Media

False narratives

 

European_Perch.jpg

European perch/Wikimedia Commons

Scientists Fredrik Jutfelt and Josefin Sundin, discovered the hard way the power of the false narrative. False narratives once established have a bad habit of taking on a life of their own. Efforts to change them invariably run up against opposition from those who, for lack of a better term, don’t want to “rock the boat.”

In the best case, the lies that survive are harmless. In the worse case, they can create problems far bigger than “fake news.” All of which is why the world needs people like Jutfelt and Sundin willing to challenge ideas that play to what people might want to believe.

About nine months ago, the duo seriously rocked the scientific boat by questioning a paper that claimed to show microplastics – tiny particles of plastic – could harm fish larvae. The paper had just broken new ground in environmental science.

It vaulted researcher Oona Lönnstedt onto a global stage in a world where everyone is a little edgy, and rightfully so, about the damage our ever-accelerating technological advances can or could do to the natural order.

“Bellies full of microplastic rob baby fish of their basic instincts,” PBS.org, the website of U.S. national public radio headlined in reporting on her research on June 6, 2016. The story below the headline started this way:

“When exposed to microplastics, baby fish stop eating natural food and prefer consuming the pollutant, according to a report from ecologists at Uppsala University in Sweden. The dietary switch derails the basic instincts of the fish, the researchers found, elevating the likelihood of being caught by predators. The findings may explain why populations of European perch  — the main species analyzed in the study — have declined in the Baltic Sea.”

The PBS report was constrained compared to that in the Washington Post, where Chelsea Harvey led her story with the claim that “yet another study is adding to scientists’ growing suspicions that tiny bits of plastic in the ocean are causing big environmental problems.”

The only other study Harvey cited was one that documented that a lot of plastic makes it into the ocean. That is not a good thing. Some of that plastic, as Harvey accurately noted “tends to break down over time into smaller and smaller parts. These tiny microplastics are believed to be especially dangerous for marine life because they’re so easy to ingest. They’ve been found in the bodies of all sorts of animals, from filter feeders like clams and mussels to small fish and birds.

“The problem is that scientists are still largely in the dark about how these microplastics are affecting the animals that eat them and how these effects might scale up and impact whole populations.”

Scientists were so in the dark they had yet to form any “growing suspicions.” They only had questions about possibilities. Lönnstedt’s study appeared to offer the first real evidence there were good reasons to be suspicious that microplastics could be causing serious environmental problems.

Other suspicions

But when  Jutfelt and Sundin read the paper, they immediately saw what appeared to them a problem – a very simple and real problem.

Jutfelt, an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and Sundin, a post-doctoral candidate at Sweden’s Uppsala University, had been at the Uppsala-managed Ar Research Station on Gotland Island, when Lönnstedt claimed to have carried out her experiments on perch.

And they hadn’t witnessed anything to indicate Lönnstedt had done the research she claimed to have done there. Believing Lönnstedt might have concocted data, the duo consulted with scientists in Canada, Switzerland and Australia who had their own questions about the research reported in the paper.

Then, they blew the whistle.

Jutfelt and Sunind “wrote UU that they had ‘a strong suspicion of research misconduct’ and asked for an investigation,” ScienceMag. org reported on Dec. 1 of last year.

As is too often the case,  the whistleblower move did not go well for the whistleblowers.

“A three-member expert panel at UU finished a preliminary investigation that cleared the accused (Lönnstedt) of misconduct and recommended against a full investigation,” Science reported. “The panel even berated Sundin and Jutfelt for blowing the whistle; most of their objections ‘come within the ambit of normal scholarly discussion, which could have been conducted directly with the authors of the article,'” the  panel concluded.

This is an all-too-predictable response to those who challenge the narrative.

Hard heads

But Jutfelt and Sundin did not let go. The took their concerns to Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board, which began its own investigation. The expert group there issued its opinion about a week ago.

The group concluded that Lönnstedt and co-author Peter Eklöv committed “scientific dishonesty” and recommended that “Science,” the journal which first reported the study retract it, ScienceMag.org reported.

The ethics board, wrote ScienceMag reporter Martin Enserink, concluded that “although Lönnstedt was responsible for carrying out the experiments at Ar – Eklöv didn’t visit the station – the report does not absolve him, noting that ‘in his role as a senior researcher, [he] bore significant responsibility for what transpired.’

“The panel also has some stern words for ‘Science’. The journal was ‘deficient’ in enforcing its open data policy, the authors say. They add that even if the research had been conducted as described, it would not have proved anything. The microplastics supposedly used in the study were mixed with detergents, according to the report, and the authors didn’t say they had removed these detergents. They, and not the plastic beads, could have caused the effects on fish larvae.”

The issue of the damage, if any, that microplastics do to fish is now back in the unknown.

You would not know it by reading PBS. The Washington Post, to that website’s credit, now has an “editor’s note” on its original story stating that “after a study on microplastics in marine life was published in June, 2016, whistleblowers came forward with suspicions about it. An investigation by an outside review board found the authors “guilty of scientific dishonesty” and Science retracted the study on May 3, 2017, citing the authors’ inability to produce their data and a “widespread lack of clarity concerning how the experiments were conducted.” The Washington Post reported on the research when it was published, but no longer stands by the story below.” 

Sometimes the false narratives in science get corrected if someone is brave enough to challenge bad research as Jutfelt and Sundin did. Sadly this rarely happens in journalism. You can still go to the Washington Post and find this: “Moose gives birth in Alaska store parking lot.”

