What’s the Role of Science for Advocacy?

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Published on November 5th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  


As the “energy sprawl” idea has been discussed and debated in the media, I (one of the paper’s co-authors) have  grown a thick skin against criticism. Perhaps the harshest piece of invective, however, still bothers me: the criticism by Matt Wasson in the Huffington Post.

The factual criticisms Matt makes aren’t that troublesome to me, and I can understand his perspective as someone who works to minimize the impact of coal mining on the environment. Matt makes the point that an acre of coal mining is not necessarily the same biodiversity impact as an acre with wind turbines, a point we totally agree with (that’s why we made it in the original paper!). And of course our one measure of land-use can’t capture all of the myriad ways energy production affects the environment; it was never meant to.

What bothers me is the accusation that my scientific paper is “poisoning” the public debate about climate change and energy policy. Indeed, Matt advocates “burning” his post (and perhaps my paper), as if retaining memory of energy sprawl issues was morally corrupting. What does this say about the way we today regard the meaning and responsibility of science to advocacy…and the fragility of public discourse?

I suspect similar criticism will be made of the recent paper by Searchinger and others in Science, which makes the point (intellectually related to the energy sprawl issue) that if land-use change for energy production is not accounted for in climate change policy, extra carbon could be released. From a certain perspective, Searchinger’s article is inconvenient for environmental NGOs just as much as my paper is…if not more so.

But what an anemic view of democracy! As if a scientific paper which complicates the advocacy position of environmentalists is somehow morally equivalent to the myth of death panels hidden in the health care bill! Matt’s title reflects a misunderstanding of science’s relationship to the environmental movement. It is not the job of scientists to produce papers that reinforce a preconceived advocacy position. Rather, it is the job of scientists to lay the facts on the table, so those facts can inform advocacy.

To be sure, any one scientific paper can be interpreted different ways be different actors. Different environmental NGOs may have different positions on what Searchinger’s article means for their advocacy on energy policy, for example, but they can still acknowledge that there is a scientific issue there to consider.

And what an anemic view of the media! As if the political discussion about climate change is so fragile that our messaging must be simple and without nuance! I think this is a very TV-era mentality, where infrequent, carefully-worded press releases could control the public debate. While some of that phenomenon still exists, in a world where thousands of scientists and tens of thousands of activists and lobbyists work on climate change issues, it strikes me as a bit naïve.

I would rather make sure that the scientific facts are out there, and then trust in the marketplace of ideas to sort out over the long term what is important and what is not.

(Image credit: the_russians_are_here/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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Comments: What’s the Role of Science for Advocacy?

  •  Comment from Melissa Dresler

    Wow, I think that the discourse is welcome in all directions, but he (and others and all of us) need to argue with the facts – no name calling, no rhetoric. Rising to this kind of rhetoric (poison, burning) is, I think, due to weakness, an inability to develop concrete arguments or to cite statistics, studies, etc..

  •  Comment from Dennis Schneider

    The basic premise that a vigorous debate is necessary fueled by the “facts on the table” is a very good one. The critical issue for scientists remains “What are the facts?” and that, I think has been polluted by the excessive amount of grantsmanship that pervades the scientific community. Somewhere in the lust for grant money, the facts can get lost. The risk to the science community is large. Just suppose (and I am not saying this is true) but just suppose the entire global warming scenario is wrong. That in 10 years, the Earth cools off and a New Ice Age starts. The damage to science will be irrevocable. The public will have no more trust in climate scientists than they have in flat earthers. This I think is the real issue that the scientific community needs to be concerned about.

  •  Comment from Matt Wasson


    I appreciate your addressing this issue and want to first say that I’m sorry my criticisms came off as harsh – on re-reading the post it is pretty harsh, despite the attempts toward the end to soften it. But I assure you that I in no way meant to imply that scientific debate should be restricted or that your paper should be “burned.” Neither do I think landuse patterns are irrelevant to the debate on climate.

    The point I was making was that the original paper did not accurately portray either the impacts of coal power or wind power and that the assumptions that went into it led to an enormously distorted picture of those relative impacts. While it wasn’t possible to present all the wonky analysis in a Huffington Post piece, I re-analyzed almost every detail of your data and am certain that the analysis would have been turned on it’s head, had you used more justifiable numbers. That, of course, is leaving liquid fuels aside – but everyone already knows those impacts are enormous and unsustainable and those alone would have generated little interest.

