Policy Documents

The Misuse of Science in Environmental Management

Dr. Hugh W. Ellsaesser –
November 1, 1995

One would think that in an educated and sensible society, such obvious examples of failure to use the principles of scientific analysis and logic would be recognized, brought to the attention of responsible people or the public, and eliminated. But that has not been happening. Why?

Perhaps there are analogous situations. It is said that paid firemen were kept on American locomotives for about half a century after the fireboxes were removed and diesel fuel replaced coal. Similarly, elevators in some office buildings in New York and Chicago continued to be occupied by operators trained to handle manual controls even though those controls were replaced with simple buttons long ago.

In each of these cases, an interest group with a lot at stake won out, at least for a time, over larger groups of businessmen and consumers, even though the latter quite obviously had the facts on their side. Economist Mancur Olson explained this paradox by the fact that groups derive their strength from their ability to provide “selective or noncollective benefits” to their members. Large groups that seek very general results--say, good schools, safe neighborhoods, or in this case, cost-effective environmental protection laws--cannot exclude non-contributors from benefiting from their efforts. Smaller groups--such as teachers, gang members, or in this case, government bureaucrats and scientists--have no such difficulty. The benefits they seek are quite selective and non-collective: job security, financial gain, research grants, and fame (or at least notoriety). As a result, they easily out-organize and out-maneuver those who are committed only to sound science and the public interest.

In the three cases of air pollution, ozone depletion, and global warming that I have discussed here briefly, government bureaucrats and rather small groups of politically active scientists remain in their jobs and look busy even though scientific principles and common sense show their work to be irrelevant. They have been enormously helped in their task by the scientific illiteracy of much of the American public and the policy-making community; the tendency of the media to focus on bad news and the potential, however remote, of catastrophe; and the evolution within the environmental movement of a class of bureaucrats who profit directly and indirectly from a frightened and misled public. There is also something in the workings of government bureaucracies that tends to make them the captives of special interest groups, often the very groups they are intended to regulate.

The current situation is most depressing. These bureaucrats, journalists, and scientists are helping to implement public policies that are not based on sound science, that impose tremendous financial costs on hundreds of millions of people, and that may endanger the lives of billions of people around the world. Because of their positions in the public policy process, bureaucrats and scientists who misuse science can and have wrought tremendous destruction.

In its July 1994 newsletter, Doctors for Disaster Preparedness reported that some American corporations have decided to withdraw funding from the New York-based American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), long a courageous voice for sound science and factual reporting. According to the newsletter, “An alarming number of corporations explained their decision to withdraw funds by stating that ’science no longer matters in scientific debates.’”

On what, we may ask, are they relying? Pollsters and public relations agencies. If business is unwilling or unable to provide leadership on the most important matters of public health and safety of our day, and if government has so hopelessly lost its way in this regard, who will step forward?