Comments on: Science Wednesday: Does the Public Expect Too Much From Science? http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/07/science-wednesday-does-the-public-expect-too-much-from-science/ The EPA Blog Tue, 28 Jul 2015 12:59:42 +0000 hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.1 By: Bob Vadas, Jr. http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/07/science-wednesday-does-the-public-expect-too-much-from-science/#comment-9199 Thu, 04 Sep 2008 18:58:58 +0000 http://blog.epa.gov/blog/?p=255#comment-9199 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 http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/07/11/realityaboutsalmon.

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. http://www.beesource.com/pov/wenner/oikos94.htm). 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. http://www.springerlink.com/content/v028xu2lr7q80j25). 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. http://www.waterwatch.org/pressroom/press-clips/klamath-basin-report-sparks-differing-interpretations & http://www.klamathbasincrisis.org/science/sciencetoc.htm). 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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By: Zeke http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/07/science-wednesday-does-the-public-expect-too-much-from-science/#comment-9198 Mon, 18 Aug 2008 21:23:50 +0000 http://blog.epa.gov/blog/?p=255#comment-9198 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.

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By: James Reaves http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/07/science-wednesday-does-the-public-expect-too-much-from-science/#comment-9197 Thu, 14 Aug 2008 22:12:02 +0000 http://blog.epa.gov/blog/?p=255#comment-9197 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.

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By: TT http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/07/science-wednesday-does-the-public-expect-too-much-from-science/#comment-9196 Thu, 14 Aug 2008 21:57:36 +0000 http://blog.epa.gov/blog/?p=255#comment-9196 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 http://www.fisheries.org). 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.

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By: Dale Brockway http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/07/science-wednesday-does-the-public-expect-too-much-from-science/#comment-9195 Thu, 14 Aug 2008 20:42:55 +0000 http://blog.epa.gov/blog/?p=255#comment-9195 “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.

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By: AlexeyV http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/07/science-wednesday-does-the-public-expect-too-much-from-science/#comment-9194 Thu, 14 Aug 2008 20:00:20 +0000 http://blog.epa.gov/blog/?p=255#comment-9194 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”.

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By: Mike Gearheard http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/07/science-wednesday-does-the-public-expect-too-much-from-science/#comment-9193 Thu, 14 Aug 2008 18:31:16 +0000 http://blog.epa.gov/blog/?p=255#comment-9193 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.

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By: NotMe http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/07/science-wednesday-does-the-public-expect-too-much-from-science/#comment-9192 Thu, 31 Jul 2008 22:09:48 +0000 http://blog.epa.gov/blog/?p=255#comment-9192 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.

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By: KM http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/07/science-wednesday-does-the-public-expect-too-much-from-science/#comment-9191 Thu, 31 Jul 2008 17:46:20 +0000 http://blog.epa.gov/blog/?p=255#comment-9191 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.

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By: Hal Michael http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2008/07/science-wednesday-does-the-public-expect-too-much-from-science/#comment-9190 Thu, 31 Jul 2008 03:58:03 +0000 http://blog.epa.gov/blog/?p=255#comment-9190 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.

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