When Videography & Photography is Used to Play with your Mind

Recently the Daily Maverick posted an article by Ivo Vegter, describing how the use of videography and photography can be playing with our minds.

“Images have the power to tug at our heartstrings and make us abdicate the faculty of reason entirely. National Geographic recently touted a video of a starving polar bear as evidence that global warming was killing them off. Yet polar bears are thriving, and one anecdote of a dying polar bear doesn’t change that.”

The controversial video “Heart-Wrenching Video Shows Starving Polar Bear on Iceless Land,” Ivo Vegter referred to was published on the National Geographic YouTube channel (11 Dec 2017) and today 21 days later it has had 923,667 views. The lie is being perpetuated with the strong visual images in a 1: 22-minute video. Is National Geographic not supposed to be a trustworthy publication?  reads the headline.

Ivo wrote:

“This starving polar bear was spotted by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen while on an expedition in the Baffin Islands. As temperatures rise, and sea ice melts, polar bears lose access to the main staple of their diet – seals. Starving, and running out of energy, they are forced to wander into human settlements for any source of food. Feeding polar bears is illegal. Without finding another source of food, this bear likely only had a few more hours to live.”

Pass the tissues, would you? Now, there’s no sugar-coating this. National Geographic, like the Daily Mail, is peddling bullshit. This is not what climate change looks like, and this is not representative of polar bears. They are not starving, and this footage has nothing to do with climate change. It’s all lies.

Let’s set out just a few reasons why this is brazen manipulation. The photographer, Paul Nicklen, is a founder of SeaLegacy, which is “a collective of some of the most experienced and renowned photographers, filmmakers and storytellers working on behalf of our oceans”.

They admit that “all of these pictures have more power than scientists, or voices, or anything else. … Vision is what drives humans”. They want to “start driving this global debate on the effects we’re having on this planet”. They “hope that the work that we create will compel people to do something about this”.

That all sounds admirable, as well as a lot of fun, so you should absolutely donate to fund their photographic expeditions. They cost tens of thousands of dollars a pop, after all, so Nicklen and his colleagues have to produce very dramatic photos to keep the money rolling in. However, as we’ll see, their contribution to “the global debate” is not entirely honest.

Nicklen has published pictures of dead polar bears before, to illustrate the supposed impact of climate change. In 2015 he posted a photo of a dead bear taken in 2014 in Svalbard, a Norwegian island group located about midway between that country and the north pole. It was picked up by viral news sites. He added the comment: “In all of my years of growing up in the Arctic and later, working as a biologist, I had never found a dead polar bear. It is now becoming much more common.”

The absurdity of this statement should be obvious. In the National Geographic piece Nicklen claims to have seen more than 3,000 polar bears. And never once a dead one? Much like elephants, polar bears do not have natural enemies. This means that most polar bears die of starvation in the wild. But it’s as if Nicklen believes it doesn’t happen if he doesn’t photograph it, and is an alarming crisis if he does. And none of his fearmongering requires any actual data because he has photographs of dead and dying bears. You can’t read data tables through tears, anyway.

The truth is that when Nicklen took that photograph polar bears were doing better than ever in Svalbard, despite several years of poor sea ice cover.

The most recent video is of a polar bear on Baffin Island. On Baffin Island, the polar bear population is stable, so this bear is not representative of anything out of the ordinary.

In fact, polar bears are doing well globally. Out of 19 different “management units”, with separate population counts, only one is reported to be in decline, and two are increasing. The remaining populations for which data is available are reported to be stable, according to the WWF.

Visual images are emotive and can be made to say almost anything. Photographers know this, and skilled photographers use this to their advantage. However, images constitute only anecdotal evidence. They can say, “This happened”. They cannot say, “This happens all the time”. For the logicians among you, an image can say, “There exists an x for which y is true”. It cannot say, “For all x, y is true”.

One cannot generalise from anecdotal evidence, and one cannot generalise from a photograph. But photographers know that people do generalise. They see what they want to see, what they expect to see, or what they are told they’re seeing. They look for and often are spoon-fed, a “meaning” behind the image. That makes imagery uniquely useful to manipulate people, to evoke emotions that override reason and provoke action.

In 2008, when the US declared the polar bear to be a threatened species, I compiled a chart from every population study I could find, and concluded that polar bear populations had been stable since 1972, with recent estimates ranging between 20,000 and 25,000 individuals. Almost 10 years later, in 2017, the WWF reports conservative estimates of between 22,000 and 31,000 individuals. Watch out for these to be revised upwards, not downwards, in future.

Arctic sea ice extent has been lower than expected for at least a decade, but there is no evidence that polar bears are in any kind of distress. All the alarmists have is a theory that says if sea ice extent keeps declining, then eventually it must reduce polar bear habitat and feeding range, which must impact their populations. The threat to polar bears is entirely speculative. There is no possible way that Nicklen can be taking photographs of the dramatic impact of global warming on polar bears, right now, because there is none.

All he saw was a starving polar bear. Nobody knows why it was starving. It was not examined for injury, disease, or age. The video Nicklen captured was nothing unusual at all, and even if polar bears were dying because of global warming, his video wouldn’t demonstrate this. As it is, it had nothing to do with climate change at all.

Polar bears are thriving. The real news is why expert predictions that polar bears would be decimated by sea ice levels as low as those we’ve experienced in the last decade have not come true.

Claiming that a few dead or dying polar bears are “what climate change looks like” is just as stupid as saying climate change isn’t real because we have photos of fat polar bears in high summer when there is no ice. That National Geographic stoops to such unscientific and nakedly manipulative dishonesty is a disgrace.

Source: Daily Maverick



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