“Distorting science to further a cause”

This op-ed by Mitch Daniels on the book “Unsettled,” by Steven E. Koonin, is an interesting viewpoint, though not directly related to forest management or planning: “This climate change contrarian gives us an important reminder about science in general.”

We have never expected much truthfulness or integrity from our politicians, whose self-interest in publicity and campaign dollars too often outweighs any scruples about scientific precision. Nonprofit “public interest” groups raise fortunes on forecasts of doom, often on the flimsiest evidence. The modern news media, chasing the dollars that titillating, click-catching headlines bring, have been, if anything, worse than the political class in discussing climate change. [emphasis added] Koonin serves up multiple examples, with descriptions such as “deliberately misleading” and “blatantly misrepresenting.”

The truth’s last line of defense should be the scientific community, but here Koonin indicts those of his fellows who have discarded a commitment to the truth — the whole truth, and nothing but — in favor of their own view of wise policy. “Distorting science to further a cause is inexcusable,” he says, a violation of scientists’ “overriding ethical obligation.”

A few minutes after reading the essay, I came across a Sacramento Been article with a provocative headline, “‘Self-serving garbage.’ Wildfire experts escalate fight over saving California forests.” It’s essentially Chad Hanson vs. scientists who disagree with his messages and methods. I wouldn’t post this if Hanson didn’t get such an unusually large amount of news coverage (such as “As California burns, some ecologists say it’s time to rethink forest management,” in the LA Times on August 21, $).

An excerpt from the Bee article:

In an extraordinary series of articles published in scientific journals, fire scientists are attacking Hanson’s and his allies’ claims that the woods need to be left alone. These scientists say the activists are misleading the public and bogging down vital work needed to protect wildlife, communities and make California’s forests more resilient to wildfire.

“I and my colleagues are getting really tired of the type of activism that pretends to be science and in fact is just self-serving garbage,” said Crystal Kolden, a professor of wildfire science at UC Merced and co-author of a journal article that rebutted Hanson’s arguments. “If a lot of these environmental groups continue to stand by these antiquated and really counterproductive viewpoints, all we’re going to see is more catastrophic wildfire that destroys the very forests that they pretend to love.”

Hanson’s “counterproductive viewpoints” also have been presented in testimony in Congress, before the House Agriculture Committee last year in September, in a hearing on “The 2020 Wildfire Year: Response And Recovery Efforts.” In written testimony, Hanson and a colleague wrote that:

Vegetation is not driving wildfires: our forests aren’t overstocked. Contrary to the statements made at the hearing, a century of fire suppression has not exacerbated fire risk or intensity in our forests. Our forests are not ‘‘overgrown’’.

Our forests aren’t overstocked? Well, all of our forests, but certainly far too many are overstocked. I reckon few foresters, wildfire managers, or scientists would agree with Hanson.

So why does Hanson continue to be a media darling? Daniels’ line serves here: “The modern news media, chasing the dollars that titillating, click-catching headlines….

27 thoughts on ““Distorting science to further a cause””

  1. Steve, I don’t think it’s that simple. There is a powerful narrative, not sure where it comes from, that certain views are cool. If they are based on (some people’s research) they are quoted as “the science” and studies are done that say it must be true because 97% of scientists believe it (that wasn’t a very clear study, but leaving that for now). Why isn’t Hanson a “mitigation denier” then?

    I believe it’s because of the attraction of the underlying narratives, and perhaps the commitment, funding and political clout of those who support such narratives. But I am open to hearing other hypotheses.

    I don’t always agree with Kolden (e.g. about the Chief’s order) but no one can say she isn’t a qualified fire scientist and I for one am glad that she is speaking out. You go, Person!

    • Dr. Crystal Kolden worked on the Placerville RD while I was there, from 1999 to 2000. She worked for a summer on the marking crew (with me) and was on an engine the next summer. We shared a trailer for part of that first year. I’m glad to see her name, and her point of view getting out there. She has “been there and done that” and has plenty of character. It is looking like some scientists are reaching a breakpoint, where they can no longer stand by, while charlatans like Hanson get all sorts of publicity, especially through the LA Times.

      Edit: It might be interesting to hear her take on the Caldor Fire, especially since we both worked on a thinning project very near the ignition point.

    • “I believe what I believe, and you can’t tell me different”. That sounds more like a faith-based position and less of a science-informed opinion. It also sounds like many of the arguments we hear on a wide array of issues, not just natural resource-based ones.

      • True, Anthony, but Hanson and his adherents use the science shaped to fit the “I believe what I believe” position to oppose USFS projects and to persuade Congress that there is no forest health/fuels crisis.

  2. All the above: fire, bark beetles and mechanical treatments are critical to preserve groundwater supplies. “Clearcuts are the prescription for lodgepole pines,” according to Kelly Norris, the Wyoming State Forestry district forester in Buffalo.

