Evolutionary Theory and the Practice of Policy (4): Beware of Biologists for Technocracy

festschrift group 2.

Looking back at this section of the paper through today’s eyes.. I notice that both the Janzen and Soule’ quotes below were published in scientific journals, even though they are their own ideas pretty much about what’s wrong with humanity. Of course, Soule’ doesn’t like the idea that some people know that science is a sociological construct.. it interferes with the idea that they know more and should rule. Let me make this clear, everyone is entitled to their opinions, but when someone says “it’s in the peer-reviewed literature”, this is evidence that all kinds of questionable stuff makes it into the peer-reviewed literature. This is in a review journal, which is kind of like a scientist op-ed, which need not contain much “science”, as we shall see.

I was fairly surprised when I read this, though. Again, back when I learned how to be a scientist, (just past the dinosaur period), this would have been inappropriate for a “scientific” paper. If you’re interested in the cites, I will link to the whole paper after posting each section.

Selection in an academic environment has traditionally been focused on individual scientific achievements and less on work in teams where power is shared. Coupled with a lack of education of many biologists in policy studies, or any social science, for that matter, this can lead to a lack of appreciation for the policy process. Even conservation biology, which considers itself an interdisciplinary policy oriented field, has lacked social science in its curriculum (Noss, 1999). Perhaps this is the source of a lack of respect for the roles of social scientists, citizens and others who participate in the policy process.

For example: “Biologists are in charge of the future of tropical ecology. If the tropics of the world go under, biologists will have no one but themselves to blame. We can see very clearly what is happening, what will be the irreversible consequences for biology and humanity, and how the solutions must be constructed.”(Janzen, 1986). He goes on to say that “the driving force for the reduction of the tropical world is human selfishness, human numbers, human ignorance of its own needs, and the acquisitive nature of life itself applied at all levels.” Despite defining the problem as a basically social and cultural one, he goes on to add that “the true battle is to reprogram humanity to a different goal. The battle is being fought by many more kinds of professionals than just ecologists; however it is a battle over the control of interactions, and by definition, the person competent at recognizing, understanding and manipulating interactions is an ecologist.” The tendency to claim science as a foundation for the legitimacy of one’s perspective and then making statements about an area beyond the expertise of that science, that in fact is the area of a social science, seems rather contradictory, albeit common among some biologists. It is interesting and worthy of comment that the above statements were printed in the Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, a scientific publication.

This claim for superior legitimacy of biologists in policy is echoed by Soule’ (1993) who critiques the “bureaucrats, technocrats, planners, development specialists, lawyers and economists, whose views often determine how governments decide to manage wildlands and biodiversity, or if they should be managed at all.” He goes on to describe some of their good points, but criticizes their lack of biological knowledge, their comfort with the idea that science is a social construct, and their urban backgrounds. Certainly science is a social construct, as is nature. There is a paradox in that scientific information is useful but it is not reality, and science is a social enterprise conducted by humans with all the comedy and tragedy that that entails. Several paragraphs before, Soule acknowledges that the best policy is a mix of science, economics, anthropology, sociology, and local native knowledge, if it still exists. While some would say that social sciences are also sciences (and that makes one wonder exactly what Soule’s definition of a science is), in fact, there are fields such as policy analysis and decision science which are specifically about policy and decisions. Why do some of our most prominent biologists appear to be unwilling to grant scientific legitimacy to social scientists? Why are they unwilling to allow that good policy comes from teamwork from people with different backgrounds? There are too many of these to cite, but particularly egregious are statements such as “the Endangered Species Act is scientifically sound” after a description of incentives, tax code and other issues traditionally the realm of social scientists (Eisner et al. 1995).

