Monday, December 19, 2005

Killing the message

One of the real signs of Republicans' growing extremism is what Chris Mooney calls their "War on Science," because it reveals a mindset in which factual reality is discarded and replaced with one constructed out of whole cloth.

As always, this constructed reality comes into conflict with the real world, at which point its adherents typically try to assert themselves by outshouting the messengers or shutting them up.

In the case of the attacks on science, we know what happens next, inexorably: a slow-motion disaster for the public. In some cases, as with stem-cell research, real advances in medicine are forestalled. In others, as with the intended imposition of "intelligent design" curriculum in our schools, it means a serious degradation of the sciences in public education. In yet others, as with the management of endangered species like salmon, it results in massive degradation of our national resources and natural heritage.

Exhibit No. 25846 in this ongoing debacle is the recent decision by Sen. Larry Craig, the Idaho Republican, to cut funding for one of the major sources of data that is currently available on Columbia River salmon.

You've got to love Craig's explanation, which is a classic case of projection:
"Data cloaked in advocacy create confusion," Craig said on the Senate floor this month, after successfully inserting language in an energy and water appropriations bill that bans all future funding for the Fish Passage Center. "False science leads people to false choices."

It sure does. And it's quite clear that Craig's definition of "false science" is "any science that runs counter the policies I wish to promote."
"Idaho's water should not be flushed away on experimental policies based on cloudy, inexact assumption," Craig said in a news release.

Nor should taxpayers' dollars be flushed away on ridiculously expensive, and plainly ineffective, measures like the barging of salmon smolt currently favored by the Bush administration.

And, like all good Republicans these days, Craig distorted and falsified the record while justifying the line cut:
On the Senate floor this month, he justified elimination of the Fish Passage Center on the grounds that "many questions have arisen regarding the reliability of the technical data" it publishes. Craig quoted from the report of an independent scientific advisory board that in 2003 reviewed work done by the Fish Passage Center.

But one of the report's authors, Charles C. Coutant, a fishery ecologist who retired this year from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said Craig neglected to mention that the board found the work of the center to be "of high technical quality."

"Craig was very selective in reflecting just the critical part of a quotation from the report," said Coutant, who has worked on Columbia River salmon issues for 16 years. "It did give a misleading impression about our board's view of the Fish Passage Center."

Craig also said on the Senate floor that "other institutions" in the Northwest now do "most" of the data collection work done by center. He said getting rid of the center would reduce redundancy and increase the efficiency of regional fish programs.

But according to another recent independent scientific assessment of the work of the center, there was little duplication of data collection between the center and other organizations; it recommended that the center continue to receive funding to meet a substantial need in the Northwest for information on salmon survival.

Fish and game agencies in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, Indian tribes with fishing rights on the river and the governors of Oregon and Washington have all said that eliminating the Fish Passage Center is a bad idea that would reduce the quality of information on endangered salmon.

As Chris Mooney points out:
Craig's "scientific" rationales for killing this scientific agency don't add up. It's clear that this was about politics -- and about appeasing Craig's political allies in the hydropower industry.

Paul Vandevelder explained in the P-I the other day just how grotesque a piece of bad government this move by Craig really is. The significant point is that cutting out the center means silencing one of the real sources of actual data that proved, beyond any question, that the Bush salmon recovery efforts were failing. It's an effective way of silencing your critics:
Scientific data gathered by an independent agency, the Fish Passage Center, showed that the BPA's strategy of trucking and barging fish around dams has been a $3 billion boondoggle. Under the care of BPA hydrologists, fish survival rates have plummeted. In June, the judge set aside the projected loss and ruled in favor of the fish. Within days, Idaho Sen. Larry E. Craig (named "Legislator of the Year" by the National Hydropower Association) inserted language into a Senate energy bill that would "zero out" funding for the Fish Passage Center.

The FPC, as it is known, was established in 1984 after Congress passed the Northwest Power Act, a toothsome law that put salmon protection on an "equal footing" with power generators, barge operators, ratepayers and irrigators. For more than 20 years, the FPC has collected and distributed scientific data to state, tribal and federal fisheries biologists and the courts. The center's longtime manager, Michele DeHart, admits that data has put politicians between a rock and a wet place by proving, conclusively, that the hydro-power infrastructure kill fish.

Nevertheless, "I guess I am flabbergasted," says DeHart, whose agency is now scheduled to vanish in March. "We are biologists and computer scientists, and what we do is just math."

The rider that Craig attached to the Senate energy bill is a shot across Redden's bow. As the man responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act on the Columbia and Snake rivers, Redden relies on scientific data to make sound decisions. "I think it would be a drastic mistake for them (Congress) to yank the subsidy from the center (FPC) which has been giving out neutral information for many years," said Redden at a hearing on Sept. 30. "I hope that does not happen."

Craig attempted to explain his action in a speech to the Senate, in November, by claiming that data gathered by the FPC is "cloaked in advocacy" and that "false science leads people to false choices." Inexplicably, neither Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden or Washington Sens. Patty Murray nor Maria Cantwell, challenged Craig's nonsensical assertions.

Two decades of scientific data supports neither the BPA's recovery strategy nor the senator's make-believe world. When the spill concluded last September, the FPC announced that smolt survival rates in the lower Snake River were the "highest recorded in recent years," a year-over year jump from 30 percent to 74 percent. Craig finessed that embarrassing detail in his speech to the Senate. Nor did he mention that the BPA actually reduced its late summer wholesale rates by 1.6 percent thanks to surplus power sales that exceeded forecasts by $20 million.

No wonder they want to kill the messenger: they want to kill the message. That's how you maintain that constructed version of reality.

But the real version of reality, as always, has its own way of asserting itself. And it can be very, very painful when it does.

No comments: