A few observations about science and shorelines

I’d like to talk a little about the ongoing rough-and-tumble debate over shoreline management — including a letter from a group of scientists — but first let me make a few observations about science in general.

Scientists are the first to acknowledge that science is a messy pursuit. Working hypotheses don’t always work out. And even when findings do reveal some new clarity about nature, there can be multiple ways to interpret those findings as well as new questions to be answered. Understanding takes time and effort.

But if science is messy, the application of science to public policy is downright dirty.

That’s what we see in climate change, where the big challenge for scientists is to make predictions about how climate will behave in the future by considering past changes along with the physical forces that are taking place.

The challenge for policy-makers involved in the climate debate is to understand the risks and uncertainties and then to act appropriately, given political forces working in various other directions.

Trying to protect the natural function of shorelines is a similar challenge, but it ought to be much simpler. We have a history of land use along the shorelines and a fairly good understanding of the physical processes involved.

Again, the challenge for policy-makers is to understand the risks and uncertainties about shoreline alterations and to act appropriately. In this case, political forces include people who have no apparent understanding of property rights, people who believe government has no right to regulate land use, and a large number of people trying to seek a reasonable balance that protects ecosystem functions as well as land-use opportunities.

That brings me to a letter I received this week. Written by 14 scientists, the letter is critical of an analysis by Don Flora, a retired forest researcher who has taken a keen interest in shoreline science.

In his analysis, Flora could find no statistical relationship between “stressors” caused by human construction and “ecological function,” measured by natural factors. Flora admits that his focus was narrow. He also admits that his findings do not mean that man-made alterations to the shoreline cause no harm to the ecosystem — but he seems to say that it’s a short leap to that conclusion. See my story from Oct. 26 and my Water Ways entry from Oct. 27.

Many scientists and others familiar with Puget Sound shorelines were greatly disturbed by the suggestion that bulkheads and other structures cause no harm, which is where some property-rights advocates have taken Flora’s findings. Fourteen scientists responded with a letter explaining why Flora’s analysis and conclusions were all wrong. See my story in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun.

In forwarding the letter to the Puget Sound Partnership, one of the signers, Megan Dethier of Friday Harbor Laboratories, offered this comment about Flora’s report:

“Many regional scientists immediately took issue with this misrepresentation of science, and felt that a response was warranted to help ensure that decision makers, planners, managers, and the public realize that this report was highly misleading, and that it is important to distinguish real science from pseudoscience. After much discussion about the best tone, length, and approach for this response, we have produced the attached brief document (I also attach the original Flora report).

“We (the signers, plus the MANY agency scientists who helped with it and agreed with it but were politically constrained from signing it) are unsure of the best method to get this document “out”, but most agreed that PSP is good at that kind of thing, hence this email to you. Our hope is that this might be a little piece of “ammunition” for municipalities, counties, etc. fighting off the sort of pseudoscience barrages characterized by Dr. Flora’s paper.”

Kitsap County is forming a task force to make recommendations to update the county’s shoreline regulations. Several other counties and many cities are going through this process, as required by state law. I believe smart people assigned to the Kitsap panel and others will be able to review the science and make reasonable recommendations.

A couple of things come to mind. First, not all shorelines are the same. That may be obvious, but we have rocky shores where large waves crash, as well as backwater estuaries where plants and animals are barely affected by currents. The need for buffers, as well as buffer widths, probably varies under these conditions.

Second, it is only common sense that bulkheads and docks have an effect on ecosystems. We should try to understand the effects of not only a single structure in an otherwise natural area but the effect of an entire shoreline dominated by structures. That’s the cumulative effect.

For your consideration, here are Don Flora’s original report, the letter from the 14 scientists and another interesting analysis I received from Richard Nerf, who has experience with statistics.

Don Flora report PDF 185 kb)

Letter from 14 scientists (PDF 46 kb)

Richard Nerf critique of Flora report (PDF 435 kb)

Don Flora’s response to Richard Nerf

12 thoughts on “A few observations about science and shorelines

  1. Hmmm…while none of these letters will sway my personal or professional opinion one way or the other, one thing did strike me about the letter from the scientists – however respected they may be…

    There was a statement about how Don’s letter “does nothing to advance the integration of science and policy” or something like that, near the end of the letter.

    Well, Don Flora, whoever this guy is, seemed to take his belief pretty seriously to develop this “report”. He appeared to spend a lot of time sitting down and trying to put his thoughts on paper. Even if you disagree with it, which you all have the right to, he has the right to speak his piece, and provide his personal and professional opinion.

    I think Don Flora should be respected for that. If the scientists expect their opinions to be respected, provide the same to the opposing view….out of professional consideration.

    Just my two cents. Otherwise, this debate will end up like Climate Change, where one side hates the other.

  2. Chris,
    Nice job collecting and presenting the various pieces of information on this topic! I did take a look at the Science For Policy Project Final Report, and it is good to see steps being taken (or at least recommended) to clarify the processes involved in the science/policy interactions.

