Normative Science

Too often, however, scientific information presented to the public and decision-makers is infused with hidden policy preferences. Such science is termed normative, and it is a corruption of the practice of good science.

January 23, 2013

Robert T. Lackey retired in 2008 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Corvallis national research laboratory where he worked for 27 years as a senior scientist and deputy director. (Photo: Jeff Basinger)

By Robert Lackey

Scientific information is important in many policy debates in the Pacific Northwest (salmon; wildfire severity; human activities and climate; genetically modified organisms; water scarcity). Science is essential in such policy debates, but I am concerned that policy-biased science is increasingly common.

Science should be objective and based on the best information available. Too often, however, scientific information presented to the public and decision-makers is infused with hidden policy preferences. Such science is termed normative, and it is a corruption of the practice of good science. Normative science is defined as “information that is developed, presented or interpreted based on an assumed, usually unstated, preference for a particular policy choice.”

Using normative science in policy deliberations is stealth advocacy. I use “stealth” because the average person reading or listening to such scientific statements is likely to be unaware of the underlying advocacy. Normative science is a corruption of science and should not be tolerated in the scientific community — without exception.

Let me illustrate with a current policy issue: “Should certain dams be removed to restore salmon runs?” Scientists can assess with some degree of confidence the likely effects of removing or maintaining a particular dam. Scientific information alone, however, is an insufficient justification for deciding to keep or remove a dam. There are biological consequences of dam removal (and maintenance), and those consequences may be substantial from a salmon perspective, but ecological consequences are but one of many elements that the public and decision-makers must weigh when making a policy choice.

Policymakers, not scientists, decide whether preserving salmon runs should trump flood protection, irrigated agriculture or electricity generation. As the public and decision-makers balance policy alternatives, what they need from scientists are facts and probabilities. What they do not need from scientists are their or their employer’s values and policy preferences masked within scientific information disguised as being policy neutral.

There are other common examples. In working with scientists, I often encounter value-laden terms like “degradation,” “improvement,” “good,” “poor,” “impact,” or “alien invasive.” Scientists should avoid these types of normative words in conveying scientific information. Such words imply a preferred ecological state, a desired condition, an accepted benchmark or a favored class of policy options. This is not science; it is a form of policy advocacy — subtle, sometimes unintentional, but it is patently stealth policy advocacy.

Consider the widespread use of concepts such as “ecosystem health.” It is normative science! “Ecosystem health” is a value-driven policy construct, but it is often passed off as science to unsuspecting policy-makers and the public. Think what the average person actually hears when scientific data or assessments are packaged or presented under the rubric of “ecosystem health.” Healthy is good. Any other state of the ecosystem must be unhealthy, hence, undesirable.

Scientific information must remain a cornerstone of public policy decisions, but I offer cautionary guidance to scientists: Get involved in policy deliberations, but play the appropriate role. Provide facts, probabilities and analysis, but avoid normative science. Scientists have much to offer the public and decision-makers but also have much to lose when they practice stealth policy advocacy.


CATEGORIES: Departments Perspectives Utility Categories Terra Blog Print Issues Winter 2013

46 thoughts on “Normative Science

  1. In my view, Bob Lackey is one of the most thoughtful scientists publishing today, and I deeply appreciate his willingness to engage in challenging issues surrounding integrating law, policy, and science.

    I think Bob makes many valuable points in this essay, and I generally agree that scientists should — unless making it clear that they’re stepping outside the realm of science — generally stick to providing objective assessments. However, at times this essay paints with a bit of a broad brush. In my view, a scientist can appropriately say (assuming she reaches such a conclusion based on evidence and expertise) that a specific proposal would degrade habitat conditions for salmon. For example, a huge clearcut above a salmon stream would likely degrade conditions in that stream needed to support salmon spawning and rearing. I don’t think this characterization of a project’s effects sends a stealth message; rather, such a project would in fact make conditions worse for fish, i.e. degrade fish habitat. To me, that’s telling it like it is on an objective basis, and quite different from the questions of whether society wishes to go forward with the project regardless of its impacts on salmon.

    On the other hand, I agree that “health” may (at least to many people) convey an implicit value judgment. Therefore, I try to use, for example, ecosystem “function” rather than health when characterizing an ecosystem’s state.

    1. I love this dialogue. I see exactly what you describe – normative science – every day. I see it in meetings and public processes related to issues such as the marine reserves debate, the Territorial Sea Plan amendment and wave energy siting, and in fisheries management processes. I appreciate one of the posts that said something along the lines of “can a ‘scientist’ have a citizen hat or wear a policy maker hat? I suppose scientists must be clear which hat they are wearing when transmitting.” That is exactly correct in my opinion. As scientists and educators, we have to be cognizant of what hat we are wearing all the time, and we have to have on the correct hat at the right time and with the right people. Most scientists I know have biases and personal opinions – I certainly do – but it’s just best to know when, where, and how to share them. Sharing them in the profession realm is not the place. Being aware of this is the challenge. It’s just like Bob said, it is stealth…just like early addiction…and the first step is recognizing that you have something to deal with. So, I’ve put a lot of energy into being able to see what hat I should be wearing and when. Lastly, I know that Bob’s work on this is having an impact on the students. Several of them who have heard Bob speak or who have taken his classes bring this up in my class now. Makes one think that in some years from now, there will be scientists who have “grown up” knowing about this and take it to heart in their daily work. Keep it going, Bob!

  2. This article really resonated with me. I deal with questions like this every day as an attorney practicing natural resources and environmental law, who went to law school after a 25-year career as a research fisheries biologist. Throughout both careers this issue has been a continuous concern.

    Lawyers refer to “combat science” and “dueling experts.” The most obvious context is litigation, but I also routinely see scientists employed or funded by public research or resource management institutions who are clearly working to advance an agenda. Sometimes it’s their institution’s or sponsor’s agenda, but all too often it’s a personal or ideological one that may even run counter to the institution’s publicly-stated policies and goals.

    In my experience, including my time as a biologist working for governmental and university research organizations, “normative science” as the author describes it is the rule rather than the exception. I’m sorry, but having a point of view is an unavoidable attribute of human nature. I agree that scientists should strive for pure objectivity, but it’s unrealistic to expect them to achieve it. This is especially true when scientists’ work is intended to guide and support policy or resource management decisions, whether they’re getting their paycheck directly from an agency or from a university. When advising policy makers or the public I feel that it is better for such scientists to do their best to make the kinds of objective assessments that the author calls for, but then to explicitly point out where their assessments rely on assumptions or inferences rather than data, explain what those assumptions and inferences are and how they might influence the analysis and outcomes, and acknowledge their own predispositions and explain how their assumptions and inferences might align with their predispositions. After all, the scientist’s own point of view is an important piece of metadata that needs to be present in a comprehensive analysis.

    If pure objectivity is unattainable then transparency is a possible, partial cure. You can be assured that folks with a different view on a policy issue will presume a lack of objectivity, so you might as well be up front about where and how an agenda might influence the results – this will strengthen credibility and facilitate a better evaluation of what the results really mean for the policy issue. It’s better to disclose the potential defects in your analysis than to have someone discover them, or to supply their own presumptions of biases or defects that are not there. This is the approach I prefer to take when I represent a client where there is a technical question, and it seems to produce better outcomes.

    The downside is that the parties on all sides of a policy issue have to play by the same rule – unilateral transparency can be exploited by the unscrupulous if the decision-maker is not sophisticated enough to recognize what is going on. But that’s one of the jobs of an advocate – to educate the decision-maker if necessary so the decisions are made on the correct basis.

    1. “After all, the scientist’s own point of view is an important piece of metadata that needs to be present in a comprehensive analysis.”

      But why should scientists have an obligation to do this when no other segment of society does? I’ve never heard an industry representative say, “Of course, my job is dependent on convincing you that this project won’t have any detrimental environmental effects.” I’ve never heard an economist say, “But remember that the world view of my chosen discipline, which I’ve been professionally and socially emersed in for decades, believes that resources are infinite.”

      Why should scientists who study the natural world in one way or another have this special obligation?

