Perhaps You Could Fact-Check with Your Precocious 8 Year Old?
Posted by Joseph Moore on October 15, 2013
Now, I make mistakes all the time. Even in print. But if I were writing a science article, like this one, I might fact check a little. Amidst the untethered speculation and foreboding that make up most of the article, there’s a simple bald assertion: that the moose is the largest land mammal in North America. Pretty sure that I, as a somewhat precocious (and totally obnoxious) 8 year old, would have raised my hand: bigger than bison? I think not! Yep: bull moose (mooses? Meese?) run to about 1200 lbs; wild male bison push 2,000 lbs.
Oh, wait – they did fact check: with a government agency that has the wrong facts. So, the State of New York Department of Environmental Conservation puts out informative web pages for the good citizens of the Empire State (and on their dime), that – you’ll be totally shocked – contain wrong information!
So, to recap: this is a minor error in the big scheme of things, but an obvious one. This article contains some actually worrisome information – that moose are dying off a bit faster than usual. IF it is in fact ticks that are killing them, and IF more ticks survive in mild winters than in cold winters, THEN it MAY be that milder winters are contributing to the decline in moose population. And it MAY be that human activity has contributed to milder winters, but that’s another can of worms.
That’s a long string of conditionals, without even including how one goes about counting moose in the wild so as to establish a baseline and yearly population totals – which seems like it might be really hard to do with any accuracy.
However, the main point here is not, as was once said of the Jesuits, to produce the live cat*. Rather, it is just so annoying that science reporters (and state web pages) are both so slapdash and so evangelically certain at the same time. Science is careful and circumspect. Science! is neither.
*Accuse a Jesuit of killing 3 men and a cat, and he will triumphantly produce the live cat.
Small update: I wondered how one goes about counting wild moose, as they inconsiderately live out in places where it’s difficult for humans to get about and easy for moose to hide. See, if you can’t count them accurately – follow me here – it would be impossible to accuraely estimate whether the population is growing, falling or staying the same. Yet the article gives numbers impressive in their implied accuracy: moose are down 25% a year!
Then there’s this nugget from that NY site above:
DEC biologists estimated that there were about 500 to 800 moose in New York State as of 2010. However, a standard procedure for estimating numbers of moose has not yet been established.
Oh. So we have a 60% difference between the low and high estimates, yet we’re claiming to know die-off rates of 8, 12 and 25%. That poses some problems. Maybe when they establish as standard method of estimating moose populations they can tighten that up a bit?