Sheila Jasanoff (1994) cites several cases of scientists who “Given a choice, tend to define problems in ecological terms, although other possible framings may coexist in the social domain. To the extent that their shared values promote boundary shifting (by allowing issues to be moved across the society-nature boundary from “politics” to “science”) it is tempting to interpret the values in question as nothing more than the overriding interest of scientists in enlarging the influence of science.” The recent Committee of Scientists report (1999), which predictably focuses the need for science to help make better decisions on public land management and planning. No one would argue that a basis of science is good. However, since scientific information is a product of funding, one must ask the question “does science as used in the process inform citizens in the democratic process or establish a system of experts that (necessarily or not) does an end run around democracy?” Probably due to the lack of social scientists in natural resource departments, these questions remain mostly unexamined. Lee (1994) addresses this question and Profeta (1996) discusses the role of laypeople compared to experts in determining risk. Once again, there is a paradox, by trying to dominate and advocate in the name of science, trust and credibility, the long run chips at the policy table, may be lost long before the stakes get high.

7 thoughts on “Evolutionary Theory and the Practice of Policy (4): Beware of Biologists for Technocracy”

  1. Pretty forward-looking document, Sharon.
    The entire field of “conservation biology” stems from the desire to give the ecocentric worldview more than a philosophical basis.
    Further, it goes completely against the grain of why science is held in esteem by the larger public. Lay people respect science and its practitioners because the pursuit of science has improved the human condition. The science has gathered knowledge that can be applied in a positive way.
    What Soulenosswilsonetal are asking is for society at large to accept science that not only is benefit neutral (which would be okay, knowledge for its own sake has a role) but overtly benefit negative.
    I was struck once by something from Arne Naess, the deep ecology writer, when he described an ideal where there would be these large wild areas accessible only to researchers who would be in these Ice Station Zebras (well-equipped of course) doing their “studies” in purely observational terms. It was the complete opposite of applied science, strictly observational and passive. It was the ultimate in elitism, where only the properly anointed, who could properly appreciate and interpret, were allowed access.
    Bottom line is, the dispute here, despite the alphabet soup of advanced degrees in newly created fields, is not scientific. At root, it is purely philosophical.

  2. Come on kids, this is the intersection of science with society and politics. Where’s the screamfest? Or is Sharon so correct you’re all stunned into silence?

  3. I think to call a scientific review article analogous to a “scientist op-ed” is misleading. An op-ed is an opinion piece. A scientific review is a synthesis of the scientific literature on a topic, expected to be relatively comprehensive and even-handed (I’ve gotten slammed hard by reviewers who felt I had omitted some recent relevant research, probably rightly so, and I had to fix it), they’re typically reviewed and edited quite aggressively, and unlike an op-ed they are generally written (by invitation) by people who have some research and publication history in the area. You’ve probably written some, so I’m a little surprised by that characterization.

    I’m not sure what’s the bottom line of your thesis, is it that policy in scientific areas should be more democratic? Fair enough, but there may be limits, for example when FDA or CDC come up with policy guidelines about food safety or disease control, I personally am comfortable with the lion’s share of input coming from people with MD’s or PhD’s in medical research. Maybe I misunderstood the point.

    Science as a social construct, hard to argue with that idea, it’s been around a long time (Lewontin, Levins, Gould, endless postmodernists) although many “hard” scientists seem unaware of it, which may support your point. I would disagree that nature itself is a social construct (our perception of it may be, but nature exists external to us, no?), it can (and someday will) continue without our participation (a postmodernist falls off a building, but is comforted by the knowledge that the law of gravity is only a social construct…)

    • Guy, you are speaking of the ideal world that you and I were trained for, which still exists in places, as you said.

      I used the two pieces as evidence that yes, a review article can be ill or not reviewed and simply amount to an op-ed. Similar to say, EAs they are simply a function of the writer and the QA/QC process, either of which (or both) can fail, as we see with these two reviews. They are outstandingly obviously out of range. But it is “peer-reviewed”, so one must conclude peer review doesn’t operate at 100% in the real world.