  3. It is important to be aware of stealth advocacy in science, to the extent it impacts misinterpreting evidence. However, we have reached a critical time in human history, and there is a need to fight fire with fire, as James Hansen has so brilliantly done.

    Overall, I don’t believe in the Castalian utopia that scientists, including University scientists, are truly value neutral. It’s fundamentally impossible to fully separate ones values from the types of activities and interests one engages in. It’s a point one often must agree to disagree over, but it is my view that those who say the opposite are “acting”. University scientists of the highest order receive funding from somewhere, and there are many forces acting upon these academics as there are on those working in other arenas. Inevitably, values will be expressed in terms of what people *choose to work on*. That doesn’t automatically mean that rigorous scientific principles and evidence are not sound.

    The real problem is how political the legal process is, and how easily judges and courts (not to mention our elected representatives) can be manipulated. The legal setting itself is merely the expression of political appointment of judges who themselves have values and preferences that they are called upon to suppress in favour of the rule of law, which so often, they do not. What I’m saying is that the whole notion of perfect neutrality is itself utopian. People are not automatons, with robotic rules they follow. There’s too much wet-ware, emotions any style stuff going on. Science provides a nice clean rule-set to follow in the spirit of finding truth, but ultimately scientific data gets interpreted and disseminated. Scientists must play an important role in this dissemination.

    The AFS talk and transcript Dr. Lackey produced in 2011 includes a line that goes to the spirit of what I was getting at: “I also do not hold with the notion that it is sufficient for fisheries scientists to publish their findings in scholarly papers, papers that only a few technical experts will ever read.” The general public, voters, who influence who gets to be a ‘policy maker’, even if you sent them all free hard-copies of the best neutral science, wouldn’t understand it. Wouldn’t absorb it. Wouldn’t apply it in their democratic decision-making. When I use the word “advocacy”, I’m talking about being Paul Hawken-like in getting out boiled down scientific facts about the (neutral, evidence-based) consequences of our actions on certain portfolios of considerations, namely, the environment/biosphere. Making the connection between the state of the environment 10, 20 and 50 years from now, and what it means for people’s children and grandchildren, in blunt, in your face, hairy, black and white, (science-based) realism kind of way. People can still choose urban sprawl, alfalfa fields and artificially watered ski resorts if they want to, and I would argue, will be more inclined to if scientists stay hidden in journal papers and other Magister Ludi like environs, afraid that someone might accuse them of “advocating”.

    I would like to see Bob spend some additional time expanding on the means through which scientists express their (evidence based peer reviewed science) findings, beyond journal papers and scientific conferences, and the occasional news interview, which he admits are insufficient.

  4. Cheers to Bob Lackey for illuminating the fallacy of normative science. It permeates the vocabulary of science and goes to the very core beliefs of ecology and conservation biology. For example, the idea of “ecosystem restoration of the San Francisco Bay Delta habitat” is a stealth normative concept. What is the target period,1948 when the rivers were filled with gold mining sediment, or a time earlier when the delta was a series of lakes? Lauren Sommer in a recent NPR article asks this question .

    In a recent National Research Council committee we debated the idea of restoration. Ecosystems cannot be restored. They are in constant evolution and the best that can be done is to anticipate the possible directions and steer the systems to one determined to be more favorable to society. In the very near future, the focus in many instances will not be on restoration but on adaptive triage. In fact, I suspect for the shores of New Jersey and Long Island that future is now.

  5. Dan Rohlf

    If understood in a technical sense, the word degrade is acceptable. The problem is that as Merriam-Webster reports in its second definition, degrade can also mean

    a : to bring to low esteem or into disrepute
    b : to drag down in moral or intellectual character

    Thus, the word ‘degrade’ can be used to smuggle in moral judgements where they don’t belong. In a room full of fresh water ecosystem biologists, that may not be a problem. When moving from science to public policy, it certainly could.

    When roads are filled with cracks and potholes, the word degraded is not often used to described them. And when your car gets old and you need a new one, who thinks of the term ‘degraded?’ Degradation is a pejorative term. It was once commonly used for prostitutes and alcoholics. I have to agree with the writer that the claim that ‘degrade’ is not value laden is just a way of retaining the ability to put one’s thumb on the public policy scale.

  6. Bob Lackey raises a wonderful wall of opinion against which contrary opinions may be pitched. I will admit discomfort with his absolutist stance though there are good points within.

    Some fields such as the hard sciences of physics, math and even microbiology are not plagued by the same value judgements as social, political and natural resource topics. I do consider social scientists, policy sciences, political science and natural resource sciences to fall under the umbrella of fields that use the scientific method and as inherently scientific. There are value judgements made in all fields, whether it is in setting the alpha level for a statistical test or the framing of an experimental design. To suggest otherwise is myopic. These kinds of decisions are where the “personality” or “culture” of science intrudes and offends the black and white thinker.

    I believe there are right and wrong ways to introduce value judgements into resource debates. My co-authors and I outlined in a recent refereed journal article (Foote, L, N. Krogman and J. Spence. 2009. Should academics advocate on environmental issues? Society and Natural Resources 22(6):579-589). We held that scientists should be encouraged to speak out and give their considered professional opinion. This will help select the most compelling, accurate and truthful proposition as selected from the suite of competing propositions. Clearly it is important that we say why we have made any particular selection and that we recognize and acknowlege contrary opinions. We do this with full knowledge that policy makers, politicians, purse string holders may select otherwise and reverse the actions to support or reject the scientific recommendation.

    In a sense, Bob Lackey and I climb down different sides of the same fence here. We both seem to support the pursuit of truth using the tools of science. I believe we would both agree that being disingenuious, surreptitious (stealthy) or misleading is contrary to that goal.

    I would go a step further though and say that once science has taken us as far as is feasible, an explicit and measured subjective statement of “better or worse” is appropriate for scientists. To not do so is relegating the final decision to lawyers, judges, businesses, politicians who through lack of training,may not be as able to decipher the evidence garnered by science.

    With interest

    Lee Foote
    University of Alberta

  7. Thanks to Bob for stimulating such great discussion! I’ve been in the natural resource industry for several decades. I’ve had a county commission tell me that, although my presentation was informative, well put together, and based on excellent data, they had to go with the “opinion” of the state fish agency because “they are the experts.” A lot of my career has been involved with natural resource permitting. I have developed a bad habit of reading journal articles and research reports that are cited by agency staff in their findings on a proposed project. All too often I find that the reports have been cherry picked to find information that supports the writer’s conclusion (i.e. policy decision), or that the cited source says nothing about the topic for which it has been cited. Very often this kind of normative science has a price tag; a recent client spent an extra $1M on a project because of an agency policy decision that was anything but science-based.

    I have no idea how to get to complete objectivity in the use of science. I do like the suggestion by one commenter that we at least strive for transparency. For the examples I used above, at least an objective peer review of agency staff findings would go a long way.

    Scientists are often caught in a political trap. I have found myself in situations where I had to keep my mouth shut so that I would not harm my client politically. I know that if I put a stick in the hornets nest, I and those around me will get stung. So we walk a fine line and do our best to bring objectivity to a subjective world of politics.

  8. I fully understand and agree with the “ideal” that Lackey promotes especially the use of mixed language we encounter every day. However, does the ideal assume that scientists aren’t citizens that have a stake in policy decisions? Can a “scientist” have a citizen hat or wear a policy maker hat? I suppose scientists must be clear which hat they are wearing when transmitting. To be idealistic, I strongly think that “policy makers” should be trained in the scientific method and apply it in their work. Policies should be treated as testable hypotheses developed to bring about some future condition and monitored to determine success. What is a scientist? At what level of training and work does the title become official? Lackey applies the use of normative science suggestion only to scientists…shouldn’t it also be applied to policymakers? He doesn’t mention that normative science should be called out whenever it appears. The reason scientists use normative language is often because they need to in order to receive funding….in order to pay debts and buy food.

    1. ““policy makers” should be trained in the scientific method and apply it in their work. Policies should be treated as testable hypotheses developed to bring about some future condition and monitored to determine success.”

      But others may not define “success” as you do. A policy advisor may define success as whether their boss gets re-elected. Other examples are obvious.

