Science or Political Science?

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It never ceases to amaze that two adamantly opposing views can both argue that science proves their claim. That is because science is knowledge about what is and what can be. Opinions and values, however, both political and private, establish what should be. Science can be used to defend a value judgment, but without the personal values it cannot determine what should occur.

Science can describe what an Intermountain West ponderosa pine forest looked like 100 years ago. Science can define possible actions necessary to return that forest to a similar landscape. Science cannot tell us whether it should return to that type of a landscape.

Some of the forests surrounding Flagstaff, Arizona, for example, are extremely dense as a result of a century of fire suppression. The habitat in the once wide-open ponderosa pine savanna there has changed from prime antelope habitat to home of the endangered goshawk. Science can recommend methods to return the forest to the savannas of old or to maintain the goshawks preferred canopy. Science cannot tell us which is better; that is a value judgment.

Are there too many bison in Yellowstone? Science can help define the carrying capacity of the park, but it cannot determine whether they should be allowed to roam outside of the park. That is subjective and it depends upon your perspective.

Should Montana and Idaho wolves be removed from the endangered species act? Science can inform about the approximate number of wolves deemed necessary to ensure their survival. Science can help predict consequences of larger or smaller wolf populations. Science cannot determine the number of wolves that should make up the wolf population.

As Earth Day roles around and you’re examining the science of an issue, differentiate between the hard science and the political science. According to Merriam-Webster online, science is the state of knowing, or general truths, while politics is the art of influencing policy. I think that is an apt description. Along a different line of thinking but with similar connotations, Don Boudreaux has eloquently differentiated between science and economics here and here.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

Holly Fretwell is a Research Fellow at PERC and an adjunct instructor at Montana State University where she has taught  introductory economics, macroeconomics, natural resources and environmental economics. She works with the Foundation for Teaching Economics, giving workshops for  high school teachers to improve their skills in teaching and...
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