Archive | Politicizing Science

Judge Curtails Salmon Plan, Rips Fed Scientists

Today a federal judge threw out portions of the federal government’s plan to protect several fish species, including some salmon and steelhead in California, under the Endangered Species Act for the second time.
The Fresno Bee reports:

U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger invalidated parts of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service’s so-called biological opinion, calling the plan “arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful.”

Wanger still held that pumping operations negatively impact the fish and adversely modify their critical habitat, but his decision means the agency will rewrite its plan again.

In the 279-page decision, Wanger wrote that some of the agency’s analyses relied on “equivocal or bad science” and didn’t clearly demonstrate why the measures it imposed were essential.

The opinion is quite critical of the scientists who helped develop the federal government’s biological opinion. [For those who don’t want to wade through the entire opinion (I sure didn’t), the concluding summary is posted here.]  But the opinion in this case is nothing compared to what the judge reportedly said from the bench about the federal government’s biological opinion for delta smelt after the federal government sought to stay the judge’s injunction against some of its protective measures. E&E News (subscription required) reports:

“I have never seen anything like what has been placed before this court by these two witnesses,” U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger said in his ruling on the smelt case, according to a transcript obtained by E&ENews PM. “The only inference that the court can draw is that it is an attempt to mislead and to deceive the court.”

Wanger did not use the term “scientific misconduct,” or “lying,” but he used nearly every other adjective that describes deception by scientists as he built the record in his ruling for a finding of “bad faith.” He

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Bachmann Embraces Irresponsible Anti-Vaccine Views

Going on the offensive against Texas Governor Rick Perry for issuing an executive mandate that young girls receive a vaccine against HPV, Rep. Michele Bachman embraced the fringe (and thoroughly discredited) claim that vaccination can cause mental retardation.  Details here and here.  It is understandable that a parent whose child experiences difficulties will be distraught and search for answers, but to give credence to the claim that vaccination causes mental retardation, autism, or other disabilities is thoroughly irresponsible.  It is one thing to debate whether a state government should mandate that children are vaccinated against something like HPV, and whether a voluntary opt-out provision is protective enough of parental prerogatives.  It is quite another to suggest that mandated vaccination creates serious health risks when there is no evidence to support such a claim.

For what it’s worth, I criticized Senator John McCain for a similar offense in 2008.

UPDATE: Henry Miller reports some additional things Rep. Bachmann should know about the HPV vaccine.  Even if Gov. Perry was wrong to order the vaccinations, there’s absolutely no basis for suggesting the vaccine is a threat to children. [...]

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Unnatural Corn Class Action

Grist reports on a class-action suit that is being filed against ConAgra for allegedly deceptive marketing of its various vegetable oils.  The core of the complaint seems to be that some ConAgra products, such as Wesson corn oil, are labeled as “100% natural” even though they contain oil from genetically modified corn. If something comes from a GMO (genetically modified organism), they complainants allege, it cannot be “natural.”  It’s an interesting argument, particularly as the federal government has not issued guidelines as to how companies may use the word “natural” in their marketing.

It’s somewhat ironic that the plaintiffs in this litigation have elected to go after corn oil, however.  If the charge is that it is misleading to call something “natural” if it cannot occur naturally in nature, then no corn products would qualify, ever.  This is because corn itself does not “occur naturally” in nature.  Rather, it is the product of human cross-breeding and hybridization, albeit hybridization that occurred thousands of years ago.  Indeed, nearly all crop varieties, so-called “GMOs” or otherwise, are human-modified strains that would not occur naturally in nature.  Corn is simply a more extreme example in that it is farther removed from its natural cousins than other crops.

I don’t know whether the history of corn and other crops will affect the outcome of this suit.  Even if it’s hard to argue (as a scientific matter) that “GMO corn” is less natural than “non-GMO corn,” other types of oil are also part of the suit and words like “natural” have common colloquial meanings quite apart from the scientific reality.  But whatever the legal outcome, the suit illustrates how the conventional use of terms like “natural” to modern crops has little relationship to how those crops were actually developed. [...]

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An Inconvenient Truth: Christie Is Right on Climate

Until last week, many conservatives considered New Jersey Governor Chris Christie a hero. Some were even clamoring for him to enter the presidential race. Now, however, some of the same conservatives are branding him a heretic, even as he embraces policy decisions they support. What’s going on?

