Let’s Discuss the Rebuttal to the Peery et al. Agenda-Driven Science Paper

Many thanks to Derek for posting this link to the LBH groups’ rebuttal to the  paper. I think that this is a great thing to discuss, as it gives us insight into the science process as practiced in real life.  Many folks who read this blog have not experienced it directly.

Here’s what I agree with: everyone has an agenda, if only to do research that can be funded and is helpful to people. Having different views and proclivities is part of being human.  It’s only when you make a case that there is a thing called “Science” that has a unique authority and objectivity and therefore deserves a favored place at the decision making table,  that the lived, diverse, conflicted reality of the scientific enterprise becomes an issue.  Frankly, no one believes that scientists are unbiased and objective- except perhaps on topics that don’t have value implications. Remember the old days when people did research on whether bare root or plug seedlings had better survival?

In the rebuttal, the authors state:

 Peery et al.’s personal attacks have no place in science. Like many other scientists, we believe that National Forest management should be motivated and driven by ecological science and conservation biology principles, not timber commodity production imperatives and monetary incentives.

I think that this is a great quote because it lines out exactly what they believe and it turns out that their findings are in line with those beliefs. I think I agree about “personal attacks” and we might agree on what is personal (conduct) versus research critiques.

But imagine if you got another group of scientists together who said:

“like many other scientists, we believe that National Forest management should be motivated and driven by Congressional statutes, which include concepts of multiple use and environmental review and species protection. We believe that the role of science and scientists is to provide insight into the trade offs that may occur and understand the social, economic, physical, and ecological impacts of activities and help develop ways to reduce negative impacts.”

If you didn’t understand the details of their research, which group would you have a tendency to trust?

Peery et al. attack us personally and question our motives, citing our criticism and concerns regarding the USDA Forest Service’s commercial logging program on federal public lands. It is troubling to see Peery et al. personally attacking independent scientists, in the pages of an Ecological Society of America journal, for seeking public access to government-funded scientific data and for raising questions about the scientific integrity of decisions to log public lands. Such personal attacks do not belong in scientific discourse.

But decisions about logging public lands don’t have to do with “scientific integrity”.. because they are not scientific decisions.  Again there seems to be a tendency to think that “science” should determine, rather than inform, policy.  Which it simply can’t, not only for the political science reason that we aren’t a technocracy and voting still counts, but the pragmatic reason that scientists disagree.  Nevertheless,  I do agree that personal attacks don’t belong in scientific journals.

It could be that the Gutiérrez-Peery lab may suffer from funding bias, also known as sponsorship 268 bias, funding outcome bias, funding publication bias, or funding effect, referring to the tendency 269 of a scientific study to support the interests of the study’s financial sponsor (Krimsky 2006). As RJ Gutiérrez wrote when he severed our data-sharing agreement, “We have signed a ‘neutrality 271 agreement’ with the MOU partners associated with the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management 272 Project. Essentially, this means that use of Eldorado and SNAMP data in a way that could be perceived as conflicting with USFS management or antagonistic to them would be perceived as a  violation of the agreement.” (Supporting Information ‘RGutierrez1’ and 275 ‘USFS&UWisc_contract’). Peery et al. have a long-term financial relationship with the USDA Forest Service—an agency that sells timber from public lands to private logging corporations and retains revenue from such sales for its budget. In light of the Forest Service’s financial interest in commercial logging on public lands, and the fact that the spotted owl has been a major thorn in the side of the Forest Service’s commercial logging program, candid disclosure of  conflicts of interest from spotted owl scientists employed by the Forest Service, including any conditions or constraints associated with that employment, are particularly important.

I am interested in the data sharing agreement, I have never heard of that. Perhaps others know more. But the idea that FS employed and funded scientists come to the conclusions they do because of their source of funding sounds a bit like an attack, not only on the owl folks but pretty much all folks who accept FS bucks for research.

Note: I grew up professionally in the Pacific Northwest with FS scientists Jerry Franklin and Jack Ward Thomas (who weren’t toeing the timber management line in the 80’s) and also having worked for Forest Service R&D for years, my experience is that the timber production part of the FS and scientists mostly have a pretty good firewall. I’d be interested in others’ observations and experiences.

