CHAPTER 7: THE RISE OF THE FLOW THEORISTS AND THE FALL OF SCIENCE
One day when I was a junior medical school student, a very important Boston surgeon visited the school and delivered a great treatise on the large number of patients who had undergone successful operations for vascular reconstruction. At the end of the lecture, a young student at the back of the room timidly asked, Do you have any controls? Well, the great surgeon drew himself up to his full height, hit the desk, and said: Do you mean did I not operate on half of the patients? The hall grew very quiet then. The voice at the back of the room hesitantly replied, Yes, thats what I had in mind. Then the visitors fist really came down as he thundered, Of course not. That would have doomed half of them to their death. God it was quiet then, and one could scarcely hear the small voice ask, Which half? Dr. E. Peacock, Jr.1
That small voice is the voice of science. Todays fishery agencies, like the great surgeon, are quite sure that more and more flows are good for salmon because, after all, salmon must have flowing rivers to survive. For six years, I have played the role of the small voice in the back of the room, questioning those who promote higher and higher river flows for salmon.
When questioned, they can present no competent scientific evidence that the millions of acre-feet of water they have released from upstream reservoirs for nearly fifteen years have had any measurable effect on salmon survival. Their theories for why the water should help are contrary to the available data. Yet the flow augmentation program remains the single most expensive component of the Clinton/Gore Administration's salmon recovery program, and as of 1997, negotiations are underway to saddle the Bonneville Power Administration with funding even larger flow augmentation programs for another decade.
Science aims for black and white answers, or at least measurable shades of gray. Nearly always, something is either true, or it isn't, or we need to learn more before we know whether it's true or not. If you are talking about something that can't be measured, you are not talking about science. It will always be subjective; no one can prove or disprove it. To be sure, where there is ignorance, there is room for reasonable differences of opinion about what the scientific truth is likely to be. But the genius of the scientific process is that it marches gradually toward removing grounds for disagreement, by disproving hypotheses that are not consistent with reality.
Applying the scientific process is not easy. There is always more than one theory to explain what is going on. In the case of salmon decline, there are many theories. The most important step is to figure out what we would measure if one of the competing theories were correct. After that, experiments must be done to collect the empirical evidence to weed out the theories that don't fit the real world data.
Those who think they perceive the truth without need of experimental confirmation have what philosopher Thomas Sowell calls the vision of the anointed. As he explains, visions of the anointed have long driven government policy in the social arena, where
To a remarkable extent . . . empirical evidence is neither sought beforehand nor consulted after a policy has been instituted. Facts may be marshalled for a decision already taken, but that is very different from systemmatically testing opposing theories by evidence. Momentous questions are dealt with essentially as conflicts of visions.2
The scientific process is [s]eldom . . . used by those who believe in the vision of the anointed. More typically, they look through statistics until they find some numbers that fit their preconceptions, and then cry, Aha!3 This behavior characterizes precisely the approach of those anointed to craft salmon recovery programs in the Pacific Northwest. They have vision of the Northwest without dams, and are prepared to act in furtherance of that vision without regard to empirical evidence.
Scientists have always had an uneasy relationship with the government, because real science is uncompromising. It is the province of idealists, like me. It is a province under a growing siege from social theorists, a struggle well-documented in the proceedings of a 1995 conference sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences called The Flight from Science and Reason. As one of the participants in those proceedings pointed out, the very ideals of science itself are the only real antidote to its misuse.4 Social theorists claim that scientific conclusions are the product of economic interests or social conventions among scientists, and deny the very concept that there are such things as objective scientific facts. This is delusional thinking, but it passes for scholarship in the minds of many.5
In the Pacific Northwest, politics has consistently overruled science in fishery management. As the Director of the University of Washington Fisheries Research Institute has lamented, [f]isheries scientists who work for various constituency groups may be compelled by their employer to espouse a particular party line with which they may or may not agree.6
One reason the problem is so bad is that nearly all the scientific research is funded by federal, state and tribal agencies with overwhelmingly powerful political agendas that stifle useful research. Because the harvest agencies all decided long ago that the primary problem with salmon survival is the dams, nearly all of the research focuses on problems at dams and reservoirs. The little research that looks beyond the dams focuses on other freshwater aspects of salmon survival, and is aimed at proving that cows kill salmon, logging kills salmon, and just about anything except fishing kills salmon.
