Scientization: Delta Smelt, a Case Study

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.

Californai Central Valley and Bay-Delta

Californai Central Valley and Bay-Delta

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.


  1. Sure, John, but if ag interests couldn’t find anything in the report to twist they’d be attacking it head-on, questioning the motivations of the authors and arguing that fish will just have to be sacrificed. The political argument would be basically the same even in the absence of putative competing scientific understandings, which just goes to show that Sarewitz’s “scientization” concept has no practical value (except maybe to assist journalists in feeling superior to advocates).

  2. Haven’t read the report yet, but I will (mostly to find out if the NAS agrees that the Delta is already overdrafted, as enviro activists state flatly).

    But, like Steve, I question the usefulness of the concept of “scientization.” Michael Hiltzik had a sharp column on this idea last week in the L.A. Times, though he didn’t use the fancy brand-new word.

    Hiltzik pointed out that the “don’t confuse me with the facts” caucus here in CA insists that the administration is choosing fish over farmers, when a) this stemmed from a ruling by a judge, not a policy decision from Congress or the administration, b) even if the Delta Smelt was to go extinct today, the Delta’s problems would not go away, not by a long stretch, and c) the employment problems in Mendota and other towns near Westlands predate the judge’s ruling on the Delta Smelt by years or decades.

    The concept of “scientization” contains an embedded assumption, which — if applied to this issue — is that the NAS report was ordered to settle the debate.

    But is that true? Do we really know what Senator Feinstein thinking when she asked for a report?

    God knows there is no shortage of scientific reports on water quality in the Delta, from Federal and state authorities. A supposedly definitive report from a panel convened by Gov. Schwarzenegger spent two years on the question, and resulted in the bond measure legislation…that appears unlikely to pass.

    Surely we can all agree that on an issue this politically charged, another scientific report isn’t going to settle anything. So, “scientization” ensued. Okay, fine. But didn’t we know that from the jump? And, more important, didn’t Senator Feinstein?

    What’s really going on here? Was Feinstein hoping for an unexpected and politically convenient answer? Stalling for time? Looking for political cover?

    Before we expect a scientific report to answer big policy questions, perhaps we should ask if those who requested it actually wanted answers — or perhaps had something else entirely in mind.

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