  9. Bob Lackey makes an important point in this article, one that needs to be understood and heeded. Normative science has become a greater problem in recent years in the discussions about environmental issues. I hope that this article gets wide attention.

  10. I was one of Bob Lackey’s students in the first offerings of the Ecological Policy class where he introduced the notion of Stealth Issue (or Policy) Advocacy. It was a topic that intrigued me as I observed this “problem” throughout my 30 year career in the groundwater industry. This passionate “advocacy” always appeared connected to local groundwater issues, so my colleagues and I often referred to these professionals as “local heroes”.

    Bob provided me a sneak preview of this editorial which inspired an essay in the newsletter of the Oregon State Board of Geologists Examiners. As one will discover by reading my essay, Bob’s work in this arena has inspired others, such as Roger Pielke, Jr., to think and write about “stealth advocacy”, too.

    Thanks to Terra for making space on such an important issue.

  11. The more that Dr. Robert Lackey expounds his opposition to normative science like ecosystem health, the more that I get turned off to his quasi-religious ideals (i.e., thou shalt not this and that). His viewpoint seems to suggest that anything is OK for ecosystem condition, which is way too relativistic for me. There’s value in the analogy between human and ecosystem health, albeit it’s a bit of a stretch.

    Having worked in academic, consulting, and state- and federal-agency contexts as a scientist, I have a broad perspective on how ecosystem management really works. Agency biologists typically know that they can’t expound policy, but are instead paid to find ways to study and improve ecosystem function within the constraints of protecting business interests like farming, hydropower operations, etc. Indeed, local, state, and federal laws are often in place to protect such socioeconomic pursuits. Hence, balancing opposing interests means that we often look for optimization, rather than optimal, solutions to restoring fish, wildlife, and plant resources. That’s why idealistic environmental NGOs are often uncomfortable that agencies are “playing God” with natural resources.

    Although I agree that sociocultural and political biases can creep into science (see my journal paper at, bias is much worse outside this field and particularly when political and/or religious pressures are high (notably in the spin-doctored, climate-change “debate”). Agency scientists often have to debunk urban myths, e.g., that dams can supposedly enhance Pacific salmon (not!), and there are a lot of case studies to demonstrate this (which is why dam-breaching is becoming more popular). And yes, transparency is a good thing and should extend beyond government agencies if possible.

    1. I find it ironic that you would choose to characterise Lackey’s writings as “quasi-religious”. I would argue quite the opposite; namely that he is being agnostic, if not aetheistic. Normative questions are precisely what religion is focused on. By advocating scientists not be normative, Lackey is arguing that scientists shed their “beliefs” as to what is right and wrong, good and bad and instead, leave these difficult questions to be resolved by public policy decision-makers and the public.

      Further I find it ironic that you see political and/or religious pressures as being being evidence of inappropriate bias. Religion and the political process are patently normative by nature and rightly reflect the divergent views and values in our society. I will agree that serious problems arise when religion and politics try to ursurp the role of science and knowledge in the decision making process but the converse is equally true. Lackey is doing a service to society by trying to ensure such contamination is minimised.

      1. Ed Hanna’s response to my response reflects the confusion that Bob Lackey’s writings can create if not interpreted correctly. Perhaps the greatest, recent practitioner to eschew normative science was George W. Bush’s presidential administration, which tried to consider the Columbia/Snake River system baseline to be AFTER the dams were built, which was clearly a decision of political expediency. So yeah, if you want to go into politics, then by all means avoid normative science. But I prefer Aldo Leopold’s sage advice to do ecosystem tinkering carefully, as missing parts can impact its function. So be careful what you ask for.

        Anyway, my take-home message from Lackey’s writings is that we scientists should explicitly state our interest is in restoring ecosystems towards their natural, historical conditions, which we hope that politicians will consider when making decisions that affect fish, wildlife, and plants. Otherwise, society might as well fire all natural-resource scientists and managers who collectively try to (a) understand how ecosystems work and (b) restore normative (semi-natural) functions like instream-flow and wildfire regimes. After all, changes in the magnitude and frequency of disturbances will impact ecosystem function. And we can examine biotic assemblages to better understand how badly ecosystem function is impacted.

  12. This latest addition to Bob’s body of work on the vital issue of normative science is most welcome. He delivers a cogent message we cannot hear too often. The danger of normative science lies not only in the improper biasing of natural resource decision-making toward the scientist’s preferred outcome. More importantly, normative science threatens to erode the trust the public places in the objectivity of scientific work by tainting the search for what is true and false in nature with preferences regarding how things ought to be on the landscape. We have already seen this happen regarding management of our national forests. Over time, the public lost faith in Gifford Pinchot’s scientific management of our national forests because people became convinced that the foresters’ timber cutting management agenda drove the science. Should distrust in the policy neutrality of the scientific enterprise ultimately lead the public to regard scientists as just another advocacy group we will all be losers.

  13. Bob,

    We met a long while back, as several American Fishery Society and Regional Workshop gatherings –

    I cannot remember our ever having any disagreements about what we presented, or thought were Real World Issues – mostly dealing with a long overdue shift from Modeling based on assumptions, or averages – when they just do not cope with Natural Processes – such as ENSO/PDO/AOL and longer term Cycles, as per the 2005-2007 book by my Russian colleagues Leonid Klyashtorin and Alexey Lyubushin – “Cyclic Climate Changes and Fish Productivity” – for which I did the final English editing –

    This work was recently updated in a 2012 article in Energy and Environment –

    For the last 45 years all my work has been based on Empirical Observations – and bringing together Local Expertise from the fisheries and science communities to address Fisheries Management issues, around the globe. Starting first in 1967 in La Jolla, at the Olde BCF Lab, then in 1969 as Geneticist for IATTC, but getting ever more deeply involved in environmental observations and links to CPUE shifts in Time and Space. all over the Pacific Ocean from La Jolla to Peru, Japan and even New Zealand. In 1978 I moved on to FAO in Rome – and got involved in the Atlantic Ocean Fisheries Management fiascos – with the ICCAT being the most distressing of all I ever encountered.

    There were many great scientists in their several national Research Teams – and the Scientific Meetings were often very focused, and empirical observations were abundant – But the Scientific Commitee Reports, provided to the Upper Management, were simply side-tracked – ignored, and the Investors went on to make decisions that benefitted various vested interests –

    What I now refer to as ‘The Social Disease’ – growing in Educational, Agency and NGO-Driven Pseudo-Science – NORMATIVE was a new word to me, but you covered most of the mess that is driving the public and politicians to make decisions that have little to do with Nature, or other necessary concerns –

    On leaving FAO in 1983 – I was contracted by UNDP. World Bank, and FAO to help others get moving out of the olde 1950s Simplistic modeling thinking – and in 1986 John Caddy and I wrote
    Caddy, J.F. and G. D. Sharp. 1986 An Ecological Framework for Marine Fishery Investigations. FAO Tech. Paper 283. 152 pp., available in English and Spanish. – which dealt with all aspects of fisheries environments and coping with Natural Processes – My website’s Fisheries TimeLine –
    has a link to numerous References that can help anyone move up and onward – while the Timeline itself has well documented historical information that brings together much of what we know – or do not – yet –

    Back in the USA in 1986 I was contracted by NOAA Administrator WE Evans – to try to fire-up Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management in the 7 Fisheries Regions – and indeed we had full Program Development plans for all, ready to go – with the Overview available on the link under Evans 50 Years of Flukkes and Flippers – on my Index Page.

