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Whales, Sonar, and Cultural Cognition

In a recent NY Times Article, Charles Siebert writes about the recent case brought by the National Resources Defense Council, arguing that Naval use of sonar in certain exercises is leading whales to flee to the surface too quickly, suffer the bends, and eventually die: 

The question of sonar’s catastrophic effects on whales even reached the Supreme Court last November, in a case pitting the United States Navy against the Natural Resources Defense Council. The council, along with other environmental groups, had secured two landmark victories in the district and appellate courts of California, which ruled to heavily restrict the Navy’s use of sonar devices in its training exercises. The Supreme Court, however, in a 6-to-3 decision widely viewed as a setback for the environmental movement, overturned parts of the lower-court rulings, faulting them for, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion, failing “properly to defer to senior Navy officers’ specific, predictive judgments,” thereby jeopardizing the safety of the fleet and sacrificing the public’s interest in military preparedness by “forcing the Navy to deploy an inadequately trained antisubmarine force.” In his decision, Roberts went on to minimize, in a fairly dismissive tone, the issue of harm to marine life: “For the plaintiffs, the most serious possible injury would be harm to an unknown number of the marine animals that they study and observe.”

At the core of the dispute is how serious and plausible the anticipated harm to whales is and how serious and plausible the harm to the Navy would be  if it were enjoined from conducting these exercises.  While we haven't done any empirical research on this subject in particular, perceptions of risk related to military endeavors tend to be positively correlated with measures of egalitarianism, as are perceptions of environmental risk in general.  The combination of environmental risk and military action in this issue makes it a twofer in terms of the cultural cognition of risk. 

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