Science Inc. — don’t worry though… our language is “policy-neutral”…

Language isn’t neutral.

F.S. Michaels, “Monoculture: how one story is changing everything” (winner of NCTE George Orwell Award for outstanding contributions to the critical analysis of public discourse)


Many of us who provide scientific information to decision-makers and the public should become more vigilant, more precise, more demanding, and more rigorous… Be clear, be candid, be brutally frank, but be policy-neutral.

Dr. Robert Lackey, well-known fisheries biologist based in Oregon. “Normative Science” (Fisheries 29:7)

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This is a follow-up to the post on Friday: Keeping science free of policy advocacy? …Hogwash! (and irresponsible?)

An epilogue of sorts, some after thoughts to the presentation of Friday afternoon by preeminent fisheries scientist Dr. Lackey.

how circular do you like your arguments?


The purpose here is not to disrespect, or slander, or belittle — simply to look at things critically; to look at things from a little different angle; to ask some question of the ‘wisdom‘ being imparted to university students (and others).

A little reflection balanced with action… a little… ‘rather than complain about it, do something about it’… a little… assumption-analysis.

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The role of science, the role of policy advocacy, the role of scientists is an important issue (at least in my humble little opinion)… especially in many current governing regimes that purport to be ‘democratic democracies’…

…and in Universities and academic establishments that continue to grow there base of corporate donations and sponsorships.

As such, when preeminent individuals/academics speak, many listen.

When these individuals come with distinguished credentials, long lists of ‘peer’ reviewed articles, government awards, and so on… many listen… may even be impacted… may even be influenced.

Added to this is when certain individuals engage in heavy-advocacy on a certain issue — made all the more bizarre when the entire point of a presentation is heavy-advocacy saying: “advocacy is bad“…

(ahhh, the power of contradictions in life… of opposing ideals…)

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And thus… these sorts of things — advocacy sans advocacy, academic preaching, and espousing heavy assumptions — come with a certain level of responsibility… as in the various definitions of the word:

1. answerable or accountable, as for something within one’s power, control, or management.

2. involving accountability or responsibility.

3. having a capacity for moral decisions and therefore accountable; capable of rational thought or action.

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Trace this word far enough back — responsibility — and we get to the Latin root word sponde: “solemn libation”, and spondere: “to engage oneself, promise”.

The roots of “re” meaning: “back”, and spondere which essentially means “to pledge.”

As well as the Latin respondere: “respond, answer to, promise in return.”

Eventually we get to French responsible, from Latin responsus, which is the past participle of respondere “to respond.”

In the late 1500s the term came to mean: “morally accountable for one’s actions”, which suggests it retains the sense of “obligation” from the Latin roots.

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That little spin down word-memory lane, is to provide some basis for what is discussed here.

We’re in the ‘realm of responsibility’ that comes from certain positions occupied in society; about responsibility for reflection; and responsibility for being accountable to one’s ‘arguments’, especially if those are being espoused to young minds — and there is certainly a very large responsibility in our North American society that comes with being white, and being male…

Furthermore, the ‘influenced’, the ‘spoken to’, the ‘listeners’ also have responsibility… responsibility to ask questions, to peer at things from critical angles, to reflect, to ask some more questions, make choices, and so on.

Be ‘vigilant, precise, demanding, and rigorous’…

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Unfortunately… at this particular presentation I attended on Friday — the classic scenario…

‘this presentation will take approximately 50 minutes, and there will be time for about 5 minutes of questions…’

I’ve attended enough talks, and given enough talks myself, that the classic “5 minutes of questions” means about two questions will get asked of the presenter because, the presenter will still be amped up from talking for 50-minutes… thus any question will garner a continued flow of verbiage…

And… if the topic is one that might be somewhat controversial, critical questioners will be cut short with the all-to-familiar: “well… we have lots of other people wanting to ask questions”…

…and thus what is essentially being said is: ‘we are after quantity here, not quality…’

(and ghad forbid anyone ask some ‘critical’ questions and our esteemed presenter get put in an awkward position to actually have to respond — as in take responsibility for — what was stated, what was advocated for…)

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With that 600-word, preface… what does my analysis reveal within this presentation, and position, that suggests: ‘Scientists must be policy-neutral in their language…‘?

This particular presentation started with the preface, and I paraphrase: ‘this is about science, I’m not talking about all that other stuff, those other sciences…’

The classic elitist position of ‘hard science’ vs. ‘soft science’… the classic ‘us’ vs. ‘them’… which was prevalent throughout the presentation: ‘scientists’ vs ‘general public’, ‘skeptics’ vs. ‘believers’, ‘normative science’ vs. ‘policy-neutral science’ (which was the heart of the argument).

