On Picking and Choosing Facts: Shady Statistics and Propaganda (Ep. 61)

I hadn’t planned another detour from our biodiversity series this week, but after spending a day watching propaganda from both sides on the state of fish populations and fisheries, I couldn’t help but talk about sustainable fisheries.

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Next semester, I’m taking a class on population dynamics, and as the teacher agrees that three weeks of full-time education (as in: classes all day with no time to even study or do homework) is not really productive, he’s uploaded some of the seminar materials early. And, so far, I really like what he’s doing. He uploaded five videos for us to watch. These videos take extreme positions in the debate of sustainable fisheries. And honestly, all of them were hard to watch.

On the one side, there was a speech by this dude called Ray Hilborn, author of the book Ocean Recovery: A sustainable future for global fisheries?, and on the other side there was the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy. Both were hard to watch, and it’s hard to call them anything other than propaganda. There’s this saying: Never trust a statistic you haven’t faked yourself. And while these two might not be faking statistics outright, they are definitely picking and choosing their facts.

And the biggest problem is: Seaspiracy sheds light on important issues. I wish I could get my hands on the original footage of those interviews and his beautiful B-Roll. There’s a good documentary in there. But he completely botched it to fit his agenda. It’s hard to believe even the true things because they are hidden between half-truth, badly researched science, and overdramatization.

But let’s start with Hilborn and his pro-fisheries bullshit. The speech we had to watch was at an evening led by this very person for the Pacific Islands Fishery Group and Hawaii Fishermen's Association for Conservation and Tradition.

His whole stance is that eating fish is what’s best for the planet. He has some truth hidden in between the rubble, like the fact that some fish species are more overfished than others, and that there are even fish species that are currently not threatened or endangered. And yes, a lot of countries have taken steps in the right direction. But, unfortunately, no large-scale fishery is currently sustainable. Unless you pick and choose your facts, of course.

Hilborn argues that eating fish is what’s best for the planet, and he paints a convincing picture—if you have no clue about reality.

It was a great example of how choosing the right facts to present shifts the narrative. The factors he used to drive his point home were freshwater use, pesticide use, antibiotics use, and land use. He explained how wild-caught fish don’t use up any freshwater (true that), how there are no pesticides applied (also true), and how we don’t add antibiotics to wild-caught fish (yeah, true). He admitted that land use was higher in fish, but laughed it off as “that’s just how it is.” Seriously, if you are gonna include a pretend-balance negative point, at least talk about it.

To make things worse, he plays on emotions like a pro. When he first mentions pesticides, he looks at the audience and tells them many are old enough to know Silent Spring. He also jokes about his son who owns a farm where he grows corn. Let me quote this excellent father:

“He’s discing the field to destroy biodiversity. He doesn’t want anything to compete with the corn he’s gonna grow—actually, the genetically-modified corn he’s gonna grow.”

He later talks about aquaculture, so raised fish—which he conveniently ignored in his antibiotics statistics earlier—and mentions how those emit less CO2 than vegetables and livestock, again choosing the statistic that fits his needs—a statistic he himself has come up with through his own research, by the way.

But that’s not the worst of it. He compares an idealized view of fishery management with the worst of agriculture. If you claim that fish is a CO2 sink and ignore the fact that diesel-fueled vessels have to drive further and further out onto the ocean to catch fish, you are painting the wrong picture. If you claim that seafood has no antibiotics use, and ignore the fact that aquaculture has caused plenty of issues by polluting the ocean with medication (and uncontrolled pests that are harming wild fish), you are painting the wrong picture. If you ignore issues like by-catch and plastic pollution while pointing your finger at rainforest destruction for agriculture, you are painting the wrong picture.

There will be more detailed episodes on by-catch, plastic pollution, and overfishing, of course.

But, the thing is, he’s comparing wild-caught fish that magically appears on your plate to conventional non-organic agriculture, and that’s just not fair. If you’re gonna assume the best from fisheries, you should compare to the kind of agriculture where trees, shrubs, bushes, and crops all grow on the same land, balanced by nitrifying plants that enrich the soil. And while that might sound like a fairy tale, these kinds of agroforestry are actually done. Again, more on that later.

The fact remains, that Hilborn is abusing research and science, as well as statistics, to further his own agenda. It’s hard to trust someone who has taken plenty of money from the fishing industry. I trust him about as far as the MSC label or dolphin-safe canned tuna. No, thank you.

