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Is Science Science?

P.S. 5/8/17: From a New York Times article on this (five members of the scientific review board have now been let go): “A spokesman for the E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, said he would consider replacing the academic scientists with representatives from industries whose pollution the agency is supposed to regulate, as part of the wide net it plans to cast.” While that might make sense for a policy-determining arm of the agency (a very debatable assertion), this is a scientific review board.  The assertion that industry scientists are necessary to provide balance indicates ignorance on the part of the new administrator about how science should work.

When campaigning for the Presidency, Donald Trump responded to the question from the Science Debate 2016 site about scientific integrity, he (or his campaign) responded:

Science is science and facts are facts.  My administration will ensure that there will be total transparency and accountability without political bias.  The American people deserve this and I will make sure this is the culture of my administration.

When asked about regulation, he (or his campaign) said “Science will inform our decisions on what regulations to keep, rescind or add.”

Recent actions from the administration suggests this might not be the way science is used in determining policy. Right now the action is in the Environmental Protection Agency, where first, the budgets for the science advisory panels were nearly eliminated. Then, just before the March for Climate, the EPA’s webpages on climate science were taken down with a notice that the pages were down to be updated to for the new administration’s policy. Most of these webpages are in fact science pages, so their removal seems to reflect a political bias more than a policy update. Then, in the past couple of days, the science advisory boards that review the internal science within the EPA have seen many members fired despite an earlier communication that they were to continue.

When considered along with the HONEST act, this seems to go well beyond a policy change and suggests a desire to silence any external scientific input at the same time as internal scientific experts are replaced with more industry-compliant views. Maybe yo like that, maybe you don’t.  Feel free to let your senator or representative know how you feel.

Policy Proxy Hazards

The beginning of a five-part series on GMOs in the Boulder Daily Camera does a nice job of making clear one of the problems with complex problems in the public sphere, namely that very specific terms get burdened with ills not necessarily associated with the core meaning of the term.  Thus, as pointed out in this article, GMOs are a stand-in for mega-agriculture despite the fact that here in Boulder County, use of GMOs is made by small-acreage farmers and the use of GMOs has a smaller environmental impact than “organic” farming. Call this misrepresentation of a term a policy proxy: something that is used publicly as a substitute for some broader set of concerns.

Another policy proxy is fracking, as we’ve discussed many times. Fracking opponents are not usually concerned specifically about fracking but instead are complaining about dense industrial-scale oil development in residential areas or environmental impacts from oil and gas development to the need to reduce our carbon output. Arguably things like anti-vaxxing, creation science, and global warming attract similar concerns really directed at an opaque medical establishment, religion, and party identification.

Scientific proxies are useful so long as they are understood to be proxies.  A simple one is the use of a barometer in the 19th century to measure elevation: you are measuring air pressure and using the decrease of that with elevation to estimate elevation. Proxies fail when other issues interfere with the relationship you hope to exploit: for instance, a barometer also records storm systems and failure to account for that will not give you proper elevations (something familiar to those of us who have used altimeters when hiking).

Policy proxies are arguably even more hazardous. Take the GMO case in the Daily Camera article.We’ve been conditioned over the past several decades to accept “organic” produce as “better” produce and that organic farming means less harmful chemicals are used. GMOs are viewed as anti-organic, thus opposing GMOs is a policy proxy for wanting fewer harmful chemicals to be used. The problem is that these associations are weak. Some synthetic herbicides are less damaging than some organic ones; GMOs can allow for even less use of herbicides than in organic agriculture. So it is possible that accepting the simple policy proxy when opposing GMOs that people are actually advocating for a greater use of herbicides with a greater environmental impact.

Or consider fracking. In opposing fracking, advocates might be assuming that they are reducing the environmental impact of oil and gas development. But if fracked gas deposits replace strip-mined coal (as has been happening the past few years), is fracking really the environmental disaster?

Let’s face it: policy proxies are for mental lightweights and the peripherally involved.  They encourage tossing babies out with bathwater. They are designed to inflame opinions and they make it easy to make clever placards and impassioned speeches. In some cases they will align with good public policy, but in many cases they will impede it. So GG urges folks to oppose what really concerns them and not to fall into the trap of opposing things that seem to represent the bad stuff they don’t want. It can be possible to find alternate solutions once you abandon the simple proxies. GMOs can be bad if their use increases carbon output or increases pesticide applications or requires more damaging pesticides or compromise seed ownership for neighboring forms, but they can be good if they work the other way.  Fracking can be good if well pad locations are regulated, wellheads and casings and feeder lines are checked, and oil companies are liable for environmental impacts and the fossil fuels produced replace dirtier fuels; it can be bad if it enables bad practices.

