Spotted Owls and Zombie Science

Chana Cox_thb

by Chana Cox

Politicians often appeal to the authority of science or scientists, but they seldom question the scientific validity of the underlying scientific theories.

Science is one of the ways in which human beings answer the question “why?” Religion, myth, morality, and poetry also address the “why” questions; and they all may access truth in one form or another. What distinguishes science from non-scientific attempts to address “why” questions is the scientific method. Science is made up of theories like Newtonian mechanics or quantum theory; and, using those theories as lenses through which we organize our knowledge, scientists can make concrete and quantifiable predictions about the world. In so far as the predictions prove accurate, the science can continue to be relied on. If the predictions are clearly inaccurate, however, the scientific theory has failed a test and scientists must change or abandon the theory. Unlike religion or myth, a scientific explanation actually can be proven wrong by the empirical evidence.

As it happens, however, people tend to have a great deal of ego, status, job security, and money invested in particular theories; and so, they refuse to let their theories die. Scientists simply may choose to be blind to any evidence which counters the theory. “Undead” falsified scientific theories become what I call “zombie science.” Once a falsified theory has been made impervious to evidence, it stops functioning as a scientific theory and becomes a myth. Nevertheless, advocates of the zombie theory continue to claim the theory as science, and politicians continue to appeal to the authority of those scientists and to force the rest of us into making further “investments” on the non-existent strength of the zombie theory.

In Oregon the environmentalists’ theory about the northern spotted owls provides a particularly clear example of zombie science run amok. The northern spotted owl was listed as an endangered species in 1990. Scientists and politicians assured us that if the spotted owl and its forest habitat were to be preserved, which was a legal and moral imperative, most logging on public land would have to stop.

They knew that the price for maintaining the owl habitat would be very high. Over half the land in Oregon is publicly owned so, over the last 25 years logging revenue in Oregon has dropped by 95%. The last timber mill in Jackson County has now closed. Prior to 1990, harvesting timber under strict Forest Service constraints had been generating many millions of dollars in direct royalties to local governments and schools. Logging and other timber-related industries were generating many more millions in wages for rural Oregonians. As partial compensation for lost revenue, counties received federal payments through a transition period. Think of it as alimony. There was nothing to transition to except for tourism, and tourism is not a basic industry. It cannot sustain our rural economies. It was only a matter of time before Josephine, Curry, and Jackson Counties lost local funding for schools, libraries, roads, police, and even 911 emergency services.

We know now that the science was wrong. The theory which was used to justify our sacrifice has been falsified. Over the last 25 years, the population of spotted owls has dropped by 40%; and the unlogged forests are diseased and dying. Dry wood burns, so we have megafires in the summers followed by spring floods on denuded hillsides. The law now allows the Forest Service to permit the logging of dead or burned timber; but, relying on what is now clearly a zombie science, environmental groups have successfully sued in court to prevent even that logging. Taxpayers are paying for the lawyers on both sides of that dispute. So much for preserving spotted owls, forests, and forest habitat.

Spotted owls are not an endangered species because they aren’t even a species. They breed with their more aggressive, larger, and more adaptable cousins, the striped owl. So now the federal government is spending one million dollars a year to kill striped owls in order to reduce the miscegenation between stripes and spots. We are shooting owls to save the theory, and environmentalists are still pushing to stop logging in other forested areas.

Politicians and environmentalists won’t save the spotted owl or the forests, but they very well may save their zombie theory and their own jobs―while continuing to kill our economy and our  jobs.

Chana Cox, U-Choose Education Forum