Scientists and public obligations

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Scientists and public obligations

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1Artemis26
Apr 19, 2008, 3:09pm

I thought I'd make a new attempt at getting a discussion going. Normally, I do find geo folks to be chatty, so the silence here seems strange to me. Perhaps it has more to do with the fact that there are only 33 of us? I don't know, but science and public policy is a topic that has been weighing heavily on my mind lately and I thought I'd see what the other 32 of you think.

I'm particularly concerned with the use of predictive models to formulate policy. This may be a topic better posted in Science! or somewhere else, but part of the reason that I have diverted my career from Geology to Natural Resource Policy is because there don't seem to be many geo minded folks out there doing policy and I think we have a lot to offer. So I would like to pick your brains specifically.

This isn't just a global warming thing - it's an earthquake prediction, hazardous (i.e., nuclear) waste disposal, mining pollution, water resource management, air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, etc., thing. So, my specific question is how much responsibility do scientists have in trying to influence the use of data to formulate public policy? James Hanson is the exception to the rule, and the rule generally has been that we keep our hands out of the cookie jar. What do you think?

2Aelith
Apr 19, 2008, 3:54pm

I'm just a science fiction reader but considering how much of your topic underlies world events and the future, SOMEBODY better get busy.

3dchaikin
Apr 19, 2008, 11:00pm

Do you mean that a scientist may be responsible if his/her suggestions do not get incorporated into policy? I mean, is a scientist a failure if the government isn't listening? I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that idea.

Scientists have a responsibility to share the information they have publicly (if possible). But, do they also have a responsibility to seek out influence in policy? That's a somewhat loaded question. Since we live in a democratic-like system you would think "yes, we are all responsible" But, "yes" implies scientists need a political arm...their own lobbying group. That seems like maybe a lot to ask. But, more critically, that will have rebound where the more politically successful that is, the more politics will influence the science! (anything from "please check this out to strengthen our argument" to "don't go there, it's too politically hot" to outright manipulation of data and interpretations.)

I find it hard to simply say that the scientist don't and shouldn't have any responsibility beyond getting the data out and available (and having some kind of peer review systems in place). I think scientists should do what they can to reach policy makers that can find value in their data. But, the policy makers should have the responsibility to find and evaluate the science.

4setnahkt
Apr 19, 2008, 11:21pm

Don't know. As soon as you start venturing into politics you're in danger of sacrificing scientific objectivity. On the other hand, you're a citizen like everybody else and have the right to bring all your talents to the debate.

Personally, I'm getting tired of watching everybody's eyes glaze over when I try to explain asbestos regulations to them.

5Artemis26
Edited: Apr 21, 2008, 3:53pm

Hi Daniel and Bruce - I agree with most of what you said. It is a double-edged sword, for sure. As to your point about manipulation, that already happens, anyway. I mean, a Senate Committee on Climate Change (not their exact title, but I don't remember it) used Michael Crichton as their "expert" witness on climate change because he wrote a fictional book about it. They just bypassed the scientists altogether. Working for the USGS, I witnessed first hand the political pressure on scientists to reach certain conclusions, so they designed their data collection accordingly. I hate to tell people about that because I don't want to give the USGS a bad reputation, but I think people should know.

As for policy makers, I am finding that world to be scarily absent of the most basic scientific knowledge, much less the ability to know how to find the legitimate science or how to evaluate it. I think scientists take that knowledge for granted, or at least I think that I have. I think we assume that we report the results and they just automatically know what to do with them. Of course, all results are open to interpretation, but some interpretations are more sound than others when all of the evidence is weighed. How can policy makers know when a researcher has allowed bias to weigh into his/her conclusions? They can't, but we can. We understand the implicit assumptions, they don't.

Well, you can tell which way I lean. I just think that we can conduct our research with as much objectivity as possible, but when the results across the board for 10s to 100s of studies are reaching similar conclusions and those conclusions are being ignored because one or two scientists are reporting what the policy makers want to hear, it's time for scientists to make some noise. Case in point: Yucca Mtn. We do have Union of Concerned Scientists, which employs far more scientists than most activist NGOs, but that's about it.

