“Science” in policy rhetoric.

I’m getting real tired of hearing about “good science” and “bad science” in these long-running complex conflicts, especially since “good science” often means ‘the outcome that I want’ and “bad science” means ‘results that favor the other side temporarily until the truth comes out’. There is occasionally “bad science” in the process, as when people like Julie MacDonald take completed studies, erase the results they don’t like and pencil in different ones. But most of the time, when I hear people complain about “bad science”, what they’re looking at is incomplete science. Early studies have indicated a finding, and another twenty studies or a longitudinal study could confirm it past statistical doubt, but that follow up work will take another decade.

Judge Wanger, in his efforts to bend the ESA to account for human costs which it clearly doesn’t under TVA v. Hill, has decided on a definition of science that scientists don’t share. Judges and lawyers and politicians seem to think that science is only good when it looks like basic Newtonian physics1, always and inalterably reaching a precise and accurate prediction. Biologists, ecologists and scientists know that perfectly good science makes better predictions than not, tells us a lot about the state of things but can always use refinements at the boundaries of our knowledge, sometimes only illuminates the complex interrelated factors. Done right, with clear and rigorous methods, that is still very good science2.

Further, scathing NAS review notwithstanding3, the problem with BDCP is not “bad science”. I understood the NAS review to say that the science in BDCP is good as far as it goes, and it can’t go very far because the policy process is a clusterfuck. This is not “bad science.” This is incomplete science and bad policymaking. So I’m tired of hearing about Science as an omniscient neutral kingmaker who is going to weigh in on an advocate’s side any day now. I don’t want to hear about whether science is good or bad from lawyers and politicians who determine the quality of science by whether they like the results4.

So, folks, a reminder. Bad science is science with a non-transparent method (transparent to other scientists; it doesn’t have to be immediately understandable to a lay audience) or based on a method that doesn’t isolate the question being asked, or, heaven forbid, based on falsified data. That is bad science, and that’s not the type of critique I ever see quoted in the press. A scientific study can reveal something that means you don’t get full water deliveries and still be entirely rigorous and good. A scientific study may not answer a policy question beyond any doubt and still be very well done science. The entire body of scientific knowledge may not tell us what we want to know. That is not bad science. That is incomplete science. Those are different.

1Perhaps the water field is biased in this direction, since it is so full of civil engineers. Since civils do all their work in the realm of basic physics, maybe they think that level of ease and accuracy should be true for all technical efforts.

2I should run this by my cousin, who is an actual philosophy professor working on the question “What is science?”. But he’ll only add expertise and complexity and no one wants that.

3I love how I blithely tell a panel of the National Academy of Science what they really meant.

4Especially since the only scientific finding that scientists themselves agree on is “more study needed.”


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One response to ““Science” in policy rhetoric.

  1. Robert Pyke