Keeping science free of policy advocacy? …Hogwash! (and irresponsible?)

how circular do you like your arguments?


I have been ‘tweeting’ some comments today in relation to this idea… this endlessly circular and apparently misguided idea that ‘scientists’ should not engage in advocacy — when it comes to advocating for one policy option or another — at least in relation to their own data:

“our science”, they say.

‘Scientists’ should instead, in their great Objectivity, gently speak to the numbers, to the data, to the ‘information’, to the ‘science’…

If conservation biologists are to be valued by decision makers and society as the source of information on conservation, we must be perceived as neutral in the conduct and communication of our science…

...says he (Dr. Robert Lackey and others), in a 2007 paper in the ‘neutrally’ named academic journal ‘Conservation Biology’.

Now before you tune out… words like scientists, advocacy, policy… enough to garner a solid pounding of the “SNOOZE” button for many… or… in this case a gentle mouse click ‘navigating’ your way to much more interesting seas…

Yet, this a pretty important issue (oops, is that: advocating?)… and… flawed method of thinking that pollutes the towers of academia…

…worse then a school of dead spawned out humpies (pink salmon) rotting on a riverbank in the noon-day August sun.

This also relates directly to recent posts, such as fisheries biologist Otto Langer sounding the whistle on Conservative/Reform government plans to potentially sneak in far-ranging changes to the Fisheries Act.

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I must preface these comments with a gentle warning that it must be challenging at times to read these posts in such a way as to understand when some things are said ‘tongue-in-cheek’ (what a curious expression…) and some are meant in more seriousness…

Furthermore, in as much as I highlight one specific ‘scientist’ in this post, this particular issue of ‘academic’ highfalutin, narrow-sighted, elitism… well… (my advocacy in itself) … is a seriously misguided enterprise.

Maybe, right up there with Columbus’ arrival on the shores of the ‘Americas’ thinking he had arrived in ‘India’…

I do, though, attempt to highlight this issue meaning no disrespect to individuals that have spent a good part of their adult lives living with this perspective, including Dr. Lackey.

Try to be hard on the problem, not on the people…

The intention is to highlight an issue, instigate discussion, debate, commentary, as well as take a rather ‘critical’ opposite perspective.

…well… maybe not even an opposite perspective, as I tend to try and operate in a both/and atmosphere… the ‘on this hand’ argument, yet ‘on this hand’ counter-argument…

through that, maybe getting to something in the middle, or somewhere between the hands… like… closer to the heart maybe?…

….that resonates and sits well with my own intuition, socialization, culture, values, etc.

…and the sheer ambiguity and fluffiness, and even danger, that those four terms (and related terms) embody — implicitly and explicitly.

(warning: this might also take several posts – if not a book – to shine a light way up to the top of some of those ‘towers’…)

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At the University of Northern BC (UNBC) this afternoon, distinguished fisheries scientist Dr. Robert Lackey is giving a presentation as part of the UNBC Research Colloquium Series.

Here is the poster for the presentation and a summary of his argument to be presented (as sent to me by Dr. Lackey himself):

sorry for the fuzziness, however, it fits the argument...


As I read this summary and then started to dive into the wide variety of academic papers that Dr. Lackey (and others) have produced on this topic, I became unsure of where to start…

As in:

‘hey salmonguy what issues do you foresee with this argument (thesis)?’

“uggggh… where do i start…?”

Not that these types of things are necessarily bad things or negative… they should just be stated and put right up front.

Nothing is certain. Certainty is nothing.

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So, let me take you on this little exploration journey, of the issues, contradictions, and circularity of this argument…

First, let’s start with the immediate questions that come to mind:

What is ‘advocacy‘?

What is ‘policy‘?

What is a ‘value‘?

What is ‘policy advocacy‘?

And, ummm, isn’t stating:

… values that reflect forms of policy advocacy should not be permitted to prejudice scientific information…

Isn’t that ‘advocacy’?

… advocating a position?

But then… maybe… the audience for this little summary is not ‘policy-makers’, decision-makers… and the like…

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There are a variety of definitions for ‘advocate‘ … one can probably safely assume that in this context, it is referring to the verb: “to advocate” which has dictionary definitions such as:

to speak or write in favor of; support or urge by argument; recommend publicly.

In the noun sense:

one that defends or maintains a cause or proposal.


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The etymology (the roots) of the word: advocate… as one might guess… has similar roots as vocal, and voice, and so on. There’s a convoluted history, however, the Latin word vocem is the common root which means: “voice, sound, utterance, cry, call, speech, sentence, language, word.”

