Science or “Scienciness”- Situations that Shout Watch Out 1-3

In this series of posts, I will use as an example a recent paper The Myth of “Catastrophic” Wildfire: A New Ecological Paradigm of Forest Health. An article in New West brought this to my attention. I’ll use it as an example to describe situations that, from a science policy perspective, shout “watch out.” I expect that through the dialogue on the planning rule, there will be opportunities to address specific knowledge claims by scientists, and, for some, to investigate the logic path for the links (as we say in administrative appeals) between facts found and conclusions drawn.

Situation 1. High Hype Factor. In general, traditional scientific papers do not use words like “myth” “new” or “paradigm” in the title, or even words with “quotation marks around them”; if it sounds like it has been lifted from the pages of the scientific equivalent of the National Enquirer, it is probably a sign that the scientists involved are making an argument for some policy choice, not objectively evaluating evidence. Scientists can’t control the press office of their organization or university in terms of hype; but they shouldn’t be adding to the problem by overstating their contributions.

Of course, it is totally OK to make an argument for a policy choice; but you should be clear with the reader what your role is- you are not attempting to do an objective synthesis of science, you as a person with science credentials, are engaging in a polemic.

Situation 2. Lack of Peer Review. The need for and utility of peer review has been stated and restated. Even the problems of peer review have their own body of literature. For a scientific paper, peer review may be necessary but it is not sufficient to guarantee quality, for a variety of reasons. Many of these have been discussed with regard to the climate science literature. Some have argued that posting on the internet with opportunity for comments is an excellent supplement to peer review.

Situation 3. When Scientists Frame the Issue. This is a situation that occurs more frequently than desirable, and is actually the source of unnecessary tension between scientists and managers. Here is the way this dysfunctional cycle operates. First, there is a pot of money, to be distributed through a competitive process with a panel of other scientists. A scientist writes a proposal with a certain framing (e.g., fire protection of people and their communities is the same as protecting houses). Since none of the communities involved are at the table, and the framing sounds plausible to the other scientists, the proposal is funded. Then the scientist does the work. When they hear about the research results, managers then ignore the results, or only partially use them, because the results aren’t relevant to their framing of the issue. The last step of the cycle is that the managers are accused of “not using the best available science.” I have seen this cycle play out many times.

The scientific evidence is clear that the only effective way to protect structures from fire is to reduce the ignitability of the structure itself (e.g., fireproof roofing, leaf gutter guards) and the immediate surroundings within about 100 feet from each home, e.g., through thinning of brush and small trees adjacent to the homes (–see studies by U.S. Forest Service fire scientist Dr. Jack Cohen)

In this case, the difference in framing is as simple as it’s not about the structures- it’s about the fact that people don’t want fire running through their communities. It is about all kinds of community infrastructure, stop signs and power poles, landscaping, fences, gardens, trees and benches in parks, people and pets and livestock having safe exits from encroaching fires. It is about firefighter safety and about conditions for different suppression tactics. That’s why fire breaks of some kinds around communities (not just structures) will always be popular in the real world. Of course, people don’t actually fireproof their homes either in the real world. “How can we best keep wildfires from damaging communities and endangering people” would be a more complex, but more real framing of the question. Note that one scientific discipline can’t provide the answer to this framing- there are elements of fire science, community design, fire suppression practice, sociology, political science and economics.

Next post: Situation 4. When Scientists Speak For Nature.

8 thoughts on “Science or “Scienciness”- Situations that Shout Watch Out 1-3”

  1. I have known Chad Hanson for a long time. He was a very effective forest watch advocate, often finding the Forest Service doing things it should not have done. After many years pushing the “End Commercial Logging” (ECL) bill, which he drafted, Chad got tired waiting on Congress to pass that bill. He and his friend (and mine) Rene Voss from the John Muir Project made other plans. Rene went to law school. Chad went for his PhD. Chad’s wife was already a lawyer, but Rene had a knack for law (he was the person behind Sierra Club v. Martin in the 11th Circuit), and they figured another lawyer would be helpful. Chad got his PhD and has now proceeded to advance his agenda through science.