    But when Evans retired from NOAA, and Wiley Bill Fox took over NMFS – they were all shredded – and disappeared – all those contraryist geeks are now running NGOs – Meanwhile, I was asked to move on to Monterey Bay – and start up the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Integrated Ocean Sciences – CIRIOS – and reconnected with George Boehlert, Bill Peterson, and many others – and worked closely with the 17 or so Ocean Science institutes and universities – to start Opening their empirical data files, employing the new Metadata Technique, and sharing them – Still alive and well via the Central Coast Joint Data Committee – but CIRIOS was shut down when the Mississippi Senator worked out a deal with the Naval Ocean Sciences office to swap any and all funds so they could set up the Stennis Oceanography Center in Olde Miss – which of course was located so carefully – that it was shut down during Hurricane Katrina – Almost as weird as the Miami Based Atlantic Hurricane Center’s Satellite Antennas instant departures during Hurricane Andrew –

    Monterey’s Fleet Numerical Oceanography and Meteorology Center – that provides Global observational data to all airlines and ocean going services – has never suffered such a mess –
    But those Blankity Blank Senators and NOS interest are just one more example –

    Normative Politics versus Careful Thinking

  14. Another excellent article by Dr. Lackey! I was fortunate enough to have taken his class here at Oregon State University. Before taking his class my research documents often included words such as health, invasive, good outcome, bad outcome, etc. I never realized that I was adding my personal policy preferences to my work, yet I expected others to not do the same. After taking his class I am much more sensitive to how I phrase my results while at the same time attempt to remain policy neutral. The problem with normative science is that the general public doesn’t know who to believe. For instance, scientists who advocate that global warming has a deleterious affect on the planet versus petroleum scientists who advocate that global warming isn’t happening or isn’t caused by human activity. What is the non-science general population to do with competing advocacy positions? This is why scientists should stay neutral and present the results of their research and let policy makers decide what to do with the facts.

    Thanks again Dr. Lackey for a great class!

  15. Bob Lackey writes “Scientific information must remain a cornerstone of public policy”.

    I have spent the last four years reading about the climate issue.

    The mandate of the Intergovernmenmtal Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been from the outset the study of ‘human caused climate change’. While masquerading as a science gathering clearing house the IPCC has refused to allow airing of science presentations dealing with the influence of the sun, ocean temperature cycles, cloud cover etc as drivers of the global climate t its lavish meeting or to have this science represented in its reports. The behaviour of the IPCC has been referred to as “hypothesis based evidence gathering” and modelers associated with the IPCC have pedicted /projected FUTURE catastrophic climate warming based on the unproven and now suspect assumption that carbon containing greenhouse gases are the primary drivers of the global climate.

    Funded by massive amounts of taxpayer dollars the IPCC’s four (so far) Summaries for Policy Makers that are crafted by government personnel from many countries with only passing relationship to the actual opinions of the chapter editors in its reports — the IPCC has for the last couple of decades warned that human emissions of carbon containing greenhouse gases must be curbed.

    For those of you who have not ascertained that the international [and very persuasively successful] Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming community — is driven by politics as
    opposed to science //// Here are a couple of quotes that should make you sit up and take notice about how government officials are prepared to abuse science to further their (possibly laudable) agendas:

    1. U.S. Senator Tim Wirth (Clinton administration) said in 1993:

    “We’ve got to ride the global warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, we will be doing the right thing .”

    2. Christine Stewart, then Canada’s Minister of the Environment:

    “No matter if the science is all phony, there are collateral environmental benefits. Climate change provides the greatest chance to bring about justice and equality in the world.”


    In a 40 minute VIDEO on the structure of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the personnel and process the IPCC uses to generate its reports — Donna Laframboise takes us /STEP BY STEP/ in 3 VIDEO segments at: through the workings of the way government apparatchiks (not scientists) have tampered with the Assessment Reports (AR 1, 2, 3 & 4) to produce the IPCC SUMMARIES FOR POLICY MAKERS —
    – the only documents that are widely read by politicians and their advisors who are responsible for the expenditure of massive amounts of taxpayer’s money that are directed to combat climate change, and by journalists who aid in amplifying support for these policies that accept the ‘human caused climate change’ hypothesis.

    ? Will science ever recover its credibility after being abused by governments? — see:

    Peter Salonius

    1. Perhaps you misunderstood the article. It isn’t about just making sure to advocate policy or practice normative science as long as it has scientific basis. Rather, it’s about eliminating the presence of policy-based motivation and bias while conducting research. The site you linked to has little to do with what Lackey is talking about here. It isn’t even an example of normative science. It’s just plain and simple policy advocacy; no original research is done.

  16. The public’s appetite for unblemished science (read “truth”) grows greater each day as a continual stream of evidence of political hanky panky, influence peddling and corruption is published by the media. Science and scientist are seen by many of as the rock in this sea of deceit. Indeed, science and technology are the cornerstones of our modern society and the wellbeing enjoyed by so many today. Few in the media or the public however have yet to appreciate that science too is vulnerable to the same degeneracies as politics, finance and other human affairs. In the same way that our society is continually demanding better checks and balances to deal with these dark sides of our society; so too will they eventually demand the same from scientists.

    Lackey’s writings on normative science have shed light on the hazards that normative science poses for the integrity and central role that science plays in our modern society. His writings afford an opportunity for the scientific community to initiate self-regulation before external regulation is demanded; but what would that self-regulation entail?

    Many of the norms for publishing scientific research already serve well to ensure self-regulation. As well, much can be learned from the rules imposed elsewhere; for example, rules for declaring a conflict of interest. Likewise rules for full disclosure. The problem is that these rules do not fully resolve the stealth component; largely due to the subtle and nuanced nature of stealth advocacy.
    In my professional practice, I run up against this problem daily. I have developed a set of rules and procedures that I use to guide my work.
    1. Use quantitative methods with full disclosure of all data, sources and uncertainties (error ranges)
    2. Analyse a full range of alternatives for achieving a clearly stated desired outcome
    3. Report results as medians and ranges using physical units of measure
    4. Use economic methods to derive weights (i.e., preference values) for physical measures
    5. Rank the alternatives based on their net contribution to the overall wellbeing of the community
    6. Assess and report the distribution of costs, benefits and risks among major groups (stakeholders) within the community.

    There are some critical aspects to this set of rules. First, I disagree with Lee Foote when he states that “… scientists should be encouraged to speak out and give their considered professional opinion.” At no point is this process would I step forward and give my ” considered professional opinion”. My considered professional opinion is reflected in the analytical framework and the data sources on which I have chosen to rely … no more needs to be said. I am agnostic in terms of the actual results and have no considered professional opinion to add. I may have a personal opinion on what I would like to see happen but it would be patently unprofessional to offer this in my professional role.

    Step 4 is critical and is one about which many natural scientists are unfamiliar and even worse, highly suspicious. Environmental and natural resource management decisions are social policy decisions. The overriding goal is to improve the collective wellbeing of the members of society. What is and is not an improvement in our collective wellbeing is a challenging question but a whole field of science is devoted to defining, measuring and forecasting societal wellbeing (i.e., economics and sociology). Certainly natural science has little to add. Within our society, there are diverse values and preferences; measuring and aggregating these values is complicated and imprecise … as also can be argued when it comes to the natural sciences. Nonetheless, it is our responsibility as scientists trying to inform decision-makers to make the best use of the best knowledge and information available. If this rule is followed when it comes to gauging the public’s values and preferences and we abide by the rules of transparency and replicability, we have performed our duties with integrity, even if the collective public preference deviates significantly from our own personal values.

    Let me conclude with mention of Step 6. There is no scientific basis reach a conclusion on the issue of fairness. I can apply rigourous scientific theory and methods to inform decision makers as to the alternative that will yield the great improvement in our collective wellbeing. But that is not the final word. The distribution of benefits, costs and risks among different sectors of society ultimately is the source of much public discourse. The basic question is “Is the distribution fair?” Are the trade-offs between economic and environmental interests fair? Have the interests of future generations been given fair consideration? These are classic normative issues on which the sciences, natural or social, have to little to offer. These are issues at the heart of philosophy and religion. These are issues that should be resolved in a free and responsible democracy through public discourse and the political process. When scientists offer their “considered professional opinions” on such matters they not only bring science into disrupt, they undermine the fundamentals on which our society is based.

  17. Normative science arises, in part, because politicians pass “laws” that evade their responsibilities to make policy choices. For example, they demand that planners do things like “provide flows of sufficient quality and quantity between such facilities [dams] to improve production, migration, and survival of such fish as necessary to meet sound biological objectives”. (16 U.S.C. § 839b(h)(6)(E)(ii).) What is “sufficient quality”? What is “sufficient quantity”? What are “sound biological objectives”? A “law” ought to be a rule against which human conduct can be objectively evaluated, but we no longer demand that our leaders even put objectives in their “laws”.

