“Separating Fact from Fiction”?

Fish Feed Circa 1990


Fish Feed Today








Making an evidence presentation is a moral act as well as an intellectual activity. To maintain standards of quality, relevance, and integrity for evidence, consumers of presentations should insist that presenters be held intellectually and ethically responsible for what they show and tell. Thus consuming a presentation is also an intellectual and moral activity.

~Edward Tufte, introduction to his book Beautiful Evidence


Separating Fact from Fiction” is the headline of the recent Vancouver Sun’s ‘exclusive online and commentary opinion’ by Ms. Walling Executive Director of the BC Salmon Farmer’s Association:

BCsalmonfacts.ca is a website that raises some of the common myths that we hear questions about, and provides answers through video, written explanations, animations and links to supporting documents. BC Salmon Facts also includes a discussion forum, where people can ask questions and debate the facts and answers…

As you may have read in on this blog this past week, I have some posts asking questions about some apparent BC salmon facts on the same named website — as well as pondering some of the strategies and tactics of the PR campaign.

As Ms. Walling suggests in her opinion piece:

We’ve learned that … those asking ‘tough’ questions appreciate having someone who can explain the answer and give some straight forward information. It makes the discussion rational and reasoned.

I agree… rational and reasoned would certainly prove beneficial in this searing, glowing red amber hot button issue. As mentioned, I take issue at times with PR-spin conducted on all sides of the equation.

Good discussion, requires decent information.

As such, I have questioned some of the “facts” posted on the bcsalmonfacts.ca website, and posted a few ‘tough’ questions (although maybe the jury is out on how tough those are…). Looking to thoughts from Ms. Walling’s editorial piece last year on the same Vancouver Sun weblog titled “Fishing for Proof” might assist here:

Scientists working for environmental organizations have a legitimate right to be involved in the decision-making process on issues such as salmon farming. However, their use of sensational claims has created an ethical battlefield where business interests are portrayed as being in opposition to environmental interests…

…To be successful in addressing the factors that are adversely affecting wild salmon populations in B.C., business, industry, government and non governmental organizations will need to work together. We need to have rational discussions about the cause and possible effects and we need to work together to move beyond rhetoric towards solutions. [my emphasis]

(which I’m guessing means the definition of rhetoric as: “Language that is elaborate, pretentious, insincere, or intellectually vacuous.”… vacuous basically suggesting empty, devoid of substance…)

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On yesterday’s post, I quoted from one of my favorite information design experts Edward Tufte, professor emeritus at Yale University. In his most recent book Beautiful Evidence. One reviewer suggests: “Tufte will get you thinking about the meaning of words and images, not to mention your ability to tell the truth”.

Beautiful Evidence -- Edward Tufte

In this fine book, Tufte states in his Introduction:

Evidence that bears on questions of any complexity typically involves multiple forms of discourse. Evidence is evidence, whether words, numbers, images, diagrams, still or moving. The intellectual task remains constant regardless of the mode of evidence: to understand and to reason about the materials at hand, and to appraise their quality, relevance and integrity.

And, this appears to be the case with the bcsalmonfacts.ca PR campaign. The “facts” posted on the website are accompanied by ‘evidence’ — as opposed to “rhetoric”…?

As in: “moving beyond rhetoric.”

Moving beyond empty, meaningless language that does not improve discussions…

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I refer to some rhetoric as bumpf (search the term and category on this blog site) — empty meaningless phrases that don’t really mean much; overused and empty… like eating chocolate bars as part of a healthy weightloss diet.

Air Pie; things said that don’t really mean anything; words used in ways that forget actual definitions.

I’ve hit on some of these terms on various posts on this site, for example: sustainability, ecosystem-based management, conservation, etc… They are used by all sides of many debates, and yet few seem to stop and ask: “hey, wait a second, what definition of ‘sustainability’ are you working from?”…

Or: “what do you mean when you say: conservation?”

Here are groups of folks throwing burning cocktails at each other and we don’t even know whether they share the same definitions of some words in the debate… it’s thus, a bit of an empty, meaningless argument — like the words.

It’s akin to parents arguing about “disciplining” their children when one parent believes discipline means: throttling a child and getting the wooden spoon, and the other parent thinks ‘discipline’ is: sending a misbehaving child to a corner for a little timeout.

It’s becomes a pointless discussion if neither understands where the other is coming from or what the other person means when they say “[enter word here]”…

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So let’s look at an apparent “fact” or ‘BC salmon fact’:

Salmon feed is designed specifically to conserve wild fish stocks.

Today’s feed minimizes the use of wild fish protein and oils. Review these charts to see the ingredients in salmon feed today, compared to what they were in the 1990s.
Fish Feed Circa 1990
Fish Feed Today
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We can see by the chart that there is a reduction in the use of “fish meal protein” and “fish oil” with a significant increase in “poultry and plant protein meal”.  Yes, that’s a good for lots of little fish in the sea (e.g. anchovies, sardines, and such) that get caught in other parts of the world and ground up into fish meal and fish oil.

(One of the first question that pops to my mind is: what’s the percentage of “poultry” to “plant protein meal”, those are two very different things; however, that’s besides the point of critically exploring the evidence at hand.)

The logic here suggests that because there is less fish meal and fish oil used in the feed that this: ‘conserves wild fish stocks’.


I’ve raised this point before in the use of this word: “conservation”.

Conservation means: “To protect from loss or harm; preserve”

Preserve means a few things:

1. To maintain in safety from injury, peril, or harm; protect.
2. To keep in perfect or unaltered condition; maintain unchanged.

Those are pretty clear definitions, thus, how can we say we are “conserving” something; or “preserving” something; or even “protecting” something… if what we actually mean is that we have “reduced” use?

So is not the fact that is beings stated here more like this: “salmon feed research and development is working to reduce our pressures on wild fish stocks”?

And,  “we can demonstrate evidence of this by this by a certain graph and text”?

Because if we say we are “conserving” when we’re simply “reducing”, then aren’t we just engaged in rhetoric? And using “sensational claims” on these “ethical battlefields”?

Words are important, so are images, and shouldn’t they be used to develop better understanding, not further muddy the waters?

How do everyday folks separate “fact from fiction” when so many of us forget the real meanings of some words?

Evidence has various definitions, one being: “indicate clearly; exemplify or prove.”

Furthermore, fiction, is suggested to mean: “An imaginative creation or a pretense that does not represent actuality but has been invented.”

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