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The Battle of Bull Run

When science meets politics and policy, the outcome may depend more on values than on objectivity

Douglas Larson

The Bull Run watershedClick to Enlarge ImageWhile watching Roman Polanski’s classic 1974 movie Chinatown recently, I was reminded of a similar Machiavellian drama that played out here in Portland, Oregon, over several decades. Polanski’s movie is based loosely on the California water wars of the last century involving controversial and underhanded efforts by the City of Los Angeles to acquire water rights in the Owens Valley for the city’s municipal water supply. What happened in Portland was also about greed and bureaucratic malfeasance that nearly destroyed the City of Portland’s principal source of drinking water, the Bull Run Watershed serving about one million people. The long, bitter struggle over the watershed’s use became known as the Battle of Bull Run.

As a participating scientist in this conflict, I learned some hard lessons about the role of scientists in factious environmental issues: First, the systematic process of scientific research is not well-suited to resolving issues in which prevailing economic or political forces demand simple, prompt answers. Second, scientists who seek nothing but truth in their investigations are often ignored or, worse, defamed by those whose economic or political agendas are threatened. And third, despite the common belief that scientific objectivity and science-based decisions will prevail over the rough-and-tumble world of confrontational politics and competing self-interests, the capacity of scientists to solve environmental issues fairly and expeditiously is usually overestimated. The ensuing, often acrimonious scientific debates become themselves stumbling blocks to final resolution. Meanwhile, the public waits for these interminable conflicts to be resolved, confused by the barrage of technical information and disinformation, and thus unsure of whom to believe. At stake is the region’s economic prosperity on the one hand, and environmental quality and dwindling natural resources on the other—in other words, competing values. In the end, resolution is often achieved not by scientific resolution and decision-making, but by people simply deciding what they value most.

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