    When lawmakers fail to make law, and punt on the normative questions by delegating to administrators, a vacuum must be filled, and will be filled by those who supply the answers to the administrators. But there are no checks and balances on the answers supplied. The judicial system has ceased almost entirely to review the evidence behind the choices made. The “science” developed to support vague aspirational statements masquerading as law has lost the essential character of science itself. It is no longer tethered to testable hypotheses, but to the norms of the academic community.

    And those norms have gradually become untethered to any reality other than political reality. “Scientists” highly regarded within the academic community complain about things like “keeping the loggers employed for a few years (until the trees run out) or keeping a few cows grazing along unfenced streams is regarded as worth sacrificing entire fish populations that can support future generations” (Professor Peter Moyle, 1995). Then they give testimony to make policy to shut down the loggers and the cattlemen.

    Many branches of science have taken on the appearance of a self-perpetuating quasi-religious hierarchy. This is not just a problem in the ecological sciences, but in all sciences fueled by government spending. Celebrated geneticist James Watson recently remarked: “The biggest obstacle today to moving forward effectively towards a true war against cancer may, in fact, come from the inherently conservative nature of today’s cancer research establishments.” The ecological establishment can be tarred with this same “conservative” brush of rigid orthodoxy. Like the medieval priests, the hierarchy has its Latin–enormously complicated computer models. Even without predictive power, and failing in their predictions, the model’s pronouncements are treated with the weight of Scripture. A Darker Age seems to be upon us on many fronts.

    1. I can argue equally that the blame rests not with lawmakers but with those scientists who are eager to be lawmakers without the accountability. But so what? I see little to be gained by arguing about where the blame should lie. Instead, the best scientists can do is to clean up their nest and refuse to soil it in the future when asked/enticed by law makers/decisionmakers to become part of the normative world of public policy.

      I have found that when scientists/analysts provide an objective, systematic, understandable/transparent and comprehensive asessment of the choices at hand, decisionmakers are less prone to sidestep their responsibilities. That being said, I often have had to remind them that it is their job to decide what is best, not mine and that rarely is the best free of difficult tradeoffs. Nothing irks me more than the wishful thinking underlying the overused phrase “a win-win solution”. I have yet to encounter a natural resource management issue where everyone is an equal winner and no tradeoffs have to be made.

      On the other hand, I agree fully that our laws are rife with clauses that put scientists in a normative science Catch 22. The best scientists can do in these cases is provide a thorough analysis of the policy alternatives and turn it back to the lawmakers to determine what they mean by terms like “sufficient quantity and quality”. Which of these alternatives meet your standard?

  18. I enjoyed Bob’s article and appreciate his messages. I also most agreed with Andrew Yost’s comment (Jan 24). Yost seem to imply that scientists are humans and they do have bias…I think why not admit it but as Yost suggests, be very clear to your audience and state your bias? And then first try to stick to the facts, and last go ahead and give your opinion and tell them why you feel so. I think it is perfectly normal to have an opinion, but just be clear about stating it as such. And also give your rationale for it–that may be where the most interesting conversation starts…

    I will tend to believe someone (scientist or other) that says things like well, I’m not too sure but I think… I tend to be skeptical of those that push too hard or try to make the clearest case as if there were no uncertainty.

    I work in the Scott River basin of Northern California where there is a clash of values over the best use of water–for irrigation and supporting family based agriculture or for ESA listed coho salmon. Science is used to try to promote one point of view or another. But actually, as Bob says, this is more of a value judgement about whether a family’s right to produce cattle for profit is more important that society’s right to enjoy fish or perhaps prevent a local extirpation of a species. Science suffers from being misused in a normative way–clearly by the representatives of the agriculture side, but also by the environmental and government agencies. In fact, normative science is so pervasive, I cannot think of a single scientist that is considered to be unbiased by both groups–that’s how bad it is. For either side to begin to listen to someone that calls themself a scientist, the scientist should acknowledge their biases and then, perhaps they may be able to offer scientific information that may aid the discussion over values of fish versus ag rights.

  19. The insights Bob presents are ones that deserve broad distribution among scientists and policy-makers. Too many issues are framed in ways that demonize anyone who dares to raise an alternative perspective. As a consequence, discourse becomes contentious and impedes any real progress toward crafting solutions.

    Two companion concerns that I gleaned from the comments above are 1) policy and laws often ignore or run contrary to good science-based input; and 2) there is a right answer that society would make, if only they had the knowledge of scientists.

    Regarding the first, I commend readers to Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent analysis in “Blink” — humans evolved to make quick decisions in life-threatening situations. As such we act on “thin slices” of inforamtion; not the full extent of our knowledge of the situation. That works well for us individually, but leads to inconsistent and often ineffectivce decisions about complex issues we face in the realm of environmental management. And because policy makers often have a different suite of perspectives, they react to different thin slices of information, which might not include the science-based contours of the issue. Hence a need for formalized decision-making processes.

    Second, despite the historic awareness of “wicked problems” — first described in the mid-1970s, few scientests have considered the dimensions of wicked problems. Key features include: there are no right answers, the boundaries of the problems are unknown or even unknowable, there are no stopping rules (i.e., one can’t solve an equation and know that the question has been answered), there are strong moral dimensions to the problems, … In dealing with wicked problems, one needs to engage in meaningful dialogue with affected parties, continue the dialogue until an agreed conceptual model of the topic is articulated, build scenarios that capture the breadth of plausible outcomes, define decision rules, and devise trade-off options (compromises) that can be moved toward consensus. All of this is very messy, but it is what we deal with. Ignoring these realities leads to great dilusionment and perhaps provokes some to “fight fire with fire” — or descend into normative science to discredit potential adversaries.

    If we hope to have science-based informaiton be part of the broader societal decision-making process, we ought to work to demystify science, explain what we know, how we know it, as well as what we don’t know or cannot know — and be brutally honest about the biases we bring to the discourse. Such clarity goes a long wat toward earning and retaining credibility.

  20. Thanks to Bob and the commenters for well -written and thoughtful observations. There is not much to be added, but I do have a couple of additional thoughts.

    As some have pointed out, some issues mix organizational authority power struggles (regulatory agencies vs. management agencies), internal interpersonal disputes (my boss won’t listen to me, those minerals folks are despoilers and need to be stopped), with real disputes over what a paper means, or what is likely to happen given a design of a project.

    What I realize is that the public is ill-served by our current (lack of) dispute resolution techniques for scientific disputes. At the very least, we should ask scientists to follow a flow of logic and explain how they got to their knowledge claims in detail. They should do this in a public venue, and respond to questions and comments and then the public could learn a great deal about the issue and where the different kinds of scientific information fits. In fact, people have said we need more “science education.” This is the best scientific education there is.. because people are motivated to find out because they care about the issue.

    I also need to point out that sometimes practitioner, or local knowledge is devalued by relying on “peer-reviewed scientific information”. What often happens is that a tool is used to say something broadly and the fact that the general conclusions don’t fit a specific situation makes people mistrust “science.” A simple example is economic- your community’s economy went downhill, for example, when the mill left town. Yet economic studies at the state level show that everything is fine. Therefore “science” shows that your concerns are not based on “facts.”

    Finally, research agendas are set by groups of scientists and often important questions to people are not addressed, in fact, there is no mechanism.

    I developed the Eight Steps to Vet Scientific Information for Policy Fitness.
    .. if all information went through that process, I think there might be less heat and more light in our discussions.

  21. Having worked as a fish biologist, on various projects, in the Columbia River Basin for a few years now I have begun to see just how easy it can be for researchers to get caught in the web of regulations, policies, demands from funding agencies and the multitude of public viewpoints and lose sight of their purpose. I have made the mistake of correcting a public speaker at an educational event about a fish species who then let the audience know that I was a biologist. The end result was being almost chased out the door by a fisherman who wanted to know why there were not enough salmon! I feel that it is expected that we will interact with the public, something that was likely unheard of not that many years ago. When I started college in 1989 I assumed I would be out in the field without anyone bothering me. My biology curriculum at the time did not include policy or social science classes. Now our studies and data are on facebook, you tube and twitter! All of this contributes to a scenario in which scientists are highly scrutinized.

