Who You Calling a Shrimp?
It was midafternoon and the Sonoran desert had warmed up enough to force me to shed my coat. The December sky was clear, and the nearby ocean provided a rhythmic white noise in the background. I was accompanied by my new wife and former college roommate; we were getting a tour of the research facility run jointly by the University of Arizona and the University of Sonora. The facility is located near the Mexican port of Puerto Penasco. My former roommate’s family had a villa on the beach, and we were spending our Christmas break taking advantage of the fact. The water was too cold for swimming, which was disappointing, so we were doing the tourist activities.
The research facility had originally been designed to test the notion that seawater, preheated by diesel generators, could be cheaply desalinated and used for farming in a plastic greenhouse inflated by the generators. The whole venture proved itself, but the discovery of a large underground aquifer rendered its findings moot. The schools then turned their attention to shrimp farming. Puerto Penasco has one of the world’s largest shrimp fleets. But even in early seventies, the industry knew that wild shrimp populations could not keep up with demand. At the time, no one had figured out how to breed the crustaceans in captivity, so the shrimp boats donated pregnant females to the facility to study.
Which is why I stood, leaning on a large round concrete horse trough, watching shrimp fight against the artificial current. Oxygenated, temperature-controlled water swirled around the tank like water in a toilet bowl. In fact, the whole sterile setup reminded me more of a toilet than an aquarium. It seemed to me that the animals were trying to congregate in the shadiest part of the trough, which also had the most forceful current. They avoided the center, which struck me as odd since it had little force to fight. This was an expenditure of energy that caused me to wonder if the shrimp were photophobic. Our guide, a post-doctoral student from the University of Arizona in Tucson, droned on about his hypothesis that the zinc they used in the water to control fungal infections was interfering with the shrimps’ ability to reproduce. I suddenly remembered the newly published Jane Goodall studies that were stunning zoologists and animal behavior experts across the world. Her simple yet profound idea was that animals act differently in the wild than they do in captivity.
“Have you ever gone out in the wild to study them,” I asked.
Our guide, dressed in total seventies prep style, tilted his head slightly. “What?” he asked.
“You know. Put on scuba gear and study them in the wild.”
“What on earth for?” he asked.
“Well maybe they need champagne and sexy music to get in the mood.”
I could tell immediately that my attempt at humor, as is often the case, had fallen flat. My wife has since developed a habit of poking me before I make a fool out of myself with what I think is a witty remark in public. The post doc looked at me as if I had been smoking Mexican dirt weed.
“It was a joke,” I said attempting to clarify. “ What I mean is maybe they need rocks to hide under or coral or sand or something on the ocean floor in order to reproduce.”
“It’s the zinc,” he said. Then he turned and walked away.
Our tour was over and I was a little pissed off by his casual dismissal. Yes, I was just an undergrad and he was a post doc. But that didn’t mean my question was stupid. In fact, it was spot on. Exhibit A is that the University of Houston published findings a decade later that shrimp needed darkness and cover (i.e., rocks) in order to reproduce. They became the leader in shrimp farming technology. If that pompous twit had taken my question seriously, he could have beaten Houston by five to seven years easily.
Americans have a history of denigrating experts and admiring common people who succeed at something that the professionals said was impossible. Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, and Robert Goddard are but a few examples of successful people who went against the expert opinions and proved them wrong. Americans in particular are culturally wired to celebrate these outliers and belittle the knowledgeable. As I write this, millions of Americans are scrambling to buy lottery tickets in hopes of winning the biggest jackpot ever. Math experts advise everyone to save their money and they are right 99.9999999% of the time. But for a few people, the experts are not exactly wrong, they just aren’t right for whoever actually pulls the winning ticket. The odds are better of getting hit by a meteor. But it does happen.
Part of the problem is that Americans just aren’t good at math. Exhibit A is that someone started a meme that the Powerball 1.6 billion dollar jackpot could eliminate poverty. Of course their calculations were off by six decimal places. And that’s the real problem. Cognitive dissonance, poor math skills, and an Internet filled with junk convinces too many Americans to shun vaccinations, gamble, dismiss climate science, and try to ignore the laws of physics when they drive a car. All because of the attitude that experts aren’t to be trusted. This in turn can create frustration and emotional responses by the experts.
The sad part to me is that experts usually do a much better job of listening to and responding to critics than vice versa. A perfect example is how the medical community listened to the antivax crowd and changed vaccine formulas to address some of their concerns. Mercury was removed from most vaccines, for example, and the pertussis vaccine was even modified to the point that it is safer but, it turns out, less effective. People love to point out when an expert is wrong, but there is a huge difference between one expert saying something and the consensus of most experts.
In a democracy, particularly one like the Internet, all voices need to be heard. But credentials and expertise should matter as to whose voice gets the most attention. True amateurs, like Edison and the Wright brothers, spend a lot of time studying their field of interest. And most of the information they gather comes from experts. Amateurs just bring a fresh set of perspectives to a problem. I learned a lot during my tour of the shrimp farm. It’s too bad the researcher didn’t respect that I brought something important to the conversation as well. He could have hit a home run instead of rolling a gutter ball. But that’s what happens when people ossify their viewpoints. It’s a lesson more people could stand to learn.