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Science Wednesday: Does the Public Expect Too Much From Science?

2008 July 30

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the Author: Dr. Robert Lackey is a senior scientist in EPA’s Office of Research and Development’s laboratory in Corvallis, Oregon. He has been involved professionally with West Coast ecological issues for 44 years and was awarded EPA’s highest award, the Gold Medal, for his salmon work.

Recently I presented a talk to a group of community activists about why salmon populations along the West Coast have dropped to less than 5% of their historical levels. I’ve given such talks many times so I was confident that I had heard just about every question that might be asked. I was wrong.

The opening question was asked by a well known political activist. He was direct, pointed, and bursting with hostility: “You scientists always talk about our choices, but when will you finally tell us what we SHOULD do about the dramatic decline of West Coast salmon? Quit talking about the science and your research and tell us what we should do! Let’s get on with it!”

From the nods of approval offered by many in the audience, his impatience with science and scientists was broadly shared.

What does the public expect from scientists regarding today’s ecological policy issues? Some examples of such policy challenges include the decline of salmon; deciding on the proper role of wild fire on public lands; what to do, if anything, about climate change; the consequences of declining biological diversity; and making sense of the confusing policy choices surrounding “sustainability.”

The lament “if we just had some better science, a little more data, we could resolve this policy question” is common among both scientists and decision makers. Calls for more research are everywhere in ecological policy debates.

In most cases, even if we had complete scientific knowledge about all aspects of an issue, the same rancorous debate would emerge. Root policy differences are invariably over values and preferences, not science, data, and facts.

In a pluralistic society, with a wide array of values and preferences competing for dominance, the ecological policy debate is usually centered around whose values and preferences will carry the day rather than over scientific information.

So what was my answer to the emotionally charged question from the political activist? It was: “Science, although an important part of policy debates, remains but one element, and often a minor one, in the decision-making process. We scientists can assess the ecological consequences of various policy options, but in the end it is up to society to prioritize those options and make their choices accordingly.”

He wasn’t pleased.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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16 Responses leave one →
  1. July 30, 2008

    The people who I know who have become active about this subject typically do not have the views of your activist.

    It’s fair play if policy people go against the science, as long as they don’t distort the findings, the process, or perform legal contortions to avoid enforcing the law.

    Lawyers and political wordsmiths can do pretty perverse things in legal interpretion. (Many lawyers in this administration have, in fact, become famous for this kind of thing.) They can be like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland:

    `When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    `The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    `The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.’


    Democracy is subverted if the law is interpreted in perverse ways, or if scientists are prevented from talking publicly about their findings. Do you think censorship of scientific voices is what Franklin or Jefferson had in mind for the US government? Surely not.

  2. July 30, 2008

    A lot of this debate, of course, is in the realm of policy, not science. And what policymakers have decided is not anything that the EPA can control.

    But you can see a clear anti-empiricist bent in some of the policy that has been passed in recent years. Take the Data Quality Act for instance. The purpose of the Data Quality Act is to second guess the carefully-reached conclusions of the career professionals, and generally gum up the works of their findings–a phenomenon we seem to see a lot of in Washington these days. Would our Enlightenment-era founding fathers have approved? What would Jefferson or Franklin have said if they walked on the scene and saw this?

  3. July 30, 2008

    In most cases, even if we had complete scientific knowledge about all aspects of an issue, the same rancorous debate would emerge. Root policy differences are invariably over values and preferences, not science, data, and facts.

    You say this, but you don’t even seem interested in having a public discussion over the “values and preferences.” For instance, if Steven Johnson is so convinced that his “values and preferences” justifies his decision making, why doesn’t he discuss them with the congress?:

    Why does he work so hard to hide his decision making rationale?

  4. Betty Plummer permalink
    July 30, 2008

    I think we should be getting more from our scientists and leaders. Spokesmen now differentiate between ‘Sound Science’ and ‘Junk Science’ in reporting results of studies and findings, rather than refer just to ‘Science’? Why can’t experts be more honest about where they are coming from and how they are framing things? They tork scientific data to support their poltical position. Scientists, it seems, cannot get program funding unless their science fits a current political agenda.

  5. Bill S. permalink
    July 30, 2008

    James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Senator who is currently ranking member (and former chair) of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has done more than anyone I know to expose the way government perverts science to suit its own agenda. Inhofe, who has for years been calling anthropomorphic climate change a hoax perpetrated by liberals is fond of citing scientific studies to support his view. And if you looked at nothing but Inhofe’s evidence, you would have no choice but to believe him. Of course, the studies cited by Inhofe are representative of a tiny minority opinion among climate scientists, who overwhelming agree that human society is altering the global climate. But Inhofe chooses to not notice (or not to draw attention to) those things he does not agree with. Science, unfortunately, is simply a tool in the hands of government, something they manipulate and use to build what they want. As a scientist, you can hope that the people in power agree with your work, conclusions, and recommendations. If not, I suppose you simply have to be patient, and in the meantime convince yourself that the pursuit of knowledge can be an end in itself.