    Of course this is all necessary and we do need to take an active role in how science is used in the public discourse and in policy making. My point is that scientists have a new responsibility that may not have existed to such an extent in past years. A responsibility to declare the limits of their work and a responsibility to educate others, in this case policy makers, where the scientists job ends and the policy makers job begins.

    Looking forward to a career in which I integrate policy and science I greatly appreciate Dr. Lackey’s viewpoints on the role of scientists in policy making. Science is one of many important factors that need to be considered in policy and I strongly feel that the topic of normative science should be common in our dialogue.

  22. This is a fascinating set of responses. Bob once again is prodding us all to think about science and public policy.
    I chaired the BLM Science Advisory Board (when such existed, sadly it is no more), and one thing we did, along with BLM, is draft their Science Strategy. In it we said:
    Science is useful for evaluating alternatives and estimating outcomes. However, it is not the sole factor in making decisions because the state of natural resource science is often insufficient to give definitive cause-effect predictions. Unknowns and uncertainties will always be associated with predictions of decision outcomes. Science may reduce but can never completely eliminate the uncertainty regarding future events. However, the use of the best-available science—along with a consideration of political, social, and economic information—will result in the best-informed decisions.
    In working with scientists and managers it is apparent that both have interesting perspectives on the “other.” During my time with BLM board, scientists often discussed being evaluated and rewarded for publication in journals, even though the information needed by land managers was of a different sort—more immediate and thus less able to go through long-peer review processes—but it had to be credible information or it simply would not stand up in court or anywhere else. But, it was also not clear that land managers often did a very good job at explaining to scientists both within and outside of an agency (like BLM) how they made decisions. To put it differently, how did they use science, but still consider “political, social, and economic information” to make a decision especially under conflicting multiple-use laws?
    Also, many seem to see science in two ways, I certainly do. One is as “process” as in the scientific method. If the process gets violated by pre-chosen hypotheses designed to arrive at already chosen policy preferences, the process can be violated. The public is becoming more and more aware of this move. The second is as a truth claim, a reference to a higher law as it were. As a public policy scholar once wrote, “the imperative of higher law is always conceived as derived from what is most valid, most powerful, most highly honored. Historically this has most frequently been GOD. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century America it has often been SCIENCE. Science as truth claim suggests that it can answer questions not simply about what might or could be done but what should be done. Science has yet to be granted this privileged position.

  23. Women Studies has long debated the issue of “objectivity”. “Facts” are a way for human ego to attempt to create objectivity, devoid of emotion. Years of raising children has taught me that the “facts” change depending on who I’m talking to. Objectivity is right up there with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and God.

  24. I have only just caught up with this very important discussion. In New Zealand our science system has been commercialized and politicized perhaps more than anywhere in the Western world. I have been writing about the dangers of this trend for some years now (see and the papers: Is the commercial model appropriate for science and later a paper entitled “Science under threat.”

    In my view the integrity of science world wide is very much under threat because the purpose of is less about finding the ‘truth’ and more about serving the master (politics and/or commerce).

    Note that i have used the term ‘normative’ to mean ‘maintaining the norm’ (as in science for science sake”).

  25. I am a recently retired (after 22 years) employee of the US EPA. Much of my career involved facilitation, especially in high conflict situations with communities, tribes, industry, NGOs and other agencies on a broad range of issues.

    The lines between science, policy, politics, law, and opinion were frequently blurred. I wish that I could say that the confusion was only with external partners, but there was all too often confusion internally as well. And why should we be surprised? In his article Dr. Lackey states, Normative science is defined as “information that is developed, presented or interpreted based on an assumed, usually unstated, preference for a particular policy choice.””

    Regulatory Agencies like the EPA are, by their very nature, driven by normative science. EPA’s mandate is to interpret and enforce laws and regulations that have emerged from Congress and, while Congress may be influenced by science, the laws invariably reflect particular policy choices. The problem is that the public, and often EPA employees themselves, see EPA as a scientific organization. While places like the EPA Corvallis Lab and the Office for Research and Development may be engaged in a purer form of scientific inquiry, most regulatory scientific requirements are based on policy dictates.

    For example, many of EPA’s rules center around the question; “What constitutes an acceptable risk?” Deciding what risks are acceptable is, at its heart, a value-laden decision. Central to this decision is the question of who and/or what are trying to protect: salmon, snail darters, children, adults, groundwater, the economy, the environment, future generations? What is an acceptable risk: one in a million additional cancers, lack of bio-diversity, extinction? Etc.

    Regulatory agencies collect science-based data, which is then applied to enforce laws and regulations. The fact that much of EPA’s data reflects embedded policy can be misunderstood, ignored or forgotten. People using EPA’s numbers to do science may not realize that they often reflect “normative” science. EPA itself is not as clear as it could be about when it is operating from a purely scientific or a policy base.

    While scientists can and should be vigilant about slipping into normative science, they are often caught in the middle. Regardless of how fastidious you are, your work is likely to enter the legal/policy arena where it is prone to take on a life of its own.

    While it is important to present science with dispassionate realism (neither optimistic nor pessimistic, as Dr. Lackey suggests) there may be a time when scientists serve us best by shedding the scientific shield and speaking from a place of wisdom founded on sound logic. This, I think, is what scientists like James Hansen are doing. Science can provide data, information, and knowledge, but to what end if society doesn’t apply wisdom? Wisdom is not a purely scientific endeavor and needs to be differentiated, but the alternative is to cede your wisdom to a politicized discourse bereft of your deep knowledge and understanding.

    1. I believe you have confused defining what the level of risk is and what level of risk is socially acceptable. Likewise, I think it may help to distinguish between a research scientist and a scientific analyst.

      In terms of the latter, a scientific analyst is one who applies the findings of science to policy-relevant questions. An analyst is not a purveyor of scientific knowledge but rather a user of that knowledge; similar to the distinction between a medical researcher and a doctor. These two roles are quite distinct and many of the problems of normative science arise when research scientists are thrust into acting as scientific analysts; they require quite different skill sets.

      At a philosophical level, it has been argued extensively that normative science is an issue even with research scientists (e.g., in the hypotheses that are tested, the methods used); however the normative science that Lackey is describing largely arises at the public policy interface in natural resource management. This interface is the domain of policy analysts and is where stealth advocacy is most prevalent.

      Government agencies are in the business of implementing normative decisions made through the political process. In my view, it is essential that clear decisions are made through this process as to what is an acceptable level of risk in a particular situation or that they lay out a clear, fair and conclusive means to arrive at such decisions on an individual case. Further, I see great benefit in the political process making normative decisions as to the types of information that are needed to make a responsible decision. It is then the duty of the analyst to not only produce the appropriate technically sound analyses based on the best available science but to also communicate clearly the basis for the results and any nuances’ associated with the interpretation of the results (e.g., potential for irreversible changes).

      Where we appear to differ is where “speaking from a place of wisdom founded on sound logic” stops and normative science begins. Where in the public policy decision-making process should “your deep knowledge and understanding” be applied? No problem if it is used to ensure that the results of your scientifically-based analysis are fully understood by those making the decision. It is a problem when you use ” your deep knowledge and understanding” as a lever to elevate your position in the policy decision-making process from analyst to a cloaked decision-maker and you use your scientific aura of “deep knowledge and understanding” to influence significantly what course of action is best in your opinion. Deciding what public policy decision is best is not a question science is equipped to answer.

  26. Thank you, Dr. Lackey, for drawing attention to this topic! I’d like to say a few words about how this might impact our up-and-coming scientists.

    In the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State, I teach a class for seniors called “Effective Communication in Fisheries and Wildlife Science.” We have had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Lackey on many occasions to give a talk on this very topic. It’s a bit of a thrill to witness how students react to this perspective! Given our discussions following these lectures, it’s clear that nearly every student is guilty of practicing normative science. Can they be blamed? They’re all pursuing careers in this field because of their passion for the outdoors, their love of nature, and desire to conserve what we can in order for wildlife to persevere. Naturally, they’re advocates! Flip on any Animal Planet or National Geographic special and we’ll hear endless variations of the value-laden terms Dr. Lackey mentions. Is it any wonder our future wildlife managers and biologists enter the university predisposed to advocacy and normative science?

