Science: Beacon of Reality – AFS Keynote by Bob Lackey

Here’s a paper by Bob Lackey, well worth reading, especially for any of us practitioner/scientist types. He’s got a great deal of real world experience in the natural resource science policy world. I think the whole paper is interesting but excerpted the section below that addresses some of the issues we discuss regularly on this blog.

In case you are unfamiliar with Bob and his work, here’s his bio.

But, for scientists who take their civic responsibilities seriously, all is not well. Far from it.
Specifically, for scientists at least, advocating personal or organizational policy preferences has become widely tolerated as acceptable professional behavior.

Scientists may even be encouraged to do this by a portion of our professional community. The risk: we will diminish ourselves and the scientific enterprise when we allow personal or organizational policy preferences to color our scientific contributions.

This is a morass into which we scientists must not allow ourselves to slip. As scientists, we have a special role, an exclusive role because we are uniquely qualified to provide technical knowledge that is based on rigorous scientific principles.
It is this policy neutral knowledge that the public and decision-makers sorely need.
Is the scientific enterprise at risk? It is! A recent U.S. national poll revealed that 40% of the general public has little or no trust in what scientists say about environmental issues. And, about as bad, the remaining 60% were not overly positive either. I suspect that similar results would be found in Canada, especially relative to fisheries science.

How pervasive is this distrust?

I have a good friend who has worked for several big national environmental
organizations. When I shared with him some of the ideas I planned to present today, he stopped me cold with a blunt reality check:

Bob, you’ve got to move into the 21st century. Science is a weapon in the policy wars. We buy the most believable scientists we can find and send them into court to battle Government scientists. Eventually the judge gets overwhelmed by the minutiae and orders the parties to go away and work out some kind of a compromise. This is how it works now. When this happens, we nearly always win because the agency just wants to make the case go away. And, best of all, they usually agree to pay our legal costs. That’s the real world, my friend!”

What did I say to warrant this rant?
But he was more upfront than most policy advocates, and I’ll accept that his is a sound political strategy, for an advocacy group, but it is a corruption of science and the scientific enterprise. He is paid to understand and manipulate the political and legal system to achieve his organization’s goals. Fine, but it is still a corruption of science.
What role should scientists play in policy debates? How can they best provide
leadership? How does a scientist lead from behind?

First, scientists should contribute to and inform policy deliberations. This is not only the right thing to do, but it’s an obligation, especially if our work is publicly funded. I also do not hold with the notion that it is sufficient for fisheries scientists to publish their findings in scholarly papers, papers that only a few technical experts will ever read. I take it as a given that scientists also should provide, and explain, the underlying science, including uncertainty, around important policy questions.

Second, when scientists do contribute to policy analysis and implementation, and they should, they must exercise great care to play the appropriate role. Unfortunately, working at this interface is also where some scientists mislead or confuse decision makers by letting their personal policy preferences color their science.
It is so easy to do.
Let me share a slightly embarrassing story that demonstrates one consequence of
allowing policy preferences to infect science. It involves a veteran Government lawyer, someone I have worked with for years.
We were relaxing in a Portland pub after spending a long, long day listening to dueling scientists testifying in an Endangered Species Act trial. I was trying to convince him, from my perspective as a scientist, that it seemed reasonable to expect opposing litigants to at least be able to agree on the basic science relevant to a particular court case, the so-called “scientific facts of the case”. After all, the legal debate should be over interpretations of the law, not science, right?

Perhaps I was badgering him a bit too much, but his response to my pestering jolted me:

Bob, you guys have no credibility. All of you spin your science to lend support to whatever policy outcome you or your organization favors. I’m not sure science was ever a beacon of truth, but it sure isn’t now, at least not in the legal arena. I watch scientists routinely misuse science in case after case.”

No credibility? Science spin? Misuse of science? He was wrong, wasn’t he?
No — he was not entirely wrong. Let me offer an example.
The most common misuse of science is to assume a policy preference and then
incorporate that policy preference into scientific information. Such science is called normative science, and normative science is, unfortunately, increasingly common.
Let me be unequivocal. Using normative science is stealth policy advocacy, plain and simple. Ignorance is no excuse.
Who would do such a thing?
It happens and it happens often.
An example from this part of North America: the case of the 160 year decline in wild
salmon and the role of dams. Here is a big insight: dams have an effect on wild salmon
populations and the effect is negative.

