Should Scientists be on Tap or on Top?: Financial Times Story on Covid Science

Interior Secretary nominee Deb Haaland Tweeted this a few days ago

Let it be known:

Our Interior Department will fight to address climate change and environmental injustice.

We will empower communities who have shouldered the burdens of environmental negligence.

And we will ensure that our decisions will once again be driven by science.

— Deb Haaland (@DebHaalandNM) December 20, 2020


There’s been discussion about Covid and the practical problems associated with deferring to scientists for policy decisions. In this piece in in the Financial Times by Jemima Kelly, we see some common themes from our forest policy world.

The Conditional and Contested Nature of Scientific Information

But scientists aren’t robots, every one of whose utterances must be treated as an absolute dispassionate truth; they are complicated, messy, biased humans like the rest of us.

The phrase “following the science” would perhaps be better expressed as “following the scientists”. Or, maybe (given that they don’t all agree) “following some scientists — particularly the ones whose views align with my own”. 

Even if its practitioners were able to leave their personal opinions, ambitions and prejudices aside, “the science” shouldn’t be thought of as static or complete — particularly when it comes to something as new and rapidly evolving as Covid-19. “Science works as an extremely human process of incremental and argumentative development,” says David Spiegelhalter, professor of public understanding of risk at Cambridge university. “All areas of science are contested, and that’s quite right, because there’s so much uncertainty.” 

The Silverback Scientist Effect

It’s easy to see how this state of play has come about; we live in a society that rewards certainty, where whoever shouts their opinion loudest seems to get the most traction. “The ability to state strong opinions with total conviction is more highly valued than typical characteristics of scientists — the ability to study, think, and reach less certain but more useful conclusions,” says Martin Walker, a director at the Center for Evidence-Based Management. 

Many epidemiologists and other scientists have built up impressive social media followings during the pandemic, putting them firmly in “celebrity” territory. The more they opine self-assuredly on what government should be doing, the more their voices are amplified with likes, retweets and media coverage. 

When it turns out that confident statements of fact are actually just opinions, and when other scientists respond with opposing ones, it all starts to get rather confusing. Government messaging suddenly changes and the general public is expected to pretend we haven’t noticed. Trust in both politicians and scientists ebbs, leading to a situation in which potentially harmful conspiracy theories can thrive. 

“It is quite reasonable that scientists might have opinions, but . . . as soon as a scientist is recommending a particular action to be taken, they are stepping outside their scientific knowledge,” says Prof Spiegelhalter. “That should be . . . clearly distinguished from when they’re communicating their science.”

(This reminds me of a possibly apocryphal story about (Dr.) Tom Mills, former PNW Station Director at the Forest Service, who supposedly asked scientist authors to remove all the “shoulds” from an assessment document).

If You Ask Scientists From Different Disciplines, They May Have Different Perspectives

These acronyms seem fitting somehow — the sagacious epidemiological modellers telling us to remain shut up indoors, and the angry economists and psychologists shouting back: “You will cripple British businesses! You will cause misery!” 

Lord Blunkett is quite serious. “There needs to be a recovery group that is trying to take a much broader view than just a scientific and health perspective, critical as that is, incorporating advice on alternative damage to both people and societal well being,” he says, quoting a phrase often attributed to Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill: “‘Scientists should be on tap, but not on top’ — I agree with that.”

I too am with Churchill, and I wonder whether Haaland over-simplified the message (the medium of Tweeting is not great for complexity) or whether her beliefs are more nuanced. Hopefully, that will come up in the nomination hearings.

Here’s one of a similar, although more ideological, bent from Ross Douthat in the New York Times on Sunday.

7 thoughts on “Should Scientists be on Tap or on Top?: Financial Times Story on Covid Science”

    • Thanks, Rebecca! This is an interesting example. It shows

      (1) Which discipline speaks for science? From which school? We spend much time on TSW looking at the work of a variety of fire scientists. And yet, the WaPo goes not to any of those but to a lawyer/policy scholar at Stanford. So he is speaking for “scientists” and what “the science” is.. well OK, on what basis does he (not a scientist) speak for “science”? Then we have Gonzalez, who seems to be a National Park Service employee, as well as an associate adjunct professor” I’ve been watching the excellent Fire Science Seminars at Berkeley and there are plenty of knowledgeable folks there… they might have gotten a completely different take from talking to other scientists in this case at the same school.

