Theory & Science (2001)

ISSN: 1527-5558

Uncertainty And Controversy In The Science And Ethics Of Environmental Policy Making

Margarita Alario
Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences
University of Illinois

Michael Br´┐Żn
Department of Economics
Illinois State University


Applied science faces somewhat different critiques from those facing basic science, originating more from practical interests than from ideological or philosophical concerns. Uncertainties about fact, relevance and meaning give opportunity for sustained disputes when results of scientific research are expected to serve as sole criteria for decision-making. Issues in the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) are presented to illustrate limits of scientific research. Ethical criteria may be introduced where research results fail to decide an issue, but they too suffer from ambiguities of scope and relevance, so that they too often fail to settle disputes. The controversy about the forested areas near Chicago, whether to preserve them in their current state or to use the sites for restoration of native prairie, is cited as a case where ethical criteria contribute little to resolving the dispute, as both sides consider themselves environmentalist and appeal to similar norms and sentiments. We conclude that more attention should be given to the political process. Disputes should be understood and handled primarily as between people, only secondarily as between scientific theories or ethical principles; and more attention should be given to negotiation and deliberation and less to proof.


Critical scrutiny of science has a long history, often guided by religious and philosophical movements that continue to find resonance today. Some recent critiques, however, are markedly different from past critiques. Instead of science in general or the “scientific world view”, the target is the way science is used, its application to policy-making. The environmental movement is the leading originator of these new critiques, but they are adopted and extended by just about anyone who feels threatened by the use of science. Threatened interests as well as threatened world views inspire their articulation.

Since the critiques point to an overreaching of science, they are often accompanied by appeals to ethics, and suggestions to bring ethical issues into scientific discourse. While raising no objections to this trend, we argue in this paper that ethics are vulnerable to much the same critiques currently aimed at science, because ultimately such critiques can be used against all efforts to resolve issues by referring to some previously set or “outside” standard. To properly understand limits of both science and ethics, we need to understand limits to the use of standards, and develop an enhanced understanding and appreciation of political processes.

Regulatory science, a term used for the growing body of applied research specifically motivated by legislation or policy issues, is at the center of this new critique, while “pure science” is left more or less in peace. This reverses a historical pattern in which achievements in applied sciences of all kinds found relatively rapid acceptance, while grand theories of biology, astronomy, psychology and so on encountered heavy resistance over decades or even centuries. And yet, it is likely the same pragmatism and self-interest that had led to quiet acceptance of applied science in the past that causes it so much trouble now.

One issue that looms large in regulatory science while hardly relevant to “pure” science is the burden of proof. When a question has to be decided one way or another, who bears the burden? What is the “default” answer or null hypothesis? And once that is decided, how great should the burden be? What significance level constitutes proof, if not in the literal sense, then in the policy sense of “beyond a reasonable doubt”? Were there no uncertainty, no ambiguity in the results of scientific research, then all these issues would of course be moot: no matter what the initial questions, the course of investigation and debate would always lead to the same conclusions. Even with uncertainty and ambiguity, the choice of initial questions would not make much difference if there were endless time and resources for research and endless room for nuances in conclusions and decision-making. In fact there is a lot of room for nuance in decision-making, as demonstrated by research in decision theory, but these results are far from being widely applied in any intentional sense. Besides, an infinitely recursive process threatens as debate begins on decision-making processes—which one is the best?

Of course these kinds of uncertainty exist in “pure science” as well as regulatory science, only there the debates are more theoretical, less interest driven, more oriented to exploring possibilities than to establishing certainty. We will make more of this difference below, when we evaluate the role of science in policy-making in the light of environmentalist and interest-based critiques.

In this paper, we explore two cases in which science is integrally interwoven with policy to illustrate how research is supposed to work and what gives rise to critiques. One is the U.S. federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), which places the burden of proof on critics of proposals to modify a habitat, to show that endangered species would be further threatened thereby. It can be enforced only with considerable research effort involving data gathering and statistical inference. The second case is the debate among environmentalists and others about whether the forested land around Chicago should be preserved as is or else restored to the allegedly original prairie-savanna. We use this case to show that ethical principles can face the same limitations as scientific research when it comes to resolving issues.

Our position is that neither science nor ethics can or should be expected to replace politics in resolving disputes. In the first part of this paper, we focus on science and discuss the ESA; in the second part on ethics we discuss the Chicago Wilderness controversy.

Uncertainty in Science

Science can contribute to exploring possibilities, to informing opinion, and to clarifying stances; it can supply material for further development of opinion; but three obstacles stand between it and decisiveness.