Here is a quote from one of Dr. Lackey’s papers from 2004 “Normative Science” which appears to be the central tenet of Friday’s presentation:

I am concerned that we are heading down a path in fisheries science that risks marginalizing science, if not much of our scientific enterprise.

Many of us who provide scientific information to decision-makers and the public should become more vigilant, more precise, more demanding, and more rigorous in distinguishing between policy-neutral and policy-inculcated scientific information. (my emphasis)

Let me be explicit about two key points concerning the role of scientists in fisheries policy.

First, fisheries scientists should contribute to policy analysis. Not only is it the right thing to do, we are obligated to do so. I do not hold with the notion that it is sufficient for scientists to publish their findings solely as scholarly reports.

Second, when scientists contribute to policy analysis, they need to exercise great care to play an appropriate and clearly defined role. Here is where the interface between science and policy gets muddled for many fisheries scientists.

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The issue that I have, is that this argument presented on Friday, came packaged in what appears to be a remarkably naïve position… and immensely simplistic, with a good solid colorful bow of assumptions tied up in a nasty knot.

Naïve as in:

1. having or showing unaffected simplicity of nature or absence of artificiality; unsophisticated; ingenuous. 2. having or showing a lack of experience, judgment, or information; credulous.

Credulous, referring to believing a little too easily; and, ingenuous: somewhat obsolete… as I don’t think this particular speaker has a ‘lack of experience, judgment or information…’

A wealth of experience, in fact, just a surprisingly simplistic, and naive argument in this particular case. A problem, even to Mr. Lackey, as quoted in his 2004 paper:

…developing sound fisheries policy, science is important, helpful, even essential, but involvement with policy issues by a naive scientist can lead to loss of credibility and perceived independence unless the proper roles of both science and policy are understood and followed.

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As suggested in my previous post, the first questions that come to mind are: ‘what is science?’ and ‘what is policy?’…

I won’t get into that for now, however, if one has these two terms — ‘science’ and ‘policy’ at the centre of their argument — they should be clear about what they mean…

…or at least provide some glimmer or glint of where on the spectrum one is referring, as these terms exist on a very elastic continuum that stretches from here to the sun.

Even the UN struggles with the term, as do many, suggesting in an old Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) document:

… the word “policy”… is a very elastic term and we need some working definition of it from which we can all start together even if we choose to amend it thereafter.

A “policy” is very much like a decision or a set of decisions, and we “make”, “implement” or “carry out” a policy just as we do with decisions.

Like a decision a ‘policy’ is not itself a statement, nor is it only a set of actions, although, as with decisions, we can infer what a person’s or organisation’s policy is either from the statement he makes about it, or, if he makes no statement or we don’t believe his statement from the way he acts.

But, equally, we can claim that a statement or set of actions is misleading and does not faithfully reflect the “true” policy.

Ah yes… the ‘elasticity’ of policy, and in difficulties of laying a good concrete foundational definition… makes me think of the “bike helmet” law in BC. All those folks not respecting the ‘true policy’… or those speeders on the highway…

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Dr. Lackey does provide a certain definition of what ‘normative science’ is, at least in his mind:

By normative science, I mean “information that is developed, presented, or interpreted based on an assumed, usually unstated, preference for a particular policy or class of policy choices.”

In his Friday presentation, Dr. Lackey made some quip about going back to Philosophy 101 to understand that ‘true science’ is done in such methods that are: “rational, systematic, and reproducible.”

I’m not so sure how long it’s been since Dr. Lackey has taken a look at a PHIL 101 syllabus… however, I’m pretty sure it does not contain some ‘all-knowing’ definition of science.

However to be fair, Dr. Lackey did say in his presentation and in his 2004 paper that:

Science, of course, is not value-free because it is a human enterprise, but this fact does not make all science normative. Policy-neutral science is a way of learning about the world and it is characterized by transparency, reproducibility, and independence.

…”transparency, reproducibility, and independence”… important terms to keep in mind…


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The heart of Dr. Lackey’s argument largely centres on two fundamental points: Credibility (as in scientists providing information to policy-makers… who ever that is?)

and Language (or words).

Words are important…

…says he.

Yes, they are.

The classic example for Dr. Lackey surrounds the use of words such as ecosystem “degradation” or ecosystem “improvement” or even the ever-value-laced, dirty, nasty, non-policy-neutral: “ecosystem health”…

That is normative science, says the good Dr.