  6. July 30, 2008

    I wish that this were as simple to answer as the question is to ask. Some observations from almost 30 years at EPA: (1) sometimes policymakers who are afraid to make a decision or express a value judgement will try to push the policy decision back onto the scientist and ask the scientist to tell the policymaker what the science “says”; and (2) sometimes the scientist(s) has a strong sense of what he/she thinks the policy answer should be and he/she represents the science to the policymaker in a manner that appears to point to only one possible policy choice (the choice the scientist prefers as policy). For sound public policy decisions to be made, it is important for imbedded policy choices to be identified as such (in the “science”), and for policymakers to make these choices in a clear, transparent manner and explain their choices and decisions. It is equally important for policymakers to recognize and respect what is factual and objective in the science and not attempt to manipulate the science to conform with policy choices. The public is fully capable of understanding what is known scientifically and what is not known and of “following” the logic of a policymakers’ thinking. We too often, in my view, are not respectful enough of the people we work for (the public) and of their ability to understand the complexity of the science and to understand the logic of our decisionmaking–so, instead of engaging them honestly, in plain english, we do something else entirely…..

  7. Hal Michael permalink
    July 30, 2008

    Having been in various governmental “resource” agencies for more than 30 years I have seen rather great changes in how science is used, presented, and controlled. At times, we have been allowed to present what is “best for the resource” and the policy folks would explain why or why not they couldn’t act on it. At least one felt that our input was received. Generally, now, it seems that unless the agency “mission” or “message” is supported, the information is held back.

    Speaking of salmon, the only time we will get all, or almost all, scientists to agree is when they are extinct. Until then, there will be disagreements. Until then, decisions will have to made by society making choices. I can’t tell anybody WHAT to do because the choices are not science. I can tell you what the fish need to flourish. It is not my job, though, to decide that salmon get an unconstricted watershed with no dams, no diversions, no logging, etc. As Bob Lackey pointed out in Salmon 2100, many decisons about slamon (and probably other resources) are win-lose. If people get what they want/need the fish lose. If fish get what they need, some people lose.

    It is up to the public and politicians to make those decisons. Science can describe the risks/rewards/impacts to fish but society must engage in the debate, make decisons, defend them, and accept the consequences.

  8. July 31, 2008

    Thanks DK – you’re right on the money as well as being very objective and apolitical. Unfortunately, I fear, “your voice of reason” has been relegated to the Cubicles of Sisyphus and/or retirement is quickly approaching.

  9. NotMe permalink
    July 31, 2008

    Speaking of retirement, KM, I recently did just that, in good part because of the equivocations by people in the Agency’s Administration and senior sycophants –I mean, management. Rot starts at the top. With any luck, the current call for to dispatch the Administrator will be extended to his Deputy and the rest of this politically appointed menagerie.

  10. Mike Gearheard permalink
    August 14, 2008

    In the very earliest days of this Agency, Ruckelshaus taught us about science and public policy. When he made the decision to ban DDT, he did so with the acknowlegement that we didn’t have all the science we might want or need. So in the face of the inevitable scientific uncertainty, he chose to act on the side of caution, from a health and environmental protection perspective. Is it so different today? Maybe the issues are more complex; maybe the science is more or less clear; maybe the economic stakes and interests are greater. Or maybe not. But it seems clear to me, based on a long (but not scientific) career at EPA, that we will always have to make decisions as much based on value judgements as science. We need the best possible science we can assemble to try to avoid making bad decisions. But in every case that I can recall, one still has to make a decision with often significant degrees of uncertainty. So gather the information you can, engage in open and respectful debate, consider the health and environmental risks at stake, and make the call. We should come down more on the side of resource and health protection, than otherwise, when faced with risk and uncertainty, because by doing so we are taking a more responsible course of action vis a vis future generations. Of course, that is a view that could be debated. Only history tells us if we came down in the right place. The bald eagles and the osprey nesting near my house are evidence that value-based decisions can work out fine.

  11. AlexeyV permalink
    August 14, 2008

    Actually there is a very simple an obvious answer to the question.
    Q: “..what we SHOULD do about …” pretty much any environmental impact?
    A: Consume less, drive less, pollute less, eat less – decrease your footprint. Don’t have so many kids. Don’t drive such a big car so much.
    The answer is obvious. We certainly KNOW what we should do. The problem is that this is not the answer that the public WANTS TO KNOW. And probably not an answer that somebody from a federal agency can even dare to pronounce. That takes us back to politics. We have to be “politically correct”. It’s not that science doesn’t know the answer. It’s the public that doesn’t want to hear the answer. The “inconvenient truth”.

