No war on science?

Roger Pielke, Jr. is a respected scholar of science policy, but he's got a contrarian streak a mile wide that gets him into trouble occasionally, as for instance his feud with Joe Romm of Climate Progress. It is also apparent in his survey of a fight over oyster farming off the coast of Point Reyes. His title, "The War on Science Continues" is, he insists, "a bit of irony, of course, as there never has been a 'war on science,' just politics as usual, sometimes played more hardball than others, especially by the previous Administration."

His example of an ongoing war on science involves oyster farms in an area designated as Potential Wilderness. In the '70s, the owner sold the land to the Park Service and the farm operates under a license scheduled to end in 2012. The NPS chose not to renew the lease for various reasons, and the farmers are fighting, enlisting their Senator in support. Various environmental groups back the NPS. Based on the report (as quoted in Senator BoxerFeinstein's letter), Pielke concludes:

So a federal agency is said to have “selectively presented, over-interpreted, or misrepresented the available scientific information” in support of decisions desired by interest groups closely aligned with that agency. One wonders, where are the “war on science” folks these days?

Right here, and frankly puzzled. Pielke is a smart guy, and I don't know why he would see a parallel between this and the abuses surrounding stem cell policy, the Plan B decision, or the Bush administration's handling of global warming, among others.

In those cases, scientists were excluded from the policy process, their reports were rewritten by political hacks to reflect the party line, or the science was flatly misrepresented to overstate the existing scientific understanding.

Setting aside that none of that has been shown to go on in this instance, the reports being critiqued date from 2007 at the latest. Which is to say, they are from the Bush years. So if it is an instance of the war on science, it'd hardly require that we stop calling it a "Republican war on science."

More substantively, Pielke's echo of BoxerFeinstein's letter itself misrepresents the NAS report. Here is the context of the quotation he offers (bolded for clarity):

While NPS in all versions of Drakes Estero: A Sheltered Wilderness Estuary accurately depicted the ecological significance and conservation value of Drakes Estero, in several instances the agency selectively presented, over-interpreted, or misrepresented the available scientific information on potential impacts of the oyster mariculture operation. Consequently, Drakes Estero: A Sheltered Wilderness Estuary did not present a rigorous and balanced synthesis of the mariculture impacts. Overall, the report gave an interpretation of the science that exaggerated the negative and overlooked potentially beneficial effects of the oyster culture operation.

This is bad, but not quite the same as what Chris Mooney ably documented in The Republican War on Science. Several drafts of the NPS document were posted between October, 2006 and May, 2007. In July, 2007, that document was removed from the NPS website (after less than a year in circulation), and two days later, the first of two documents correcting errors was posted. The NAS continues:

NPS has issued two documents correcting and clarifying Drakes Estero: A Sheltered Wilderness Estuary—“Acknowledgment of Corrections to Previous Versions of the Park News Document Drakes Estero: A Sheltered Wilderness Estuary” posted on July 25, 2007, and the September 18, 2007 document, “National Park Service Clarification of Law, Policy, and Science on Drakes Estero". The Clarification document represents the most accurate NPS release of science relating to mariculture impacts; although, this document does not fully reflect the conclusions of this committee.

The NAS does not appear to regard those disagreements as illegitimate or rising to the same level of inaccuracy or misrepresentation as the earlier document.

The core claim about the Republican war on science was not that bad science, or inaccurate understandings of science, are occasionally used as the basis for decision-making. If it were, Pielke's case would be made, but he must go further, and show that the science or the scientific process was intentionally twisted to achieve a desired policy result. The NAS explains why they think the NPS issued a document misstating or overstating the science:

It appears that hasty responses to local stakeholder concerns by NPS led to the publication of inaccuracies and a subsequent series of retractions and clarifications during this process from 2007–2008, which cast doubt on the agency’s credibility and motivation. A lack of coordination among the multiple agencies regulating the mariculture operation also gave mixed messages to stakeholders, fueling the controversy.

