Is Science on a Path to Irrelevance in Policy and Management? Keynote by Dr. Bob Lackey

Dr. Bob Lackey
This paper from Lackey’s plenary session at the recent SAF 2018 Convention in Portland is well worth reading in its entirety. Lackey has a variety of real world experience in environmental science and policy, forests and fish in Oregon, for those who are not familiar with his work.

Lackey raises many points worth examining. Many people don’t trust scientists generally as voices of authority. Based on the ideological proclivities of university folks (seen in studies), could we expect them to design and carry out unbiased studies? Can choices of research priorities be carried out in an unbiased way by biased people? What about ways to mediate these impacts like co-production, co-design and extended peer review (as noted by Sir Peter Gluckman here).

Do these biases lead to an imbedded assumption in research studies that “natural is better”? If it is, shouldn’t we be discussing that openly in a forum of all disciplines and people that may be involved or impacted? If we really believe that, what does it say about human beings.. we are pretty much cockroaches in the kitchen of the planet? Ultimately those are not scientific beliefs, those are about what humankind is about- philosophical or metaphysical, depending on your worldview.

I’m not saying “natural” isn’t better, but there are different reasons that it might be better or not and those reasons could be important to policy. Further, with the climate changing, if we impute greater than 50% of the reason for climate change to human forces (at the risk of not, and seeming to be Zinkean or Pruittesque), then nothing will really be “natural” in the original sense. Where does that leave us policy-wise (we can already see this playing out in some ESA discussions)?

Here’s a quote related to that point:

Is Our Science Biased Toward Natural?”
A simple question, but I’m working in academia these days, so a straightforward yes or no will not suffice.
To start, put on your science hat, and be honest here, imagine that the public owns a 5,000 acre stand of old growth fir. Is preserving this stand of old growth preferable to removing the trees and building a destination resort and golf course on the same 5,000 acres?
It is not! At least not without assuming, perhaps unwittingly, a policy preference, a value choice. The result? A classic example of normative science.
It may look like a scientific statement. It may sound like a scientific statement. It is often presented by people who we assume to be operating as scientists. But such statements in science are nothing more than policy advocacy masquerading as science.

Anyway, there’s plenty of discussion fodder in this paper, so have at it!

18 thoughts on “Is Science on a Path to Irrelevance in Policy and Management? Keynote by Dr. Bob Lackey”

  1. When some people think “natural”, they often insist that it means ‘before humans’. In this current world, it is impossible to have a pre-human landscape, with billions of people on the this planet. So many people like to say that “Wildfires are as natural as rain falling”, even when over 80% of all wildfires are human-caused. Disregarding human realities is a poor policy for our National Forests.

  2. Much is to be commended about Bob Lackey’s speech to the SAF. However, I was confounded by his focus toward the end concluding that “Science is often policy biased toward natural.” This conclusion seems inconsistent for someone who has written extensively about the “scientific fact” that we are so far into population overshoot/resource consumption/appropriation of net primary productivity that the impacts of humans on the “natural” world are beyond question. E.g.,

    It seems to me that it is not “bias” to connect the continued destruction and displacement of the natural world by humans with adverse impacts not only on the natural world (obvious with papers published daily on dozens of such impacts— e.g., ), but also on our own species’ ability to continue to exist. Or at least continue to exist in some “civilized” fashion.

    I don’t believe it’s inappropriate to inject a bit of “bias” toward conservation of the natural into all scientific work. At this point in our own history it would be in our own best interests to do so.

    • Toby- I think that what he is pointing out is that if we claim privilege as scientists based on objectivity, and we behave in ways that are not objective (injecting bias) we run the risk of losing trust (our greatest ally) in hopes of influencing the political process. How has that worked for us so far? We get louder and louder and more and more obnoxious (see climate science) and are meaner and meaner to scientists who disagree with us…and how has that worked for the climate science community?

      No one is saying that certain human activities don’t have negative effects. It’s ultimately a political decision to pick solutions that take into account the need for humans to live and the impacts on different parts of the environment. We should try to portray them as honestly as we can and also spend research $ on trying to find solutions, not just saying humans shouldn’t build houses, drink water, grow food, use energy and so on. But that’s just my opinion.

      • I agree with you about obnoxious behavior (it doesn’t convince, only polarizes). My point was that a “bias” toward favoring natural as opposed to human environments has a strong basis in fact. Facts which Lackey himself has repeatedly demonstrated (as have thousands of other scientists).

        I think we (scientists and policy advocates like me) need to be explicit and vocal about those facts, that human population and thus economic growth has a cost in reduced biodiversity and biomass. We humans are increasingly occupying the biosphere (“appropriating net primary productivity”); systems ecology and basic thermodynamics tell us this trend will not end well for us.