Along the West Coast, it is common for scientists to be asked to gauge the likely effects on wild salmon of removing a particular dam, or building a particular dam.
This is a legitimate and appropriate role for fisheries scientists, and one that we are well positioned to play. But, there is no scientific imperative to remove, or build, dams. Policy imperatives come from people’s values and priorities, not from science.
All of the policy options regarding the future of dams have ecological consequences,
some of which may even be catastrophic from a salmon perspective, but ecological
consequences are simply one element that the public and decision makers must weigh in choosing from a set of typically unpleasant alternatives.

Hardly a week passes that I don’t receive an online petition from an advocacy group
asking me, and other scientists, to sign as a show of support to remove a particular salmonkilling dam for reasons that sound like science, read like science, are presented by people who cloak themselves in the accoutrements of science, but who are actually offering nothing but policy advocacy masquerading as science.
Scientists, acting in their role as policy neutral providers of information, should not decide whether it is more important to use water to sustain wild salmon, or use the same water to generate electricity to run air conditioners, or the same water to irrigate alfalfa fields, or the very same water to make artificial snow at your favorite ski resort.
Politically, from what I observe today, the use of normative science cuts across the
ideological spectrum. It seems no less common coming from the political Left or Right, from the Greens or the Libertarians, or from Government agencies or Private sector organizations.
Regardless of the political ideology, normative science is a corruption of science No
matter how strongly a scientist feels about his or her personal policy preferences, practicing normative science is not OK. No exceptions.

5 thoughts on “Science: Beacon of Reality – AFS Keynote by Bob Lackey”

  1. I really appreciate this very thoughtful post. I don’t know Bob but it is clear he has had many years of experience as a scientist trying to work with integrity within the world of law and policy.

    As I read this post I was stuck once again by our misguided attempts to use science to guide our decision-making. In my view its time to “come clean” and stop wasting time/energy/resources arguing over the “science”. Indeed, justifying decisions based upon “science” is antithetical to the scientific method itself. Here’s the problem:

    When science is done properly, there are no answers, only more questions. Indeed, the whole point of science in the truest sense is to generate information and questions. It is not to generate answers. Yet, decision points are a reality of society, and decision-makers are therefore forced to make decisions with incomplete information. It may even be a truism to state that “incomplete information” is inherent in the decision-making process itself. In other words, if we were to somehow generate complete information on a given topic, there would no longer be a decision to be made….but I digress, and theory is not the point here.

    The real question in the pragmatic world of law and policy is not whether the science used was the “best available” science. As long as proper technique is employed, all science is the “best” science. Instead, the most relevant considerations are the values held by our society in general, and our decision-makers in particular. Our values are foundational and largely determine what we consider to be “important” information in a given situation. They drive what we pay attention to in making sense of our world. This reality is probably more relevant today than ever before. Consider, for instance, the barrage of information we each receive every day from all kinds of sources (i.e. social networking, newspapers, television, our neighbor, etc). How do we make sense of the world? How do we determine what is important or relevant and what is not?

    It all comes down to the values and beliefs we hold most dear. Confounding the situation, we are only conscious of a fraction of these values at any given point. USFS decision-makers, NGOs, Industry representatives, and our neighbor down the street are all the same in this regard.

    Thus the most important conversations we can have today involve two steps: First, we have to find a way to communicate to better understand our values as individuals and society, putting aside as much as possible the walls of distrust that have been built for too long. The second step is seeking to understand and respect that each of us is acting (and making decisions) which we each perceive best reflect our personal values.

    While engaging in this kind of conversation may seem naive, we’ve been doing the cynical thing now for several decades, and I think anyone reading this would be hard-pressed to argue its working well….And science, while vitally important, has certainly been a distraction from the real issues we need to address for too long.

    • Well said, Mike, I agree completely. I’d be interested in your ideas about how we can start moving forward with your steps #1 and #2.

