From Reefs Magazine
By Richard Ross
Ethical discussion about almost every area of reefkeeping has been a part of the hobby for as long as the hobby has existed – What size tank do I need to meet my animals’ needs? Are some animals better left in the ocean? Do I really need a separate tank to treat a sick fish? Can we justify the resources we use for our aquariums?The discussion of ethics in our hobby is both comprehensive and esoteric, having the potential to evoke extreme emotion as people argue for what they feel is some sort of moral high ground. Lately, some parts of the ethical discussion have heated up due to anti-aquarium groups working to curtail or even shut down wild collection for the hobby. As always, some of the anti-hobby positions are valid, andshould make us examine and change our husbandry practices, while others are based on emotional, poorly constructed arguments. But, ethics are not as simple as people who want you to support their position often make them out to be. We need to be prepared to counter such ethical misstatements, both in others and ourselves. This starts with understanding and refining our own ethical stances s, since the better we will be able to understand and communicate our positions to others, the better the hobby can move forward.
The Internet makes information instantly available for Reefkeepers all around the world, but that information can be clouded in inaccurate fog, anecdote, baseless opinion and unsubstantiated arguments from authority. To keep the inaccurate fog at a minimum in an effort to save money and save animals lives, you need to be able to get the information you want as well as share information that others want by communicating well with people and enticing others to communicate well in return. Since communication is one of the keystones of Skeptical Methodology and critical to success in reefkeeping, in this installment of Skeptical Reefkeeping Lives and Money, we will look at strategies for getting and sharing useful information about our boxes of live animals.
A brief reminder to set the scene
Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it can be defined as a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment. A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without much, or any, supporting evidence or presented with weak supporting evidence. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt. Being a skeptical reefkeeper requires that you investigate why, how and if the suggested ideas actually work. As a Skeptical Reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking: not just because you heard someone else say it. The goal of this series of articles is not to provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe – the goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself while developing your saltwater thumb in the face of sometimes overwhelming conflicting advice. Communication as a Skeptical Reefkeeper is critical, because it is through communication that we refine our saltwater thumbs.
From Advanced Aquarist
The ongoing discussions about and with anti aquarium trade groups have been hopping on Facebook. Sadly they have taken a turn that makes me feel engaging with the anti trade side is often useless and should possibly be avoided.
What these groups are doing is deleting comments that respectfully disagree with them, and then pretending to be generous by replying…while at the same time blocking the people they say they are replying to. They are also assuming that everyone that disagrees with them disagrees with everything they have to say and that everyone disagrees about the same thing in the same way both of which are of course, not true. Because blocking people shuts down all real discussion, these misconceptions cannot be addressed or cleared up in an effort to find common ground and move everyone forward.
It is very hard to take seriously or trust advocates that delete responses that they disagree with and block dissenting opinions – especially respectful reasonable responses that are discussing the issues raised in a public discussion. If a position is so fragile that opposition must be hidden and eliminated it seems that the position is weak enough to be ignored, that the advocate of that position is hiding something, or that the advocate is not interested in actual motion on the issue and instead is trying to change others opinions not with reason but with hyperbole, emotion and demagoguery.
There is a lot to talk about, and the discussion is good. There is always room for reform and change and many see room and need for improvement in the aquarium fishery. Sadly, these anti aquarium trade groups don’t seem to want to have discussion, they seem to want to control the discussion so they can feel like they are winning or even worse, give others in print media or in politics, the perception they are winning.
I would suggest that the aquarium community not directly engage with groups that behave in such censorship because each time we engage we make them seem more relevant while the truth is they aren’t…at least in social media. They have large followings in the real world, but in social media they don’t have much going on and it seems better to keep it that why so I won’t name or link their Facebook pages. If these groups were open to real discussion, I would advocate working with them in all media to find reasonable solutions to everyones issues regarding the aquarium trade.
If you do decide to engage them directly, I urge you be incredibly respectful and careful that you don’t give them any ammunition they can use out of context to support their agenda. I also suggest that you keep a copy of whatever you write along with a log of what you wrote and when they deleted it. I can imagine a time where that kind of information could go a long way in showing that the aquarium community has tried to engage in productive discussion, even though the anti aquarium advocates have not and has in fact purposefully stifled productive discussion.
In the mean time, https://www.facebook.com/HawaiiBanFactCheck is doing a great job of countering the odd positions of the anti trade advocates and has gone out of their way not to exclude anyone or any opinion from the discussion (interestingly, the way Facbook works, people that the anti trade groups have blocked cannot even see what those anti trade people are saying anywhere on Facebook which makes some of the discussion on HawaiiBanFactCheck seem disjointed to the growing number of blocked participants). Instead of engaging the anti trade people directly, support HawaiiBanFactCheck with positive vibes and posts. Harnessing social media in a positive way can only lead to a better future than squelching discussion.
I hope that this situation changes. I hope that honest discussion of the situation can be had because if people really are for the fishes and really want to save the sea, everyone has to work together and that can only truly start with honest discussion.
For the last week or so, the popular science press has been gushing over the announcement that a giant Triassic Kraken not only killed and ate giant ichthyosaurs, not only arranged their bones, but even arranged their bones in what may be the very first ‘self portrait’. How exciting! A huge, intelligent, self aware cephalopod lived in the Triassic and actively hunted and ate 45 foot long ichthyosaurs – its a ceph lovers fantasy come true! There is of course, one small catch – there is no evidence that this Triassic Kraken actually existed.
The story in a nutshell: at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Nevada the remains of nine 45-foot ichthyosaurs, Shonisaurus popularis have been confusing researchers since at least the 1950′s, partially due to the close proximity of the nine ichtyosaurs to each other and the odd arrangement of their fossilized vertebrae. Recently, Mark McMenamin spent some time at the site and came up with the idea that press has been running with this week – a giant, ichthyosaur eating cephalopod that arranges bones of its meals in self portraits. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to back up this idea.
The reasoning that spring boarded these conclusions into the public eye goes something like this (from the press release) :
1) A weird arrangement of the fossils made McMenamin think they bones had been purposefully arranged, and that modern octopus are known for the “intelligent manipulation of bones”.
It doesn’t seem that there is much evidence for modern cephalopods intelligently manipulating the remains of their meals. Sure, octopus tend to get rid of remains, but there appears to be no purpose to the arrangement beyond moving them away from the den. Other cephalopods like squid, do not seem to manipulate remains at all. Also, just because McMenamin thinks the bones were purposefully arranged doesn’t mean that they were – he has got to show that he has more than just his thought about the matter.
2) ”The proposed Triassic kraken, which could have been the most intelligent invertebrate ever, arranged the vertebral discs in double line patterns, with individual pieces nesting in a fitted fashion as if they were part of a puzzle.
There is no evidence of this Kracken. None. Its a cool idea, but there are lots of cool ideas. The argument that Aliens arranged the bones seems just as likely as an ancient undiscovered sea monster did arranged them
3) “The arranged vertebrae resemble the pattern of sucker discs on a cephalopod tentacle” and “the vertebral disc “pavement” seen at the state park may represent the earliest known self portrait”.
The arranged vertebrae also resemble red blood cells, pelletized fish food, teeth and any number of other things. You can see purpose in just about anything, as PZ Myers says “a line of discs is being seen as a picture of a cephalopod tentacle, classic pareidolia. This is trivial: dump a pile of Necco wafers on a table, and I’ll see a picture of squid suckers.” Why it should be thought of as a self portrait seems to be more fantastical hoping.
The end of the press release states “… the evidence for the murderous Kraken is circumstantial, which may leave some scientists rather skeptical. But McMenamin is not worried. “We’re ready for this,” he said. “We have a very good case.”” However, nothing besides the press release has been forthcoming which seems to mean that the case that McMenamin has is really only circumstantial. I hope I am wrong and fantastic, compelling evidence arises (but I am not holding my breath). Until then, the idea of this Kraken resides next to the idea of Sasquatch, Unicorns, Gandalf an Magneto in my mind as things I wish actually existed, but don’t.
This is a video of a big aquarium – doesn’t a little information about how its run and how the animals are cared for make it more exciting?