The first already mentioned is uncertainty about facts. Answers to research questions are hardly ever “for sure”. Usually they fall into categories such as “most likely”, “more likely than not”, or even just “possibly”. Statistical techniques, requiring certain assumptions be made to justify their use, help us decide into which of these categories to put research results.

The second obstacle is uncertainty of interpretation. What does a fact mean? That depends on the theory or model into which it is introduced. And the choice of model is largely up to the research community. They are “tested” of course—all the time—but this statement misleads. Models are complex, each made of many assumptions and hypotheses, but usually only one small part, one hypothesis, is tested at a time; and only a few parts are ever tested at all. Research results can refute a given model, but cannot determine what the next proposed model will look like. Will it be similar to the refuted model, with minimal adjustments to fit the new fact, or will it be constructed from an entirely new perspective?

The third obstacle is that usually political issues are questions of power and taste. Much is needed to settle such questions that regulatory science cannot supply, could not supply even were it able to yield definite factual results interpretable through fully tested or at least non-controversial models.

We argue science can be applied directly to the resolution of political disputes only if participants all want to settle their dispute—not to be taken for granted—and for this purpose agree on a carefully formulated bet. They could of course agree on the flipping of a coin, or something similar; but perhaps they want a procedure more obscure, and at least superficially related to the issue they are trying to decide. So they agree, for purposes of settlement only, on a model and fact-finding procedure. This is completely valid and intellectually honest, so long care is taken to represent it as a device temporarily agreed upon to resolve a question, and not as an objective search for truth. To borrow from Latour: “science might be dead, long live research” (1998: 209). The idea is illustrated better when Latour continues: “if we consider Galileo alone is his cell muttering, ‘and yet it moves,’ with the recent meeting at Kyoto–where heads of states, lobbyists, and scientists were assembled together in the same place to discuss the Earth–we measure the difference between science and research” (1998: 209). In our context, to paraphrase, we measure the difference between science and regulatory sciences. And so, “science may be dead, but then, long live policy science.”

Science and Politics: The Endangered Species Act

The recovery of biological diversity, threatened communities and natural habitats are the goals of several ESA programs. To identify areas needing attention and develop benchmarks for evaluating preservation or restoration work, studies are needed characterizing natural ecosystems. Unfortunately, undisturbed ecosystems are rare and getting rarer. Scientists increasingly study altered ecosystems, and their findings therefore become more and more inferential when extrapolated to past or even hypothetical ecosystems. The credibility of the studies suffers. “Data wars” break out between defenders and critics of projects, with volumes of environmental impact studies emitted by each side. The burden of proof, falling as it does on those seeking protection of endangered species under the mandate of the ESA, becomes ever greater as the credibility of the research they can do goes down. The burden becomes particularly onerous when critics must show, not just that an endangered species is threatened, but that the threat comes substantially from the proposed project and not from preexisting environmental factors.

Given this gloomy assessment, one is led to wonder why in fact the ESA is not a total failure. We suspect the general political atmosphere, the strength of environmental voices in relation to other voices has from time to time added more teeth to the act, or taken more away, than the rigor and results of scientific research.

Both qualitative and quantitative methods are used to formulate and implement the ESA. Statistics are used to test the validity of hypotheses and inferences, or more precisely, to assess probabilities of erroneously accepting or rejecting hypotheses. Two types of errors, type I or false positive – wrongly rejecting a true null hypothesis– and type II or false negative – wrongly accepting a false null hypothesis– represent the risks taken in drawing particular conclusions from a study. Let us suppose that it is initially assumed the construction of a dam in the habitat of an endangered crane will not interfere with the breeding of fish the crane eats or that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) pose no environmental risks. The choice of null hypothesis reflects scientific research and political decisions. It is complex, with lots of parts that each could themselves become a hypothesis, which is what happens when controversies become intense and studies proliferate. Scientific research, for example, works by showing a plausible connection between the fate of the fish and that of the cranes, and political factors may indicate the value of adding the concern of fishermen to that of bird-lovers. The process may very well lead the to a good starting hypothesis.

Why begin hypothesizing the dam will not interfere, rather than that it will? Perhaps that reflects a prevailing political sentiment that market forces should be given priority, the benefit of any reasonable doubt. Only if research demonstrates danger, beyond reasonable doubt, to fish and fowl, should business as usual be interfered with. These unbalanced procedures are a case of Aepistemological double standards,” an idea developed by Alario, (1998: 305) to call on the procedural inconsistencies and lax scrutiny towards technological and economic developments. More often than not, the burden of proof falls two times on environmental sciences and environmentalists to show at first potential risks and later environmental damage. A different prevailing sentiment could have led to something close to the opposite formulation. It is not that environmental efforts should not be questioned. It is that all views must endure equally rigorous scrutiny.

