Science, Law, and the Press: Idealized vs. Real

I’ve been thinking about how people use the terms “science” as in ” policies are better if they’re based on science”; and law as in “environmental laws are great because Congress made them, but if Congress messes with any of the case-law derived interpretations, that would be bad.”

It’s almost like there’s an idealized institution that people appeal to in some arguments, while sometimes ignoring or downplaying the realities of the institution. I think it will be helpful to talk about in future discussions how that plays out..for example, are Franklin and Johnson’s involvement with prescriptions on O&C lands making it “science.” What if it were two other scientists who developed a different prescription, would that still be “science”? It’s not hard to imagine other ecologist/economist pairs that could come up with other prescriptions.

Now, Congress’s messiness is laid out for the whole world to see through the press. But in my experience dealing with Forest Service projects wending their way through the system, I saw the “real” side of “science” (which I already knew about); the courts, and the press. Now I am not saying that any of them are any worse than any other; but they are all human and not perfect institutions. Human behavior in groups tends to be fairly similar and is not always perfect. When we talk about institutions, then, it seems to me, we should generally be talking about the institution as real and not as idealized.

Now people who are in the trenches on projects and see this firsthand, do not really have a voice. As agency folks, you are not allowed to question (in public) some of the issues or problems you see. For one thing, that might make powerful folks angry at the FS. For example, on one case, one of our attorneys said “we think the judge has the law wrong on this, but we won’t tell him because he is a young judge and we don’t want to have him biased against the FS for his career.” The fact that others critique the FS, but the FS can’t (usually) engage in meaningful public back and forth means that only one side is represented to the public, as we’ve discussed before.

Which also brings up that none of the feedback loops in the table allow for public discussion of claims and counterclaims, as we have on this blog. It’s too time-consuming, perhaps, but not having a place for that to occur seems to me to also be a problem. And we have to look at who is involved in the discussion and how members of the public get involved or not.

institutional feedback 2

I am interested in your thoughts on this table. One thing I thought we might be able to do on this blog, that might be helpful, would be to keep tabs on some of the journals and post relevant information on this blog so that these critiques are more available in the public sphere.

What do you think about the table? What would you change or add? What ideas does the table generate in your mind?


  1. Where would I find the rule for “peer review.” Where is it written on what constitutes peer review and who is the arbiter? Or is peer review a “you scratch my back, and I, yours.” Is there a formal peer review process with a list of formal steps with a stated methodology?

    • It looks to me that “peer review” has been evolving, over the years. For a while, “blind” peer review was being pushed but, it seemed to me that if you’re going to review the work, you should put your name to it. Imagine telling skeptics that “some anonymous scientists agree with me”. Besides, it was more convincing to put names and titles to your list, anyway. Now, it seems that lists must have names of scientists who actually know a lot about what they are reviewing. Yes, it did seem that lists can be just a bunch of e-mail contacts of like-minded “scientists”. Peer review should be more about review, and less about how many peers. IMHO, from a science-minded technician.

    • Well, there is a whole academic literature on peer review. I don’t think I can do it justice but can hunt up some cites. Just like other issues, it is a human practice. Sometimes it works really well. Sometimes it is “gold old boy” to the n (th) degree. The process depends on the designer. It can look different for proposals to be funded, for journals for publication, for policies, etc. Bob Zybach’s group ESIPRI had the idea of formalizing a process and paying people for reviews, but last I heard they were having trouble getting funding.

  2. I wouldn’t say that the media is very objective. Some papers (LA Times, Sacramento Bee, etc) seem to be a LOT more critical of Forest Service projects. Also, some blogs are becoming more like media outlets. I have a favorite baseball blog for my team and they are now allowed extraordinary access to General Managers and Team Presidents. Sometimes, even the newspaper columnists aren’t invited, too. I would like this blog to become a more powerful influence on public information about real-world issues and lively counterpoint. Our version of “Crossfire”? None of us have the broad experience of our collective group, and this place needs to keep all of its moving parts. It is best to keep encouraging people to join in, regardless of their point of view. Of course, some will continue to “hit and run” but, even that practice is “enlightening”. *smirk*

  3. Why is there a question mark after “To their boards?” in the Environmental NGO column?

    And, honestly, what does this mean? And is it really an accurate portrayal?

    Now people who are in the trenches on projects and see this firsthand, do not really have a voice. [Huh, really?] As agency folks, you are not allowed to question (in public) some of the issues or problems you see. [Huh, really?] For one thing, that might make powerful folks angry at the FS. [What?] For example, on one case, one of our attorneys said “we think the judge has the law wrong on this, but we won’t tell him because he is a young judge and we don’t want to have him biased against the FS for his career.” [Huh? Is a Forest Service attorney the only attorney in the history of human kind and the law to make a similar statement?] The fact that others critique the FS, but the FS can’t (usually) engage in meaningful public back and forth means that only one side is represented to the public, as we’ve discussed before. [Again, what? The Government of the United States of America can’t “engage in meaningful public back and forth?” With whom? The public? Well, at least the federal government can gather up every single phone call or email the entire US Public has ever made in their entire life.]