Put the “ad” on the front, which means: “to” and essentially, to advocate means to give voice‘ .

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So, now we have the beginning of a circular argument (can you hear the dog chasing its tail… or is the tail chasing the dog…?),

how is salmon escape-ment to happen?

… as the act of simply saying ‘scientists should not‘ do this or do that, is in essence advocating one position over another.

But then maybe other scientists… or young University students (or old for that fact)… are also not “policy makers” or ‘decision-makers’…

But they might be one day…?

(and really, what is a policy-maker? are they related to the boiler-maker? or the candlestick maker? Or, was it Colonel Mustard in the kitchen…?)

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Let’s add a little further philosophical pondering into this… (pontificate… some might suggest…)

Dr. Lackey suggests that ‘scientific information’ should not be ‘prejudiced‘…

…or more precisely that: “values that reflect forms of policy advocacy should not be permitted to prejudice scientific information.”

Aside from the whole slew of questions that surface for me: ‘what values?, who’s values?, what’s a value?’ and:

‘how do we separate values that reflect forms of policy advocacy from the ones that don’t?

(is this like separating the wheat from the chaff… the men from the boys… the good from the bad… let alone the ugly… where does beauty lie again?…)

And “prejudice scientific information”… this makes it sound like ‘scientific information’ is some sort of holy grail that should not be soiled by the hands of mortal men… or women… or children… and most definitely not dying rotting humpies…

Or that ‘scientific information‘ exists on its own, like some entity… like a ‘corporation’, which is essentially a person, without being a person…

It is said as if ‘scientific’ information, exists different as ‘information’ in the National Enquirer, or other tabloid…?

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Prejudice: 1. an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.

2. any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable.

Yet what is “information”?

(please stick with me, i recognize we’re caught in a bit of a worm hole here… just take the red pill and hold on a bit longer…)

1. knowledge communicated or received concerning a particular fact or circumstance; news: information concerning a crime.
2. knowledge gained through study, communication, research, instruction, etc.; factual data: His wealth of general information is amazing.
3. the act or fact of informing.

What is knowledge?

Well… as the old saying goes: “knowledge is power”.

And that’s what essentially we are dealing with here:


Now we’re getting closer to the heart of the issue.

Information can be: “the act or fact of informing.”

And just as Dr. Lackey suggests in his summary: “the scientific enterprise is not free of values…”

Thus, values influence the information that is produced by science, and the ‘scientific enterprise’, which means that the information has been affected by “any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable.

Right… that’s the definition of prejudice…

Someone had to decide what “information” was going to be collected in the first place…

(an issue to be discussed in future posts… when companies like Enbridge, Cenovus, RioTinto Alcan and others can “sponsor” University Research Chair positions… such as the Encana Research Chair in Water, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Alberta).

Even if that ‘information’ was collected by the ‘scientist’ themselves… it was still tainted by ‘values’… let alone the simple fact that a scientist speaks, or writes a language — such as English — for example, means that they communicate information in such a way that is laced by social, cultural, economic, and multiple other factors.

Lastly… for now… information is a noun, a thing.

It is a created thing.

A thing embodied and brought into creation by the mind that thought it, ‘found’ it, created it. Or simply read it off the Excel spreadsheet, or data-graphing program, or interpreted the way a salmon swam through the ‘counting gate’… etc.

It was interpreted.

Both in the sense that one does when they translate another language — e.g. interpret — and as in the dictionary, literal meaning: “explain the meaning of (information, words, or actions): ‘interpret the evidence‘.”

Interpreting, is never value-free.

And in ‘science’ — especially as practiced in the Western tradition — interpretation has everything to do with POWER.

And a lot of Power come from those that hold the ‘information’ AND those that create the information in the first place. And especially those that decide what to do with information.

‘Information’ comes to hold value in various ways and multiple ways in which one can define the word value… including cultural values… (more to come on that).

A wonderful quote from the other day in reference to archaeology and criticism of some ‘status-quo’ thinking in that ‘field’ especially the deep “Western-think” roots of that field:

“the past is thought up, not dug up”…

so is scientific information — which means it too, is Subjective… just as much as deciding what color tie one should wear to grandma’s birthday…

‘Scientific objectivity’ is just one more of those terms related to: marketing is everything and everything is marketing…

More to come… welcome to the worm hole…

3 thoughts on “Keeping science free of policy advocacy? …Hogwash! (and irresponsible?)

  1. Pingback: Salmon Guy » Blog Archive » Science Inc. — don’t worry though… our language is “policy-neutral”…

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