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Latest Expedition Journal

October 10:  Day 8

Posted by Michael Gil

Science needs you! (really):  The importance of critical thinking in the Communication Age

“Land ho!”
It has been nearly 5 years since I shouted those words from the bow of the SSV Robert C. Seamans, when we sailed into the Society Islands of French Polynesia. As I sit on the top of the “dog house” of the same ship today, writing these words the same way I wrote in my shipboard journal as an SEA student, I am reminded of how much my perspective on science has evolved. Just 7 days ago, my fellow crewmates and I set sail on a timely expedition with one key objective: to better understand the effects of plastic pollution on our world’s oceans. As we sail toward the heart of the North Pacific subtropical gyre, dubbed “the Great Pacific Garbage Patch” by the popular media, I find myself revisiting many of the connections I have made since I graduated from my SEA Semester and began to fully pursue a career in science.
 
As a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biology at the University of Florida, I have been involved in science for over 9 years. During this time, the word ‘science’ has become particularly interesting to me; it evokes so many emotions among those who hear it. To some, it causes indifference, skepticism or even fear. To others it causes excitement, wonder, or joy. Still, the majority are on the fence and do not know what to think—what is science, anyway? Science, which can be misconstrued as an esoteric, even elitist activity, reserved for the prodigies and geniuses of the world, is, in fact, a simple, intuitive process: An investigator comes up with a testable statement, collects data to test the statement, and analyzes the data for patterns that either support or refute the statement.  Yep—it really is that simple.

However, in the technologically overwhelming days in which we currently find ourselves, the importance of science as a utility to civilization can become muddled. Communication has reached heights that few could have envisioned just 10 years ago. We are becoming a global community, in which ideas can be shared across oceans and continents, among millions—even billions—at the push of a button. These are exciting times, but with these advances comes the dire need for something that each of us is often guilty of neglecting: critical thinking. Unfortunately, special interests and myopic agendas are poised to thwart honest efforts to use science to make the most of the planet Earth, for all who live here. In the midst of this process, issues that are of intrinsic interest to our well-being can become politicized, jargon-filled black boxes that no one understands or can hope to manage. We, as a society, must fight this.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, like global climate change, provides a fine example of an environmental issue that is both downplayed and embellished, while the underlying science can be completely ignored. However, regardless of your background or affiliations, plastic pollution in our world’s oceans is a very serious issue that must be objectively explored through science. But science alone is not enough; it must be communicated to the people. Scientists can only point to the doorway, the people must walk through it for science to fulfill its service to mankind.

Here, aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, in our tiny microcosm of the real world, life is less complicated. On Tuesday, we pulled aboard our first piece of large plastic—a fishing buoy with Asian markings completely covered in barnacles, crabs and other marine creatures. This miniature floating ecosystem that traveled across the Pacific is the first of many "macro-plastics" that we will analyze on board, and it was an exciting find for all of us.

Our crew consists of a vastly eclectic group of individuals, who nonetheless make each and every decision with the welfare of the entire ship’s company in mind. There are no hidden agendas here, no special interests—no, we are drawn from different backgrounds, professions and corners of the world for the same reason: we want to better understand an environmental issue that poses a threat to mankind.  We understand that the sea belongs to us all, and with this ownership comes great responsibility. We understand that we, as a species, cannot hope to persist fruitfully into the coming decades and later centuries if we do not keep an objective eye transfixed on our activities and how they may compromise nature’s bounty. 

But the real world is less utopian than the temporary shipboard lives we lead out here in the North Pacific. Thus, the onus is on each of us to beware of subjectivity and hidden agendas in the media we absorb. We cannot let someone else’s opinion or sensational rhetoric sway us too heavily in one direction or another on environmental issues that can affect our way of life. Instead, survey a variety of sources, look at the data, and, finally, come up with your own interpretation. In doing so, you will serve your fellow man. Remember, at the end of the day, we are all in the same boat.