Computational Hubris

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen – 25 October 2020

What is pictured in this little image?  And what can it possibly mean?

These are very good questions and should be asked whenever the lede of a science news story is based on an image. 

Why?  “A picture is worth a thousand words”   – – – or so they say.   If that is true, then pictures can also fool us a thousand times more easily than mere words. 

Now, a picture of a new species, say a confirmed photograph of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster, might be appropriate for the news.   But I am always skeptical when a science news article is based on an interesting picture, purporting to tell us something important.

The example I am using for today’s essay is related to my recent essay titled: Where Do the Plastic Bottles Go?In that essay, I reported that pelagic plastic (plastic floating in the oceans), exposed to the sun and the waves, breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces which in turn are literally eaten by microbes – such as bacteria.   In other essays on plastic in the oceans, I have asserted that “the natural system finds a way to use most everything – in the case of oceanic plastics, as homes and food.”

After Where Do the Plastic Bottles Go? was published,  our very own CTM sent me a link to this paper:

“Microbial carrying capacity and carbon biomass of plastic marine debris” by  Shiye Zhao, Erik R. Zettler, Linda A. Amaral-Zettler and Tracy J. Mincer.   The full text version is, unfortunately, pay-walled, but a EurekaAlert! story gives us the image used above and a good summary.

“Trillions of plastic debris fragments are afloat at sea, creating the “perfect storm” for microbial colonization. Introduced more than 50 years ago, plastic substrates are a novel microbial habitat in the world’s oceans. This “plastisphere” consists of a complex community comprised of bacterial, archaeal, and eukaryotic microorganisms and microscopic animals.”

What does that mean when we get up in he morning?  It means that sea creatures of all types – tiny, mostly microscopic, little plants and animals – start living on the surface of these bits of plastic that are floating around in the ocean.  The bits become floating homes for these creatures and plants – they live on the surfaces of the bits in what are called “biofilms”.

The new and original part of this study is that “Using confocal laser scanning microscopy with sophisticated imaging software, researchers directly obtained data ranging from cell counts, size and the characterization of microbial morphotypes to complete three-dimensional constructs.”  It is the laser scanning microscope that produced the following image:

As I note below the image, I have adjusted the contrast and color levels to enhance this image – the original is rather dark.  It is from photos like these that the researchers have counted the little critters living on the surface of this bit of plastic and formed an idea of how many of what kinds of them are present. 

Why have they done this?   They think that biofilms forming on the itty bits of plastic found in the world’s oceans are a threat: 

“As an unnatural addition to sea surface waters, the large quantity of cells and biomass carried by plastic debris has the potential to impact biodiversity, autochthonous ecological functions, and biogeochemical cycles within the ocean.”

In other words, the plastic bits, found in the top layers of the oceans, supply a happy home for lots of microscopic “bacterial, archaeal, and eukaryotic microorganisms and microscopic animals” – a home that didn’t exist (as far as the researchers know) before the availability of all those little pieces of plastic.   Their worry is that all that “extra” life will use up the resources of the other life that previously inhabited the upper layer of the ocean causing – gasp – change.

I am not very interested in their worries about too much life or their dread of the possibility of change.  My interest is that these researchers claim to have “quantified” not only the number of microscopic cells living on all of the little bits of plastic floating in all of the world’s oceans, but to have “quantified”  the “the total amount of carbon biomass in these  plastic-associated cells”.

How did they do that? 

From their paper:

“In situ incubations consisted of placing postconsumer plastic from 1-gallon milk jugs (PE), disposable cold-drink cups (PP), disposable hot-drink cups (PS), and glass cubes off a dock in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in Vineyard Sound (GPS coordinates: 41.525, –70.673). The items were cleaned and then sterilized using 70% ethanol prior to placing them in the seawater, ~1 m below the surface in July 2013 in 1-cm mesh nylon cages to prevent plastic samples from escaping. Subsamples (~5 × 5 mm) were taken at periodic time points (1, 2, 3, 8, 12 weeks of immersion).”

They what?  They put pieces of different plastic (and in one case, a glass cube) in little plastic mesh cages and hung them off a dock at Woods Hole, Massachusetts.    They left them there for 3 months, periodically taking little samples from each.   They used the fancy  confocal laser scanning microscopy   to count the cells and types of cells on each piece.  And then:

”Although several studies have surveyed microbial diversity and quantified specific members of these biofilm habitats, ours is the first to holistically quantify total cell inventories under in situ conditions.    . . . .    Based on the reported plastic counts and size classes floating in the world’s ocean and the general abundances of different plastic debris in ocean surface water, we estimate that PMD [Plastic Marine Debris] could provide a total surface area of  2.5 × 1010 m2 (Table S4).

Integrating over the calculated PMD distribution in the world’s ocean, we estimated the total number of cells on plastic debris to be 2.1 × 1021 to 3.4 × 1021.  

