Big news on the nutrient pollution front today, at least for Cape Codders. An expert panel asked to review the methods used by the Massachusetts Estuary Project to establish nitrogen limits for coastal ponds and bays has found the science sound. From the Cape Cod Times:
The peer review of the Massachusetts Estuary Project was funded by the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative and conducted over a three-day period this week by a group of six scientists who specialize in different aspects of wastewater management.
The panel told the collaborative and audience members Wednesday that they found no reason in the scientific methodology to delay work on wastewater solutions.
“It is the unanimous opinion of this panel that we believe the MEP modeling approach is scientifically defensible” and functionally adequate, said Victor Bierman, the panel’s chairman.
“Scientifically defensible” and “functionally adequate” doesn’t quite match the glowing review one audience member conveyed to me by email last night. But perhaps it’s just technical jargon and scientific conservatism speaking. Either way, while this may not be welcome news for Cape residents facing steep bills for new wastewater treatment systems (let’s not forget I’m one of those), it’s a small victory for science in an increasingly anti-science world.
We don’t need state-of-the-art computer models to realize that nutrient pollution is a problem for the Cape’s waterways. That’s made abundantly clear by algal blooms and fish kills each summer. And that means that if we value our ponds and bays – which I think Cape Codders and our many visitors pretty universally do – we need to do something to reduce how much nitrogen is flowing into them.
What was at issue here was the validity of the specific methods used by scientists to establish hard, quantitative limits on nitrogen inputs that would restore healthy ecosystems. Based on that science, most Cape towns decided that the best way to meet those limits was to replace our current reliance on private septic systems with municipal wastewater treatment systems. But towns have encountered difficulties getting voter approval for wastewater treatment plans because of the expense involved.
That puts town officials in a rather impossible situation. The EPA has mandated the clean-up of Cape Cod’s waterways. Conservation Law Foundation and the Coalition for Buzzards Bay have sued EPA – not once, but twice – for not doing enough to force clean-up efforts. And Barnstable County faces the threat of being sued for not acting quickly enough to comply with the limits set by the Massachusetts Estuary Project. Still, voters won’t say yes to the price tag.
In Falmouth, the cost of the so-called “big pipe solution” has spawned a lively discussion (and now official town investigation) of possible lower-cost alternatives – everything from composting or urine-diverting toilets, to oyster aquaculture to eat up algal blooms, to widened inlets to allow faster flushing to the ocean. In Orleans, the tension about wastewater treatment costs took a different turn; people started asking questions about the science that made the projects necessary in the first place.
In other words, faced with an expensive solution for a difficult problem, people chose to question the problem rather than the solution. That’s how we ended up with this scientific review panel (actually, what was initially requested was a review by the National Academies of Science but that was also too expensive).
For a climate change reporter, this all has an eerily familiar ring to it. Social science suggests that the overwhelming scope of global warming, the unfairness of the world’s poorest and lowest-emitting being hit hardest, and the life-changing nature of many possible solutions (or even adaptations) can all lead to denial – or at least skepticism – of the problem as a means of mental defense. In fact, such so-called ‘cultural cognition’ is now one of the leading explanations for why climate change skepticism is so widespread in the U.S.
Unfortunately, science – and scientists – gets caught in the middle. As Ken Drum wrote for Mother Jones, we have a love-hate relationship with science. When it says what we want, we love it. When it doesn’t, we often show our scorn by calling into question the quality of the science.
There’s no question about it: science reigns supreme today. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that we collectively take empirical evidence more seriously than we used to. What it means is that science has become increasingly debased, just another partisan tool that an increasing number of people take no more seriously than advertising claims about who has the best pizza.
Drum argues that ill-derived skepticism and pseudo-science have invaded nearly every debate touched by science, from fluoridation of water, to abortion, to climate change.
In the end, the review of the Massachusetts Estuaries Project came out in its favor. You could say that such a review even strengthens the science by showing that it can stand up to extraordinary scrutiny. But it’s kind of like an innocent person accused of a crime. Even if he/she is acquitted, the stain of suspicion remains. And in an era when scientific information is so crucial to so many pursuits, the debasement of science (to borrow Drum’s phrase) serves no noble purpose.