An interview with Dr. Susan Crockford on the Harvey et al. attack paper over polar bear research

An interview with Dr. Susan Crockford on the Harvey et al. attack paper over polar bear research

Dr. Susan Crockford, photo from 2011

As many readers know, there was a erroneous and malicious paper recently published by The journal Bioscience titled Internet blogs, polar bears, and climate-change denial by proxy, (Harvey et al. 2017) covered here and here by WUWT, along with a request for retraction here.

The person who was the focus of the 14 authors of the Harvey et al. paper was Dr. Susan Crockford, and I decided to send her a series of interview questions so that she could tell her side of the story. She graciously responded within 48 hours of my request. This Q&A is unedited in content, with only two spelling and punctuation corrections plus font style changes to fit the format of this website. – Anthony Watts

Q. Why do you think this paper by Harvey et al, with 14 authors, specifically names you?

I suspect it’s because earlier this year I published a rather scathing scientific critique of the predictive model used to get polar bears placed on the endangered species list in the US (Crockford 2017), which is primarily the work of Steve Amstrup. Although my paper can be reviewed easily online, none of the scientists whose work I criticized have challenged my claims. I believe that instead, they enlisted the help of the other 13 authors of the Harvey et al. paper denigrate my reputation in the hope that this will reduce the amount of influence I am clearly having with the public. Previously, they tried enlisting the media for this purpose but it didn’t go too well. The most obvious example happened in February 2015, when they got the UK-based Carbon Brief to challenge my claims after I was given a bit of attention by the UK media.

But that was obviously not enough, since I doubt if it did any good at all. This Harvey et al. paper is their attempt at “trench warfare” (their words, not mine), to knock me off my Internet high-horse. I think they are particularly frustrated with the Internet as a source of information because they can’t control it.

Q. Has any of the 14 authors replied to you, queried you, or otherwise contacted you prior to this publication?

No. I heard about the paper from a journalist requesting a comment the day before the paper was published and she sent an advance copy of it a few hours before the embargo was lifted.

Q. What are your credentials in zoology?

I have a Ph.D. and more than 40 years of experience. I have written more than 30 papers for peer-reviewed journals or book chapters on a variety of topics, including evolution, paleoecology, genetics, and zoogeography (how and why the distribution of animals changes over time). I am a general interest zoologist and that has allowed me to build a successful career outside academia: I have a firm foundation in zoology and read widely across the discipline. Evolution and evolutionary theory are my primary interests and I take my cue from the point once made (Dobzhansky1973) that nothing in biology makes sense without evolution.

Q. What relevant publications have you made related to the zoology of Arctic animals, and specifically, ursus maritimus?

The dissertation I wrote for my Ph.D. on speciation including a discussion of polar bears (Crockford 2004). In addition, I have an article on evolution in a peer-reviewed journal in which polar bears are prominently featured (Crockford 2003), and two official comments, with references, on polar bear hybridization (which is how these were handled in these two journals at the time (although some have argued these are not strictly peer reviewed, they were vetted by the journals at the time: it wasn’t like a posting a comment at a blog, they had to be approved). I also have a paper in a peer-reviewed book chapter on ringed seals, the primary prey of polar bears (Crockford and Frederick 2011), and a peer-reviewed journal article on the paleohistory of Bering Sea ice, the habitat of Chukchi Sea polar bears (Crockford and Frederick 2007).

While it is true that these peer-reviewed papers are not the result of field or laboratory research on polar bears and most do not focus exclusively on polar bears, they do deal with the history of polar bear habitat, the ecology and physiology of their primary prey, and the evolution of polar bears as a species (which requires a firm understanding of their zoogeography, ecology, genetics, physiology, behaviour, and life history). I don’t believe that the definition of a peer-reviewed paper on polar bears implies it be only about polar bears. These topics are all valid aspects of polar bear biology and cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to my expertise. The citations to these papers are listed on my blog “about” page, but I’ve copied them here.

Crockford, S.J. 2004.“Animal Domestication and Vertebrate Speciation: A Paradigm for the Origin of Species” (filed at the National Library under “Zoology”).

