Great Lakes not immune to “Death of Facts” disease

Gary Wilson

Commentary

Last month the Chicago Tribune printed a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the death of facts. It was written in obituary style and chronicled the decline and ultimate demise of, well, factual statements.

The norm now is to state your opinion and present it as fact, according to Tribune writer Rex Huppke.

Huppke says so many of us of all stripes misrepresent facts to make a point that it is best to acknowledge the obvious – facts are now irrelevant. Why not declare them dead?

If you need proof with a Great Lakes angle consider the following.

Even the most casual observer of the Asian carp saga should have been prompted to question the veracity of this headline courtesy of Fox News Detroit:

“Stop Asian Carp Act Aims to Protect Great Lakes”

The headline is similar to an announcement on the website of Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow that says: “Bipartisan Bill to Stop Asian Carp Introduced.”

The problem is that the release and the Fox News headline essentially say that Congress, by passing a law, can stop the advance of Asian carp. That’s not true.

Here’s the reality.

The bill’s title is actually the “Stop Invasive Species Act” and its stated purpose is to “compel” the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite its study of hydrological separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River watershed. Asian carp are barely mentioned in the bill’s language.

It’s a bill about a study that’s already in process.

Even if passed it won’t stop Asian carp. Carp are knocking at the door now. Any action resulting from passage of this bill is years, maybe a decade away. Plus, passage of the the bill is doubtful anyway.

So why the big splash with a misleading headline?

It’s an election year and politicians need to demonstrate what they are doing. Michigan residents want to hear about stopping carp not a bill that expedites a study. That’s a yawner that won’t garner votes. People want action not studies.

The tactic works.

The media – we can be part of the problem – picked up the headline as written while the leading Great Lakes environmental coalition referred to it as “combatting the spread of Asian carp.” Even environmentalists have contributed to the death of facts. Stabenow’s bill doesn’t “combat” Asian carp. Again, it’s a bill about a study.

Why not play loose with the facts if that’s where your ethical compass points? It works. Many people don’t see beyond the headline.

But here’s a thought. What if we were just honest?

President Barack Obama provides an example of how that can work as chronicled by David Plouffe in his book

After Obama’s election to the senate and rise in national prominence, the buzz started about a potential presidential run. When asked about a candidacy by a prominent TV reporter, Obama dismissed the possibility. Fast-forward a few years and he’s now on the cusp of announcing that he’s going to run for president and he will soon sit for an interview with the same reporter.

Anticipating the question about the change of position, staff was trying to develop an answer. To put it bluntly, staff was trying to craft a spin answer but Obama objected.

He suggests telling the interviewer that the answer he gave years ago was accurate but the situation has changed. In other words, the truth.

The truth, how refreshing.

Why couldn’t  Stabenow and her backers and the enviros just tell the truth about the bill to expedite the study – that it’s important for the separation study to be expedited but it’s unlikely to have an impact on Asian carp.

It can however protect the lakes from future aquatic invaders and will help take the Chicago Waterways System from the 19th to the 21st century. It’s purpose is to improve the ecology and the economy of the region.

Most people would understand and even welcome not only the candor but the proposed outcome.

I suspect nothing will change as a result of the Tribune’s death of facts narrative. Staying on message, whether the content is true or not, is valued more than the facts – be you a politician or environmentalist.

But it doesn’t have to be that way as candidate Obama demonstrated.

“Why don’t I just tell the truth” he told his staff.

He did and it worked for him.

The truth can work for the Great Lakes too, but spin won’t.

 

 

 

  • Anonymous

    Jason, thanks for commenting.

    A few thoughts.

    1. The bill, if passed, wouldn’t “ask” the corps to expedite the study, it “compels” it to. It’s a tough sell to get Congress to “compel” the corps as they, for better or worse, are seen as the experts in these matters.

    2. I’m not “bashing” the bill, just pointing out that the way it has been pitched is disingenuous and smacks of being politically motivated.

    3. Yes, a version of this bill was introduced last year. These days
    election campaigns begin well before the year of the election.

    The best track for Sen. Stabenow et al, would have been to sell the bill for what it is versus what it isn’t.

    Thanks again for weighing in.

    Gary Wilson

  • George

    Jason,

    Please don’t get me wrong. I am all for completing the study.

    The study will identify a number of options, their relative effectiveness and cost, their impact on the water quality of the Great Lakes, and complete a more realistic assessment as to the true threat Asian Carp pose to the Great Lakes. These are all important factors that will lead to making an intelligent choice as to how to address the Asian Carp and other invasive species issues in an environmentally responsible, timely, and cost effective manner.

    While we would all like to find an answer now, the truth is that it will take a lot longer than the 18 months Senator Stabenow, Reoresentative Camp and the rest of their followers are demanding to complete a comprehensive study that will give us the answers we need to make an intelligent decision. Senator Stabenow and Representative Camp could care less about getting those answers and are most likely afraid of the truths the study will bring to light. Their only interest in this issue is to vilify the Army Corps and the citizens of Illinois as part of their strategy to use the Asian Carp issue to spread unwarranted panic and then claim they will come to our rescue as part of their reelection strategy.

    Senator Stabenow and Representative camp need to get out of the way and let the Army Corps do their job. Until then they will continue to be part of the Asian Carp problem rather than part of the solution.

  • Mike

    I have a solution:

    TERM LIMITS

    Okay it’s only the start of the solution and like Stabenow’s bill, it’ll never pass.