    For wind, the literature you cited indicated that turbines disturb between 2 and 5 acres directly, which would have been the appropriate number to use if you weren’t considering the effects of fragmentation and avoidance behaviors from coal and uranium mines. On the other hand, if you were considering secondary impacts then that standard should have been applied consistently (instead of only for renewables). Moreover, the NRC study you cited in regard to such impacts for wind turbines would indicate that avoidance impacts were in the range of a 100-200m radius around turbines. If you assume the average turbine is 2MW, that would imply an avoidance area between 4 and 16 acres, rather than 50-60.

    If you had used the studies indicating that the impact of strip mining on interior forests in Appalachia was 2-5 times greater than the loss of forest area alone, you would have found that coal’s footprint is greater than that of wind and solar.

    Given the widespread coverage of the study, which largely focused on these relative impacts, I felt – and still do – that the concept of energy sprawl has been distorted to the extent that it only harms the debate. My point was that climate advocates would do best to stop using the term, as it would only reinforce the distorted picture of the relative impacts of wind and solar vs coal and nuclear. Those distortions do an enormous disservice to the people I work with whose lives and communities have been devastated by mountaintop removal coal mining. They are working hard to build a vision for a new economy in their communities that, for 100 years, have seen almost no opportunity outside of coal.

    But I closed with “burn this blog post after reading” to add dramatic effect to that point, not to imply that the original paper should be burned. I hope that you and others will continue to work to advance our scientific understanding of the impacts of our land-use decisions, but do so in a way that is far more careful in choosing the assumptions that go into your analysis. There is a lot at stake right now for our energy future and any studies like this are going to come under intense scrutiny from people like myself.

    Matt Wasson

  •  Comment from Matt Wasson

    As to the other criticisms of my view of science, democracy and media – I think you’d be surprised at how similar our views are on most of those things you mention. And our respective academic backgrounds aren’t all that different either. I have a very strong understanding and respect for the role of science in environmentalism, but I don’t think it helps the debate to take a sanctimonious view of scientific literature as unchallengable. I think any fair-minded reader who goes back and looks at my original post would see that my point was not in the least that science should be distorted to support a pre-conceived view; my point was that we shouldn’t be led by bad science.

  •  Comment from Rob McDonald

    Matt, thanks much for the thoughtful comment. I appreciate very much the work that Appalachian Voices, and I agree with your last point- I suspect if we sat down and talked about issues of science and advocacy in the environmental movement we’d have a lot in common.

    As far as the issue of counting the direct footprint of wind (the 2-5% number you mentioned) versus the fragmentation effect (the larger numbers mentioned in the paper), I get your point. The number we give in the paper is essentially the number of acres that wind companies will need to get leases on to put turbines up. It certainly is not all lost as habitat for most species, but for a few sensitive species it is effectively no longer habitat. We could have done the calculations without the fragmentation effect, but then for fairness I would’ve also not included the fragmentation effect for geothermal, oil, and natural gas extraction. That would’ve made their footprint (and land-use intensity of production) smaller as well.

    In the same way, I think your point that we didn’t look at the spatial effects of coal mining on riverine systems (sometimes far from the point of mining) is a good one. We also didn’t include oil spills, nuclear power meltdowns, etc. I couldn’t find a tractable and realistic way to estimate those effects consistently.

    Actually, one calculation I would like to do (which the media has asked me about) is the equivalent historical number- that is, how much total land in the U.S. has been affected by energy production? It’s much harder to estimate this, because of the complexities of bad historical data, site reclamation, etc. Still, it’d be fun to do. And I think with a historical lens coal would probably have the biggest total impact to date. Happy to work on that with you at some future point.


  •  Comment from Matt Wasson

    Thanks for your response, Rob – and for taking a very productive perspective in looking forward as well.

    I very much like your idea of looking at historic data on energy impacts , and I think it would go a long way toward fleshing out the whole picture. After reading your paper, I sat down for most of a day and compared lifetime production to lifetime permitted area for a bunch of mines all across Appalachia as well as Indiana and Montana. Those data were pretty iffy in the paper, though I trace problems with mine impact numbers back to Keolian’s paper which you cited and not yours. But it would be a real service to the debate to get better numbers out there. And I understand well that it was nearly impossible to track down landuse impact numbers for mines – best I can tell, good published numbers don’t exist. I’m open to any ideas on how to get better data out there.

    If the debate weren’t so immediately important to the climate bill, I think I’d have been more intent on improving the science rather than trashing it. But in the future, I hope our efforts will be more in a collaborative vein than a conflictual one. As the one who initiated the hostile tone, I apologize and take responsibility for that.

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