Multiplying plastic surface area by the area-specific carbon biomass at the early and late stages of biofilm on plastic substrates, the total amount of carbon biomass in these plastic-associated cells is predicted to be 1.5 × 103 to 1.1 ×  104 metric tons, which is roughly similar with the previous  estimate of living biomass (8.6 × 102 to 1.6 × 104 metric  tons) on PMD. Our higher bound carbon estimate (1.1 ×  104 metric tons) approaches the estimated cellular carbon  mass in the global rivers (2.4 × 104 metric tons), as well as  both polar regions (8 × 104 metric tons).”

That’s right, using their single-location, one-time samples,  they have calculated, quantified, the total living biomass to be found on all of the plastic bits in all of the world’s oceans

Marvelous, isn’t it?   Who would have thought it would be that easy to guess the total weight of all those little microscopic plants and animals on the trillions and trillions of (uncounted) little bits (of unknown sizes) of plastic swirling around in the oceans. 

I have no idea of the accuracy of this research group’s counts of microorganisms living on the bits of plastic they hung off the dock at Woods Hole.   

But as for the rest, the magical mystical calculations based on things uncounted and unsampled? 

I call that:

Computational Hubris:

“An inordinate and unjustified trust, or faith if you like, in the power of advanced computational machines and processes to produce highly accurate and extremely precise results from relatively inaccurate and imprecise, highly uncertain data using techniques and methods that have not been tested nor verified to be suited to, or sufficient for, the purpose.”

— Kip Hansen

They have not only manufactured the quantities but they have manufactured a threat from their manufactured quantities. 

And that’s no way to do science. 

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Author’s Comment:

All of you who have experience snorkeling in tropical areas, or using SCUBA*, even in colder waters, will know that to turn a “sand desert” into an underwater oasis only requires the placing of almost ANY solid object on the sea floor.  Even a single rock the size of an orange becomes a mini-sea-life oasis, with plants, animals and fishes.  Sink a WWII destroyer and you have a huge living reef in a few months. 

This story tells us that even bits of plastic floating around in the top couple of meters of the seas, almost all smaller than 8 mm (3/10th inch) and most smaller than 4 mm (just over 1/10th inch), become homes for sea critters of all kinds.   The story fails to tell us that many of those critters are actually using the plastic not only as a home, but as a food source.  And, of course, many critters are eating the other living things on the plastic bits or using their biological excreta as food.   

I trust that the purposes of Nature will be fulfilled. And providing novel homes for more life probably isn’t a bad thing.

As an aside, this research is done in the relatively cold waters of Woods Hole, Mass.  They get a little thin biofilm over 3 months.   The bottom of my boat, despite poisonous anti-fouling paint, would collect inches of living material every month in the Virgin Islands – all kinds of growths and sea creatures that lived on and in the growth.  While cleaning the bottom one time, a little crab crawled into my ear, scuttling sideways. 

Remember, just because Nature will clean up our messes, given enough time, we should keep all of our trash, including plastics, contained and disposed of properly.  None of it should end up in the sea. 

Address you comments to “Kip…” if speaking to me.  Thanks.

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* = Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus

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107 thoughts on “Computational Hubris

    • Bob ==> Thanks for that. Computers have added so much to the ability of Science to discover new things, but, like the miracle of morphine for wounded soldiers, computational power can become addictive and lead us astray.

    • A crab crawled into Kip’s ear? Oh, that’s so sweet!!! Did you give the crab a new home somewhere besides your ear, Kip? Did you give the crab a name, by the way? Poor thing was only looking for a comfy spot to live, y’know.

      I’m disturbed by something that comes out of this: –> They think that biofilms forming on the itty bits of plastic found in the world’s oceans are a threat. – article.

      Have none of those people conducting this experiment (which seemed very limited to me) even vaguely aware of the term “primordial soup’? Since it’s supposed to be the basis for life as we know it, no matter how long it took, did these science guys even think for one moment that it’s the modern-day equivalent of primordial soup (OK, OK, I’m stretching it here) in that those teensy floating pieces of plastic are providing a base on which organisms we may not even have seen before are finding a home, and providing the next generation in evolutionary development?

      Seriously, how can something that eats plastic be a danger to the world’s oceans? This idea is delusional. It’s the cleaning crew at work. They inhabit the entire planet. We should be grateful that they exist. I don’t view these critters as a threat. There are useful bacteria everywhere and they of all people ought to know that. Very disappointed in them and their narrow understanding of life.

      • some temperature data + some tree ring data + computer model = CAGW

        some plastic in a sea-water submerged box + confocal microscopy + computer model = CAMD
        (catastrophic anthropogenic microbe destruction)

        I call bull shirt on Tracy J. Mincer!

      • Sara ==> It was a very small, and extremely cute, little green crab, about the size of my little fingernail. I popped up and called my wife and daughter over, saying “I think there’s something in my ear.” The daughter dashed off and returned with a wee tweezers and plucked him out and sending back to free-swimming in the tropical waters. So, a very temporary home for him/her. Although never given a name, the crab lives on in this oft repeated story.

        There is a whole industry of creating scary sounding “science” about [cue spooky music] plastics.. The researchers feed off of one another, stoking the fires of concern and alarm.

        That said, there is something to be concerned about — too much plastic trash all over the place and we ought to clean it up where we can and prevent its release into the environment. The same with glass, paper, food waste….pick up after ourselves and put the trash in the bin!