Crockford, S. J. 2003. Thyroid hormone phenotypes and hominid evolution: a new paradigm implicates pulsatile thyroid hormone secretion in speciation and adaptation changes. International Journal of Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A 135(1):105-129. [peer reviewed journal, includes polar bear evolution discussion]

Crockford, S. and Frederick, G. 2007. Sea ice expansion in the Bering Sea during the Neoglacial: evidence from archaeozoology. The Holocene 17 (6):699-706. [peer reviewed journal, an Arctic sea ice paper]

Crockford, S. J. 2012. Directionality in polar bear hybridization. [Official comment with references to Hailer et al. 2012], Science 336:344-347.

Crockford, S. J. 2012. Directionality in polar bear hybridization. [Official comment with references to Edwards et al. 2011], Current Biology 21: 1251-1258.

Crockford, S. J. and Frederick, G. 2011. Neoglacial sea ice and life history flexibility in ringed and fur seals. pg. 65-91 In T. Braje and R. Torrey, eds. Human and Marine Ecosystems: Archaeology and Historical Ecology of Northeastern Pacific Seals, Sea Lions, and Sea Otters. U. California Press, LA. [a peer reviewed book chapter]

I now have an intimate knowledge of the huge body of polar bear and Arctic sea ice literature because I have studied it for more than 10 years. My big-picture, evolutionary perspective and the fact that I am so well versed with the polar bear literature makes it possible for me to critically comment on recent polar bear papers, reports, and news stories with reference to previous work on the topic. I am also qualified to raise issues that are worth discussing regarding that body of knowledge, although that doesn’t mean everything I conclude is correct.

Q. How does a person become a “polar bear expert”? What qualifies people to comment on polar bears from a scientific basis? Is there an accredited degree program for becoming a “polar bear expert”?

Polar bear researchers usually have general degrees in zoology or biology, but might also have degrees in ecology, wildlife management, or conservation biology. In other words, their academic backgrounds might be quite general or they might be one of a number of subfields of biology that pertain to all species: a degree program in ecology or wildlife management provides background on a wide range of species. So, no, there is no degree program for becoming a “polar bear expert”.

Q. Are any of the 14 authors of the Harvey et al. paper certified as “polar bear experts” ?

Two of them are the most senior members of the specialty: Ian Stirling and Steven Amstrup. Both are a bit older than me. Ian Stirling did his undergraduate degree in zoology at the same university that I did (University of B.C. in Vancouver), only a few years earlier.

Q. The Harvey et al. paper has some glaring inaccuracies in it (according to people who have examined it and commented on it). Do you have any comment on those inaccuracies?

See my letter requesting a retraction of the paper, which you have conveniently copied on your site. One statement that’s particular galling is that I criticize the work of “real” polar bear experts without supporting evidence. Anyone who has read my blog knows this is far from the truth.

Here’s one example, from February 2015, within the time frame of their blog analysis, where I made my point with extensive quotes from the scientific literature and gave a rather substantial list of references (with links).

Q. If in fact the Harvey et al. paper has clear inaccuracies, how does such a paper get past “peer-review” which is designed to catch and correct such issues?

I think it is highly likely this paper was rushed through review and as a consequence, no one took a really close look at it. The misspelling of “principle” in “principal component analysis” should have been caught by a competent reviewer, for example (there were apparently three reviewers of this paper). That suggests there was little hope that more important errors would have been caught. In addition, it appears that no one who reviewed the paper saw the supporting data or the obvious errors in that document would have been corrected as well. I wonder if all 14 of the co-authors even saw that supporting data?

As Steve Mosher pointed out on another blog, Bioscience has particular requirements regarding multi-authored papers:

“Everyone listed as an author of an article must have made a substantial contribution to the manuscript. In the case of multiple-author contributions, please upload as a supplementary file a brief statement detailing the contribution of each author.

1) Authorship should be restricted to those individuals who have met each of three criteria: (a) made a significant contribution to the conception and design of the article or the analysis and interpretation of data or other scholarly effort, (b) participated in drafting the article or reviewing and/or revising it for content, and (c) approved the final version of the manuscript.

