Risk science scientists and experts

Claims-making about the Brent Spar hinged centrally on the ability to demonstrate, with science, whether it posed a serious and significant pollution risk. Although claims-making about the Brent Spar did not draw solely on a scientific discourse (other important discourses included moral, legal, economic discourses, and 'a right to know/open to public scrutiny' discourse), science, research evidence, and scientists were pressed into service by the key players (Greenpeace, Shell, and the government) as well as by the newspapers themselves. Significantly, the role of science in the news coverage was very much one of 'asserting facts' or of bolstering of the arguments for or against dumping by invoking scientific expertise and authority. Newspapers offered very little information about how 'science' goes about establishing whether deep-sea dumping would harm marine life, or on what scale such harm might occur. There is nothing particularly extraordinary about this; indeed, research has frequently shown that the media deal mainly in the 'facts' of science and are far less well equipped to convey an understanding of how science works (Nelkin 1995; Long 1995; Hornig 1990) or of how risk is assessed (Dunwoody and Peters 1992).

The use of science and scientists varied across the three newspapers much in line with the general variation in stance already indicated. Thus, the Mirror generally and faithfully reproduced and elaborated Greenpeace claims that the Brent Spar contained large amounts of very toxic materials which, if the installation were dumped at sea, would cause serious pollution, contamination and harm to marine life. This was the key frame of the Mirror's first report of the Greenpeace action:

MURDER AT SEA: Scandal of dumped rigs that may wipe out marine life: Greenpeace seize oil rig to highlight danger of leaving deserted rigs to rot at sea.

.Experts fear the millions of tons of steel, copper, lead and waste oil from old rigs could wipe out many species. They threaten fish stocks, seals, whales and dolphins. Greenpeace say their studies have already shown the shattering impact of pollution on marine life.

Once adopted at the beginning of the coverage, this dramatic frame remained in place in the Mirror's reporting throughout the sample period. While reference was made in passing to studies supporting dumping as the best solution, the Mirror unambiguously promoted the pollution of the sea frame both by seeking out and drawing attention to other incidents of pollution (which would otherwise have remained singularly un-newsworthy) and by headlining scientific experts' warnings against dumping:


Most significantly perhaps there were no reports in the Mirror of the later (September) admission by Greenpeace that some of their measurements and calculations regarding the amount of toxic material in the Brent Spar had been erroneous—an admission widely covered in both the Telegraph and the Mail.

While not ignoring concern about pollutants and the potentially harmful implications of dumping (e.g. 'SEABED MUST NOT BECOME RUBBISH TIP', DTL 20 June), the frame promoted by the Telegraph and the Mail stressed scientific arguments that dumping was the environmentally least damaging solution. It was also a frame which put great faith in science (see particularly the first and last quotes below) and called on science as the only reasonable alternative to what was described variously as 'emotional', 'irrational', 'hysterical', 'uninformed', 'manipulative', 'ideological' and 'dogmatic' propaganda and claims:

A TRIUMPH FOR THE FORCES OF IGNORANCE: In the wake of the Brent Spar oil rig fiasco, one of Britain's most distinguished Nobel Prize-winning scientists savages Greenpeace.

The problem of Brent Spar was easy to state: how to dispose of an oil platform with the least possible damage to the environment. For three years, scientists working for both Shell and the Government studied that practical and important problem. They would have examined all possible ways to achieve the end: for that is the method of science. I am horrified that a scientific study which took so much time and analysis to prepare should be overturned in a few hours by a group of terrorists appealing not to reason but to ignorance and emotional blackmail.

.Science tackles a problem logically and comes up with the best answer that the human mind can devise.

.The reversal was based not on science nor on logic nor on reason. It was based on a popular appeal to unreason and anti-science.


.Many people have considerable sympathy with Greenpeace's aims, if not its methods. But these aims should be based on rigorous scientific analysis, not emotion.

(DML 6 September)


.Shell's decision has allowed emotion to triumph over reason.


A leading academic yesterday hit out at Greenpeace's role in halting the dumping of the Brent Spar. Aberdeen University principal Professor Maxwell Irvine condemned the group's victory as 'one of the saddest days in the history of the environmental debate'. Prof Irvine claimed Shell's lastminute decision not to dump the disused oil platform in deep water was the result of 'ignorance and one-issue campaign politics'.


.Industry must resist misguided and emotional campaigns which undermine its ability to operate profitable and essential businesses.

(DTL 7 September)

BELLAMY CALLS FOR SCIENCE OMBUDSMAN The naturalist David Bellamy called for the establishment of a scientific ombudsman to advise on complex issues such as the dumping of the Brent Spar platform.

