Waddies in the News…and associated musings.

Irrawaddy dolphins.  They’re cute.  I will admit, I have daydreamed about watching one dance with a top-hat and bow tie, and about cuddling one.  (I often work without enough sleep). So, with their charismatic appearance, they are definitely a great potential “flagship species” for the conservation of their ecosystems.

puttin' on the waddy ritz

the dolphins haven't let me put a hat or bow-tie on them...yet.

However, not many people have even heard of them, and they have not yet been thoroughly studied. I’ve previously posted some background about them.

With all of that, then, it’s exciting to see them in the news!  There have been quite a few stories that I’ve come across recently (see below for links).

However, like many, I feel somewhat torn between the perky, perhaps naive “publicity is good!” sentiment and the more careful, perhaps cynical “maybe publicity that misleads and misrepresents isn’t necessarily all good.”   Whether it’s local news stories about a little-known dolphin species, or wider-reaching publicity about big, global issues like climate change, how science and conservation are portrayed in the media is a tricky subject.  Many of these stories linked below contain factual errors and oversimplification, the most common being that we can know the exact numbers of dolphins that are alive today and that we can confidently say a tiny (<100) population has increased to be slightly less tiny (but still <100).

I recently read a story, sent by a colleague,  about the dolphins in Malampaya Sound (where I worked for 7 months from 2010 until January 2012).  Apparently, WWF-Philippines had “revealed” new figures about their population and mortality in bycatch, yet my project has been the only one working on that in a dedicated way since 2007 (WWF-Philippines did a lot of dedicated work before the project funding ended in that year). Did someone analyze my data for me, and send the numbers to the news?  Though that’s an intriguing possibility, I had to acknowledge that it was more likely that the numbers had just been “guesstimated”.

And they apparently cited fish pens and dynamite fishing as the main threats.  This is… incorrect.  Dynamite fishing is rare there, and only occurs on the very outer portions of their habitat.  Fish pens do alter their habitat, but the main threat is bycatch in other fishing gear.

So, I wrote a somewhat dense response to send out to the listserv.  I’m not suggesting that this publicity is bad because it’s inaccurate – I’m saying that it should be better.

celebrating the increasing fame of his species

i'm critically endangered. rub my belly.

My questions to those of you who think about these things:

(1) How important is accuracy in these stories?  When should scientists just “let it go” and accept that scientific names will be written incorrectly, numbers will be misquoted, and complexities oversimplified?

(2) Do you agree that the public can and should be taught about scientific uncertainty?  If so, how?

(3) Do the “ends justify the means”?  If a misleading news story leads to positive awareness and action, is that all that matters?  (This is also timely given the fuss and controversy over the Kony 2012 campaign…).

(I actually have many thoughts about “communicating science”, many of those being highly cynical…I’ll rant about that at a later date).


Anyway, here’s some of the latest Irrawaddy news:

Newly discovered subpopulations:

Conservation initiatives:

Featuring Irrawaddy dolphins:

Waddy Hugger