    Trees growing on public land are not agriculture any more than wild salmon are aquaculture. Global warming has been accelerating since humans began setting fires to clear habitat, as a weapon or just for amusement. The Industrial Revolution and European settlement in the New World took hardwoods for charcoal then humans allowed fast-growing conifers to replace lost forests.

    Dense Douglas fir, spruce, lodgepole, ponderosa pine stands prevent aspen restoration and hardwood release while opposition to mechanical harvest rages on in the environmental community. No longer natural after a century of fire suppression the Mountain West’s forests are building fuel loads in habitats where indigenous cultures cleared for millennia.

    If voters succeed in driving from office the only Democrats who can preserve public lands and leave Republicans to their devices we truly deserve to lose it all.

  3. Credulous journalists deserve some of the blame for giving Hanson such a big stage, and with all the recent coverage of his “distorted science,” that may be coming to an end. Here’s another case where journalists failed to do sound journalism. Alliance for the Wild Rockies has sued the USFS over the Ripley project on the Kootenai National Forest. On it web site, the Alliance states that “The project calls for 10,854 acres of commercial logging, including 3,223 acres (5 square miles!) of clearcuts.” At least two newspapers have used the same figures. An article in the Daily Montanan states that “The Ripley project would allow 17 square miles (more than 10,000 acres) of logging including five square miles of clearcutting.”

    If the reporters had bothered to check the Kootenai’s decision letter, they would have seen that just 258 acres the 3,223 acres are to be clearcut, while one thousand 1,586 acres will be shelterwood harvests and 1,379 acres will be seed tree harvests. I don’t expect all reporters to understand the differences between shelterwood harvesting and seed tree harvesting, but I would have expected them to investigate the Alliance’s claims more thoroughly.


    • Give it a rest Steve. Do “shelterwood harvests” and “seed tree” harvests look more like ecologically-based “thinning” or “industrial clearcuts?”

      The Sac Bee article is full of lot’s of serious ad hominem hyperbole that should raise red flags. It would certainly be interesting to see how much $$ the scientists attacking Dr. Hanson and
      Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center get from the land management agencies that continue aggressively suppressing fires and pumping out misguided timber sales.

      Also, FWIW: Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center isn’t at all opposed to all logging and does, in fact, support ecologically-based thinning where appropriate.

      On Twitter, the ED of KS Wild, Michael Dotson had this to say:

      “Really interesting to see how KS Wild was portrayed when it seems the Bee glossed over the impacts the Pumice timber sale would have on Nesting, Roosting and Foraging habitat. I thought our Cons Dir did a good job giving context to the writer but that failed to make print.”

      My guess is that Steve and some of the other folks here who like to take pot shots at Dr. Hanson and act all self-righteous about journalism don’t care at all that the Sac Bee reporters left out critical information and critical context.

      • Not that long ago, loggers had bumper stickers that said, “Save a Tree, Cancel The Bee”. Clearly, the public isn’t buying Hanson ‘snake oil’, even across political divides in California. I would even propose that Hanson’s presence as a Sierra Club employee is affecting their donation levels, too. Has he become toxic to the world of forest advocacy? Maybe so.

      • Matthew, “shelterwood harvests” and “seed tree” harvests are not clearcuts. These treatments are being used to return overcrowded stands to conditions closer to historical conditions and species (PP and larch instead of DF) and reduce the likelihood of high-intensity fire. The EA has photos of some of the stands scheduled for treatments. What would your prescription be? Leave them alone? Or what?

  4. The terms “overstocked” ( for trees or animals) and “overgrazing” have no meaning until we know what goals are intended. “Over” what? Too many trees or animals to achieve what? Just about every fire in lodgpole pine results in very dense stands of seedlings. It’s the strategy of the species. If you want to have almost all “healthy”, fast-growing, wood-producing, trees (the goal) then the site is “overstocked”. In some places, we also need to let nature take its course, for we don’t always know what we do (to the overall stand genetics, for instance, or to habitat and foods for small birds and animals, insectivores). In that case, the stand is not “overstocked”.

    • Tree densities, basal areas and stocking levels are all related. I believe that those measures should be correlated with current precipitation levels. In those adjustments are also the opportunities to adjust species compositions to better match the current (and predicted) climate.

  5. I saw this following comment on a forest conservation list-serve and thought it was interesting:

    Yes, this is a really misleading article. Beyond its overall slantedness, I was particularly struck by the type of inappropriate toxic quotes that the reporters used from some of Hanson’s critics, especially Kristal Holden.

    This is a familiar pattern in which fire researchers who receive substantial amounts of funding from the Forest Service make aggressive personal attacks on other scientists whose research findings contradict the Forest Service’s pro-logging claims.

