Has Salmon Science Become a Cargo Cult? An Address to the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society

News from the Front #81
by James Buchal

2/16/05


In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land. - Richard P. Feynman, Commencement Address at Caltech (1974)

My remarks today grow out of an invitation to discuss what would be necessary to sustain wild salmon in the next hundred years. On that time scale, small effects can become very big effects. One hundred years ago, the Pacific Northwest operated under a "laissez-faire" philosophy pursuant to which whoever got there first could exploit a natural resource until it was exhausted and then move on. Also 100 years ago, the conservation ethic was emerging, with scientists pointing out that renewable resources could provide more benefits to society if they were managed in a sustainable way. Conservation, back then, was defined as the "wise use of natural resources", in the famous words of Gifford Pinchot.

And also over the last 100 years, something has changed about science. My thesis is that what has changed, and what has made it change, is more important for the future of wild salmon than anything else, because it is more important to the future of the Pacific Northwest than anything else. What has changed about science is hard very hard to describe, but it is more important than anything else about science. You could call it a kind of loss of integrity. You could call it a kind of loss of open-mindedness. Maybe the best way to explain it is to give some examples of what it is not.

In 1994, during the dispute as to whether it made sense to relax total dissolved gas standards at the dams on the Columbia River, so as to spill more water over the top, someone decided to put a net pen of smolts below a dam. And they all died. Now the scientific response would be to measure the deaths, and then maybe put some more pens in, maybe a little deeper, so that we could assess whether the greater pressure at greater depths prevented the deaths, and try to get a picture of how what we were doing affected the population as a whole. But instead, they took the net pens out, and declared that no useful information came from them. And I remember that Steve Cramer put out some fairly sophisticated work showing survival drops during the spill spikes, but it was simply ignored.

And for the last thirty years, scientists have been investigating what environmental variables affect smolt survival during the downstream migration. There are a lot of variables, such as flow, and temperature, and turbidity, and velocity, and water quality, and they are all highly correlated, which makes the statistical job complicated. Eventually, they marked enough fish to be able to draw some conclusions, and lo and behold, it turns out temperature and distance traveled are the real variables of importance, not flow. (Distance traveled being a proxy for exposure to predators.) But we still have paper after paper come out about the importance of flow, and they simply ignore temperature and distance traveled. In a way, flow science has simply died, and is in an endless loop. It looks like real science, but it is cargo cult science.

Extinction risk is another area where more than a decade ago, researchers developed sophisticated metapopulation models, which put in model form reveal the simple truth that because most races of salmon have lots of breeding populations, and stray a lot, it is almost impossible to wipe them out. But we still see simple population models, or simple trend models, invoked to evaluate extinction risk. Or if we see metapopulation models, they are crippled to remove the effect of straying.

One fundamental aspect of science is that until we measure something, we don't really know much about it. But we see a devolution in extinction science where quantification is replaced by adjectives, or the consensus opinion of "biological review teams". A few years ago, I tried to hire a quantitative conservation biologist to testify about extinction risk, and he told me it was too political; it would harm his career to do so.

Carrying capacity is another problem area. Here in Oregon, Upper Klamath Lake has been a shallow lake with poor water quality for as long as anyone has looked at it, back to the time of the first explorers who couldnít even water their horses from it. And as long as we have been looking, there have been algae blooms and fish kills. So now we have enormous efforts to recover species, listed as endangered, like at least one of the Klamath Basin suckers, which are actually at the carrying capacity of the Lake (and spread all over the Basin in other bodies of water), even though these suckers haven't been in any danger of extinction since we stopped the fisheries back in 1988 that were destroying them.

I could go on and on and give other examples, but the interesting question is why is this happening, and what does it portend? And I donít mean to pick on biologists. For we now have great schools of education science, yet the math and reading scores steadily decline. And we have great schools of social sciences, whose graduates go out to fight crime and poverty, but crime and poverty do not decrease. And we have great schools of economics, yet we see Congress running up the greatest debt in history, which will inevitably produce calamity as the debt must be resolved.

Conservation biology itself gives us the clue as to what the problem is here. We have a human ecosystem that is afflicted with an unstable monoculture: ever more centralized government. Now I know that in some circles, the unstable monoculture is regarded as a mere hypothesis, because of the counterexamples, like endolithics, and inhabitants of sulfur springs, where growth is limited by extreme environmental conditions. But for the ecosystem of the relationship between the government and its taxpayer constituents, it seems as if all of the conditions for instability are established.