But when is doubt no longer reasonable? In statistical terms, how small must be the probability of a Type I error—of having wrongly rejected the null hypothesis—so that it can be considered rejected beyond reasonable doubt? This could be a bone of political contention, sometimes is, but wrangling is much reduced by the existence of standard professional practice. Usually a probability of five percent is considered small enough. Insisting on more stringent criteria for significance levels increases the seriousness of potential type II errors—failing to distinguish between the hypothesized value and increasingly different observed values, while allowing more relaxed criteria would admit too many spurious distinctions. The trade-off involved here is generally well understood, though some say relative costs of making either error—type I or type II—should be reflected in the choice of significance level. Given the likelihood that controversy will then simply be deflected to speculations about cost magnitudes, we feel relative costs as a criterion is better used to help determine which side must bear the burden of proof, than for specifying precisely how onerous that burden should be. This might relieve some of the concerns of Harman, Harrington and Cerveny (1998) about changing research protocol out of concern for the results.

Science is often understood as a process of never ending inquiry. This stance alone suggests research be limited to contributing advice rather trying to function as final arbitrator. For regulatory science it has become a problem that there is no agreed upon end to research. The findings of Rushefsky (1986) suggest that scientific doubts become resources mobilized by different actors who have vested interests in public policy outcomes. The raising of doubts becomes a tactic of postponement, leading to the decision to commission another study.

Scientific advisory committees have generally not altered or reduced compromises made in the design of environmental policy (Jasanoff 1994), nor reduced conflicts in its implementation. Practical answers to the question—what is the final goal in an ecosystem restoration project—will have to respond to political negotiation as well as scientific learning. The concept of ecosystem, as first introduced by Tansley (1935), refers to specified holistic and integrative systems embodying a dynamic equilibrium maintained among organisms and physical environment. Particular lakes or desert valleys can be either unique ecosystems, or representative of a type also found elsewhere. This can be a subject of debate, as can the boundaries and character of any particular ecosystem; but the ESA contains a mandate based on the ecosystem concept. To protect endangered species, it may be necessary to rehabilitate ecosystems sustaining them. Defining an ecosystem and its relation to a species of organism entails a clear and shared understanding of the natural history of any site in question and sufficient sharing of goals of interested stakeholders. Science is clearly relevant here, and so is politics. A conscious combination of science and politics, however problematic, represents in our view a more mature perspective than one that tries to segregate them.

One contribution scientific research and reporting can make is to present uncertainties as we confront them within current conflicts. This familiarizes policy-makers with the kinds of errors that can result when hypotheses are tested, as well as the potential consequences of those errors. In other words, rather than announcing answers, science can keep reminding people of what has as yet not been answered.

Another contribution it can make is to depth and breadth of discussion, to formulation of alternative views. For example, the concept of sustainability, which calls for use without depletion of natural resources, continues to work its way into and feed back from new research. It provides a platform on which to build “pro-environmental” null hypotheses. Since its introduction to global environmental politics by the Brundtland commission in 1987, the concept has inspired work in such diverse fields as agriculture, economics, sociology, and biology. Sustainability has reinvigorated assessment of the impact of actions of present generations on future generations. Oceanographer Paul Dayton (1998, 821) puts it vividly: “As with the loss of human cultures and languages after passing of the elders with their wisdom, so too is humanity losing the evolutionary wisdom found in intact ecosystems.” Here science has enriched political discourse.

Ethical Disputes

The example used above of research to enforce the Endangered Species Act suggests science can contribute usefully to debates, but alone cannot decide them; while considerable emphasis is placed on politics. Is there no third way? Are there not criteria that, though not based on scientific truth claims, could serve as standards for deciding disputes? Ritualistic avowal of democratic ideals notwithstanding, the prospect of protracted free-wheeling public debate inspires trepidation, so hope springs eternal of finding something from “outside” to resolve rather than exacerbate disputes and unify rather than divide people. Although political processes can resolve disputes and unify people, commonly the opposite is expected of them. Hence the attention to ethics.

