YOUR OPINION? Scientists' effect on biodiversity legislation

Roy McCandless mccandless at
Wed Jan 29 03:59:52 EST 1997

> Student User wrote:
> >
> > I'm a law student at the University of Texas.  I'm going to write a paper
> > this semester about laws relating to biodiversity.
> >
> > I believe that, when scientists influence the writing of such laws --
> > either as consultants, paid lobbyists, or active political workers --
> > they have a negative effect.  It seems to me, admittedly early in my
> > research, that scientists frequently move the direction of such laws
> > towards an otherworldly, elitist overprotectiveness far removed from the
> > needs and wants of the local constituency.
> >
> > Would anyone care to share their feelings about this with me?  I would
> > welcome that.

I am a public health policy analyst, not a botanist. There is a history
to your question.

During the post-war period, science was viewed with a somewhat naive
optimism. Logic and reason would answer our problems. At that time, the
complaint of the scientist (and the policy analyst) was that public
decisions were too caught up in "politics".  If we could take "politics"
out of the process, logic and reason would prevail.

By the 1970s, political theory had changed. Budding policy analysts were
taught that "politics" is a necessary and important part of public
decision-making.  Process was given greater attention, and it was viewed
as the "beauty" of democracy, however contentious the process.

Your suggestion that scientists "have a negative effect" and "frequently
move the direction of laws towards an otherworldly, elitist
overprotectiveness far removed from needs and wants of the local
constituency" seems a bit extreme.

Scientists indeed should participate in the process, and scientists
would do well to regain and preserve public respect for their learned
and reasoned advice (my complaints about scientists who undermine the
credibility of _science_ are mostly limited to the social sciences).

You see, the problem is that there have often been times, quite obvious
in public health history, where public and political preferences have
been contrary to the public interest. It's not fun to be told by
scientists that you need to spend millions of dollars to treat your
waste. Or that your brucellosis-infected herd must be destroyed.

Public health historians praise John Snow for removing the handle from a
water pump in London thus preventing further spread of cholera.  While
historians praise his pioneering work as an epidemiologist (he had no
information on the cholera organism, and identified the water source
through statistical analysis), I tend to view him as a courageous
policy-maker.  Surely, the folks living in that neighborhood were
unhappy. They now had to obtain their water from other parts of the
city, and surely they viewed the shut-down of their neighborhood water
pump as "otherworldly, elitist overprotectiveness".  I suppose the
question for historians is whether John Snow was successful because he
was respected for learnedness and wisdom, or because he had political

Facts from this source are invented. Opinions are not my own.

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