Bad Science Leads to Bad Policy, No Matter Your Political Beliefs

Good science can play a key role in evaluating the impacts of an oyster farm inside the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California. But we're not getting good science.
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Anti-science mania is sweeping parts of the United States. This isn't new -- there is a long history of irrational, pseudoscientific, or downright anti-scientific thinking and political culture here -- ironic, given how much our founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin valued science. Examples include creationism, moon-landing denialism, claims linking vaccines to autism, denials that tobacco causes cancer long after the science was in, and especially the denial of climate change and global warming. This anti-science mentality is especially discouraging given how vital America's scientific and technological strengths are to our economic and political strengths.

For reasons that a political scientist or sociologist would have to explore, this is a problem especially of the Republican right. For example, it is most evident in the lockstep, ideological denial of the realities of climate change by nearly all of the Republican presidential candidates and congressional representatives. The highly respected scientific journal Nature called Congressional inactions on climate "fundamentally anti-science" and an example of "willful ignorance," and said:

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the US Congress has entered the intellectual wilderness, a sad state of affairs in a country that has led the world in many scientific arenas for so long.

In another example that would be amusing if it weren't so bizarre, the theory of relativity is rejected in Conservapedia (a kind of Wikipedia for ideologues on the right who want their facts and definitions to line up with their political beliefs) because "It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world." Whew! (And check out the entry that argues that atheists are more likely to be obese. But please, skip the entry on "evolution" -- it will make a rational person's head explode.)

But it isn't only conservatives who use bad science to push political agendas.

In the past couple of years, a debate in the Bay Area over wilderness protection, sustainable agriculture, and the integrity of science has spiraled into the dirt. The fight is over whether to continue to permit a small privately managed oyster farm, the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, to continue to operate inside the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California. The oyster operation predates the Park, having been in Drakes Estero for nearly a century but the Estero is now eligible for wilderness status. Supporters of wilderness believe the oyster farm is an incompatible use and should be closed when its current lease expires in 2012. Supporters of local sustainable agriculture believe the farm should stay.

Wilderness versus local sustainable agricultural? The decision hinges on choosing among conflicting societal preferences and highly subjective factors -- precisely the things that make public discourse, discussion, and debate important. But this fight has pitted neighbor versus neighbor, environmentalist versus environmentalist, and in this fairly liberal community, progressive versus progressive.

Good science can play a key role here in evaluating the impacts of the oyster farm. But we're not getting good science. Instead, the National Park Service, the Department of the Interior (DoI), and some local environmental supporters (with whom I usually have strong common cause) have manipulated science in their efforts to close the farm. A series of reports have been issued with bad, incomplete, misleading, or cherry-picked evidence of impacts to seagrasses, water quality, fish diversity, and especially seals. These reports have been highly criticized by independent scientists, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. And data that contradicts their own studies have been withheld by the Park Service, including over 200,000 photographs from hidden cameras they set up to monitor disturbances caused by the oyster farm, but which now reportedly show no evidence of such disturbances.

An internal DoI report (the "Frost Report") on this debacle was released earlier this year. That report acknowledged that the scientific arguments of damage from the oyster farm were false, and criticized withholding and cherry-picking data in public reports; writing journal articles with incomplete or wrong data; failing to present complete materials, data, and scientific observations to a National Academy of Sciences Committee, even after multiple requests; and issuing repeatedly false public statements. The Report found a "willingness to allow subjective beliefs and values to guide scientific conclusions," the use of "subjective conclusions, vague temporal and geographic references, and questionable mathematical calculations," and "misconduct [that] arose from incomplete and biased evaluation and from blurring the line between exploration and advocacy through research." A separate National Academy of Sciences review found that the Park Service "selectively presented, over-interpreted, or misrepresented the available science on the potential impacts of the oyster mariculture operation." Senator Dianne Feinstein, to her credit, has weighed in demanding a return to scientific integrity.

Yet a recently released draft Environmental Impact Statement on the farm repeats and expands upon these false claims. For example, the NPS is still claiming that the oyster farm is harming the seals in Pt. Reyes, but their only evidence is a highly disputed statistical study that has been debunked in major review by a group of leading scientists and statisticians, including Dr. Corey Goodman -- a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and an outspoken local resident. (I have read Goodman's review and find it compelling.) What has been the response? The Park Service and the Marine Mammal Commission have so far refused to review the scientific criticisms or participate in public discussions about the issues, and local advocates of wilderness have launched a series of blistering, personal ad hominem attacks on Dr. Goodman.

Science is not democratic or republican. Scientific integrity, logic, reason, and the scientific method are core to the strength of our nation. We may disagree among ourselves about matters of opinion and policy, but we (and our elected representatives) must not misuse, hide, or misrepresent science and fact in service of our political wars.

[Dr. Peter Gleick considers himself a scientist, an environmentalist, and a liberal Democrat. He doesn't eat oysters and he likes wilderness. But he likes science more.]

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