Not All Science is Equal

A closer look at recent local “science” news

By Dave Skinner

There’s been much “science” news lately, not just in terms of the hard science required to end the COVID-19 catastrophe. We’ve had some local science news, too.

First came reporting on a “new paper” by Flathead Lake Biological Station (FLBS) scientists about Canadian mining risks, published in Science magazine. Next, we learned a few days ago of another paper revealing that, even as Glacier Park’s glaciers melt off, associated meltwater bugs are hanging on.

Now, one thing I expect from “science journalism” is access to the actual “science.” The scientists are getting free publicity, so it’s fair to let the public judge for themselves, too, right?

In the case of the Glacier Park bug study, two mouse clicks produced a big old document full of charts bearing the good news that park bugs have “have unexpectedly persisted” despite glacier loss – but that darn global warming might still kill them all.

However, in the case of the FLBS publication, readers who click the provided link “do not have access to the full text.” Shown instead is a low-resolution, barely-legible image that can’t be copied or printed, nor were the footnotes to the document visible — which matters because in a run of 11 declaratory sentences, nine had footnotes. However, one could buy a single issue of Science for 15 bucks, or – “Purchase Access to this Article for 1 day for US $30.” To what is actually well short of a peer-reviewed “published” paper, merely a “commentary” in Science’s “Letters” section?

Rather than pay up, I started digging elsewhere for free.

First, I was curious how the 22 “authors” of this 325-word letter came together. Turns out all 22 signatories (of 39 “science and policy experts”), including non-academic environmentalists, attended an October 2019 FLBS workshop.

Tellingly, the event was “co-funded by the Wilburforce Foundation and Salmon-Net.” The latter is an anonymously registered website, basically a black hole, but Wilburforce is a well-known funder of environmental groups.

In 2018, Wilburforce (apparently “old Microsoft” cash) paid out over $13 million in well over 200 grants to Canadian and American activist “charity.” Its largest grants (three of $549,000) funded training to help environmentalists be more politically effective.

At least three Wilburforce groups sent “policy experts:” Headwaters (Bigfork) got $40,000, Wildsight (Fernie) $114,500, plus $20,000 to a third group.

Unsurprisingly (to me, anyway), the FLBS website explains a main purpose of the workshop (and funder Wilburforce) was “to create strategies for ensuring the best science is available.” Who gets to define “best?”

“Future products” from the workshop “will include two peer-reviewed scientific articles, the release of documented workshop proceedings, and the production of outreach materials designed to deliver key findings to watershed communities in a user-friendly format.”

That letter apparently qualifies as the first, because at least one of the 22 “writers” has already updated her curriculum vitae (resume) to put the letter at the top of her “publications list.”

What about “deliver[y of] key findings?” Well, last week, both Flathead papers featured an opinion article co-written by FLBS emeritus professor Ric Hauer, who also attended the workshop and signed the Science letter.

I’ll admit I admire their rhetorical verve, especially the declaration that America “is not Canada’s settling pond.” I agree – releases of nitrates and selenium from the Elk Valley mines need to be brought under control, sooner rather than later.

But the call by Professor Hauer and his writing partner, retired Montana state employee Rich Moy, to “fix” mining by prohibiting all new mines “until Canada proves it can [stop] current and ongoing contamination,” is inappropriate — basically guilty until proven innocent, with FLBS hoping to be the jury, of course.

The irony here? FLBS scientists have told us about Canadian problems for decades. But the solution? Well, that’s left to other, real scientists — upon whom mining company Teck has already spent nearly a billion dollars Canadian, including the hardware any solution will require.

If Teck’s science team succeeds, and I believe they will, they, not FLBS, will have done what society expects and deserves from science: the generation and application of useful new knowledge that leaves society better off than before.

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