Funny false

There is, unfortunately, more evidence to support the claims made by Lönnstedt in her now discredited paper than there is evidence to support the moose story. The evidence on the latter all runs to the contrary. No one was ever found who saw the calf born in the parking lot. At least one person was found who saw the cow and the calf wander into the parking lot from elsewhere.

Moose born in Lowe’s parking lot is an Anchorage urban myth, but the narrative surrounding the birth remains real. If you have any doubt, Google the words “Lowe’s parking lot moose.”

What you will get is a long list of stories from supposedly reputable news organizations – CNN, NBC News, Fox News, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and more. It would all be funny if dishonesty were funny.

“Witnessing a live birth is a spectacle in and of itself, but imagine seeing a live moose birth — not at a zoo — but at your local shopping center,” CNN says to this day. “That’s what a handful of Alaskans experienced….”

“File under ‘Only In Alaska’: A crowd gathered to witness the miracle of birth Tuesday when a moose gave birth in an Anchorage parking lot,” according to NBC News.

“Shoppers in Alaska were treated to a rare sight Tuesday when a moose gave birth outside a Lowe’s hardware store,” Fox News reports. 

And at the Times-Picayune, near the opposite end of the continent from Alaska, writer Mike Scott got a little carried away with the local angle:

“One thing we don’t have to concern ourselves with, however? A momma moose suddenly dropping her calf in the parking lot of a local big-box store. That was the case for shoppers at a Lowe’s store in Anchorage, Alaska, who saw their shopping interrupted Tuesday (May 31) by a moosey new arrival.”

Most of these sites and others promise video of the blessed event, but there is no video because there was nothing to film. The story was a fraud as the Alaska Dispatch News duly noted in a correction days after it joined those reporting a moose born in a parking lot.

The Anchorage newspaper, much to its credit, appears it might be the only news organization in the country to have corrected the story, which lives on locally at KTVA.com and KTUU.com.

But the moose is a small thing, and Alaska has witnessed a much, much bigger thing.

18 years in prison

Early on the morning of Oct. 11, 1997, 15-year-old John Hartman was found on a Fairbanks street badly beaten. He died the next day.

Within 36 hours, Fairbanks police had arrested four, young men destined to become known as the “Fairbanks Four.”  The Innocence Project and the media would eventually become heroes for freeing the men from jail for being unjustly imprisoned, but in 1997, the media was anything but a hero.

As too often happens in this country, police and prosecutors quickly scripted the post-Hartman narrative: they had caught the men who killed him, and they were going to put them away for a long time.

Usually when this happens, police and prosecutors are right. Most of the people they bring to trial are guilty. But there are those who aren’t, and lo be the innocent man or men, or woman or women, falsely accused.

There are invariably more people, often many more, willing to follow the narrative than question it. The media followed the narrative in Fairbanks. Even after a District Court judge hinted that the men were being railroaded by quashing indictments against three of them because evidence on alibi witnesses was withheld from the grand jury, the media generally followed the narrative.

The District Court ruling was appealed. The Alaska Court of Appeals ruled there was no requirement District Attorneys present alibi witnesses to the grand jury. The cases proceeded to trial.

Everyone stuck to the script. All four men were convicted and disappeared into the legal system. It would be a long time before they emerged.

“This case has had a strange relationship with the press,” they would observe almost two decades later at the website FairbanksFour.com. “The earliest articles are the ones that made an impression on the community, although they were full of inaccuracies and lies. The newspaper and stations did not deliberately print false information – they printed the story the police told.”

While doing everything wrong, the newspaper and stations didn’t do anything wrong. They just followed the narrative; it is the easy thing.

Narratives once established take on a life of their own, and like vampires they are hard to kill. Challenging them, as Jutfelt and Sundin discovered, can be a risky business.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 replies »

  1. I’m not an expert, but I think the tiny particles of plastic are covered with algae, so it makes sense that small fish would chow down on a concentrated food source just like any other food covered piece of detritus. It’s probably a good subject to research but the work should be done properly, i.e. what’s the ratio of natural food to plastic substrate food?
    You make a good point – these narratives spin out of control and follow the path of – tell a lie over and over and it becomes the truth. Gulf of Tonkin, Global Warming spring to mind.
    It’s important to maintain a higher level of skepticism in these days of mass low quality communication. My shields go up when I detect a thread of activism – The link to the fish story reveals Lönnstedt’s objective – She wants to determine which plastic is the worst and phase out its production, and by extension get more funds for her research.
    I treat the moose birth story as a yarn for the consumption of tourist. Stubbs the cat Mayor comes to mind – I wonder how many people believe that Stubbs is actually the Mayor? For now I think (and hope) most of us agree that Mayor Stubbs is a tall tale. Your story does a good job of pointing out that we live in an increasingly unskeptical and infantile world where anything can be true and people (and editors) can’t sort out the yarns and tall tales from serious matters.

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    • JK: it’s a great subject to study, and it might indeed be shown someday that microplastics do harm fish or conversely don’t. they could just pass through like the proverbial shit through a goose.
      you date yourself with the Gulf of Tonkin, but yes, it is a perfect example of how once the narrative gets established….

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    • Joe: see JK Smith’s post above. there is a stunning lack of skepticism among many in both science and journalism today. the old standard of “question everything” has faded. there’s a troublesome willingness to want to believe almost anything said by someone with credentials or authority.

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