Since this is a LT group, I'll recommend a book on the subject, if anyone is interested - Prediction: Science, Decision Making, and the Future of Nature, edited by Daniel Sarewitz, Roger A. Pielke, Jr., and Radford Byerly, Jr..

6Aelith
Apr 20, 2008, 4:42pm

"Personally, I'm getting tired of watching everybody's eyes glaze over when I try to explain asbestos regulations to them."

Very Good Artemis. And Set don't explain the regulation, explain why they are necessary.

7setnahkt
Apr 20, 2008, 11:06pm

...Set don't explain the regulation, explain why they are necessary.

No can do. I'm generally dealing with engineers or planners, who have to know why they can or cannot do certain things, and "because the regulations say so" doesn't cut it (if Colorado had built asbestos regulations into its building code, that would work - "because it's code" will convince engineers pretty quickly).

If I don't go into excruciating and eye-glazing detail, they will go off on their own, try to read the regulations themselves, and jump all over me with their own interpretations.

Besides, with a lot of environmental regulations, explaining "why they are necessary" is kind of dubious. Using asbestos as an example again, why can material containing less than 1% asbestos be left in a building under demolition (EPA - Clean Air Act), but workers must be informed of the presence of asbestos in any amount (OSHA), but any amount in soil you're disturbing has to be hauled off (Colorado Soild Waste Regulations), but you only have to report a release if more than a pound escapes to the environment (CERCLA)?

8Aelith
Apr 21, 2008, 7:44am

Ah! excuse my ignorance, please. I'm just q-public with one geology course as my science credit.

Sounds to me from just what you wrote that the regs are as much about protecting the state from litigation as protecting the populous from lung cancer. But then wouldn't one of the possible goals for a 'scientists lobbying group' be to consolidate the handling of hazardous materials in to the building codes? Or am I being hopelessly naive? Of curse I am.

p.s. I was introduced to asbestos regs briefly when the library I was working at in Illinois wanted to remodel and then discovered the floor tiles were the old asbestos kind. Ugh.

9setnahkt
Apr 21, 2008, 11:39am

Sounds to me from just what you wrote that the regs are as much about protecting the state from litigation as protecting the populous from lung cancer. But then wouldn't one of the possible goals for a 'scientists lobbying group' be to consolidate the handling of hazardous materials in to the building codes? Or am I being hopelessly naive? Of curse I am.

Not so much protrecting the State from litigation - governmental immunity and all that - as protecting the politicians in office. Don't get me wrong - politicians have a tough job, one that I couldn't do - but that job depends on public approval.

Environmental regulations always tend to address the last problem that turned up in the media, whether that be asbestos or PCBs or nuclear waste or climate change - at the expense of any sort of long-term planning. As a result, what we have now is a patchwork of duct-tape fixes.

Scientists, ironically, often exacerbate the problem. Every scientist has their own interest; doctors think about health, biologists about endangered species, hydrologists about water pollution, and so on. That makes it perfectly natural for each to see their own field as the most important one.

I'm not a "policy maker"; I'm fairly low on the totem pole even in my own entity and am mostly concerned with the day-to-day implications of environmental regulations. The most frustrating part for me is so many of the regulations are counterproductive. We'd like to use eDiesel - Diesel fuel with 15% ethanol - but the fire codes make it effectively impossible. We want to use magnesium chloride as a deicer rather than common salt, but the sewer codes make it difficult. The EPA is pushing for more "brownfield" development (reusing former industrial sites rather than building in untouched locations) but soil contamination regs often make this prohibitively expensive.

I see the role of scientists here as setting priorities and doing some risk-benefit analysis. I rather admire Bjorn Lomborg here - although I find some of his writing dubious, at least he had the moral courage to say "Look, the real problem for a lot of the world is clean drinking water, not whatever trendy disaster-of-the-day happens to show up in First World media".

Again, ironically, scientists may have more to learn from politicians here than the other way around. Politicians know that everything is a trade-off; you can't make everybody happy so you have to do the best you can. Scientists sometimes are fixed on their own particular bĂȘte noir that they fail to see other equally or more compelling problems.

