Friday, August 13, 2004

The Intersection of Science and Politics

David Orr, wrote The Corruption (and Redemption) of Science in Conservation Biology, Vol 18, Issue 4, pp. 862-865. (Links will only work for people with subscribtions.) The issue begins with a large special section on the politicization of science policy. I'm not endorsing all the arguments in Orr's piece, but I like some parts.

Orr starts with the Union of Concerned Scientists report, blogged by Chris Mooney and others. He takes off on that and writes:

To those paying attention, findings such as these will come as no surprise. They fit a larger pattern that ranges from the misuse of intelligence information to justify the war in Iraq, to deception about the budget, the economy, and the effects of tax cuts, to ... well the list goes on, and in its length and scope it, too, is unprecedented. Some may object that such information is partisan and has no place in this journal and no bearing on its mission of bringing authentic science to bear on the problems of conservation. On the other hand, whatever one's politics, the corruption of science and public information for political ends ought to be deeply offensive to scientists and citizens alike. Allowed to continue it will, like Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union, demoralize scientists, degrade the reputation of science, and discredit the information necessary to a free society. And, specifically for those working in conservation biology, it means that research, whatever its merit or import, will be discounted or disregarded by federal agencies, the Congress, and the White House.

This really touches on everthing that absolutely must be said, and it's a powerful argument for scientists taking strong scientific positions as scientists. There has been some discussion on the right way for scientists - or professionals in general - to blog their politics. Some (I think I saw this first at Pharyngula) take the position that politics can't be separated from the person, so let's talk about science, politics, art, whatever. Others say that defending science per se requires being politics. In the same issue of Conservation Biology, Langdon Winner writes "Now science itself looms as a convenient target, just another communications channel ready to be adapted to the dictates of a rapidly moving, power-hungry social movement. Will scientists and scholars yield to this aggressive onslaught, taking their research grants and laying low? Or can we hope for a more positive, more hopeful, more forceful response?"

The counter-argument is that scientists should separate science from politics lest science be diminished and made partisan. The Endangered Species Act is a case where science and politics coexist badly. Exactly what constitutes a species, subspecies, or geographic variant is never a clean line (which is why Darwin wanted to abolish the concept of a species). Since the only way for scientists to demand protection for a particular habitat for scientific reasons is to identify an endangered species, it creates an incentive to emphasize small differences between populations, creating endangered "species," which then need protection.

Science is harmed in several ways by these manipulations. First, scientists are less trusted when they state that a particular habitat is important for species that are undeniably endangered (eg. condors, ferrets, wolves). Second, the scientific literature is biased towards splitting species apart when sometimes they ought to be lumped. The process of revising species or genera, naming new species or folding old species together into a single named group, is a vital way of integrating new techniques and data, and reviewing old research. If political considerations drive a choice to split out a geographic variant into a new named group, that undermines the scientific process. Third, it weakens politics, by letting conservationists hang onto endangered species as the major tool for protecting habitat, rather than demanding coherent laws that protect habitats, ecosystems, and the complex processes that go on.

There is an ongoing controversy about Preble's Meadow Jumping Mouse in Colorado. Zapus hudsonius preblei is an endangered subspecies of meadow jumping mouse that lives in the foothills of the Rockies. It occurs in areas that developers want to work in, but also areas that you and I might want to hike in. I'm sure moose, deer, elk, antelope, weasels, bobcat, and a host of other animals that aren't endangered play there too. At least some of that area ought to be set aside for conservation. But if this subspecies is rolled into the nearest subspecies, nothing at all stands in the way of development. Scientifically, that's irrelevant. But the homebuilders' association have funded research into the status of the subspecies. Scientists interested in conservation will present their evidence that the subspecies is distinct, homebuilder funded scientists will show small genetic divergences, or minimize statistical differences in skull measurements, and eventually some government body will make a decision that has economic and environmental policy implications.

I don't know whether that or similar controversies over spotted owls, Florida panthers, or dozens of other species say about the relationship between scientists and politics. Should we just get involved in smarter politics, or should we strenghthen our voice in policy debates by backing off of explicit advocacy?