Endagered: True scientific debate

Posted: Nov 07, 2006 12:01 AM
Endagered: True scientific debate

See how the left tries to politicize science and stifle dissenting points of view in academia: Meet Thomas Bonnicksen, a Texas A&M University professor emeritus in forest science and paid advisory board member of the industry group the Forest Foundation. Bonnicksen's big sin: He supports selective cutting of trees in national forests.

He has testified before Congress and written op-ed pieces that rankled enviros. Not content to rebut Bonnicksen's arguments, four academics wrote an "open letter to the media" last month assailing Bonnicksen's character and suggesting that editors think twice before publishing his work.

The four professors, led by Philip W. Rundel, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, essentially accused Bonnicksen of holding views that "fall far outside the mainstream of scientific opinion" and wrongly identifying himself as a visiting professor at UC Davis. UC, the letter noted, sent Bonnicksen a "'cease and desist' letter demanding that he not use their name."

I'll get to the mainstream-science angle later, but first a word on the personal smearing of Bonnicksen. The four-prof letter failed to mention that Bonnicksen had received an e-mail from a UC Davis faculty member that told Bonnicksen to call himself a visiting professor.

"In my naivety, I thought everything went through. I always thought it was appropriate," UC Davis professor Michael Barbour -- who, according to the Los Angeles Times, is also on the Forest Foundation board -- told me. Another Davis professor apologized to Bonnicksen, who no longer calls himself a UC Davis visiting professor.

The four-prof letter also argued that Bonnicksen's "academic record is weak, consisting largely of letters to the editor and op-ed articles." But, as 10 academics wrote in support of Bonnicksen, "his research in forest science spans decades and has been published widely in peer-reviewed scientific journals, reports and books." Oops. Rundel forgot to mention the peer-reviewed articles.

"If you look at the last 10 or 20 years, they're in the lowest of low journals. Peer-reviewed is pushing it," Rundel responded.

Now who is misrepresenting facts? Most galling was the Rundel letter's reference to Bonnicksen's "misrepresentation of factual material" -- without a single specific fact that Bonnicksen was supposed to have fudged. You see, the four professors wrote, "there is no scientific support for Dr. Bonnicksen's ideas of forest management." They must have figured that if they say they represent the mainstream, they don't need facts.

When I asked Rundel for an example, he said that Bonnicksen was wrong to write in a September piece in the San Jose Mercury News that there are at least 896 Pacific fishers (a weasel-like animal) in the Sequoia National Monument. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service letter estimated their number to be fewer than 500 in a nearby larger area.

Bonnicksen's reply: "My people on the ground" -- whom he would not name-- "say that's a reasonable estimate." And, "In either case, they're not endangered."

In their open letter to the media taking on Rundel and company, the academics, including two professors emeritus from UC Berkeley, wrote that they were "appalled" at attacks "by four individuals who are attempting to silence debate."

Of the 10 profs, Rundel said: "If you look at who signs the letter in support of him, it's a very different group. They're all people who are forest products people or forest modeling people -- with a couple of exceptions." Get it: They're all hacks, except those who aren't.

Bonnicksen's story may seem like small potatoes, but it reveals a disturbing trend in academia. Professors used to shrink from even the appearance of trying to muzzle colleagues who hold unpopular opinions. Now, scientists are working to turn places that are supposed to encourage students and professors to think for themselves into institutional echo chambers. Brilliant: They chase out skeptics from academia, and then figure they must be right because everyone they know thinks as they do.

After we spoke, Rundel sent me a note suggesting that The San Francisco Chronicle run a series on forest management policies that "would provide a venue for the discussion of all points of view." Now he wants all points of view to be heard.

But as more academics act a la Rundel, they will convince themselves that they should not have to tolerate critics. Or as Bonnicksen told me over the phone, the other side is pushing for "science by popular vote, and that's no science at all."