I recently wrote a blog in which I criticized environmentalists, environmental scientists, and especially the media who cover environmental issues for exaggeration and simplification. My point was that you cannot exaggerate or overstate evidence without ultimately being made to look like a fool. I used as an example the case of an "ozone hole." There is no "hole" in the ozone layer. What we do see is a gradual decreasing concentration in atmospheric ozone. Ozone hole sounds neat and certainly gets a person's attention, but it is technically inaccurate. Ultimately somebody with an interest in making the environmental movement look foolish comes along and uses the exaggeration to make the data itself look incorrect. In this way most of us feel science swings on a pendulum. One day something is good, the next it is bad. Scientific data doesn't frequently change much, politics and poor media coverage lead our beliefs about scientific data to change.
Today I'd like to suggest that environmentalists must not only avoid overstating claims but also avoid being ignorant of the natural systems they are advocating for. I have been reading a book with my wife by a well known "environmentalist." Throughout the book he beautifully persuades the reader in support of his claims, but frequently does so my employing "facts" that are terribly inaccurate. Take for example, a claim he made when trying to convince the reader that there is a mysterious energy in all things. He notes that the mass of an oak tree is a prime example. The author points out that the mass of an oak tree cannot be attributed to soil or water. He then reports this to be evidence that the tree has taken on a living and growing energy. Newsflash! The mass of that tree did not materialize. It was transferred largely from atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbon chains. Pretty amazing and even magical I'd agree, but plainly stated in ignorance of the system being described.
I encountered this same sort of problem a couple of years ago at a very large conference on community food systems. I attended a lecture by the leader of an anti-GMO group. He spoke boldly about the risks of genetically modified organisms. I actually walked out of the room, not because I disagreed with him, but because he was supporting his cause with medical claims that extended well beyond what science has actually been able to demonstrate at present (largely because it is near impossible to fund this research).
An environmental movement based on ignorance and imagined "facts", no matter how well they support the cause, will ultimately undermine the movement. I do not fault a heavy bias toward action nor do I fault a reliance on intuition, but to exercise either without doing your homework seems to me to be a really bad idea.
Vincent M. Smith - PhD