28 January 2011

Science Meets Politics

If you happen to teach science and policy, or you are a scientist interested in participating in the policy process or you are just curious about how experts participate in the political process, then you'll find this short 10 minute video of interest.

It shows a scientist, an agronomist, testifying before the Washington State Senate Environment, Water and Energy Committee.  He gives a short testimony, then gets some questions from the State Senators and the State Senators then get into a debate, with one ultimately walking out.

Here are some questions for discussion after you see the video:

The scientist claims to be "objective" and speaking for science.  What might this mean?

The policy makers appear to have no interest in his science, and focus on his legitimacy and thus credibility.  What is going on here?

What might the scientist have done differently?

What might the policy makers have done differently?

What does this say about the relationship of science and policy in a highly politicized context?


  1. An intern working for an NGO with no science background wrote NJ’s newly signed Fertilizer Law. The NGOs first went to the press claiming that Nitrogen from fertilizer were at an all time high from development and air pollution sources and destroying a major Bay. Once the NGOs had developed the Public perception of crisis—the political hearing were little more than theater. None of the NJ Press would touch the fact that the Bay in question was actually at a 40 to 100 year low for Nitrogen and still declining. Once the issue had been framed -anyone that spoke against it was simply labeled a shill for developers or manufacturers. Rutgers soil scientists were raked over the coals in NJ. The same thing is happening in Florida where it was called “tobacco science” by the press.
    The scientist in the video was talking to non-scientists- they didn’t and shouldn’t be expected to understand the details he was giving. What he needed to do and did not was provide information in context. He should have started off with the uncertainties of how much is too much and how much is not enough P. Shown the changes of P loading over time. Shown how much higher they used to be when we had millions of decomposing salmon carcasses releasing untold quantities of marine derived nutrients necessary for the next generation of salmon that are no longer present. Talked a little about many Washington rivers and lakes where it is too little P that is holding back salmon restoration efforts. He could have shown how P limitations for detergents and wastewater caused salmon biomass to crash in the Great Lakes (Always good to play one crisis off against the other to achieve some balance) He could have shown the historical P loading before we started fire suppression. The P swings in changes in agriculture. Then a mass balance showing all sources of phosphorus which would have allowed understanding of the context for the lawn contributions. And finally the percentage of P reduced as a result of the Bill in context of the total P loading (lawns probably <0.0001%) And finished with the costs associated with removing this (miniscule shown but not said) amount. And he never should have said a word about whether or not they should or should not go ahead with the Bill. He needed to let context do that.
    He could have done all these things and it still would have meant nothing because there would have been no hearing unless the issue was already politically decided. (In NJ they got the sign wrong for the trend and it meant nothing)
    What is important and few yet appreciate is what is behind the NGO fertilizer push. Nutrients are being marketed as the new great water quality threat. The goal is to build the Public will necessary to implement strict new non-point TMDLs. Stringent N and P TMDLs will give NGOs a powerful new weapon to attack their two great enemies- fossil fuel and development. Consider that a large part of the N load comes from wet/dry atmospheric deposition from fossil fuels. Land development causes runoff preventing N cycling. As watersheds become noncompliant with the TMDLs – responsible agencies will be forced to find means to cut the loads---- putting development and energy in the cross hairs.(The NGOs have been avoiding pointing a finger at Agriculture as yet- because they can’t afford that fight but once the TMDLs are in place it won’t matter- Ag will get hit as well.)
    Unfortunately Barnegat Bay in NJ does have real environmental problems – ones that we won’t touch for decades now that we are forced to chase politically correct problems. Till then I’ll keep banging my head against the wall.

  2. IMHO This scientist was poorly prepared to give testimony.

    His informal survey of the products being offered at the local Home Depot could have easily been turned into a more powerful message simply by inquiring as to annual sales volumes.

    Retail chains do keep sales volume statistics on every product they sell.

    Conflict of interest questions are always going to come up. Anticipating it is important.

    It's also helpful to cede issues where those of opposing view are actually correct.

    I live on the bottom of a big hill next to a lake. I have never purchased fertilizer. I'm getting so much runoff from the Chemlawn customers that live on the hill I will never need to purchase fertilizer.

    The Washington Toxics Coalition is located in the Seattle Neighborhood of Greenlake. Greenlake has had serious water quality problems.

    So Mr Scientist, by stating that 'overall in Washington State' phosphorus pollution from lawn care products isn't a problem left the least qualified people to decide whether he was a shill for the lawn care industry or the people of the Green Lake neighborhood were hallucinating.

    If the other side has a valid point, then one needs to acknowledge where their concerns are valid then point out where their concerns aren't valid or misplaced.

    It took me 30 seconds to locate the Washington Toxics Coaltion and another 30 seconds to find that Greenlake had/has water quality problems.

    An agricultural extension scientist at the University of Washington should have been able to get a synopsis of what happened to Greenlake from one of his colleagues in under an hour.

  3. ''The scientist claims to be "objective" and speaking for science. What might this mean?''

    The scientist try to present as unbiased, uninterested by the result his research.