How Naïve are Scientists?

A FiveThirtyEight podcast recently included a segment with their senior science writer, Maggie Koerth-Baker, where she opined on what scientists were marching for, and in so doing she made the following comment (about 49 minutes in):

Something that I have been trying to get scientists to understand when I do, like, public speaking with them is that, you know, it’s important that evidence is a part of how we make decisions in politics, but evidence about, like scientific evidence, is never going to be the only thing people make these decisions on. You know, you have ideology, you have philosophy, you have, you know, what your personal conception of ethics and morality is, you have money, you have, like, all these different things that sort of come together to make political decision making, and just telling people facts isn’t going to shift people on all of those other things, because the facts, they might be perfectly willing to believe the facts, but if all those other things outweigh the facts in one direction, like, that’s, that’s not going to fix it. So I think it’s kind of an example of sort of how complicated this can be that, you know, we want there to be this really easy way to, like, well, if science says yes, well let’s do that, but that’s not like how reality works.

Kind of patronizing.

As she kind of indicated earlier in the podcast, the real motivation and goals of the March for Science have been, um, somewhat unclear (as we’ve discussed), so easy to agree that scientists are kind of naïve in hoping for a kumbaya moment that would return science to some position of unquestioned respect. Now agreed, any scientist who thinks they should be able to walk into Congress and say “do this, because that is what the science says” is hopelessly clueless.  GG has yet to meet this scientist. Certainly scientists are naïve in many ways, such as hoping to change opinions by presenting more facts (as we’ve discussed here and here and here), but no practicing scientist GG has met is so clueless as to think that decisions should simply be based on what a scientist says.

No, GG will argue that it is Ms. Koerth-Baker who is not paying close attention.  What has pissed off scientists is NOT that their preferred course of action on several topics is not being followed, it is that politicians and celebrities willfully misrepresent the science.

Let’s put this in a way that should make it really clear. You go to the dentist, who tells you you have a cavity. In walks your CPA, who announces that in fact your teeth just need more candy. And you listen to the CPA because, well, he has the checkbook (and you like candy). How do you think the dentist feels? He or she would be fine not filling the cavity if you so choose, but she or he won’t be happy that you made this decision because an unqualified quack has not only made an incorrect analysis, but misdirected you towards a more harmful solution.

Look, if the arguments in Congress over climate change were accepting that we know the globe is warming and that the cause is CO2 increasing because of fossil fuel burning, there would not be the kind of unhappiness from the scientific community, because at least the premise for making decisions would have been clear.  If because of money or because of philosophy Congress chose to do nothing, well, we’d probably argue that that was a stupid choice, but at least it could be an honest one that might represent some rational balancing of competing aspects to a solution.  Instead people in Congress are misrepresenting the science in order to duck the issue–they aren’t considering scientific evidence, they are pretending that the evidence is something else entirely. (There are other issues producing similar tendencies to discount science, like homeopathic remedies, nuclear power, genetically engineered foods, intelligent design, and vaccinations). In other words, when Ms. Koerth-Baker says “it’s important that evidence is a part of how we make decisions in politics,” scientists agree, and their problem is that scientific evidence is not being recognized as such in some places.

[Realized later that this point is well made in a pre-March for Science video with Neil deGrasse Tyson


Why the AAPG should march, part 2

Earlier, GG argued that the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and Society of Exploration Geophysicists should join the March for Science.  Another reason has cropped up since, namely a study in Nature Human Behavior arguing that there is something of an echo chamber in the science books that are read by conservative and liberal readers. A Wired version of the story ends with this thought:

If scientists want to do a better job of making their research more accessible—which they probably should if they don’t want their line of work targeted by the same kind of ideological philocide currently being perpetuated against climate science—they should try to preach beyond their own choir.

Now delving into the original article (behind a paywall) will show that the divisions described in the news articles are a good deal more subtle than advertised, but the main point still stands. So scientific organizations that represent a more conservative view of science would do well to be visible in supporting science in places that are trying to be non-political: it is a chance to be seen and to have a voice with others whose political views might diverge from those of the members of these societies.