After watching a few more of his videos and those of his colleagues, I went on to explore the other side: Seaspiracy. Honestly, I can’t blame anyone, not even this Hilborn person for calling it vegan propaganda.

While there is a lot of truth in the documentary, I know why I didn’t finish it the first time. Without this class, I don’t think I would have made it through. They start with the dolphin slaughter happening in Southern Japan. And while what’s happening, there is cruel and should be exposed to the world, starting there sets the documentary up perfectly: drama!

Sensationalized drama is the theme of this documentary and many of the scientific facts are badly researched. The interviews are cut to taste—obviously. But, as there are plenty of articles all over the internet taking this documentary apart, I’ll spare you that and instead point out something he mentioned in the introduction. He first said that documentaries by Attenborough, Earle, and Cousteau lead him on his current path, and then called himself a Jacques Cousteau wannabe. While I totally agree that Earle and Attenborough are awesome—they are two of the people I’d blurt out in response to that stupid question of who you’d choose to go to dinner with if you could choose anyone—Cousteau makes me wanna puke.

The celebrated hero of the SCUBA world, a renowned marine scientist, filmmaker, and all that blah blah. Bah! I have watched one of his documentaries recently, and I had to fight hard to make myself suffer through the whole thing.

The things we do in the name of science! While some of the documentary was admittedly educational, like seeing the insides of a sea cucumber or what a puffer fish looks like when they deflate on land, there was a shitton of unnecessary suffering and destruction—including that deflating puffer.

He blows up entire reefs to be able to research the composition of the biodiversity—the biodiversity he just snuffed out with explosives. All in the name of science. He narrates his documentaries himself and listening to the man talk about all of this as if it’s totally okay and normal, sometimes celebrating cruelty, is sickening. They get too close to a pod of whales because this one dude “can’t help himself” and wants to harpoon one, so it gets hurt by the ship’s propeller. They are then super proud to relieve the poor animal from the suffering they inflicted with their arrogance, and pull it onboard to examine.

So, anyone who calls that dude an idol has lost all credit in my book—and the Seaspiracy dude does so in the introduction. I didn’t make it much further the first time I watched it, and while I’m glad to have watched all of this bullshit now, it’s only because it helps me better understand what I’m up against in educating the general public.

Cod, what we humans are doing is cruel and awful, but watching nonsense like this it’s hard not to defend the general public for not knowing what to believe. Fuck this. Let’s do better. Let’s educate people by telling them the truth about what’s going on in words they can understand, instead of picking and choosing our facts. Fuck, this shit makes me angrier than it should. Good that I’ve made it through all of these propaganda-documentaries now. Next, I get to do actual research to answer the very important questions: Is there such a thing sustainable fisheries and is it ethically okay to eat seafood?

I vow to do a better job than these two did. I might not have a fancy drone or the best underwater camera, but I’ll do proper research and try to educate you in a realistic and balanced way.

This is the whole climate change lobby thing all over. The world really is run by misinformation and keeping people in the dark. Damn our current society. Seriously, let’s do better.

Next week, I’ll get back to corals and our climb of the tree of life. I also have some really good news to share about my YouTube channel that I’ll go into more detail in a future episode soon.

Until then, yours weirdly, Kate Hildenbrand

And with that, I’m signing off for the week. I hope you have enjoyed this episode. As an independent creator who doesn’t believe in the advertising industry—an industry that exists by making people feel inadequate—I need your support to keep this podcast, my writing, and all of this going. Consider checking out katehildenbrand.com/support for ways to support me—with or without money.

Without you, I wouldn’t be able to do this—nor any of the future endeavors I have planned—and I am more than grateful to anyone who has supported me so far. A special thanks to Paul and Robert, my loyal and awesome patrons.

Talk to you soon. Until then, stay fucking vigilant, stand up for what you believe in, for what is right, and for those who can’t speak up for themselves, but also make sure to take care of yourselves. I still believe we can turn this shit around, so let’s fucking try!

Sources:

I study Marine Ecology at the University of Hamburg, so a lot of this knowledge comes from hours of research and sitting through lecture after lecture.

Going through the lecture slides from school is a process that involves a shit-ton of fact-checking, as a lot of what we learn is pretty outdated. So, all semester, I google things to death, read papers and essays, ask a million questions, and discuss things with friends and classmates.

Where the source isn’t our lecture slides or unidentifiable sources from hours of late-night knowledge hunts, I have linked them in the text.

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand is the writer behind the essays here, author of fiction novels, the creator of the Kate Hildenbrand podcast, and a student of marine ecology. At least, that's her on the surface.
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