Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Rosemont Mine and the Scientific Method

In today's Arizona Star Opinion Section, Dr. Ostercamp discusses recent hydrologic research about whether the proposed Rosemont Mine would affect surrounding groundwater levels, and how much.

The upshot?  "More research is needed."  A classic scientific result that, in this case, sides with environmentalists' opposition to the proposed copper mine.  I was interested that this result shows how science often works differently from how most people think. Instead of generating facts to aid society's decisions, normal science (and scientists) thrive on ambiguity, controversy, and the unknowability of the world.

I believe that science, as a human institution, should work this way.  I am deeply suspicious of any scientific field with easy answers and a "97% consensus".  Scientific culture harnesses the creativity, jealousy, and competition inherent in human nature when it is most controversial, when there are a plurality of opinions and accusations.  When I hear that, for example, climate change researchers are united behind the IPCC report, I worry that the incentive structure of that field of science has become corrupted; instead of working to prove each other wrong in order to gain fame and fortune, they have all jumped on the same bandwagon to champion their cause.

In the same way that monopolies are bad for capitalism, unified "consensus statements" are bad for science.  This is not to say that I disagree with the IPCC's conclusions.  In the same way that a monopoly might act in society's interest, the IPCC may well be acting in our best interests.  But without dissent and opposing voices there is no guarantee.  Of course, one might argue that monopolies can be efficient; scientific consensus is necessary to accept what we know and move on.  I agree that arguments and democracy are very inefficient and often only result in stalemate, acrimony, and confusion.  Perhaps the "best" way of running an economy or the scientific method is ultimately a political decision?  

Politically, science (as I have described it in the first and second paragraphs) often argues for the status quo, because any change is inherently unknowable and the amount or "further research" needed is infinite; we can never comprehend everything.  So, in its current manifestation, science plays into the hands of industry when industrial processes are already ongoing: this is why Monsanto's fight for GMOs to be labelled "generally recognized as safe" and widely disseminated is so important.  Science would have argued for limitless further testing if GMOs were acknowledged to be a legitimately novel subject of study.  Conversely, science plays into the hands of environmentalists whenever new industrial projects are proposed.  In the case of the proposed Rosemont Mine, scientists would need to comprehensively understand the geology, hydrology, ecology, and meteorology of the entire Santa Rita mountains, if not the county and beyond, before being able to pass judgement on the effects of the mine.

But what about situations where environmentalists and industry would like to work together to advance some project for the good of society?  For example, thinning projects on national forests are badly needed prevent continuing damage to watersheds and ecosystems, as well as human life and property.  But what can science say about the best way to thin forests?  "Further research is needed..."

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