31 thoughts on “Let’s Discuss the Rebuttal to the Peery et al. Agenda-Driven Science Paper”

  1. Right on, Sharon: “Again there seems to be a tendency to think that “science” should determine, rather than inform, policy. Which it simply can’t, not only for the political science reason that we aren’t a technocracy and voting still counts, but the pragmatic reason that scientists disagree.”

    Was Peery et al a personal attack on LBH? It can also be seen as legitimate criticism of their methods and procedures (LBH disagree, of course).

    • I think that’s what’s really interesting about this.
      Some agree that it is good to have a scientific back and forth discussion in public (I think LBH agree, perhaps not Peery et al), not in journals that might not publish one side or the other, many of which have charges to view, etc.

      But there are certain areas that shouldn’t be gotten into AKA “personal attacks.” I think those might be questions of conduct and ethics. But I am open to others’ thoughts.

      Also, at the risk of adding to the workload of scientific societies, do they have a role in dealing with concerns about conduct and ethics?

    • Sorry Susan, the link is there in the first line, linked to the word “this”. I am going to change the link color so they are more obvious. Subtle is not always suitable.

  2. I’d like to remind people that “commercial logging” in Sierra Nevada National Forests doesn’t include clearcuts or old growth harvesting. Most cut trees are between 10-18 inches dbh, and slash is piled at the landing.

    Some people want to evoke images of destroyed and denuded landscapes by using the term “commercial logging”. A better term is “Thinning From Below”.

    Maybe someone should be studying the effects of “Thinning From Below” on spotted owls, instead? (Maybe it has already been done)

    • And some people like to evoke images of thinning from below, when in reality they are logging old growth.

      Also, “Existing studies on the effects of fuels reduction treatments on spotted owls universally suggest negative effects from these treatments (Meiman et al. 2003, Seamans and Gutiérrez 2007, Stephens et al. 2014a, Tempel et al. 2014).” Ganey, J.L., H.Y. Wan, S.A. Cushman, and C.D. Vojta. 2017. Conflicting perspectives on spotted owls, wildfire, and forest restoration. Fire Ecology 13(3): 146–165. doi: 10.4996/ fireecology.130318020. http://fireecologyjournal.org/docs/Journal/pdf/Volume13/Issue03/ganey-318.pdf

      • From their paper: “The considerable extent of high-severity wildfire within the ranges of these subspecies over recent years, coupled with the trend toward increasing extent and severity of megafires, suggests that the cumulative effects of these fires could be significant throughout the range of this owl. Forest restoration or fuels reduction treatments may aid in reducing habitat loss, particularly when strategically located to optimize reduction of fire risk, but also may locally impact spotted owl habitat. We advocate further evaluation of both the impacts of such treatments to spotted owls and the effectiveness of such treatments in mitigating fire behavior. We also advocate wider use of managed fire to reduce risk of high-severity wildfire.”

        This is what the Forest Service has been doing in the Sierra Nevada since 1993. (Except for those 4 years with a 20″ dbh diameter limit) Commercial logging, yes. “Logging Old Growth”, no.

      • But we don’t have to follow he said, he said in the literature- we can look for ourselves and see if that’s happening in a particular project. Even the term “old growth” has different definitions .. and is a different meaning in the southern Sierra than the Ochoco, than certainly the Siuslaw or the Williamette. Or even in southern Cal, where the biggest threat to old trees seems to be fire.

  3. I was surprised LBH posted all the supplementary material (e.g., emails, etc). It didn’t exactly paint them in a favorable light.

      • I believe the proof is in the documents they posted. Read them. Megalomaniacs and arrogant people at their best (or worst).
        The way they respond to the editor, Dr Silver, and talk down to others, including the graduate student, is proof.

      • The pressuring of Gavin Jones. Trying to swoop in to take grad student’s data before they have a chance to write it up and publish it. The rather unprofessional response when a journal editor wouldn’t publish their response. The supplementary material seems to reinforce the points made by Peery et al. in Table 1.

        I just don’t consider it favorable for their case, and obviously the editorial staff didn’t either.

