Monday, May 4, 2009

Getting Started

“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”[1]

“Progress is science does not consist of replacing wrong answers with right answers, but in replacing wrong answers with those that are more subtly wrong”- Stephen Hawking

While this is a site dedicated to issues of forest management, I think there are some background issues we should deal with first. The first one I’d like to get into is pretty basic: What is valid knowledge?

The Dark ages were called so because the light of knowledge was forbidden to all but religious leaders and secular authorities (Royalty). To all others, what was known was a matter of received knowledge which required of them only faith or superstition.

The renaissance came as the application of reason to the natural world resulted in the discovery of a number of scientific truths (Think Gallileo, Newton, Michaelangelo, and others). These discoveries led, naturally to the idea that everything could be submitted to reason including politics and social mores and the result would be a sort of natural truth in all areas of thought and life. If reason were all that was required to discover truth it follows that any individual with the proper instruction can learn to do the same and so individuals are, or could be, released from the tyranny of the church and the King. Thus the pandora’s box of individual freedom was released. Free men could likewise form societies and political systems to their own ends and those, or at least some of them, would be so composed as to preserve that individual-ness. That led to a whirlwind of improvement to all of mankind that were willing to accept it and wealth beyond any imagined previously.

In modern times we have seen the this idea of enlightenment come full circle to where, after centuries of expanding general human knowledge, science now seems to lead to a restriction of what people can know. Knowledge has once more become the exclusive province of Priests (The U.N., The EPA, Union of Concerned Scientists) and their acolytes (researchers on the Federal dime, inexperienced recruits, various and sundry environmental groups, etc.) and the new royalty in their train (Prince Charles, Al Gore, James Hanson, Henry Waxman, Robert Kennedy Jr., etc.).

Common people are once more required to accept the pronouncements as received wisdom to be taken on faith and, for those that have yielded, to once more adopt superstition to stitch together the holes in those theories. And so we have come to a new Dark Age where real science is blasphemy and the “wisdom of our betters is to be accepted as a form of religion.

Where the heck does this come from? Well, I’m not a philosopher but I am reliably informed that a lot of it comes from a major change in the philosophy of knowledge in the early part of the last century. Scientific knowledge, to that point, had been predicated on reason. That is, everything could be subjected to a reasoned analysis through a prescribed and rigid procedure (the scientific method[2]) and would either be found baseless or “true”. Thus, a theory that was tested and found to be true would add to existing knowledge in large or small ways, and the cumulative efforts of a number of such efforts would advance overall knowledge. True knowledge, in this way, advances incrementally. As new techniques and knowledge become available, old theories may be totally replaced or changed at the margin and, over time, we come closer and closer to objective truth.

Many of those today who call themselves “Progressives”, however, subscribe to a new philosophical view called Relativism. Relativism theorizes that some elements or aspects of experience or culture are relative to other elements or aspects (ie., they are not susceptible to observable or provable truth on their own), and that humans can understand and evaluate beliefs and behaviors only in terms of their historical or cultural context. Therefore there is no absolute or concrete truth but, rather, truth is a consensus based on who is looking at it and at the time in which it is observed.

This idea has expanded in recent times to the idea that since there is no truth; science, what is, has no primacy over an idealistic conception of what should be. In terms of the environmentalist community this is combined with a fairly recent interpretation of ethics known as “situational ethics” which is concerned with the outcome or consequences of an action (the ends) as opposed to an action being intrinsically wrong.

This all translates for the environmentalist community to:

Based on our methods and interpretations we feel that this is what the truth should be
It is important to us that it be accepted as the truth by the larger community in order to effect the appropriate policy outcomes
Therefore, whatever is required to convince others to believe us is valid and ethical

Now, it’s important to understand that when the environmental movement was just getting started, it really was a mainly grass roots effort brought about by concerned citizens to curtail some very egregious environmental problems: the air was severely polluted in many areas of the United States and getting worse, the water in some areas was dangerously polluted (re: consider the famous story of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire), dam building was a single-minded pursuit without thought to its consequences and, yes, much of the timber harvest on public lands was likewise very single-minded and carried out in an atmosphere that was relatively restrictive to substantive public input.

Gradually, though, the old established conservation groups and periodicals (ie. American Forests, Audubon, Sierra Club, etc.) were taken over by more politically oriented factions (the famous take-over of the Sierra Club is well documented), and while many of the original subscribers and members dropped away, others joined as the radical leaders traded on the good names and good will of these old conservationist icons to leapfrog their way into respectability (It’s tellingly interesting that these usurpers maintained the “conservationist” title rather than the then radical “preservationist” moniker that more accurately described them).

My own rejection of these groups, whose core arguments elicited some sympathy on my part when still a grass-roots effort, occurred when they began attacking forestry in general and the Forest Service (for whom I, by then, worked). What was abstract before became specific and I was able to see how their arguments and pronouncements followed a general and very cynical pattern based on the three points above. That is they would pinpoint a subject (clearcutting was one of the earliest ones), point out a problem with it (in many cases, a very obscure and rare problem), exaggerate its effects, and use that as a focus point to springboard to the damning of the whole field of forestry. Rhys Jaggar recently described the purpose of this tactic quite succinctly:

It’s like all religions: slip out the mantras up front, make sure you stack the evidential deck for inexperienced recruits to stop them asking awkward questions and get them on the streets unquestioningly.[3]

The audience in this case was the lay public that had an interest in the natural world but little or no scientific background in it. Their purpose was to radicalize this group and build a coalition (or a number of essentially like-minded coalitions) in order build political power to attack and destroy the existing power systems in preparation for a complete restructuring. Their methods involved reducing the public’s faith in the abilities and intentions of expert knowledge and traditional management in favor of that of the environmentalists under their own philosophy. And they have been, over the past 40 years, almost entirely successful.

We have come to this, I think, as a result of laziness in thought and practice, and the siren songs of snake oil salesmen who tell us we are better off with less, materially and intellectually – just close your eyes and listen to the soothing music. Pay no attention to the faint cries and bellows up ahead.

This site is dedicated to pointing out the foibles and fallacies contained in these pretty bottles of snake oil as regards the past three decades of management of our National Forests. As I move through this series of essays, I will restrict my efforts to real knowledge: that that has been developed through rigorous application of the scientific method and which has led to the most highly developed human society in the history of the earth.
[1] Journal of Forestry (I have unfortunately lost the issue and forgotten the author)
[2] Adapted from Wikipedia:
Define a question
Gather information and resources (observe)
Form a hypothesis (a theory to explain the observations)
Perform experiments and collect data
Analyze data
Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
Publish results
Retest (frequently done by other scientists)

[3] In the Blog: Watts Up With That, Is Climate Change the “Defining Challenge of Our Age”? Part 1 of 3, April 28, 2009

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