A reasonable response goes unnoticed

We’ve heard a lot about the “Kristi Miller virus” in the past few months, mostly because that seems to be the only science mainstream media reported on during the Cohen Commission‘s hearings on aquaculture.

What is it? In a nutshell, Kristi Miller is a scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO)’s Pacific Biological Station. She is Head of the Molecular Genetics section. Her name has become well-known in the media since she published a scientific paper titled “Genomic signatures predict migration and spawning failure in wild Canadian salmon” in the journal SCIENCE. Her research found that genetic markers in samples she tested show evidence of a  possible virus which may be associated with higher than normal mortality rates for salmon at sea, and for salmon spawning in the Fraser River.

Let’s back up for a second. What does that mean? It means that salmon with this genetic signature have a greater chance of dying when they go out to sea, or return to the river to spawn.

It DOES NOT mean that there is a virus killing wild salmon. The research doesn’t show that and that is pure speculation. No credible scientists are saying this.

But that hasn’t stopped some people from running with it. “A newly discovered virus could be the ‘smoking gun’ in the 2009 collapse of the Fraser River sockeye,” proclaimed the lead of one media report. Never mind that Miller herself never actually said that (Page 29 Line 8 ):

Actually, I had no intent of saying that
9 in this hearing, that I mean I was a little backed
10 in the corner on that one. And I should clarify,
11 and when I agreed with Mr. McDade that what I
12 really meant was that this could be a major
13 factor. Not the major factor, because I also
14 agree with others that there is no single major
15 factor. And I think that I did put a lot of ifs,
16 ands and buts in at the time that I made that
17 statement. And the main one is that we have to be
18 able to demonstrate that we have an infectious
19 disease, that it causes mortality, that it causes
20 mortality in that early marine phase, because that
21 is where I'm focused on right now, is
22 understanding whether or not we have a viral agent
23 that is highly prevalent when fish, when sockeye
24 salmon are moving into the Fraser River, and at a
25 time when we know from oceanographic data and from
26 the work of Dick Beamish and Marc Trudel that we
27 have highly variable ocean conditions. Okay? And
28 I do work closely with those colleagues.
29 And it is my view that if you take a fish
30 that is already compromised and you put that fish
31 into an environment that is highly stressful, that
32 doesn't have a lot of food, that may not be the
33 optimum temperature, that may have other things
34 like sea lice and other things that they are up
35 against, that you could weaken a fish to the point
36 that they can't -- they simply can't take that
37 level of stress.
38 And I do believe if we are able to
39 demonstrate that this virus does cause disease and
40 mortality in that early marine phase, and if it is
41 activated under stress like it has been shown to
42 be activated under stress in other species, this
43 family of viruses, that there is a potential that
44 it could be associated with high levels of
45 mortality. That does not mean that it directly
46 causes mortality. But if you weaken an animal,
47 you start with a weak animal and then you weaken
30
PANEL NO. 56
Cross-exam by Ms. Gaertner (FNC)
August 25, 2011
it further by poor conditions in 1 the environment,
2 it is the accumulative effect of those stressors
3 that likely causes the mortality that we are
4 seeing in the early ocean environment. That is
5 really what my feeling is on it. I don't think
6 that one factor all by itself has caused this
7 decline.

It seems her correction was ignored by the media, who still stuck to the “smoking gun” cliche in subsequent stories. Miller’s own explanation of her research, and what it means or doesn’t mean, also went ignored by media who preferred instead to quote others who claimed to interpret what Miller said.

What happened to primary sources?

No, really. Isn’t it a journalist’s job to drill down to the primary sources behind a story? Why settle for someone else’s interpretation of events if you don’t have to?

That’s another post though. It just annoys us thinking about it.

This post is about the response to the misrepresentations of science described above. Dr. Tony Farrell, one of Miller’s co-authors on the “Genomic signatures” paper as well as several others, had an opinion column published in the Vancouver Sun on August 27, 2011, only two days after Miller testified at the Commission. It’s reasonable, balanced and makes several excellent points which applies to science from any discipline.

The problem is that we expect too much, too soon from science. The announcement of an “overnight” discovery is always backed by an awful lot of scientific discovery and testing.

While responsible scientists couch their discoveries with words like could, may and might, prudent caution too often gets lost in translation.

Take my salmon research in B.C. as an example.

A news headline early this year claimed a virus from farmed salmon is killing wild sockeye salmon in the Fraser River.

As a co-author of the research cited as the headline’s source, which appeared in the prestigious scientific journal Science, I can safely say our position was far more circumspect. Yet, somehow the headline stretched a discovery-phase hypothesis on a genomic expression signature associated with sockeye salmon to claim a virus had come from farmed salmon! Clearly, this is an illustration of the knowledge gap between science and public perception.

Unfortunately the media, and the public, largely ignored this reasonable response to the hysteria surrounding Miller’s research. Once again, we must point out, Ms. Alexandra Morton has been at the centre of this storm, whipping people into a frenzy and propagating her own interpretation of events. As we pointed out yesterday, she is also taking this research, accepting it as fact, and building her own theory on it, an implausible scenario involving one disease which may have occured on farm in one month of one year killing millions of wild salmon.

That is not a sound scientific approach. Picking and choosing things which fit your pre-conceived opinion and claiming you are then proven right is not good science.

We would like to let Tony Farrell have the last word, since it sums up our position as well:

Have your headlines if you must, because in this fast-paced world we can’t always wait for hindsight, but can we agree to not represent hypotheses – no matter how intriguing – as facts?

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