'The world is in desperate need of a science-based arbitration council that can rapidly come to valid decisions of research and action on matters environmental,' said Prof Bellamy, president of the British Association's Biological Sciences Section.

(DTL 15 September)

In contrast to the Mirror, both the Telegraph and the Mail elected from an early stage of the coverage (and well before Greenpeace's discovery/admission that some of their calculations and measurements were wrong) to give considerable play, not least through headlining, to scientists' claims in support of dumping. As indicated by the first quotation above from the Daily Mail and in the quote below from the Daily Telegraph, much of the 'authority' of the scientific case for dumping was secured through reference to the number, cost and sheer 'scientific status' of studies conducted rather than through an examination of how science works or goes about establishing the implications of dumping:


The Government and Shell say that more than £1 million and 30 scientific studies have gone into proving that dumping the installation at sea is the best environmental option and the safest.

.The Brent Spar contains 100 tons of sludge, which Greenpeace claims is toxic waste. The company says 90 per cent of this is sand, the remainder oil residues no different in composition as far as heavy metals are concerned from bitumen on the roads. The Brent Spar does contain naturally-occurring radioactive materials trapped in scales, like the inside of a kettle, but Shell says that these pose no risks if disposed of at sea while they might if dried out and inhaled on land. In any case they say that the radioactive materials are equivalent to a group of granite houses in Aberdeen. The structure is to be disposed of 150 miles out in the Atlantic, north-west of the Hebrides, at a depth of around 7,800 metres in a depression where, scientists say, the sludges it contains are unlikely to move far.

The emphasis on the Brent Spar as an alien (to the environment), dangerous, contaminated and hazardous structure, an emphasis promoted by Greenpeace and variously elaborated by the newspapers themselves, stood in stark contrast to a 'naturalising' counter-rhetoric, including that of several scientist sources, which stressed the 'naturalness' of the substances contained in the Brent Spar and the potential beneficial impact which the structure itself might have on fish life.

SCIENCE: DUMP THE RIG—AND BE DAMNED .The large metal storage buoy will contain radioactive muds, but these were naturally occurring and have only been concentrated by drilling activity. There may also be traces of oil, but Dr Rice says the effects should be local and limited to within a few hundred metres.. 'Some animals— mainly worms and bivalves—will be killed. But people don't seem to ask how many millions of creatures—worms and so on—are killed when you build a mile of motorway or a hospital'.


Dumping the Brent Spar oil platform at sea would have been good for marine life, scientists claim.. Professor Euan Nisbet and Dr Mary Fowler of London University's Royal Holloway College say in Nature magazine that metals on board the rig are already present in huge quantities on the sea bed.

At the beginning of September 1995 Greenpeace admitted that some of its earlier claims concerning the amount of toxic materials inside the Brent Spar had been exaggerated due to erroneous measurements and calculations. In addition to devoting not only news coverage but also editorials to discussion of this 'admission', in both the Mail and Telegraph this also paved the way for the selection of further coverage of scientist claims that dumping would have been the best solution:


.An ecologist told the festival that Greenpeace was wrong to fight the dumping at sea of Shell's Brent Spar oil platform. Dr Martin Angel, of the Institute of Oceanography in Surrey, said Brent Spar could have been an ideal habitat for marine life.

(DML 12 September)


Shell was right to want to dump the Brent Spar platform in the deep ocean but it chose the wrong site, the conference was told. The company should have selected a depth of more than 15,000ft rather than the relatively shallow depth of 6,500ft, said Dr Martin Angel, of the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences.

(DTL 12 September)


(DTL 19 October 95)

From a risk perspective, the middle quotation above is particularly telling. All previous coverage in the Telegraph and Mail uniformly conveyed an image of the designated dumping site in the Atlantic as a 'trench' of very considerable depth, which, precisely because of its great depth, would easily absorb any contaminants remaining in the Brent Spar. The seeming absoluteness of 6,500ft as a suitable depth was now suddenly called into question by its description as a 'relatively shallow depth' and by quoting a scientist arguing that more than twice that depth would be required for safe disposal. This, however, did not give rise to a wider questioning of the case for dumping in the two newspapers (including a questioning of its scientific robustness).

By contrast, the admission of error by Greenpeace was portrayed in the Mail and the Telegraph, not as a legitimate mistake, but as evidence of the 'slipshod',

'self-serving' and 'fatally flawed' (DML editorial, 6 September) science practised by Greenpeace, and a lesson that 'single issue groups are often not unimpeachable guardians of society's best interests, but highly motivated and well-financed zealots who play fast and loose with the facts' (DTL editorial, 7 September).

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  • yvonne
    Why greenpeace is wrong?
    9 years ago

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