        • No argument from me, Kip, about picking up after ourselves, because I see too much trash dropped on the sidewalks by careless people.

          Maybe a better comparison would be soap bubbles? If you blow up soap bubbles in winter, they freeze until the weather warms, because they are mostly water. But in warm weather, they have a lifespan because the soapy liquid that lets them exist only keeps the water molecules intact for so long. I have found that sunshine on a soap bubble will shorten its existence but shade will prolong it, a short and strange lesson in chemistry and physics together.

          Plastic trash is based on oil and the bacteria that eat it can break it down because their chemistry undoes the molecules that make plastic solid. There must be some way to put that to use, without dumping it into the open ocean. Still, those little guys that eat plastic have something useful to tell us.

          This study seems very limited to me, as if the researchers don’t want to find out that there is a way to do something that will benefit both the bacteria and the oceans. It’s a good article. I enjoyed it.

          • “No argument from me, Kip, about picking up after ourselves, because I see too much trash dropped on the sidewalks by careless selfish people.”

            Fixed it!

      • Well, really, what do they think breaks down a corpse when a large animal (like Hoomans) dies?

        It doesn’t just go POOF!! y’know.

  1. When I lived near Fort Walton Beach, FL, it was common practice to sink old washing machines and other junk to make an artificial reef. Back in those days, you’d write down the LORAN numbers for the location and keep those secret. When you returned to your underwater junkyard, there would be tons of fish, especially following hurricanes.

    The Almighty seems to have created nature with the built-in capability to digest and make use of just about anything. Not that we want to foolishly tempt Him, mind you, but the constant drumbeat of computer-aided “doompanic” from Big Left is tiresome and virtually always untrue.

    • How is it going with the new LORAN system?
      I understand that a backup system to GPS is wanted and Trump signed an agreement to have a new system developed. The LORAN-C system was cancelled during the late Obama era.

      • Just as well! I was a quartermaster in the Coast Guard in the late 70’s. I did a lot of navigation using Loran C in the Florida Keys area. It was a lot better than nothing — especially better than Loran-A, where you tried to match waveforms which were doing the hula using a thumbwheel — but depending on the location of the Loran C stations you could have the lines crossing at very oblique angles so that the slightest error put you well off your actual positions. Any time we could we’d take bearings off of towers, lights, etc. We *knew* where we were then! Many years later when I was living in Homestead just north of the Keys my wife and I spent the night out on our boat in Barnes Sound, more or less between Homestead and Key Largo. I had a Loran C unit and set it for anchor watch to sound an alarm if we significantly dragged anchor. Darned thing kept going off throughout the night. When dawn came we were exactly where we had dropped anchor.

        • Just spent a month working a few miles north of that area. Good to know there are real people out in those tiny white (nearly invisible in the distance) boats.

    • Bro. Steve ==> I was trained as a LORAN operator in the Panamanian Merchant Marine, back in the 1970s. We used that and triangulating AM radio stations for rough positioning.

      My current sailboat has advanced GPS that could be used to reliably get the boat within heaving line distance of the dock.

      Thanks for the washing machine underwater junkyard story!

      • I was stationed on Midway Island for the year of 1962. At the same time, my father, working for the US Coast & Geodetic Survey, was finishing up the Loran C charts for the Hawaiian archipelago. When they came off the presses, he snitched a copy and mailed it to me, before anyone else out there got copies. 🙂

  2. I was walking the beach with naturalist and writer Jack Rudloe, founder of Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Florida. They do turtle rescue and often deal with sea turtles sickened from eating plastic. We were discussing the plastic issue and while he agreed that no one should be dumping plastics and garbage into the sea because of the harm done to animals like the sea turtle, he said he was not convinced that long term plastic was the terrible issue that people were making it out to be. As we talked, we passed a small child’s runner. It was a girl’s shoe and he picked up and turned the thing over and pointed at the pink plastic sole. The entire sole was pitted with holes and every part of the canvas surface was full of slime. “The sea eventually eats this stuff,” he said. He pointed out many organisms from barnacles to snails to sea squirts who had been living happily on the shoe until storm waves deposited it on the beach. He dropped the shoe into his collection bag for future disposal in the garbage. It struck me as a heresy but as I thought of that shoe, I could see he was right.

    • Natalie Gordon ==> Great story! Thanks for sharing it here with us.

      Jack Ludloe and I are in perfect agreement — the sea and its denizens will eventually eat up all that plastic and other trash (but not the glass…). But… they shouldn’t have to. We should do our best to keep that stuff out of the sea (and the rivers and the forests and the prairies . . . ). What whatever plastic sinks and maybe doesn’t breakup and get eaten will just be more “rocks” on the bottom.

      My wife and I (we are older…) always take plastic one-use shopping bags with us to the beach and pick up trash at the high water line as we walk. Just good practice.

  3. The CO2 narrative is running out of gas so it’s time to pump a new angle. This one has been lurking below the surface for a while but it is definitely emerging now.

