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Endangered species

Interview | Author and expert field researcher Charley Dewberry wants to save science from itself

Issue: "God and mammon," Jan. 14, 2006

Charley Dewberry, author of Saving Science: A Critique of Science and its Role in Salmon Recovery (2004), is the academic dean of Gutenberg College in Eugene, Ore. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon but ranges far beyond academic walls: He is one of the most experienced field workers in the Pacific Northwest and has for many years examined problems of salmon restoration.

That may seem like a narrow topic, but Mr. Dewberry's analysis of salmon research shows why there's something fishy in much of science these days. He shows how scientists examining issues involving fish catches or endangered species typically look at statistics developed by other scientists but don't interview fishermen or use historical methods to get a better sense of change over time. He questions whether scientists who spend little time in the field really understand their subject.

Mr. Dewberry praises physicists who know the specific physical laws necessary for riding a bicycle, and then asks: "What if a particular physicist who can articulate these laws cannot ride a bicycle? Does this physicist have a greater understanding of bicycle riding than the boy who, with personal knowledge, just rides the bike?" He's not impressed by scientists who venture into the field only to instruct technicians or to put on "dog-and-pony shows" for the benefit of journalists and financial backers.

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WORLD What's going on in the debate about recovering depleted salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest, and why should readers who aren't salmon-lovers care?

DEWBERRY Salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest is helping to define science and its role in culture nationally, not just regionally.

Virtually everyone involved-environmentalists, industry representatives, ecumenical councils, state and federal agencies, politicians, academics-agrees that "sound science" should be the basis of recovery efforts. In their view, the role of science is to provide the objective facts that will be used to set policy, with scientists wearing the final robes of authority for determining if the efforts are successful or not. Thus science has a privileged position in determining what is true.

If these efforts go unchallenged, then science ends up playing a larger role in policy decisions than is warranted. Debates such as Intelligent Design are largely lost before they start because science has already been defined in efforts like salmon recovery.

WORLD The scientists looked to as the authorities-are they really skilled in making judgments regarding salmon recovery?

DEWBERRY Most people selected for key roles in salmon recovery are scientists selected because of their publishing record in peer-reviewed journals. I don't believe that's a good basis for selection. A person's publishing record tells us little about his ability to make decisions. What should matter instead is a track record showing experience and a demonstrated ability to make good judgments.

There is an apt analogy in medicine. When we are sick, do we call a team of medical researchers to give us a diagnosis or do we go to a general practitioner? We go to the GP because he has the skill of making a diagnosis. Making a diagnosis is not science. A medical researcher may know all the literature, but he may not have made a single diagnosis since leaving residency. If he had skills, they have eroded over time. To claim that the peer-reviewed journal articles of the medical researcher (the scientist) make him best qualified to diagnose is just wrong. Likewise, to claim that the peer-reviewed journal articles of the research scientist make him best qualified to make judgments is wrong.

WORLD But isn't the role of science to provide the facts?

DEWBERRY Science plays an important role in providing facts. Those that argue, however, that science has a privileged role because of the greater certainty and objectivity inherent in its method are wrong because human subjectivity is always involved in how we know things.

WORLD So are you opposed to peer-reviewed empirical science?

DEWBERRY No. Good scientific research is valuable information. What I am opposed to is the belief that peer-reviewed empirical science journal articles have inherently greater assurance and objectivity than other forms of knowledge, such as the discovery of a theory, or other forms of inquiry, such as history. It is just not true that a science journal article reviewed by several reviewers has inherently any greater objectivity than, say, a history journal article reviewed by several reviewers.

WORLD You also think the role of statistics is minor compared with that of experience and skill gained in the field.

DEWBERRY If science is viewed as a method that leads to more certain knowledge than other pursuits, then doing science is reduced to carefully following the method which has a mechanical nature; the mechanical method, not the scientist, ensures the outcome. Statistics is the means of reducing human judgment to a mechanical process. Unfortunately, science can never be reduced to this mechanical process. Doing science is an art. It is a human endeavor that takes skill and genius as well as a little luck to be great. Skills are honed by experience. Therefore, statistics play only a small role in the science.

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