see that we’re not so far apart on the material that really matters.” is using weasel words. What really matters is providing the correct facts for readers.

  15. Thank you, Lindsey, and good to see you here. Welcome aboard!

    After reading about your blog, it seems that what you wrote there would have been a much more compelling area for the NYT to focus on. So I apologize for judging your work only on what was left after it went to the NYT’s Procrustean bed of template journalism. What readers what to know and what editors think readers want to know often differ.

    It’s sad and rather startling that the NYT would impose space constraints on your article, even on the Web edition. Why not give you a few thousand words, or even let you post a synopsis, with hyperlinks to chapters that give the real detail for those interested? (And the NYT should drop its silly automated links, but that’s another issue.)

    I know you are grateful to NYT for the opportunity to write there, but the Grey Lady could have done so much more with your material.

  16. [...] watchers and journalists, some by scientists. See the reactions, for example, by Megan Garber, Miriam Goldstein, John Zhu, Martin Robbins, Mathew Ingram and Sheril Kirshenbaum (and Sheril again – read the [...]

  17. [...] Goldstein–chief scientist of SEAPLEX–is heading the excursion to assimilate the the island of garbage in the North Pacific Gyre to try to assimilate the goods it might have on sea life. She has a brand [...]

  18. [...] watchers and journalists, some by scientists. See the reactions, for example, by Megan Garber, Miriam Goldstein, John Zhu, Martin Robbins, Mathew Ingram and Sheril Kirshenbaum (and Sheril again – read the [...]

  19. Hi
    I don’t have a bio or any science background at all. So I don’t understand why it’s necessary to test the garbage. Does it not look like garbage? Understanding where it all comes from doesn’t require a Phd. Hello!! how about the crap that washes from rivers, streams, down drains and just plane ole BAD/too much consumerism. It just seems that all this chemical testing is unnecessary. why not just send a fleet of some of the ships that carry the largest loads. for the next ten years. Will the problem even be completely solved … maybe not. People HAVE to have heir bottled water…BS and unhealthy soda crap…
    I wish I could clean it up….

    • Hi Camille,

      See our FAQ for more on what the trash looks like, why research is important, and why it’s extremely difficult to clean up.

  20. [...] were our disagreements? Here’s a few examples off the top of my head: I did not agree with much of Lindsey’s NYT article; Annie had a tough time getting stressed-out scientists [...]

  21. While I agree that the NYTimes article did not add much new information to the garbage patch issue, I would like to defend the author’s choice to refer to the gyres as “currents.” To a scientist, the use of this term in the context might be inaccurate, but try explaining to a lay person who has never heard about the existence of gyres that they are moving water masses that are there because of a lack of currents. Way too complicated. To a layperson with no background in oceanography, a mass of moving water is a current. As a science writer, I spend the better part of many of my days explaining to scientists that they can’t have it all. You have to choose between being 100% accurate – and being ignored because you have to revert to scientific terms, which will keep your story from being told – or you can accept minor inaccuracies for the sake of being heard. I think especially with regard to environmental issues, the latter is a far better choice. Only through stories like this one, inaccurate as they may be, is there even a chance to get the public to listen.

    • Daniel you should keep the original post, lots of errors in addition the crazy complex term gyre

  22. Only linear measurements for now? I wonder if satellites could help measure? Surely they can do something to help.
    We’re doing our part by using biodegradable industrial supplies like corn polymer instead of plastic. More people are jumping on board, which is great. Doesn’t seem like it’s happening fast enough though.

  23. [...] trip to the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (though it should be noted that as a scientist, I was less than impressed with the resultant New York Times article), and my colleague Chelsea Rochman raised travel money [...]

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