Opinions Are Like ********; Everybody Has One — Dirty Harry

The issue of keeping marine mammals in zoos and aquariums is highly polarized these days. And for every facet of the issue, both sides are keen to throw around claims supporting their position. But who should you listen to? What’s the truth?

  • Do dolphins live longer in the wild? Or in zoos and aquariums?
  • Are training sessions and shows harmful to the animals? Or beneficial?
  • Is dorsal fin collapse a worrisome medical syndrome? Or is it just a cosmetic effect due to a different lifestyle?
  • Are the animals well-adjusted and happy? Or psychologically traumatized?

Everybody has an opinion. But for those of us interested in getting at the truth, some opinions should matter more than others — on this or any issue. If you want to know what’s wrong with your car, for example, you should probably seek out a mechanic’s opinion. If you want to determine a cause of death, a forensic pathologist is the way to go. And if you want to know the biological and psychological ramifications of different environments for dolphins and whales, then you should be looking for the opinion of a marine biologist or comparative psychologist.

This is not a revolutionary idea. Courts look to experts. Lawmakers look to experts. Reporters look to experts. Because an expert’s opinion carries weight. An expert’s opinion matters.

But who exactly is an expert?

In a court of law, anytime an expert witness is called upon to give an opinion, the lawyers first take them through a series of questions designed to establish their credentials and demonstrate their expertise to the judge and jury. But the marine mammal captivity debate is happening in arenas that don’t require that same standard of proof. On the internet, at demonstrations, in popular news stories, and even at government hearings, commentators can generally give themselves whatever qualifications they like. They say it with conviction, and by and large, people won’t check the specifics for themselves. People believe them. And voila… instant authority. An opinion that matters.

Take the example of Naomi Rose — a well-known activist who argues for ending the practice of keeping killer whales in marine parks and aquariums. This is a person who regularly appears in the media, on panel discussions, at government public hearings, and so forth. She calls herself a “killer whale biologist” who has “authored or coauthored over 30 scientific papers”, and regularly appeals to this expertise as a way of adding weight to her opinion. (e.g., “As a killer whale biologist, I think…” or “As an orca biologist, I always felt…”).

But the truth — if you take the time to look — is that Naomi Rose has never published a single scientific paper on killer whale biology. That’s right. Not even one.

“But wait!” I hear you cry. “How is that possible? Where did ‘killer whale biologist’ come from? What about ‘over 30 scientific papers’

So let’s get specific:

  • She did write a dissertation on killer whales more than 20 years ago (1992). It was never published.
  • Her profile on Google Scholar lists 31 “papers,” — but only 14 of those are actual peer-reviewed professional publications. The rest are duplicate entries, unpublished papers, book chapters, or presentations at meetings. And those 14 publications are primarily about policy, not biology (with the one exception of a paper on the behavior of elephant seals from 1991.)
  • And again, not a single publication on the biology of killer whales.

Of course, this doesn’t have to be a problem. If she would say: “As a policy specialist who did an unpublished dissertation on killer whales 20 years ago, I think…” — then she would be presenting herself factually. And anyone can express an opinion. But she doesn’t, because that doesn’t carry the same weight. Instead, she says, “As a killer whale biologist…” in a shameless attempt to sway opinion by claiming a scientific credibility she just doesn’t have.