  4. And the result of being in the Mediterranean for about two and a half months, mostly at anchor or berthed, resulted in a reduction in speed from about 16 knots under full power and 15 at the economical running speed, to about eleven and a half knots under full power!

    Those little critters like ships!

    • Dudley ==> They like anything they can attach to — and giving them things to attach to is either “good” or “bad” or maybe, just the way it is….

      • In the oceans, anything that floats in the warm top oxygen enriched sunny layer is quickly colonized by something….

    • Twain lived until 1910. He was not given the Nobel Prize for Literature. Neither was Tolstoy. They should have shut the whole thing down out of embarrassment. This year the prize was given to Louise Gluck. Ever heard of her?

        • Hi Kip. I listened to a Bob Dylan interview many years ago. He was asked how he was able to write such amazing stuff so early in his career. He answered “Honestly, I don’t really know, I don’t know where it came from. I can’t write like that today.”

          • Chuck nliH ==> Song writing is hard and is a magical thing. I have tried hard to write sings — after 50 years, I have one I am almost satisfied with.

            Townes Van Zandt, who wrote “Pancho and Lefty”, said of that song, “I was sitiing thinkinking about writing a song, and Pancho and Lefty floating in through the window, fuly written” (paraphrased.)


  5. “….but to have “quantified” the “the total amount of carbon biomass in these plastic-associated cells”…..”

    Er…are they saying that these bits of plastic result in SEQUESTERED CARBON??? The very thing that we have been trying to do economically for many years now?

    Hurrah! Plastic microdots are saving the world as we speak! There is no need for a Carbon Tax or Renewable Energy…..

    • No but hold on a sec …… these bacteria could take over the world, so we’re going to need a paid-for phony alarmist group to stop it. Let’s call it Non-extinction Rebellion. The same people could be hired and fight it out in their own individual cognitive dissonances. No need for them to even go out on the street to protest. Could be a good little earner for them – double pay.

      • What happens to these life forms when we stop releasing all this plastic into the wide oceans? Will they eat themselves out of house and home?
        Will they die? Are we then at fault?
        Don’t their lives matter? No matter what, it is catastrophic. The metachloriedes are screaming.

        Someone once said the solution to pollution is dilution.

  6. They seems to ignore and not want to recognize that large plastic pieces become very small pieces. This clearly demonstrates that these plastics are breaking down. It is difficult to imagine physical forces that would tear them down to such a small size while simply floating in the ocean, away from a rocky shore. They typically gloss over this huge fact.

    • Charles ==> Quite right….the “plastics are forever” promoters like to say that “plastics don’t breakdown” then talk about the “dangers” of all the little bits.

    • The uranium content of the oceans is 4 x 10^9 metric tonnes.
      How many orders of magnitude greater is that, in radioactivity terms, than all the nuclear waste ever generated?

  7. Computational Hubris: “An inordinate and unjustified trust, or faith if you like, in the power of advanced computational machines and processes to produce highly accurate and extremely precise results from relatively inaccurate and imprecise, highly uncertain data using techniques and methods that have not been tested nor verified to be suited to, or sufficient for, the purpose.” — Kip Hansen

    Plus ten to the power of some obscenely large number
    In other words, Good One!

    • Steve ==> Thank you…though the definition is not original to this essay. Hubristically, I quote myself from an older essay.

      • No comments showing when I posted that, (Will Word Press ever be fixed?) if I had seen Phil Mulholland’s Twain quote I probably wouldn’t have posted that.

  8. I also wonder where they hung the sample plastics in Woods Hole. I studied in the BUMP, BU (marine program) back in the early 70s. You have Eel Pond, which is half stagnant and subject to tidal flow, and you have Woods Hole Passage, which has large tidal currents that reverse directions four times a day and relatively fast currents.

    I lived on a 26 foot sailboat all those years and found that, if you take your boat relatively far up a river, every few months for a couple of days, the salinity change tended to keep the hull quite clean.

    • Charles ==> To lend a sense of veracity to their study, they give the GPS coordinates for the location : 41° 31′ 30″, – 70° 40′ 22.8″ pop that into Google Maps and you’ll see.

      And on boat bottoms, our 42′ catamaran is currently in fresh water, up the Hudson, and keeps itself quite clean.

    • So, Nature and Nature’s God have responded to the scourge of fiberglass sailboats by providing micro-organisms capable of eating the resin in the hull, perhaps?

      There truly IS a G_d!

      If He had wanted us to have plastic boats, He would have given us plastic trees!

      Wonder if we can let them digest the worn out plastic rotors of Wind Power generators, which are currently unrecycleable and have to be buried in landfills?

      • Kalashnikat ==> No idea if you are kidding or not, but fiberglass/resin hulls, left on the bottom of the seas in the tropics, do break down, but very slowly. The newer boats are built with better materials, but thinner (much thinner in some cases — scary thin to me).

        When diving I have come across sunken fiberglass hulls that I could pull apart with my hands to gain access to inner compartments. At the same time, I have found some newer sunken vessels still as solid as the rocks they foundered on.