Last week, Christie vetoed legislation that would have required New Jersey to remain in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multi-state agreement to control greenhouse gas emissions through a regional cap-and-trade program. The bill was an effort to overturn Christie’s decision earlier this year to withdraw from the program. Given conservative opposition to greenhouse gas emission controls, the veto should have been something to cheer, right? Nope.

The problem, according to some conservatives, is that Christie accompanied his veto with a statement acknowledging that human activity is contributing to global climate change. Specifically, Christie explained that his original decision to withdraw from RGGI was not based upon any “quarrel” with the science.

While I acknowledge that the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are increasing, that climate change is real, that human activity plays a role in these changes and that these changes are impacting our state, I simply disagree that RGGI is an effective mechanism for addressing global warming.

As Christie explained, RGGI is based upon faulty economic assumptions and “does nothing more than impose a tax on electricity” for no real environmental benefit. As he noted, “To be effective, greenhouse gas emissions must be addressed on a national and international scale.”

Although Christie adopted the desired policy — withdrawing from RGGI — some conservatives are aghast that he would acknowledge a human contribution to global warming. According to one, this makes Christie “Part RINO. Part man. Only more RINO than man.” [“RINO” as [...]

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Unchain Agricultural Biotechnology

Population growth and climate change demand increases in agricultural productivity — increases that can only be achieved through the use of modern biotechnology. Yet excessive and scientifically unjustified regulatory restrictions hamper the development of more productive crop strains, particularly where they are needed most.  So argues Penn State biology professor Nina Federoff in today’s NYT, and she’s right.

In 2010, crops modified by molecular methods were grown in 29 countries on more than 360 million acres. Of the 15.4 million farmers growing these crops, 90 percent are poor, with small operations. The reason farmers turn to genetically modified crops is simple: yields increase and costs decrease.

Myths about the dire effects of genetically modified foods on health and the environment abound, but they have not held up to scientific scrutiny. And, although many concerns have been expressed about the potential for unexpected consequences, the unexpected effects that have been observed so far have been benign. Contamination by carcinogenic fungal toxins, for example, is as much as 90 percent lower in insect-resistant genetically modified corn than in nonmodified corn. This is because the fungi that make the toxins follow insects boring into the plants. No insect holes, no fungi, no toxins.

Yet today we have only a handful of genetically modified crops, primarily soybeans, corn, canola and cotton. All are commodity crops mainly used for feed or fiber and all were developed by big biotech companies. Only big companies can muster the money necessary to navigate the regulatory thicket woven by the government’s three oversight agencies: the E.P.A., the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

Conservatives are often criticized for adopting ideologically or politically motivated positions on scientific questions — and they should be. But the Right has no monopoly on the politicization of science. As the debate [...]

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Global Warming Could Trigger Alien Attack

The Guardian reports on a scenario analysis conducted by several scientists considering possible scenarios resulting from contact with alien life forms. The analysis covers many basic scenarios, such as basic communication or the possibility of disease transmission from physical contact, but also suggests global warming could give aliens an excuse to attack.

The authors warn that extraterrestrials may be wary of civilisations that expand very rapidly, as these may be prone to destroy other life as they grow, just as humans have pushed species to extinction on Earth. In the most extreme scenario, aliens might choose to destroy humanity to protect other civilisations.

“A preemptive strike would be particularly likely in the early phases of our expansion because a civilisation may become increasingly difficult to destroy as it continues to expand. Humanity may just now be entering the period in which its rapid civilisational expansion could be detected by an ETI because our expansion is changing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, via greenhouse gas emissions,” the report states.

“Green” aliens might object to the environmental damage humans have caused on Earth and wipe us out to save the planet. “These scenarios give us reason to limit our growth and reduce our impact on global ecosystems. It would be particularly important for us to limit our emissions of greenhouse gases, since atmospheric composition can be observed from other planets,” the authors write.

Somehow, I don’t think an alien race capable of interstellar space travel would consider humanity much of a threat — we have yet to put people on Mars — but the authors do characterize these scenarios as “highly speculative.”   If we’re willing to accept the premise that aliens come to earth and care about what we’re doing, why should we assume the alien race embraces contemporary environmental ideology? [...]

