Thursday, October 22, 2020

A few months ago, I wrote an essay that discussed the abandonment of empiricism and the contempt some of our elected leaders apparently have for science and scientists. A couple of recent items motivated me to write about this again.

The first was hearing one of the presidential candidates mocking his opponent with the line “he’ll listen to the scientists.” Ok, scientists don’t know everything and they make a lot of mistakes and most of us aren’t nearly as smart as some would believe. And we’re at least as vulnerable to temptation as the non-scientist. But, as we are hired by public, private and non-profit institutions to provide a service to society, a reasonable person might wonder, why have us around if you’re not going to listen to us.

The second thing driving me to the keyboard was a candidate survey conducted by the organization Science Iowa, formerly March for Science. As coincidence would have it, the group invited me to present an overview of my work more than a year ago.

This question was on Science Iowa’s candidate survey: What policies do you propose or support to reduce agricultural chemicals and animal waste in Iowa groundwater and streams?

One farmer-candidate responded with this: First of all, Iowa farmers are managing fertilizer and animal manure applications better than ever before. “Scientists" saying that animal waste is in groundwater and streams doesn't advance the conversation to finding solutions to reduce nitrate, phosphorus and bacteria. Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy is working and I would be supportive of policy to continue the delivery of programs that are focused on this strategy.

Ok. The quotation marks around ‘scientists’ were included in the candidate’s answer. In my own abandonment of empiricism, a little non-scientist in my head whispered to me what name(s) this person might’ve had in mind when they added the “   ”.

As far as the assertion that Iowa farmers are managing fertilizer and manure applications better than ever, well, maybe. If management includes reducing the amount applied based on Iowa State University recommendations, then this statement is laughably false. Some farmers are doing intuitive things they didn’t do a generation ago, such as splitting the total amount applied into multiple applications, or co-applying inhibitors which help stabilize nitrogen fertilizer. But where is the evidence that any of these things are improving water quality, especially when it comes nitrogen pollution? Our streams and lakes are worse than ever by that measure. We still can’t come to grips with the fact that the system has a mass balance problem: inputs  > outputs = polluted water. And we're still in denial that our quest to drain every last square inch of Iowa degrades our streams.

And as far as finding solutions, did this supposed fan of the nutrient strategy not review its science assessment? A menu of solutions produced by the strategy’s science (not “science”) team has been lying on the restaurant table for eight years now, while the industry waits outside for a “free lunch” sign to be posted.

As I said in Woke Aldo, I doubt anybody has ever met a farmer who didn’t consider themselves a conservationist. But for much of the year, our streams are still brown and foamy and our lakes still green and slimy. Are we conservationists, or are we “conservationists”? What do we even mean by the word?

Discrediting the messenger because you don’t like the message is not a new tactic, but it seems to me this virus has become a little more sinister in recent years, and threatens the role of science as an arbiter for the truths of the natural world and a tool for enhancing the greater good. I get that some in agriculture want me to bite my tongue about the condition of our water. But permit me to state the obvious: if your goal is to do nothing, or generously, delay meaningful action for generations, you sure don't want somebody talking about the sorry state of the current condition.


More than a few people have told me to just ignore this sort of “thing.” That’s probably not bad advice, considered within the context of my own self-preservation. But I tend to believe the great Neils Bohr’s famous words: “We (scientists) are actors as well as observers in the drama.”

In his book “Serving the Reich, the Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler,” Philip Ball describes how the Nazis forsook the truth and divided physics into “Jewish” physics and “Aryan” physics. We know how that worked out: the Jewish scientists escaped with their lives, Heisenberg and Hitler failed to split the atom, and the Allies defeated Fascism. Prior to Einstein’s escape (not really an escape per se, but a refusal to return), many of his non-Jewish colleagues resented his perceived activism, to which he said, “I do not share the view that the scientist should observe silence in political matters, therefore human affairs in the broader sense. Does not such restraint signify a lack of responsibility?” As Ball said in his book, the important point here is that Einstein equated ‘political’ with ‘human affairs in the broader sense’; i.e. questions of right and wrong, and fair or unjust. 

Serving the Reich by Phillip Ball

Truth be told, I’m probably an average scientist at best, and it goes without saying that nobody will confuse me with Bohr or Einstein. But I’m not going to let that stop me from saying this: the ongoing pollution of Iowa’s water is a moral wrong, and it’s unjust.