Ethics, at least the kind current in modern discourse, is based on the concept, however hazy, of the common good. The ethical program is to seek out generally acceptable criteria for action. “Generally acceptable” means that after satisfying themselves on their ramifications, almost everyone accepts those criteria at least in the abstract, so that appeal to them in argument carries weight. The hope is that these general criteria will be sufficient guides to action when truth claims based on scientific research are not, so that politics not be left unbridled.

The geographers Harman, Harrington, and Cerveny (1998) critique a common ethical approach based on cost-benefit calculation—which economists like to call “maximizing the social welfare function”—because of uncertainty in scientific results needed for the calculations, and disquiet about modifying hypothesis testing procedures to reflect relative risks of the two types of statistical error. They find an interesting alternative in Robert Nozick’s (1993) concept of symbolic utility. Briefly the idea is that actions communicate. They tell about the actor and the actor’s image of the surrounding environment. That is why people act differently in public and in solitude. They weigh not only the “technical” consequences of their public actions, but also the communicative effect. Harman et al propose to consciously make use of this communicative aspect to judge actions. They focus on issues and uncertainties pertaining to global warming, and then suggest that since these preclude deciding anything yet on a scientific basis, the question to ask is what course of action would set the better example: “We maintain that publicly deferring to concerns about public health and safety in the face of uncertain but potentially grave environmental threats carries the potential to contribute to the ethical fabric of society?” (1998: 279).

We find this a useful approach to consider in many cases, but not in all. Below we discuss a case in which symbolic utility as invoked by Harman et al finds no application as criterion. It is a conflict between advocates of two differing environmental approaches, preservation and restoration. The reader will quickly discern that not only symbolic utility, but also other plausible ethical criteria fail in this case. The underlying problem is that there is no common good, or at least no agreement on what it is.

The Chicago Wilderness Controversy

Ecological restoration is the rebuilding of threatened types of ecosystems where they have deteriorated or already ceased to exist. It involves recovering the basic structure and essential functions of a given ecosystem disturbed or altered by invading forces. 1 It is conceived of as science-based management which includes removal of invasive plants, reintroduction of native flora, controlled fires, brush cutting, and many other tactics. Preservation differs from restoration in its emphasis on maintaining the status quo, and also in its less close connection to the ecosystem concept. In Chicago, environmentalists face an “internal dispute” of preservationists with restorationists.

At stake is the fate of about 200,000 acres of forested land, a legacy of the Progressive Era in the landscape design of Chicago. Already in the early 1900’s, 98,000 acres had became legally protected to provide for a vast system of forest preserves in and around the expanding city. 2 These preserves were not conceived as city parks, but as wild land preserves with a conservation mission. The idea was certainly ahead of its time. Only in the 1990’s did a coalition of initially 34 public and private organizations begin thinking specifically about what was to be conserved, and accordingly plan restoration projects (Barnes 1996). By then, most native fauna and flora had succumbed, due to surrounding urbanization and to ecological succession involving mass invasions of species such as European buckthorn and garlic mustard. There is forest, but it apparently does not much resemble the pre-settlement habitat. The ecosystem restoration program led by the Chicago Wilderness coalition has grown rapidly with more than fifty project sites. The coalition includes the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Field Museum, Brookfield Zoo, the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, to mention only a few. Under programs such as the North Branch Prairie Project and the Volunteer Stewardship Network, sites have been restored to prairie and savanna to recreate the natural conditions of pre-settlement times, prior to 1830. The goals of the project are various: to document the natural biodiversity of the region; to manage and even stop continued loss of critical habitats; to restore natural communities on public and private lands; to educate the public about the globally rare natural resources of the region; and to promote conservation for future generations in this urban area (Mendelson 1992, 127-131).

Restoration projects in metropolitan Chicago have a rich natural and social history. Conservationists have long ranked the native forest and prairie of Illinois as endangered ecosystems, 3 due to pressures from surrounding urban and agricultural regions. Considering the uniqueness and biodiversity of these ecosystems, restorationists have envisioned transforming 200,000 acres of protected lands into native tallgrass prairies and oak savannas.

However, ecosystem restoration efforts are controversial. Restoration seems more like disruption to some, as indicated by the acronym of one opposition group: Association to Let Nature Take its Course (ATLANTIC). In the fall of 1996, all restoration activities in Cook County were halted by the Chicago City Council after nearby residents threatened court action. Some of the groups widely known to oppose restoration projects are Trees for Life, the Voice for Wildlife, and ATLANTIC (Keenan 1996, 26). One contentious issue is the extent of woodland and tree eradication necessary to bring back native prairie, which the opposition coalition finds excessive, particularly because restoration benefits are in the future and forest depletion is immediate. Herbicide applied by volunteers to eradicate nonnative plants also became a contentious issue, particularly for those who live near restoration sites. Animal advocates worry about the destruction of habitats of currently existing fauna. Restoration opponents worry about the ecological and aesthetic integrity of existing forests, and fear that uncertainties about the outcome of restoration projects have been understated.