Certainly democracy is no check. As Alexander Tyler remarked back in the late 1700s, "democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most money from the public treasury, which the result that democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, and is followed by a dictatorship". For those of you who think that these governance concerns are far-fetched, or abstract, another one of Tyler's observations was that the average civilization lasts 200 years, so we are already overdue for some of the problems I am talking about.

What we see happening in the science of biology, and the other sciences as well, is that the centralization of authority and funding for science has produced science that serves the interest of the centralized authority. And like all the other unstable monocultures, that interest is growth of the monoculture population. And thus we see virtually unlimited funding for science that serves this growth, like science purporting to relate river flows to salmon survival, and virtually no funding for science that does not serve the growth of the organism, like the science of carrying capacity and compensatory mortality.

One more example: at one time, the interest of the organism was to run salmon hatcheries. But eventually, salmon hatcheries became an obstacle to broader ambitions of the monoculture for greater control, because hatcheries took away political pressure for greater control of land and water. So the funding shifted to science against hatcheries, and now we see paper after paper where someone takes an out-of-watershed stock, compares it to the wild runs in the watershed and says look, hatcheries don't work.

And the power of the monoculture is such that even when a distinguished scientist, like the late Dr. Jim Lannan, tried to get a paper published that pointed out the value of the hatcheries in sustaining wild production, he could not even get the paper published, because it was contrary to the interests of the organism. Roughly speaking, Dr. Lannan found the strongest wild coho runs in the dark years were those runs most influenced by hatcheries.

The sad fact is that science itself, and truth itself, have been subordinated to the imperatives of the monoculture. Orwell wrote of the "memory hole", where the dutiful State employees would deposit inconvenient bits of history that no longer served the monoculture. We have science all over the Northwest that is going into the "memory hole". For example, we have all heard over and over that salmon need high quality water, but a few years ago, Dr. William McNeil analyzed the data from the PATH process, and found that the most productive wild runs were not in the areas of highest water quality, but in lower water quality areas. That went right into the "memory hole".

As the monoculture presses upon biologists to declare "significant" effects of less and less real significance to salmon (while ignoring the most significant effects), we are actually losing knowledge and understanding of how to manage salmon earned the hard way, by measuring things. We now identify or at least theorize about broader and broader potential effects, and build immense computer models based on a priori guesses about their interactions, producing pseudo-quantitative nonsense, like "ecosystem diagnosis and treatment". And we are slowly replacing evidence-based science with a philosophy that we should not try to manage natural resources at all, and we see the result down in Southern Oregon with vast productive forests now burned out wastelands.

So my message is that if biologists really want to promote wild salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest, they need to stick to the truth, and focus science on measuring and addressing what really matters. And biologists need to have faith that local people do want to see fish in the rivers, and will listen to the truth, and will support things that really do put more fish in the rivers

Biologists need to recognize that public support for ecosystem restoration is a function of prosperity. People who are hungry care about where their next meal is coming from, not the fate of wild salmon. Even here in America, we see that uncertainty about the economy pushes the environment way down the ladder in public perception of important problems to tackle. The ugly truth about the unstable monoculture is that if unchecked, it will destroy prosperity. As as the human ecosystem declines, we can look forward to the sort of environmental disasters that total government control always produces, like in Eastern Europe, or even Zimbabwe.

It is because the harms produced by the monoculture can be so enormous that above all, biologist should not lend their efforts to pushing broader and broader central plans that take the destiny of wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest out of the hands of the people. There is, after all, a different model that does not involve everyone tied to the one great, glorious ecosystem plan. One district biologist, respected by the local population because he or she knows the local river and knows what needs to be done, will do more to sustain wild salmon populations than hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of paper plans prepared hundreds or thousands of miles away. If biologists continue to put their faith in ever-more-centralized control mechanisms, the lesson of history is that that faith will be badly misplaced.

The countervailing thesis to my thesis, of course, is that the ultimate centralized authority, the dictatorship that will emerge if we do not fight for decentralization, will be a "green" one. Maybe some of you look at the ICUN, and place your faith in the U.N., and an evolution toward world government. But I'd remind you that the U.N. is about human rights, and protecting people too, yet the U.N. soldiers shredded their blue berets in protest when they left Rwanda after the U.N. ordered them to stand down and take no action to prevent the massacre. If biologists continue to promote this growing unstable monoculture in our midst because it seems to serve conservation objectives, I think the day will come when they too are tearing their garments in protest.

© James Buchal, February 16, 2005

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