Duelling scientists at 10 paces

When it comes to ecosystem collapse, will ‘my’ scientist say something that overshadows what ‘your’ scientist says? If the game of science is played according to its own rules, probably not. Unlike the game of politics, in science evidence is king.

By David Salt

When the environmental chips are down, who do you turn to? When an environmental crisis can’t be denied or ignored, who do you call?

For many politicians, the call is put out for scientists who can provide some expert advice that might help. At the very least, it gives the pollies something to say, it delays a difficult decision and sometimes pushes the problem far enough down the road till the issue-attention cycle has cooled (or it’s past the next election).

Smells fishy

So it was last month when millions of dead fish began bobbing to the surface along the Darling, one of Australia’s great river systems. The stench was horrid and the pictures graphic. Locals were disgusted and made videos accusing river managers, political leaders and irrigators of incompetence, corruption and malfeasance. Where lay the truth?

Everyone had an excuse – ‘it was the drought’s fault!’ was one of the most common invocations – but the disgust of the local community and the graphic imagery flooding the news media swamped all protestations and the pollies were looking for something to hide behind.

Who do you call? An expert scientific committee, of course. They’ll give us sage, technocratic advice couched in big words and heaps of caveats that will allow the pollies responsible for this area to escape immediate responsibility. So far, so normal.

Two reviews are better than none

But this story, the case of the mass fish kills at Menindee, has a few novel edges to it. For starters, it wasn’t the government who asked for an expert review, it was the opposition party. And they didn’t choose the reviewers. Instead they asked Australia’s scientific brain’s trust – the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) – to select an independent panel and provide feedback in weeks.

The Government’s response? First they disparaged the AAS accusing it of being too close to the opposition party, and then they set up their own scientific enquiry (“a fair dinkum independent panel”) to provide another independent scientific review that would deliver its interim findings days after the AAS review.

So, here we have two ‘duelling’ science reviews studying the same environmental disaster, releasing ‘competing’ reviews in days of each other; one for the government, one for the opposition. Such a ‘contest’ is in many ways farcical and potentially damaging to the brand value of science.

Or is it? Truth to tell, the game of science is not the game of politicians. Politicians play to win elections (to gain power). They’ll promise anything they can get away with, often shirk the hard decisions that upset their biggest donors, and bend the truth as far the system will allow (and often further). They are kept in line by voter awareness and the many checks and balances that the democratic system has built around their power (though the pollies always appear to be watering down these constraints).

The game of science

The game of science is based on the collection of evidence, and the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. Scientists are kept in line by peer review, transparency and accountability.

Which is why I parenthesised ‘duelling’, ‘competing’ and ‘contest’ in the above description. Because while the Government clearly intended its independent review to overshadow the opposition’s independent review, that’s not how the eminent scientists who undertook the review saw it. They saw it as an opportunity to review the facts, to collect the evidence and throw a little light on an epic environmental disaster.

And, because the institution of science is relatively strong in Australia (if poorly resourced in the environment sector), the resulting reports (just released) made strong statements about deficiencies in management that were, for the most part, in agreement and complementary with each other.

The Australian Academy of Science’s report, Investigation of the causes of mass fish kills in the Menindee Region NSW over the summer of 2018-2019, found that: There isn’t enough water in the Darling system to avoid catastrophic outcomes. This is partly due to the ongoing drought. However, analysis of rainfall and river flow data over decades points to excess water extraction upstream.

The second report, commissioned by the Government, Independent Assessment of the 2018-19 Fish Deaths in the Lower Darling, found that the fish death events in the lower Darling were preceded and affected by exceptional climatic conditions… amplified by climate change.

Both reports said there had been inadequate scientific monitoring and a lamentable lack of consultation with the local communities on the Darling River over time. As the AAS report put it: “engagement with local residents, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, has been cursory at best, resulting in insufficient use of their knowledge and engagement around how the system is best managed.”

The evidence is in

In this short space it’s impossible to dissect the full set of causes (and solutions) of the eco catastrophe that the mass fish kills at Menindee has become. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that adverse weather, climate change, mismanagement, poor governance, greed and corruption have all played a role. It’s a complex, richly layered story that spreads out over multiple scales of time and space.

Politics will always look for simple solutions when disaster strikes, and politicians will often claim they have the silver bullet to slay the problem beast that has emerged. But complex environmental problems rarely have simple solutions (and silver bullets are but a myth). Good science usually points this out, though whether that results in better policy depends on many factors.

In this particular case, both sides of politics sought to use science as a political weapon. And both resulting reviews have concluded it was a lack of science in the first place that led to such a horrific environmental outcome.

3 thoughts on “Duelling scientists at 10 paces

  1. Fish kills are hard to attribute to single causes. Do any of the reports say how much scientific research/data or how much policy is needed to protect ecosystems? To misquote Anna Karenina: “Happy ecosystems are all alike; every unhappy ecosystem is unhappy in its own way.” Would a local or regional solution work better?

    Liked by 1 person

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