In a recent Forum article (“Scientists versus Whaling,” BioScience 52: 1137–1140), Aron, Burke, and Freeman cite World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in connection with an open letter about Japanese whaling. They claim that information in the letter was inaccurate and reflected poorly on the capability of the “instigating organization”—namely, WWF—and on the care taken by the 21 scientists who signed the letter. While the eminent scientists who signed the letter are quite capable of responding for themselves regarding their standards, here we point out two critical omissions by Aron and colleagues that we believe could seriously mislead BioScience readers.
In seeking to diminish the open letter's criticisms of Japanese research whaling, Aron, Burke, and Freeman cast the criticisms as the careless errors of “scientist–advocates” who have incautiously strayed beyond their areas of expertise. Yet Aron and his colleagues were aware that identical criticisms of Japanese whaling had been published by expert whale biologists on the International Whaling Commission's Scientific Committee. That they failed to disclose this, opting instead to assail the care taken by the letter signers, is characteristic of their entire article.
A second omission is the failure of Aron, Burke, and Freeman to level with BioScience readers (and, one presumes, with its editors) about their own ideological views and involvement with commercial whaling. While ordinarily this might not seem germane, Aron, Burke, and Freeman so pervasively question the professionalism of others that their failure to disclose their own background becomes relevant by implication. As it happens, they are far from the impartial observers readers might imagine: William Aron has traveled to Japan at the expense of the Japanese government to provide political and strategic advice on whaling; William Burke's clients have included the Japanese Whaling Association; and Milton Freeman is the convenor of the World Council of Whalers, a private group that promotes commercial whaling and whose conferences are funded by Norway and Japan. In addition, three of the four individuals acknowledged as assisting the authors have professional ties to pro-whaling interests or are currently employed by the Japanese government in connection with commercial whaling.
Aron, Burke, and Freeman are, of course, fully entitled to their opinions on Japanese whaling, but they cannot pose as expert, neutral judges in a debate on its scientific merits. Their decision to submit to a scientific journal an article that questions the professional judgments of others while concealing their own relevant professional ties to commercial whaling—including client and sponsor relationships—is disingenuous at best.
What seems extraordinary is that Aron, Burke, and Freeman managed to secure such prestigious placement for their article. The editorial penned by editor-in-chief Timothy Beardsley, however well-intended, only compounded the decision—misguided in our view—to provide these individuals so prominent a platform for such misleading advocacy.