    Ironically, the Forest Service-funded people like to dismiss those other scientists as being “agenda-driven,” when in reality the Forest Service exerts a significant amount of control over the scientists it funds.

    For example, one of the lead authors of an attack on Chad as “agenda-driven” had a contract with the Forest Service for a study of the effects of fire and logging on spotted owls that required his press releases and other public statements to include the following language—“The Pacific Southwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, is contributing to the viability of the California Spotted Owl”—even though there is substantial evidence that the logging projects by the Forest Service in the region are actually harming spotted owls!

    For that specific reference, see p. 83 of: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332233878_We_Refute_the_Conundrum_of_Agenda-Driven_Science_Commentary_on_Peery_et_al_2019

    • I have regularly been going to fire conferences for over 10 years now. I have not once seen a presentation by Chad Hanson at International Association for Wildland Fire, Association for Fire Ecology or SAF. I don’t understand if he thinks he is on to something why doesn’t he present those results to his peers? It is a lot easier to lob conspiracy theories from the sidelines and chase media than participate in the scientific process.

    • Larry and Matthew, I don’t think getting paid has anything to do with either Hanson or Kolden’s beliefs. I see Hanson as a person who truly believes what he’s saying. However, that doesn’t stop him from being wrong, or from his actions having negative results if his beliefs are carried out in practice (see “true believers” of the religious persuasion).

      Matthew, I don’t think you mean to, but a person could read this and think that you are impugning the scientific integrity of all the co-authors of the 10 questions paper. I think they have observed what they have observed and believe what they believe about it. The way to work through these discussions would be to have an open online scientific dialogue about the data and sources.

      It’s the science community’s fault IMHO we don’t have a model for that.

    • MATTHEW,

      That you pulled out of all of that page 83, a semantics and nonsensical unenforceable contract language tidbit, among all the highly detrimental and quite frankly disturbing writings and correspondence from LBH. Well, it says everything we need to know about you, LBH, and what the advocacy tax-free doomsday donation complex wants.

      • Thanks for your consistent anonymous personal attacks. Always interesting. I’m sorry you didn’t realize that I clearly stated that was not my comment, or my link. But so cool that you put my name in ALL CAPS.

    • “even though there is substantial evidence that the logging projects by the Forest Service in the region are actually harming spotted owls!”

      Sounds like fake agenda-based science, to me. The cutting of trees averaging 15 inches in diameter without cutting old growth does not harm owls, and no study of any kind can disprove that. Dozens of actual wildlife biologists support the current protections, which have been in force since 1993. In particular, the lumping of foraging and nesting habitats together is NOT science. It’s advocacy against science and facts.

      BTW, purposely misspelling someone’s name is rather childish.

  6. Matthew, you can try to avoid commenting on what Hanson has said and written, but I was writing about his statements, such as “a century of fire suppression has not exacerbated fire risk or intensity in our forests,” which is from his congressional testimony. I would wager that few fire and fuels scientists and practitioners would agree with Hanson’s opinion.

  7. The article in the Sacto Bee is interesting, but it would have been more balanced if they pointed out that the Forest Service doesn’t always follow the science either. Especially troublesome is the agency’s bad habit of using timber sales as their “go to” tool even when remove commercial sized wood is not required and when doing so has serious trade-offs that significantly undermine restoration goals.

    • In the context of Forest Service lands in the Sierra Nevada, for almost 30 years now, clearcutting and old growth harvesting have been banned. Cutting trees with an average diameter of 15 inches, while retaining canopy cover has many benefits, including fire safety and resilience. The Forest Service does not do “industrial logging” in the Sierra Nevada.

      You always neglect to tell us your specific recommendations to current Sierra Nevada policy.

    1. Wow!

      1) Mega Ashtrays haven’t changed any minds!
      2) Mega Ashtrays are ok but small clearcuts <=120acres (SFI) wouldn't be acceptable!-- 3) Major cities threatened with catastrophic destruction hasn't changed any minds!---- 4) A city getting wiped out hasn't changed any minds!------------------------------------- 5) People a thousand miles away being harmed by poor air quality hasn't changed any minds!----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 6) Destruction of water infrastructure hasn't changed any minds!-------------------------- 7) Loss of wildlife that was supposed to be protected hasn't changed any minds!-------- 8) Loss of large climate impacting ecosystems hasn't changed any minds!-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I say the wishful thinkers and those willing to destroy the world for more dollars in their pockets have had their shot.>> Give Management and Policy Making back to those educated and up to date on the validated science consistent with fundamental scientific principles which have been tested/proven over time, place and ownership.

      or else

      Too bad for us all! Then the cycle will start all over just like it did when the dinosaurs were wiped out.

      Of course it really doesn’t matter that you can’t make people see their error if you know that you are going to spend eternity where it isn’t scorching hot.

      p.s. comment editing problems – ignoring carriage return and running everything together – used hyphens to compensate.


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