Science or Scienciness?

In the endless debates and warring proposals about how best to manage the imperiled Bay-Delta ecosystem, it seems that all sides agree on at least one principle:  management decisions must be rooted in science.  NRDC certainly considers that tenet a core building block for just about any natural resource management decision, including ones involving the Bay-Delta.  But underneath this veneer of consensus, different players in the Bay-Delta debates actually mean wildly different things when they refer to “sound science,” some of which bear no relation at all to objective scientific principles or practices.  Dr. Jeff Mount from UC Davis recently described these alternatives to real science as crisis science, combat science, science by powerpoint, blog science, and even “science that sounds good” (quite a spin on “sound science”).  As “truthiness” is to truth, these brands of “scienciness” are to real science.

On October 26th, the federal district court in Fresno rejected one version of scienciness in the Delta debate.  The decision in Family Farm Alliance v. Salazar is an offshoot of the many cases challenging protections for endangered salmon and other fish species in the Delta.  The Family Farm Alliance challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological opinion under the Information Quality Act, a relatively recently enacted federal statute that is designed to ensure that federal agencies base decisions on high quality information.  In response to the Family Farm Alliance’s complaint, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service subjected the 2008 biological opinion to yet another independent peer review (it had already undergone two peer reviews that supported the analysis) by a group of outside experts.  This third independent peer review, conducted by PBS&J, largely confirmed the findings of the first two peer reviews, concluding that the analysis in the biological opinion was sound and its protective measures supported.  Among other things, the independent peer review concluded that the peer reviewed studies underlying the biological opinion “constitute the best scientific and commercial data available” and support the conclusion in the biological opinion that “pumping may have an important ‘sporadic’ effect on delta smelt abundance, particularly during the past decade.”  The independent peer reviewers also pointed out that “[a]nything that contributes to lengthening the recovery period increases the risk of setting recovery back even further because, in a sporadic impact scenario, it increases the probability that another major impact will introduce a setback to recovery.”  Finally, the independent peer review report states that “[t]he episodic frequency of catastrophic impacts on survival can make the difference between survival and extirpation when the population is small.” 

This, of course, was not the kind of science that sounded good to the Family Farm Alliance, so, even though they had pressed to have this independent scientific review of the 2008 biological opinion conducted, they fought like crazy to keep the PBS&J report from being considered in the very courtroom where they were challenging the scientific basis of the biological opinion. 

The court rejected Family Farm Alliance’s claims this time around, but we are far from winning the war of science against scienciness.  As Dr. Mount points out:

The Delta has been embroiled in combat science for decades.  Combat science usually involves the selective use of facts or analyses to advance the political or legal position of one group and/or to disadvantage the position of another.  … But combat science is not science, because the goal is principally to win, not to advance understanding through the objective collection of facts and the testing of hypotheses. …In the past year, the funding, sophistication and effectiveness of combat science has steadily increased.  Indeed, the state and federal water contractors have decided to form their own science program to compete within the scientific adhocracy.  Their first efforts indicate intent to wage combat science with great enthusiasm.

Here’s hoping that real science will win the day before too much more damage is done to the Delta.