In other words, there's no evidence of malice, just a desire to respond speedily to a situation given limited data (and limited resources). The NAS adds (echoing one of Pielke's refrains):

The ultimate decision to permit or prohibit a particular activity, such as shellfish farming, in a particular location, such as Drakes Estero, necessarily requires value judgments and tradeoffs that can be informed, but not resolved, by science. Science describes the effects (differences in outcomes) that can be expected with and without shellfish farming in Drakes Estero, the level of uncertainty given current knowledge about these effects, and approaches to assess and balance potential risks and benefits. Because stakeholders may reasonably assign different levels of priority or importance to these effects and outcomes, there is no scientific answer to the question of whether to extend the RUO for shellfish farming. Like other zoning and land use questions, this issue will be resolved by policymakers charged with weighing the conflicting views and priorities of society as part of the decision-making process.

If the process is twisted so that the scientific inputs are erroneous, that is evidence of a war on science. It is not evidence of a war on science to say that people made judgment calls based on limited data. The NAS later addresses the difficulty of making evidence-based assessments given minimal data.

With regard to addressing the risk of ecological effects, NPS’s Management Policies prioritize the protection of natural resources, including circumstances where the available scientific information contains substantial uncertainty: “In cases of uncertainty as to the impacts of activities on park natural resources, the protection of natural resources will predominate”. This policy could be applied to permitting decisions before 2012 as well as providing an environmental rationale for not extending the 40-year term of the [lease] that was granted upon the Johnson’s sale of the property to NPS in 1972.

In other words, regardless of the misstatements and overstatements (which NPS corrected), the NPS has scientifically valid reasons to deny renewing the lease. BoxerFeinstein never quoted that judgment, nor did Pielke.

Pielke and BoxerFeinstein also ignored the NAS's warning about the importance of fully funding the NPS's research efforts:

The lack of sufficient resources in NPS to support the research required to harmonize the facilitation of public use and enjoyment of the parks with the preservation of environmental and cultural assets is a national problem. The availability of sufficient resources to assess environmental impacts of management alternatives and to fund rigorous scientific review of NPS documents prior to release could have provided sufficient information to avoid over-interpretations and misstatements of science, such as those that appeared in the NPS depictions of oyster farm impacts in the Drakes Estero case.

In short, the overstatements and misstatements result, not from malice or political desire, but from lack of information. And that lack of information is a result of the underfunding of NPS's (and other agencies') mission to research the factors threatening sensitive habitats and endangered species.

Given that failure to support policy-relevant research, the NPS concludes:

there is a lack of strong scientific evidence that shellfish farming has major adverse ecological effects on Drakes Estero at the current levels of production and under current operational practices, including compliance with restrictions to protect eelgrass, seals, waterbirds, and other natural resources. … Importantly from a management perspective, lack of evidence of major adverse effects is not the same as proof of no adverse effects nor is it a guarantee that such effects will not manifest in the future.

If one is looking for a war on science, the denial of this permit is hardly a good example. But the consistent underfunding of research that would better inform this decision-making does fall into that rubric. During the Bush years, biologists with BLM and other agencies were assigned desk duty processing paperwork for oil and gas leases, specifically to keep them out of the field and to prevent research on endangered and threatened species.

Yes, there was a war on science. And Republicans are still fighting it. Pielke is free to stay clear of the conflict, but it would be nice if he didn't pretend nothing was going on.


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I think you have gotten the oyster story a bit mixed up. You refer here to "Boxer's letter" but it sounds like you mean the letter from Senator Feinstein. In the blog post you are responding to, a letter TO Senator Boxer is also referenced.

