Writers misunderstand the nature and process of science


Recent opinion and correspondence about the science of biodiversity, wolf management and human caused climate change remind me of a 1988 quote from Isaac Asimov: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” It is clear that many of your writers misunderstand the nature and process of science.

First, science does not take political positions. There is not liberal science. Nor is there conservative science. Rather, there are scientific ideas that are supported by a large body of logic and evidence. These become the established knowledge Asimov refers to. Then there are scientific ideas that are falsified by the available evidence and are dismissed without further consideration.

Second, science is not fair and balanced. Scientists don’t waste their time on ideas that have been falsified by the available evidence. Acceptable scientific evidence must be replicated, and independently verified. Scientists are by their very nature intensely skeptical. They spend their careers trying to shoot holes in other scientist’s ideas. It is only when they fail that scientific knowledge becomes widely accepted in the scientific community.

With respect to human caused climate change, 25 years ago, the available evidence was unclear. There were legitimate scientific reasons to question if there was a human fingerprint on the rapidly changing climate. That is no longer the case. Today, the evidence for human caused climate change is overwhelming. The scientific debate has ended, although societal wisdom obviously lags far behind.

Ongoing discussions about the wisdom of a wolf hunt in the U.P. provide another example where public wisdom lags far behind scientific knowledge. Scientific evidence shows us that populations of large carnivores are self-regulating. That is, they do not exceed ecological carrying capacity. Further, healthy populations of carnivores promote healthy populations of herbivores like deer. In other words, wolves don’t compete with hunters for deer, they make the deer population healthier by culling the sick and the weak from the population. More important, the impacts of large carnivores cascade throughout an ecosystem, promoting diversity, resilience to disturbance, and productivity. This is especially important for those concerned with our timber crop. Evidence shows that healthy carnivore populations improve forest quality and productivity, leading to higher profits for the wood products industry. In sum, there is little scientific evidence that a wolf hunt is needed. Rather, the arguments in favor of a hunt are cultural and political.

Finally, we have Senator Casperson’s misguided effort (SB 78) to delete “biological diversity” from the DNR’s list of management duties, stop the DNR from promoting restoration in forest management, and most absurdly, to claim that losses of biological diversity are not the result of human activity.

Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that biodiversity promotes ecosystem productivity, and resilience. In addition to direct financial benefits like recreation and hunting, food and fiber production, and pharmaceuticals, diverse natural ecosystems contribute immeasurable value to humans through waste processing, water purification, flood control, nutrient cycling, and climate regulation.

It has been established scientific fact for nearly two decades that biodiversity loss is accelerating due to a combination of human caused habitat destruction, human introduced alien species, human caused pollution, and overharvesting by humans. Casperson’s effort to pretend these facts don’t exist implies either a willful ignorance or a purposeful intent to deceive. Either option suggests a betrayal of the public trust Casperson assumes with his office.

Casperson’s apparent goal is to increase the proportion of our public forest resource that is available to the wood products industry. The irony is that the established policies Casperson seeks to eliminate enhance the value of the very resource he seeks greater access to. Wisdom indeed!

Brian Black