Science or politics? Scientists dispute whether Great Lakes' wolves should be delisted

November 25, 2015 | By JONATHAN WOOD

Last week, 26 scientists submitted a letter to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service arguing that Gray wolves in the Great Lakes region are no longer endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This week, 29 other scientists published an open letter opposing any change to the species’ status.

Ordinarily, a dispute between scientists like this wouldn’t be terribly interesting or enlightening. After all, disputes over science and data are essential to the scientific process. this dispute is nonetheless interesting because it exemplifies what happens when science and politics are blurred. Simply labeling policy preferences as science doesn’t make it so. The ESA’s “best available science” standard does not embrace the “best” politics of available scientists.

The letter calling for a delisting makes traditional scientific arguments: It reports, for instance, that the wolf population in the area has grown by more than fourfold. It points to published studies suggesting that this recovery was likely due to federal, state, and private recovery efforts. And it notes that the Service itself has determined that there are adequate state regulations to continue to protect the wolves once they’re delisted.

You might expect the other 29 scientists to respond with scientific arguments about whether the species has actually grown as much as reported. Or point to evidence about the causes of that recovery which might be lost without maintaining the listing. It doesn’t.

Instead, the letter contains policy arguments against changing the species status, cloaked as science. For instance, the lead argument concerns the “science” of public attitudes, reporting that public opinion polls show broad national support for the ESA and species protection. Public opinion polls quantify people’s preferences. They’re just a measure of what people think, not whether what they think is true.

On many issues, public opinion varies wildly from that of relevant experts. For instance, according to a Pew Research study, nearly 90% of scientists believe that genetically modified foods are safe, whereas only 37% of lay people do. So, are GMO foods safe? The poll of the general public sheds no light on the question because the average person simply doesn’t have the knowledge to answer it (or the time to find out). Even on very important public policy issues, including the Endangered Species Act, there is widespread — and perfectly rational — ignorance among voters and the general public.

The letter’s remaining arguments concern the “science” surrounding the adequacy of state management and the legal requirements of the ESA. However, this amounts to little more than policy and legal analysis. The problem with this is that, although science can inform policy and legal debates, it can’t answer them.

As my colleague, Damien Schiff, explained in a recent law review article:

Although the ESA demands that listing, critical habitat designation, consultation, and recovery planning be science-based and science-driven what the Act asks for probably exceeds what “science” can provide.

Professor Holly Doremus has argued that the problem is not really the politicization of science but rather the “scientizing of politics.” This process, she contends, results in the “science charade,” whereby truly political decision-making is masked as being scientific.