Tuesday, March 13, 2012

BAS Ackwards

Why don't basketball players wear football helmets? The answer is that there is no need. There are few, if any, concussions in the NBA. Yes, there might be the occasional elbow to the head, but the risk of a serious head injury is considered to be de minimis. There just aren't enough serious head injuries in the NBA to warrant concern.

Now suppose a determined helmet maker wants to increase his sales, and he seizes upon the idea of selling football helmets to the NBA. He discovers that, compared to the NFL, there is a frightening absence of head injury data in the NBA. This is disturbing since the helmet maker really believes that serious head injuries are ubiquitous in sports. He makes a sales pitch to the NBA where he characterizes the NBA's lack of data about harm as being a genuine cause for concern, and he proposes that every player wear a helmet, to be precautionary in the face of the NBA's scientific uncertainty.

Ah, but some trouble makers challenge the helmet maker over the need for NBA players to wear helmets, so the helmet maker responds by trotting out Best Available Science (BAS) about helmets.  The BAS shows that helmets reduce injuries to professional athletes by a significant amount. The NBA finds the science to be very persuasive, and as a result, it decides that all of its players must wear football helmets from now on.

What went wrong here? Can you spot the syllogistic errors that led to pointless (and expensive) safety measures being taken for a situation that was already de minimis? For one, the salesmen's BAS is about helmets, not the risk situation in the NBA. In fact, to make his pitch, the salesmen never needs to know the actual risk to NBA players. He only needs to be persuasive about head injuries being ubiquitous, point out that the NBA lacks data on this ubiquitous problem, and then propose a plausible solution ... his helmets.

That brings us to San Juan County where expanded buffers (i.e., helmets) are being proposed for our wetlands, streams, and shorelines. Despite data showing many positive aspects to our ecosystem, there is an absence of data showing no harm. We are told by authorities that pollutants are ubiquitous, and many citizens and officials tell frightening stories about our ecosystem's dire prospects if we don't do something. The proposals for much bigger buffers are justified by BAS about buffers, not BAS about the county.

I believe this misconstrues BAS, and it allows the buffer scientists to flip the CAO process on its head. The scientists aren't using BAS about San Juan County to design buffers; they are using BAS about buffers to design the county.

When that happens, buffer scientists become little more than buffer salesmen and BAS becomes just a sales brochure for the salesmen's latest product. Like all pitchmen, the buffer salesmen would love to see you kitted out in the deluxe model.

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