Like many of us, I have been thinking about the new television show TANKED. The great discussion so far about the show has been really illuminating and taken the reefkeeping community beyond issues like ‘This coral is cool’ or ‘what’s the newest product’ or ‘where do I get the cheapest…’. I think this kind of big picture discussion has been relegated to dusty, quasi philosophical forums with low readership and I think getting some of this discussion out in the open can do nothing but befefit the hobby in the long run by forcing more of us to think about issues on the broader stage. The critical thinker in me (ah the Philosophy degree is worth something – see mom and dad!) is also thrilled that hardly any of the discussion I have seen has not degenerated into ad hominem attacks, and that people have been genuinely playing with the ideas rather than trying to score points. In these respects, I think TANKED has been great for the hobby.
In other respects, I am on the fence about the show. The actual health requirements of the animals used in the episodes get glossed over, and am worried that this glossing may help increase the amount of ‘cut flower mentality’ that many aquarists feel about the animals in their charge. For the most part, fish are cheap and easy to get, so if they die you just get another one. They are semi disposable. This mindset is not just adopted by newbies or the uneducated hobbyist – we are all guilty of it to some degree, and it may even be an inescapable part of our hobby. Mistakes, bad/outdated advice, poor animal handeling, crashes, and dumb luck, almost ensure that we are going to have to replace dead animals unless we leave the hobby completely. Many in the hobby work very hard to minimize those events for themselves and for others. Its an uphill battle, and a television show like TANKED, which gives the impression that ’insta filled, insta populated’ are normal and accepted, can make those minimization efforts harder.
Some of the discussion about TANKED compares it to other ‘build’ reality shows like American Chopper, where the building exciting and creative projects are the background for family drama. Since motorcycle enthusiasts seem to not worry too much that American Chopper is not mechanically educational, perhaps it is unrealistic to think TANKED should be thought of as biologically educational. This line of reasoning highlights the problem mentioned above – living animals are not equal to mechanical components. A television show giving the impression that a motorcycle can be built in a few days is fine because the worst that happens if someone tries it is that they cant do it, and they end up with a bunch of parts in their garage. However, a television show giving the impression that a saltwater aquarium can be set up in a day is less fine because the worst that happens if someone tries it is that a lot of animals end up dead.
I do understand that TANKED is entertainment, and that its goal not to educate people about keeping animals in glass boxes of water. At the same time many of us worry about a widely seen television program adding any fuel to the fire that people who are anti marine ornamentals keep trying to start. Our hobby is very visible, and its easy for opponents to point to it and say ‘they are killing animals and hurting natural environments’ even if there are other, more impactful and pressing activities that are killing animals and damaging natural environments. It would be very easy TANKED to make a nod towards education. It doesn’t have to be long, and could mimicthe 15-30 second Mythbusters ‘Warning; Science Content’ segments – quick educational stuff on husbandry, filtration, the state of the areas the animals come from, and then back to the reality show drama. Such a token educational segment would go a long way to give the impression that the animals involved matter.
I am glad ATM has a show and I wish them much success. I wish also that the show evolves to include a little bit of educational reality about keeping marine animals instead of just cool builds and drama.
From Reefs.com blog
Some reefkeepers feel the need to justify their aquariums, they seem to feel the need to make their home tank more than a hobby. I can understand that feeling, especially in the face of those who characterize the way we get the animals for our boxes of coral as ‘raping the reef’ and the massive amount of resources that often go into keeping a home tank. However, if that justification is really empty, if it isn’t a real justification, it can serve to make the justifier and the hobby in general look worse.
The most popular justification that people seem to use when trying to justify keeping exotic fish and coral in their living rooms is that their home reef tank somehow serves the wider community because it is educational. ‘All of the people who come through my home ask questions about the reef’ they say, but does that really count as education? I don’t think it does, in the same way that showing visitors to my home photographs of my trip to Komodo doesn’t count as education about that area of the world. Its nice, they may glean something form the interaction, but is it really educational in the same way Public Aquariums, workshops, conferences, reef club meetings or science classes count as education?
How many people that aren’t already reefers are actually coming through a single reefers house and look at their tank? Generously, 100 a year? And what kind of education are they getting? Generously 20 minutes in front of the tank? Maybe a look under the hood? A brief discussion about ‘no they aren’t plants’? Watching a feed?
It hardly seems worth the electricity, the jet fuel, the plastic, the styrofoam, the gasoline, and the other resources, including animal life, to those few people such a small education, and it seems that those resources could be put to better use if the real goal was education – a system in public school with sessions Q and A sessions during regular maintenance for instance would go much further in education people than a single reefers home tank. The moments that we get to use for education of others are important and should be seized on at ever opportunity, but the purpose of home tanks not education. There might be some home tanks that can be somehow counted as educational, perhaps tanks that have detailed online builds for instance, or tanks set up specifically for some home study. But these are the exception, not the rule.
It seems to me that our home tanks are not a good platform for education; they simply don’t reach enough people in any kind of in depth way. Does this mean that I think we shouldn’t keep reef tanks or that there isn’t some and educational component to the reefkeeper keeping the tank? Nope, but I do think we should be realistic about the justifications we use for keeping them because false justifications can lead to incorrect understandings about the reality of our hobby.
I don’t see any need to justify our home tanks at all. For me, there is really only one justification that makes any sense in regards to keeping a reef tank in your living room; you want it there. That is an intellectually honest answer, and one with which no one can argue. Being intellictually honest is important, because that kind of honesty will help the hobby and industry create a stable foundation for responsible and sustainable future growth.
So, celebrate those moments of education that occur in your home – they are wonderful, and who knows, you might make a difference by reaching the right person. But be honest with yourself, broader education is not the reason you have a home tank. Why do you keep a reef tank at home? Probably for the same reason I do – you love it, and there is nothing wrong with that.Scridb filter
From Reefs Magazine
In the previous installments we talked about skeptical methodology and how it can be used to sort through the overwhelming amount of reefkeeping information that is now at the virtual fingertips of reef hobbyists. We also discussed how skeptical thinking has impacted the idea of sustainable reefkeeping, scientific terminology, magic products and more. In this installment we’ll take a look how to decide which expert to listen to and the most important tool in the skeptical reefkeepers toolbox.
A brief reminder to set the scene
Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it’s defined as a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment. A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. In our hobby there are tons of ideas presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt. Being a skeptical reefkeeper requires that you investigate why, how and if the suggested ideas actually work. As a skeptical reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking: not just because you heard someone else say it. The goal of this series of articles is not to provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe – the goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself while developing your saltwater thumb in the face of sometimes overwhelming conflicting advice.
In any endeavor, it is always great to be able to consult with someone who has more experience than you do. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, and avoiding avoidable mistakes can save you time and money, as well as lives of animals. However, there are ‘experts’ everywhere you turn, and it can be difficult to know who’s expert advice is worth listening to and who is just spouting opinion or perpetuating something they heard somewhere under the guise of being an expert.
Here is the important thing – experts are just people like everyone else. Sometimes they are right and sometimes they are wrong. Sometimes they are trustable and sometimes they are bending reality to sell a product (sometimes they don’t realize they are doing the bending) and sometimes they are defending a position to protect their ego (No need for embarrassment – we have all done it). Since experts are just like everyone else, since they are inherently fallible, it is important that you try not to use them as a replacement for your own brain. Here are a few questions to ask when trying to determine which expert to trust.
Does the expert have formal training?
Formal education in subject can often lend credence to an expert’s advice. In reefing, a perfect example would be the chemists that are also reef hobbyists. These people have a chemistry education and they do chemistry for a living so it makes sense that their advice regarding the reality of chemical processes is sound and based on actual, formal expertise. It also helps that in chemistry, there are often actual correct answers rather than subjective interpretation of transient events. The popular reefing chemistry experts have also been around for a while, have their own forums, have written a lot and have generally been thoroughly vetted by the hobby at large. Therefore, you can ask them a chemistry question and be pretty confident their answer is right.
However, it is important to note that the pedigrees mentioned above don’t necessarily mean that a person is an expert or that their advice should be accepted out of hand. For instance, just because someone has a degree in Marine Biology doesn’t mean that they have practical experience in captive marine husbandry. In fact, people with Marine Biology degrees sometimes/often have little to no practical training in keeping animals alive long term. Just because someone knows all about the morphology and physiology of a coral doesn’t mean they know how to keep it alive in captive conditions. It’s more important to listen to what is being said than to accept what is being said just because someone has a title or works at a Public Aquarium or Tropical Fish Store.
Are you biased knowing that you are getting input from an expert?