    • Yes, Matthew, the Government of the United States has powers that ID Team members on the Treed District of the Forest National Forest do not have. I am speaking from the perspective of people who are designing projects.

      No, I am not arguing that the court system is special for FS or government issues. What I am saying is that these are institutions with human factors, and sometimes I read things where people seem to talk about the idealized version rather than the real version that people see and work with every day. Part of that is that other than retirees, government ethics says you can’t talk except through channels. And that makes sense. It’s just that we miss some perspectives and observation that way.

      To be clear, this portrayal is based on my pre-retirement experience. I don’t know what you mean by “accurate” in that sense.

      • So people on a USFS ID team can’t, through the EIS/EA/CE paperwork, or within public meetings, or private meetings with various stakeholders, express themselves or explain what their proposed project/action is good, bad or indifferent? Or raise questions? Again…Huh?

    • Matt, you know as well as anyone that you, or groups like yours, are accountable only to your funders and/or your boards of directors. If you can get your own science funded, to fit your agenda, then it is done that way. Period.
      And we all know that science is conducted and debated in a truly insular fashion. Only those with access to the actual journal articles (and time to read, and the mobility to debate, or verify) have even the tiniest chance of understanding the topic and the issues associated. And a related degree sure helps, and darn few people have THAT.
      Then, when it comes to the translation between academia or “science” to the lay public, even fewer journalists have the kind of intellectual horsepower to effectively vet what they are told by alphabet holders.
      Then you pile on the insularity of science with that of the LAW governing application of the science. The bottom line of all this is, when it comes to taking these issues off the island onto the mainland, there’s a quarantine or trust issue that whatever comes off the island shouldn’t be toxic.
      What Sharon’s table shows is that each of these categories has a certain trust obligation, and the successful execution of that trust requires some kind of accountability — and none of the categories Sharon came up with seem to have sufficient external or internal controls to enforce that accountability.

      • And who are you, and your activism, “accountable” to Dave? And does it “have sufficient external or internal controls to enforce that accountability?”

        I just see no point in Sharon’s chart, fail to understand what’s it’s suppose to portray. IO also still wonder why the question mark is after the enviro board, but not under any of the other categories….especially since as Dave points out enviro NGO’s are accountable to their BoD.


        • I’m not in the environmental NGO world so simply didn’t know how much they are written about or what other mechanisms there might be for critiques of practices.

          The point of the chart was to highlight areas where information might be less available to the public and to possibly suggest ways that that could be filled. Also to help people be aware as they read statements and press releases, that sometimes folks talk about idealized and other times about real institutions, depending on the point of view they are trying to get across. It seems to me that it is good for readers to be able to pick that out, as the real world deals only with real institutions, not the ideal ones.

          • Far as I can tell, the environmental NGO is openly critiqued throughout society, including in the media (ever watch Fox News?), throughout politics, at the diner, in academic circles, in scientific circles, at church, etc.

            But, again, I just fail to understand what the point of the chart is. Because, far as I can tell, all those other Community/Institutions are also openly critiqued throughout society. I mean, we shouldn’t trust a press release from the enviro NGO’s, but we should trust a press release from the government? The Forest Service? Or our Congress person? Or from business such and such?

            Sorry, but I just don’t get what this is about, other than another attempt to try and discredit the enviro community.

            • I’m accountable to whatever editors choose to hire me, I guess, Matt. And, it seems, to myself quite a bit, I’ve turned down work on principle. Expensive choice, but I don’t have expensive tastes, so it works out in the end.

              I see you didn’t forget academics and journalists, too, Matt. And bureaucrats, and capitalists. Sharon is trying to differentiate between the theoretical and applied, ideal versus real. Not a bad stab at it, honestly. A lot of people are forgiving of their pet institution, thinking their home base can originate no wrong, have no conflicted motives. Or they may not be forgiving, but like the steady income, especially if it is higher than they could get in another sector.

              As for criticism of the eco-sector, I think it is justified. Two things — enviros are inherently political; and second, are funded anonymously. I mean, all of us hate political slush funding, don’t we?
              I remember when Eve Byron was accidentally shown the funding for AWR, on the “not open to public inspection” page. That was a fascinating exercise in hypocrisy, one deceased donor had a major car collection and ended up dying on his zillion-dollar, diesel-sucking yacht three weeks before I figured out who he was.
              Or there’s the hedge funding math whiz who bankrolled Sierra Club’s operations in the hundreds of millions for years, all while getting a nice tax writeoff in complete anonymity while doing the rake off that strips wealth without creating any.
              That’s political money, spent in the utter blackness with help from the writeoffs, that has major policy and political outcomes, major consequences for other citizens, yet the person that bankrolls stuff like this is known only to the board of directors of many enviro groups. How about the Chesapeake Energy guy?
              How about, who funds Sara Jane, or did? Do they have a vested interest, or have something to lose were they made known? So in that way, I guess, the enviro groups are singular and unique, and probably deserve at least part of the singular level of criticism they get.