Geologists have a special insight to offer here - time perspective. This is why I've never been able to take fears of climate change all that seriously - of course the climate's changing; it's been changing for 4.5 Gy; why should it stop now? Why should the atmosphere, oceans, and species of the 0.000001% of Earth history that I've been alive be considered the "definitive" ones that are to be protected from change? I'm waiting for some geologists to say "Wait a minute; yes, we're putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but the carbon dioxide concentration now ("now" in the geological sense - the last 100K years or so) is the lowest it's been since the Paleozoic. Aren't there more important things to worry about?"

There; that ought to stir up some conversation.

10Artemis26
Apr 21, 2008, 4:59pm

Great posting, Bruce (setnahkt - is it more conventional to refer back to the username for reference? I'm a little clueless about this).

You have clearly demonstrated the paradoxical problems we face with environmental regs and the short-term, reactive policy formation habits we've developed.

I would like to see scientists break away from the habit we've been trained into - trying to reach a one-best-answer conclusion. We have to present our conclusions with a good deal of confidence for a variety of reasons, so we often state our conclusions as fact. I think we need to present our results as a series of alternatives and present policy implications where applicable. Sure, scientists need specialized training within our fields, but we also need some training that helps us to see beyond our microscope stages (so to speak). We need to work with policy people, not apart from them.

On your point about global warming, I couldn't agree more - the geologic time scale gives us a unique perspective, and we know full well that the earth is not being destroyed. Nothing annoys me more than to hear a bunch of environmentalists screaming about saving the earth by turning off our lights. How arrogant to think that we can make or break the earth's future by conserving energy. But the problem with 20th C. global warming is "saving some humans." I know that sounds ridiculous when there are 6+ billion of us and we are hardly on the verge of extinction. But CO2 levels are the highest they've been (that we know of) since humans came into the picture and pushed our population to just about every corner of the planet.

The implication of accelerated warming caused by 20th C. CO2 emissions is devastation in some developing countries. I'm not so concerned about the effects of rising sea level in New York as I am about defenseless people who already have the drinking water problems that Lomborg so justly points out - but global warming is going to exacerbate those clean water problems.

Lomborg could be another discussion entirely. Last year, he wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times that demonstrated that either he does not understand Archimedes' Principle, or he expects the majority of NYT readers to be ignorant of it. This is a professor of Environmental Science? Ignorance, whether his or the readers', is no way to win an argument. I'll just stop myself there. --Kristi (KR)

11setnahkt
Apr 21, 2008, 6:48pm

Great posting, Bruce (setnahkt - is it more conventional to refer back to the username for reference? I'm a little clueless about this).

Personally, I don't care, which is why I put my real name in my profile. However, others might.

I think we need to present our results as a series of alternatives and present policy implications where applicable.

Very well put. I try to do that (on a very small scale, of course) when offering advice in my own entity. As an example, we recently dug into an unexpected and very old landfill when making a new bus transfer station. The spoil from the site was expected to be clean fill and so was promissed to a construction fill elsewhere. So the alternatives were:

1) We can send this stuff of as originally promised. It's so old (I was estimating pre-World War I based on glass bottle fragments) it probably doesn't have anything harmful in it anymore. However, somewhere down the road we might found out that I was wrong and the recipient of the fill may be harmed or may litigate based on fear of harm. Or;

2) We can send it to an industrial waste landfill for $3/yd more, or about $5K for the whole.

Number 2 was my recommendation; it was a small part of the project cost and the extra safety seemed worthwhile, but I'm still not sure. I kept an eye on the stuff while it was being excavated and I never saw anything that looked hazardous (although it certainly wasn't clean fill). That's the way this goes - lots of uncertainty and you usually opt for what seems to be the least risky route

On your point about global warming, I couldn't agree more - the geologic time scale gives us a unique perspective, and we know full well that the earth is not being destroyed. Nothing annoys me more than to hear a bunch of environmentalists screaming about saving the earth by turning off our lights. How arrogant to think that we can make or break the earth's future by conserving energy.