Sometimes just knowing that the person giving you advice is considered an expert affects the way you take that advice. Generally, we shut of our skeptical brain in this situation, which, I hope the above has shown, is not the optimal way to process any information. Nowhere is this more true than online as there is something about seeing expert ideas in writing that seems to make us more likely to think of the advice as ‘right’. To combat this, I suggest ignoring the author of reefkeeping threads or articles when you initially read them. This can help keep our ‘expert bias’ (and any other bias we may have towards particular posters), contained. If we read the threads for the information they contain rather than for who wrote them we are more likely to process the information with our critical thinking facilities which allows us to get more out of that information.
Do they have experience to back up their advice?
While there are reef hobby experts that have much experience to back them up (some reef lighting and fish breeding people come to mind) sometimes in this hobby we see people giving expert advice when they really haven’t done the ground work needed to support their advice. Cutting and pasting advice, but without links to the original posting, is all too common on the reef interwebs. Sadly, there is often a lot missing in these simple cut and pastes, important stuff contained in the original context and more important exceptions and explanations in the surrounding text. Is the person telling you how to raise clownfish larvae actually raised them? Is the person telling you that a particular food is bad actually tried it? If the answer is no, you might want to dig deeper and find the people with direct experience before taking the expert advice from people who just present themselves as expert.
Has the expert been around for a long time?
Being involved in the hobby for a long time allows someone to amass a great amount of practical knowledge that is often worth listening to. At the same time, just being around for a long time may not mean much if the expert is set in their ways, or isn’t trying new things. The reefkeeping world can change very quickly, so how can someone possibly give useful advice on methodologies or products they are unfamiliar with? At the same time, when old methods are given a face lift and trotted out as new, ‘old salts’ can have save you time and money by discussing how we have been down that road before and why it was abandoned.
Long term experts also have the experience and knowledge to extrapolate advice. They have such a good saltwater thumb that they can give pretty good advice on new ideas/products just by applying what they know. It is important though that they make clear this is what they are doing when they are doing it.
Have you seen their work?
If someone is being presented as an expert, ask to see pictures or video of their aquariums. If they are giving advice on how to set up a fish room or culture facility ask to see pictures of similar projects they have been involved in. Ask about the success of these projects. If these projects are no longer around, ask why. Often this kind of information will tell you a whole lot about the quality of the advice. If their aquarium doesn’t look good to you, or they can’t provide you with any documentation to back up their claims, you might want to be more skeptical about the advice they are giving.
Do they give ‘questionable’ advice?
There are people that are claimed to be expert in a particular realm of the hobby that give out advice that many other, trusted experts may find questionable. These people can be really difficult to spot because they have many followers that seem to support their positions, which creates the feeling that the advice must be sound. However, just because many people seem to believe these ideas is not necessarily a good enough reason to believe them yourself – as Tim Minchin says ‘Just because ideas are tenacious doesn’t mean that they’re worthy’(Remember, we were supposed to have a rapture on May 21, millions believed it, but it didn’t happen). Be skeptical of reef experts that don’t answer questions directly, that other, vetted experts question, that repeat their previous points instead of addressing the question being asked, that only report good results of their advice while ignoring the bad results, or refuse to show you the results of their advice. You might determine that you think the ‘questionable’ advice is good, and I applaud that – as long as you have taken the time to do some research on your own to come to that conclusion.
Are they selling a product?
Its hard to not be skeptical of an expert that has their own product line; they are trying to sell that product so of course they are going to recommend its purchase. It isn’t always the case that selling a product taints expert advice, and there are some in our hobby that do both very well. At the same time, there are some that really just want to sell their product, so be careful and ask questions. A good red flag indication is the bashing of similar competing products, respectful comparisons are fine, but bashing is often a strong indication that their advice should be looked at with a skeptical eye.
Do they know what they don’t know?
The best experts know what they don’t know and are happy to tell you they don’t know, and are happy to give you suggestions where to look for better information. Experts that seem to know answers to every question from every aspect of the hobby may be trying to present the image that they know everything, which can lead to problems for people taking their advice if the expert doesn’t actually know everything. A one stop expert with all the info is a good thing, but this hobby is so wide ranging that it makes sense to be careful about taking advice from people who claim to know everything.
The most important Skeptical tool of all
I hope this series of articles has shown you why it is important to approach reefkeeping information with skeptical thought, and has given some useful tools that will be helpful in making decisions about your reef tank. There is one last tool that I want to talk about briefly, and it may be the most important of all.
The skeptical method; changing your mind
In western culture the idea that people can change their minds has lost power. Somehow, changing your mind has become evidence of flip floppiness, weakness and ineptitude. In the hobby we see people defending positions not because the position makes sense, but because they don’t want to lose face by showing they didn’t have perfect understanding all along or by admitting they were wrong. However, willingness to change your mind or admit you were wrong, given compelling evidence, is one of the things that makes science great. Science moves forward when evidence overcomes doubt. We toss out the old ideas because the news ones are better. The reefkeeping hobby needs to be the same way if we are to move forward, learn, and benefit animals both wild and captive. Changing your mind based on good evidence is a gift, a chance to learn and a chance to make the lives of your animals better. I love to be shown that something I thought true makes no sense because it makes me a better reefkeeper. Continue to apply the skeptical method to your own ideas and change your mind when those ideas no hold up. This ability is one of the things that makes humans great, and will save animals lives and keep your wallet full.
This whole series is about getting us to use the huge, magnificent brains that fill our skulls. Our brains are knowledge absorbing sponges capable of startling insight and creativity. They are evolved to see patterns and solve problems, evade deceptions and most of all, to learn. But, don’t take my word for this – for any of this. You need to think for yourself, apply some skeptical thought and see if it really is as great as I think it is.
I hope the Skeptical Reefkeeping series has helped you think about how the way you make decisions impacts your wallet and the lives of your animals, and I hope you have found it to be helpful. If you are attending MACNA in Des Moines this summer and want to further explore these ideas, I will be presenting a talk that was born out of this series. Hope to see you there and happy reefing.
I want to thank Reefs Magazine, Randy Donowitz and Libby Palomeque for their support and encouragement on the Skeptical Reefkeeping series. It has been educational and inspiring for me to formally explore all of these subjects, and I hope the reading has been interesting.Scridb filter
Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it’s defined as a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment. A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. In our hobby there are tons of ideas presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt. Being a skeptical reefkeeper requires that you investigate why, how and if the suggested ideas actually work. As a skeptical reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking: not just because you heard someone else say it. The goal of this series of articles is not to provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe – the goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself in the face of sometimes overwhelming conflicting advice.
Words words words
Our hobby is constantly evolving, and the terms we use to communicate ideas to one another change and morph over time and these changes can lead to confusion. For instance, the term refugium initially referred to an area of a system that small animals could use as a refuge from predation, but now refugium also refers to an area of the system used to grow algae for nutrient export or simply a small tank plumbed into a larger system. The ideas can overlap, but they don’t necessarily, so when someone asks for information on setting up a ‘fuge, it becomes important to know what the term means to them in order to help them with information relevant to their needs.
The reefkeeping hobby and industry has no centralized leadership, so new terms develop in a kind of meandering way, and it’s possible for some vendors (by no means all, just some) to take advantage of this process by using terms that are ambiguous or downright misleading. This is particularly apparent in the realm of captive propagation/rearing of marine animals. This is where skeptical thinking can really come in handy – what do those terms really mean and can you trust those saying them?
Knowing what you have
One of the most obvious ways to save money and protect the lives of animals in your aquarium is to know what animals you have and what animals you may be adding. If you don’t know what you have, you don’t really know how to care for it, and if you don’t know what you are getting, you don’t really know how to care for it or if it will coexist with the animals you already have. The idea seems a bit rudimentary, but pulling it off can still be tricky in the world of reefkeeping due to the oversimplification of coral identification.
In the article “Renaming our corals” Chris Jury points out that the 5 groups that hobbyists generally break corals into, small-polyped stony (SPS), large-polyped stony (LPS), soft corals, zoanthids, and mushroom polyps are, in practice, unhelpful in determining how to keep those corals alive in reef tanks. Relying on those groupings can give us a false sense of understanding. According to Jury, the problem with applying this cookbook style of reefkeeping is that it utterly ignores the true diversity that exists within or between each group. This is analogous to saying that seals, bears and wolves are really all the same animals and have the same needs. Obviously, this is not the case, yet a similar argument is propagated in reefkeeping circles simply by utilizing these terms and believing that they confer some knowledge about a certain coral’s requirements. Simply put, the idea that these terms give us any useful information about light, water flow, food or any other requirements is a myth, and I wish to debunk it. He goes on to debunk it rather well in my opinion, as well as discussing the idea that there is no ecological or biological reason to divide stony corals into SPS and LPS. The article is worth the read.
