The Double Standard Environmental Science: Can Science Abide Political Causes?

Article excerpt

'Everyone knows that soil erosion is a U.S. crisis. This study can't be right." That statement is a paraphrase of a reviewer's comments on a paper on greatly declining rates of U.S. soil erosion that I submitted to the journal Science in 1982.

For Science, as a matter of policy, it took only one negative review to reject my paper; the reviewer's disbelief meant the journal would not publish my findings. No matter that the study was sponsored by several government agencies and overseen by the U.S. Geological Survey, that it had involved thousands of person-hours by three generations of scientists over a period of 44 years, and that it had used precise and massive on-the-ground measurements to reach its findings. My offense was demonstrating that soil erosion in one region of the Midwest was only a small fraction of what it had been in the 1920s and 1930s, with the clear implication that the same improvements were occurring elsewhere in the country.

My experience suggested to me that ideology, not science, had established a significant grip on the top scientific press. This article attempts to portray the emotionalism, exaggeration, and even ideological viciousness--qualities that to me define extremism--that have invaded the field of environmental science. It also considers the different standards of evidence required for pessimistic, as opposed to optimistic, views on environmental problems. As a backdrop, I will use my own specialty, soil erosion. This article also considers the scientific objectivity of some prominent, if perhaps extreme, players in environmental science and the implications of some of their actions.


It should have been clear to me well before 1982 that there was a new Zeitgeist. The continuing doomsday pronouncements of Paul Ehrlich had gotten him (and still get him) unending appearances on late night television, rock-star status on college campuses, and seemingly unlimited access to influential platforms in top scientific journals. Ehrlich has his critics, of course, but he summarily dismisses them--hardly the essence of rational scientific dialogue.

And there are many other environmental bandwagons being promoted. Starting in 1984, the annual State of the World report by the World Watch Institute (WWI), headed by Lester Brown, has become a major crisis mill. The specialty of WWI is serving up huge doses of theorized Malthusian starvation on a worldwide scale, sometimes based on inflated soil erosion predictions. This group, like many others, rarely encounters a mere environmental problem; it is always a crisis and, as with Paul Ehrlich, doomsday is just around the corner if draconian steps are not taken immediately. Like Ehrlich, Brown has been well rewarded for his trouble, in this case receiving a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award and the UN Environmental Prize, and has been described by the Washington Post as "one of the world's most influential thinkers."

SIMON'S WAGER While I have been involved in environmental science for almost 40 years, I am not politically active. I learned early on to avoid academic bandwagons of any sort and that true scholarship can scarcely abide political causes. My own teaching, research, writing, and family commitments left me little time and I must admit that I was not following the more general environmental debates.

With discretionary time as a Fulbright fellow at Oxford in 1995, I accidentally discovered the work of the late American economist Julian Simon. I had earlier heard of Simon's famed bet with Ehrlich about the future scarcity of a basket of natural resources. In 1980, Simon offered to bet $10,000 that any specified raw material would drop in price over time. Ehrlich and two colleagues gleefully accepted the bet, commenting that "the lure of easy money can be irresistible." Ehrlich and the others selected chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten, with a time lapse of 10 years. …