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The Trouble with Science

Bill Meredith

"My mind is made up; don't confuse me with facts." Anon.

I met my wife when I was a senior in high school, so, according to some calculations I did the other day, I have known her for 54 years. I am a compulsive keeper of lists and records, but one thing I haven't kept track of is the number of arguments we have had. There were the normal number of them, I suppose… few or none the first year, increasing gradually as time passed… some in fun, some serious, sometimes several a day, sometimes none. If you count them all as equal and estimate an average of one a day for 54 years, that would come to 19,710 arguments, and counting. I've no idea whether that is a realistic estimate, but I do know with certainty that, however many there have been, I did not win any of them.

Being 0 for 19,710 is not a good record in any endeavor. It makes you feel insecure. You lose sleep. You age faster (that's probably why women live longer than men). Then, sooner or later, you begin to wonder why. After several years of serious reflection, I think I've found the answer. It's because I'm a scientist.

Scientists are taught from their academic infancy to deal with problems by observing carefully, accumulating information, organizing it systematically, and presenting it logically to explain why the problems exist and what to do about them. You would think these qualities should make scientists very good at arguing, and you would be right, up to a point. The point where it all breaks down is that the Scientific Method requires us to admit the thing we are arguing to support is a theory, and there is always the possibility that our theory could be wrong. My wife is unencumbered by such limitations; the possibility that she might be wrong never occurs to her. Ergo, 0 for 19,710.

This realization has explained another problem that has been bothering me for a long time. We live in an age of science; diseases have been cured, men have walked on the moon, atoms have been split, lasers perform surgery without cutting, computers of incredible power run our businesses, genes have been decoded and altered… and countless other amazing applications of science are commonplace in our everyday lives. Yet scientists have remarkably little influence on public policy, and when they foresee problems in the future of society they are generally ignored.

Among the various branches of science, ecologists seem to have the lowest rate of success in arguing for changes in public policy. In the summers of 1957-'59, when I was working at the Solomons Research Lab on Chesapeake Bay, biologists there were warning that bay grasses were decreasing and crabs, oysters and rockfish were being overharvested. Legislation was recommended and research funds were requested, with minimal results. Now, nearly 50 years later, bay grasses have disappeared from many areas, rockfish survive only because a fishing moratorium was imposed for several years, and hundreds of watermen are out of work because of the decline of crabs and oysters. Ecologists believe the decline of the Bay could have been avoided if their recommendations had been followed, but they admit they cannot prove it. Pig and chicken farmers, land developers, and various industries that dump polluting chemicals into the Bay and its watersheds continue to assure politicians that since ecologists can't offer absolute proof for their arguments, they can be safely ignored. Another argument lost.

There has been a lot of media coverage of Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower this summer… Reagan, because of his death, and Eisenhower, because of the anniversary of D-Day. Both of them had incidents in their careers that bear on the argument problem. In the 1960's there was a conflict in California between the lumber industry and citizens who wanted to protect redwood forests. Reagan, then governor of the state, took the position that large redwood forests were not necessary; at one meeting he said, "If you've seen one redwood tree, you've seen them all." Some of his supporters claimed he never said that; some said he was misquoted; some tried to explain what he "really meant." Mr. Reagan himself did none of these things, nor did he apologize. He was an amiable person with no malice in his makeup, and in his mind he saw nothing wrong with what he said. He came from a generation with the mindset that the manifest destiny of mankind was to rule nature, and conservation required only the preservation of a few animals in zoos and a few interesting plants in gardens or parks. He was unaware that ecologists had accumulated a large body of knowledge that showed the old ideas of preserving specimens in zoos and parks were wrong; even then we knew that whole ecosystems must be preserved. That he was ignorant of this was, in itself, no sin; we are all ignorant of things we haven't had the opportunity to learn. His great failing was that he was not interested in learning; his mind was closed to any information that might be in conflict with what he believed. The possibility that he might be wrong did not occur to him.

Admitting that you could be wrong has become a sin to be avoided at all cost by politicians; the only thing that might be worse is appearing to be indecisive. Dwight Eisenhower seems to have been one of the few to go against this trend and get away with it. He has been widely admired for being prepared to take responsibility if the D-Day invasion failed, but even he was accused of being indecisive at various times in his career when he paused to collect information before acting.

Ecologists have won a few arguments. DDT was banned in the U. S. (although it still is being used in some Third World countries). The EPA was established. Legislation to protect endangered species, reduce pollution and protect the ozone layer has been passed, though not consistently funded and administered. But as the cost of dealing with environmental problems rises because of our earlier inaction, pressure rises to dismantle environmental protections; and ecologists continue to lose more often than they win. As the conflict goes on, those with special interests continue to assure politicians that the arguments of ecologists are only theories; and the politicians continue to value being "decisive" above being fully informed. Our record is a little better than 0 for 19,710, but it will have to improve if we are to survive.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith