This morning, I came across an article claiming that scientists were "blaming" birds for polluting the Arctic with DDT and mercury. I was tempted to write an aggrieved little post on it, but I decided I couldn't be bothered.
Then I came across the Guardian's version of the story, entitled "Arctic pollution blamed on seabirds," which started out like this:
Seabirds - conspicuous polluters of newly polished cars in seaside towns - are also the culprits behind the pollution of the Arctic, according to Canadian scientists.I'm not going to belabor the obvious point, which is that the birds in question are not culprits, but victims. I'm sure each of the journalists who chose to take this tone would agree, if pressed on the matter. What I do find somewhat sinister is that this tone seems to recur whenever there's a scientific story that's "funny" (e.g., it deals with excretion or sex...nudge nudge!), no matter how grim the implications of that story may be. You may recall how the rather alarming news that prescription antidepressants excreted in human urine were making their way into marine organisms was the inspiration for reams of limp journalistic raillery about "depressed fish."
There's no diabolical conspiracy involved, obviously. There's simply the fact that on a certain level, all hacks think alike. "If the fish are absorbing antidepressants...then any fish that was depressed would perk right up! Depressed fish! That's it! That's my angle! Boy, it's scary where my mind goes sometimes."
Anyway, having had our requisite giggle over the homely imperatives of the animal body, let's see if we can find a more substantive issue here. Professor Jules Blais, who conducted the study in question, has a wee bit of a confession to make:
"These contaminants have been washed into the ocean, where we generally assumed they were no longer affecting terrestrial ecosystems," Professor Blais said. "Our study shows that seabirds, which feed in the ocean but then come back to land, are returning not only with food for their young, but contaminants as well. The contaminants ... are released on land."It's comforting that Professor Blais acknowledges the tendency of rivers to flow to the sea. But on what conceivable grounds could one "generally assume" that contaminants in the ocean would have no effect on terrestrial ecosystems? This is a fact so obvious that even politicians have occasionally recognized it. Blais' comment - assuming it's accurately represented - betrays a fairly profound alienation from everyday reality, of the sort I've had occasion to bemoan elsewhere.