  3. How convenient is this (both Lackey and Sharons precis)? “Things” are so complicated that those poor scientists, and those poor agencies, can’t possibly make evidence based choices, make recommendations, or come down even on the side of ecosystem viability (and there are dozens of measures of this, any one of which negates the claim that humans, and particularly the cvivil service, are maintaining viable ecosystems.). They must have loved him at SAF!

    • No, I think we are saying that we scientists need to be as honest as we can about what are facts and observations and what are our philosophical views. Of course, we can’t get rid of unconscious predilections and biases even if we tried. Which is why mechanisms to get as broad a perspective as possible on these things is important. And government employees both state and federal are attempting to follow the sometimes conflicting and complex dictates in our separation of powers-based polito-system.

      I would argue that there is no such thing as a “viable ecosystem”. Every time I see an abstractions (including “viable” or “ecosystem”) I wonder “who is using that abstraction?” What does it mean at a level of my pasture, a Ranger District, a lake, or so on? Who decides? What groups might be privileged from using that abstraction? How did people deal with the same facts and observations before that abstraction was invented?

      • Definitions such as “viable ecosystem” are somewhat subjective around the edges, but IMO the core facts are pretty clear. The current economic system (more accurate, “political economy”) is not “sustainable.” Yes, another word with fuzzy boundaries, but like many other words describing complex systems, we “know it when we see it.”

        I believe these are topics we need to focus a lot more effort on (thinking, money, time), defining those key fuzzy boundary words like “sustainable” and “viable ecosystem” as best we can, and then measuring trends concerning them as best we can. How else are we supposed to develop the data and systems analyses needed to inform our decision making?

  4. Okay, I’ll bite.

    First, Lackey inserts the word “scientific” into the American Sociological Association quote: “In facing the growing normalization of racism, nationalism and xenophobia, many sociologists are critically examining the concept of [“scientific” — inserted by Lackey] objectivity and its role in maintaining hierarchies of power within the discipline.” In my book, that’s called lying. Lackey creates a straw man that the ASA essay is about science. Poppycock. The essay is an unabashed and unapologetic call for sociologists to “share their work on roles of scholar activism in public discourse and policy, communicating sociological findings to wider audiences, informing debates surrounding public engagement, scholar activism, and fostering public sociology and social justice in sociological inquiry.” The essay is not about science at all.

    Hey, guess what? The Society of American Foresters is just like the ASA! “The mission of the Society of American Foresters is to advance sustainable management of forest resources through science, education, and technology; to enhance the competency of its members; to establish professional excellence; and to use our knowledge, skills, and conservation ethic to ensure the continued health, integrity, and use of forests to benefit society in perpetuity.” Sounds just like the kind of normative “science” activism that Lackey decries.

    Using Lackey’s reasoning, the distinguished Oregon State University alumnus Linus Pauling behaved unethically in his Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaign against above-ground nuclear testing. Pauling based his activism on his understanding of chemistry and biology: “If you explode a bomb in the upper atmosphere, you can’t control it. The fallout radiation, Strontium-90, and similar things, spread over the world, drop down. Everybody in the world now has Strontium-90 in his bones, radioactive material, AND NOBODY had it…15 years ago…10 years ago. Strontium-90 did not exist. This is a new hazard to the human race, a new hazard to the health of people, and scientists need to talk about it.”

    We can all thank our lucky stars Pauling and thousands of other scientists risked their careers to help save humanity from its baser instincts.

    • I’m confused Andy.. is sociology a science? I thought it was a social science, just like economics. And the expertise claim of sociologists and economists are based on their being sciences.

      In my book, Pauling could engage in activism ethically. But if he were to state that and later do a research study on health effects.. would people think the research study was objective? I wouldn’t. I think Roger Pielke Jr. did a good job of exploring the different choices scientists have in his book The Honest Broker.

      Note: I personally have never seen a discussion on any topic improved by framing it as ethical. My point is more pragmatic. If you advocate for something, then claim your views are privileged based on your objectivity, well that’s a logical problem to me. And many people who are not scientists see right through this also. For people to believe that you’re playing straight, you need to pick a lane.

  5. Sharon: “I think we are saying that we scientists need to be as honest as we can about what are facts and observations and what are our philosophical views.” Do you believe that advocacy scientists are being dishonest about their philosophical views? Would you be satisfied with a disclaimer in front of statements from scientists about their source of funding? I still don’t think the general public would get the difference, and we’d still have the “problem.” Which is (I agree), “The all-too-common view is that anyone, no matter how poorly informed, no matter how dubious the source of the quoted information, anyone has the right to his or her own facts.”