    There is a certain absolutism to Dr. Lackey’s views which can be hard to swallow. Phrases such as “practice stealth advocacy,” “preferences masked within” and “hidden preferences,” imply there is some deliberateness to these behaviors. I’m not certain the conspiratorial tone is intentional, but if a scientist doesn’t know he/she is practicing normative science, does that make it okay? Of course not. Given the number of students that have unknowingly been using normative science, these discussions compel students to “think different” – an exercise in critical thinking that’s desperately needed before they depart academic life. Fostering self-awareness in our early-career scientists is the best thing we can do!

    1. Dave, I think you hit the nail on head. That self-awareness, as well as an awareness that not everyone thinks as we do, is critically important. Students will eventually have to work with landowners, business members, policy makers etc., and these people may have completely opposing views to ours and you cannot expect to pull out the biologist card and change their mind. It is not that we have to stop thinking the way we do, but we need to be careful about how we express these opinions and recognize the role that our work plays into the greater arena of society. I have worked with some people who feel that because they work for a government agency, and hold a copy of state code in their pocket that allows fish and wildlife workers to trespass without persecution, that they have free reign on private property regardless of landowner concerns. I find this very unfortunate and hope that our future fish and wildlife leaders will have a different outlook! Looking forward to taking your class!

  27. Congratulations Bob on keeping this pot boiling. I have become acutely aware of the perils of normative science since my year as AFS President and an article I wrote referencing your work in Fisheries at that time. Keep up the good work. Bill

  28. I write to add two points to this useful discussion, which, as several have hinted, builds upon a rather sizable literature:

    First, many statements made by scientists take place within an ongoing conversation, or in specific contexts, in which values and goals are assumed and variously shared. Nearly all Americans, for instance, believe that the loss of a species is a bad and unwanted development, putting aside other considerations. Even more believe that the loss of a human life is bad and unwanted, without regard for the race, ethnicity or gender of the human. Costs and competing concerns always come into play, but it is not somehow deceptive or professionally inappropriate for a scientist to participate in a conversation and, in doing so, to blend science with the values and goals shared by other participants in the conversation. We don’t insist, for instance, that medical researchers make clear in each publication that, in their view, it is normative good to save human life. The field of conservation biology (like medical research) was expressly set up this way, as an enterprise that incorporates particular values. Bob Lackey’s analysis is, of course, sound, but the error of scientists is sometimes understandable and harmless; they take certain values for granted, and assume that audiences do so as well. That said, it’s good to be clear about assumed values, and it is often easy to do so in only a few words–for instance, by prefacing a statement with “assuming we want to keep out lands healthy . . . .” (It is useful here to link the discussion with the longstanding recognition that funded scientific research is almost always motivated and guided by particular normative concerns.)

    Second, the discussion so far has focused only one side of what I see as a two-sided problem. It has highlighted the tendency of scientists in some settings to mix scientific conclusions with normative standards (offering blended statements that are, in many instances, more valuable to audiences because they do go beyond science). The other side of the problem arises when nonscientists turn to science and ask for an answer to a problem that is unwisely framed in terms of science. That is, an issue of public policy gets framed as a scientific question without much recognition that important normative assumptions are embedded in the framing. A visible example today is our social tendency to frame climate change in terms of scientific proof: Has it been scientifically proven (that is, are we very confident) that human activities are altering the climate? That’s the question as typically framed, and the ensuing debate is mostly (not entirely, thankfully) framed in terms of scientific proof. But is that a reasonable way to frame the issue as a matter of public policy? Isn’t it more sensible, normatively, to ask: Is the evidence we have, that humans are altering the atmosphere, sufficient to warrant corrective or mitigating action starting now? Who would get on an airplane if told that the plane might crash, but that–not to worry–the feared crash has not been demonstrated by peer-reviewed studies that rise to the level of scientific certainty? In daily life we take steps to reduce dangers that are, in fact, quite remote, and wisely so. Similarly, we rely on all available evidence, whether or not peer reviewed. In short, a scientist asked a scientific question–is it proven that X will happen?–might rightly answer the science question, but might also, and usefully, highlight that the question itself has normative assumptions embedded in it, assumptions that are usefully teased out and thought about directly.

    A variant of this second-side of the science-versus-normative-thought problem arises when lawmakers insist that a particular decision be made based solely on science when, in fact, the question being posed requires, for resolution, normative thinking along with the science. Here the problem is not scientists acting wrongly by incorporating normative issues (the problem Bob addresses) but, instead, lawmakers who wrongly assume that a question is one simply of science. Well-known illustrations here include findings that a species is “endangered” under the ESA or that a given level of ambient air pollution fails to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety (from the Clean Air Act). The term “adequate margin of safety” is plainly not a question of pure science, but neither is the term public health. As for a species, a scientist might predict the percentage chance that a given population will disappear in a given number of years, but it is a normative issue to decide whether a given chance of disappearance in a given number of years (e.g., 10 percent chance in 200 years) does or does not qualify as “endangered.” In both settings, however, federal law insists that decisions be based only on science.

    Too often society turns to scientists to give guidance on policy questions that mix scientific fact with normative considerations. The external pressure is there, and it is not soon to disappear. Scientists, as Bob says, are wise to make clear when their answers go beyond science–when they assume certain values or goals–and to be particularly clear when the values and goals might be contested (as they sometimes are not). But scientists can also help when questions directly posed to them either include normative elements (as in the ESA and CAA illustrations) or when the posing of a policy question in science terms reflects an unwitting and perhaps unwise normative stance. In both instances, scientists can help public thinking by highlighting the normative issues. Of course, others could help with this work as well, particularly those with a legal sense who know quite well that burdens of proof on an issue can differ widely and that the choice of a burden of proof in a given setting can greatly affect the ultimate decision.

  29. “Should distrust in the policy neutrality of the scientific enterprise ultimately lead the public to regard scientists as just another advocacy group, we will all be losers.” This insightful comment by Allan Fitzsimmons distills the essence of what is seriously at stake for science and scientists, if the inclination to practice “normative science” cannot be curtailed. It is worth recalling that modern science has been, for at least 500 years, the primary enterprise that has replaced ignorance, fear and superstition with objective evidence (supported by verifiable data). Science has made possible the rise of modern culture, through knowledge discovery that supports the technological advancement that has led to revolutions in agriculture, industry and electronics and new insights concerning how our environment and natural resources might be managed in a more sustainable manner. Without sound science, none of these advancements would have been possible and, without credible science in the future, it is not only scientists that will lose, but rather entire societies will suffer without the continuing growth of knowledge, invention and enlightened advancement. Thus, Bob Lackey’s “call to arms” concerning the need to avoid and discourage the practice of normative science is entirely appropriate and timely.

    The discussion above has already examined the need for objectivity, self-discipline and restraint when interpreting for laypersons (i.e., the public and policymakers) the meaning of individual studies and/or a synthesis of a body of work. Clearly, this is the duty of every scientist, to evaluate the likely outcomes resulting from an array of experiemental treatments (or management alternatives) and clearly convey these findings in as value-neutral manner as possible, so that our constituents will be armed with “the facts” and thereby be better enabled to reach rational decisions concerning the issues at hand. In concept, this sounds like a very simple and forthright endeavor, requiring only a sound ethical compass. However, I would propose that doing so is more complicated than it seems.

    Although many of us are aware of the values and biases that we consciously harbor and express during discussions of varying sorts through the day, fewer of us recognize that we also have unconscious bias that underlie our conscious thoughts. Indeed, such unconscious bias is acquired as we develop through our lives, especially during our formative years, as well as during our period of formal education (and beyond). The values, attitudes and ways of reasoning that we assimilate (frequently without giving them any critical thought) shape the manner in which we perceive the world around us and interact with it. The unfortunate feature of our unconscious bias is that we are normally unaware that it is a driving force in the way we think and speak about issues and, perhaps worst, these biases are assimilated and held (often for a lifetime) without ever receiving the critical evaluation (and when appropriate the rejection) that they deserve. Therefore, a potential danger exists that one’s tendency toward normative science many not just be driven by values consciously held (that in theory could be revised as more knowledge and wisdom is acquired) but also underpinned by the unconscious bias that are deeply held, rarely if ever examined and thus resistent to enlightenment.

