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Commentaries and Hasso Hering, Editorials

Keep Science in its Place

by Hasso Hering, Editor
Albany Democrat-Herald, August 2, 2007

In Washington, Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee this week examined whether the Bush administration - namely Vice President Cheney - had exerted undue political influence in the dispute over Klamath Basin water in 2001. The answer is that if political influence was not used, it certainly should have been.

Science can never be allowed to substitute for political decision making. If it ever is, we might as well call off any further elections and turn every national question over to the people running the National Academy of Sciences.

In 2001 federal agencies cut off irrigation water to the farming economy of the Klamath Basin. The farmers complained bitterly that they were losing their farms. They didn't complain to the agency scientists; they complained to the people in elected federal offices. In 2002 the farmers were allocated more water, and there are continuing discussions among various interests on how to resolve the situation in the long run.

That's the way our system is supposed to work.

But some of our laws are not written that way. They require certain actions - such as listing a species as threatened, for example - in response to what the data show, not what the people want.

But voters still expect their elected officials to look out for them. An official can't afford to say: "I'd like to help and I think you should have help, but the scientists tell me I should let you starve, so don't bother me anymore."

The trouble lies in our laws, not in what elected leaders do in response to what they see as a public need. If the public doesn't agree with what officials do, they can un-elect them. But there is no way - and should not be - to vote on science.

The data show what they show, and unless they are manipulated, they should be taken as fact. But that doesn't mean that politicians should have to do what the data show.

Do not wish for a country in which science rules without a political process that can act regardless of what the data show. In such a tyranny, science might say that the country can sustain 150 million people but not 300 million, and 150 million of us would have to go.

Hasso Hering, Editor
Keep Science in its Place
Albany Democrat-Herald, August 2, 2007

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