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Science, Scientists and Salmon Farming

by Ray Grigg, July 10, 2009

Truth is elusive. And, despite the common understanding that science has answers leading to certainties, scientists themselves are far more cautious about making these claims. Few speak more eloquently and intelligently on the capabilities of science than John Polanyi, a Nobel Laureate in chemistry from Canada's University of Toronto.

"There is a caricature of science as being composed of a catalogue of facts," says Polanyi in a speech at a May 21st symposium on global sustainability (Globe & Mail, May 26/09). But this is not the case in science. "We advance propositions," he says, that are then "tested in cross-examination before a jury of our peers. Truths established in this fashion can subsequently be overthrown by a higher court. Indeed, on examination, the new laws of science often turn out to be approximations."

"The power of science," he goes on to say, "comes from debate -- that science is grounded in democracy." Both the "laws of nature" and the "laws governing scientists...derive their force from consultation in the community." It is this marshalling of reason in such a "civilized way" that makes science "our greatest hope" for the future. Indeed, in Polanyi's opinion, we risk hostility and ruin if we do not learn to incorporate science's principles of reason and democracy into the management of our society.

The democracy of science, however, was not available in the days of Copernicus and Galileo. But their reasoned and principled pursuit of truth in the 16th century eventually revolutionized our understanding, even our "fundamental beliefs". Despite several such revolutions -- germs, atoms, evolution, relativity and DNA, for example -- "our community has emerged intact and strengthened," contends Polanyi. This is primarily because the democracy of science has been infused into the democracy of politics. "At one time," he says, "it would have been thought mistaken to suggest that scientists meddle in politics. Today, it would be shameful to deny that they have this responsibility."

This responsibility likely accounts for the full page advertisement published in the Campbell River Courier-Islander (June 19/09) and its accompanying letter signed by 19 of the world's foremost marine scientists. "Ask yourself one question," the preamble begins. "Why would 19 scientists write the following letter to both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and BC Premier Gordon Campbell?" Because these scientists are concerned about the deleterious spread of sea lice from open net-pen salmon farms to wild stocks. They feel the ethical obligation to bring the democracy of their tradition into the public arena and register their expression of concern.

In defence of open net-pen salmon farms and their culpability in spreading sea lice to wild salmon, Mary Ellen Walling, the Executive Director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, has written that "true scientists know how difficult it is to truly prove anything" (Ibid., June 3/09). "Most of their work," she goes on to note, "considers cause and effect and it often requires years of work to establish a link between the two. Most serious scientists are very cautious about claiming to have conclusively proven something: their training and research tells them how difficult it is to declare something definitively."

Her comments closely parallel those of John Polanyi. And they seem to be technically correct. Except, as a spokesperson for an industry with a vested financial interest in the continued operation and expansion of salmon farming, she overlooks the democracy of science. Like the Church in the days of Copernicus and Galileo, her industry wants to avoid any revolution in thought and belief. Just as the Church served the autocracy of dogma, business serves the autocracy of profit. While doubt is the hallmark of all science, doubt alone cannot be the sole measure of truth. Every decent scientist will acknowledge that not even the best of science can "declare something definitively". Facts do not exist. But data does. And, as Polanyi says, so do "propositions" and "approximations".

In the democracy of science, the evidence is now overwhelming that sea lice spread from salmon farms to wild fish and do significant damage to these indigenous stocks. This is now evident along BC's coast, and in Northern European waters where the long-term impact of the damage is even more tested and conspicuous. Yes, the details are still subject to debate. They always will be. And not even the best of science will be able to predict that an individual louse will infect an individual migrating smolt. But, to use doubt as a defence for open net-pen salmon farming is a misrepresentation of the scientific process, an abuse of a principled, disciplined, civilized and credible system that the industry uses in the service of self-interested gain.

The preponderance of scientific evidence in this debate about sea lice has now reached the point that continued doubt about their deleterious ecological effect on wild salmon has become the conspicuous strategy of the contrarian. Science has drawn its conclusions with a reasonable level of certainty.

Beyond this point, doubt is the refuge of deniers with motives that can only be construed as suspect and disingenuous. For confirmation, just ask John Polanyi or any of his reputable colleagues.

Related Pages:
Salmon Salvation by Ken Olsen, High Country News, May 4, 2009

Ray Grigg, Courier-Island
Science, Scientists and Salmon Farming, July 10, 2009

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