    Yet, no one is truly objective and unbiased. Our biased will affect the way they data is handled without the person consciously doing it.

    ''The policy makers appear to have no interest in his science, and focus on his legitimacy and thus credibility. What is going on here?''

    Just like everyone else policy makers are not unbiased. The scientist speaks at the end of the process where the science had already been examine and conclusion drawn. Once someone has made up is mind on a subject it is hard to change it.

    ''What might the scientist have done differently?''

    1-)He should have disclosed any possible source of conflict of interest (i.e. funding).

    2-)Show less irritation when the subject came up.

    The source of the funding isn't an automatic disavowal of a scientific in one way or another, but it might help discern some bias in the conclusion.

    ''What might the policy makers have done differently?''

    Be more open minded about contrary opinion.

    ''What does this say about the relationship of science and policy in a highly politicized context?''

    That science doesn't matter much when minds are already made up.

  4. Harrywr2

    The amount of algae (and type) in a lake is exceedingly complex involving the hydrology, lake sediment/water interactions, grazers, pH, fish (especially carp), macrophytes etc, etc.

    You can have three lakes nearly identical in every way with exactly the same phosphorous content and run the scale from pea green to crystal clear. How much is the right amount of phosphorous-- the answer is always the same- it depends.

    Lawns are often a minor contributor of P- the lake you mention had a sewage spill which means it got sewer lines that leak- and they leak even when you don't see it -its called exfiltration. Unless you have a mass balance showing all the loading you are putting a lot at risk by drawing unsupported conclusion that may be wrong.

    Soil holds phosphorus and grass holds soil. Do you know for a fact there would be less nutrients without grass?

    And what is the right amount of phosphorous and how do you know? And how much phosphrus do you think were in the various Washington lakes before the decline of salmon (think of all those decomposing carcasses.) There are many scientists that think nutrients are too low in Washington now to achieve optimum salmon numbers.

    See any of this type of questioning in the various new stories on the subject?

    This subject is complex but since its being adjudicated in a political/public arena we have to make it simple. And in so doing we throw out the science. What is being done here is to sell a story that lakes respond in a linear fashion to phoshorous similar to the complexities of climate being sold as responding in a linear fashion to CO2. And in so doing we sacrifice understanding for simplicity.

  5. Pat Moffitt said...

    "The amount of algae (and type) in a lake is exceedingly complex involving the hydrology, lake sediment/water interactions, grazers, pH, fish (especially carp), macrophytes etc, etc."

    Now I know you understand 'citizen' concerns just from one paragraph. I didn't get that from the Video Testimony.

    Greenlake is an old neighborhood and the sewers are leaky, makes sense to me.

    Humanity hans't changed much in 5,00 years, there was a time when if anything went wrong we didn't understand we would just declare it was because the gods were angry and toss a virgin in the volcano.

    Now if anything goes wrong we don't understand we just look for the first corporate product that might have had a contributing cause and toss them in a volcano.

  6. Roger:
    Nice mini-case that I can see creating significant discussions. Is there a similar clip for the pro-legislative science sounding group?

  7. "The scientist claims to be "objective" and speaking for science. What might this mean?"

    He thinks he speaks from a high level of technical authority on the issue, and he thinks the opinions of other people who had a similarly high level of technical authority would be substantially the same.

    "The policy makers appear to have no interest in his science, and focus on his legitimacy and thus credibility. What is going on here?"

    They drafted a bill that they think is good. He's saying it isn't. They can't immediately think of why he's wrong, so they use the ol' ad hominem technique. (As Maxwell Smart would have said, "The old ad hominem technique...and I fell for it."

    "What might the scientist have done differently?"

    He could have not asked for the relevance of his funding sources, but instead simply tried to explain what they were. For example, his point about being funded by pesticide manufactures not being relevant would be conceded by most people. And then he could have estimated the amount for fertilizer manufacturers, but said, "I'd be happy to look back at my funding for the last several years, and give a more precise answer in writing."

    Oh, and at the beginning, he could have said, "Oh, my mistake. I put down where I work, thinking that the question. But I'm not speaking for my employer, because my employer doesn't have a policy on this issue."

    "What might the policy makers have done differently?"

    They could have tried to address his statements, rather than only questioning his funding.

  8. Michael Mann and his friends keep ratcheting up the politics of their "science". https://motherjones.com/files/letter_to_new_congressional_leadership.pdf

    I took some political science courses in college, but nothing therein was as political as this science.

  9. Roger,

    More on science and politics at your Dad's site (he also pitches your book. http://pielkeclimatesci.wordpress.com/2011/02/01/interesting-information-in-eos-on-the-interface-of-climate-science-with-the-public-and-policymakers/

    The e-mail encouraging scientists to go to Congress and preach the message was interesting. "AGU will schedule meetings for you with Members of Congress and their staff so that you can discuss your research and illustrate the importance of supporting federally funded research"

    Isn't it about time we all recognize that the science community is a rent-seeking special interest group grubbing at the public trough. The conflict of interest is so bad it is getting ridiculous.