        • Jason and Drew, thanks for including this. I actually found it hard to read these documents because it brought back past disagreements between employees that I had to get involved in (and then was actually getting paid to read that kind of thing).

          It’s usually hard to tell in a he-said she-said kind of environment (or in science, mostly a he-said he-said). That being said, I still think these disagreements don’t belong in a journal. I’m thinking of a “scientific conduct” website in which claims and counterclaims could be freely aired on both sides. But if scientific societies are going to claim authority for Science, then they probably don’t want their dirty laundry aired. And people being who they are, it could affect employment, etc. even if the person were innocent. Which goes back to private ethics reviews by scientific societies. But then the public wouldn’t find out how the papers they read might be influenced by misconduct. So I can’t really think of a good solution. Bias, to me, and misconduct are different kettles of fish. Everyone has bias and an open scientific discussion should get rid of it (accent on open). Misconduct everyone does not have, and it needs some kind of institution to police it IMHO.

  4. Promoting Government conspiracy theories aligns LBH with Chemtrails, Reptilians, Anti-Vaxxers and other extremist groups. I hope the scientific community sees this desperation. The idea that the Government is that organized and in control of science is also a conspiracy theory.

    • Please give it up Larry. All you offer is personal attacks – and your own conspiracy theories – about Dr. Lee, Dr. Hanson and Monica Bond. Please go on a hike or something and then come back and offer us something useful once in a while. Thanks.

      • Accusing the Government of conspiracy is old hat. The battle now is to preserve the controversy, and move the goal posts. I notice that these folks don’t really make any distinction between owl foraging habitats, and owl nesting habitats. They seem to lump it all together, with the same strict protections. Occupancy of owls in burned areas means very little. They don’t hunt in their nesting habitat, because there is no prey (here in California).

  5. My experience in USFS R&D as a scientist was that we constantly advocated for more not less management and that drew the ire of the national forests staffed with obstructionists. I also recall, getting national forest folks to even scan our research products that was on point with their issues was virtually impossible. They either knew what they wanted to know or relied on some obscure paper (in cahoots with FWS FOs usually) written in the 70s touting some one off observation of a grouse hanging out in an old-growth patch somewhere.

    • D.- based on my experience, some national forest folks feel the same way about different approaches suggested by their own same- disciplinary types in their regional offices.
      I think there could be a variety of forces involved here;
      1. Underlying inclinations pro or con activity as you’ve pointed out
      2. Disciplinary differences (usually but not always disciplines tend in one direction or the other)- I’ve read EIS’s in which the hydrologist and the fish bio did not agree about the same effects.

      Then there’s resistance to others’ way of doing things, which could be a result of the FS culture of keeping decisions as local as possible:
      3. Not invented here- ish- ness.
      4. The way we do things is fine, MYOB- yes, that means you in the SO or RO.

      And between (academic and R&D scientists) and NFS folks it is often:
      5. You think it’s relevant, but it’s not.

      In some sense 3, 4 and 5 can have to do with professionalism and a sense of agency by those at a more local level. And at least internally, (not so much with R&D) there can be a strong element of interpersonal chemistry. Finally, pressures are for everyone to “get along” so these disagreements often are not discussed openly (that is also true about disagreements with folks in R&D). And that can cause simmering resentments and neither side learning why they disagree.

  6. My experience within the agency is there is always pressure for more not less management. That’s what generates budgets. “Obstructionists” are not rewarded.

    My (one) experience publishing research paid for by the Forest Service was that the agency did what it could to quash the results it didn’t like.

    Sharon: what is the difference between “science” and “facts?” Scientific “facts” can be a matter of opinion, but I think that framing might work better at countering “agendas.”

  7. I don’t know who you mean by “the agency”- in my jobs at FS R&D I never did any quashing.(I was even Acting Director of Wildlife Air and Watershed research for a while). I’d be curious as to what kind of person at what level did that and how.

    Ahhh.. what are science and facts? Great philosophy of science question! That’s good timing as I am beginning to write a book that will include “enough history and philosophy of science for people to get the gist of the arguments relevant to day without reading lots of books or taking classes”. I’ll post relevant pieces on The Smokey Wire.

