16 April 2010

Xtreme Science Advocacy: A Guest Post by Sharon Friedman

Editor's note: This is a guest post by Sharon Friedman, who describes herself as "a scientist and a by day, a mild-mannered federal employee, with an avocation of science and technology policy studies." This post presents, of course, her personal views. Along with others interested in forest planning she blogs at A New Century of Forest Planning.
Sometimes scientists behaving as policy advocates is a gentle, almost difficult to detect, kind of thing. This week we have a chance to observe it at its most extreme. And for those of you who think climate scientists are unique.. well.. not so.

In this case, we have 500 (count ‘em ) scientists writing a letter (here in PDF) to the President supporting a specific regulation.

So let’s parse out where the “science” is in their knowledge claims.

First, they claim if roadless areas are important, then the 2001 Rule is the only correct policy choice. (Does this sound familiar- like climate change and cap and trade? Any hardwiring between science and a specific policy has to be highly suspect.)

I call this the “sleight of science” approach where their scientific arguments are that protecting roadless areas are good for environment values. But I don’t think you can simply say that therefore, because of science, you must have environmental values or you’re not using the science. Which is highly confusing, but on top of that, even if you do share environmental values for roadless, there are many ways of developing a protective policy. The question is whether the 2001 Roadless Rule is the best policy that could be invented by a Democratic administration today. Guess what- scientists don’t get to frame policy questions as being simply science questions. They can try, but people usually catch on, to the detriment of public trust (do biologists want to join climate scientists on the low-trust bandwagon?).

Second, a policy question usually is thought to require the balancing of social, economic and environmental concerns. Yet our 500 “scientists” seem to be heavily biased toward biology and ecology. Except for a philosopher, which last I checked wasn’t actually a science. Oh, well.

Third, the facts are not correct and I know that most of the people who signed this do not know what is in the Idaho Rule nor the Colorado Petition. They do not know what the 2001 Rule really does, the exceptions and the case law. That is the role of roadless geeks and I don’t see their names on this list.

Let’s just take one example in the Colorado statement and ask “where’s the science?”
In Colorado, which contains over 4 million acres of inventoried roadless areas, proposed exemptions in their draft rule would impact at least 246,000 acres of inventoried roadless areas by removing them from the national inventory or degrading them by eliminating many restrictions on logging and road building.
This refers to the July 29, 2009 tally which has been subsequently revised by the Governor of Colorado. The current numbers are that 467,000 acres were removed based on on-the-ground reviews by the Forest Service and Colorado Department of Wildlife because they had roads or timber sales. But what is not mentioned is that 409,000 additional acres that were determined to be really roadless were added. Thus, there is a net loss from the inventory of 57,600 acres.

But these removed acres were not really roadless – so how can it be science that determines whether protecting roaded roadless areas is better than unroaded roadless areas? We are definitely in the realm of values here... and why did they use the old petition numbers when the new one came out on April 4, 2010 (here in PDF,their letter was dated April 14, 2010 )?

I could go on with their other statements to document a pattern.

Now I am not na├»ve. I know what happened is that someone wrote a letter and everyone signed on without independently verifying the facts, let alone independently thinking about whether this is a science issue or not. But if scientists don’t due diligence on things they sign, then they are no better than politicians in terms of being trusted to have the facts right.

The letter's conclusion made me cringe:
In closing, we thank you for your pledge to restore scientific integrity to policy development and specifically to decisions impacting the environment – including the conservation of our public lands. As scientists, we believe that the 2001 Roadless Rule remains the most scientifically credible approach for managing and protecting our last undeveloped national forests, and we urge your continued support for it.
I don’t know what “scientific integrity” means in term of policy development. I do know what plain old human integrity is. Signing on to something without checking the facts, and claiming that something is a science issue that we all know it ain’t, is not really walking the integrity talk, in my opinion.

I recommend that science and technology scholars begin to write letters of correction when they see egregious evidence of science abuse. Maybe we can get 1000 science and technology policy scholars to sign a letter.