2) In the case of papers with multiple authors, the corresponding author has the responsibility for: (a) including as coauthors all those who meet the three criteria defined in part 1 of this policy and excluding those who do not; and (b) obtaining from all coauthors their agreement to be designated as such, as well as their approval of the final version of the manuscript. Of course, any person can refuse to be a coauthor if he or she elects to do so.

3) Coauthors assume full responsibility for all work submitted under their names and, as a coauthor, acknowledge that they meet each of the three criteria for authorship as defined in part 1 of this policy.

4) Honorary or courtesy authorships are inconsistent with the principles of this policy and, as such, are unacceptable.”

This makes me wonder what major contribution Michael Mann made to the paper. I would love to see the supplementary file submitted that details the contribution of each of these 14 authors.

Q. Is the “AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES” an appropriate place to publish such an article, or are there better places to publish articles about polar bear populations?

I can’t think of a journal that would be an appropriate venue for this paper. But then, this paper isn’t really about polar bear populations: it’s about trying to shut down dissenting voices and enforce a consensus of opinion on a scientific topic with a strong political component. Maybe there’s a journal for that but I’ve never heard of it.

Q. Have you ever seen a paper published in a zoology journal that would pass peer-review using pejorative labels such as “denier”?

No. And polar bear researchers – including Ian Stirling, Steve Amstrup and the ever-strident Andrew Derocher (the only one of the polar bear group who is really active on Twitter) – don’t use that kind of language in their peer-reviewed scientific papers, no matter how emphatic or passionate they might get about their conclusions. It’s hard to imagine what led Stirling and Amstrup to decide such reprehensible language was appropriate for a paper in this journal.

Q. There’s a lot of claims on reduced sea ice causing shrinking polar bear populations and that being an indicator of climate change. What’s the real history of polar bear populations over the last 50 years?

Fifty years ago polar bear numbers were low in many areas due to unregulated sport hunting. By 1960, they may have been reduced to between 5,000 and 15,000 animals worldwide (no one knows for sure, but we do know that a number of regions were being severely impacted – most of Russia, the Barents Sea, Western Hudson Bay, Southern Beaufort Sea – while other regions like the Central Canadian Arctic where most bears actually live may not have been impacted at all). An international treaty in 1973 stopped the most dangerous practices and by 1996, numbers had recovered so much that the IUCN Red List not longer considered them to be in trouble (officially “Least Concern”).

The evidence from surveys that count bears suggests that in most regions this recovery process is still taking place. Negative impacts on survival from the amount of summer sea ice reduction that has taken place so far have been minimal. The IUCN Red List in 2015 put the global population at 22,000-31,000 but oddly, even though Polar Bear Specialist Group members wrote the 2015 assessment, they don’t use that number on their website. Instead, they say there are about 25,000 bears on average.

Q. Are polar bears adaptable in their feeding habits? Is sea-ice an absolute requirement for their survival?

Polar bears are relatively adaptable. They will scavenge, for example, or try new prey that presents itself, like dolphins trapped by ice in Svalbard a few years ago. Sea ice is an absolute requirement for their survival but they don’t need it year round. Polar bears need sea ice in the fall through spring, with spring being the critical season. Bears eat little in the summer whether they are on the ice or on land, and eat little through the cold and dark of the Arctic winter. Most food is consumed in the spring (2/3 of the yearly total) and the second most important time is fall, when bears that have fasted over the summer can recoup some of the weight they have lost. This ability to fast through the summer as well as through the depth of winter is clearly what has made it possible for polar bears to survive previous warm periods that had low amounts of summer sea ice.

Q. How much money do you receive to publish on polar bears (both in literature and on the Internet as commentary) and what are the sources for such grants?

First off, no one pays me to write my blog: I don’t even have a donate button. The Global Warming Policy Foundation has on several occasions approached me to write summary briefing papers that are largely compilations of material from by blog posts. Those were reviewed by board members and I got paid for the final product. One exception is my Arctic Fallacy paper, which was a piece of original work that I wrote first because I wanted it written. I approached GWPF and asked if they would publish it. Several of their board members reviewed it (tough reviewers!) and I was paid for the final product. The fees paid for these articles only partly compensates for the time taken to write them and has varied for different products, generally £500-3500.

