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.

I agree that science is not the answer to everything, however when it came to science during the Bush administration his line of thought reminded me of Mary Shelley's book "Frankenstein." Shelley was concerned that medical science had gone to far and doctors were now "playing God." Under the Bush administration scienctific advancement was sacrified because of his religious beliefs. I am glad he is no longer around to get in the way of progress.

Jim, so who decides which values are legitamite? You ask if both sides of an issue are equally legitamite and then answer your own question with, "I don't think so". You naturally believe (as I do) that our values are correct; yet individuals on the other side may be just as convinced that theirs are. Not all "value" issues are as cut and dried as racism, sexism etc. We believe that, as you say, the value is: ".... that Yellowstone recreation must not harm the environment, wildlife, and features of Yellowstone National Park." Others might argue that the value is, "to protect the recreational opportunities within Yellowstone National Park and the livelihoods of those individuals who eek out a living renting snowmobiles, and guiding and catering to winter visitors; while doing a MINIMUM (caps for emphasis) amount of damage." They might even point out, as snowmobile advocates often do to me, that the sign on the arch says, "For the enjoyment and benefit of the people". Or that any damage done (such as air pollution etc.) is only temporary, and does not impair the park for "future generations". Are both sides values legitamite? Very possibly. Isn't this, as you say, "....where letting science hold sway has its place"?
I am simply playing devil's advocate here. I agree that science is not the answer to everything, and that the last thing we want to do is make science god to the exclusion of our core values. But the opposite is also true, because that is exactly what we have been doing for the past eight years. Making decisions in ones personal life based solely on values is one thing. Make public policy that way is another, because the only person's values that count are the person making the decision; as we have seen. Science can be peer reviewed. A person's values, not so much. Especially when that person is in a very powerful position.


I want to spend more time on what you wrote, but I find I am unable to do so tonight. I found out that a friend of mine died tonight back in Washington, DC. This does have an important NPS connection, as he was the founder of an anti-nuclear war vigil in Lafayette Park outside the White House, and was a man under intermittent persecution by the Park Service. I wrote a prose ode to him that I wrote mostly for my friends here in Montana to know how his inspiration has been an influence on my work for buffalo here.

However, the question of ethics, of course, is not a simple one, and I'd like to respond to your points line by line. Right now, I need to cop out and point you to essays I wrote regarding the way we approach ethics in Yellowstone. I wrote a long series of essays on John Locke, property rights, and Yellowstone National Park. Part 4 in particular begins to extrapolate my ethical views, but it's hard to read that as a stand alone. That is here: . That gets us further down the path than I would intend for this discussion. If I find time, I will get more specifically again to what you write here; tonight, my heart is somewhere else.

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

@ Frank:

Maybe we are leaving the focus of this blog now, but the question of right and wrong, of values and rules is of course an old and fundamental one. Much of the history of philosophy is about this question and related ones.

Are you familiar with John Ralws? He proposed a "Gedankenexperiment" to determine values and rules as universally acceptable. In his opinion values and rules should looked at as if they were negotiated between individuals before those individuals can know about their place in the society that will live by those rules. If you don't know whether you will be black or white, man or woman, rich or poor, from a family with established influence or born to recent immigrants, you will negotiate rules that can be considered fair to everyone.

Of course it is just a Gedankenexperiment, but in his most influential book "A Theory of Justice" (1971 and revised by Rawls in 1999) he shows that the core of this idea can be transferred to reality.

Science is like statistics. If you want data to support a decision you can get it. Keep in mind that data on the other side is also readily available. I would hope that the new administration will be ethical and their decisions will be based on values that are at least somewhat in line with my own. Probably won't happen that way. So far I get the impression that decisions will be politically driven and that Obama is going to stand in front of the nation and tell them whatever they want to hear. His political career thus far has been one giant campaign, I hope he can find some time to govern as I worry the campaign for 2012 has already begun.

Did anyone hear Salazars welcome speech to the Department? He made some interesting comments about guns. I also got the impression that the NPS will recieve the curse of mega project money from the new stimulus package. The NPS does not need more "new stuff". It needs the resources to take care of what is already there. We will soon have many hastily prepared "green projects" that the current system can't manage and no capability of maintaining these new green things. Facility Management is a "science"

Wow, what a fascinating discussion!

It seems that what is needed is legislation fixing the "values" of the NPS into law. Perhaps it's there, perhaps it's not, I'm not well versed in NPS laws at all. Is the primary purpose preservation or recreation or raising revenue? Those seem to be the core of most NPS debates, whether snowmobiles or guns or construction or concessions.

I am the first one to say you can't legislate values or morality in the people, but it seems to me you can legislate the values of a unit of the government itself and write rules to support them.

This way, elected officials could (theoretically) debate the values of a department, then vote on the appropriate legislation, and that vote must be continued by all subsequent administrations unless and until elected officials re-visit the issue.

Right now, it seems too easy for the Executive Branch to fiddle around with the NPS (and most other government functions) to suit their own constituencies, values be damned. Of course that speaks to Presidential power grabs over the decades, and all the Congresses that have allowed it to happen ...


My travels through the National Park System:

Science is not about goals, its about cause & effect. I'm a scientist: with adequate data, on a good day I can estimate the probabilities of different outcomes for a given management alternative. I can make inferences about times or places I haven't observed, or about causal mechanisms. But, I don't set values for those possible outcomes, and I don't dictate goals or management actions.

The goals or values for NPS are in law: the 1916 organic act has the famous statement about preserving resources "unimpared for the enjoyment of future generations". {} Beyond that, each NPS unit has a foundation statement that explicitly states the values and purposes of that unit from its authorizing legislation, and the 1988 Redwood National Park Act requires NPS units to be managed to preserve those values, notwithstanding statements in the authorizing legislation allowing hunting, etc.. [So, snowmobiles and jetskis and mountain bikes and low-level overflights are pretty clearly ok in most national recreation areas; not so much in units with wildlife, wilderness, serenity, etc. emphasized in their foundation statements, with a pretty continuous gradation in between.]

The 1998 NP Omnibus management act states "The Secretary shall … assure the full and proper utilization of the results of scientific studies for park management decisions" and calls for "condition-based management". It even requires that the trend in the condition of resources be a significant factor in the annual performance evaluation of each superintendent.

Those parts of the 1998 act haven't been particularly followed the past years: in part due to insufficient data or insufficient science to extract information from the available data; in some cases due to political decisions trumping solid data and science.

From the inside, it appears that Salazar means what he says about science, but the key part of the quote above is public interest instead of special interest.