    I am not saying that Chad is bending the science to meet his agenda. Chad is a VERY committed person to his ideals, and I feel certain that he really believes that what his scientific research tells him matches 100% with his ideals of National Forests that should never be abused again. And I am not against advancing agendas; I advance mine whenever I can. But what he puts out now as Dr. Hanson reads like what he put out 15 years ago as advocate Hanson. Sharon’s caveats on this paper are all correct. Chad’s paper is a good example of how science should inform decisions about management but not dictate them. Management decisions should be consistent with the best available science but never dictated specifically by it.

    Attempts by environmentalist scientists to use their work to dictate policy should always be given as much suspicion as similar attempts by pro-industry scientists. Of course, I know timber people and scientists who are just like Chad. All this argues for the value of peer-review, even with its many flaws. It also argues for the use of collaborative, cooperative decision making where people come together as people (not agendas), with some humility and a willingness to listen more than you talk. Which is why I am liking this new NFMA rule process thus far, and especially this blog. Thanks.

  2. Ray- I did not mean to pick on anyone in particular. This just came across my desk and seemed like an opportunity to articulate those Watchout! situations.

    For example, I also saw this from our friends at Earthjustice last week. Which includes this :

    The problem is that the Forest Service’s own scientists have long concluded that fires have to burn within 40 meters (130 feet) of a structure for it to ignite. …. One can sympathize with the Forest Service for wanting to do something to address fire risk, especially when people see a landscape of dead and dying trees killed by a years-long bark beetle epidemic. But logging ….? When the science shows it won’t protect homes?

    As it happens, through the last couple of years, I have heard a bunch of the ideas in the Hanson paper expressed in the form of “drive-by” science. It is helpful and convenient to run across a paper where these ideas are collected, so that we can discuss them in an open forum of interested people.

  3. It is not about picking on someone in particular but about picking on a tactic in particular, which here is to confuse the multitude of real, complex and difficult issues by focusing on one issue that sounds like it is THE only issue. Chad’s paper is indeed a good example. Protecting homes is very important, but as you pointed out so well, those who have to deal with the forest all the time have a LOT more issues to deal with when it comes to fire. We enviros are guilty of playing up an issue we “win” on, protecting homes, in order to “win” on the entire range of issues, as the EarthJustice claim shows. Timber folks do the same by focusing on specific areas where logging is “the answer” to an issue, ignoring the side effects of that narrow focus on other issues. It is a valuable lesson in caution that we all need to keep in mind so that we can work on this together. Thanks.

  4. Sharon,

    I don’t understand your point. Of course the paper is a polemic. The paper comes from an environmental group, The Earth Island Institute. From your wiki link:

    a polemic usually addresses serious matters of religious, philosophical, political, or scientific importance, and is often written to dispute or refute a widely accepted position.

    That is exactly what I would expect from the Earth Island Institute.

    Further, your “source”, the NewWest, is a blog, not a scientific journal. So why does any of this merit attention here?

  5. Because science is claimed as a source of knowledge.. therefore scientists’ views are privileged under that construct.
    From the blog,
    “The report finds that the scientific evidence contradicts these popular notions.”

    We will find during discussions of the new rule that whether we choose to frame a given issue as a science issue is itself (how it is framed) open to debate. I am just identifying some “Situations that Shout Watch Out” in a very specific real world situation that we all have some knowledge of, so that we can recognize them when we return to the more opaque and fuzzy world of, say, comment letters on the NOI.

  6. It always comes down to, “Who do you believe? and Why?” I used framing in The Frame Game to blast away at intentional or unintentional “frame games” on the part of agency bureaucrats. You do the same here with interest groups, and the media. I guess we all need to keep our wits about us as we wander around the swamp we call policy, agency, etc. And we all certainly need to be reminded over and over that framing is important, and frame blindness is a big trap into which we all are prone to fall.

  7. I should add (to #4 above) that I expect and champion polemics from environmental groups, trade associations, etc. in the spirit of good political debate. I am troubled by government specialists who pretend that their own advocacy is “good science” rather than just traditions and practices that often have not been adequately vetted. Hence the need for “polemics”.

    Here are a couple of past blog references that touch on this point:

    Why Can’t We Learn From Our Mistakes?, Ecology and Economics
    Some Points to Ponder during Messy Ecological Policy Wars, Forest Policy – Practice


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