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Scientific Honesty & Honest Scientists

by Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.

October 30, 1994

Wild Earth
P.O. Box 455
Richmond, Vermont 05477

Re: A Plea for More Honesty


I appreciated Steve Trombulak's article "A Plea for Biological Honesty" and John Davis's "A Plea for Political Honesty" in your Winter 1993/94 issue, but I think they fell short of what needs to be said. Your advertising insert calls "Wild Earth" "an uncompromising ... journal". I wish it were true.

Truth (with a capital "T") and Honesty don't exist, except as goals that we continually seek. We are (hopefully) constantly learning new facts, thinking up new ideas, and improving our previous reasoning. We never Arrive at a Final Destination, although we often get attached to the "places" we stop at. What we want very often colors what we claim to be truth. In fact, I sometimes think that thought, philosophy, religion, etc. are just just rationalizations for what we want to do.

Humans are designed to be able to argue endlessly. Someone who wants to believe something badly enough can't be dissuaded by any amount of facts or reasoning. On the other hand, someone who already likes your conclusion will be satisfied with very little persuasion. We are designed for efficiency. In most situations, we don't need the complete scientific story. We don't need to compute the arrival time of an approaching car to maximum precision, before we step off the curb. Our "friends" already accept that wildlife needs huge amounts of habitat set aside for it. It is, after all, intuitively obvious (for some of us). For our opponents, on the other hand (those profiting from the status quo), no amount of proof will suffice, and they are quite capable of arguing (more or less logically) forever.

There is nothing wrong with a little science, but it is obviously too slow a process to be capable of saving species (or even habitats) one by one. Asking for more studies is a trick quite successfully used by our opposition (who, as I said, won't be persuaded anyway, no matter how many facts we collect), and even well-intentioned environmentalists. I like reading scientific books, and an occasional "Wild Earth" article, but I don't have time to learn everything, and, besides, it took only a single camping trip into the Olympics with my family when I was 8 to convince me that wildlife and wilderness are of preeminent importance. Everything I have learned since then has only corroborated and elaborated on this core fact.

In other words, don't rely so much on science alone! At some point, it becomes time to act, and at that point, only large doses of intuition and moral judgment suffice to carry the act to completion -- intuition, to fill in the inevitable gaps in the scientific results, and morality, to decide what to do about it. I believe that intuition and morality are instinctive, but the tendency to listen to them and apply them seems to be learned.

Intuition and experience tell me that, in spite of what Steve says, we are quite justified in mistrusting government and corporate "scientists". I don't think we need be too afraid of the same kind of mistrust being applied to us, because our goals are so obviously less selfish (and thus less corrupting).

I like John's goal of 90% of the continent for wildlife, though I might have chosen a smaller number. I think that we shouldn't flinch from telling this truth to anyone who will listen. It is unfair to our supporters, but also to our opposition, to pretend that something less will be adequate. If you want to sell your refrigerator for $100, you don't ask $100 for it, you ask for $200. Some people won't take us seriously, but the important ones will, especially since we are right: wildlife simply cannot be saved without adequate habitat!

Steve: yes, scientific honesty is essential, but the ordinary kind is also essential. I think it is obvious that many forms of life can not or will not tolerate the presence of humans. Grizzlies and mountain lions are just two examples. Therefore, it is equally obvious that, if we are going to try to preserve all species from unnecessarily going extinct, we will have to set aside many habitat areas that are completely off-limits to humans! And yet, I haven't heard of a single scientist who is willing to tell that truth. (The closest I have seen is Peter Ward, in The End of Evolution: "it seems incontrovertible that to save a significant portion of current biodiversity, we need to set aside gigantic natural reserves, places where humans are not welcome" (p.271).

Part of the reason, perhaps, is that scientists are "human", and don't want to be excluded from any area of the Earth themselves, particularly where they make their living! Nor admit that they have had a significant part in the loss of biodiversity. Scientific "collecting" has destroyed millions of individual plants and animals, if not species; however, to be honest, they would have to admit that individuals can also contain unique characters which are lost when they die: they can contain genes newly created by radiation or chemical agents. (I would like to extend the meaning of the word "iatrogenic" to include nonmedical "doctors", and call these iatrogenic losses of biodiversity.)

Part of the reason is probably fear of "backlash". But, as I explained, in the long run, truth is a better policy, even if this truth is very inconvenient for the scientist who broaches it, and for his/her colleagues. Scientists need honesty not only in how they study, but what they study! It may be very inconvenient to admit that wildlife need to be left alone, but I think that honesty demands it.


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.

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