The Chicago Wilderness controversy illustrates a case in which symbolic aspects do not help decide between courses of action. Both choices are credibly represented as “environmentalist” and both appeal to similar feelings. Both express a protective attitude and a high esteem for nature. Both are concerned about sustainability, though perhaps with somewhat different understandings of what is to be sustained and how global a perspective to take. Received ethical principles do not help decide any more clearly than scientific research does. Of course, this controversy could conceivably lead to articulation of new principles that do distinguish between the choices, but there is no guarantee that these would work for the next controversy. Perhaps yet other principles would have to be thought up then; but surely it is poor procedure in ethics to invent special principles to fit a case at issue, just as it is in science to invent special hypotheses to explain the results of one experiment.

In problem solving as in conflict resolution, finding a solution or decision may be the ultimate goal, but many steps precede it, and these steps could often be characterized as experimental. Here science and ethics can contribute. John Dewey argued for the necessity of adopting a social experimental method in matters that concern public policy. He insisted “policies and proposals for social action be treated as working hypotheses, not as programs to be rigidly adhered to and executed” (Dewey 1927, 202-203). The key to successful social experimental design is to have a clear conception of desired consequences and of available resources. Given all prior knowledge, however, Dewey concluded policies must be flexible and responsive to observed consequences. In spite of differences in protocol between scientific experiment and public policy-making, there are two shared features: outcomes are unsure, and both are learning processes that inform us for the next set of experiments or polices. As Dewey would put it, “the essential need is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion. This is the problem of the public,” (1927:202-203). With regard to policy making, Lee (1993: 91) has insightfully argued the extent to which Dewey was right on target identifying the importance of both citizens and experts participation in the formulation of policies. Although there is a considerable time gap between Dewey’s time and ours, this is still a relevant idea, if the democratic project is not be undermined.

Maybe the next stage of the Chicago controversy will be a much slowed program of restoration with projects under enhanced local control. People will see results. There will be more of the learning process, more room for decisions to change over time and to differ by locality. This is a guess. More research would be needed to suggest improvements in negotiations conducted thus far, and much of that research would be in political process.


Environmental policy involves science, ethics and politics, providing vividly illustrative cases. The enforcement of the Endangered Species Act demonstrates regulatory science with its contributions and limits. Key are problems of uncertainty: assigning burden of proof; determining what research is relevant; and deciding when there has been enough study. These problems lead us to conclude that science alone cannot conclusively decide a case, even if—as occasionally happens—it conclusively answers a particular question.

The Chicago Wilderness controversy shows similar limits to the application of ethics. Ethical principles may be too inclusive to decide between two actions as in this case, where both sides can claim symbolic utility for their preferred action. If not, their relevance to a particular case can be questioned just like the relevance of a scientific study; and finally, the danger lurks of infinite regress as the ethics of process becomes an issue along with the ethics of outcome.

This does not mean ethics and science never help decide issues: they often do. Even when they do not, they contribute much to debate. Our point is merely that outside of peculiarly contrived institutional arrangements, such as “bets” on outcomes of specifically agreed-upon procedures, one should not rely on either scientific facts or ethical principles for the “final word”. Research results will be presented, ethical principles invoked; but then the discussion goes on. We argue for acknowledgment of the political process, for formulating issues first as between people, and only later and with great caution as scientific or ethical. That will avoid serious misunderstandings, for the general expectation is that scientific or ethical issues be resolved by proof or demonstration with reference to invoked or discovered standards; but issues are really resolved, or not, by negotiation—politics.


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1. In 1992, the Natural Resource Council adopted the following definition of ecosystem restoration: As the return of an ecosystem to a close approximation of its conditions prior to disturbance. However, the standard definition was soon dropped after some serious difficulties: ecologists know very little about historic ecosystems and consequently, what constitutes an undisturbed ecosystem. By 1995, the Society for Ecological Restoration adopted a more inclusive, less historically restrictive definition: Aecological restoration is the process of renewing and maintaining ecosystem health. 2. Proposed and designed by architect Dwight Perkins and landscape designer Jens Jensen. 3. We are very thankful to Greg McIsaac for pointing out these similarities.