Category Archives: Cranks

A missed opportunity

We really don’t want to pick on Alexandra Morton but she really makes it easy. Again, we are not attacking her personally. We are sure she is a very nice person. But once again, the things she says about salmon farming and the ‘science’ she does to back it up is just plain junk.

Now she has announced that she has found ISA in farmed Atlantic salmon purchased from supermarkets in the Lower Mainland. There are some peculiar aspects to this story which should make anyone question this conclusion.

First of all, the salmon were purchased from three T and T supermarkets. Why choose this chain, which imports seafood from all over the world for the Chinese-Canadian market? Do we know where these fish are really from? What sort of potential was there for cross-contamination? Why didn’t she get samples from several different stores? Why didn’t she get samples from stores that are definitely known to sell farmed salmon grown in BC?

There was a real missed opportunity here to put some scientific controls on this experiment. Getting precise information about the source of the salmon would have been crucial data needed to make this experiment meaningful. Instead Ms. Morton didn’t think it necessary to get a clear record of this information, instead choosing to assert that “from speaking with the people behind the seafood counter we believe these fish were reared in BC marine feedlots.”

That’s not good enough. Ms. Morton, if you want to make serious claims about ISA and salmon in BC you had better have some good evidence to back it up. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

There isn’t even any bad evidence here, just Ms. Morton’s confident assertion that what she believes is true.

This is a pattern. She seems so determined to prove she is right that she is blinded to alternative explanations for the data she observes.

This is bad science plain and simple, and a real missed opportunity to add some useful data to help everyone better understand farmed and wild salmon in BC.


Alexandra Morton and Korean Fan Death

That sounds like a great line-up for an alt-rock concert, doesn’t it? “Alexandra Morton and Korean Fan Death, with special guests Urban Legend!”

We’d pay a $5 cover charge to see that.

Hopefully someone laughed at that. We promise to try harder next time.

Before we go on, we must state again that we are not out to assassinate anyone’s character. But ridiculous statements and anti-scientific claims cannot go unchallenged. So all apologies to Alexandra Morton, we’re sure you are a very nice person, but the things you say about salmon farms are nonsense.

And although the people who believe her anti-aquaculture sermons and take them to heart are a fringe minority, that group includes a number of doctors, scientists and generally smart people.

That shouldn’t be surprising. Even smart people can believe stupid things.

And even a lot of smart people can believe stupid things.

Take, for example, the phenomenon known as “Korean Fan Death.”

Korean Fan Death
In Korea, it's "common knowledge" that sleeping with a fan on could KILL YOU. Really, we're not making this up. This warning label is required on electric fans.

One of our contributors is a fan of the “Skeptoid” podcast, which recently did a show on this strange belief.

Apparently, it is a widely-held belief in Korea that if you go to sleep with a fan running in your room, you could die. The belief stems from several instances in which people were found dead, with a fan running in the room.

It’s a case of “correlation is causation” gone wild.

The wide-spread panic over this belief has prompted warnings, reams of coverage in the Korean press and even prompted some scientists and doctors — including emergency room doctors and at least one Western doctor — to warn people about the danger of fans.

And the panic has snowballed to include government agencies, such as the Korean Consumer Protection Board, to issue warnings and other agencies to require warning labels and stickers on fans suggesting that “this product could cause hypothermia and death.”

To our western minds it seems ridiculous, and we can easily see that there is no scientific basis to conclude that fans had anything to do with the deaths.

But the urban legend persists, fueled by a few scientists and agencies who perpetuate it.

Morton’s myths about salmon farms are the same. How many times has she predicted, backed by a few scientists, that wild runs are going to be made extinct by salmon farms? How many times has she been right? How can people continue to believe these stories, after decades of research showing no definitive connection between salmon farms and fluctuations in wild salmon populations?

Even the wild salmon don't believe Alexandra Morton anymore
Even the wild salmon don't believe Alexandra Morton anymore, after 20 years of failed predictions.

And yet she and some well-known scientists hold to this myth, continuing to prophesy that salmon farms will kill wild salmon someday, we’ll see, and then we’ll be sorry we didn’t listen to them.

They are so desperate to be right that they seize on every little piece of correlative evidence they can to scream that salmon farms are doing harm.

Pink run not so great this year? It MUST have been because of salmon farms when the fish went out to sea, or when they came back.

Sockeye run fantastic this year? It MUST be because salmon farms are pressuring salmon to spawn in massive numbers to avoid their impending extinction.

When you have your hypothesis already in hand, it’s easy to find facts to fit it. All you have to do is discard the ones you don’t like.

And like Korean Fan Death, maybe all you have to do is make something innocuous sound scary, cloaked in scientific-sounding mumbo jumbo, to get people to believe you.

Hopefully people trying to understand the interactions between farmed and wild salmon are wiser than to believe that.

If they’re not detecting ISA, what are they detecting?

We have a crazy idea.

But before we share it we have to provide some context. Let’s back up to October 17, when most of the world was first introduced to ISA.

The public and the media have been getting a crash course in recent months about this virus and about virus science. Unfortunately, when it comes to the media, most reporters fail miserably when it comes to explaining complicated science of any kind and virus science is no different.

In the case of ISA, let’s be clear: The virus is not in B.C.

Some samples of wild fish were tested back in October. The first tests, which use something called a PCR test to look at the genetics of the samples, found evidence to suggest that the ISA virus was present.

This was only the first step.

In virus testing, if scientists get indication that a virus is present in their sample, they must then amplify the virus and grow it in a cell culture to prove it’s actually really there. This is crucial. Otherwise, if the positive result is not repeatable, it’s worthless.

For example, consider the famous “face on Mars” picture from the 1976 Viking 1 spacecraft:

That sure looks like a face. Is it evidence of aliens? Maybe we should take a closer look and find out. NASA was able to get a spacecraft in orbit around Mars in 2001, and using more advanced cameras, take a higher resolution picture of the same landmark:

Definitely not a face. It’s either a mountain or a giant “Pizza Pocket” that just exploded in the microwave.


Just kidding.

The original evidence suggesting a “face” has been thoroughly overturned by more extensive, better evidence showing it is a natural landmark.

But “true believers” and fringe cranks still cling to that original evidence and claim that the “face” is real and must have been made by aliens and that NASA must be covering it all up.

ISA conspiracy theorists should be lumped into the same camp as people who believe there is really a face on Mars and an alien “Bio-Station Alpha.”

There is absolutely no evidence to support such ridiculous and wild-eyed theories. Yet they persist thanks to zealots such as Alexandra Morton who refuses to admit that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency thoroughly retested her samples, found no evidence of the virus, and proved her doomsday prophecies wrong once again.

And unfortunately, like stories about UFOs and Bigfoot and Atlantis, the media uncritically repeats what cranks say because it gets readers’ attention, gets eyeballs on print and virtual pages, keeps readership numbers up and keeps advertisers happy.

Hopefully real scientists can move beyond this nonsense to answer a very real and very interesting question that has come out of this sideshow:

If they’re not detecting ISA, what are they detecting?

There have been numerous “false positive” identifications of ISA by preliminary PCR testing, but it has been proven that there is no ISA in the samples being tested.

Dr. Are Nylund, who independently tested numerous samples submitted by Ms. Morton, concluded that:

“These findings may be a Pacific type of the virus or a totally new type… The test which was used is adapted to the Atlantic ISA viruses and constitutes only a small sequence of the genes of the ISA virus. This also means that a virus having genetic similarities with ISA-virus or something totally different may be picked up by the test. Therefore we need to sequence/genotype the virus to provide comment on the origin.”

Good idea. Is anyone working on this? Is anybody actually trying to figure out what is actually being detected in these tests?

Whatever it is, if it’s anything at all, it’s not apparently harmful to salmon, although the “true believers” are already spinning another conspiracy theory to explain how it actually must be harmful and must be connected to the “viral signature” detected by Dr. Kristi Miller and how it must somehow be connected to salmon farms. Wait for it, you’ll hear it from them soon enough.

But back in the real world, perhaps there really is some previously undetected virus out in the ocean which looks like ISA on a PCR test. It’s not inconceivable; after all there are a billion viruses in a drop of sea water and we are only just starting to learn about how many viruses and microbes are really out there in the ocean.

As well, previous research, which included Nylund, made an interesting discovery about the ISA virus. It found that parts of the ISA virus — the parts that are tested in PCR testing — look very similar to the influenza A virus!

What does that mean? Further research has not been done to investigate this connection, but perhaps it could indicate that ISA and influenza are descendants of some proto-virus from millions of years ago. Perhaps millions of benign descendants of that virus are floating around in the ocean and we’re only just now noticing it because we’ve never looked for it specifically before.

Perhaps there is some sort of ISA-like virus which has always been present in the Pacific ocean which, like most viruses, does absolutely nothing to its hosts.

Some real science to investigate this question would sure be interesting. And although it wouldn’t placate the hardcore “true believers” crowd, it would certainly bring good science and real information to an interested public.