, September 28, 2021

Seaspiracy: fact, fiction, or an example of the dangers of science journalism?


  •   4 min reads
Seaspiracy: fact, fiction, or an example of the dangers of science journalism?

Is the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy fact or fiction? More likely, Seaspiracy is an example of how the presentation of complex information to the public leaves you open to charges of inaccuracy.

'It wasn't a documentary; more campaigning say critics.' The Netflix documentary (or whatever you want to describe it) is a hit on Netflix, has shocked viewers, but is now facing a backlash from critics. They say that it took a somewhat liberal interpretation of old fashioned journalistic practices such as telling the truth. The critics say Seaspiracy used discredited research, distorted the evidence it did cite and paints an altogether too bleak picture of fishing. Then again, the fishing industry and its supporters would say that, wouldn't they?

Writing in the Daily Mail, Geoffrey Lean, known as the longest-serving environmental specialist journalist, wrote: "for me, too, [Seaspiracy] appears to cross the line between investigative journalism and straightforward campaigning."

No one questions the motives of Geoffrey Lean; his contribution to environmental causes is without question. In a recent debate hosted by Rupert Read,  Mr Lean acknowledged that he would have rather Seasoriracy had been made than not made, but said that it was "such a tragedy that they didn't do it properly."

Of course, these days, the world is full of inaccuracies. We are all bombarded with facts that are taken out of context to mislead us, half-truths and downright lies, and no one is more guilty of this than deniers — whether they denied cars needed seat belts, denied smoking is bad for you, denied climate change and denied Covid. You can add to that list the Techopian's favourite example, rapid technology change denialism. Then there is fishing; we know the oceans are under threat. Some say it's exaggerated. But there are strong commercial interests in saying that.

Then, along comes Seaspiracy, and it becomes a Netflix hit while simultaneously telling us about the fishing industry's supposed evils.

The critics seem to fall into two categories. There are your usual deniers who have strong commercial benefits to present the pro-industry argument. Then, there are those who share the concerns about fishing with the makers of Seaspiracy but think that as we grapple with the deniers, with their somewhat indifferent attitude to accuracy, the environmentalists must be slaves to the truth. Geoffrey Lean unquestionably falls into that second category. It is far from certain all of the critics do, however.

On the other hand, Seaspiracy is compelling TV. As Rupert Read pointed out, the programme was presented as a tale of discovery, following the researchers' story exploring the issues. As such, it became a human interest story, as the researches are questioned by Japanese police, for example. "It made it more compelling," said Read.

To this author's sensitive nature, the scene near the beginning when Dolphins were rounded up, like pigs off to market, clicking and whistling their distress, was hard to watch, more disturbing than any horror movie.

But not all agree that Seaspiracy was that inaccurate anyway. Spencer Roberts, for example, said that a lot of the criticisms was itself inaccurate.

Seaspiracy claimed that 20 to 32 per cent of all wild-caught seafood into the US is illegal. "Absolutely not," came the rebuttal from Sustainable Fisheries.   "This is a claim from a retracted paper."

This itself is false, Tweeted Spencer Roberts:

"It has never been retracted or corrected." And here is the paper: In fact, another paper by the researchers was retracted, but only after enormous pressure from the Trump government. The problem with the paper said the its authors did not affect the overall result. Spencer Roberts pointed out: "This demand for a retraction, instead of just a correction or a comment—especially involving a government official with a history regulating the area implicated in illegal fishing—was considered pretty unusual and received a fair amount of criticism."

Or take another claim. Seaspiracy cited research suggesting that global fish populations would crash by 2048. Data "projects the global collapse of all taxa currently fished by the mid–21st century (based on the extrapolation of regression to 100 per cent in the year 2048.") states the paper, led by Boris Worm. "The paper was retracted, stated critics."

"It was not," Tweeted Roberts.

Instead, Boris Worm collaborated with a critic of his paper, which focused on maximum sustainable yield — another controversial area.

Subsequent work from Worm supported the underlying thrust of his original paper.

The point is that Seaspiracy is a compelling and disturbing account of the state of global fish stocks and where they could be heading. Not all the statements in the movie are accurate, but maybe it is a good deal less inaccurate than critics say. But it has brought these incredibly important issues to a wider public.

Statistics is a complicated subject. The science presented by Seaspiracy is hard to understand. Worm didn't say the oceans would be empty of fish by 2048; it made projections, full of caveats and wherefores, based upon data that was available at the time. If Seaspiracy had included the caveats and wherefores, it would not be a Netflix hit.

That is the problem with science journalism; when it is applied to issues like the environment, or climate change or indeed Covid, it is both complicated, but equally, the public must understand the main thrust of the conclusions. And the necessary simplification of the science, required to create understanding among the public, leaves it open to those who don't like what it means for their commercial interests.

We made Seaspiracy. Help us protect 30% of our oceans by 2030 from industrial fishing.

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