Friday’s release of the National Academy study on pumping restrictions in the California Bay-Delta system on behalf of endangered fish offers a great case study in “scientization,” the process by which competing political factions repurpose scientific findings to meet their political needs.
The panel concluded that the pumping restrictions are scientifically justified, a blow for ag interests. But, not surprisingly, both sides found ammunition in the report to support their position, as Matt Weiser and Michael Doyle reported in the Sacramento Bee:
Overall, the panel’s conclusions were nuanced, allowing advocates to read into it, Rorschach-like, their own priorities.
“The report clearly validates the biological opinions,” said Ann Hayden, senior water resource analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund. “It’s time to stop pitting the economic interests of farmers against fishermen and move forward to find solutions.”
Farmers, on the other hand, emphasized the enduring uncertainties, as well as the report’s observation that other problems besides water diversions have a “potentially large” effect on fish. These include water pollution and invasive species.
“Much more analysis is needed on the other stressors, their impact on endangered species and the relative significance of the pumps,” said Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands Water District.
This is what Dan Sarewitz is talking about when he describes the way additional science frequently does not settle political controversies of this sort:
[S]cientific uncertainty, which so often occupies a central place in environmental controversies, can be understood not as a lack of scientific understanding but as the lack of coherence among competing scientific understandings, amplified by the various political, cultural, and institutional contexts within which science is carried out.
Or, as the mysterious and terrific California water blogger On The Public Record explained, the NAS report settled nothing. Instead, those whose political values and interests were harmed by the panel’s findings simply busied themselves finding ways to ignore it:
This is what I predicted. The NAS review didn’t change anything about the political landscape here.