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Interior Secretary Salazar Uses the "S" Word On Second Day at the Office


Interior Secretary Salazar trotted out the "s" word on his second day on the job.

Well, they're tossing the "s" word around at Interior again. You know, the "s" word. "Science." Let's see if they pay closer attention to it than the old administration.

Yes, Ken Salazar, fresh out of the U.S. Senate and during his second day as Interior secretary for the Obama administration, pledged that science would drive decisions.

“I pledge to you that we will ensure the Interior Department’s decisions are based on sound science and the public interest, and not on the special interests," Secretary Salazar told Interior employees on Thursday.

Let's hope Interior holds to that pledge. After all, it was one of the things the Traveler wanted to see from the National Park Service in 2009.

But it seems we've heard that pledge before, haven't we?

Do you remember?

Back when former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne wrote his cover letter to President Bush on the National Park Service's Centennial Initiative he promised that stewardship and science would guide decisions. And former NPS Director Bomar reiterated that during an interview with the Traveler in October 2007 at the National Park Foundation's Leadership Summit on Partnership and Philanthropy.

"When I came into the National Park Service, I didn't realize the in-depth that the good stewards in the national parks went to. Often, we'd be accused of studying things to death. If you didn't like the answer we'll do another study," she said at the time. "But I will say over time that I've come to really appreciate that, that we make good decisions based on good information."

The talk was good, but the science was ignored when it came time to rule on how many snowmobiles could be allowed in Yellowstone National Park.

Now, to be fair to Director Bomar, her predecessor, Fran Mainella, told the Traveler that her hands were tied by higher-ups in Interior when it came to snowmobiling in Yellowstone, so we assume the same hand was played when the most-recent snowmobile decision came out.

Which brings us back to Secretary Salazar's proclamation. Let's hope it holds water.


I wish people were careful about this when they would give hegemony to science without a clear understanding of what science does and doesn't do. Science does not settle value decisions, which must be at the root of any policy decision. It isn't something that takes the place of values or is itself a higher value.

What we should ask is that people make decisions based on values (and those need to be discussed and settled as well - and they can be unless we are moral relativists) that are consistent with the science. And, not doing so of course, is just one of the sins of the Bush Administration. They would make policy decisions based on values they held that were absolutely incoherent, not only at the values level but when you compare those values with science.

However, I'm wary of anyone who thinks that policy can simply be a matter of letting science hold sway. You cannot reduce policy to science, and we should be careful about saying it. Western land issues, for instance, are rarely about science, but science is used by both sides to create a smokescreen over deep value and cultural divides. Since people have very little confidence in arguing over values in any meaningful way, they find more comfortable grounds on which to argue - science is a popular and easy catch-all solution for everything (the serious dialogue on values perhaps hurt by centuries of undermining rationalism in ethics by the intellectuals in Academia - an interesting story in itself putting an anarcho-lefty like me in league with right-leaning Catholic types; I did nearly complete a Ph.D. at Catholic U. after all).

In truth, I think this is all just code from Salazar that there will be policy changes; how far those changes go is anyone's guess.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

The problem with making decisions based on values is that everyone's values are different. My values may be different than yours, and both of our values are no doubt different from former (don't ya love it!) President Bush. Science is science. While I would agree that you cannot blindly follow science wherever it leads, decisions clearly based on it are hard to dispute.

Of course you're right, Jim. Science can't be held in a vacuum as a cure-all. And neither can values. The trick is to find a balance.

In the case of Yellowstone snowmobiles, the Bush administration seemed to completely ignore the science and kowtow to a surprisingly small special interest. I think it just as easily, and no doubt more legitimately, have held that the science and public opinion overwhelmingly dictated a phase-out of snowmobiles in favor of snow coaches.

Of course, the wild card in this case is also the blinders to developing science in terms of cleaner and quieter snowmobiles. A few years back a Utah-based company had developed an electric snowmobile that was as powerful as a 2-stroke, and yet no one jumped on it (no pun intended).

And in March this year the 10th Clean Snowmobile Challenge will be held at Michigan Tech. Teams of engineering students from participating schools will be given a stock snowmobile and re-engineer it to reduce emissions and noise while maintaining or improving performance. A record 18 teams have registered, the most since the first Challenge was held, in Wyoming. Thirteen will compete in the internal combustion division, with five in the zero-emissions division, formed in 2006 for electric sleds.

Perhaps it wouldn't hurt to see the snowmobile industry send a rep or two to this event, and have the NPS at least monitor it to see what's possible. When and if an emission-less snowmobile is commercially produced, I'm not sure how effectively folks could argue against the machines in Yellowstone.

