Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Forests, science and politics

Commentary by David Reinhard


David Reinhard

You know the "Ask Dr. Science" segment you sometimes hear on National Public Radio? The guy who can answer all the secrets of the universe because "he knows more than you do" and "he has a master's degree . . . in science"?

Well, some in Congress who oppose the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act want Congress to go one better. They want their colleagues to oppose the bipartisan salvage-logging legislation sponsored by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., based on the suspect work of someone who doesn't even have a master's degree in science. They're publicizing the fact that Oregon State University graduate student Daniel Donato's recent article in Science -- "Post-Wildfire Logging Hinders Regeneration and Increases Fire Risk," the headline screamed -- "found that post-fire logging in the wake of the 2002 Biscuit Fire . . . decreased forest regeneration by 71 percent."

Donato's graduate degrees or lack thereof would be irrelevant if his Biscuit Fire study stood up to scrutiny. The eye-popping 71 percent figure would be a key information if it were actually relevant to the substance of the bill. Or if it were true. But lawmakers probably don't even need a bachelor's of science to see that Donato's findings don't make sense in the context of the Walden-Baird bill or even on their terms.

Let's assume Donato and his co-authors are right. Let's assume that logging a plot of land two years after a fire does increase seedling mortality or decrease forest regeneration by 71 percent. The fact is that this figure has nothing to do with Walden-Baird bill. It allows logging to begin 90 days, not two years, after a fire, windstorm or other catastrophic event and before seedlings have sprouted. It actually mitigates the mortality problem that Donato highlights.

The Donato study grabbed headlines because some OSU professors were so offended by its bad science that they engaged in a heavy-handed bid to prevent the article's publication in Science. Which was a shame, because it took the focus off the numbers racket Donato was conducting in the name of science. This only became fully clear when Donato finally provided Baird the data used in the study -- after the congressional hearing on the scientific dispute and after initially refusing to turn it over.

Let's return to the 71 percent seedling mortality figure, the figure that extreme greens now consider holy writ. How did it come to be? Was it the average of seedling loss due to logging across all the plots studied? No. The researchers didn't use averages. Was the ever-so-citable 71 percent figure based on a comparison of the seedlings before and after logging for the same plot? No. Even if you use the comparison mechanism favored by the study's authors -- medians, which are the midpoints (half higher, half lower) in any data set -- the decline would be only 41 percent. They got to 71 percent by using a post-logging median value from an entirely different plot. Nifty, eh?

It's like a late-night TV pitchman saying his hair-growth potion had a 100 percent success rate in trials, but not saying Yul Brenner was the pre-potion patient and Hugh Grant the post-potion patient.

Actually, it's worse than this apples-to-oranges comparison. Baird saw that natural seedling mortality occurred in five of seven unlogged areas. It was as high as 56 percent in one. Yet Donato attributed all that 71 percent increase in seeding mortality to logging.

Baird notes that Donato's article might have been titled "Delay in salvage logging increases seedling mortality" or "Some effects of logging two years after fire." This would not have been a news flash or a slick talking point for environmentalists opposing his and Walden's bill, but it would have reflected reality and actually help make the case for the bill.

Now, the former psychology professor who taught research methods and statistics before going to Congress has to combat the "science" headline and the "bogus" science beneath it. "This is a great frustration," Baird said last week. "A study that was deeply flawed produced conclusions that are now being quoted as if they were fact to shape public policy."

As the full House takes up the Walden-Baird legislation that the Society of American Foresters has endorsed, lawmakers with questions about the weird science and the slick environmentalist propaganda should ask Dr. Baird.

Why? Because he actually has a master's . . . in science. And even a Ph.D. . . . in clinical psychology.

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