      (2) “The reference to forest “thinning” in Biden’s clean energy plan could be contentious. The idea of selectively removing trees from dense forests is appealing, because it can generate logging revenue while avoiding the smoke that comes with managed fires or prescribed burns. But some scientists and many environmental groups argue that thinning and similar “treatments” disrupt the ecology of forests without reducing wildfire severity.” So according to the WaPo it is not a case of science vs. science at all (which, of course, we know it to be). This is reporting “some scientists” without the “others” or “some scientists” versus “an appealing idea.”

      (3) Scientists since Harold Biswell (1950s) have been talking about increasing PB. There are problems which this Schultz et al. paper looked at. So that’s science too…people are already doing this, but there are practical problems.

      Note: I’ve often noticed that people who say “follow the science” often don’t mean social sciences. Imagine if someone said “some economists say… so therefore policymakers should..”

      4) Why single out the FS for wanting to suppress, when you live in… California.
      “As its budget reflects, the Forest Service has long been in large part a firefighting agency. Suppression efforts are understandably viewed as saving communities and protecting valuable timber.

      “To change institutions, to put fire back on the land, to change attitudes people have about nature — that won’t be easy,” Wara said.”

      Given that Wara lives in California, perhaps it would be easier and cleaner to start with Calfire (no timber interests there) in terms of changing institutions and culture. I do think reducing Calfire’s suppression budget in light of climate change would not be a popular idea.

      “CalFire Budget Supports Base and Emergency Wildfire Response. The 2020‑21 budget includes $2.5 billion for CalFire, most of which—$2.1 billion—is for wildfire response. (The department also engages in other activities, such as wildfire prevention and forest health.) This budget for wildfire response has two components—the “base budget” and an amount budgeted for emergency fire suppression known as the Emergency Fund (E-Fund). CalFire’s base budget pays for everyday firefighting operations of the department, including salaries, facility maintenance, and other regularly scheduled costs. Included in the base budget are the costs associated with the “initial attack” on a wildfire—that is, the firefighting operations generally undertaken in the first 24 hours of an incident. Notably, the 2020‑21 budget augmented CalFire’s base budget by $85.6 million for additional firefighter and support staffing.” Here’s a link to their budget.

      But maybe the legislature should “follow the science” and switch the suppression funds over to forest without thinning. because “some” scientists don’t think it works.

  1. Recall that malaria was proven unequivocally to be a blood disorder stemming from mosquito bites (Walter Reed research) but it took 5 years to percolate thoroughly into standard medical practice. I think Haaland is trying to make the point that scientists and their findings will not be IGNORED. That is far different from implying that they will make decisions that must be obeyed.

    • I don’t actually think that the last Administration ignored “science” . That’s a pretty broad statement to make about lots of people in lots of departments making lots of decisions (some of which require response to comments, including scientific comments.)

      If you make a public comment, say for a proposed fuel treatment project, and the FS does not do what you say, does that mean the Forest Service IGNORED it, or just that they decided not to do what you want. How would you tell the difference?

      • “How would you tell the difference?” You would look at the administrative record. Judges often find that the record does in fact ignore relevant science.

  2. I agree with most of the sentiment here, but I think it is more nuanced than scientists should not be “recommending a particular action to be taken.” What they should be saying is, “IF the desired outcome is X, then I recommend doing Y” (hopefully with rationale based on the best available science about the effects of doing Y and/or alternatives). Ideally, a decision-maker is asking the question and specifying the outcome, and I hope that is what “driven by science” means, but often that isn’t the case. Of course scientist-advocates should be free to pose their own questions and desired outcomes, but it should be clear that is what they are doing (and I think it usually is). (I’m not ready to blame them for conspiracy theories.)


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading