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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Dude, Where's the Oil?

Air Date: Week of September 3, 2010

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Christopher Reddy is a marine chemist for Woods Hole Research Institute (Woods Hole Research Institute)

There has been a lot of debate about how much BP oil still remains in the Gulf of Mexico. Government officials have said most of it is gone. Other researchers report that 75 percent is still there. Woods Hole marine chemist Christopher Reddy explains to host Jeff Young that science takes time and the results aren't necessarily contradictory.

Transcript

YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. We’ve been whip-sawed lately by conflicting accounts of just how much of BP’s oil is still in the Gulf. A government report gave the impression that most of it was gone. Then, scientists with the Georgia Sea Grant program concluded that most of it is still there… suspended underwater. The journal Science published a study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution documenting an oil plume, then published another study suggesting that microbes were eating that submerged oil. We’ve asked Christopher Reddy to help us understand what’s going on. He’s a marine chemist at Woods Hole.

REDDY: I was a part of a real superstar group of team of scientists and then, during the last two weeks of June, we used a series of different types of technology to identify and track a plume that existed about a half mile deep below the ocean that went out about 22 miles long.

YOUNG: How do you account for the differences in these reports that we are hearing from different teams of scientists? Because to the lay person, it’s pretty darn confusing….

REDDY: Yeah, well. (laughs). You know, these initial estimates are really more like a rough estimate. They help you, kind of, set a road map as to where you are going to head. And they allow you with more time, and more science that goes on, allow you to have a much more improved finished product. The fact that two groups disagree as to the starting point is…that’s just science.

  


Christopher Reddy is a marine chemist for Woods Hole Research Institute (Woods Hole Research Institute)

YOUNG: You wrote an essay about your experience trying to communicate the science and how it was presented in news stories and you wrote: “It is incumbent on scientists and journalists to keep the results in perspective and refrain from veering into misleading waters. Unfortunately, in this case, both parties failed.” So, what went wrong?

REDDY: I think the scientists probably didn’t set the results up in the context of these two potentially conflicting reports- I didn’t think they were conflicting. On the flip side, I think journalists, and there’s not many science journalists as much as there used to be, so I think some journalists kind of think about these science cases much like the OJ Simpson case, where there’s something new everyday, per se. And I think that they were expecting that our story would be following on the heels of the last two, you know, news releases, almost like a Charles Dicken’s serial novel. And that’s just not the case of how science works. You know, we just don’t live in a world of CSI and those other TV shows where you get an answer in eight seconds. It just takes time.

YOUNG: Did you get the sense that while you were looking for some light here, some of us in the media were looking for the heat? Trying to look for the conflict?

REDDY: Yeah, sure, I mean, there was. But that’s what sells newspapers and I understand that. You know, I think it was a whole series of crossed wires. I mean, I think, you know, there was a big press release and press conference about the results from our study showing evidence of a plume, and it was right on the heels of two other stories. So, it kind of seemed obvious to a lot of people that we were the third round, you know, of this ongoing battle. And, in reality, we were just a small piece of the pie of a very, very big bakery called the Gulf of Mexico. You know it’s a big piece of science that has to be done to understand the whole aspect of the spill.

YOUNG: What might scientists have done better to communicate all this?

REDDY: One of the problems that, you know, my colleagues and I have is that we often critique science very hard. I mean, we’re really pretty tough on each other. And sometimes, when we’re asked by the journalists what we think of a paper… I might think it’s a really good paper, but I may say, ‘oh, but I don’t really believe in what they say in Figure 3,’ but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I think these people are bad scientists. I think what’s happening is, you’ll get scientists speaking to a journalist and critiquing a paper like they’re speaking to their office mate, who would kind of take the big picture, where I think the journalists may magnify, you know, the one little misgiving I may have.

YOUNG: So, what’s the lesson there? Not talk to journalists, or change the way you talk to journalists?

REDDY: No, no. I think that scientists would do well by understanding a little bit about what a journalist’s life is, that your regular beat reporter, you know, works on the time scales of three to five, six hours. Regular scientists works on the time scales of six, 10, 12 months. Many of the journalists, you know, in the morning may be covering in the morning a car crash, in the afternoon an oil spill. And so, I don’t think the scientists understand the life of a journalist. And I think if they did, and they listened to the questions they may be able to help out science better in the long run. They also have to understand that they have to say ‘no’. And, they also have to say ‘I have no comment’, and I think sometimes, you know, we get so excited that somebody finally cares about what we have to say they may ask a question that leads us down a path that we really can’t get out of.

YOUNG: What can we learn here from previous spills, say, with the Exxon Valdez, how long was it before some scientists really had their arms around what had become of that oil?

REDDY: Well, the Valdez spill, there was a very nice paper written by some outstanding scientists about five years after the spill who tried to answer all those questions.

YOUNG: Five years?

REDDY: Five years. There’s so much attention on this spill that, you know, things could move faster, that doesn’t mean any sloppier, but I would hope that maybe in about a year from now, there might be five or ten people still sitting in a room and spend about a week and crunch some numbers and they might be able to give you the number that’s probably pretty robust. That would seem reasonable to me. You know, we work at a pace of prudence, and I think a lot of the audience works on a pace of urgency. And, in most cases, those don’t mesh.

YOUNG: Christopher Reddy is a marine scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Thanks very much for your time.

REDDY: Yeah, my pleasure.

 

Links

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Click here for a PDF of the NOAA report

Georgia Sea Grant on the Oil Spill

 

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