I follow this story quite closely (Drakes Bay oyster farm) and you seem to be missing some context. The NAS report issued this week DID find that the Park Service misrepresented the science, but NAS didn't have a charter to find scientific misconduct (they are studying best practices in shellfish mariculture), so they pointed out that it's possible that the errors and omissions were simply errors and omissions. It was nice of NAS to give the Park Service the benefit of the doubt, but NAS did not actually weigh in on the issue of whether this was a mistake or whether it was done on purpose. There is quite a bit of evidence for the latter.

Last year, the Inspector General investigated these same Park Service officials for scientific misconduct, and they were found GUILTY of it. They kept falsifying the data anyway. (Corey Goodman, a local scientist who is also a member of the National Academy himself, can give you all the gory details on this.)

That's one of the reasons Senator Feinstein asked the National Academy to look into the SCIENCE so it could be separated out from the national and local politics. (Which is clearly much easier said than done!)


Thanks for catching the Boxer/Feinstein mixup. I must have mixed up the reference to Boxer with the attribution to Feinstein.

I'll poke around on the background you mentioned. I just note that, given limited resources and limited data, we expect scientists to use their expertise to make reasonable extrapolations. The NAS doesn't (and perhaps couldn't) judge that the assessments were altogether implausible.

Pielke's attempt to connect this with the war on science is where I object. The policy had numerous valid justifications, and based on the NAS report, it sounds like the science was only used as one of several reasons to reject the extension of oyster farming. As such, the parallel with the war on science simply doesn't hold water.

Thanks for the update and the context. It's an interesting story that I haven't seen much about, so it should be interesting to dig around on.

Thanks for the reply. I don't fully understand your comment here, and would be interested in getting more of your thoughts. I can't find an email address on the site--please contact me if you are interested in an off-line discussion. Thanks!

Josh, your insights are on target, even if you mixed up the CA Senator's names. The 'war on science' schpiel was inspired by strident accusations made by a biotech-Cayman-Island-Fund-venture-capitalist, Dr. Corey Goodman. Whatever his motivations, at the time his crusade against NPS started, he was in the process of achieving the near-impossible - getting development permits for his (wife's) spanking new, 800+ acre gentleman's 'Basque artisanal cheese from a few dozen hairless African sheep' ranch (i.e., bargain-price for dry pasture turned into stunningly picturesque sunset over Tomales Bay equestrian estate). Without his 'credibility' as a NAS member this distorted saga would never have gotten off the ground. Goodman was able to break into the tight, local ranching clique which controls Marin County politics by backing the most aggressively connected 'favorite son', Kevin Lunny - the oyster farm's novice proprietor - who is on nearly a dozen key local agricultural, shellfish industry, and business-economic boards of directors. As Goodman ascended to the chairmanship of the strangely reorganized main, local paper, several immensely wealthy political donors & private land resource investors attracted several legacy legislators (i.e., lobbyists) to pen revisionist histories of Point Reyes National Seashore and apply relentless pressure on multiple agencies to give Lunny kid-gloves treatment. There's a much bigger story underneath - undoubtedly connected with privatizing public land & water. BTW Ms. Rolph aspires to ingratiate herself to this elite niche, through her professional writing & PR talents - she has done duty for Goodman in misleading statistical analyses published locally, and has numerous blog contributions sewing needless confusion and misinformation. Perhaps you've heard of Peter Gleick - the 'ends justifies the means' identity thief - he's the only other science 'expert' defender of Goodman's - they both pontificate about ethics, but fail to reveal the plausible conflicts of serving on each other's private 'institute' boards of directors. After seven years of vitriol, the Lunny-Goodman faction is going down fighting - the OSB is currently conducting the 7th review of NPS science (even though of course it IS primarily a legal landlord-tenant squabble) courtesy of Sen.DiFi. Issa, Vitter, and Inhofe have all held Kangaroo Courts on the matter, based on Goodman's actually inept analysis. It would be comic if it were theatre. The oyster farm, DBOC, has been closed nearly a month due to Vibrio p. By 30Nov2012, if justice prevails, they and their pseudo-science-empressarios will be gone.