After a relaxing break from blogging and social media, I made the “mistake” yesterday – while at Gatwick waiting for a flight – of retweeting Chris Turney’s Guardian article arguing that the Antarctic trip that he was leading was science and not tourism. Ruth Dixon then responded with a tweet asking
@theresphysics do you agree, with a 12-yo and a 73-yo on board?
— Ruth Dixon (@ruth_dixon) January 4, 2014
I was aware of the journalists and the tourists but wasn’t specifically aware of a 12-year old or a 73-year old (not sure why being 73 is an issue though). I responded in that vein and the responses I got seemed to indicate that by not being specifically aware of a 12-year old on board that I was unaware of the existence of tourists. I need to keep reminding myself that even if I’m interacting with an academic, it doesn’t mean that the questions they ask aren’t leading.
I actually haven’t been following the details of this trip particularly closely. I’ve been on holiday and have been trying to avoid the ups and downs of climate change blogging/tweeting for a few days at least. I’m aware that the Spirit of Mawson expedition included tourists, but also included scientists and has a science case. I’m not sufficiently familiar with the field to know the calibre of the scientists or the value of the proposed science, but there clearly was an intention to do actual science. I also find it slightly odd that the very people who typically argue that you can’t trust government funded scientists are critical of an expedition part funded by paying passengers.
So, what do I actually think of this trip? To be honest, I don’t really know. It’s quite common for journalists to tag along with Antarctic expeditions, so that doesn’t seem like a big deal. Mawson is one of the great Antarctic explorers (his story is remarkable), so a trip to celebrate his expedition more than 100 years ago seems, to me at least, something worth doing. I am, however, not a fan of Antarctic tourism. It’s a pristine environment and I’d rather we minimised how much goes on there (maybe that would argue against a celebration of Mawson trip too, I guess). However, Antarctic tourism exists and I’m not sure one can specifically criticise this expedition for including some tourists. As far as I’m aware, the ship was suitable and the crew well-trained. I don’t know if they did something that was especially risky or not. Ships do get stuck in the Antarctic sea-ice. It’s a known hazard and has happened before. I have a great deal of sympathy for those on other vessels who had to curtail their research so as to take part in the rescue attempt. Must be incredibly frustrating. However, it is something that sometimes happens when operating in a hazardous environment. I’m sure that most would rather that others were willing to abandon their science so as to help them than to know that if something went wrong they were on their own.
Overall, I don’t really know how to judge the Spirit of Mawson expedition. If it turns out that they did things that were especially risky, then the criticism may well be justified. If it was simply an unfortunate turn of events and could have happened to any similar expedition, then maybe not. I’m sure that many of the other scientists who had to abandon research programmes to attempt a rescue would rather it hadn’t taken place, but everything’s easier in retrospect. In a global sense it doesn’t really matter. Even if it turns out that the expedition was poorly planned and that they could have avoided this if a proper risk assessment had taken place, it doesn’t suddenly imply something significant with respect to climate science. At this stage, I neither feel comfortable attacking or defending the expedition. I’m glad that all the passengers are safely off the ship and on their way home. Maybe those who appear to want this to be judged poorly should ask themselves why they are so keen to do so. Do they think that if it is justifiable to judge it poorly, that that would have some greater significance? I can’t see what, but I’ve rather given up trying to understand the way some people think when it comes to anything associated with cimate science.