Scientific classification is a hierarchical scheme that groups organisms together based on shared characteristics, and is governed by internationally accepted rules that help ensure that each species has only one name. Sometimes scientific nomenclature is referred to as Latin names, but the words used to create the names are not always from Latin, and non Latin words used in scientific nomenclatures are “Latinized”, so the term “Scientific Name” is preferred. The first letter memory aid “King Phillip Comes Over From Germany Soon” (there are other mnemonics, but this is the one I learned (Editor’s note: Or “King Phillip Came Over For Good Sex” – for some reason, my students always remember that one …. LM. ) helps us remember the terms of the hierarchy – Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Reefkeepers are most familiar with the last two, which are really the core of scientific nomenclature or binominal nomenclature, genus and species, which are always italicized with the genus being capitalized and the species not, for example Acropora tenuis. The full taxonomic classification is Animalia: Cnidaria: Anthozoa: Scleractinia: Acroporidae: Acropora tenuis. It is important to remember that science doesn’t stand still, and as new information becomes available, the scientific names can change, as can any of the various levels of taxonomy. Sometimes you will see an animal written as Acropora sp., or spp. Acropora sp. refers to a single species which is unknown but the genus is known. Acropora spp. is used to refer to a larger group of multiple species.
With fish, getting the correct genus and species is often pretty straightforward because the shared characteristics are pretty straight forward: color, pattern, body shape, number of rays in a fin, and so on can be pretty easy to identify by people not necessarily trained in fish taxonomy (with at least one well known exception: it is notoriously difficult to tell A. ocellaris from A. percula). Corals however, are often not so straightforward. Corals are classified by looking primarily at the skeletal structure, which can often be difficult to see under the living flesh of the coral. It can even be more difficult according to Charles Delbeek and Julian Sprung; skeletal characteristics of stony corals vary among individuals of the same species from different regions of the world, or from different locations on the reef. Characteristics used for identification of genus and species may vary even on individual colonies! In other words, grown out frags of the same coral can have very different growth forms and different skeletal structure in different flow and different lighting, so much so that it can be impossible to know that then grown out colonies originally came from the same fragment. A recent genetic study on Hawaiian Porites (Zach Forsman et al) coral found that some corals thought to be different species were genetically indistinguishable from each other. According to the authors, “Our approach shows that morphological characteristics previously thought capable of delineating species must be re-examined to accurately understand patterns of evolution, and biodiversity in reef-building coral.”
Sometimes people are scared off of using scientific names because they are difficult to pronounce. Indeed, different people, even highly trained people, pronounce scientific names differently. There really aren’t hard and fast rules for pronunciation, though there are different schools of thought, so my advice is to go for it because trying is a fun way to expand your involvement in reefkeeping.
Common names are flexible and are generally used within specific communities as a short hand to identify animals quickly and easily. However, these common names can often lead to confusion because different groups of people will use different common names to refer to the same animal so not everyone may be familiar with a particular common name. For instance, Hippo tang, Palette Surgeonfish, Blue Tang, Pacific blue tang, and (shudder) Doryfish all are common names forParacanthurus hepatus.
Many prefer common names that somehow refer to the scientific name. Scotts Fairy Wrasse reflects the scientific name Cirrhilabrus scottorum, while “Nemo fish” is about as far away from Amphiprion ocellaris as you can get. I like it even more when the common name is actually part of the scientific name, like the actual genus as in Rhinopias, Gonipora or the species as in Ventrails anthias (not italicized as they are common names). Scott Michael sums up the feeling nicely by using a common name that is derived from the scientific name, amateur aquarists, divers and marine scientists can all better communicate with one another. Better communication means better understanding, and better understanding translates into better reefkeeping.
It seems like you can’t turn around in reefkeeping circles without hearing about corals with outrageous common names. Crazy sounding names like “reverse inverted dragons breath purple nipple monster” tell us almost nothing useful about the coral; we don’t even know what kind of coral it is. Much more useful would be “reverse inverted dragons breath purple nipple monster acro” because it at least lets us know the coral is an Acropora sp. These extravagant names have come into play as part of a marketing war by people selling coral fragments. It seems the more exotic sounding the name, the more some people are willing to pay for the fragment, sometimes into the 1000s of dollars.
Initially, these kinds of names weren’t so crazy and actually helped track the lineage of the coral. “Tubbs Blue Zoa” let potential buyers know who the coral came from (a guy named Tubbs), and gave the quality of the coral some weight based on Tubbs’ reputation, as well as some indication of what the coral looks like, what it is and how long its been in captivity. Some vendors sold wild collected similar corals as the “Tubbs Blue Zoa” getting the sales benefit of the linage and reputation without the corals actually being of that lineage. Then we saw “True Tubbs Blue Zoas” for sale, but there was no way to know if they really were or weren’t. The addition of the idea of a “Limited Edition” or “LE” seems to be more marketing as the coral was only “LE” until the next shipment came in with more of that particular coral.
At least today a lot of the corals we are interested in buying are presented with WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) photographs, so even with the crazy names, you get some idea of what the coral might look like. Of course you have to trust that the photo is representative of the actual coral instead of the colors being digitally enhanced or a super macro photo or photographed under extreme lighting (photography used for sale is certainly a place to apply the skeptical method).
My advice: don’t get sucked into sexy marketing names. I suggest buying corals that you like the look of and are willing to pay for rather than trying to get your hands on the expensive, flash in the pan coral de jour. After all, in a few months, that coral might loose its perceived value because lots of people have grown it out and have fragments available for sale or trade. It’s your tank, it should be about what you like, not about what other people think of your tank.
As threats to the worlds coral reefs became widely understood, reefkeepers have become more interested in “sustainable”inhabitants for their glass boxes (Though it could be argued that the shift had less to do with caring for the reefs, and more to do with worrying that animals would be no longer available to the trade, but that’s a discussion for a different time). To fill the desire for more ecologically sound corals, some vendors started offering animals advertised as captive propagated, captive raised, tank raised or tank bred. Of course, the question arises to the skeptical reefkeeper “what do those terms actually mean?” The short answer is they mean different things to different people and some people stretch or break even the most common sense understanding of what those words mean in order to get you to buy whatever they are selling.
Science has a nifty short hand for tracking captive breeding based on filial generations – any generation resulting from a controlled mating of the parental generation. Filial generation is generally notated by the letter F followed by a number F1. F0 (sometimes written as P for parent) are wild collected specimens. F1 refers to the first generation after capture, F2 the second and F3 the third, and so on. Sometimes, F1 is not considered really to be captive bred/propagated to make sure we are avoiding the possibility of “impregnation” before capture so to be absolutely sure the animals we are interested in acquiring are truly captive bread means what we are really after is the F2 generation and beyond. That said, in general, the F1 generation is often considered to be captive bred in fish. Remember I said before that there is no governing body to decide what terms in our hobby really mean: here it is in action.
For fish, the terms captive bred or tank bred seem pretty straight forward: the animal being offered as captive bred was bred in captivity. The parents did the deed in captivity, and the animal was born in captivity i.e., the F1 generation. The problem with the term captive bred comes when vendors slap it on animals that are not captive bred at all, like small wild collected Banggai Cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni) to take advantage of the hobbyists desire to purchase responsibly. Thankfully due to more educated hobbyists, it is becoming very difficult to get away with, but it still occurs so if someone is selling a captive bred animal ask questions like “who bred them, where were they bred, how old are they?” If those questions don’t have solid answers, you might want to buy different animals.
Tank or Captive Raised
Tank or Captive Raised is a bit of nebulous term. It seems to refer to wild collected animals that have been in captivity for some unspecified amount of time, though it seems to connote the idea that the animal in question has been collected as a juvenile and raised to adulthood thereby lessening collection pressure on adults of breeding age. It also seems to connote the idea that the animal is healthier than its wild collected counterparts because it has been fed well and acclimated to captive conditions. That is all well and good, but the terms get abused. For instance, Sepia bandensis cuttlefish eggs are imported and often these eggs hatch in transit or in vendors and suppliers holding tanks. Sometimes, as soon as they hatch, they are promoted as tank raised (or even worse, captive bred!) To make matters worse in this situation, suppliers often don’t have the correct foods available for these animals and by the time they are in the hands of the hobbyist, their health has declined and the whole idea of the benefit of tank raised animals has a black eye. The real question about the idea of “tank raised” animals is how long do they need to be in a tank to be considered tank raised? A day? A week? A month? 6 Months? Further, do large juveniles or adult wild collected fish that have been in captivity for X amount of time count as tank raised? The term is wide open for marketing abuse, so be sure to ask what the vendor means by tank raised and how long the animal has been tank raised before completing your purchase.
