Science or politics by John C. Street
Since taking up the sack-cloth and ashes existence of freelance writing back in the fall of 1998, I’ve written nearly 100 articles on the natural history of Pennsylvania’s native flora and fauna and a dozen more articles on species that are here but not native.
In order to get the information I needed to prepare these articles, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in the boonies with “muddy-boot” (as opposed to white-frock) researchers as they went about their daily routine. If you’ve never helped pull a sedated bear out of a culvert trap, untangled turkeys from a net or held a flightless Canada goose (in July when they molt their flight feathers) while a small metal band is affixed to its leg, you’re missing a heck of an experience.
As much of a thrill as it is to be “up close and personal” with wildlife, though, it’s the time spent with the researchers themselves that I remember most. As a generic group, they are some of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. Whether the activity of the day was electro shocking a stream for native brook trout or constructing traps to catch a grouse, taking soil samples to test Ph levels right after a winter snow melt or aging and sexing woodcock, each and every one of these studious men and women left a lasting impression.
To be sure, the researchers I’ve known are a diverse lot, not so different than any other large group of people would be. Still, they all had a couple things in common. First, every Tom, Dick and Mary of them had a sincere desire to learn more about the subject they were studying. And, secondly (and not surprisingly), they all worked very hard to make certain their assumptions (theories) did not pad their posteriors when the facts jumped up and bit them.
Early on in my experiences with these men and women of science I asked one of them if he was concerned because the “facts” that were evolving out of his study didn’t jibe with information that had been published and was (because of the reputation of the authors) generally accepted as gospel. I was quickly advised there’s a big difference between politics and science. “Politicians need consensus in order to get things done,” this man explained, “but progress in science is rarely a product of consensus.”
In one form or another, I’ve heard a version of this – “I don’t need no stinking consensus” - from nearly every scientist/researcher I’ve spent time with. Whether the study was focused on anthropogenic (i.e., man-made) global warming, mortality factors influencing populations of ruffed grouse or the proper way to manage whitetail deer, whenever an effort is made to get people to believe the “consensus is in, or that “everyone knows it’s true,” the “facts” are being kicked under the bus in favor of politics.
It has been accepted as a “fact” that the whitetail deer is the primary factor for the decline of Pennsylvania’s forests. Ergo, according to organizations like the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy (who have an inexplicable amount of influence over the Bureau of Wildlife Management of the Pennsylvania Game Commission), if we are to have healthy forests again, the deer herd must be drastically reduced and kept that way until the forests recover.
No one was surprised, therefore, when - earlier this spring - the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI) completed an “evaluation” of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s deer management program and, in summation, reported that the program is basically sound and the reduction of the herd should continue.
However, what was conveniently overlooked was that WMI reached their conclusion, not by going into Pennsylvania’s forests to study soil conditions or any of the myriad other possibilities for poor regeneration, but by looking at the stated objective of the PGC, which is to reduce the deer herd, and determining whether they were meeting this objective.
True scientific research begins with the identification of a problem such as the poor regeneration of flowers and trees in Pennsylvania forests. Next, assumptions (theories) as to what is causing the problem are listed and researchers thoroughly examine each possible cause. Only after all the assumptions are researched and tested will a true scientist render a theorem to explain what is causing the problems.
It is a well established theorem that whitetail deer can – especially at abnormally high populations - have a negative impact on certain flower and tree species.
It is also a well established theorem, however, that acid precipitation (snow, rain and fog) are rinsing essential nutrients and chemicals out of the soil in some parts of Pennsylvania, thereby making regeneration of certain flowers and trees impossible.
There are, additionally, at least two other theorems (poor forest management practices and the ongoing maturation of Pennsylvania’s forests) to explain flower and tree regeneration problems in certain parts of Pennsylvania.
These alternative theorems were neither presented nor discussed in the WMI’s evaluation of the Pennsylvania Game Commissions deer management program.
It is not simply a polemic argument to assert that the WMI’s evaluation of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s deer management program revealed a political exercise in consensus building. And it’s worth remembering that “progress in science is rarely a product of consensus.”