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Utter Climate Ignorance

I have my share of disagreements with Jonathan Zasloff, particularly on matters of environmental law and policy (see, e.g., here), but his attack on Fox News’ alleged climate “expert” Joe Bastardi hits the mark. There are reasonable bases upon which to question some aspects of global warming, including some of the more dire computer model projections, but Bastardi’s claims (as reported by Media Matters) are woefully ignorant. Indeed, I can’t think of many so-called climate “skeptics” who would endorse some of his “arguments.” It’s the climate equivalent of creation “science.” [...]

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Exaggerating Species Extinction

A new paper in Nature has sparked a firestorm of debate over species extinction rates. The paper, by two ecologists, shows how the use of the species-area curve produces inflated projections of species extinction rates. As an accompanying article in Nature explains:

The most common method of predicting extinction rates relies on the species–area curve, the mathematical relationship showing that larger areas tend to contain greater numbers of species.

Researchers typically extrapolate backwards from this curve to calculate how many extinctions can be expected from a given amount of habitat loss. But that is inaccurate, say the study authors, because the area that must be removed to cause extinction is always larger than the area needed to encounter a species for the first time.

“Extrapolating backwards makes a hidden assumption that any loss of population, regardless of how small, commits a species to extinction — which is not reasonable,” says Stephen Hubbell, a theoretical ecologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author of the paper.

As you might expect, the paper has sparked substantial criticism and debate, as noted in Greenwire and on Dot Earth, even though there have been concerns about the reliability of the species-area curve for some time. One reason for the intense debate is the well-intentioned fear that research of this sort will dampen concerns about biodiversity loss. If, as the study suggests, expected extinction rates are far lower than conventional estimates, will this lessen the urgency of biodiversity conservation? Perhaps, but that would not justify relying upon erroneous extinction estimates. Moreover, even if projected species extinction is only half of conventional estimates, it is still a serious concern. [...]

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Endangered Species Science

Yesterday I appeared on NPR’s Dianne Rehm Show to discuss the Endangered Species Act.  The show was prompted by Congressional passage of a budget rider removing gray wolves in the northern Rockies from the endangered species list.   This was the first time Congress ordered a species delisted, and prompted complaints that Congress was intruding into science’s domain.  Such complaints have some merit — it would have been preferable for Congress to enact a rider removing the wolves’ regulatory protections than altering their endangered status — but they also fail to acknowledge how the structure of the ESA puts science in the crosshairs.

Listing a species as “endangered” or “threatened” under the ESA triggers a host of regulatory protections.  The Act’s prohibitions kick in automatically, so landowners and others take actions that could harm listed species at their own risk.   Both as written and as interpreted by the courts, the ESA affords the Fish & Wildlife Service with relatively little discretion.  Further, the Act authorizes private enforcement through citizen suits, which can further ties the FWS’s hands.  This structure was intended to ensure vigorous protection and prevent agency shirking, but it has also encouraged the politicization of species science and discouraged reliance on non-regulatory conservation strategies.

Congress delisted the wolf less because members doubted the scientific justification for the wolves’ listing than because relevant constituencies objected to the regulatory constraints imposed by the wolves’ endangered status.  Yet the Act does not give the FWS much ability to regulate less, or rely upon non-regulatory conservation strategies, so opponents focus on whether a species should be listed at all.  By the same token, activist groups seeking to trigger extensive regulatory controls seek to have species listed so as to force the government’s hand.  In passing the wolf rider, Congress simply followed the lead [...]

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The UN’s 50 Million Missing Refugees

In 2005, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) predicted that there would be 50 million refugees in 2010 due to climate change. An enterprising reporter wondered what happened to UNEP’s prediction, and found that those areas UNEP claimed were most at risk have actually gained population. How did UNEP respond? According to Anthony Watts, UNEP tried to erase the evidence of its initial claim — without success. It seems folks at UNEP were unaware of Google caches.

The original UNEP claim was ridiculous on its face, and UNEP’s subsequent effort to rewrite history is farcical. Regrettably, we’re unlikely to hear much about this story from the environmentalist community or those who allegedly police the politicization of science. And this is part of the problem. Climate change is real, and the evidence of a human contribution to the gradual warming of the atmosphere is strong. There’s no need to conjure fantastical projections of an impending climate apocalypse. But UNEP and various organizations insist on doing so nonetheless — indeed, UNEP is now claiming there will be 50 million climate refugees by 2020 — and the climate community raises not a peep. In the end, this ends up doing more to discredit legitimate concerns about climate change than to encourage action. [...]