    • I’m not sure that reviewing legal issues is the same as “science”.. with all due respect to the co-founder of this blog Nie. I wouldn’t have handled it this way but perhaps Phipps was not experienced enough in the science policy arena.

      • I’m not sure that makes it any better. The Forest Service’s willful disregard of decades of legal precedent, including Supreme Court case law, due to politics is unconscionable; as is any agency’s disregard of scientific truisms.

        p.s. I would highly recommend a read of the Nie/Haber/et al. article: it is very clear that based on that caselaw, the “state wildlife primacy” mantra is in fact a myth: the feds have just as much authority and obligation to manage wildlife on federal lands and to no cede that ground to the states.

        • Susan, are you suggesting that the Forest Service makes legal choice on its own without the involvement of DOJ? It looks like former Chief’s Jack Ward Thomas had the opposite impression.. see this post from 2011.. https://forestpolicypub.com/2011/01/17/jack-ward-thomas-on-the-role-of-doj-and-settlements/

          One of the most stunning facts that I have learned over the past year is that, in its ability to independently determine whether or not to proceed with any legal activity, the Department of Justice wields the greatest capacity to set policy of any agency of the government. I naively assumed that the chief of the Forest Service made the decision as to whether to pursue a court action. Not even the undersecretary or the secretary makes those decisions. Such can merely request and suggest. The Department of Justice decides- the agency can proprose and the Department of Justice disposes. That power is not well understood even by students of the internal workings of government. If the policy-setting power of the lawyers in the Department of Justice were well understood, I don’t think anybody- Congress, the persons affected, or politically appointed agency administrators- would appreciate that fact.”

          P 232

          “In my opinion, and those of my legal advisers, the proposed agreement contained three real clunkers to which we strenuously objected. The Department of Justice is, in my opinion, almost always too eager to settle legal actions, particularly when plaintiffs are of the environmental persuasion. It was a shock to my system to find that the Department of Justice does not consider the Forest Service a client. They have little concerns as to the desires of the Forest Service or any other agency. They set their own course and in doing so are de facto setters of policy. Somehow that seems to be a serious flaw in the system. But for now, at least, it is the system.

          In my opinion, if legal scholars write a paper, it’s not “unconscionable” for a given group not to follow what that legal scholar thinks. Often, legal scholars disagree just like scientists. And the feds have their own practicing lawyers (albeit at DOJ), who have agency to decide which legal arguments they will use.

          • I think this could be a matter of perspective.

            As a litigator, I rarely deal with Forest Service OGC (Office of General Counsel): usually DOJ is the only counsel I deal with, and when OGC does participate, they aren’t often helpful (altho there are exceptions). In that way, I agree with JWT’s opinion.

            As a policy wonk, whenever OGC has been involved in policy discussions, I have found them to be completely unhelpful and frankly clueless about real-world policy implications.

            As for the wildlife management issue, I would disagree that it’s not unconscionable to fail to follow the law, particularly Supreme Court precedent. As lawyers, we can – and should – argue for good-faith changes in the law, but we cannot be unfaithful to what the law actually says. I feel like much of the argument over state management of wildlife versus federal responsibility has been about willful disregard for “what the law is” (even if you disagree with it). Obviously some will disagree 🙂

            • I guess the point I was trying to make was that you had said “the Forest Service’s willful disregard of decades of legal precedent” and I was saying that mostly the FS isn’t allowed to do random legal things and takes the advice of OGC and DOJ. Now, it is true I have sat in many convos where not all the government attorneys agreed on details of what the law says, but nevertheless it was never the FS’s call to make.

              • In the case of managing wildlife, it is mostly about the Forest Service letting the states do things that it should stop the states from doing. Government attorneys would rarely be asked about decisions to not do something.

    • Phipps, the then newly-hired Eldorado NF Supervisor in the 90’s, decided he wanted to ban tractor logging above 15% slopes. Since they cable-logged everything above 15%, where he came from in Region 6, he felt it was good policy for the Eldorado, despite the advice of his underlings. Eventually, he was ‘convinced’ that policy would be a disaster, from ‘other sources’.

  8. Seems like the FS is required by “law” to consult and often wait months for the opinion of the Fish and Wildlife Service. I don’t see them making their own determinations.

