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Whitewashing Scientific Misconduct at the Department of the Interior: Into the Intellectual Wilderness

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A grotesque and expanding anti-science mania is sweeping parts of the United States. This isn't new -- there is a long and dismaying history of irrational, pseudoscientific, or downright anti-scientific thinking and political culture here -- especially discouraging given how vital America's scientific and technological strengths are to our economic and political strengths.

For the past two decades, however, there has been a remarkable growth in political pandering to a segment of popular culture that rejects science, knowledge, logic, and reason in favor of intuition, ideology, religion, and distorted or false science promoted by special interests. And sadly, parts of the Republican Party have been especially active and aggressive at using false, misleading, or discredited science, or explicitly ignoring good science, in setting public policy. We saw it with the evolution/creationism debate as far back as the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. We saw it with the long, successful effort of the tobacco industry and their Congressional allies to confuse the public and delay regulations to protect public health. We saw it with the veto by Richard Nixon of the Clean Water Act (overridden with the help of some brave and influential Republican Senators). And we see it now, in full flower, with the efforts of a Republican-led House of Representatives to try to overturn scientific findings about climate pollution with legislative decrees as part of the intensely ideological opposition to climate change. Their actions are like passing a law rejecting gravity because it's inconvenient or because they don't believe in it. The highly respected scientific journal Nature just called these actions "fundamentally anti-science" and an example of "willful ignorance," and said:

"It is hard to escape the conclusion that the US Congress has entered the intellectual wilderness, a sad state of affairs in a country that has led the world in many scientific arenas for so long."

Human-caused climate change is quite simply a scientific fact that could lead to policies that are inconvenient for powerful vested interests, especially a very well-endowed carbon-fuel industry willing to spend vast sums of money to confuse the public, support politicians and organizations whose influence they can buy, discredit and malign scientists who speak out, and create alternative "science" that is discredited over and over by independent review and analysis but which simply gets recycled in new, misleading forms and trotted out all over again.

Today, we see politicians (mostly Republicans along with a few Democrats from fossil-fuel rich regions) competing with each other to ridicule science that shows conclusively and unambiguously that humans are changing the climate. These findings are acknowledged by every single major scientific organization in the areas of climate, meteorology, geology, physics, chemistry, atmospheric science, and hydrology, as well as every single National Academy of Sciences, including our own, created by Abraham Lincoln as an independent non-governmental organization to provide the best scientific advice to the government. Why? Because an emboldened deeply conservative right wing fears that these scientific facts will lead to government action, new constraints on pollution from dirty industries, or international cooperation - policies it finds antithetical to its base. Rather than debate these ideas, they postpone that debate by rejecting science. And this retreat from knowledge includes Republicans that previously accepted the science of climate change but are now choosing ideology over reality for purely political gain.

It is not only Republicans (and of course, not all Republicans) that misuse and abuse science for political gain. Democrats and others also fall back on scientific misrepresentations when they are blinded by ideology, trying to cover previous misdeeds or mistakes, or driven by conflicting priorities. A sad example has surfaced over the past few years at the U.S. Department of the Interior in a case that has entangled both Republican and Democratic administrations as well as some environmentalists.

For four years, a battle has raged over a small privately managed oyster farm operating inside a national treasure -- the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California. The broad issue is simple: should the commercial oyster operations in Drakes Estero, which has operated for nearly a century, be allowed to continue to operate or should it be closed when its current lease expires in 2012 and the area put into protected status? That's a worthy and difficult question, and it hinges on choosing among conflicting societal preferences: supporting sustainable agricultural practices and family farms, protecting and restoring wilderness, maintaining historical and cultural values, and other difficult and highly subjective factors -- precisely the things that make public discourse, discussion, and debate important.

But instead, the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior have manipulated science in an effort to paint the oyster farm as an environmental hazard. Science can play a key role here, if in fact evidence showed that the oyster farm was an environmental detriment to the area. But the science doesn't support this argument. So the Park Service issued a series of reports with bad, incomplete, misleading, or cherry-picked evidence of impacts to seagrasses, seals, water quality, and fish diversity. Equally egregious, Park Service employees withheld or selectively excluded scientific evidence that they knew contradicted their claims, even after requests by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and external scientists seeking to independently review their claims.

And now a new internal report on this debacle from the Department of the Interior has been released (the "Frost Report") that simultaneously acknowledges that the scientific arguments of damage from the oyster farm are false, yet whitewashes the actions of National Park Service employees in producing, disseminating, and repeating those false arguments. The Frost Report uses semantics, logical twists that would amaze even a wise and practiced Marin County yogi, and incomplete and incorrect assessments of events. The local newspaper, the Marin Independent Journal carried a cartoon on March 26th by George Russell calling the Frost Report "a shell game on the half-truths" in a play on words on "oysters on the half-shell."

In the Report, practices and actions that any scientific society, scientific journal, or scientific ethicist would clearly identify as scientific misconduct and reprehensible, are treated by the Department of the Interior as simply worthy of a slap of the wrist, a verbal tisk tisk. In a remarkable semantic twist, the Frost Report found that five National Park Service employees violated the Department's Code of Scientific and Scholarly Conduct but chose to label those violations as "administrative misconduct" rather than "scientific misconduct" because of the difficulty of proving "intent" to deceive. Yet this "administrative misconduct" included four years of withholding and cherry-picking data in public reports, writing journal articles with incomplete or wrong data, failing to present complete materials, data, and scientific observations to a National Academy of Sciences Committee, even after multiple requests, and issuing repeatedly false public statements. And this "misconduct" was all in the direction of exaggerating the adverse impact of the oyster farm. No intent?

For example, the NPS explicitly and repeated claimed in many forums that they had clear evidence the oyster farm was harming the seals in Pt. Reyes. Not only did they not have such evidence, they had a substantial body of evidence that showed the opposite, yet they withheld this evidence from several independent reviews and committees set up to evaluate their claims. Any scientists would call this scientific misconduct, not just "administrative" misconduct and for the DOI to hide behind an unwillingness to argue "intent" does not make the misconduct any less egregious. As Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Salazar after the Frost Report was released, "Whether it was intentional or because of personal bias, these practices must not be tolerated nor allowed to continue." She is absolutely right.

Indeed, Senator Dianne Feinstein noted that separately, the National Academy of Sciences found that the Park Service "selectively presented, over-interpreted, or misrepresented the available science on the potential impacts of the oyster mariculture operation" and the DOI's Office of the Inspector General concluded that the Point Reyes science adviser "misrepresented research."

In fact, the guts of the Frost Report are far more damning than the milder conclusions quoted in the press release issued by the Department. The Report found a "willingness to allow subjective beliefs and values to guide scientific conclusions," the use of "subjective conclusions, vague temporal and geographic references, and questionable mathematic calculations," and "misconduct [that] arose from incomplete and biased evaluation and from blurring the line between exploration and advocacy through research."

When there is misconduct like this, the false papers and studies need to be retracted, the record needs to be officially corrected, new results must be published without the old errors, and the public and local community need assurances that similar misconduct and fraud will not be repeated. No such assurances have been given. Indeed, the Frost Report itself is evidence that scientific misconduct will be excused, whitewashed, minimized, and swept under the rug - already the Report is being used by some to claim victory on a policy battlefield where the real loser is the integrity of science. It is time to reassert the primacy of integrity, logic, reason, and the scientific method in public policy. We may disagree about matters of opinion, but we (and our elected representatives) must not misuse, hide, or misrepresent science and fact in service of our political wars.

Dr. Peter Gleick is both a scientist and a strong supporter of the environment. He doesn't eat oysters.

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