Yes, sometimes "saving the earth" actually seems to mean "saving white suburbia with a few wilderness areas I can take a vacation in every few years".

But CO2 levels are the highest they've been (that we know of) since humans came into the picture and pushed our population to just about every corner of the planet.

Well, yes, but they're pretty small compared to - say - the Carboniferous.

...defenseless people who already have the drinking water problems that Lomborg so justly points out - but global warming is going to exacerbate those clean water problems.

Maybe, but maybe some of the proposed "solutions" for global warming might also make things worse. My take is "global warming" is actually three separate issues:

1) Is the Earth getting warmer? - Well, it seems like it. But it's been getting warmer since the end of the Pleistocene.

2) Are humans responsible for all or part of that warming? (and there's a subset to this, as you pointed out - is the Earth warming faster than it did during past warming events). - Well, again, the theory of greenhouse gases seems to have that down, although I find it unsettling that climate models that claim to predict climate in the future can't "retrocast" it without a lot of arbitrary tweaking.

3) What should we do about it? - This is where I part company with a lot of people, because my answer is: nothing. It's not "nothing" because I don't think it a potentially serious problem, but "nothing" becuase we don't know if the cure will be worse than the disease.

I think about it this way - ever since the modern "environmental movement" started we've been warned that the earth's ecosystem was very delicate and that a slight push the wrong way might cause an irretrievable collapse (well, irretrieveable for humans, at least; a lot of other organisms would get along justfine). From the other side of the debate, we've heard warnings that the global economy was very delicate and one more environmental regulation might cause an irretrieveable collapse. Both sides have been wrong - the economy is still muddling along and the ecology is still more or less intact. However, we do know of localized cases where ecosystems have collapsed - Easter Island, for example, and where economies have collapsed - post WWI Hungary, for example. Thus the threat of global ecosystem or economy collapse can't be dismissed.

Now then, is the world climate (and thus ecological) system more or less complicated than world economy? If it's less complicated, then why do climate remediation proposals make drastic changes in the complicated and enigmatic economic system to try and fix the supposedly simple climate? And if the climate system's more complicated than the economy, why can't modelers who claim to be able to predict what the complicated climate is going to do in 100 years tell me what the simple stock market will do tomorrow?

Lomborg could be another discussion entirely. Last year, he wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times that demonstrated that either he does not understand Archimedes' Principle...

I confess I haven't been keeping track of what Lomborg is up to recently. Can you give me a reference to that NYT piece? More to be said, but I have to go catch a bus.

12Artemis26
Apr 22, 2008, 8:06pm

Woops, the article was in the Wall Street Journal. Here it is: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB116909379096479919.html?mod=opinion_main_comment... . It's quite entertaining, of course. The second to the last paragraph is where he gets particularly carried away with statistical manipulations. By the way, since the article is anti-Gore, a disclaimer: My criticism of Lomborg is by no means a claim of support for Gore. Gore has his problems, too.

Another woops: Turns out I remembered Lomborg's specialty incorrectly: He's a political scientist. Enjoy! - KR

13setnahkt
Apr 22, 2008, 11:11pm

Ah, thanks for that link. Again, i confess I haven't been keeping up to date with Lomborg.

I think Lomborg's basic problem is that he allowed himself to get over his head in some areas. The Skeptical Environmentalist tries to address just about everything under the sun; when Lomborg sticks to areas he's familiar with - like economic statistics - he does fine; when he gets into other areas he suffers. It's possible that he couldn't have gotten the book published if he hadn't usedso broad a brush, and to be fair Lomborg does a lot better with science than some notable scientists - Paul Ehrlich comes to mind - have done with economics.

It does seem ironic that the scientists involved in this debate are Bjorn Lomborg and Al Gore. I am reminded of a time in the 1970s when Charlton Heston and Paul Newman had a televised debate over nuclear disarmament. To give them credit, they both agreed that it would make much more sense if the debate was between Edward Teller and Stansfield Turner - but then nobody would watch it.