What one should say instead — or at least the good scientist (as opposed to the bad scientist) should say:

Often I hear or read words like “degradation.” Or words like “improvement.” Or “good” or “poor.” Do not use these in conveying scientific information. Using such words implies a preferred ecological state, a desired condition, a benchmark, a preferred class of policy options.

This is not science, it is policy advocacy. Subtle, perhaps unintentional, but still policy advocacy.

The appropriate “science” words are ones such as “alteration” or “change” or “increase” or “decrease.” These words describe the scientific information in ways that are policy-neutral. In short, they convey no policy preference and convey science in a policy-neutral manner. Be clear, be candid, be brutally frank, but be policy-neutral.

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So picture this… my children are the policy-makers…

I’m speaking to them about their behavior. They are screaming around the house. However, if I want to be “policy-neutral”, I need to simply tell them that their behavior might need to “alter” not that their behavior is ‘degrading’ the quiet enjoyment of the household…(or even improving it because I can no longer hear the neighbor’s snowblower)

That some certain acts occurring in the household require behavior ‘alteration’… NOT… (ghad forbid)… telling them that screaming at the top of their lungs is resulting in household ‘degradation’…

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This was the analogy that immediately came to mind as I listened to Dr. Lackey’s advocacy lecture about ‘NOT’ being an advocate… (at least if you’re a scientist)

And then I started to think this analogy might be quite fitting… as, how many ‘policy-makers’ are politicians, and how many people find politicians to be quite child-like at times?

But, nope, if we’re to be policy-neutral we simply just stick to the facts, “just the facts mam” (or sir)…

As Dr. Lackey suggests:

One person’s “damaged” ecosystem is another person’s “improved” ecosystem [salmonguy note: does this include the lungs of a smoker?].

A “healthy” ecosystem can be either a malarial infested swamp or the same land converted to an intensively managed rice paddy. Neither condition can be seen as “healthy” except through the lens of an individual’s values and policy preferences.

That’s exactly the point.

This is an endlessly circular argument.

Everything in life is viewed through the lens of an individual… to think that scientists can ‘interpret’ data and information in such a way that is ‘neutral’ and then in turn communicate this information as ‘policy-neutral’ to ‘policy makers’ or the general public…

…is naive, and lacks any view towards social sciences and even fundamental basic cultural or social analysis…

…But… those are the ‘soft’ sciences…

“that other stuff” as suggested by Dr. Lackey in his presentation…

…this despite the fact that he apparently also teaches ‘political science’… one of those classic “soft” sciences as viewed from the lens of the “hard” scientists…

Further… Dr. Lackey’s analysis, and rather rigorous analysis of language… is in fact essentially “discourse analysis” an immensely liberal, ‘soft’ science that explores people’s use of language…

“But I understand there’s these various ‘integrated’ courses now being offered, these ‘social science’ type degrees… I don’t really have much time for those…”

…says he, following certain questions at the presentation…

…the teacher of political science, which the American Political Science Association defines as:

…the study of governments, public policies and political processes, systems, and political behavior.  Political science subfields include political theory, political philosophy, political ideology,  political economy, policy studies and analysis, comparative politics, international relations, and a host of related fields.

(Sounds pretty subjective and soft-sciencey to me…)

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Dr. Lackey’s simplistic argument continued with quoting stats from a Washington, DC newspaper that surveyed ‘Americans trust of science’ and apparently 40% of those surveyed suggested: “they don’t trust science”.

In his eyes, this is one of the fundamental issues facing scientists (at least the ‘hard’ science practitioners such as ‘fisheries scientists), TRUST in the public realm, as well as TRUST amongst policy makers.

(I’m still unsure of what exactly a “policy-maker” is in his argument…).

I mentioned in my comments to Dr. Lackey (and other ‘hard’ scientists in the audience), that there’s this tricky issue out there that few seem to ponder… an issue I’ve mentioned in several recent posts:

Almost 50% of Canadians do not have the literacy they require to participate in day-to-day life including work. This is based on the intensive work done through the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS).

So if almost 50% of Canadians don’t have the literacy requirements, what is it in the U.S.?

So, if say, near 50% of the participants in this apparent survey have low literacy how many respondents were simply unable to answer the survey questions?

How many answered: ‘I don’t really give a shit…’?

Again, this apparent 40% of untrusting folks, is a simplistic argument. Suggesting that part of the reason for ‘advocating’ for not advocating in science (e.g. fisheries science) is this issue of public trust… and relating it back to the apparent fact that it’s because too many ‘bad’ scientists have been engaging in policy-advocacy… too simplistic, poor analysis, and plain bad logic.

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Dr. Lackey continued to carry on several times suggesting:

“leave that policy advocacy stuff to the Canadian Petroleum Producers association and the Sierra Club…”

Which left me wondering, and wanting to ask (but cut off in question time), how he feels about positions such as the EnCana Research Chair in Water Resources Sciences at the University of Alberta…

Or, EnCana Chair in Canadian Plains Mitigation and Reclamation at the University of Calgary?

Does the “science” coming from this position get communicated in a “policy-neutral” manner?

Or how about the Cenovus Chair in Environmental Engineering at the University of Alberta as well…?

(Cenovus and Encana are both major Canadian oil companies, operating significantly in the Alberta tar sands…).

Or the Suncor-supported Research Chair in Forest Land Reclamation also at the University of Alberta, or the Enbridge Research Chair in Phsycological Oncology at the University of Calgary.

I might gently suggest that, private and corporate “sponsorship” of University-research and otherwise fundamentally alters the landscape of “policy-neutral” science…

(no matter how ‘neutral’ – or neutered – and independent certain scientists purport to be)

Or, the Oregon Dairy Farmers Assoc. Faculty Scholar in Dairy Production and Management? at Dr. Lackey’s esteemed university in Oregon. Must be tough sometimes for a salmon scientist to see this sort of blatant cattle industry support, as, often, the cattle industry and salmon don’t mix very well… (some might suggest this is changing…)

Coincidentally, Oregon State U also has the ambitious goal of raising over $1 billion from private and corporate donations.

Hmmmm, I don’t smell any potential manure in the science coming from that institution?

(but if it’s policy-neutral manure… does it still smell the same?)

I’m sure that many of these donations come with complete independence and zero strings attached… (at least very good intentions)…

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Fair or not, it is true that scientists, at least as perceived by many people, are just another political advocacy group arguing for, or against, ratifying Kyoto, the Biodiversity Convention, or arguing in favor of, or against, marine protected areas.

Just another political advocacy group signing petitions to remove, or preserve, a particular salmon-killing dam, and all for reasons that sound like science, read like science, are presented by people who cloak themselves in the accouterments of science, but who are actually offering nothing but policy or political advocacy masquerading as science.

says, he…

And so, what does that make corporately-sponsored “hard” science research positions at various Universities in Canada, and the U.S.?

Go look at the list of sponsors even at the University of Northern BC where Dr. Lackey was speaking… some of the top donors in the $1 million+ range are: Canfor Corporation, West Fraser, Northwood (all preeminent forestry companies), in the $500,000+ range include: RioTinto Alcan, RBC Bank, Bank of Montreal, Telus, Spectra Energy, Weldwood, etc. …

… and the list goes on…

Maybe the influence is small… but… maybe it’s large…?

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The point here is not necessarily to suggest that corporate sponsorship of academic institutions is good or bad…(as that would most certainly not be policy-neutral) it simply further highlights the simplicity of fronting arguments in simple polarities such as: good policy-neutral science vs. bad-policy-advocacy science.

These types of simplistic arguments, really do beg a few questions (more than 5-minutes worth…)

Where’s the line… (and how deep a hue to you like your gray…?)

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Isn’t the central component of this argument about: PERCEPTION, and TRUST and LANGUAGE.

Those sound like pretty fuzzy, ‘soft’ science things.

If science, as Dr. Lackey stated (and many other ‘hard’ scientists espouse), is all about “rational, systematic, reproducible” methods…

…is it still the same reproducible results if Enbridge sponsors one study and Encana another? And what if Greenpeace sponsors the rebuttal…?

Or… if one study is ‘independent’ and the other is ‘sponsored’?

How about if the decision-maker, the policy-maker, (the candlestick maker) that is ‘interpreting’ the policy-neutral science (fisheries or otherwise) is also ‘sponsored’ by Cenovus, or the Royal Bank, or Canfor (e.g. through political contributions)?

Or simply used to run Canfor?  –as was the case, for example, in a previous federal Liberal MP that was a highly ranked Minister?

Or, how tricky does it get when there are things such as the NSERC/TransCanada Industrial Research Chair in Welding for Energy Infrastructure (tenure-track and tenured faculty position) at the University of Waterloo?

TransCanada is an energy company and builds pipelines, like the proposed and controversial Keystone Pipeline through the U.S…

NSERC is the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada — federal-government funded and operated:

We are committed to continuous improvement through leadership, teamwork and open communication. We conduct our business with integrity, transparency, flexibility and accountability because these values are important to us and to the people with whom we interact. The ethical and performance standards that we apply to ourselves are as high as those that we require of researchers.

Yes, but can those researchers remain “independent” if their position is corporately-sponsored?

How would people feel (the ‘general public’ Lackey calls ‘us’… errr… them… errr… me… errr…you… ) if we had the Greenpeace Research Chair in Energy sustainability? Or the Sierra Club Research Chair in National Park Management?

Were there any Enron Research Chairs of some science in the U.S. when the company went down in a flaming mess of bad accounting practices and corruption?

Would this not be akin to Nike running “just as fast as I can” away from Tiger and his sponsorship following the Caddie-Gate window smashing episode of falling in flames…?

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One of the fundamental notions of Dr. Lackey’s arguments was the confused notion between “public trust” of science and the “credibility” of scientists relaying their information to ‘policy-makers’… and that “language is important”…

We should develop within our profession [or towers] a clear understanding of the interface between science and policy, as well as an understanding of the appropriate roles for science, scientists, and public and personal values and policy preferences.

Yes, please do that… give it your best go… a ‘clear interface between science and policy‘… just as highlighted above in the corporate sponsorship of academic institutions and ‘science’…

…or, for example “rocket science” such as that employed by NASA and the US government and races to the moon or Mars, or infinity and beyond…  to send an ego-message to other countries that ‘we don’t mess around’…

Or how about that ‘policy-neutral’ science employed in the great search for a ‘cure for Cancer’…

…or that other ‘policy-neutral’ field of figuring out how the hell we’re going to have enough water to feed the thirst of an ever-growing world population…

…or, “agricultural science” and the immensely neutral-science engaged in by Canadian and US universities with Research Chairs and departments and wings of buildings, and ‘Centres’ sponsored by Viterra, Agrium, Monsanto, or Dow Chemicals…

To policy makers, I say: be alert. Scientific information is too important to the successful resolution of important, divisive, and controversial fisheries issues to allow some scientists to marginalize science through its misuse. Do not allow the overzealous among us to corrupt the entire scientific enterprise.

…says, Lackey.

If that is not a statement of ‘elitism’, ‘ivory tower-ism’ and ‘us vs. them’ then dress me up and call me debbie…

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I’m also searching for the “proof”… one of those fundamental foundations of science (and well… pudding)…

Dr. Lackey suggested, in his Friday presentation, that many years ago, he started to doubt his evangelical policy-neutral position when some public ‘stakeholder’ at a public meetings asked him where was his proof of ‘policy advocacy’…

He and colleagues then set out on a rigorous review of various ‘peer-reviewed’ academic journals and found them laced with policy advocacy-like words (e.g. discourse analysis); things like “ecosystem health” and “ecosystem degradation” and so on, and so on.

My word… the “scientific enterprise” under attack from zealot-advocates… let’s get out of here, Scotty…

“I’m given ‘er all she’s got Cap-ain…

… but this Enterprise is full of dirty advocacy fuel…”

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The proof I’m curious about, is show me where these esteemed “policy-makers” have actually been affected by these overzealous, advocacy-laced, scientific statements and lobbying efforts.

Sure, we have the proof that certain sorts of language are used in already value-laden academic journals called things like: “Conservation Biology“… but someone show me the proof of its impact.

Unfortunately, this component of Dr. Lackey’s theory is lacking some substance and some… well… proof. That doesn’t sound very ‘scientific’ to me…

… This theory seems to be built on a foundation of assumptions… assumptions that using value-laden, advocacy-type language has an impact on ‘policy-makers’… and that, in turn, this ‘bad’ language must be eradicated like invasive rats infesting sea-bird colonies…

(oh wait… that’s advocacy-language… shame on me…)

This theory is on shaky ground. There’s proof that there might be a ‘reactant’ in the pudding… however, there’s no proof of the actual reaction in the pudding…

And thus the pudding has no proof.

Shame, shame…  maybe it’s back to the drawing board on this one…

The good doctor advocating this position of ‘no advocacy’ — and the many others that suggest the same — might want to take a look at their own medication-prescriptions and the ingredients therein.

When engaging in advocacy… and the dangerous act of ‘advocating’ against ‘advocacy’… there needs to be a solid argument, and good logic, and sound proof.

The foundation of this ‘house of cards’ argument is a little shaky, and I think I feel the wind is picking up…


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