    The presentation of science to the public, however, still seems a lot like the Wild West. There is a lot of NGOs out there doing their best to make scientific knowledge accessible to non-scientists — but whether their representation of the science is valid or not is hard for the recipients to determine. There are no robust filters for people to use to evaluate the information being presented to them — nothing like the peer review process behind scientific editorial policy.

    The Puget Sound Partnership is trying to improve the situation by putting an emphasis on “vetted statements” in public outreach — statements that are sourced and have been reviewed for accuracy. I look forward to seeing other good ideas developed for helping the public sensibly sort through the science. This will, as you pointed out, be an issue with the SMP update effort, as well as in just about every other policy topic that involves our relation with the world around us.

    Considering how large a part of our lives water is, it’s astounding to me that there isn’t more good journalism on the topic. So thanks again for all your good work in reporting on these issues — not only have you helped bring a more complete picture of various issues to the table, but if it weren’t for you, an awful lot of people would still be driving and ferrying over the water each day without ever realizing that there are water related issues that need our attention.

    John F. Williams
    SEA-Media.org

  3. “…There is a lot of NGOs out there doing their best to make scientific knowledge accessible to non-scientists — but whether their representation of the science is valid or not is hard for the recipients to determine….”

    Well said. Public education is vital and should begin with the children.
    Who dropped the ball on Poulsbo Marine Science Program?

    For shame that a lifelong beneficial program teaching kids to respect and love our waterways and critters within whithered on the vine, begging for funds while school districts supported their luxurious and very expensive swimming pools when they should have had a marine science program.

    http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/custom/portlets/recordDetails/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED080345&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=ED080345

    Each school and library should have active, hands on marine science programs for the kids and interested adults.

    That said…Most of us can understand the effect of pollution affecting our waterways and critters we depend on for survival. Fewer of us can see, understand or know what to believe of the scientific and conflicting reports on global warming.

    Years ago, had the Poulsbo Marine Science Program continued to expand and teach increasing numbers of children to respect and understand our waterways…we might not be having this conversation now. Not enough kids were educated and taught the value in Marine Science but you can do it now, for tomorrow.

    I hope you also place a higher priority on educating the children and less on global warming…in my opinion…Sharon O’Hara

  4. “I hope you also place a higher priority on educating the children and less on global warming…”

    Quality science education should include the science of global warming and climate change, at some point. They are not mutually exclusive.

  5. Point well taken.
    Though it might be easier to teach our environment locally and teach kids pollution by using the local sea-life. It seems to me that kids seem to absorb information faster with hands on…barnacles are sharp, by touch they learn to handle them properly.
    Show them and let them touch a healthy barnacle, crab, oyster, whatever sea critter you have…then show them a pollution caused diseased example of the same type of sea life and explain what it is and why it happened and what is needed to fix it.

    Show them a healthy barnacle feeding then one with only the shell remaining. Explain what happened. They can see and feel what you are talking about and since, by living here, they are surrounded by sea life they might relate to local environment faster and begin to feel protective of their heritage.

    They would be enthralled by seeing up close and personal, an octopus move and to learn its role in its environment. Locally, a super outing and show and tell is Barker Creek, a fabulous place for a learning experience.
    I’ll bet you’re already doing this…
    Sharon O’Hara

  6. Truly, helping people learn more about our marine environment, especially at a young age, is a big part of the solution. And the Poulsbo Marine Science Center is certainly a powerful tool in the toolbox. As someone who served on the board for several years, I can assure you that neither the old nor new PMSCs would have been able to do as much as they have done without the many, many people who volunteered countless hours and contributed many dollars toward making them effective. But that large outpouring of effort pales in comparison with what is really needed. Nevertheless, the new PMSC is growing its relationship with the schools, so keep an eye out for this and offer help wherever you can.

    Read more: http://pugetsoundblogs.com/waterways/2010/01/15/a-few-observations-about-science-and-shorelines/#ixzz0d1xJalGv

  7. While we’re talking about schools, kids, environment and the Poulsbo Marine Science Center…how is it that the schools force taxpayers to support school swimming pools only a few benefit from (a luxury item for homeowners)and extracurricular sports, but providing a place to teach the kids about the waterways surrounding us – isn’t on the agenda. Why not?

    Our waterways connect us around the world, is our food source, transportation…yet we don’t teach the kids what they need to know and understand. The need to care and know why…that our good health depends on a healthy marine life.
    Thanks for your comments and urls.
    Sharon O’Hara

  8. It wasn’t an exaggeration; it was a ridiculous mistake that somehow got into the IPCC report. The problem was quickly recognized, but it remains an embarrassment to the IPCC. Does it discount everything the IPCC has written? I think not.

    Bt the way, I linked to a report about this issue from BBC News back on Dec. 17. See “Water, Water Everywhere (Water News)”

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8387737.stm

  9. It is worth pointing out that since this exchange, from 7 years ago, the work of Soon and Balunias (sp?) has been pretty well refuted, and Mann’s work supported with more evidence.

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