    • I wanted to share USDA’s backtracking on this issue. Policy is available here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/kuxop3pijdsp8x1/Final%20Guidance%20-%20Scientific%20Publications%20and%20Presentations.pdf?dl=0

      After outcry, USDA will no longer require scientists to label research ‘preliminary’

      By Ben Guarino May 10 at 1:05 PM

      The Agriculture Department has dropped its demand that staff scientists label peer-reviewed research as “preliminary,” after angry protests followed a Washington Post story disclosing the policy.

      But the latest guidelines, released on Wednesday, for internally reviewing science within the department raise additional questions about scientific integrity, said non-USDA researchers who inspected the guide.

      Since July, the department required peer-reviewed studies to include a disclaimer, The Post reported last month. Some finalized reports came with a caveat — these findings and conclusions are “preliminary” and have “not been formally disseminated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

      USDA employees, editors of scientific journals and science advocates worried the disclaimer might be used to undercut scientists whose research was at odds with Trump administration policies. They also were concerned the language was confusing and potentially misleading.

      The scientific community, generally speaking, does not expect peer-reviewed journals to publish preliminary results. The disclaimer, though enacted only as a temporary policy, appeared in several published articles, including a report on the best practices for capturing wild pigs.

      This week, acting USDA chief scientist Chavonda Jacobs-Young released a memo that replaced the July policy. It requires the following language when disclaimers are necessary: “The findings and conclusions in this [publication/presentation/blog/report] are those of the author(s) and should not be construed to represent any official USDA or U.S. Government determination or policy.”

      Brooks Hanson, vice president of science at the American Geophysical Union, an organization that includes soil and agricultural researchers, said the updated disclaimer is a “welcome” change.

      “The previous wording that required scientists to label their research submitted for publication as ‘preliminary’ would downplay the significance and importance of their work and cause confusion among readers,” Hanson said. The new language is closer to other disclaimers required by federal departments. “It is a positive development that USDA seemed to listen to the criticism and feedback.”

      Still, he added, even this language may not be needed: “Many journals have this statement on their mastheads. This expectation, that an article represents the views of the authors only, is indeed the standard.”

      Rebecca Boehm, an economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a D.C.-based organization that advocates for scientists, said that “removing ‘preliminary’ from the disclaimer is a step in the right direction, but there still may be unnecessary obstacles preventing agency researchers from publishing their work in peer-reviewed journals.”

      Not every study published by a USDA scientist is required to have this disclaimer. Some research agencies at USDA, including the Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service, the National Agricultural Statistics Service and the Forest Service have “agency-specific policies” that determine when a disclaimer is appropriate, said William Trenkle, the USDA scientific integrity officer.

      Others, such as the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, have been encouraged to follow the new guidelines.

      Those outline when disclaimers are needed and also describe the department’s internal review process before scientists can publish results in journals. It lists several “flags” that may trigger additional scrutiny. Some flags, under the umbrella of “prominent issues,” include “significant” scientific advancements, the potential to attract media attention, and results that could influence trade or change USDA policy.

      Members of other USDA agencies, including the office of the chief scientist, the communications office and the office of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, can request “corrections” and “changes,” if the scientific publication falls under the category of “prominent issues” or policy implications.

      “It is the responsibility of reviewers at all management levels to identify whether the manuscript contains prominent issues,” Trenkle said.

      If USDA or other federal “stakeholders” request alterations based on these issues, then study authors should return “the REVISED PUBLICATION” for “ACCEPTANCE of the CHANGES and/or RESPONSE to comments,” the guideline says [capitalization is in the original].

      Trenkle said the policy conforms with the USDA’s scientific integrity rules and “helps to ensure that USDA scientists communicate their scientific findings objectively without political interference or inappropriate influence.”

      But Susan Offutt, who was the administrator of the Economic Research Service under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said the guide twists internal review “into a process by which policy officials get the final say on content.” Because researchers at the Economic Research Service publish statistics to aid policymakers, “just about any output” from that agency could be flagged, she said.

      USDA’s “interests apparently concern consistency with prevailing policy,” Offutt said, “not the public’s access to the best, unbiased science and analysis.”


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