      If you haven’t read Sheila Jasanoff’s book “the Fifth Branch” about science advice in regulation, I recommend it. I’ve also been directly involved in biotech regulation in DC and it’s while it’s not medical, let’s just say other kinds of scientists tend not to agree any more than the ones on this blog. And we should hear from them in making public decisions about tax dollars but we also need to hear from consumers and practitioners in the field. For example, I was working at OSTP during one exciting period in which the genetically engineered corn had escaped… because the scientists did not understand how farmers used conveyed products to market. Any regulation, to be effective, needs to take into account how people operate in the real world.. and scientists don’t always know that.

      By nature, I meant, “nature”, the idea that has a long history of meaning different things to people. I didn’t learn about this history in school as I was always coming at the environment from the science (post Enlightenment materialist) end.

      Now I agree that this bee in that bush is an observable occurrence. That a stream has a certain CFS at a certain time is an empirical event. But most of the things we deal with are not at the “moon revolves around the sun” or “gravity” level- in fact, most studies that we talk about have not been replicated. As one scientist told me “I don’t have the funding to do QA/QC on my work” to which I replied “then I don’t feel comfortable using it in management investing taxpayers’ money.”

      It’s convenient to lump scientists’ opinions, papers, theories etc. into the bundle of “science” (as my colleague who was the science coordinator on on the 2000 Planning Rule liked to do) but when you do that, you have diluted the meaning of the word so that it’s not exactly at the “gravity” level.

  4. As I was driving to work this morning, ( I still drive, I don’t like bicycles that much and it kind of far, no public transportation) I was listening to the radio about the EPA new definitions of wet lands, and the discussion focus around was it science or was it just a land grab in the name of science.
    I found it amusing that the last interview was will a coffee shop in Portland and how important good water was to them. My thought was what would they think if good water protection meant that they could only sell half the coffee they were currently selling so the rest of the water that they currently using could be used for “the fish”.

  5. I think that I am in tune with Sharon’s thoughts here except in one aspect.

    Re: “most of the things we deal with are not at the “moon revolves around the sun” or “gravity” level- in fact, most studies that we talk about have not been replicated”
    —> I find it very strange that in the current discussion of what is appropriate in terms of management or non management of our nations forests. Un-replicated supposition has trumped the replicated science (on the same level as gravity) that sound forest management is replete with for over 5 decades whether we are talking about the impact of stand density on stand vigor or the direct relationship of fuel availability on fire intensity. I have no doubt that there are over a thousand growth and yield studies using sound experimental designs examining parameters and their interactions for variables like: species, altitude, geographic features, slope position, soil type, initial stocking levels, seed source, seedling treatments, fertilization, microbial treatments, thinning intensity and age and final harvest / regeneration methods and etc. I’d bet that there are well over 100 such studies just for loblolly pine between the 1930’s and now. How many of those studies have negated the relationship between stand density and stand vigor as incorporated into the concept of carrying capacity? I am aware of none and I was heavily involved in that area at one time. Then there are over 80 years of fire research according to one source. Then there are the mathematical certainties that if you don’t have a reasonable representation of various age classes within various forest types, you are going to put undue stress on those niche species that are deficient in habitat. So I think that there are less exogenous variables involved in predicting the moon’s orbit or the time that it will take a ball of specific weight to fall from 5,000 feet than there are on growth and yield or a fire but they are all scientifically cross validated and validated again by operational implementation over many years. As an example of the imprecision involved in even the space program: I learned in advanced scientific programming that a rocket’s course is subjected to enough exogenous variables that the course requires constant adjustment in order to land where it is supposed to – That is no different in concept for the space program than it is for forest management.

    So, in conclusion, I contend that the established scientific facts that drive forest management decisions on a day to day basis have in fact been replicated over a very significant time span by various independent scientists across and between species and by innumerable operational implementations of those principles in a very wide range of environments all providing consistent results. What hasn’t been replicated are suppositions that disagree with the established fundamental principles.


Leave a Comment