  9. Claiming to be able to accurately determine the average temperature of nearly 100 million sq miles over
    a 70-year period, using less than 50 thermometers, most of which are concentrated in one particular area, is computational hubris. But that is exactly what climate scientists claim to be able to do for the southern hemisphere from 1880-1950. One half of the 140-year global temperature record for one half of the world is based on computational hubris. At least.

    • Claiming to have isolated a virus by detecting 37 RNA base pairs using PCR probes, and then using computer models to fill in the gaps in its assumed 30,000 base pair genome is computational hubris. But that is exactly what they did with sars-cov-2.

    • “Claiming to be able to accurately determine the average temperature of nearly 100 million sq miles over
      a 70-year period, using less than 50 thermometers, most of which are concentrated in one particular area, is computational hubris.”

      It wouldn’t matter how many thermometers you have. There’s no average global temperature. And averaging readings from different locations is physically meaningless.

  10. … we estimate that PMD [Plastic Marine Debris] could provide a total surface area of 2.5 × 10^10 m^2 …

    OK, so there are 10^6 square meters in a square kilometer. So, that’s 2.5 x 10^4 square kilometers. That would be a square about 160 km x 160 km, or about a hundred miles on a side.

    The surface area of the Pacific ocean is 165,250,000 km^2. That’s 165.25 x 10^6 km^2.

    The area of the plastic divided by the area of the ocean is 0.00015 or 0.015%. In the grand scheme of things, there isn’t much plastic in the ocean, when you compare it to the ocean itself.

    • I think that it is reasonable to say that we should be worried about any spurious items in the ocean long before their area becomes even comparable with the size of the ocean…

      • Should I freak out because the leaves from my trees get into the storm sewer and might end up in the ocean?

    • commie ==> Truth be told, they have absolutely NO IDEA about the surface area of all the bits of plastic that may (or may not) be in the world’s oceans. The idea that they do is absurd.

    • Nick ==> How dare you cast doubt on the “trees as thermometers” science….it’s irrefutable!

      (And nonsensical….)

    • Komerade Cube October 25, 2020 at 7:43 am
      Why is it that the liberal progressives are so afraid of change?

      They aren’t, they want you to be afraid:

      The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed
      (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an
      endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. H. L. Mencken

  11. I’d be interested in knowing how the “estimate” for how much plastic is in the oceans was generated.
    I’ve heard of sampling being done in the so called Pacific garbage patch, but that’s it.
    It’s unlikely that such samples would be representative of the oceans as a whole.

    • MarkW ==> What they do is drag a sieve through the water for a certain distance, different sizes of mesh. Then they wash , count and measure the little bits. On the theory that “any random sample is representative of the whole”, they then COMPUTE….. so a sample of one ten-quadzillionth (not a real number) of the sea is multiplied by ten-quadzillion and you have an exact answer!

      • My point is that the only place that I am aware of where they have done this sampling was in places where they suspected the plastic density would be the highest.

  12. Kip, sceptics like you are the salt of the earth. The mere fact that small, blinkered alarmist minds hate and reject scepticism is enough for me to disregard alarmism. And that without the academic ability to follow any of the science (like Mark Twain, mentioned above)

  13. They’ve been using plastic filtration of this type in aquariums and aquaculture for fish health for decades.

  14. Kip
    It isn’t just Computational Hubris. It is a violation of all the statistical principles of doing unbiased sampling of a very large, undoubtedly diverse population of a phenomena that is poorly understood. A sample at one location is almost worthless other than to demonstrate the viability of a thesis they failed to appropriately quantify!

    • Clyde ==> You are correct. But you see, they have references of other previous studies that have claimed to quantify the number of plastic bits and their sizes, all based on the same sort of nonsense…so it is all very SCIENCEY.

  15. I’ve seen this on documentaries before, but predictably it wasn’t emphasized & quickly passed over. They showed a floating mass of broken plastic-pieces and it was literally surrounded by tiny fish and other creatures using it as a home/shelter. So the plastic mass was a benefit to the local sea-life.

    • beng135 ==> Absolutely. Those “lost floating fishing nets”, while a danger to the the propellers of small vessels, are floating reefs and attract a great deal of life in an otherwise “dead” ocean. Some of the ocean environmental groups have discovered this when they have gone out to collect these net masses — and deferred, as removing them would kill a whole small ecosystem.

  16. The total number of cells on plastic debris to be about 3 × 10^21? Avogadro wouldn’t be much impressed.

    • Stevek ==> I am not a marine biologist, but from my experience with the sea, I would posit that it is because the surface of the sand is ever shifting. That sand contains a whole biome of its own, but as the sand has no stable surface, you don’t see reef-like formation.

    • “Why can’t the reef grow on the sand?”

      The sand is a separate environment that is packed with its own biology of burrowing critters such as shrimps that like to eat defenseless sessile critters such as coral polyps. So the juvenile coral polyps that land on the sand don’t have a chance.
      A nice solid piece of bare metal above the sand? That’s a different story.

    • Not a biologist much less a marine biologist, but the organisms that build reefs need exposure to sunlight and or ocean water to filter out food. Sand is in regular motion. So something attached to a grain may be buried and die.

  17. As I have stated before a “study” based on a mathematical model is theory and not necessarily a fact and probably isn’t worth a lot.