I have written a few articles for Range Magazine, for which I am usually paid US$300.

All of the ballyhoo about me being on the “payroll” of The Heartland Institute (or “supported” by them) that keeps making the rounds is nonsense. From 2011 to 2013, I was paid $750 a month (the equivalent of one day’s income for me, on a contract), to make summaries of published papers relating to vertebrate animals (my specialty) that I thought might not be covered by the IPCC report.

These were to be included in the NIPCC report to ensure that a balanced perspective of the literature was available to the public, which the Heartland Institute published. Heartland had no input on what papers I looked at or what I wrote. The monthly payments ended (as did the contract) when my work on the NIPCC report was finished in early 2014. I have not received any money from Heartland since, except for travel expenses to their 2017 conference.

I must say it is insulting beyond words to suggest, as many continue to do, that the output of a respected scientist like me could be “bought” in this way at all, let alone bought so cheaply. Those who make those accusations imply I am not just a whore, but a cheap whore!

Ian Stirling took tens-to-hundreds-of-thousands of dollars worth of oil money during the course of his career to carry out his polar bear research in the Arctic, yet no one questions if this biased his work.

That is the correct response: I have no reason to believe it ever influenced his work one way or another. Despite my criticisms of what Stirling has done recently, I have never suggested that what kind of organization paid for his research over the years ever biased his results.

I have worked on contracts for most of my 40+ year career but no one has ever accused me of bias before I took a contract from The Heartland Institute.

Q. In your estimate, how much grant money is there globally for polar bear research?

It has to be in the millions because Arctic research is so expensive. I did a post on this a few years ago that some might find interesting because it was inspired by a complaint that polar bear researchers are underfunded According to a presentation by Andrew Derocher and Ian Stirling, in 2011 there were 29 people employed full time to do polar bear research worldwide, most with government organizations. Graduate students and those without full time jobs get their salaries from research grants. But full time researchers can’t do field work without help, so if there is no funding for students, the work doesn’t get done even if the senior researchers are getting paid. Now, there are even more students working on polar bears than ever before and there is an even greater demand for research funds. If grant money dries up so will field and laboratory research.

Q. If the consensus conclusions about polar bear populations and sea ice loss are wrong, why do you think more people such as yourself have not come forward to point out such inaccuracies of the conclusions?

Just look at the flack I take! Look at what the Polar Bear Specialist Group did to Mitch Taylor in 2009 (recent review here: In my opinion, what the PBSG did to Mitch was a clear warning to any other colleagues who thought they should speak out: do so and you’re out. The PBSG operates on consensus (it states as much in their terms of reference) and the way you get consensus when there are dissenting opinions is to coerce, bribe, or bully to make everyone fall into line. If the dissenters won’t toe the line, expulsion is the only answer. There is nothing democratic about it.

Feel free to add any additional comments or response you wish.

My letter of complaint and request for a retraction of the Harvey et al. paper has now been published. Readers will note that I included a number of emails that show exactly what polar bear researchers have been hiding from the public since 2012: that a high-level IUCN Red List official heavily criticized the model used to put polar bears on the endangered species list in 2008. The Harvey et al. paper implied that no one else besides me had ever questioned the work of “real” polar bear experts but co-authors Stirling and Amstrup both know that’s not true. Now the evidence is out there for all to see.

I might never have done anything with those emails. I got them too late in 2014 to derail the renewal of the ESA listing for polar bears and it was not obvious how they would make an impact all by themselves. But the publication of the Harvey et al. paper created the context I needed to show the world what these groups (PBSG, IUCN, USGS, USFWS) have been up to while pretending to be dedicated scientists whose only interest is the preservation of polar bears.

As of late in the day 6 December, I have not heard from the Bioscience editors or any of the co-authors.


Superforest,Climate Change

via Watts Up With That?

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