Greens vs. Science: Imposing Politics on Science in the State Senate

February 6, 2011

One of the most common phrases in environmental policy is "the science says..." Scientific knowledge is held in high regard as a justification for public policy, so claiming the science is on your side is a powerful argument. When science enters the political arena, however, it gets distorted by the political perspective of that arena.

The video below is from a hearing on the proposed ban on phosphorous fertilizers in the State Senate Environment committee. After the WSU scientist testifies that the bill would do little to achieve the desired goal, three senators make a concerted effort to question his credibility by asking how much money he takes from fertilizer and pesticide companies. He notes that most of his money actually comes from the State Department of Agriculture. Finally, another senator argues that the questioning of the witness is hypocritical since similar questions were not asked of those who testified in favor of the bill.

The scientist in the video feels, understandably, attacked. After watching the exchange, the editor of Real Clear Science, Alex Berezow told me "Unfortunately, attacking scientists’ credibility is a very common tactic." He points to this recent article on the topic, "Scientists Increasingly Vilified, Distrusted."

Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado expert on science and politics also discussed the video on his blog, noting "The policy makers appear to have no interest in his science, and focus on his legitimacy and thus credibility."

The exchange in the Senate says as much, if not more, about the perspective of the senators asking the questions as it does about the scientist. It is also very instructive in the ways politicians misuse and misunderstand science.

First, the scientist notes that companies pay him, and his colleagues, to test their products, like herbicides. This is portrayed as a negative in the committee. I could easily imagine a circumstance, however, where it would be considered positive. I can hear committee members on the Higher Education committee bragging that WSU is so well respected that the world's largest fertilizer companies rely on science from Washington's universities. Same set of facts, two different contexts, two different conclusions.

This is the key to understanding the role of science in public policy. Scientific knowledge interacts with the values and risk preferences of policy makers and interpreted in that light. For those looking to create world class universities, associations with world class companies is a good thing. For those who mistrust corporations, associations with them are a negative. The science is the same -- the perspectives are different.

Second, rather than recognizing how their perspective affects their mindset, the politicians engage in psychological projection without realizing it. Projection is "a psychological defense mechanism where a person unconsciously denies his or her own attributes, thoughts, and emotions, which are then ascribed to the outside world, such as to other people." Politicians, who rely on fundraising for their survival in the legislature, are keen to appreciate (and overestimate) the effect of money on decision making. Thus, they often assume that everyone is as sensitive to money as they are.

Indeed, one of the senators asks if the results would be different if the Washington Toxics Coalition paid for the study. The senator does not seem to realize that this question does more to impugn the Toxics Coalition than the WSU scientist by implying that the Toxics Coalition gets what it pays for -- not exactly the standard of rigorous science.

Scientists, on the other hand, see the rewards they receive not just in monetary terms, but also in the respect of their peers and the acclaim of their work. There are certainly scientists who will sacrifice their science for money (as there are politicians who will take positions to please supportive constituents), but the passion of most scientists is for knowledge. Politicians who question the motives of scientists need to understand this difference of perspective insted of simply assuming their motives are the same.

Politicians also suffer from this influence. For instance, the questioners may desire to be perceived as a friend to the environment, taking the opportunity to publicly challenge those who don't care as much as they do to burnish that image.

Finally, this does not mean that scientists are immune to bias. The scientist claims he is "trained in every way to function as an objective person." This is not a reasonable claim. Nobody is perfectly objective. He may be able to produce quality experiments that yield excellent data, but how he interprets that data is subject to his biases. As an agronomist he is likely to emphasize the value of fertilizers for increasing crop yields over what he considers is a small risk to water quality. On the other hand, a fish biologist may look at the same data and be very concerned about the risk to fish, not due to superior knowledge, but because a fish biologist is more likely to weigh risk to fish as greater than risk of lower crop yields.

The senators also have their own different assessments of risk. The three senators who take after the scientist are all from urban areas, so they may be less sensitive to the challenges farmers face. The senator who questions the motive of the others is from a largely rural area, and is more likely to be sensitive to the impacts of the new fertilizer restrictions on farmers.

Of course, everyone in the hearing believes they are exempt from these biases and cognitive limits. In fact none are, which creates a disjointed discussion that comes off as snarky rather than enlightening -- although I think the scientist did a pretty good job overall.

Questions about the perspective and risk sensitivity of scientists, politicians and others are "relevant" to the discussion of environmental policy, as the chair points out. In this instance, however, the questioning is little more than a simplistic effort to impugn the motive of someone who disagrees with them on the merits of the bill.