  4. It’s just sort of mind-boggling to me that with all the F-up stuff happening throughout the world that it’s the mighty (lowly?) environmental NGO that apparently takes the cake for being the most corrupt, dishonest, selfish, hypocritical, political monster of ’em all. Good to know what I and my friends and colleagues are really all about, I guess. Good grief.

  5. Matthew, it’s kind of funny that you took the table to be anti-enviro. I put y’all in the last minute with “businesses.” I am mostly interested in the difference between what I see in the real world of the legal and scientific processes compared to how they are depicted, e.g., “if the FS would only follow the law.”

    Especially. now that I think about it, by the legal biz about the scientific biz. As I was looking for broken links, I ran across this old post.

    Professor Squillace is an exceedingly bright and knowledgeable person. And yet, he said “Many,including me,suggested that it was not enough merely to take the best science into account,as if it were only one factor to be considered. ” As if.. it were that simple to arrive at “the best science” given that “science” is a function of many diverse forces. Combined with “as if” we are in a technocracy and not a democracy.

  6. Would I be totally out of line if I suggested that a column be added named “funding”, because that is what drives the whole of this. I don’t know if the McClatchy folks had any paper companies, but the LA Times Chandlers did, in Oregon and in California: Publishers Paper Company. And they were mostly wooded with public land timber sales, and bought white wood chips from companies that sawed hemlock and true firs. Their interest in USFS policy might be a deeper scar than we know.

    Money drives this world. The USFS works off a Congressional budget agreed upon with the Administration, in a very contentious and political process. The Press, the Media, work as far as their money can take them, and newspapers have pink slipped tens of thousands of reporters in the last two decades as the print media suffers to find its way in a quickly changing milieu of information digitally dispersed instantly to the world. All the while who puts what into that information stream is getting more unknown daily, to a point that the question becomes one asking if there any validity to internet information, can it be trusted to be true, or is it all misdirection and sham news reporting, buyer beware?

    Foundations and trusts have an IRS policed responsibility to spend money, annually, to keep the tax man at bay. NGO’s suckle them like their lives depend upon them, and they do. All of it is wound up in a tax system that allows money, and therefore power, to pass generationally through foundations and trusts, keeping the families with wealth intact and able to grow that wealth, in a convoluted process of tax avoidance. The whole of that world is very private and out of the public eye.

    Business is only able to exist by having revenues that are greater than outflow and expenses. And what is surplus, profits, are taxed, in the United State now at the highest rates in the world today.

    Science if an amalgam of government directed research by individual agencies, or contracted by those agencies, all of which is supported by tax money. Business has a need to be at the cutting edge of science in order to innovate, create, and enhance whatever it is they do. So science and research has a private sector aspect to it. Then there is the university science, which is part introspection, learning, and education for those who want to pursue science as a career, and there is a greater part of university science that is research for who might pay for that research, or might be prevailed upon to support some aspect of science just for the sake of expanding knowledge in some sort of “pure” aspect of looking for questions and answers. Just because. None of it, however, can exist without money to support it. Vast sums of money. And with that need for money comes stress and pressures to perform, to find the “right” answers, to advance the fortunes of those who do the research and those who have paid for the research. Who pays for what is never going to happen in a vacuum. And Science has to dance for who is paying the bills. Add to that the human ego, and science can become a terribly agitated state of human endeavor.

    So when I asked the questions about peer review, I was looking for an idea of how the layman can access the whole of the process when he has neither influence nor money. “Nowhere” no being able to challenge science because scientists have cloistered themselves in peer review is not acceptable. “Nowhere” is inhabited by “Nobody”, who is taxed to fund Science. For the layman to have any confidence or support for “science”, the layman at the least should have some sort of standardized outline of rigor and honesty to the process that brings “science” to the world for review outside of the peer process. Just saying “it was peer reviewed” , and therefor true, when we really don’t have an idea of how any particular “peer review” was arrived at has gotten us to the point where we are today, in that “state of paralysis by analysis” where there is nothing but will o’ the wisp scatterings of semantics in play doing little more than feed lawyers and those who are tasked with filling in the blanks with prattle because none know the what the “truth” really is. Writing law to ask who wins a beauty contest in science, a popularity contest, a “friending” process of like minded scholars, will never settle a thing.

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