Four Questions Journalists Should Always Ask About Research Studies; and Saved From Disciplinary Encroachment by Western Watersheds

Thanks to Wyoming Public Media


These days, in several studies we’ve reviewed on The Smokey Wire, it appears that exploring mechanisms is an afterthought, perhaps left to unnamed parties.  What was a basic scientific principle- that correlation is not causation,  seems to be on the verge of being thrown out.   A wide variety of variables.. social and others.. are not found or explored, and thinks which are unlike are lumped together.  In fact, new research has emerged without direct connection to the traditionally involved disciplines.  I think that this is definitely a science “Situation That Shouts Watch Out”.   And I think what we have to be very aware of.. since most journalists are not (this post will helpfully encourage them to be more aware).. is what I call “disciplinary encroachment.”

Anyway, I think this is a great column to illustrate some of my concerns.

1) Framing.  First, look at the proposal and how it’s framed.  Does it seem like it would inform any decisions?  If not, read no further.

2) Data.  Does the data collected (or used without collecting) relate to the question directly? Is this relationship explained clearly? Do they discuss the weaknesses of using these data?

3) Disciplines.  If the study is touching on, say, economics or birds, are economists or bird scientists involved? If wildfire, are wildfire scientists involved?

4) Correlation is Not Causation. For the same reasons this has always been true. Correlations can be tested by designed experiments.  But those would tend to be carried out by experts in the field (see number 3).

Not to be an Old Person, but these were values upheld by fields in forest science at one time.  If we are changing those scientific community values, I think we should announce the fact, so the public can be clued in.

Sammy Roth of the LA Times, one of my favorite reporter,  didn’t seem to notice that it might be odd for a post-doc economist at the University of Geneva to study birds in the US. Note that Sammy wrote this article as a “column” which I think might mean “opinion piece” and not an ordinary article.  My view is that when reporters write both op-eds and news articles on the same subjects, it does not lead to confidence in the objectivity of the products.  See the James Bennet piece on how this has become murky in some outlets.

Erik Katovich, an environmental economist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Geneva, had been following all the news coverage of wind power and bird deaths, and he feared it was being “weaponized by those opposed to renewable energy.” A longtime birder himself — he grew up in Minnesota bird-watching with his dad — he wanted to know if the harm to avian life from wind energy development in California, Iowa and other states was getting blown out of proportion.


As even those of us non-ornithologist know who follow this, different species respond differently.  Avoiding sites and getting killed are different things..eagles, sage grouse are all different.

So like any good scholar, he ran the numbers.

Katovich turned to data from the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, an annual effort dating back to 1900 during which tens of thousands of volunteers methodically record bird sightings at consistent locations around the world. Last winter’s count produced more than 36 million sightings of 671 bird species in the United States alone.

In a clever bit of science, Katovich compared the Christmas Bird Count numbers with data showing where wind turbines were built in America’s lower 48 states between 2000 and 2020. He did the same comparison for bird counts and new oil and gas extraction in shale fields — a process defined by the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

His peer-reviewed study was published last month. The conclusions are fascinating.

Katovich found that wind energy development had no statistically significant effect on bird counts, or on the diversity of avian species within five kilometers of a Christmas Bird Count site. Fracking, on the other hand, did have an impact. The drilling of shale oil and gas wells “reduces the total number of birds counted in subsequent years by 15%,” Katovich wrote in the study.

But no one, as far as I know,  was concerned about bird counts, they were concerned about critters like eagles and sage grouse.  See how that works when the framing is not clear at the outset? Sleight of science. And get this conclusion:

In other words: Oil and gas drilling is worse for birds than wind power.

That’s a pretty grandiose conclusion from one study.  So let’s back up and go back to framing, which was apparently “is oil and gas drilling “worse” for birds than wind power?”.  I don’t think anyone has this as a choice, and in fact I’ve seen both turbines and oil and gas facilities in the same general area.  I don’t recall a single BLM EIS that compares those two alternatives.  Then.. there are a lot of bird species.  I don’t know of any eagles that have been shredded by oil and gas facilities, so which species count more? And what if wind needs new transmission lines?

Can you imagine a study that amalgamates.. say.. mammals?  A more useful question perhaps would be “how can O&G or wind have fewer impacts on different bird species?” Which, of course, bird scientists are “avi”dly studying..

Here’s what Sammy has to say:

But to my mind, his results are a sign that we pay too much attention to bird-related criticisms of wind energy — probably in part because those criticisms are trumpeted by right-wing provocateurs, including some funded by fossil fuel industry money.

This is where it gets kind of funny.  Fortunately, Roth checked with various National Audubon people.

They told me Katovich probably underestimated the harm to birds from wind energy, in part because he included all turbines within five kilometers of Audubon bird count locations. Prior research has found that wind farms are much more likely to kill or injure birds that spend time right near the turbines.

I don’t think anyone can argue that birds need to be close to turbines to be injured or killed by them.

Fortunately, Sammy happened to also ask Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds. If he hadn’t met Erik.. I guess we wouldn’t have gotten this (more accurate) side of the story.

Molvar, who leads a conservation group called the Western Watersheds Project, offered several criticisms of the new study.

For one thing, the Audubon bird counts are done by volunteers, meaning the data aren’t perfect. Also, Katovich didn’t analyze the number of birds of each species recorded at each location — a crucial measure of biodiversity, Molvar said via email.

“A bird count that records one cardinal gets exactly the same weight as a count that records 250 cardinals,” he wrote.

Molvar also pointed out that wind farms and fossil fuel extraction can affect birds in different ways. Wind farms are more likely to kill birds than displace them. And some birds are more sensitive to wind farms than others. “Extreme habitat specialists” such as sage grouse — the focus of my first meeting with Molvar — could suffer greatly even as other species get by fine.


When I ran those criticisms past Katovich, he responded gracefully, describing them as “thoughtful and informed” and agreeing that several issues he examined could use further research. He also noted that in the same way his study could be missing some of the damage to bird populations from wind energy, it could be underestimating the harm from oil and gas, too.

But why wouldn’t you ask bird scientists.. about birds and how to measure their populations and so on, what we know about how they respond to O&G and wind installations?  Certainly wind folks collect monitoring data.

As we shall see with other studies, disciplinary encroachment is not unusual.

Oh, but the funny part. If you circle back to “But to my mind, his results are a sign that we pay too much attention to bird-related criticisms of wind energy — probably in part because those criticisms are trumpeted by right-wing provocateurs, including some funded by fossil fuel industry money.”  And we have to wonder whether anyone thinks Western Watersheds are closet “right-wing provocateurs”  or closet right-wingers (just kidding!).

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