‘Fish prefer plastic to food,’ claimed a paper published in Science last year. It was the environmental horror story du jour.
The billions of tons of plastics that we release into the environment for the most part do not biodegrade. But they do degrade, breaking into ever smaller particles that end up in the oceans. Lönnstedt et al. show that the impacts of these microplastics are multifold (see the Perspective by Rochman). Eurasian perch larvae exposed to microplastics were less active, less responsive to predator cues, more likely to be eaten, and less likely to thrive—preferring to eat plastic rather than their natural prey.
Naturally, this news was seized on by the mainstream media as further proof of the damage man’s selfishness, greed and refusal to amend his lifestyle was causing to the planet.
The study, by Swedish researchers, seemed to confirm everyone’s worst suspicions about plastic pollution of the oceans. Of especial concern in this case were the plastic microbeads used by the cosmetics industry in skincare products. These microbeads have been made illegal in the U.S. under legislation introduced during the last days of the Obama administration, with the European Union considering a similar ban.
Here is how the BBC reported the story:
To look at the impact of micro-plastics on the early life stages of fish, Swedish researchers exposed perch larvae to different concentrations of polystyrene in water tanks.
In the absence of micro-plastics, about 96% of the eggs successfully hatched. This dropped to 81% for those exposed to large quantities.
The fish that did hatch in these waters with high quantities of micro-plastics were “smaller, slower, and more stupid” than those that hatched in clean waters, lead author Dr Oona Lonnstedt, from Uppsala University, said.
When exposed to predators, about half the young perch from clean waters survived for 24 hours. Those that had been raised with the strongest plastic concentrations were all consumed by pike over the same period.
Most surprising for the research team was the way that plastic changed food preferences.
“They all had access to zooplankton and yet they decided to just eat plastic in that treatment. It seems to be a chemical or physical cue that the plastic has, that triggers a feeding response in fish,” Dr Lonnstedt told BBC News.
There was just one problem with this environmental scare story: the study was fake.
The whistle was blown by a group of biologists from universities around the world, who wrote to the University of Uppsala in Sweden, which had produced the paper, in protest.
We have identified a number of potentially critical flaws regarding the execution and reporting of this study, which include: (1) missing data (wrongly stated in the paper as being available in the supplementary materials and in the Uppsala institutional repository); (2) inconsistencies in the sample sizes reported and the microplastic exposure concentrations used; (3) issues with the statistical design and analyses; and, most worryingly, (4) large disparities in the way the experiment has been reported by the authors compared with the reports of eye witnesses. These issues, many of which should have been identified at the peer-review stage, bear directly on the validity and reproducibility of the results presented in the paper.
They went on:
Regarding point #4 above, we have evidence including witness reports, photos of the experimental setup, and email correspondences that the experiments reported in the paper were not performed as described by the authors. To be clear, there is a significant mismatch between what is described in the paper and how the experiments were actually performed. Examples include: • The exposure times of eggs and larvae reported in the paper are longer than the actual duration of the experiment at the Ar research station in Gotland, Sweden. • The actual number of replicate tanks and fish is lower than what is stated in the paper. • Aquaria maintenance and monitoring were not conducted as described in the paper. For these and other reasons, we strongly suspect that this study constitutes a case of research misconduct.
That was in 2016. However, though the study was officially retracted in May this year, it has taken until now for the university to find the study’s authors guilty of “intentional” misconduct.
According to Retractionwatch:
The decision, published yesterday, states that both authors—Peter Eklöv and Oona Lönnstedt—“violated the regulations on ethical approval for animal experimentation,” and Lönnstedt, the paper’s corresponding author, “fabricated the results.”
Eklöv told us:
I take full responsibility for the errors for the animal and ethical concerns. … It was my name on the permission.
The misconduct report does not indicate whether Eklöv or Lönnstedt will be sanctioned. Erik Lempert, the official responsible for the Uppsala University investigation, told us the sanctions are:
something for the dean to decide. A committee will likely look into what kind of action should be taken.
So, to recap: environmental scientists produce study which is widely reported around the world because its “facts” accord so perfectly with the media’s guilt-ridden hysteria when it comes to any story to do with Evil Mankind Destroying the Planet.
And the reason those “facts” accord so well with this narrative is because they have been made up.
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people read the initial reports – and are confirmed in their passion that more must be done to save the planet from this latest environmental threat with yet more government bans.
Hardly anyone is even aware of the retraction. (I know I wasn’t aware of it, and I’m supposed to be following this stuff.)
But the global environmental scare about pretty much everything – from carbon dioxide to plastic in the oceans – is ramped up another notch. On no scientific basis.
Meanwhile, the cheating scientists continue to go unpunished – and to be given more government grants. Yes really.
Last week, a Swedish government funding agency announced 325 recipients of grants in Natural and Engineering Sciences. We don’t normally write about grant announcements, but we’re flagging this one because one recipient may be familiar to our readers.
It is Peter Eklöv of Uppsala University, a co-author of a now-retracted Science paper about the potential dangers of microplastics to fish.
Eklov will receive 800,000 ($94,784 USD) each year in 2018-2020 and 900,000 ($106,632 USD) in 2021, totalling 3,300,000 ($355,440 USD). The granting agency is the Swedish Research Council, controlled by Sweden’s Ministry of Education and Research.
And you wonder why I keep telling you that the whole global environmental scare is one massive financial scam?