    The author is talking about “scientific publications.” How is that defined? Any time you use a normative statement, it is not science. It’s kind of like a “news organization” mixing op-eds and other opinion pieces with the news. Readers don’t make the distinction, which feeds their distrust. With “scientific publications” it seems like this distinction could be made better.

    I’m afraid that current views of scientists are colored by current anti-“elite” politics in general, and global warming denial in particular. The bias involved there is (uniquely I think) toward the survival of the planet and the human species. “Normative” in this context makes little sense as a criticism; I would question, in this context, the assertion that, “Pristine ecosystems are neither superior, nor inferior, to human altered ones. Different, for sure, but not better or worse.”

    “Many natural resource managers and policy makers are badgered by self-professed experts, wrapped in the accoutrements of the scientific enterprise, but corrupting science for use as an advocacy weapon.” I don’t think this statement was about federal land management agency staff. I think the agencies legitimately hire “scientists” as program managers, where they are expected to advocate for their programs.

    More broadly, “Is (their) science biased toward natural?” Yes, but it is justified. One place where normative statements are supposed to be made is Congress, and it has done this with environmental laws like NFMA and ESA. Those laws say that natural is better. I also think that bias is justified because unnatural poses greater uncertainty and risk – at least that’s a scientific principal embedded in the “natural range of variation.”

    I think the author would agree. “In science, when you see the words “natural,” “healthy,” “degraded,” and “biological integrity,” all these terms, and many others, have embedded assumptions about what someone or some organization regards as a desirable value choice, a preferred policy choice… The words are fine for management, expected in policy advocacy, but not OK in science.” They are especially OK for management when the policy is derived from normative laws governing that management.

  6. If there is a bias toward the natural *today* in American law and policy, we must recognize that for 350 or so years after European colonization of the Americas began, there was an incredible and entirely-uncountered bias toward unchecked development and heedless ecological destruction. I shouldn’t need to talk at length about how little old-growth forest is left anywhere east of the Rockies, or how native prairie ecosystems have been all but extirpated in favor of intensive agriculture, or how countless species of once-common wildlife have been driven to extinction or into scattered, fractured refugia.

    Human-centered development won every single “battle” without even a fight for 350 years because there was nobody who thought to stand up and say “Wait a minute, what are the impacts here?” At this point, the places we are talking about preserving are, in almost all cases, tiny, fragmentary scraps of what existed on this continent pre-contact.

    • Preserving an ‘unnatural’ landscape doesn’t sound very ‘scientific’. We cannot, ever, go back to a pre-human, or even, a pre-European environment (here in the US). It’s easy to blame the past but, don’t penalize the present or the future for what happened in the last millennium.

      • We can, however, act upon the precautionary principle, recognizing that we human beings depend on a wide array of ecosystem services provided by millions of other species of life, and that by continuing to erode and destabilize these ecosystems (including through global climate change), we are sowing the seeds of our species’ own destruction in the long run. Y’know, those last four words that are key to our work in this agency.

        But hey, nobody cares about the long run anymore. If you’re a CEO, it’s all about your profitability and your stock price this month and literally nothing else matters. Wall Street isn’t interested in anything beyond tomorrow. The president of the United States says he doesn’t care about climate change because addressing it would “sacrifice economic growth.”

        “The greatest good for the greatest number in the next quarter so you can take a golden parachute and move to the Cayman Islands with your private yacht” doesn’t sound like something Gifford Pinchot would have said.

        • The Precautionary Principle must work in BOTH directions, though. Yes, there are people against thinning and prescribed fires, regardless of the results of such a policy. “Human-caused wildfires are natural and beneficial” doesn’t sound like something Smokey Bear would say.

  7. I will make this observation … In forest policy, virtually every example where an “UN-natural” condition is considered objectively favorable requires a narrowing of the focus of inquiry to exclude important considerations.

    • In eco-group policy, human effects and impacts are routinely ignored, “narrowing of the focus of inquiry to exclude important considerations.” Whether you agree, or not, humans are a part of our forests, and they are not going away. I highly doubt that anyone in Forest Service timber wants to clearcut forests as a response to fire safety, or to accomplish board feet goals. Pretending we can go back to a pre-human landscape is just not a legitimate proposal or a rational idea.

    • That’s an interesting observation.. isn’t it equally true that (even if we could agree on what is “natural” given human interventions since glaciation and climate change) every situation in which (some definition) of natural is considered objectively favorable requires a narrowing of the focus of inquiry to exclude important considerations?

      For example, we can all agree that large dams requiring earth moving equipment did not occur prior to the advent of Europeans. If we were to remove them because they are unnatural, that would exclude considerations of providing drinking water, irrigation for crops, flood control, and relatively carbon-free energy.

      Now if you agree with this, but see forests as requiring different thinking, I would be interested to know why.


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