Congressman Norm Dicks once asked Ross Heath, the Dean of the University of Washington College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences, whether there was any way to improve salmon research in the Northwest. Dean Heath outlined several of the most critical problems.7 First, he said, no one was allowed to use the fish necessary for useful experiments because "the state agencies and tribes have a stranglehold on thiswe couldn't get approval to run 1000 steelhead smolts through a turbine to measure its effect, for example".
We are still using turbine designs from the 1940s and 1950s because fishery managers dont want to fix the turbines; they want the turbines out. It literally took an Act of Congress mandating research on improving turbine designs to overpower the fishery managers; Idaho's Senator Kempthorne deserves the credit. People inside the Corps of Engineers who have been pushing for such research for years are pretty cynical about it. Researchers have to get as far away as the University of Iowa before they can do useful work to make turbines safer. At the current pace of research, it will be years before we get past the conceptual stage and get permission to put some fish through new turbine designs.
When a research project does get funded that generates politically-incorrect results, they disappear into a black hole. According to Dean Heath, "agencies refuse to release unfavorable' data gathered with public fundseven to a group as visible and influential as the [Snake River] Salmon Recovery Team". Conversely, the results of projects and studies of the flimsiest scientific merit are invoked whenever they are "favorable".
Lacking scientific evidence, critics attack independent scientists personally. As the Director of the University of Washington Fisheries Research Institute has pointed out, "[u]niversity scientists, who in past years were viewed as being an independent source of information, now find that their scientific opinions are discounted based on the source of their research funding".8 I once watched Roy Hemmingway, a key policy advisor to Oregons Governor Kitzhaber, urge a University of Washington professor to be sure to put the source of his funding on the cover page of his research reports, apparently so that he could discount the reports that were funded by interests he opposed, like my clients. He was utterly oblivious to the scientists disgust with this attitude.
Finally, all the scientific research is processed and prioritized through layers of committees that simply appoint their own agencies to do the research. Dean Heath suggests that "[m]uch, if not most, of the research is being done by individuals with glaring conflicts of interest". By the summer of 1996, this aspect of the problem finally caught the attention of the politicians, who appointed another committee to deal with this problem. While their intentions are good, their fixes do not begin to cope with the problem.
Research that survives the gauntlet of federal, state and tribal review seldom produces new information. Each year, enormous sums of money are spent paying scientists to review the work of other scientists. One conspicuous exception is research that finally got underway in 1993 to measure the effects of dams on juvenile salmon survival through several reservoir reaches.
Former Northwest Power Planning Council Member Angus Duncan once told me that he was responsible for pushing this politically-unpopular "reach survival" research. To his credit, he did. But when it came out contrary to his predispositions (the reservoirs were not "lethal slackwater pools"), he continued to vote for policies (like drawdown) that the research predicted would simply not work. He indulged in every conceivable speculative reason why the research might be wrong.
NOTES TO CHAPTER 7
Dr. Peacock is or was the Chairman of Surgery, University of Arizona, College of Medicine, quoted in Med. World News, Sept. 1, 1974, at 45.
2 T. Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy 2 (Basic Books 1995).
3 T. Sowell, Visions of the Anointed 31.
4 R. Fox, quoted in Science Under Scrutiny, Harvard Magazine 27 (Mar.-April 1997).
5 Ms. Fox suggests that sociologists are just plain used to social factsthats what they studyand may be constitutionally unable to distinguish the other kind. Id. at 23.
6 M Landolt, Fisheries Forum 3(2), at 1 (May 1995).
7 Letter, G. Heath to N. Dicks, July 21, 1994.
8 M. Landholt, Fisheries Forum 3(2), at 1 (May 1995).
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