philosophical ideas for environmental problem solving


Seeming to embrace the immense value of science to environmental decision making, many of our prevailing conservation statutes, agencies, and policies explicitly demand that decisions concerning wildlife and endangered species be informed solely by the ‘best available science.’ The ‘best available science’ is, in theory, at the heart of crucial determinations like endangered species listing decisions, critical habitat designations, and biological assessments.

Surprisingly, however, this catchy and seemingly innocuous phrase is a wellspring of controversy and complications. No human being on Earth can definitively explain what ‘best available science’ means. In fact, we can’t even define any one of those three words in isolation.

Without any firm guidelines on how to interpret and apply the phrase, several subjective judgments are inevitably made as science enters (or does not enter) debate on high-stakes conservation issues. Those judgments should be given careful attention because they could hold enormous sway over how conservation efforts unfold.   

An immediate concern is that the considerable leeway government agencies are granted in wielding ‘best available science’ sometimes impedes positive usage of science in decisions concerning species. Equally worrisome is the potential for extremely valuable information that does not fit the conventional notion of science to be excluded from debate. The fuzziness of the ‘best available science’ stipulation sometimes invites the bad and excludes the good.

To illustrate just how perplexing the ‘best available science’ phrase can be, we need only explore some of the countless possible interpretations of the phrase’s constituent terms --- best-available-science.

When we talk about ‘best’ science, for example, are we talking about the credibility of the source? The reliability of the data? Conclusiveness? The degree of consensus? The integrity of methods used? Adherence to scientific principles? There are no doubt endless additional factors that could potentially influence what is construed as ‘best’ science.  

In truth, it is often a personal predilection that earns a particular collection of scientific findings recognition as the ‘best.’ Just as often, the context of the problem at hand determines what scientific evidence is worthy. In either case, there is no uniform set of traits that automatically distinguishes the ‘best’ from the rest, if there even is a rest.

‘Available’ science is an equally difficult notion to pin down. Are we talking here only about data that is already immediately accessible to a particular scientific team weighing an environmental decision? Just how much initiative must these teams take in compiling data that exist somewhere in the scientific universe?

Do we also consider data that can conceivably be generated by further study? Perhaps we’re only concerned with data that can be produced easily and cheaply? Just how accessible, available, or producible must data be to evoke a sense of availability?  

Even ‘science’ itself is an enigmatic term. A fairly prevalent view of science holds that it is simply any systematic approach to understanding phenomena using observation or experimentation. The emphasis tends to be on the system, especially if that system is inclined to bring us closer to the ‘truth’ on a given question. Yet, here again, there is no unassailable criteria for identifying an adequate system so that it can then be dubbed legitimate ‘science.’


The overarching problem is that high-stakes decisions concerning species and nature often must be reached using information that is somehow incomplete or imperfect, at least from a scientific perspective. Many of these decisions even involve multiple scientific questions --- some easily solved, others prone to remain a mystery; some immediately relevant to the core environmental decision at hand, others of secondary importance.

When we determine which evidence merits consideration, what measures we should take to amass information, and when evidence justifies action on behalf of nature, we need to exercise some degree of common sense. Granted, ‘common sense’ is no less vague than ‘best available science.’ But common sense may help to avoid scenarios in which warped applications of scientific standards thwart intelligent action in the interest of nature. 

It is indeed imperative, as ‘best available science’ suggests, to engage conservation issues using a structured, reliable, objective, and evidence-based approach. But this requirement should not automatically exclude evidence from unconventional sources, or data that is not 100% conclusive, or signs of emerging threats to nature that have not been fully investigated. The ‘best available science’ can be a highly inclusive body of evidence--common sense tells us that.

Traditional ecological knowledge of forest-dwelling communities, centuries-old written accounts of historical environmental conditions, or simply detection of a new chemical contaminant in sensitive species habitat could conceivably provide sufficient evidence of a need for protection measures. In the same sense, climate models signaling severe warming and unfavorable changes to habitat should not be jettisoned simply because their projections are not perfectly undeniable or precise.   

A similarly inclusive and proactive approach to ‘available’ science is also worthwhile. When answers to a pressing conservation problem can be provided by, say, a painless survey of habitat conditions in a thus-far uninvestigated area, it seems odd to declare a lack of available evidence while denying potentially crucial protections. Common sense tells us that as well.  


Thoughts by ComET Research Associate LEE BRANN