Science or “Scienciness” : Sleight of Science

Situations that Shout Watch Out #5 (I am coming back to 4, but this seemed timely)

#5 Sleight of Science

This is a more sophisticated polemic technique than those previously discussed. This tactic sets up what someone (the “victim”) plans to do and then rounds up a set of science to suggest that it won’t work, or that it has undesirable consequences. The beauty of this rhetorical device is that the article does not accurately characterize what the person or agency (“victim”) is doing. Since most people not involved (the “marks”) won’t actually know the difference, it is a neat “sleight of science” approach.

Let’s look at the arguments in this paper, on the previous topic for “Science or Scienciness”, fuels treatments for community wildfire protection as described in the previous entry. So far this seems to be a good topic for deconstructing some of these “sciency” arguments.

Not to pick on this paper, either, and most of the statements made in the paper are generally accepted by scientists and practitioners.
This is from the argument on pages 21 and 22 of the paper.
First statement- within 1.5 miles, treatments are most useful to communities. Generally agreed.
Second statement- building roads and treating fuels far from communities are less useful to communities. Generally agreed.
Third statement- Cohen’s 130 foot band plus Firewise . Generally agreed that this is useful, but for various reasons not sufficient.
Fourth statement- Do it around communities.

Overall, it is going to be much less expensive, more
effective and less damaging to focus fire-hazard reduction
efforts around communities and homes than it
would be to try to make a wholesale modification of
forest structure over large landscap

Surprise twist. No one is proposing wholesale treatments, or not doing it around communities, in the policy the paper is discussing! We seem to be in violent agreement.

We can have a great discussion (and have had) with scientists specifically about 1/2 mile or 1 mile to 1 and 1/2 mile- I bet the writers of HFRA had the same discussion – as the same numbers are found in HFRA. But “far” would probably not invoke pictures of a mile or half mile.

Some have advocated a system of landscape- scale fuel breaks. Some science supports this concept (Finney’s work). But that is not a part of the policy this paper was intended to refute.

2 thoughts on “Science or “Scienciness” : Sleight of Science”

Leave a Comment