Science-Based or Science-Informed?

back off man

John Thomas, Jr.’s comment here:

“My point is that science is a large assemblage of parts, and it takes a supple mind to put those parts in order to have a comprehensive result. An artist, if you will. Big Picture person. Visionary. Those people exist and I have seen their work all my life in many aspects of our natural resource economy.”

reminded me of this Commentary I wrote for the Journal of Forestry in 2002 linked here.

I wrote it as the Chair of the Forest Science and Technology Board at the Society of American Foresters. More recently, I was the Chair of the Committee on Forest Policy. Does that give me credibility to talk about these things? I must admit it was sometimes frustrating to be involved in discussions of the 2012 planning rule, given that some external groups treated Science and Scientists more like sacred objects and high priests. Despite the existence of the science of science and technology studies that says that that isn’t an appropriate way to deal with policy. I was always mystified (including during the 2001 Planning Rule, in that case by internal folks) by people who say their science should rule policy, but not other fields of science ;). Anyway, below is the test of the Commentary.

When we use the term “science-based,” I think we really mean that we would like decisions to be informed by the most-current, highest-quality scientific information. Using the term “science-based” can be misleading, as it implies that “science” is the foundation for the decision; in fact, people choose practices that best meet their values. Scientific
and other types of information should inform the decisionmaker of the effects of different choices.

To me, making good resource management policy is both an art and a science. For policymakers or decisionmakers, it’s a little like making lentil soup. They have tasty bits—the research articles, legal expertise, indigenous and practitioner knowledge, and monitoring information. They want each bit to
be of sufficient quality, so they ask us scientists or other experts (the lentil and sausage specialists) for our advice.
The process of turning informational ingredients into policy soup has well-developed sciences to support it— the decision sciences. Researchers in these fields examine the processes for
making decisions and how information can best be used in those decisions in a variety of contexts. Without quality decision science information and quality policy practitioners, taking information from all the disciplines can result in a tasteless jumble rather than a mouthwatering delight.

Potentially even more dangerous is putting the lentil and sausage specialists to work in the kitchen. Since we scientists and other specialists tend to love our particular bit, we tend to overestimate the importance of that bit to the soup, and have an inherent conflict of interest in the soup’s development.

I agree with my colleague Bob Lee at University of Washington that the beauty and attraction of science is that it “gives us rules that protect us from the all-too-human tendency to fool
ourselves, either individually or collectively.”

But because all policy issues cross disciplines, the only truly “scientific” claim for the policy product is that of the decision sciences. I believe that in addition to quality ingredients, our best bet for a nutritious and delicious
policy soup is civil public debate of competing knowledge claims, improving our decision science capacity, and a structured way to learn from our policy practitioners who dependably deliver quality products.

6 Comments

  1. “When we use the term “science-based,” I think we really mean that we would like decisions to be informed by the most-current, highest-quality scientific information.”

    2012 Planning Rule: “The responsible official shall use the best available scientific information to inform the planning process …” (36 CFR 219.3). “Best” meaning “the most accurate, reliable and relevant to the issues being considered.” Sounds like that Forest Service got the recipe right this time.

    • I read the new Salem, Or, school supt. is married to a man who worked where I did when he was a lad. He and his brother were driving early one morning to “clean creeks” and construct fire trails when their pickup left the road and his brother was killed. He was a victim of “best science” that was the direct result of debris taking out engineered constructs during the 1964 Christmas Flood on the West Coast, which came just two years after Typhoon Frieda, which pretty much leveled the low elevation old growth forests of NorCal, OR, and WA. I was working for Weyerhaeuser, and they did not log anything but salvage for over three years. And, used DISC corporation tax reductions to export a lot of what they logged. The plethora of wood could not be utilized in the US market as lumber.

      The typhoon filled millions of acres of watersheds with large, coarse, woody debris, which in the 100 year flood event of 1964, washed downstream and took out infrastructure, including the I-84 bridge in the Columbia River gorge over the John Day River. The Eel River in California ran 700,000 cfs during that flood. The Columbia River, in a normal spring freshet, runs 500,000 cfs just above Astoria where it enters the Pacific.

      Cleaning creeks, foisted on industry as “best science” as debris in streams caused “BOD” which was harmful to fish. Biological Oxygen Demand created when the woody debris decomposed. Like leaves don’t fall in creeks every summer and fall. But science was irrefutable. And my friend’s son was killed on his way to clean a creek, which was a gross environmental mistake as the result of “best science” being used. How about incomplete science, or a technological minute slice of science being applied on an inappropriate scale? Does that happen today? Only time will tell.

      And now we have spent twenty years using all means of equipment including helicopters, to take merchantable logs and place them in streams to provide “structure” for fish habitat. To slow and create meanders in streams. New “best science.” “Best science” has to be addressed with a recognizable quotient of skepticism. “Best Science” is always incomplete science. We don’t know long term outcomes because the implementation is driven by immediate needs and a false sense of immediacy. Or so I think.

      • Indeed, to this day, you can still see the silt marks on those riverside redwoods, along the Eel River. If they weren’t still there, no one would ever believe the High Water signs along Highway 101. “Pre-mitigation” for disasters seems unacceptable to the preservationist groups. It will be interesting to see what the public thinks of allowing commercial gold dredging to happen during “restoration” activities (paid for by the government) on the rivers flowing through the Mother Lode country. Of course, the recreational prospector would remain barred from doing smallest scale dredging.

      • Science is always incomplete, and should always be addressed with a quotient of skepticism, and I think that few practicing scientists would disagree with you. But politicians, administrators, lawyers, judges, and the general public often have a hard time wrapping their heads around those concepts, instead preferring the false security of (illusory) scientific infallibility.

      • My story has to do with the late 70’s in Klamath Falls, Oregon. At that time, the SE and Central Oregon forests were converting from “pick and pluck” to a more even-aged forest management (influenced by the fact that the university at that time was in Corvallis?). Scientists came out from OSU and told us our clearcuts weren’t big enough to be efficient, so they weren’t the best science of the day. Later, Franklin came up with big messy clearcuts.. I agree with you John, it’s hard to tell “ideas formed by a particular place and time (and discipline)” from “science.” Only historically can we see what lasts and is “true” in some more global sense.

        That would be a great story to write.. take the last 50 years or so of forest management and see what fads have gone in and out of favor, and what schools, departments, disciplines (and NGOs) and what professors promoted them.

        In my view, there can be also a little intellectual back-biting that can also go on. Suppose you (Jaime) do a study (logging causes sedimentation). Winnie, the manager, says “that is not relevant to my work because you studied western Oregon, my area is South-Central and besides I use BMPs.” Winnie documents that in an EA.

        If Jaime really believes his or her own hype, they may say “Winnie is not using the best science.”

        If they don’t like to have this discussed openly, they may actually tell Winnie’s boss “Winnie does not get along with scientists/the research branch/ etc.” One thing I learned about scientific/academic culture is that direct dealing with disagreements among people is not a common part of that culture. Many times It’s actually fairly different from the situation as portrayed where people have open civilized discussions on their work.

        As Jerry Franklin once said to us geneticists at a Biodiversity workshop in Region 6, “why don’t you geneticists get together and decide among yourselves what the story is?”. Well, there are really no mechanisms to do that for most things.

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