Since sexual reproduction of corals in captivity is still in its infancy, the hobby instead talks about captive propagated corals – corals that are grown in captivity. It turned out (turns out probably this is still happening) that some vendors would chop up freshly imported wild corals, glue the fragments to plugs or rock, and sell them as captive propagated, sometimes without even giving the corals time to encrust. For most people, these corals are only captive propagated in the strictest semantic sense; after all the corals weren’t cut up in the ocean, they were cut up in captivity. This excuse rings hollow, and is clearly a way to get around the intention of the idea of the captive propagation movement to minimize the amount of coral wild coral being collected for our hobby. So, what do people really mean when they talk about captive propagated corals? Some version of “this coral was grown in captivity”. Does that mean cutting the new growth on a branch of wild collected coral after it has grown in an aquarium is captive propagated?
We can loosely apply the filial generation terminology here. For corals (looking for the F2), this means we are looking for the fragment taken from the fragment taken from the wild collected colony. Some people are willing to accept a fragment of just the new growth, the F1, as captive propagated because it is very clear that that tissue was added completely in captivity. It seems that fresh fragments taken from wild collected corals are clearly not captive propagated, while it can be argued that those same fragments given time to encrust and grow may be. As mentioned earlier, there is no real authority for the aquarium world in these matters, so we need to allow for some common sense flexibility. Again, your best defense against vendors using terminology without the reality to sell items is to ask a bunch of questions. If you don’t like the answers move on to another vendor.
It’s often been asserted that words have power. That’s as true in reefkeeping as it is in any other arena. The skeptical reefkeeper is cautious with that power, and understands the myriad ways that power can be misused.
Don’t take things at face value. Inquire. Discover. Be skeptical. Enjoy the process and your reef.
Scientificalness? Ethics? Rationalizing the hobby? Tune in to find out.
References, links and further reading
Zac H Forsman, Daniel J Barshis, Cynthia L Hunter, Robert J Toonen
BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:45 (24 February 2009)
Renaming our Corals, Chris Jury
Marine Fishes by Scott Michael, 1999 (Microcosom Ltd.)
The Reef Aquarium, Vol 1-3 by Delbeek and Sprung, 1994, 1997, 2005 (Ricordea Publishing)
The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, 1997 (Ballantine Books)
In the previous two installments of Skeptical Reefkeeping, we talked about how applying skeptical thinking to reefkeeping can help you make decisions about what methodology to follow or which products to use. In this installment, we’ll spend less time exploring the skeptical method, and instead examine how skeptical reefkeeping has impacted, and continues to impact one particular aspect of our hobby: making our hobby more environmentally sustainable.
Sorry, I can’t just tell you what to do. I wish I could, but there is that whole Biblical quote “Tell someone what to do and their fish and corals die, get them to understand the bigger complex picture and their fish and corals live”. This hobby is not simple and there are as many opinions about how to keep our glass boxes thriving as there are people with glass boxes. The goal of this series of articles is not to necessarily provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe – the goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself in the face of conflicting advice.
The drama of ‘juicing’ fish
The early 80’s was a time of glam rock, hardy elegance corals, and DIY sumps filled with hair curlers for bio media. Back then, rocks covered with hair algae were lovely, panther groupers were the hot fish, and aiptasia were considered fabu. Hardly anyone stopped to think about where animals for our reef tanks were coming from…we were all too busy just trying to keep them alive for more than a month. Fish would come into the LFS; some would make it, and some would slowly waste away despite eating well. Most of us figured we were making some husbandry mistake that resulted in the death of the fish. However, some began to apply skeptical methodology to the problem and hypothesized that the issue might have something to do with the way the fish were being handled somewhere along the way to the LFS.
Cyanide fishing presents another, even more catastrophic problem.
When a fish hides in coral, and cyanide is squirted into that coral to make fish collection easier, the cyanide also kills the coral. Think about it for a minute…if a collector squirts 100 squirts of cyanide a day to collect fish, that’s 100 patches of coral that die. If you have 100 collectors doing that every day, you get a lot of dead habitat very quickly, and dead habitat means no food or breeding areas for the fish we want in our tanks, which means less animals overall (and the corals which we now also want in our tanks are dead too). Cyanide was also being used to collect fish for people to eat (the cyanide breaks down before people eat the fish), which meant even more was being sprayed into corals and more habitat was destroyed.
People started to become aware of this issue in the 80’s when 1. SCUBA in exotic locations became more popular, and 2. the trade in live coral began to boom. Some in the industry sought to address the issue by training collectors to collect with nets and skill rather than juice. Those animals could be advertised as net-caught, which made consumers happy because they could still get the fish they wanted, safe in the knowledge that wild reefs were not poisoned in the process. A win for everyone! Let’s move on! Not so much.
As it happens, those who were skeptical of net-caught claims looked deeper. Sure enough, some collecting outfits continued to use cyanide, even after being trained to net catch, but simply said they weren’t. ‘Juicing’ fish was easier and cheaper than using nets. While some collecting outfits did net-catch exclusively, skeptics discovered that as cyanide caught fish and net caught fish made their way through the chain of custody, they were mixed together in holding facilities so there was no longer a way to differentiate between the specimens; both were sold as cyanide free.
To combat the negative press about cyanide use, the hobby was told that fish could now have a cyanide detection test (CDT) which would weed out juiced fish. Great! Problem taken care of, right? Wrong! As we know to ask from the first installment the immortal question from They Might Be Giants – ‘are you sure that that thing is true, or did someone just tell it to you’ skeptical reefers questioned the CDT. How was the test administered? Who administered it? How often? How accurate was it? How long did it take to get results? As it turned out, there was a CDT, but it was not fast, it needed to be done in a lab, and the fish had to basically be blended to carry out the test. This all made the test impractical because the only fish you could be sure was or wasn’t ‘juiced’ was converted into slurry, and a fish slurry makes an odd sort of display.
Its not just ‘juice’
The story gets even more involved. As it turns out, cyanide itself wasn’t the only part of the collection that destroyed coral habitat. Imagine you are a collector squirting cyanide into a huge coral head to knock out a bunch of damsels. You squirt, the damsels stop swimming, but they are still deep in the coral – how do you get them out? You break the coral with a hammer or crowbar or whatever was available. When the net trainings began and collectors were trained to use a ‘tickle stick’ to coax fish from their hiding places and into a net, some of the cyanide use actually did stop, but not all of it…because smashing is faster than coaxing. Instead of knocking out the fish and then smashing the coral to get at them, the knocking out step gets skipped, the coral gets smashed and the frightened fish are netted out of their smashed hiding places. Sure, not juiced, but the habitat destruction remained practically the same.
How about now?
We hear different things. What really need is a way for the industry to act as a whole for it’s own, and the environment’s benefit. In the last decade or so, the idea of sustainable collection has really caught our hobby’s collective psyche, but is there really any way to know if the animals that are being sold as sustainable or responsibly collected really are either of those things?
There have certainly been attempts to answer these questions. Most notably, in 1998, the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) was established “by key stakeholders to provide voluntary standards and an eco-labeling system for the marine aquarium trade.” Unfortunately, MAC was quickly, right or wrongly attacked for myriad reasons including corruption, lack of follow up in the field and the voluntary nature and utility of its certifications. Getting actual information about the reality of these attacks or the MAC’s actual effectiveness is very difficult for a skeptical thinker because it’s just so hard to get any evidence that isn’t suspect for one reason or another. It’s hard to trust the MAC’s info because they are the ones putting it out and it’s hard to trust the detractors’ info because they often seem to have some sort of personal or professional axe to grind with the MAC.
Today, MAC’s future is unclear. What is clear is that what they were trying to do still needs to be done.
Skepticality in action
Given the above history with cyanide fishing and reef smashing, it’s no wonder that our hobby is periodically vilified as environmentally damaging. Recently, ‘Snorkel Bob’ has begun a campaign to get marine ornamental collection in Hawaii shut down completely, and he has lots of followers. Snorkel Bob’s most recent attack on the hobby was presented on the Sea Shepherds website (yes, the ‘Whale Wars’ people) as a launching point for his media tour to promote his new book and to ‘reach millions’ in his message that the marine hobby is indeed a bad thing for the planet. Essentially, Snorkel Bob says that fish collection for our hobby is responsible for dwindling fish numbers around Hawaii. Funnily enough, these attacks seem to be lacking the kind of skeptical and critical thinking that we have been discussing.