    Perhaps, they discussed this in the paper but did they even use the same plastics we see in the ocean? In the same ratios? Did they not even obtain a single representative, (does such idealistic sample even exist?) sample of an actual plastic trash pile in the wild? Ships are passing by and through it all the time. Could they have not contracted out sample collection with another scientifically outfitted vessel. They talk about surface areas but clearly they are missing an axis in their integration. Additionally there would seem to be a lot of void space in this miasma of plastic being constantly and chaotically churned by the ocean. This does not seem to exist in their sample or at the very least this effect was mitigated with prejudice based the construction of their supposed representative sample.

    Sad just sad….

    • JEHILL ==> They could have, should have, used bits of plastic actually collected by sieving the ocean — there have been many many of these studies, and they could have/should have used actual samples of actual pelagic plastic bits.

      The whole study is “an extrapolation too far.”

  18. Kip, I am a sailor like you, have sailed the coast of North America from Desolation Sound to Zihautenejo, Mexico. There are plastic bags, styrofoam containers, and floating nets out there, but not in Canada or the US. Where is the junk? In Mexico or any third-world country. The people of Mexico are starting to take an interest in the environment but it hasn’t sunk in as yet. And even with the stuff you find floating near a city or town, the rest of the ocean a few miles away is empty. If we could just raise the standard of living of all the emerging countries I think the ocean junk would mostly disappear.

    • Michael Nagy ==> Very true, almost all oceanic plastic is coastal and comes from poor nations unable to afford to organize adequate trash pick up and handling. The vast majority in SE Asia and Africa, but a lot from the Phillipines, the Caribbean, and South and Central America as well.

  19. the total amount of carbon biomass in these plastic-associated cells is predicted to be 1.5 × 10^3 to 1.1 × 10^4 metric tons,
    1.1 x 10^4 metric tons worst case??

    Since all this carbon is floating it must be lighter than seawater. Assume it is close to the density of fresh water which is reasonable for living organisms.

    A metric ton of fresh water is a 1 meter cube. We are talking about a cube 22 meters on an edge for rhe entire ocean. That would weight 1.1 x 10^4 metric tons.

    A 22 meter cube! In the scale of the oceans this is invisible.

  20. Kip, please follow my reasoning while trying to evaluate the magnitude of the numbers they throw in the paper:

    After reading the paper I became much more optimistic regarding the “threat” of microplastics in oceans. The numbers given are the very demonstration that there is no danger whatsoever. Just for comparison:

    They say: total mass of plastic in oceans: close to 270 thousand tons.
    Apple production in the world: 86 MILLION tons
    Apple production in the USA: close to 5 MILLION tons
    Apple production in my country (Portugal): somewhat over 300 thousand tons.

    So, the amount of microplastics in oceans would be less than the apple production of my little country; or about one half of the Portuguese production of pears and apples. I try to imagine all those pears and apples from Portugal distributed in the world oceans: how many fruits per square kilometer?

    Replacing apples with plastic balls the same size and mass, 270 thousand tons of medium sized balls correspond to ca. 1700 million pieces. The total area of oceans is ca. 362 million sq km. So, if we threw 270 thousand tons of plastic balls to the ocean and distribute them evenly, we would have a chance of finding four or five in each sq km: much cleaner than in most cities…

    Also, in the paper they use biomass (instead of mass or fresh weight) of organisms, and say that the carbon biomass covering the plastic debris in oceans may be a bit over 11 thousand tons. That is equivalent of the carbon (element C) content of roughly one million tons of apples or pears, thus about 1/5 of the apple production in the USA and 1/86 of the apple production in the world. Or equivalent to about 1/370 of the world potato production; or to 1/3000 of the total world rice production.

    Repeating the thought experiment, now with real fruit, and if we threw one million tons of fruit in the ocean, that is roughly 7 million fruits; if they were evenly distributed, we would have a chance of finding about one fruit per 5 sq km: a lot of “pollution”, as they say, enough to (mind their words, please!) “have the potential to impact” everything plus the kitchen sink.

    So, either the numbers in the paper are grossly underestimated, or the size of this “threat” to the environment is risibly minuscule…

    • Joao Martins ==> Excellent analysis, of the very best sort. Using real things that others can visualize and with which they are familiar.

      I spent a number of years in Portuguese ports and was in Lisbon for the revolution. Exciting times, many stories — some best not told. Lisbon is my very favorite city, and Funchal, Madeira one of my favorite ports — spent many a Christmas here.

  21. I still can’t work out whether Kip is complain that the number is too big or too small. The first
    half of the essay appears to be claiming that the number is too large, while the second half is
    all about how quickly organisms colonise rubbish in the ocean.

    There appears to be nothing wrong with this paper. They perform an experiment, make a measurement
    and then use it to make a prediction. The result of their prediction regarding the total mass is then
    compared to other estimates and they find that the estimates agree. Surely if you want to complain about
    this then you would also have to disagree with almost every single bit of cosmology. Take the evidence
    that universe is expanding for instance. Hubble measured about 50 galaxies fitted a straight line and
    then claimed that the universe was expanding. Similarly the claim that the Andromeda nebula was a seperate
    galaxy was based on an observation of a single star.