  • Tom

    Doug,
    They just announced the barrier failed Wednesday, for 13 minutes, 13 minutes or 13 days, it failed period. If we do not close off the Chicago, this “barrier” has to work/last forever, and is just one spot, at $10 million bucks a year.
    We cannot control where asian carp go but we can control how many predators they run into (biotic-resistance) and make the lakes useless to them. The feds admit that we have predators for juvenile Asian Carp, and they would have to be abundant, this we can do. Maintaing a healthy/high native fish/predator population can last forever, is environmentally friendly, and turns a negative into a positive. “Biomass conversion to a more desirable species” they call it.Having the “biotic-resistance” in place before the Asian Carp can pull off a couple spawns would be proactive, and native fish/predators will apply biotic-resistance the the other invasives from out of town. asian Carp are very real threat to our lakes.

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  • Jason

    Sen. Stabenow and Cong Camp’s bill asks the Corps to expedite the study and implement a work plan to stop Asian Carp and all invasives at all points of entry into the Great Lakes. That is not part of the problem as mentioned. Instead of supporting this effort you are bashing it, and frankly that doens’t make any sense. We have two lawmakers who are going to bat for us. I will also add that they introduced this legislation well before they were up for election, so that argument is pretty hollow. The alternative is that they don’t advocate on our behalf and the Great Lakes and all of us are losers in that scenario. We need to support their efforts.

  • Doug

    This article is not an indictment of any specific politician as it is an indictment of human nature. From Stabenow to Romney to Obama to the leaders of corporate America to, and in particular, right-wing talk show hosts, manipulating the facts has always been the name of the game.

    I do take issue, though, with some of Gary’s points. Just because we may never be able to prevent the arrival of an invasive species doesn’t mean that we would not benefit from delaying its arrival if we can. The question then becomes, how much is it worth spending to give us x more years of good fishing in the Great Lakes? If we can spend a million bucks to give us 50 more years of good fishing it would be worth it, but we would certainly not spend a BILLION bucks to give us five more years of good fishing. The point of a study of the subject is that it might give us the facts to determine if the cost of an Asian Carp prevention mechanism is worth the benefits. Not knowing the specifics of the proposed study, though, I can’t express an opinion on the study’s merits, however.

  • Tom

    Good Job Gary! Bullseye! The “Truth will set us free!” But it isn’t politically correct! If people want to know what’s going on, try reading Lake Michigan task force meeting minutes, stuff that never makes the sound bites or the front page. I”m as tired of reading “studies” as I am of paying for them! Since the only “action” that is currently being proposed, is to fill lake Michigan back up with alewives. I wonder why I even have to argue against it? Ridiculous, doesn’t even begin to describe it. Your right Gary, the Asian carp wont be stopped in Chicago. The way this is going, perhaps we should have them put bells on the asian carp, so we can hear them coming, and have a chance to duck!

  • George

    Gary,

    You are getting close to the truth about Senator Stabenow and a hand full of politicians grandstanding on the Asian Carp issue. Now it’s time to tell it like it is regarding severing Chicago’s waterways.

    The truth is that we already know that hydrological separation in Chicago will never stop invasive species migration.

    To understand why separating the Mississippi River and Great Lakes Basins with a dam or land bridge will not stop invasive species you first have to understand that there is a difference between hydrological separation and ecological separation. The truth is that hydrological separation has never stopped migration of aquatic species between ecological systems that support their existence. To understand this all you have to do is ask yourself how all the lakes, including the Great lakes, came to have such a diverse population of aquatic species even though many are isolated by significant land bridges.

    Just look at a few examples. A Northern Snakehead was found above Virginia’s Great Falls near Whites Ferry on the Potomac River. Great Falls was widely accepted as a natural barrier that the fish was unable to cross. In Alaska invasive Northern Pike have migrated from the east and are now found in several isolated lakes. Zebra Mussels are now found across the continental divide in California. Lake Michigan Lake Trout are thriving in Yellowstone Lake. And, more to the point, Asian Carp are found in numerous lakes and waterways completely isolated by substantial land bridges, dams, and even sealed locks. In short, separating the watersheds is neither a permanent or effective solution.

    The Great Lakes Commission has estimated that the infrastructure costs alone of severing Chicago’s waterways would be $4 – $9 billion and take 20 years to complete. And, while the Commission has tried to paint this as a feasible solution, when you add the economic costs to industry and the adverse environmental costs and potential for catastrophic flooding events in Chicago, that solution would cost $10s of billions and take well over 25 years to complete. Furthermore, the Commission has acknowledged that this strategy would result in polluting southern Lake Michigan with heavy metals (mercury) and a variety of other toxic chemicals with no identified way to mitigate the pollution that would ultimately endanger Lake Michigan’s fishery and the drinking water supply of millions of citizens dependent on the Great Lakes. In short, erecting physical barriers is neither environmentally or economically feasible.

    The truth is that it would be foolish and irresponsible to spend that kind of money to create an environmental disaster in Lake Michigan with a solution that would take 25 or more years to complete and still not solve the problem while knowing that there is compelling evidence that suggests Asian Carp pose a minimal threat to the Great Lakes. This is why it is imperative that a complete comprehensive study, that will evaluate all the options and issues, must be completed without political interference.

    The sad truth is that Senator Stabenow and her followers are well aware that their attempt to cut short the Army Corp’s study will never become law as it has little congressional support. So, why are they proposing it in the first place? Because it is simply a convenient political tool they can use to fool voters into thinking they are doing something about the Asian Carp issue while all they are really doing is creating an adversarial environment and getting in the way of those actually working hard to resolve the issue.

    The truth is that Senator Stabenow and her followers on this issue are more part of the Asian Carp problem rather than part of the solution.