  12. Dale Brockway permalink
    August 14, 2008

    “So when are you scientists going to tell us what to do?” While perhaps I should not be amazed, I am nonetheless disappointed by such a question coming from any citizen of a democratic nation. In a democracy, its citizens should be brought up and educated to think for themselves by reading numerous sources, listening to information from a variety of viewpoints, effectively evaluating what they have learned and then arriving at their own factually-based conclusions. Unfortunately, many of our countrymen either lack these skills or are too lazy or busy to properly exercise them. Instead, they are crying out for help, for someone to tell them how to go from the less satisfying conditions of today to the “better world” they want for tomorrow. On issues related to ecosystem science and environmental managemet, it is only natural that people ask scientists to address their concerns. However as Bob stated so well, the role of the scientist is to evaluate the likely outcomes of the range of available options, so as to provide the best information to decisionmakers (who actually decide). Science is only one part of the dialogue, with economics and social values and preferences often being the primary factors of determination. Although some citizens may want experts to decide and then move ahead with solving problems,” it would serve them badly for demagogues to emerge and tell them what to think and do. There are already more than enough tele-evangelists, advertising executives and other propagandists in our society who operate in this manner. Scientists should strongly resist the tempation to become the new “piped-pipers” promising to lead the people to a new utopia. It is our role to evaluate alternatives and occassionally suggest new and novel approaches to problem solving, but the decision making in a democrary must remain with the people and their duly elected representatives. If the democratic people begin surrendering to demagogues, it may not be long before they find themselves following autocratic rulers who will more than happy to impose a “solution” of their own choosing, no matter what the people may later think or desire. In a democracy, people must take personal responsibility and work through the system, no matter how long and painful a process is may be. After all, democracy is the worst system in the world, except for every other type of system.

  13. August 14, 2008

    Fisheries related sciences, where very few ground-truth can be obtained in comparion to physical sciences, rely almost solely on statistics for judging the truth. This has created a base for ‘faith-based science’ in fisheries sciences (see ‘Faith-based fisheries’ by Ray Hilborn, Fisheries Vol 31 No 11 Nov 2006 Many studies are catered to the proving (or disproving) of selective hypothese by some ‘faith-based scientists’. These studies and their claims are very misleading to the public. In my view, the issue the scientific community is facing is not the public expect too much from science but these ‘faith-based’ published studies (some in highly regarded journals) have misinformed and misguided the public. To fisheries scientists of the current generation: do objective studies and data analyses and let nature inform you how things work.

  14. James Reaves permalink
    August 14, 2008

    What people have to realize is that calls for “more research” or “better science” are often used as ploys to delay action. After all, who is going to argue with “better science” or “more information”?

    Whenver I read that an organization has called for better science or more research I always look to see how they are related to the groups that stand to benefit economically or politically from doing nothing.

  15. Zeke permalink
    August 18, 2008

    While the Q&A session which Dr. Lackey describes in his blog entry is an interesting rhetorical device, it’s not clear whether the activist was really asking for a value judgement, or whether the inference was, “If we want to save the salmon, what do we need to do?” It’s often the case that when scientists present the results of their research, it really doesn’t answer the above question.

    But let’s assume that the activist really did mean “Should we save the salmon?” which is a policy question, not a science question. There can be several answers (or justifications, if you prefer), that draw on deep ecology, spiritual values, economics, law, and the like. But expert scientists often have a unique and valuable viewpoint that can be quite persuasive. What is the role played by salmon in aquatic systems, and what would be the consequences if the number of salmon were greatly diminished? What is the value of salmon in terms of ecosystem services? Or why do biologists and ecologists who are strict rationalists still believe that salmon (or any other fish native fish species, or even healthy benthic invertebrate communities) should be preserved?

    While “in the end it is up to society to prioritize [the] options and make their choices accordingly,” society should not be deprived of the point of view of scientists who have dedicated their live’s work to understanding (and in some cases saving) salmon and the rich diversity of life on Earth.

  16. Bob Vadas, Jr. permalink
    September 4, 2008

    This is an interesting discussion. What hasn’t been said yet is that scientists should publish their research in popular (layperson), as well as scientific (journal), outlets. Indeed, publishing a popular article was a requirement of graduate students (including yours truly) in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences at Virginia Tech. In addition, scientists should join environmental organizations that they agree with. After all, we are part of the public on our own time, too (some of the discussion above seems to imply that we’re completely separate from the public!).
    For further information on saving Pacific salmon, please see Bob Lackey’s other blog at

    Some of the above discussion also implies that science is faulty, to limit its ability to solve environmental problems. While there’s some truth to that, science is self-correcting and much-more objective than other institutions (e.g., religious and political entities) for obtaining reliable information (cf. We just need objective citizens and politicians to accept bad news and agree to solve these problems in bipartisan fashion. Certainly, partisan politics of late has overridden politicians’ need to do useful public service. When I was working in California a decade ago, I was warned by my federal-agency boss that water was VERY important to the economy, such that my intended estuarine-flow analysis of the Bay-Delta was a dangerous project to work on. This caused me to put more focus on smaller, coastal streams (cf. Now Chinook and delta smelt stocks in the San Francisco Bay catchment are really hurting because of water impacts, not to mention Chinook, coho, and sucker stocks in the Klamath River basin (where water politics is also very prevalent). Indeed, Utah State University’s Klamath instream-flow report wasn’t finalized by the feds for a long time because of this controversy (cf. & Clearly, stubborn dissemination of scientific information is needed, including leaks to the media and environmental organizations when needed. So agency whistleblowers need further protection, too, as is fortunately being implemented in Washington state (where I work).

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