Why the AAPG should March for Science

Today the Geological Society of America (GSA) announced via email to members that it supports the March for Science (which is shown on the March for Science partners page but appears to be absent from the main GSA website). This is notable because GSA has far more professional members in the conservative oil and gas industry than, say, AGU, where the oil and gas folks are greatly outnumbered.

Two prominent earth science professional societies are still absent from the list: the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG). These are dominated by professional, private sector earth scientists who probably vote at the more conservative end of the scale. Why should they march?

Simple: Science is just as critical for them as for scientists pursuing topics favored by liberals. Their participation would help to balance the scales in the popular media more. They could help keep the March for Science a march for science and not simply become a march against Trump/GOP.

Well, you say, that is helping the people promoting the march and not the members of these organizations so much.  GG isn’t so sure.

Right now oil and gas companies face considerable emotional opposition to their operations. In the absence of respect for science, they are left with no real tools other than shear magnitude of political money to fight the anger of many communities assigning all their ills to oil and gas operations. Yes, sometimes the science shows those communities are right–but sometimes it shows that things are far more complex (e.g., some examples of natural gas migrating into aquifers are not from new activities but gas rising along old, abandoned wells with poor or degrading casings) and sometimes it finds there isn’t any merit to community claims. Furthermore, scientific understanding of the cause of any impacts can lead to the development of mitigation strategies that can allow resource development while limiting or eliminating harmful impacts.

Understanding and respecting science for what it is offers perhaps the best path forward in accommodating conflicting agendas in many disciplines.  Allowing science to be discredited as a tool in developing government policy might have some short term gains in some situations, but that will be counterbalanced by other situations where emotions run high and motivations will appear suspicious.  Science is, at its heart, simply a rational way to solve problems.

“Petroleum” and “Exploration” are modifiers to “Geologists” and “Geophysicists;” they are not the essence of them. Science is the essence of geology and geophysics.  GG is hoping that, as long as a lot of people are marching for science, that they are joined by the AAPG and SEG.  It’s best for all concerned.

I am biased…but so are you!

All of us who do science walk around with a lot of baggage.  So when we encounter a new piece of scientific work, we are biased about it when we pick it up. The key is what we do about this.

“Now wait” GG hears you cry “I always keep an open mind when I read a new paper.”

Really?  So you pick up a piece of young earth creation science and say “yep, as likely to be right as wrong.” Either you are a saint of some kind or lying to yourself.

Read More…

Don’t silence science

David Frum has a piece in the Atlantic arguing that effective popular action has to have a focused message. Otherwise all you accomplish is a massive cathartic moment (hey look! Lots of other people are pissed off too!).  That might feel good, but it doesn’t necessarily change the political calculus.

This brings us back to the March for Science. What is it, precisely?  More to the point, what is the demand being made by people marching in it? Is it to say “Science is great”? An anodyne theme like that could have all kinds of folks agreeing, including many the marchers would likely view as opponents.  Make lots of folks happy to see science isn’t viewed negatively. Is it “More money for science?” Er, wow, that sounds pretty self-interested.  Might want to see how the veterans’ march on Washington in 1932 (the Bonus Army) worked out-and those were military veterans who were driven out of town with tanks. Is it “do what the scientists say?” Ooooh, yeah, let’s propose a ruling elite after having an election that arguably showed widespread discontent with an elite.  Frankly, the March’s website is kind of vague on all this: “What unites us is a love of science, and an insatiable curiosity. We all recognize that science is everywhere and affects everyone.” Kumbaya, anyone?

Here is GG’s slogan: “Don’t silence science.” Short and simple. What are the demands? That scientists within the government and funded by the government be free to speak out about their scientific findings–these folks are being paid by taxpayers across the country and those taxpayers should be allowed to hear what the scientists have to say, not merely the parts some political appointee finds convenient.  That their data is available for others to examine–it too was bought with taxpayers’ moneys; hiding results because they are politically inconvenient should be unacceptable. A corollary is that research dollars cannot be directed to politically favored projects.  Imagine deciding not to fund research into the cancer-causing characteristics of tobacco while funding projects investigating the weight-control benefits of smoking. If you think health is important, fund health; if climate, fund climate, but don’t try to steer dollars more closely than that.

Scientists love to add caveats, specify details, allow for wiggle room, etc. We enjoy being long-winded and revel in gray areas of knowledge. Don’t do that here. Short, sweet, and simple: “Don’t silence science.”

P.S. 23 April. Noticed that the March for Science almost adopted GG’s theme, going for “Science, not Silence”. Not quite the same, but pretty close….