Earth Day 2017: Blogs from the Wildlife Conservation Society

When Scientists Become Advocates

By Jason Patlis | April 22, 2017

I’ve spent the majority of my professional career as an advocate. In other words, a lawyer. My clients, in a technical sense, have been government offices and Congressional committees. But in a broader sense, my clients have been the endangered species, protected habitats, and marine resources at issue in the statutes and regulations that I have written and interpreted.

In doing my job, I had a simple maxim: “science shapes the policy, and policy shapes the politics.”

When I served in the Office of General Counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I worked closely with the scientists on staff. I reviewed their scientific justifications for regulatory actions, and applied legal standards of review in determining whether those justifications warranted the proposed actions.

March for Science, NYC. Photo: S Werner.

As Counsel for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and then as Deputy Staff Director for the House Science Committee, I recommended scientists to testify before the Committees to present their opinions, which would then inform the legislative proposals advanced by the Committees.

To be sure, there is rarely complete consensus or full agreement on a scientific opinion, especially involving ecological or environmental issues. But the scientific community does a good job policing itself, with frequent testing and rigorous debate.

“Scientists today are advocating for facts; they are advocating for the continued use of scientific inquiry and method; they are advocating for evidence-based decision-making.”

Scientific processes and principles governed decisions, even when scientific opinions differed. And while scientific debate and uncertainty have led to differing policies and politics, there has long been a basic confidence in, and consensus towards, a system of science-based decision-making.

This system is not a new one. The principle of scientific inquiry goes back to the dawn of civilization. Ancient Egyptians developed the science of medicine through examination, diagnosis and treatment, as recorded in the Edwin Smith papyrus, (c. 1600 BCE).

March for Science, NYC. Photo: S Werner.

During the first millenium BCE, astronomy was advanced by the Babylonians, who applied mathematical concepts to explain what they saw in the night sky. Perhaps no one more than Aristotle established the scientific method — an iterative combination of inductive and deductive inquiry, with applications of empirical observation — that in large form still governs today. As Aristotle wrote:

“In all disciplines in which there is systematic knowledge of things with principles, causes, or elements, it arises from a grasp of those: we think we have knowledge of a thing when we have found its primary causes and principles, and followed it back to its elements. Clearly, then, systematic knowledge of nature must start with an attempt to settle questions about principles.”[1]

The system of scientific inquiry has been developed through Islamic teachings in the Mideast and North Africa, Buddhist teachings in Asia, and through monasteries and the rise of universities in Europe during the Middle Ages, and the rise of scientific societies during the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment.

March for Science, NYC. Photo: WCS.

Scientific inquiry has always been nurtured through the major institutions of society — religious institutions, scientific societies and universities, and with the rise of strong central governments since the 1800s, governments themselves. Consider that it was Thomas Jefferson as President who commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804, and in 1807, created the National Geodetic Survey, the nation’s first civilian scientific agency.

In short, science is synonymous with civilization.

Which brings us to the importance of today.

Science itself has been under increasing attack in the last two decades. These attacks come from many fronts. First, industry-sponsored research has grown significantly, and has undermined the independence and objectivity of scientific inquiry and conclusion. One need look no further than research papers sponsored by cigarette manufacturers in the 1960s, or research papers sponsored by oil and gas companies in the 1990s.

WCS President and CEO Cristián Samper with staff at March for Science, Washington, D.C. Photo: WCS.

Second, public institutions responsible for objective scientific research and analysis are being undermined with cuts to their budgets, staff layoffs, prohibitions against transparency and public release of data. Third, traditional media outlets have created false equivalency in scientific facts, by giving equal time to contrary positions, in order to promote ratings and fill airtime in a 24–7 world, while the internet has fomented an entropy of knowledge, where nothing can be known for sure.

Throughout my career, I have seen myself as the advocate, while scientists provide the facts. That is the partnership between law and science. I have mixed feelings about scientists becoming advocates for their own cause; there is the risk of politicizing science (even more than it already is).

But scientists today are advocating for facts; they are advocating for the continued use of scientific inquiry and method; they are advocating for evidence-based decision-making. This is not about liberal or conservative politics; this is not about Democrats or Republicans; this is not about partisan positions.

This is about the preservation of civilization.

And yes, it is about saving Planet Earth.

Jason Patlis is Executive Director for Marine Conservation at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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[1] Physics Book 1, Chap 1, as translated in J.L. Ackrill, A New Aristotle Reader (1988), 81.

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Wildlife Conservation Society

Wildlife Conservation Society

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.