How to use scientific uncertainty for fun and profit by mattsteinglass
June 28, 2007, 3:53 pm
Filed under: Environment, United States

There’s this brilliant sequence in the Washington Post’s series on Dick Cheney’s operating style as VP where Cheney decides to intervene to make sure that farmers and ranchers in Oregon, who lean Republican, will get water from a lake to ease a drought, even though the EPA has found that giving them the water will kill off 2 endangered species of fish, including coho salmon. The way Cheney goes about this is brilliant. He gets the National Academies of Science to convene a panel reviewing whether or not diverting water to farmers will harm the fish. They conclude there’s not enough evidence to say that it will, and the farmers get their water. Tens of thousands of salmon are shortly dying on the banks of the river, in the biggest fish die-off in the history of the American West.

What the article leaves unsaid is the influence of scientific attitudes towards uncertainty on this maneuver. The article portrays Cheney’s gambit as a risky one; the scientists are impartial and can’t be influenced by political considerations, and their conclusions have to withstand peer review. But what that misses is that scientists, especially panels of scientists, are inherently predisposed towards uncertainty on any issue they examine. Cheney clearly understands this, and knows that if he can phrase the question properly, he’s likely to get the answer he wants. He knows the answer will most likely begin “There is not enough evidence to conclude…” So if the question is: “Will the fish survive lower water levels?” — he’s in trouble. But if the question is: “Will diverting the water harm the fish?” — he’s golden. He’s using the bias of scientists towards careful skepticism to enable political power to go ahead and do whatever it wants. It’s the same card energy industries and tobacco industries played for decades, and it works.

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