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Politicized Science Equals Bad Science

August 24, 2000|M. DAVID STIRLING | M. David Stirling is vice president of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm based in Sacramento. Web site:

Most of us are uninformed of things scientific. Yet we recognize the vital role of science in our daily activities. For instance, we would not tolerate a doctor performing untested heart surgery, where the scientific theory underlying the operation had not been reviewed by heart specialists. The science behind genetically altered produce continues to evoke suspicion and protests.

Yet when it comes to a law that is potentially the most oppressive in modern times, the Endangered Species Act, we blithely permit unelected, unaccountable federal bureaucrats to utilize a phony form of science: politicized science.

Politicized science is personal opinion and even outright misrepresentation masquerading in the white coat of the laboratory. In the arena of the Endangered Species Act, self-anointed experts, usually environmental activists, advance a dubious scientific theory as fact, primarily to promote a politico-environmental agenda. Like-minded regulatory bureaucrats, with authority to implement and enforce the act, then seize on this theory to justify an expansion of their regulatory jurisdiction into land-use decisions traditionally reserved for local communities. In contrast to legitimate science, the politicized version tends to be speculative, anecdotal, nonauthoritative, lacking in empirical data and offered without peer review within the scientific community.

The most telling characteristic of politicized science is its convenient confirmation of the predetermined result desired by the government bureaucrats and their environmental supporters. It is a matter of government first setting the policy it wants and then finding experts to support it. Under the discipline of legitimate science, government would establish policy based on demonstrated scientific data.

The so-called fairy shrimp stands out as a prime example of politicized science. Millions of these tiny crustaceans thrive in swales, irrigation ditches, ponds and rain-filled tire ruts that dot some of the world's most productive farmland in California's Central Valley. Nonetheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated fairy shrimp as endangered, relying on an incomplete and ill-prepared study by environmental activists with an anti-farming, anti-business agenda, while ignoring a comprehensive study by an experienced environmental consulting firm for a farmers and property owners group that showed the species far from endangered.

Through this designation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken control of land-use decisions in much of the region, and farmers and other business people have been severely restricted in the use of their land, incurring major economic losses and hardship. Even the much-needed campus of the University of California near Merced--a $250-million, 2,000-acre project slated to open in 2004--has been put in jeopardy by the numerous acres of fairy shrimp habitat. Stalled indefinitely are the enormous educational opportunities and economic benefits that would result from a major university campus.

In Oregon and Washington, the National Marine Fisheries Service--ever responsive to the aggressive return-to-the-wild agenda of environmentalists--uses politicized science as a mantra, designating as threatened only the naturally spawned or wild chinook and coho salmon. Never mind that interbreeding of billions of hatchery-spawned chinooks with wild chinooks over the past 50 years has the service's biologists admitting that hatchery fish are genetically indistinguishable from wild fish. In counting the Puget Sound species of chinook salmon, the thriving population of hatchery-spawned chinook salmon was deliberately excluded. In Oregon's Alsea River basin, the service has gone so far as to systematically kill thousands of perfectly healthy hatchery-spawned coho salmon.

If the thriving hatchery-spawned salmon were counted, as legitimate science would dictate, the threatened designation would be unjustified. But by embracing a convenient if unfounded theory that recognizes only wild salmon as true salmon, the Endangered Species Act grants the fisheries service broad authority over local land-use decisions that are extraordinarily invasive of individual conduct, commercial and recreational activities and private property rights.

Masking a politico-environmental agenda behind the good name of science is a certain recipe for eliminating jobs, destroying businesses and taking private property. We should demand the same high level of scientific theory and practice for matters environmental as we expect for the safety and well-being of our families.

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