Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Why we should listen to scientists

In this blog, there are a few topics that I try hard to avoid, because they rarely serve my primary main underlying goal: trying do to-mystify the scientific process (especially with regard to astronomy). One such topic I avoid like the dickens is politics, as the best political commentary I can muster would, if I were lucky, only alienate half of my audience. But today, I can't avoid the topic. Politics often sticks its nose into science (stem cell research, global warming, and science education are a few of the big topics of recent years), and the debate over these topics is often not based in science (good or bad) at all. But at least the debate is public, and it offers us scientists a stage, however imperfect, for trying to spread what we've learned about these subjects.

Earlier this week, the Bush Administration tried to quietly announce some whopping changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As far as I understand it, the basic impact is that government agencies will no longer need to seek an independent review for projects that may impact an endangered species. Of course, they could still seek a review, but given that the review often slows down and forces changes to projects, does anyone honestly think that they would?

These reviews typically include scientists who collect evidence (most provided by the agency required to seek the review) and decide if a project would have a significant negative impact on an endangered species, and if there are changes that can be made to the project to lessen that impact. Sometimes those changes may be very expensive, and sometimes these reviews can really slow down the process. And a negative review can torpedo projects.

Is the ESA perfect? No. Sometimes the delays seem silly (like a bike path in California being delayed because it crosses territory of an endangered beetle), though there are often larger issues at stake. So, if the government wants to debate the process and make changes, I can go along with that. But let's at least do it in public. The U.S. is, after all, a republic; if we can't debate laws in public and have to change them in secret, then we've lost the most important rights that millions of men and women have died for over the past 240 years.

Some argue that the scientists involved in the review care more about endangered salamanders than they do about human beings. We are called elitists who think we know more than John Q. Public, and therefore our opinions have no value. Well, frankly, when it comes to science, we do know more than John Q. Public. That's not snobbery. It would be snobbery/elitism if we thought that our extra knowledge in scientific matters made us better than other people, but we know better. If the plumbing in my apartment breaks, I call the plumber, because I know that he/she knows much more about plumbing than I do. When my car quits running, I take it to the shop, because I know the mechanic knows much more about cars than I ever will. And I think the plumber and mechanic would be within their rights to say that they know more than I do about those subjects; I wouldn't be able to argue with them. So, when it comes to ecology, how can a career bureaucrat ever claim to know as much as the career biologist? The ecologist who says, "I know more about that than the bureaucrat, so please give my opinion some consideration" is not being snobbish, but just asking for the same deference we give to experts in other walks of life. Scientists are not crazed misanthropes bent on world domination, nor do we put our own personal ambition above the needs of our fellow man. We want humankind to progress, just in a way that doesn't take down the rest of life with it. We humans are part of a very complex and interconnected biological system, and if we fail to take care in our dealings with that system, we may be asking for trouble.

I often hear or read wisecracks about how stupid scientists are being when proposed developments are delayed because of impacts on endangered salamanders or frogs. And, I would have to agree that if the question were, "us or the frogs?", I'd side with us. But the question is not that simple; there are usually larger issues at play than just the endangered species. Often, the biggest danger of a shopping mall or an interstate to a salamander is not the increase in cars running over the poor creatures, but the loss of habitat, because the wetlands in which the salamander likes to live will have to be drained or altered. And while wetlands, swamps and bogs may not seem like very desirable things for humans, they can have tremendous impacts on us. For instance, there is strong evidence that a loss of wetlands increased the damage from Hurricane Katrina. While those lost wetlands would not have prevented the devastation from the monster storm, they may well have lessened the impact.

The Bush administration has claimed that the independent scientific reviews are no longer necessary because agencies have developed sufficient expertise to conduct their own reviews without scientific input. But science is constantly changing; we are continuing to learn more about the connections between environments, species, and humans. And these connections change with time. Bald eagles and alligators don't need the same types of protection they did 30 years ago, and pacific salmon need protections that they didn't just a few years ago. Who is going to be more up to date on the current environmental needs, a Ph.D. ecologist or the manager of a road construction project? I'll believe the ecologist on the environmental issues (though I'd take the manager's advice on the bridge design).

The fact is that, despite the extensive delays sometimes caused by environmental protection laws (though egregious cases exist, they are rare), our environment is in much better shape than it used to be. And that bodes well for humans. Compare a smoggy day in LA to a smoggy day in Beijing, and ask yourself which air you'd rather breathe. Environmental laws made that difference. Or read Silent Spring and then look at the change in bald eagle population since that time. The Endangered Species Act made that difference.

I have no problem with a healthy public debate on the details of environmental law and the role of scientific reviews within that law. But silent changes gutting existing laws (that have saved many species and have improved our human quality of life) without so much as a word of public discussion is wrong. It's antithetical to democracy. It blatantly ignores the voices of scientists whose life work is directed toward improving the lives of humans, both living and in future generations. It threatens the continued (and improving) health of the ecosystem of which we are an integral part.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if the mad scientist has lodged itself that deeply in public iconography. I don't think people are yet convinced that we're not all frizzy-haired goggle-wearers holed up in mountain laboratories, waiting for thunderstorms.

    People who know what they're talking about making decisions. What a fascinating suggestion.