    • Izaak Walton ==> I complain about neither too large or too small.

      My point is that from one single sample at Woods Hole during one time period of 3 months that they claim to have calculated a quantity for total carbon biomass of all the biomass to be found on all of the unknown number of pieces of unknown sizes of all the unknown amount of pelagic plastic in all of the world’s un-sampled oceans. They have not even measured the actual biomass on any single piece of free floating plastic from any ocean anywhere.

      They then use estimates of the number of pieces of various types of plastics in various oceans from studies that perform the same nonsensical computational gymnastics to arrive at some that number.

      If these numbers were based on any sort of real world sampling of real bits of plastics actually found in real oceans – sampling that produce estimates that could be checked against reality — say by coming up with an estimate of what should be found in a 5 km transect of the Pacific at a certain latitude — and then doing that transect and checking the numbers….well, then they would be getting somewhere.

      Their method sounds good, doesn’t it. X amount of biomass per mm2 times calculated mm2 of pelagic plastic == Total Biomass!

      Except that NONE of these numbers are real in any normal scientific sense. Multiplying very vague and unsupportable numbers does not result in a real world answer.

      • Kip,
        Making a measurement over a 5km transect of the pacific would be time consuming and
        almost certainly a huge waste of money. This estimate is simple, cheap and almost
        certainly good enough to most purposes. As such it is a good use of simple measurements and statistics to reveal something about the world.

        Almost all science is based on a combination of sampling and use of statistics. Astronomers claim
        that roughly 75% of mass in the universe is Hydrogen. And they do that on the basis of measuring a tiny number of stars. Biologists estimate the number of insects using a small number of traps etc. Doing anything else is generally just not possible. Even something as simple as the number of atoms in a mole of gas is based on the same idea, make a small measurement and then extrapolate to something bigger.

        • Izaak: Number of molecules in a particular gas is very precisely known. Briefly, oxygen gas with a molecular wt of 32 has a molar wt of 32grams. In turn, 32grams of oxygen will have Avogadro’s Number (NA = 6.02214076×10^23) of molecules. Carbon dioxide, with a molecular wt of 44, has, accordingly, a molar wt of 44grams, and this latter will also contain Avogadro’s Number of molecules.

          • Gary,
            Avogardro number is not particularly precise — there is an error of more than 10^15
            atoms or molecules. The point is that it is an estimate done using precisely the method
            that Kip is complaining about — you measure a small number and multiple by another estimate to get something else. In this case we can estimate the error and it is unimportant for almost all applications.

          • Izaak: The atomic, ionic and molecular sizes are well measured (ions less so and some are compressible). If they are not well measured, tell me how your small samples will be counted? I havent checked your claim on 10^15 error, but do you know how small 10^15 is compared to 10^23? Let’s see in percentage terms: (10^15/19^23 ) x 100= 1/1,000,000 %.

  22. “In other words, the plastic bits, found in the top layers of the oceans, supply a happy home for lots of microscopic “bacterial, archaeal, and eukaryotic microorganisms and microscopic animals” – a home that didn’t exist (as far as the researchers know)”

    Let’s simplify the description.
    Organic life readily forms colonies on organic matter…

    That is not a surprise, at all.
    That organic life consumes organic matter is also not a surprise.

    Nor is it a surprise that students looking for eureka discoveries of the most mundane topics, suddenly read world doom and gloom in their mundane research.

    • ATheoK ==> Yeah, but the REAL problem I see in this is not that they find more gloom and doom, but that they think they actually quantified something real. It is the whole approach and method that is wildly wonky (those are scientific words for just plain nutty).

      I can’t think of an analogy crazy enough to describe what they have done (and the researchers before them that claim to have calculated the number of bits and the surface area of those bits).

      How about:

      1. Stop ten men on the streets of Boston.
      2. Count the number and value of coins in their right hand front trousers pocket.
      3. Using census data from every nation in the world, find the “number of men in the world”
      4. Use relative economic status of various nations to adjust for differing monetary values.
      5. Multiply all the National Trouser Pocket Change values by Number of Men for each Nation, then add them all together.
      6. Voila! we have quantified the Total Pocket Change of the World’s Men.

      • Kip,
        There is a difference between quantify and predict or estimate. In the quotes you provide the
        authors are state clearly “we estimate …”. There is nothing wrong we making an estimate in
        this way. Looking at your example for the total pocket change, a statistican could tell you
        the likely error in your estimate and also how many more people you would need to sample
        in order to reduce the error below any desired bounds. You can then decide whether it is worth
        the time or effort to do so.

        • Izaak Walton, Kip:

          What is wrong is, what the authors of the paper do is not realy an “estimate”. An estimate is valid only inside the domain interval of the independent variables where the observations were made. What they have made is something very dangerous: an “extrapolation”. I.e., they have calculated, as Kip has been pointing out, something that is way out of the scope of the variables that was used to make the empirical observation (roughly: the “sample” used is NOT even close to being representative of the population to what they are extrapolating). In other words: when extrapolating, one MUST be extremely careful with the “ceteris paribus” principle: one MUST be sure that the characteristics and conditions of the universe to where he is extrapolating are very similar, not significantly different, from the conditions where the empirical observations were made. This is what Kip has been trying to call our attention to: the world conditions are very, very different from those wher they have put that small aparatus at Woods Hole: anyone can understand that.