Of course another arguement againt snowmobiles in Yellowstone is the problem of bison following groomed roads out of the Park and into trouble in Montana, though I guess the roads have to be groomed for snow coaches as well. Wouldn't it be great if the Obama administration could find solutions for both of these problems? I know that these are minor blips on the Obama radar (if they are blips at all), but sooner or later decisions will have to be made. I feel like a newlywed on his honeymoon. Sure hope I'm not disappointed on my wedding night!

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted" - Albert Einstein,

Science is not the answer to everything...


Your view is essentially moral relativism. Of course, everyone has different values; that doesn't mean that each person's values are coherent. A racist has values; certainly, we need to say those values are wrong. A sexist has values. Are we to say that there are no standards on which values can be evaluated? At the very least, can't values be evaluated based on their internal coherence?

Science also has the ability to be different since it is based ultimately on induction; experiments can be falsified. Two people can see the very same experiment and experience it very differently. To mitigate that, science depends upon repeatability and consensus. And, we are fools to dismiss the strength of that process; however, we have to be careful how science relates to the underlying values. In the 19th century, some scientists made a lot of studies about the biological differences of the races. Those questions produce evidence and results, but what can anyone do with it on the basis of science? Absolutely nothing meaningful because it was based on the premise that there was an a priori evaluative difference between races.

It's all too common to assume that because each of us has values that each of our values is legitimate. (There's also the threat on the other side that some who hold to objective values carry it too far and claim that something is definitely right or wrong when no one can possibly know - assuming no objective values leads to moral relativism; assuming too many leads to moral dogmatism). Values are not the same as preferences of taste. Even the idea that our policy should be consistent with science is based on the value of coherence and consistency. Certainly, that value is true, though there are some who disagree with it; they are wrong.

Almost no decisions are based clearly on science; the science almost always assumes a set of values. In the snowmobile case, the value is that Yellowstone recreation must not harm the environment, wildlife, and features of Yellowstone National Park. To the extent that it does to a particular level where there is too much harm to the one at the expense of the other (also not clearly a scientific assessment), then we will reject it. Science is supposed to tell us what empirical reality meshes with those values. However, not everyone agrees on where the balance is, what constitutes harm, etc. And, then, there was the Bush Administration, who pretended that they shared the same values as articulated here and then ignored what their scientists told them was consistent with those values. That's where letting science hold sway has its place. Yet, even there, you have to ask why the Bush people rejected the science? My sense is that they were politically scared to articulate values that they were afraid the majority of people would reject. They would prefer to support a vision of Yellowstone that was more concerned with recreation than they are with protecting the ecology, but they didn't want to articulate that. If they had, we could have argued about their values. Instead, we have the relatively easy job of blasting them for ignoring the science. But, if we don't call the value bluff as well, we won't really get anywhere.

That goes for bison as well. Everyone knows that brucellosis isn't a significant cost to ranchers or significant threat to the health of cattle. It's easy to let science hold sway, but the problem wouldn't go away because many bison advocates will not be content with bison being allowed to stop at the next boundary outside of Yellowstone. Ranchers won't want them to have even an inch outside of Yellowstone (they are even fighting bison that have been quarantined and with very little doubt don't even have brucellosis going to native reservations). There is a differing set of values on the grass and our relationship with the land. Are both views equally legitimate? I don't think so, and we'd better be able to make that case one way or the other. If we can't, how is science supposed to settle this? All the science does is expose that the issue that people claim is at the center of this is not really at the center of it. Science exposes the smokescreen of a cultural divide.

That's true with snowmobiles as well, though there's a lot more confusion people have over the actual science. My sense, though, is that Bush's sin was double - incoherence with science combined with incoherent values.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

"Wouldn't it be great if the Obama administration could solve world hunger, create world peace, find a cure for the common cold!!" Hail Obama - he has the answer to everything!!! Too bad he appeared out of no where, hasn't released any records and has no history of accomlishments... I really don't get it.

Jim's dead on. Science is not an oracle that can be consulted for the answers to all of life's conundrums. Policy decisions are value decisions, and the Bush administration got to influence those value decisions for eight years because they had been elected. That's how our system works. Now, the Obama administration gets to influence those value decisions, for the same reasons. But because of an idiosyncrasy of public rhetoric, the Obama team will be able to get away with calling their value judgments "scientific."

It does not take much observation to recognize that in the field of public policy, science is a code-word meant to evoke a confident emotional response. "You can't argue with science," they will say. But a true scientist knows that science is argument. If you don't argue (argument meaning a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition--not the automatic gainsaying of anything the other party says), you're not doing science. And even when you've played the argument out and settled on a practical conclusion, scientific conclusions do not automatically become policy prescriptions.

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