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State Geologist Told to Shut the Frack Up

Ronald Bailey reports that the New York State Department of Education is muzzling the state’s “top geologist,” Langhorne “Taury” Smith, because he dared to question environmentalist attacks on the use of hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) to extract natural gas from shale deposits.  This prompted a green backlash which, in turn, cause the state education department to bar Smith from talking with reporters.  As the Albany Times Union editorialized:

One might reasonably assume that the state’s top staff geologist would have some relevant thoughts about drilling for natural gas. But good luck finding out what’s on Langhorne B. Smith Jr.’s mind, now that the state has muzzled him.

If only irony were an alternative energy source. Here’s the state Education Department ­— an agency responsible for fostering knowledge — barring Mr. Smith from talking to reporters after his comments on gas drilling caused a backlash among environmentalists — who normally are the first to cry out when politics takes precedence over science.

We don’t particularly agree with Mr. Smith on a few key points, either. But shutting down an informed voice is absolutely the wrong thing for the government to do, and for environmentalists to support, if only in their failure to denounce it.

This editorial is particularly notable because the Times Union has also been critical of fracking.  I must admit I’m not up-to-speed on the fracking debate, and have no opinion on whether environmentalist charges are well-founded or exaggerated.  But I am of the opinion that limiting the ability of state experts to discuss the matter publicly is no way to find the truth. [...]

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Independent Assessment Finds Warming Too

The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project was launched to conduct a re-evaluation of the surface temperature record in order to resolve persistent debate over the reliability of prior analyses and provide an open record that could form the basis for future scientific research.  The effort is led by several respected scientists, including UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller, and funded by a wide variety of sources, ranging from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation to Bill Gates’ Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. While not a climate “skeptic,” Muller has previously raised concerns about the reliability of conventional climate assessments and warming projections.

The project was not created to confirm the reliability of the existing temperature record, but it appears that is what it is doing.  As today’s Los Angeles Times reports:

Muller unexpectedly told a congressional hearing last week that the work of the three principal groups that have analyzed the temperature trends underlying climate science is “excellent…. We see a global warming trend that is very similar to that previously reported by the other groups.”

The hearing was called by GOP leaders of the House Science & Technology committee, who have expressed doubts about the integrity of climate science. It was one of several inquiries in recent weeks as the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to curb planet-heating emissions from industrial plants and motor vehicles have come under strenuous attack in Congress.

Muller said his group was surprised by its findings, but he cautioned that the initial assessment is based on only 2% of the 1.6 billion measurements that will eventually be examined.

The preliminary findings, and a link to Muller’s testimony, are here.  It bears repeating that these findings are preliminary, but it is also significant that they are [...]

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Evolution Still Undertaught

The NYT summarizes a new report in Science that finds a majority of high school biology teachers skimp on their teaching of evolution to avoid controversy and a sizable percentage explicitly teach creationism.  One of the study’s authors believes the answer is more and better science education for teachers.

“Students are being cheated out of a rich science education,” said Dr. [Eric] Plutzer, a professor of political science at Penn State University. “We think the ‘cautious 60 percent’ represent a group of educators who, if they were better trained in science in general and in evolution in particular, would be more confident in their ability to explain controversial topics to their students, to parents, and to school board members.”

Perhaps, especially if this education helps teachers explain that a belief in evolution does not require rejecting religious understandings of the world, let alone atheism. Creationism and “intelligent design” aren’t science, and it’s wrong to present them as such. But evolutionary theory is not a comprehensive explanation of human existence and doesn’t disprove the existence of God. Science educators would have an easier time teaching evolution if some of evolution’s advocates were not so strident in suggesting that belief in evolution disproves a belief in God. A frontal assault on someone’s worldview is not the best way to get them to listen. [...]

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Salon Sanitizes the Record

Salon has withdrawn a 2005 article by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (aka “America’s Most Irresponsible Public Figure®“) alleging a link between vaccines and autism.  The article, co-published with Rolling Stone, had an “explosive premise,” according to Salon‘s editors.  Too bad it was scientifically bogus and completely irresponsible.  Salon was forced to publish several corrections to the article, but has now decided to remove it from their website altogether.  A better step would have been to leave it online with a bolded header explaining the article has been thoroughly discredited and never should have been published in the first place. [...]

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