    The possibility that unconscious bias, as well as conscious bias, may be linked to tendencies toward the practice of normative science indicates the need for introspective analysis on the part of each scientist. Each of us should periodically revisit our beliefs and personally challenge our own assumptions, so that we can verify them to be valid, revise them as needed and reject them when we see that they are obsolete. Undertaking such an effort in isolation, though possible, may not be the most productive course of action. Fortunately, we have great colleauges with whom insightful interaction can provide us clues as to when our unconscious bias may interfere with our objectivity, value-neutrality and even more fundamental issues. I suggest that by being of such service to one another, in a positive and supportive way, we can help our colleagues clarify their motives, refrain from inappropriate normative science tendencies and, in the process, improve ourselves, our science and the larger society that our science serves.

  30. I appreciate that you are addressing good professional standards for scientist’s communication with the public and policy makers, but it occurs to me that there is another side to this debate. Is there a reciprocal relationship and responsibility of the public and policy makers with scientists. What standards of conduct and discourse might one expect or require for an open society and democracy?

  31. I have worked with, around, in between, and among scientists for much of my government and NGO “career” in natural- resource management and policy analysis as well as advocacy. The concern about so-called “stealth” advocacy by scientists is a valid one, as it ought to be for any profession with a strong nexus to crucial and pressing public policy issues that depend upon those professionals for information and analysis.

    Unfortunately, I believe that scientists, especially those whose work affects natural resource protection, allocation and development, are the professionals most susceptible these days to accusations of value-bias (and have been since the “morning in America” presidency, when the actor replaced the scientist). The eagerness to attack scientists, collectively and individually, is not motivated by objectivity but rather is a value-laden, stealth attack on those whose scientific conclusions threaten entrenched interests of the status quo.

    In other words, many if not most of those who vociferously admonish scientists to remain value-neutral are not particularly interested in ensuring the science is unpacked from whatever values scientists may bring to their research, but are instead intent on discrediting the science itself — the modus operandi being to attack the scientist for harboring stealth values thereby invalidating the scientific research and conclusions.

    In this context, it is my opinion that many scientists have failed to adequately defend themselves, their work and their profession and, sadly, often capitulate before the battle begins. If science is important, then I believe scientists, collectively and individually — whose profession and work ostensibly depend upon and value an open and democratic society — have the responsibility and the duty to challenge and correct policy makers, public officials as well as private interests who misuse or distort scientific research and analysis in the service of THEIR value-laden objectives and goals. Unfortunately, such challenges are usually not forthcoming. What a shame.

    1. After wading through the extensive cheerleading by many respondents for Bob Lackey’s article, it was good to see a few healthy skeptics point out that good natural-resource decision-making requires transparency from all participants. Indeed, I know of at least one responder (above) who is a lawyer opposed to instream-flow protection in the Columbia/Snake River system (CSRS) because he works for irrigators. Moreover, he has enlisted the help of an academic “hired gun” to claim that because fish-flow relations aren’t linear, then there must not be any relationship, implying that more irrigation won’t impact fishes. But this ignores curvilinear behavior that is typically predicted by PHABSIM and 2-D hydrodynamic models, as there are optimal flows for different species and life stages. Clearly, we need to work through the logic of everyone’s arguments to assess their soundness and validity, and indeed my college class in philosophy greatly prepared me for a scientific career.

      My point is, let’s get past the hypocrisy and be more honest like our parents tried to teach us. Fortunately, the National Academy of Sciences heard our concerns for the CSRS, so that we avoided another “Klamath” catastrophe, for which scientific uncertainty was overemphasized to keep the irrigation pipes flowing that subsequently caused large fish kills (including for ESA-listed species) in that OR/CA river. Although science isn’t perfect, it’s like democracy in being better than the alternatives. Now that scientists have a greater place at the decision-making table than was formerly the case (e.g., see this recent book:, industrial interests need to accept that fact, rather than engage in biased criticism (stealth manipulation) to try to return the world to pre-1970s era environmental standards.

      Finally, few of the respondents above admitted what their professions are, which I do find to be highly ironic for transparency’s sake. I freely admit to being an aquatic ecologist, a profession that developed from having a father who was both an aquatic biologist and active outdoorsman. So if I didn’t like normative science and fish and wildlife harvesting, then I never would’ve become an agency biologist. I’ve always been honest about this, so Lackey’s article seems to set up a “straw man” to some extent. But it’s true that not all scientists are objective about their agendas, regardless of their affiliations: academic, agency, consulting, or industrial. That does need to change.

  32. I concur with Bob’s Lackey’s views regarding the value of positive science & the downsides of disguised normative science. This is not just a biological sciences problem. I’ve witnessed the encroachment of disguised normative science in other fields such as those involving environmental modeling, cost engineering, epidemiology, benefit-cost analyses, occupational health, transportation, defense, medical records, economic impact assessments, and distributive analyses.

    I worked for the Federal Government (US EPA, US Senate, & US Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy) for nearly 4 decades. And, for 2.5 concurrent decades, I taught at a university. I’m a resource & regulatory economist. I’m also a member of the NC Chapter of TWS and hunter education instructor for the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.

    Perhaps, I am naive. But, my experiences tell me that being an objective scientist was more of the rule in the 1960s and early 1970s. Back then, I had division directors read to me from the engineer’s code of ethics. I was in meetings with Assistant Administrators who chastised staff for bringing forth their recommendation and not presenting any alternatives. These decision makers were not advocating normative science. The decision makers wanted their staffs to inform them based on positive science, engineering, and analysis.

    However, my view is that positive science has lost favor relative to disguised normative science. Not only that, but, today the scarcity of positive science imparts costs to the scientist and society.

    In today’s government agency and institutional settings, the deck can often be stacked against the objective scientist. Governmental and other institutions claim to be diverse as reflected by the variations in the color, gender, race, national origin, creed, etc. But, these institutions lack diversity in terms of the normative views of staff and management on regulatory, policy, or legislative matters. That lack of diversity can impart a disguised normative bias revealed in research agendas, study designs, and assessments.

    The cost to those positive scientists of the minority normative view can be foregone research grants, publications, and promotions should their normative positions be made public and/or their positive science studies generate results counter to the hypotheses favored by the majority normative view.

    However, in my view, the cost to the public is sometimes greater, being manifest in terms of lack of trust and polarization. In such an environment, win/win solutions are not only ignored. They are not even brought to the bargaining table.

    Can we go back to the future? Before Milton Friedman’s “Essays in Positive Economics”, there was Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac.” There, we learned that “ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching-even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” To me, there is a corollary in avoiding stealth normative science. To wit: “doing what is right, when bosses, colleagues, political appointees, and elected officials are looking.”

    A positive scientist can sometimes provide answers desired by a political appointee, university donor, colleagues, advocacy groups, or the majority of civil servants while not practicing stealth normative science. However, there will be times when the answer(s) provided by the positive scientist does (do) not suit the political appointee, the majority of scientist’s colleagues, the donors, and/or advocacy groups. So what! The comparative advantage, success, and value of positive science is not measured in smiley faces.

  33. Independent research is a democratic cornerstone of society. It is the politicians duty not to dictate what needs to be researched, but ensure widespread expression and frame to commit relevant and critical research, even when it goes against economic or political interests. This is unfortunately not the case today, where economic and political interests are becoming more and more influence on research, through political micromanagement and corporate influence in university boards.

  34. After reading further comments on Bob Lackey’s blog, it’s clear that anti-normative science folks love to obfuscate, to maintain the status quo regarding climate change, etc. Ironically, Aldo Leopold was cited despite his own interest in normative science to improve ecosystem function, including for the farm that he ran until his untimely death. Normative science can help provide design alternatives, e.g., for non-dam solutions to flood control, so it’s a useful tool for ecosystem management. Yes, let’s be clear when we use normative science, but no, let’s not bury it to limit creativity. Ultimately, Lackey’s views seem to come from an interaction with a cynical lawyer, which is a small sample size for rejecting normative science. As the saying goes, the difference between an attorney and rat is that the latter has limits on what it will do!

    -Bob Vadas, Jr.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *