Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Ignorance Of The Experts

If your pipes were to spring a leak, would you call an electrician? If you were needing heart surgery, would you make an appointment to see a wildlife biologist?

The wetland and shoreline buffers in San Juan County have been justified largely on the basis of their supposed ability to remove pollutants. Ecotoxicology is the study of the effects of chemicals on biological organisms. Fate and transport is the study of how chemicals move and degrade as they pass through the environment. 

How many ecotoxicologists or fate & transport specialists do you suppose produced the latest buffer proposal in our wetlands CAO draft?


The current proposed buffer system for San Juan County was developed by wetland scientists and planners, with further extensive input from a cellular biologist-cum-Board member of the Friends, who by her own admission, hadn't even used Excel "in years." These technical experts produced a buffer calculator that establishes buffer sizes based on surface runoff.  "They" assumed that pollution is directly proportional to surface runoff. That's a novel concept, and by that logic, the Amazon River, being the largest river in the world in terms of volume, should also be the most polluted river in the world.

A more well-reasoned approach to pollutant transport might have been to hypothesize that pollutant loading would be related to the proximity and strength of a genuine pollutant source. For example, there are many authentic sources of industrial pollution adjacent to China's Yellow River. Which river would you venture to guess is more polluted? Is it the Yellow River, whose total yearly discharge is less than 3 days of Amazon flow, or is it the Amazon, the river with 20% of the world's river flow?

Of course, the Yellow River is more polluted.  It's one of the most polluted rivers in the world, but our County's proposed buffer methodology would have you conclude that the Amazon is dirtier. That's the kind of nonsensical outcome that occurs when you have wetland scientists and planners doing ecotoxicology and fate & transport. The answers given by their analysis are meaningless when no effort has been made to identify authentic pollutant sources first.

Buffer science, to the extent that it exists as a science at all, is really ecotoxicology and fate & transport performed by wetland scientists. As such, it is like heart surgery done by wildlife biologists:  it's messy, full of mistakes, and you really don't want to end up as the patient.

Buffers impose high social and economic costs upon a community in return for little to no ecological risk reduction. The real question is how in the first place did buffers ever establish their credible, but undeserved, reputation as an effective remedy for pollution in the GMA/CAO world?  One can only speculate on an answer, but I suspect that buffers, which are mostly non-solutions to non-problems, have never been properly scrutinized, analyzed, or challenged using an ecotoxicology or fate & transport approach. At times, the entire field of wetland science seems to be an echo chamber of professionals whose customary habit is to deny the standing of anyone outside "their" field, so I believe a sense of ownership by wetland scientists has hidden "buffer science" from serious critique by "outsiders." State wetland scientists and their consultants, not ecotoxicologist "outsiders", are the ones that push buffers.  The authority of these State wetland scientists cannot be overlooked as a major reason why buffers are so commonplace and highly regarded at the local level. It seems that whenever San Juan County has entertained second thoughts about standard CAO approaches or its costs to our community, the successive verbal prods by the State wetland scientists have been:
  1. Please continue.
  2. The process requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.
And if you've ever had an introductory psychology course, you might recognize those verbal prods and understand the influence that an authority figure can have over their subjects. When you combine an ideology of good (e.g., the appearance of protecting the environment) with an authoritative figure (e.g., the State) that puts pressure on a local government suffused with confederates (e.g., the Friends), an otherwise objective participant in our local system can become psychologically disconnected from the severity of the unintended consequences of "good" actions. In that environment, "good" can transform itself into thoughtless and heartless injustice directed at fellow citizens. Obedience to "good" can frequently transform itself into oppressive behavior.

The Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, used to say that "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts." When it comes to wetlands and the technical experts relied upon by the County, there is precious little skepticism of the "experts", and as a result, precious little science (or good) as well.


  1. This is an outstanding argument against knee-jerk environmentalism. I've passed this along to our Congressional candidate, the American Land Rights Association, and a few other property advocates.

  2. ahhh, what kind of expert is, ?

    The problem with the Milgram experiment was that the person telling the other person to shock the third person knew the third person wouldn't be shocked. So, I guess that the CAO is okay because the experts know we won't be hurting anyone.

    It's great that you use outdated science, Sanford Prison, to back up your backwards point of view.

    “It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong” - Richard Feynman - Where's your experiment?

    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” - Richard Feynman

    “I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.” - Richard Feynman - Does that make you the "next guy'?

    “If I could explain it to the average person, I wouldn't have been worth the Nobel Prize.” - Richard Feynman - maybe that's why you aren't getting the CAO.

    “There is a computer disease that anybody who works with computers knows about. It's a very serious disease and it interferes completely with the work. The trouble with computers is that you 'play' with them!” - Richard Feynman - hmmm.....using computers causes stupidity because people play games on them. You wrote this blog post on a computer.....hmmmm.

    Finally, the best value that anyone dispensing information should follow,

    “The idea is to try to give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another” - Richard Feynman

    See folks, just because someone can get information out to the public doesn't mean they should be listened to. Right ECK?

  3. ohh yeah, that Rachel data is over ten years old. ECK, didn't you once claim, "Even so, the 303d coliform data itself is somewhat suspect. The 303d listing was based primarily on data that is 10 years old or more..."

    hmmm. what do you want your readers to believe? oh yeah, you.

  4. Actually, I hope people think for themselves and believe in their own ability to think for themselves. I hope readers will consider the points that I've made and the points that you've made and come to their own conclusion. Readers shouldn't "believe" you or me. They should think through the data and issues for themselves.