Bob Fenner was one of the first to publicly react to Snorkel Bob’s statements questioning many of the claims made by in ways that make a skeptic proud. ( http://www.coralmagazine-us.com/cont…bby-commentary ).
Fenner points out that the numbers of fish being collected is widely debated, that a lot of fish are collected as food, that other impacts on those fish populations (golf course run-off and food fishing) are significant, but often ignored, and that Snorkel Bob runs a reef tourism operation which surely impacts the wild reefs around Hawaii – thousands of people (transported by polluting motor boats) covered in sunscreen, body soaps, and toxic bug repellants, brought to the same spots, day after day, week after week, year after year to flail about on the reef…are helping the reef? Or helping Snorkel Bob’s bottom line?
As with many such emotional claims, there are nuggets of truth (albeit exaggerated) buried in what Snorkel Bob is saying. However, when examined skeptically, his conclusions seem flimsy and self-serving.
Do the Right Thing
Many hobbyists want to do ‘the right thing’ and buy sustainably caught animals for their tanks, but are continually frustrated by supporting projects only to find that they are not doing the noble work they set out to accomplish. Don’t despair. There really is good work being done out there, though it may be hard to see.
As collecting stations pop up marketing themselves as environmentally friendly, history shows us we must be skeptical even though we want to believe. Are they really doing what they say they are doing or are they are just using green speak to drum up more business?
Let’s look at one such operation: the SeaSmart (http://seasmart.ecoez.com/) project in Papua New Guinea. This project claims they are using all local labor, local ownership, safe collecting practices, and scientific survey techniques to determine how many of each animal can be collected without damaging the local environment. Are they for real? Here are several important pieces of evidence that indicate that SeaSmart may be giving us more that just lip service.
First, they have a track record of several years, which is longer than most other ‘green’ collecting stations, which tend to fold after a year or two. Second, the organization works closely with the government of Papua New Guinea, a nation that has a history of taking their natural resources seriously, protecting them, and educating their population on the reasons why those resources are important. Finally, and perhaps most encouragingly, SeaSmart is making an effort to be transparent to the consumer. The outfit uses social media, including Facebook, to continually post information, photos and video of the project. Previous attempts at sustainable collection had very little if any documentation, so it’s great to see SeaSmart putting that info out there on their own. SeaSmart even has an open door policy, so if you can get yourself to PNG, get in touch with these guys and they say they’ll be happy to show you first hand what they are doing. If you do go, please make sure to report back and share the information with other skeptical reefkeepers who would love to get behind a company that is doing good work.
If you keep asking questions, and digging when something doesn’t seem right to you, you are helping the hobby. You are helping to expose bad business, helping to save other hobbyists from wasting time or money on bad business, and most importantly, you are spreading the idea that good, sustainable work is wanted and important. You are also sending the message that empty promises will not be believed for long.
In the next installment we’ll explore the differences between captive bred, tank bred, tank raised, aquaculutured, and maricultured. Or maybe old reefers tales re-visitied. Or maybe we’ll look at electrical savings plans and see if they really save electricity. Or maybe…
Questions or comments – please start a thread on Manhattan Reefs or shoot me an Email email@example.com
Links, further reading and references
• “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” by Carl Sagan, 1997 (Ballantine Books)
-Cure any and all disease in a reef environment.
-This will change the way you keep your reef.
-You’ll see colors and animal health that you have never before experienced.And my personal favorite:
-YOU’LL NEVER HAVE TO DO REGULAR MAINTENANCE ON YOUR TANK AGAIN!
The ads are very clear in a roundabout way; Without THIS product your reef sucks.
Honestly, sometimes a new product does work. A lot of them don’t.
Even widely used products occasionally don’t do what they claim but in spite of this, somehow they’ve caught on.
I’m going to tell you the one thing you can learn to do for your reef that will improve it’s condition, and your sanity, from day one: Skeptical Thinking.
What is Skeptical Thinking, Rich?
I’m glad you asked. First, it’s not being a grump. For some people the idea of being a “skeptic” has a negative connotation, but do Shaggy and Scooby Do seem like grumps? They’re skeptics. Think about their show. At the end there never is a monster or a ghost, it’s always, as Tim Minchin would say, “the dude who runs the water slide.”
Television shows like Mythbusters, Penn and Teller: Bullsh!t and Scooby Doo are more popular than ever. These shows get right to the heart of skeptical thinking, “Just because someone said it, doesn’t mean it’s true.”
Skeptical thinking is a method, not a position. Officially, skepticism is defined as ‘a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment’. A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without supporting evidence.
In our hobby there are tons of ideas presented without much supporting evidence. Most claims that appear on products have “No visible means of support”. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt. Take your time to do some research. Follow up to get a handle on why, how and if ideas and products actually work – if at all.
Remember, a recommendation from someone is not evidence, neither are anecdotal claims. Checking the real data is hard but in the end it will save you a lot of trouble.
This is a pain in the butt. Why bother?
Two reasons: Animals’ lives and our money. The animals in our reefs rely on us to keep them alive. When we make bad choices, animals die. If you buy “Professor Polyp’s Fabu Everything Cure Juice” to stop a disease in your tank and it doesn’t work, your sick animals will probably get sicker and continue to go downhill. Luckily, most of the products on the reef keeping market won’t directly kill the animals in your tank, (there are exceptions so be careful) but if they don’t actually do what they claim you are just wasting your money, the time that might be used saving your animals and maybe even the animals themselves (and they aren’t an unlimited resource).
Why do people sell reefkeeping stuff?
In our hobby there is the feeling, since many of the product manufacturers are accessible through online forums and trade shows, that reef products exist first and foremost to help us be better reefkeepers. In the best cases this is 50% of the reason people are selling stuff.
In 9th grade I went on a fieldtrip with the staff of my high school newspaper to the LA Times newspaper offices. On our tour, the guide asked us why newspapers exist. My classmates and I, ever the optimists, chimed in: “To bring people the news,” “To keep the public informed,” and “To keep a watch on what our public officials are doing.” I’ll never forget the answer the guide gave us, “Newspapers exist to make money – everything else is ancillary.” That answer helped to stick the knife of practicality deep into whatever remained of my idealistic heart.
People sell reef products to make money.
Even if the original impetus for a product is to make a better ‘reef trap’, products don’t go to market, or at least they don’t stay on the market very long, if they don’t make money. There are just too many costs involved in getting products to market for it to be otherwise. Developing the products, the materials, the packaging, the labels, the shipping, the physical plant, the advertising, and the staff all cost money. Being in business is neither cheap nor easy. The vast majority of new businesses fail in the first year because they aren’t able to make it work.
I’d venture to say that most reef related companies start up because they want to do “good” but if the product doesn’t make money, that company has to stay in business somehow. They’ve spent a lot of money on setting up the business. They’ve got a web site, business cards, a printer and a garage full of crates of whatever they’re selling.
There are some owners of reef companies that are independently wealthy or made millions by inventing something amazing like the singing greeting card or something equally esoteric, but even they have limits to how much they are willing to throw at a money-losing venture before they have to bail.
The best product in the world with poor packaging will sell less than the worst product in the world with great packaging. Everything, from the shape and size of the packaging, the color of the label, the font of the text and the wording used is scrutinized until it is the most appealing it can be to the projected market. Is a candy colored skimmer going to skim better because of its color? It is important to note that not all advertising is trying to scam you. Some of it is simply trying to portray the product in the best light to get more people to buy it. As mentioned earlier, it can be difficult to tell the two apart.
Baloney Detection Kit for Reef Products
Carl Sagan first published his Baloney Detection Kit in his book ‘The Demon Haunted World.’ It was immediately helpful in codifying ways to ferret out faulty reasoning. Later, Skeptic Magazine’s Michael Shermer put together his version of a Baloney Detection Kit that lists a series of questions to ask when encountering any claim. Standing on the shoulders of those skeptic giants, I present the first version of the Reefkeeping Baloney Detection Kit, or the RBDK, for the acronym addicted. I hope it will help you decide if claims are solid or, well, baloney.
1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
Much of the time in reefkeeping the source of the claim is the manufacturer. You know that the manufacturer is trying to get you to buy their product. Are they a reputable manufacturer that has other products that you trust? What does the manufacturer claim this product will do? Is this a new manufacturer trying to capitalize on the newest reefkeeping fad? Are the claims supported by an ‘expert’ quote? Who is the expert and why should you listen to them? What kind of connection does the expert have to the manufacturer (i.e., are they getting paid, trying to get their name ‘out there’, or own part of the company?)? Is the expert support anecdotal (remember our old friend anecdote from the first installment?)? Was the expert quote taken out of context? Did the expert even say what the manufacturer says they said? If the source of the claim is not all that reliable, you need to dig further before you accept that claim.
2. Have the claims been verified?
Have there been any studies that support the claims? Our hobby is ‘sciency’, and for many of us, that is part of the fun. So, we often trust that the claims written on the packaging of reefkeeping products have been tested but it is hard to tell if that is indeed the case. If you are going to buy a product that claims to reduce nitrate and phosphate, you want to know that it actually works. Is there data to back the claim? A responsible company will have some kind of documentation to back up their claims and they should share it with you. An irresponsible company may be guessing at what the product does and hoping hobbyists will report back with success. If they have no documentation or support, you simply can’t be sure that the product performs as advertised. I’m going to tack on the opposite to this rule. Does an ad include weasel words like “benefit” or other vague claims? If the claims are weasely, or there is no verification of the claims, it might be better to move on to a different product.
3. Does this fit with how reef aquariums are generally thought to work (is it too good to be true)?
A product that promises to do away with regular maintenance like water changes or to completely ‘cycle’ a tank in days is offering something extraordinary. As the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s pretty clear that water changes are a great way to get rid of pollutants that occur in just about every tank. It’s pretty clear that aquariums need time for bacteria responsible for the ‘nitrogen cycle’ need time to settle down, so a product that claims to bypass these ideas needs to have a lot of good supporting evidence to back it up.
4. Does the claim have an over complicated explanation?
A popular tactic for products that don’t actually have much if any support for their claims is to present overcomplicated and long explanations. These kinds of explanations often contain ‘scientificy’ sounding words that don’t actually amount to much. Often the reference experts or scientists don’t seem to exist or live in far off lands and have no published works. This is really an argument from authority covered in the previous installment. This type of advertising is designed to get you to assume that much work has been done on the product and you can therefore trust the claims. Such product claims should make you question the product even deeper.
5. Are the claims covered in ‘greenspeak’?
A popular advertising tactic is to claim that the products are all natural, green, eco friendly, herbal or good for the environment. It is often difficult to determine if the ideas behind the terms are supported. The terms themselves are so general as to border on meaninglessness. Ask a few questions about an ad like this and the response you’ll get can be something akin to religious fervor. “How can you be against something that is good for the environment?” Somehow asking, “What does that mean?” is interpreted as evil. The truth is NO ONE is against things that are good for the environment. Some people that think this type of advertising is above reproach. Don’t be that person. Ask the questions. The animals that you care for, that were collected 10,000 miles from your home, deserve it don’t they?
6. Too many claims?
Some products give you a laundry list of ‘ailments’ they are supposed to address. Does a product claim to cure every conceivable fish disease? Does it claim to increase skimming efficiency, buffer ph, clean the front glass, and park your car? It strains credulity that one product can do so many things and such a product absolutely warrants more support before its purchase.
7. What do people you trust think of the claim?
Given the lack of supporting scientific evidence, you may have to fall back on the wide-ranging experience of other reefkeepers on the interwebs. If you are reading Reefs Magazine, chances are you have been around the reefing world for a while and have developed a feel for which reefers, both local and international, that you trust. Ask them what they think of a particular claim and see if it rings true for them or not. But be warned, it is easy to find support for just about any claim on the web. You need to be careful that you are not reading the parts you want to agree with, while ignoring the rest. Be aware that this trust can be as dangerous as it can be beneficial, as I have seen ideas that seem crazee gain huge followings.
I have stayed away from discussing specific products. My purpose in writing these articles is not to pick on any one product or company (though a debunking team of independent ‘Reefbusters’™ would be fun – anyone interested in funding such a project let me know). Why don’t I discuss specific products? Simple, I don’t want to get sued by an angry company. Lets face it, being right or wrong in a lawsuit is almost irrelevant – the cost of dealing with even the smallest legal action can financially wreck a person. My real purpose in these articles is to get us all thinking and to give us tools to navigate the information that is constantly thrown at us. I do, however, have one example of a product that I can include because, well, it’s not real.
A couple of years ago as an April Fools Day joke, Gresham Hendee and I used our advertising experience to put together a fake product. Our intention was to poke fun at our friend Jake Adams and his obsession with water flow (the idea was actually sparked by Brian Edwards who said that Jake thinks that ‘flow is more important than water’). We created a print ad and even went so far as to make up several bottles of the product to have on hand at frag swaps and conferences. Jake made a video advertisement for the product for Reefbuilders. Our fake product was called ‘Instaflow’, and the marketing claims in the promotional materials were based on claims from actual products.
We were very clear the product didn’t really exist. It says on the packaging that the product doesn’t exist and even though we thought it was obvious that the claims were so insane that no one would believe that this product actually existed, that the expert claims were so patently ridiculous that no one could believe they were real, Jake tells me that from time to time he gets email inquiries about the product’s availability. That’s marketing for you. Fear its power. Fight its power.
Next time – ‘old reefers’ tales examined, or something equally as interesting.
If you have a reefing subject that you think would be good to discuss in one of these articles, please let me know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Links, further reading and references
• “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” by Carl Sagan, 1997 (Ballantine Books)
Skeptical Reefkeeping Part 1 – are you sure that that thing is true, or did someone just tell it to you?
”Are you sure that that thing is true, or did someone just tell it to you?” – They Might Be Giants
Reefkeeping is as much an art as it is a science. There is so much that we don’t understand about what actually goes on inside our boxes of water that we must rely on cultivating a ‘saltwater thumb’ for success over time. Building that saltwater thumb, however, can be a daunting task. There are a million opinions on every aspect of reef keeping, and the modern reefkeeper can access those opinions thru websites, online forums, or those big heavy things on the shelves at home (Books? I think that’s what they’re called). Essentially, you can find support for every aspect of the hobby regardless of how ‘fringe’ it may be – the question is, how do you sift through all those opinions to make decisions about what to do with your reef tank? My answer – be a skeptic. In the next few issues of Reefs Magazine, we’ll look at critical and skeptical thinking, how they relate to reefkeeping, and how they can help you wade through the flood of good and bad information available to the modern reefkeeper.
Be a Skeptic
The idea of being a skeptic seems to have a negative connotation, as if somehow being skeptical means saying no for the sake of saying no. That’s not quite right. Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it’s defined as “a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment.” A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. In our hobby there are tons of ideas presented without much supporting evidence. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt, and following up to get a handle on why, how and if the suggested ideas actually work. This boils down to the one adage about reefkeeping that almost every experienced reefer agrees with, namely, be patient. Taking your time in your decision making is just as important as taking your time stocking your reef because, as they say, “nothing good happens quickly in a reef tank”. So, when that shiny new idea about reefkeeping shows up, with many people being very excited – slow down and think.
Two reasons – animals’ lives and money. The animals in our glass boxes rely on us to keep them alive, and if we embrace a methodology that turns out not to work, they die. Seems like a simple idea, but many people prefer to do what seems quick and easy, instead of being patient and thorough, and it does indeed, cost animals their lives. Need an example? Every year or two there seems to be some kind of salt controversy. Either X brand of salt is bad so you should stop using it, or X brand of salt is good so you should start using it. People rush to switch salts and some crash their tanks or kill their corals. Only then do they start looking into the reasoning behind the claims that got them to switch salts in the first place. And what do we usually find? Someone saying, “Things looked better.”
As it turns out these animals cost money, sometimes lots of money. Killing them by embracing untested, unsupported methodology is throwing money away. Not to mention, that simply embracing the “new methodology” costs money in itself – salt, for instance, isn’t cheap. More importantly, we can’t ignore that the animals we keep are a finite resource and that we are ethically responsible for their well being.
In an effort to maximize the life and health of our reef animals, and spend money wisely, lets look at some methods for sifting through online information.
