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Sci Tech    H2'ed 6/18/12

Flawed Science in Land Management Agencies

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Flawed Science in Land Management Agencies


"A science of land health needs, first of all, a base datum of normality, a picture of how healthy land maintains itself as an organism; ... Each biotic province needs its own wilderness for comparative studies of used and unused land."  -Aldo Leopold


"As foresters, part of our vision of a forest is that it is much like a farm, and there are products growing and developing on the soil similar to a cornfield or a potato field or whatever."   -Keith Symar, Minnesota DNR Forestry 


The scientific method is a concept simple enough to teach to children in their first science course in middle school. There, among other things, they learn the importance of the "control": If you experiment on something, hold in reserve a similar something - similar in quality and scale - to serve as a standard against which results can be compared. The "base datum of normality" in Leopold's comment above is simply another way of saying "control". 


The misconception that science is inherently objective is so embedded in society that the first in a dispute to claim the support of "science", whether or not justifiably, generally wins. But the world presents a virtual infinity of questions to which scientific methodology can be applied, and the choice of which questions to "ask", and how to ask them, is obviously subjective. To the extent that industry dominates, one need only follow the money to find what questions are asked and why. Science is therefore for sale, and this is a problem that concerns many scientists who are careful to maintain professional and ethical independence. 


In 1988, physicist Fritjof Capra wrote of a conversation with economist E. F. Schumacher, in which they differentiated between "science for understanding" and "science for manipulation". The purpose of the former, they agreed, is "enlightenment and liberation", while that of the latter is "power". Their central point was that "western civilization is based on the philosophical error that manipulative science is the truth". To the extent that corporations or industry-backed political elements define the work of scientists, corporate/industrial interests are served. One can see it throughout society, as in pharmaceuticals, agribusiness, and where extractive industries exploit public lands through politicized governmental land management agencies. 


In a keynote address at a Public Interest Science Conference at the University of Oregon, Mary O'Brien said that "As soon as you are a scientist you take a political side;... There are many scientists who undertake research and analyze data in order to produce risk assessment for forest management;... These scientists are participating in the process of assimilative capacity assessments (which ask) how much can we cut, graze, salvage, spray, develop ... and do to the earth's ecosystems without making them buckle". The address was printed in BioScience. 


A study of the history of resource exploitation printed in Science, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was merciless in its analysis: "Wealth or the prospect of wealth generates political and social power that is used to promote unlimited exploitation of resources. Scientific understanding and consensus is hampered by the lack of controls and replicates; ... The complexity of the underlying biological and physical systems precludes a reductionist approach to management;... Scientists and their judgments are subject to political pressure;... The larger and more immediate the prospects for gain, the greater the political power that is used to facilitate unlimited exploitation;... Distrust claims of sustainability."

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Bill Willers is Emeritus Professor of Biology, University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh
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Flawed Science in Land Management Agencies

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