      • When “serial litigators” have a stated goal of eliminating Forest Service timbers sales, there will be no consensus or compromise. Chad Hanson has gone on record announcing his intention to block logging on both public and private lands. The Sierra Club has long been strictly against any and all timber sales on public lands. They feel completely justified in their extreme positions and will use any avenue to get their way.

        I should not have been surprised by Mike’s observations but, I really was aghast that the practice could be so blatant. Donato’s paper comes to mind, as well as the study about dead lodgepoles in the other thread. Of course, I realize that industry scientists do the same thing.

        Sadly, there ARE people out there who think “our forests have done just fine for millions of years” without management. That includes today’s conditions, as those people embrace dying forests and “circle of life” thinking.

      • Thanks Sharon. The pathway for what I described will be different in every locale (i.e. this will not be solved by another national commission or conference). However, one generally common aspect of successfully cutting the Gordian knot we’ve created begins by allowing for litigation (or the potential for litigation) to continue while simultaneously continuing to move forward with the “values” conversation. Likewise, there can be no “quid pro quo” demands from litigants regarding FS management decisions (e.g. “We’ll come to the table only if you promise a diameter cap on trees harvested.”)

        I know this sounds like a contradiction to reaching real dialogue, but it is the only way to establish the context where everyone maintains their autonomy and therefore freedom to remain open to hearing the others at the table.

        To explain what I mean, there is not a single person (at least that I know of) that is not full of contradictions, both in terms of our thinking and our behaviors. Yet, in the cynical, politically driven world in which we spend most of our time, we all understand that “exposing” these contradictions weakens our ability to advocate for our “position”. To some extent, we are all caught up in this game and it serves none of us well.

        Yet, this is what we know and all that we believe is possible, so we play an endless game with each other in which we portray ourselves and those with whom we agree as the only logical, rationale people involved. Likewise, we portray everyone else as at best misguided or stupid and, more commonly, downright evil or sinister.

        To bolster this illusion, we use carefully chosen inflammatory language in an attempt to diminish the credibility of others. In recent posts on this site, for example, environmentally conscious people who occasionally see litigation as best serving their interests are referred to as “serial litigants”. Likewise, former USFS Chief Bosworth’s opinion regarding the Tester bill is characterized as “shameless corporate huckstering”, neither of which is true by a long-shot. (Tragically, our national politics are now completely defined by this cynical gamesmanship.)

        Despite the real problems with our present social situation, however, the rule of thumb that the “devil I know is better than the one I don’t” still applies for most folks agreeing to come the table and we must allow them this familiarity.

        Illustrative of what I’m suggesting, in legal negotiations there is typically an agreement between the parties that nothing “exposed” in the negotiations can be later used in court, should negotiations fail. Both parties and the lawyers that represent all generally understand that without this protection, there would be no “safeguard” that allows for true negotiation. Yet, they also understand that they do not relinquish their right to go to trial by entering in to negations. (Interestingly, the vast majority of court cases are settled out of court).

        A similar principle is involved in what I am describing. However, since we are talking about achieving real dialogue and not just good negotiation, I would take it a step further by removing the “negotiative” aspect of the discussion altogether through decoupling the discussion from any project level or other managerial decision in particular.

        In sum, being able to talk about values that underlie actions can be achieved by removing any adverse consequences (actual or perceived as potential) that may flow from open and honest dialogue….Having said this, I fully realize how difficult it must be to believe in what I am suggesting, and you may be asking yourself what incentive anyone would have for engaging in this kind of dialogue. To this I would only reiterate my perception that our present system is not working and “doing more of the same and expecting a different result” is, as we all know, one of the sure signs of insanity.

        Besides, wouldn’t it be refreshing to shed the weight of all these illusions we’ve created?

  2. I agree with Lackey, especially the last sentence, “Regardless of the political ideology, normative science is a corruption of science No matter how strongly a scientist feels about his or her personal policy preferences, practicing normative science is not OK. No exceptions.” I think the NEPA process is often used as an advocacy platform for specialists. It’s hard not to fall into that trap of being an advocate. After close to 30 years on project level NEPA i’ve come to the conclusion that NEPA is a political process, and that the science is tainted with advocacy. The sad part is that most specialist don’t know the difference.


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