There is so much reefkeeping information available on the interwebs and so much access and participation in discussion by experienced reefers that our hobby has really jumped forward in leaps and bounds. At the same time there is much information out there that just doesn’t pan out, or have any actual support. Most of this is based on anecdote. Merriam-Webster defines anecdote as “a usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident”. More hardcore, Ron Shimek says “Anecdote is unsubstantiated or unverified observation generally made by an unqualified observer who often really doesn’t know what they are looking at.”1 . For example, ‘I did a water change and my hair algae algae went away’. That’s a nice and harmless observation, but can a generalization be generated from it? Should you do a water change when you get hair algae? This is exactly where being skeptical comes into play. What kind of algae (there are many)? Was it actually algae or something else like dinoflaglates? What else was being done to get rid of it (usually lots of things)? What does ‘went away’ mean? Will it come back? What about all the cases of tanks with hair algae that didn’t go away after a water change? Unfortunately, anecdote is often converted to ‘Truth’ with amazing speed. “I did a water change and my hair algae went away’ gets converted to ‘water changes make hair algae go away’ which simply does not pan out across different reef systems. Even worse is when the observation isn’t all that harmless, as in the case of saltwater ich, Cryptocaryon irritans.
A case in point
Several years ago a thread was started on an online forum about a possible new cure for ich. Throughout the thread, many common fallacies were used that I think all reefkeepers should be aware of because poor reasoning leads to poor decisions. The original poster reported that they had ich on their fish for four or 5 days. They put ginger in the fish food and, hallelujah , the ich went away within 24 hours. Therefore ginger cured the ich. This is the most often seen fallacy, or logical misunderstanding, that we see in reefkeeping – post hoc, ergo propter hoc – Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by”. Correlation is not causation. Just because one event occurred after another doesn’t mean the first event caused the second. A classic example would be that after a rooster crowed, the sun rose. Therefore the rooster’s crowing caused the sun to rise. Seems silly because we all know its silly, but it gets a little more complicated when we want to believe. Cryptocaryon has a complex and confusing lifecycle. To help explain why the posting claiming that ginger cured the fish of ich is fallacious lets take a quick look at the lifecycle:
The lifecycle of crypto is summed up well in an article in Reefkeeping Magazine, so I’ll quote Steven Pro: “The stage where the parasite is attached to a fish is called a trophont. The trophont will spend three to seven days (depending on temperature) feeding on the fish. After that, the trophont leaves the fish and becomes what is called a protomont. This protomont travels to the substrate and begins to crawl around for usually two to eight hours, but it could go for as long as eighteen hours after it leaves it’s fish host. Once the protomont attaches to a surface, it begins to encyst and is now called a tomont. Division inside the cyst into hundreds of daughter parasites, called tomites, begins shortly thereafter. This noninfectious stage can last anywhere from three to twenty-eight days. During this extended period, the parasite cyst is lying in wait for a host. After this period, the tomites hatch and begin swimming around, looking for a fish host. At this point, they are called theronts, and they must find a host within twenty-four hours or die. They prefer to seek out the skin and gill tissue, then transform into trophonts, and begin the process all over again (Colorni & Burgess, 1997).”2.
The short version of all that is that the trophonts, the actual white spots we see, leave the fish in 3 to 7 days without any treatment at all. This happens with or without ginger. It happens with our without many of the other crypto ‘cures’ I have seen tossed around including: water changes, salt mix changes, and my favorite, changing light bulbs! After this was pointed out, the original poster then did a bit of a turnaround and wrote that they weren’t sure that the ginger cured the ich and that more study would be needed. They did however stick to their guns regarding the ginger being a cure for ich. In my opinion it was critical for that information to have been included in the first post so people wouldn’t rush out and start feeding their sick fish ginger – which they did.
Soon, another fallacy reared its head, argumentum ad verecundium – an argument from authority. It was claimed that someone with a PhD in Europe previously developed this ginger method and it does “in fact” work. The idea here is that since a PhD said it, it must be true. PhD’s, or any authority, are wrong all the time about a great many things. There are few reasons to believe someone simply because they are an authority. In this particular case it’s even worse because no one could name the PhD, point us to anything that supported the claim that any such PhD existed, or that they developed a method of treating ich with ginger. Even once this was pointed out, the idea that the claim supported the ginger treatment idea persisted.
The original poster then picked up a fish infected with ich from the LFS to further ‘test’ the ginger method. It was presented that trying the ginger on another infected fish would give further credence that the ginger worked, but that was just post hoc, ergo propter hoc again but people ate it up claiming that the ‘scientific’ approach was wonderful. However, there really was no science – no control, no redundancy, no scrapes to determine levels of infection – it was all just anecdote! Some people ate it up, but some started asking questions.
One person pointed out that there was no science to support the ginger claim. They were immediately pounced on for belittling people just for trying something new. This is a form of the Poisoning the Well fallacy or trying to generate bias. The claim is that since the poster is belittling people, the points they are making don’t matter, but one has nothing at all to do with the other. The points really do matter. Even big hairy jerks are right some time. And, in this case, the poster wasn’t actually belittling anyone. People often take disagreement personally rather than talking it for what it was – pointing out that the proported conclusions about ginger don’t hold up.
Next, people said everyone should take a chance on a ginger treatment because it’s new and might work. This is an Appeal to Novelty; Just because something is new and shiny does not necessarily make it correct or worth trying. Sometimes new things are outright bad ideas – let’s use table salt for our reef tanks! There was also a little bit of an Appeal to Tradition, “Ginger has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine, so it must do something.” Just because something is done traditionally, doesn’t mean it actually has any effect – blood letting was also a tradition. Furthermore, the idea that something works on people, even if it were accurate, does not necessarily mean that it will work on other animals. We also got some observational selection. Some people posted that they treated their fish with ginger, but they died from the parasite. This claim was immediately swept away by people saying that nothing is 100%. You can’t dismiss results you don’t like just to make the claim you want to be true seem more plausible. There was also an appeal to ignorance. “Since there was no proof ginger didn’t cure ich, it could be concluded that it did cure ich.” Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Links to ginger being linked to antibacterial action were posted in defense of the claim that ginger cured ich. It was quickly pointed out that ich is not bacteria. No fallacy there, just your basic skeptical insight.
In the next 20 pages of the thread there was a lot of argumentum ad hominem, against anyone suggesting that ginger might not cure ich. Rather than, “We’re testing ginger, wait and see” responses became, “You just hate new ideas, so your points don’t matter” and “You think you are an expert, but you’re just a hobbyist like me so your points don’t mean anything” or, more to the point, “You’re stupid and ugly and I don’t like you.” Of course that makes little sense, loving or hating new ideas has nothing really to do with pointing out reasons there is no support for the idea.
For me, the important point was that the misinformation in the thread had been quickly converted to gospel. It started showing up on other forums as a proven cure. People started treating their fish with ginger. In the case of minor infections it wasn’t really a problem. Many fish are able to fight off minor infections. People with heavily infected fish that tried Ginger often ended up with dead fish when they could have used one of the proven methods to cure their fish of the parasite (hyposalinity or copper). This is the real world impact of non-skeptical thinking. Ideas get accepted as truth, when they aren’t. Luckily, the ginger treatment didn’t gain too much traction, even though it still gets brought up from time to time.
The Internet is a wonderful thing, but it can also be dangerous. You can find support for any idea, but your animals are counting on you. You owe it to them to make sure you aren’t just finding the answers you are looking for, but that you are looking for information with a critical eye.
One final thought about anecdote
Anecdotal evidence has its place in the world, and in a hobby like ours its downright necessary. Dictionary.com defines anecdotal evidence as “non-scientific observations or studies, which do not provide proof but may assist research efforts.” Our hobby has certainly pushed research – just look at the lighting studies of Sanjay Joshi which helped to put to rest the misleading ‘watts per gallon’ lighting rule, or the recent skimmer studies by Ken Feldman that are putting some real data into what protein skimmers are actually doing. However, a lot of the stuff we deal with everyday has not really been looked at with scientific scrutiny because real science takes time, money, expertise and review. There are about a bagillion things that reefers want studied that simply aren’t going to be gotten to anytime soon. We all rely on observational reports to make some day-to-day decisions about our tank’s flow, lighting, feeds, animal interactions, and more. I think it is important that we remember that anecdote has its limits, be careful in your reporting and even more cautious in your reading.
Some reefkeeping products promise amazing things, so how do you tell the truth from bunk? More importantly, how do you write about bunk product claims without getting sued? We’ll find out in the next installment.
Links, further reading and references
“The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” by Carl Sagan, 1997 (Ballantine Books)