        • What they did in this study is something like going to their child’s kindergarten class for a couple of weeks, observing their child and a couple of friends doing a few academic exercises, and then making estimates about all of the schools around the entire planet. Actually, it’s not even that good, because overall children are more alike than different forms/kinds of plastic are, and schools are more alike than the ocean climate across the globe.

          If they were simply estimating potential growth on particular plastics in Massachusetts waters during a certain time of the year, their experiment might in fact be admirable. It would actually add knowledge, the experimenters would learn something, and science would advance. They could follow up with other kinds of plastics, different forms and shapes, other times of year, other locations (which would yield other kinds of microorganisms), and other mixing. But their crazy extrapolation in multiple dimensions is like the hubris of first-year student who took a stats class and knows how to run R or Python.

          Science dies a little bit with each of these exercises in either Model Worship or Simplistic Extrapolation Explosion.

  23. Kip, you said: “They have not only manufactured the quantities but they have manufactured a threat from their manufactured quantities.

    And that’s no way to do science.”

    I was immediately struck by the unhappy thought that that is largely how they do do science in our new post-normalcy. It ties in with your computational hubris observations. And it isn’t just the climate wroughters at work. The science re Covid may never be cleaned up. And black holes, string ‘theory’, dark matter and dark energy in cosmology, froddy cancer and other medical research….

    BTW, I enjoy all your articles – what a fine teacher you would make. You may be amused to hear that I discussed your wonderful ladybug piece with my wife and the following day with air temperature around 12 -15C she came into the house followed by a 7 spot ladybug and we found a second one crawling on a sill above a cast-iron hotwater radiator. I have no idea where they are now and there are perhaps others. There is a lot of comings and goings through our front door.

    • Gary ==> Thank you for the ladybug story . . . I have sent in a photo of the 13 spot ladybug we found on the roses my wife cares for at a local mini-park.

      Not everyone agrees with me. For instance, see above for Isaak Walton’s ideas on this (probably not his real name — Isaak Walton wrote “The Compleat Angler, or the Contemplative Man’s Recreation” in 1676….). He seems to think it is ok to use nonsensical non-data to make “estimates” as long as you call them “estimates”. To each his own.

      I do admit that it is a very common practice throughout the sciences in the last couple of decades as computing power ramped up and became available. Seduced many a researching into believing that his computational results were something real.

  24. I’m not even sure about calling it “computational hubris”. That’s too generous. I’d settle for scientific bollocks.

    Some years ago (circa 2008) I saw fascinating presentation from a Woods Hole researcher showing how the “oceanic genome” of micro-critters at one East-coastal location varied enormously over not only seasons and months, but over weeks, days and hours.

    Most assertions and conclusions are still just shooting in the dark.

  25. “They have not only manufactured the quantities ”

    no they have estimated the quantities. you have manufactured misunderstanding

    your job is to try to replicate their findings by doing a similar field test in a different location.

    you would ask questions like this?
    does the type of plastic matter?
    does the location matter?

    Or you could do a different approach. you could go into the ocean and sample plastic, although
    that would not tell you how long it takes the critters to coat a fresh piece of plastic

    all science starts somewhere, and never ends

    • Mosher ==> My job, as a science journalist (essayist, more correctly) is to discuss and explain what I see in the science work of others — to praise what I see as good work, to criticize what I see as poor work, and to point out when offered science results are not scientific in fact.

      It is the job of others in their field to attempt to replicate their work — which would be valid if they had done actual science.

      Their science was good and valid as long as they were working with their samples and their fancy microscope and counting cells and cell types. That was good and valuable work.

      They then went for “an extrapolation too far” — by claiming that through the magic of massive computation, they could quantify the biomass of all the biofilms on all the pelagic plastic in the world.

  26. Good article Kip. It does sort of hint at what I imagined. Read about floating bed media filters in the aquarium hobby. All that surface area!

    I have one in every tank.

  27. “The items were cleaned and then sterilized using 70% ethanol prior to placing them in the seawater”

    Their calculations are questionable based on this. 70% alcohol will kill virus particles but bacterial cells react to high levels of toxins by forming spores that “hatch” out when environmental conditions return to normal. If you want to sterilize objects for bacteria using alcohol you use a 5% alcohol solution. In this way the cells absorb a toxic level of alcohol and die before they detect the danger and have a chance to form spores.

    I worked in manufacturing and we never used a higher concentration than 5% alcohol to sterilize equipment for this very reason.

    • AussieDon ==> An interesting technical point. Can you supply a reference? I’m interested in that idea (not really in reference to this study or essay.)

  28. “we should keep all of our trash, including plastics, contained and disposed of properly. None of it should end up in the sea.”

    And why exactly isn’t putting it in the ocean the proper way to dispose of plastics? It may be better than dumping it in a landfill.

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